Understanding General Authorities, Part Three

Stephen MarshGeneral Authorities 32 Comments

So assume you were called as a general authority and said yes.  What do you think you would do?  What would be your concerns?

Well, first you would be plunged right into administrative tasks, reorganizing and organizing Stakes.  Over and over again you would see a dramatic need for people with ability, temperament and time to serve as leaders.

Second, you would have a constant stream of people seeking you out for comfort and advice.  Even more than a bishop you would gain a strong perspective on certain classes of sorrow and travail, doubt and faith.

Third, you would be pestered constantly by people agitating for an agenda (think of Bruce R. McConkie and the people who were after him to condemn white bread and chocolate as Word of Wisdom violations).

Fourth, you would start to encounter the penumbra, the area where people hear advice and either fall short or look past the mark.  Told not to delay having children too long they start at 16.  Told to prepare before having children, they wait until 50 and go with in vitro to make sure everything is perfect.

Those are the four experiences that would be a constant in your life and that would shape your perspectives on the needs of the Church and its members.

So, think of a concern you have now.  Recast it in terms of the four issues that come to perpetuate in the life of a new general authority.  Ask yourself how that might shape how you frame your concerns.

This completes my three essays on understanding General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Next time you look at an essay on how someone feels the Church ought to be changed, I hope you will be able to look at it through the lens of how the presentation would affect you if you were someone who might have an input into such changes.

Are the arguments ones that appeal to a mindset based on deferred gratification and belief in spiritual guidance?

Do they fit within the values of consensus and collegiality?

Are they in terms of meeting one of the two positive needs (more qualified leadership, finding comfort and support) and do they avoid looking like a repeat pest with no concern for the penumbra effects?

Assuming anyone who writes is interested in institutional change rather than navel gazing, there really are two venues.  One is petitioning God for any change you want to see happen.  I’ve written about how to do that.  The second is building a framework for your issue that fits into the process.

So, if  you were a newly called general authority and wanted to promulgate a change, how would you frame it and what would you do?

Comments 32

  1. Sounds like a terribly difficult job, and I don’t wish it on anyone. Even more of a burden given that many people will take everything you say as straight from the mouth of God. It’s no wonder GAs seem to be so much more careful about expressing their views now than they used to be.

  2. First of all, I’m thankful that I’m not a GA – not that there’s any worry that that will ever happen.

    Things I would dread:
    – Always having to wear a white shirt and tie
    – Having every word I said examined for some hidden meaning
    – Losing the ability to express my opinion on issues with which I disagree with the official Church policy, in a setting where “loyalty” is more important than “discussion”
    – Traveling so much
    – Wondering whether someone would lose their testimony because I had a Diet Coke
    – Etc.

    I think it would be very hard to effect much change in the church as a GA, as there appears to be a very strict hierarchy, where position trumps logic / discussion / etc. Much of this is illustrated in the McKay biography. In an ideal world where every decision was 100% inspired by the spirit, I would assume that there wouldn’t be any disagreement as everyone would feel the same. This being an imperfect world with a church run by imperfect men, however, things trickle down. I would personally have a really hard time with this.

  3. Not being able to express personal thoughts would be difficult. At the same time, I could see myself getting frustrated trying to instruct on some matter or another and having it fall on deaf ears, e.g. Elder Jensen speaking to the Utah legislature about compassion towards immigrants, and then having nothing come out of it. I suppose this would be difficult ad a bishop as well though

    thanks for the post Stephen – it has made me think twice about how I view GAs and being critical sometimes.

  4. I think this is made me think about my role in the Church differently. It seems that what you have highlighted is accurate and so leaves a great deal of scope for people like my self to try and make change. I know from speaking to a SP that they can pretty much do what they like, apart from cancel sacrament meeting. Thus with this frame it seems that there is quite of alot of scope for people in their area to have things be different while the GA’s are there to do the high level control of what is way out-there.

  5. I don’t believe the Church needs changing, I think it has in place all the key elements it needs like a beautifully written piece of music, however those trying to play are not perfect and sometimes hit the notes in the wrong order, some notes too hard, and some times just hit the wrong note.

    as an example, many priesthood offices seem to be managed on a basis of age, the clock has ticked the time has passed you are now an elder, lets just do the necessary administrative procedures and get you signed off. the lower down the process the more overt the practice is deacon – teacher etc. for some diminishing the keys and authority they have as aaronic priesthood holders. age and maturity is a big factor but many times the notes are just hit in the wrong order.

    so I think that many times when members are looking for change, the precedent has already been established. they are really asking for the notes to be played so that the beautifully written tune can be heard.

  6. RE: #7

    I think the essence of the gospel doesn’t need changing but is a beautiful song, as you describe. I think the problem is that the Church has evolved to have a great number of extra “flourishes”. Each person needs to leave their little mark, which becomes a de facto past of the score.

    Simple examples:
    – Tattoos and earrings have nothing to do with the gospel. GBH mentioned he didn’t like them. By the next conference, Elder Bednar had equated getting a tattoo or earring with apostasy.
    – The wild interpretation of “hot drinks” to have anything to do with Coke, while completely ignoring the easy to understand requirement to “eat meat sparingly in times of famine”.
    – The white-shirted, beardless “uniform” that leaders from bishops on up are essentially expected to wear. This has nothing to do with the gospel.
    – The focus on numbers in missionary work, home teaching, visiting teaching, etc.
    – Etc.

    The gospel is simple and beautiful in its simplicity. And just like in a fine piece of music, sometimes the spaces between the notes are what give the piece its character. Any notes put in there just muddy up the music.

  7. “Even more of a burden given that many people will take everything you say as straight from the mouth of God.”

    This is the trouble of trying to live up to our claims. We claim that leaders of the Church are given revelatory abilities in a trickle down fashion for everyone/situation within their domain. This is the message given to investigators considering joining the Church, and to the members, ie, the counsel to follow our leaders. It should be no surprise then that that is just what the membership does. They place their confidence in the idea that “following” Church leaders, is the same as following God himself. So, yeah, this invites scrutiny – and, that is how things should be. The Church creates this high level of dependency with the overemphasis and following leaders, so I am not certain that I “feel” for general authorities who then want to dismiss their obvious errors by criticising the members for having the “juvenile” expectation that everything a GA says must come from God.

  8. Anyone who says they are the only one(s) who speak for God to all mankind deserve whatever treatment they get. This includes the expectation that they are the only one(s) who speak for God to all mankind.

  9. So, Holden, if I was a GA and did not say I spoke for God, yet members thought I did anyway, I would deserve “whatever treatment” I got? Or are you suggesting that GAs should publicly denounce the idea that they may be inspired? Just wondering.

  10. Yes Adam, particularly as it relates to your comment that GA’s constantly struggle with the expectation of members that their words and counsel come from God. Accepting a call as a GA by it’s very nature implies that you believe that God communicates to you how you should lead those within your domain. The same could be said for The Prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. These men set themselves up as Prophets Seers and Revelators, you could argue grey lines for the various Quorum’s of the Seventy members, but that is still the idea. Twice a year this motion is ratified in a general sustaining by ALL Church members. They established the idea, so yeah they have to manage it.

  11. # 12 – I do not agree. A person can accept a call with a completely different expectation of what that means from the people over whom you serve. A GA may believe that God could speak to him about what people should do, but he may well be more inclined to believe that his role is help people be in a position to get that help from God themselves. He may have no concept whatever about decisions in people’s lives. He may only see revelation for those things the can control which is very little as a 70 it seems. The same is true for every level of the Church. I am not saying that some leaders might argue that whatever they say is from God and that people should listen, but I have never met one who did. For the most part they give advice and counsel, they may even say this is the inspiration that I feel. But i rarely hear that either. But maybe my experience is different to yours, or maybe I have selective hearing.

  12. My point was just that simply, the is constantly reinforcing the idea that the members need to follow their leaders. Their justification for this is that God has technically chosen these leaders, and he will guide them as how to best lead their followers. This is what the Church teaches, so when a GA authority gives some counsel, or some interpretation on a point of doctrine, naturally the most of the membership is going to treat that GA’s words as Gospel. This culture is reinforced by the Church, and whether a particular GA likes it or not, that is how the general membership will perceive them. given that this general attitude is largely driven by the Church hierarchy, it is a bit of an odd request or poor lament, to then say, “geeze, they act like everything I say comes from God”.

  13. Elder Cook addressed the pressure of church leadership last weekend in a fireside. He indicated that the most sobering aspect of the Apostleship is that they carry the responsibility for preaching the gospel and are held accountable for the sins of this generation if they fail.

    Regarding following their counsel, I think it is safe to say that the guidelines are nuanced. We follow the prophet and if we are unsure, we can go directly to the Source. I prefer that method to our Protestant brothers who argue that the Bible is the source and if you can’t find one of the 500 interpretations that works, you shouldn’t pray because feelings are an unreliable confirmation of revelation.

  14. “So, Holden, if I was a GA and did not say I spoke for God, yet members thought I did anyway, I would deserve “whatever treatment” I got? Or are you suggesting that GAs should publicly denounce the idea that they may be inspired? Just wondering.”

    Good question. The fact that your hypothetical will never happen is my point. The church allows the myth by not actively preaching reality to its members. Most of us have been in a meeting where the prophet enters the room. It becomes totally silent, as if God himself is entering the room. To me that reflects the beyond-reality conception members have of church leaders. Elder Bednar came to our stake a while back and he was all members spoke of for at least a year. It was downright scary.

    The members have not arrived at these widespread feelings on their own. The feelings are the result of the teachings over a long period of time as to the implied if not expressed super-spiritual nature of GAs.

    I find comfort in the teachings of other churches because they don’t have the need to express knowledge certain. They live by faith. LDS more often than not ridicule that faith and the perceived inability to come to knowledge. Members grow up in a church where kids express “knowledge” of God when they still wet their pants. As they grow older, they are expected to use the word “know” and become, in my mind, incapable of distinguishing faith from knowledge. I find faith in Rev Gomes of Harvard, a man whose life is devoted to God, saying he believes because there is no confort in believing otherwise. I feel more honesty in that statement than people saying “they know”.

  15. I see your point, Cowboy, but feel differently with the meaning of this:

    “Accepting a call as a GA by it’s very nature implies that you believe that God communicates to you how you should lead those within your domain.”

    For example, what about being a parent? As a father, I believe God “communicates” with me, or that I can receive revelation on how I should lead those within my domain (i.e. my son). That does NOT mean that I think everything I say to him is from God, nor that my son must accept that as a fact.

    I don’t think the church hierarchy drives this anymore, and if anything I think they must be incredibly frustrated at times having to figure out the balance between “follow to the prophet” and “the prophet is fallible.” Believers naturally will gravitate to the former. That is not a religious issue, but a human one. It is a lot easier to follow something when it’s all or nothing.

  16. Holden, I agree with the discomfort around “belief” being seen as a weakness if someone doesn’t say “I know.” Frankly, I wouldn’t say “I know” with most things in the gospel. Some things I know as much as I know anything else that is subjective and experiential (love for/attachment to spouse, son, family, for example – I would never say “I believe I have an attachment to my wife” even though I cannot prove it objectively. I would like to talk to some of the “faith” oriented Christians though, as I seem to only run into Christians who claim to “know” everything based on history and reason. Your example of Rev. Gomes is a breath of fresh air.

  17. I think it would be very difficult to be a GA. They are human just like us. It doesn’t matter what they do, they will always be criticized. I really think it is important to take what the GA’s say and ponder and pray over it. We need to think for ourselves and when we hear things that we struggle with, we need to talk to God about it. They are there to guide and direct us towards God, but we are responsible for establishing our relationship with God. I don’t believe God expects us to hear things and never struggle or question. Maybe some of the reasons we struggle or question is SO we will go to Him.

    The bottom line is that we need to have a relationship with God, not the GA’s. If we make that our focus we will be able to work through things that may be said by them that are difficult for us to understand or accept.

  18. Holden, I think you make some valid points.

    If I were called as a GA, I would instantly know that there’s a lot less special about them because I know how imperfect I am. I’ve enjoyed this series, Stephen.

  19. The belief that Fathers are led by God is not an inherent belief accepted by society broadly. While I think many would agree with that sentiment, myself included, it does not automatically follow that “A person is a father; therefore they are (believe they are) led by God; therefore their teachings are of God”. A GA is an ecclesiastical authority in the Mormon Church who we believe has been given Priesthood keys and revelatory license to preach the Gospel. While it may be fashionable from time to time to define the term “gospel” narrowly, I think the general idea is that GA’s are also given authority to expound docrtine in their charge to preach the gospel to the world and organize the stakes of Zion. Mormons generally believe that the right to declare doctrine resides solely with either the Prophet or combined councils of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve (perhaps even the First Presidency of the Seventy), or some variation of these. However, the expounding of doctrine seems to be well within the domain of any of the General Authorities in the typical rank fashion of the Church, ie, the Stake President outranks a Bishop or Elders Quorum President, an area authority Seventy out ranks the Stake President, an Apostle outranks the Seventy, and the Prophet holds the trump card.

    So I agree with you Adam in a very practical sense, but as far as what the Church teaches, how it is structured, and what the membership generally should expect, well…

  20. Good points Cowboy. Interestingly enough, I have encountered more of “he is just a 70 so that’s just an opinion” regarding what GAs have said that I have heard otherwise, when it comes to expounding doctrine.

    I have to also include my wife in the “led by God” part. I can’t believe that I am in charge – we both are together.

  21. I think the church leaders bring this on themselves. Examples:

    – Classic BKP: When the leaders speak, the thinking is done

    – As referenced above, when GBH talked about earrings and tattoos, in the next conference, Elder Bednar talked about a girl breaking off an engagement to a man she apparently loved because he wouldn’t “follow the prophet” to the letter with regards to earrings / tattoos, and was there essentially an apostate.

    – Re: investigating evolution / creationism: JFS calling evolution deceit of Satan

    – Stories about BY telling someone to build a wall a certain thickness in their house, so they tore it down and rebuilt it.

    – Teachings that we should do ANYTHING that a church leader tells us to do, and if it’s wrong, we won’t be accountable for it.

    Like it or not, there is both very explicit and implicit doctrine in the church that when a GA or other church says something, we are expected to support them or we are in de facto apostasy. So to hear Church leaders express frustration that the general membership of the Church looks too closely at what they said is a bit strange when that’s what they’ve conditioned us to do for generation after generation.

  22. I don’t disagree about the earrings point, Mike, but I thought Elder Bednar’s point was not the earrings per se, but rather the rebellion. It is unfortunate, but it seems with every new rule, rebels are created.

  23. I agree that the rebellion was the point of the talk. My issue, however, is that we have gone so far away from the basics to issues of earrings that we are missing the point. Why should an earring even be elevated to the point where it can be seen as “rebellion”?

  24. I agree with Mike that the Bednar earring talk wandered off the reservation a bit. Also, it was a boy who broke off with a girl. Frankly, that was probably good for other reasons: they obviously didn’t view things very similarly, he was clearly not in love with her, and it would seem he viewed her more as a showpiece of his own righteousness and not as a human being with actual thoughts and feelings.

    Yes, there are GAs who have said things that imply none of us need to have thoughts in our heads and we should instead be vacuous Stepford-like automatons just executing the instructions of the Brethren, but they are not the majority, just the strident minority in a church with an open mike. I think that if YOU were called as a GA is the point of the post, and if YOU were, you might not agree with those statements at all, but you would inherit the legacy of them anyway.

  25. “Why should an earring even be elevated to the point where it can be seen as “rebellion”?”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I don’t think we know if he was really in love with her, although it depends what one means by love. From my point of view, he could have been in love with her, yet was threatened enough by her earrings (as unfortunate as that may be) that he couldn’t marry her. Perhaps he didn’t view her enough as a human being with thoughts and feelings, but marriage is not a charity project, and if this was a significant issue while they were dating, it is probably best they called it off. All that being said, again, I agree, it is unfortunate that things like earrings are elevated to the status of disobeying the Lord of the Universe.

  26. In my opinion, the church causes its members to notice the flaws (or alleged flaws, many issues, like earrings, are not flaws at all) more than the good.

  27. “and it would seem he viewed her more as a showpiece of his own righteousness and not as a human being with actual thoughts and feelings.”

    Well said Hawkgrrrl. For whatever reason this point about the young man’s failure to consider his fiance “…as a human being with actual thoughts and feelings.” is beyond profound. Thank you.

  28. To all:

    How is it that Stephen Marsh knows or thinks that the 4 issues presented in the preamble are issues that a new General Authority would be concerned about?
    How many General Authorities were interviewed concerning their new duties, in preparation for this essay?

    “Those are the four experiences that would be a constant in your life and that would shape your perspectives on the needs of the Church and it’s members”.

    I would counter that the only thing that would be a constant and would shape my perspectives on the needs of the Church and it’s members, – would be revelations, given by the Head of the Church – Jesus Christ.

    And when one is “new” in this type of position would not be the time to promulgate any kind of changes.
    When one is called to this position, it would be a time to listen. – Very carefully.

  29. sxark, you can observe General Authorities and talk to them both at BYU, I did when I was in law school and had their kids in my classes and in my school ward, and you can observe the experiences they are having — and you can when they are visiting stakes — surely you have had new G.A.s visit when they are teamed up and being trained and heard them talk about “first you would be plunged right into administrative tasks, reorganizing and organizing Stakes.” And yes, one of the points of this essay was that someone new to the position would probably not find themselves inclined to promulgate any kind of changes since they would be too busy listening and responding.

    BTW, if someone wanted to get the attention of a general authority, I might suggest that they become holy. Pray at least 30-40 minutes a day. Meditate. Read and study scriptures at least 30-40 minutes a day. Put in at least 2-3 hours of community service every week in addition to a temple session each week and fulfilling your church callings, especially home teaching. Be extremely honest at work. People who do that tend to be listened to after they have four or five years in.

    I’ve written about how a group can approach its leadership [ http://adrr.com/living/ss_5.htm ]. But the classic archetype for those who want to counsel G.A.s are the fourth tier academics who tried to school Dallin Oaks (whose academic credentials included having been Chicago Law School’s acting dean, and many other academic accomplishments). I had a hard time thinking their spiritual presence was any more significant than their academic one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *