Most people who are aware of the LDS Church are aware that we have “general authorities” and that they share some characteristics, but in my experience, they don’t really understand what General Authorities are or what the term means. I’m going to skip what the phrase means and discuss what they are.
General Authorities (“G.A.”s) tend to share the following characteristics:
- a history of personal sacrifice
- much experience in delayed gratification.
- a set of spiritual skills and experiences.
- a set of social experiences and narratives.
When you hear of a G.A. who was ordained a bishop at 22, few think that means that since the man was 22 he has spent hours every week in an unpaid clergy position. When you hear that someone has not been able to sit with their wife or children for the past sixty years, you are hearing form or about someone who has put other things first for a very, very long time.
Most of what general authorities do can be broken down to tasks that involve a great deal of travel without sight seeing. Sleeping in strange beds, eating strange foods, mostly dealing with people in humble circumstances. Imagine a schedule that general consists of company travel, three to four days of reorganizing or organizing a stake and more travel. Imagine that forty times a year, for twenty or thirty or forty or fifty years — most of it before modern telephone connections or travel (I still remember when long distance cost the equivalent of $1.50 a minute in today’s money).
The, there is time spent in conferencing and correlation. At one time, there was also a good deal of joint travel (2-3 general authorities going together to a stake conference, for example), but now almost all face time between general authorities occurs at “home base” (Church Headquarters). There are also disciplinary counsels, either appeals or leaders guilty of adultery or embezzlement.
Finally, there is the time spent in training and public speaking. The schedule is very demanding. It is not unusual to meet general authorities who have never celebrated at home since their call.
The travel and conferencing leads to social narratives that combine working by consensus and hierarchy. This is an interesting combination and as the number of general authorities grows, the sense of cohesion and consensus seems to have grown more, rather than less. They also meet many people full of themselves who feel they are ready to be general authorities without understanding the position.
Finally, out of order from my introductions four point outline, there are the set of spiritual skills and experiences they share. The first has to do with organizing stakes. New general authorities are paired with older ones for a trip or two until the new one has the hang of the spiritual connection necessary to know God’s will in the matter of calling a Stake President. Thirty or forty times a year a G.A. will seek and learn God’s will in that matter. They will also often learn how to train others in the same gift or skill. Some are better at it than others, but they all know that God speaks to them within the confines of their calling.
Many can also directly perceive sin and spirituality, at least to some extent. That colors many of their perceptions. Many are sensitive not only to the strength of the Spirit around someone, but also to the texture of it. They also commonly deal with people who may be strongly spiritual, but who need correction.
These factors combine to create an interesting mind set. It is one that does not value personal gratification or satisfaction in comparison to obedience or sacrifice. It is one that does not overly respect academic doubt or questioning compared to seeking the Spirit and waiting on God.
Finally, it leads to discounting things said by those tainted by sin and accepting a state of delayed or deferred gratification as natural. Few the see the calling as one they want for their children, especially before those children are grandparents.
It is a mindset with an amazing combination of depth of planning and short term focus, of delayed gratification and immediate responses. In looking at the general authorities, I would suggest that the next time you find yourself framing a question of policy or a “why don’t they …” you ask yourself how you would address someone whose mindset does not include personal gratification as a reason for anything and who sees revelation (in specific contexts) as routine and trusting their own instincts (for the gaps) as normal and appropriate.
Also, cf: Edifying Others if you really want to communicate with a general authority, not just understand them.
“Finally, it leads to discounting things said by those tainted by sin and accepting a state of delayed or deferred gratification as natural.”
Little wonder they reject the gay-agenda and gay-lobbying.
But I sometimes think that so much traveling affects them negatively in that it robs them of the necessary ‘academic’ free time to ponder the more difficult questions that the modern church faces, like the gay issue, step families and changing social trends. Whenever they go home it seems to be more for committee meetings and financial reports or sealing cancellations plus that “sense of cohesion and consensus” that they cultivate. I doubt that Joseph Smith was a consensus builder. He was as revolutionary as one can be in the field of religion. I sometimes wish we had another Joseph Smith type in office preaching revelations which teach us the mysteries of God and new sections for D&C more than where a new Temple or mission should open.
Mentioning Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith longed for, and tried to build, a sense of brotherhood and shared sacrifice.
But, CarlosJC, you hit the nail on the head that the problem anyone has who is claiming that personal fulfillment in this life trumps scripture or obedience will have with a general authority. At least the first half. The second half comes from the fact that those “leaders guilty of adultery or embezzlement” are often talking the language of need, entitlement or fulfillment to explain themselves.
BTW, I did do an essay on how to approach them if you think they are wrong:
If I saw a group involved in that sort of struggle or wrestling with God, I’d have a lot more sympathy than I have with those who rail, condemn and kvetch.
I’ve been reading Nibley, I’ll have more on the point in a future post.
BTW, this links into the following I ran into:
I’m not sure I see things the same way you do. The Ensign is now filled with “tough” issues every month: pornography, child and spouse abuse, divorce, same-sex attraction, as well as other issues that benefit from having some light shed on them, like depression and child adoption. This indicates to me a very high level of awareness of what you call “difficult questions” and “changing social trends.” (Just off the top of my head, I vaguely recall an Ensign article some time in the past 12 months–Elder Perry I believe–in which he mentioned the difficulties posed by Europe’s low birth rate and its political ramifications vis a vis Muslim immigration).
But rather than read an “academic” tome on a particular subject, GA’s are actually plugged in on the ground. They know about pornography, drug abuse, “gay agenda” and “gay-lobbying,” spousal and child abuse, third world poverty, divorce, re-marriage, adoption, death, and taxes because ALL THEY EVER DO is meet with people to discuss their challenges and problems. All they ever do is speak at funerals, or discuss the apostasy of a Bishop with a Stake President, or meet with welfare and humanitarian needs and educational people, to oversee the situation the church faces in each particular locale. They don’t need to read a book by Robert Bork or Tipper Gore to be aware of cultural decay. The Relief Society, Primary, and Young Women’s leaders work with UNICEF, the Red Cross, attend conferences, etc. GA’s regularly meet with government ministers to discuss issues.
Trust me, when you see a GA on a non-stop from Los Angeles to Tokyo, they aren’t watching TV. They probably spend 1 hour with three newspapers, two hours working on their upcoming remarks, an hour going over their itinerary, 3 hours reading the scriptures, and the other two are spent eating meals and stretching (you know they all get training on the dangers of deep vein thrombosis!)
Stephen – thanks for this interesting and quiet post. I appreciate your tone.
I am curious though, where is everyone getting their information on the life of a GA from? For example “Many can also directly perceive sin and spirituality, at least to some extent.” Is this insight from a first-hand account or somewhere else?
I’ve seen a couple GA’s at airports (mostly SLC but also Chicago).
I’ve met people who could directly perceive sin and spirituality, at least to some extent. I obviously have not met a large number of general authorities, but of the sub-set I’ve met, some had those skills.
It directly affected how they dealt with people and what they thought of those they talked to.
“Mentioning Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith longed for, and tried to build, a sense of brotherhood and shared sacrifice”
If that’s the case he had a funny way of doing it since it was always ‘my way or the highway’ or he’d excommunicate. And he built himself a huge mansion. I always saw his leadership as very top-down with no room at all for questioning or participation by lower levels. But he did want the apostles and the members to be united and have that brotherhood -under his command. Is that what you refer to: Joseph wish for unified quorums?
I hear what you’re saying. It’s just that most of the Ensign articles I see are written by other experts or staff writers, with an article or two by general authorities. Take the monthly first presidency message, rarely do they talk directly. For example, you don’t see wording like what we saw in that letter to California on gay marriage too often. They’ll argue that its to open it up to outside imput but I think that its simply because they are overwhelmed with paperwork during the week and then have to travel.
And I actually fly too much for a living (as a sales rep) and I know that they do as you say here. I saw a Seventy (forgot his name) last trip and Elder Bednar 3 years ago (aprox.) in Santiago Chile with his wife plus many older missionaries like specific assignment ones. They do read and avoid people mostly, so I never go near them. But I find that I miss out on a lot every time I come back home, not the big news like this Gustav or elections, but what people talk about during lunch. And they have missed many things. Elder Ballard admitted to not knowing what iPod’s are and just calls it all ‘new media’ and the church missed the boat completely with the internet when Elder Holland said (from memory) that they were only looking into it but weren’t overly excited about it . Now they’ve woken up a bit.
I’m only suggesting that if they had more time back home, maybe traveled every two weeks instead of weekly, then they may have more of that free time that academics have to write more and ponder the more difficult problems. But of course seeing that its a suggestion from someone on MM they’re sure to ignore it and do whatever they want to according the their ‘consensus’! So keep traveling boys! (or maybe if they are home more then the mormon bureaucracy would double!)
Steven, I’ve been waiting for a couple of days to try to gather my thoughts on what you’ve written here. It is helpful to understand where the GA’s are coming from.
With great power, comes great responsibility.
If there is a GA mindset it is their responsibility to be aware of it and adjust for it. If you are a leader or a manager in the church your potential for good and harm far outweighs the potential of the average member, or even a scholar. BY even seemed to recognize this, suggesting that priesthood leaders adjust their behavior to the individual they were dealing with, from those who you ‘beat over the head and they have no more idea than you’ve given them a straw dipped in molasses to suck’ to ‘those who shatter like glass at the slightest correction’
This potential seems to be recognized in temporal things and in some spiritual things, but one way that this mindset causes serious, sustained harm is to missionaries. Missionaries are a group that engage in sustained, constant prayer for change in the area their in. Most missionaries work hard, and most goof off in one way or another. They’re 19-24. However, I’ve never received such a sustained berating as I did the two months before and two months after M. Russel Ballard came through our mission. It was universal, the hardest working and most respected elders got it as bad as anyone. The APes escaped, mostly due to their administration of said berating. Once or twice gets your attention. Months, capped off with a 3 hour meeting and beating from one of the Q12, has seriously compromised my willingness to just give them the benefit of the doubt.
I appreciate the article. It explains much, but it doesn’t excuse it. I wonder now looking back on it from a few years if D&C 121 has even been considered while building the edifice of missionary culture and expectations.
In your essay you state
If I saw a group involved in that sort of struggle or wrestling with God, I’d have a lot more sympathy than I have with those who rail, condemn and kvetch.
There’s some fascinating history work going on right now on gossip in the early modern world. One of the conclusions drawn was that some control of the reputations of the powerful could be gained by some of the least powerful through the spreading of rumors, both true and false. Some other disciplines call this soft power. Those who rail, condemn and kvetch do it in response to an exercise of hard power, which the GA’s have in the church. Why do people do it? To try to gain a sense of understanding and regain some control of the world around them. It’s a concept that needs to be introduced and understood by those exercising the hard power. Perhaps write a series, there is a lot more understanding that needs to be done on all sides.
Next, you mention
Few the see the calling as one they want for their children, especially before those children are grandparents.
Your getting into some deep water here. Up until only a few years ago 100% of the Q12 and most of the 70’s were related directly or by marriage. The difference now is so slight as to be almost indiscernible. Currently, only Deiter Uchdtorf is not related directly or through marriage to a current or former church leader.
I really appreciate the article. It’s helped me understand where their coming from, and how I can adjust my mindset to understand what their saying.
CarlosJC — I think you are being unfair, not to mention, unless you are considering the temple Joseph’s house, the Nauvoo House wasn’t a “huge mansion” — but then it wasn’t finished, so that would not be a mansion that was built. (But see http://www.mormonhistoricsitesregistry.org/USA/illinois/nauvoo/nauvooHouse/history.htm, or you may mean the “mansion” house built in built in 1842, with a hotel wing that functioned as an hotel). You’ve missed a lot if you’ve missed his desire for brotherhood and fellowship. It makes for fascinating study and well worth considering.
angrymormonliberal — it is interesting how the travel and the time away has changed an entire mindset from the way it was before WWII to where it is now. As for the deep water, look at Gordon B. Hinckley’s son and his age at call. If you get the chance, talk to some emeritus 70s (I was touched by talking to one, before there was an emeritus status and about the things he longed for).
Which mission were you in? I’m not disagreeing, I’m just curious, your experience seems unusual and I’m curious.
It is interesting how the culture of a mission develops.
One of the (now 3) Colorado missions.
The thing is, while rarer, my experiences have happened to a lot of people. John Dehlin’s story of his mission is similar in some respects, as is my fathers. I have had a lot of difficulty reading the stories of gay missionaries, as well as those who have objected to soccer/baseball baptisms. I also saw a great deal of rudeness, bordering on abuse, of the sisters on an ongoing basis. I had friends with mental illnesses badgered past their breaking point.
I appreciate the tone you’ve taken, I think that you’ve put an immense amount of thought into writing that, and I think I need to let you know that you’ve helped me through some difficult things with this post. Thanks.
No off course it’s not the Temple. The Nauvoo guest ‘house’.
But then it depends how one wishes to see things. Either it was following God to build a guest house, where Smith and his family (and then other wife) could also live in. Or following God to build a big home for Smith and his family, with church funds, which Smith could then use to rent out rooms and make some money too. I guess your view is the former.
And I guess we just have to disagree about his leadership style. Sure he wanted brotherhood and fellowship from those under his command, as long as they stayed under his command. To me it was a quasi-dictatorial leadership but I know you won’t agree.
“If you are a leader or a manager in the church your potential for good and harm far outweighs the potential of the average member, or even a scholar.”
So very very true.
Also about the missions, I agree with what you describe. We have all lived something similar at times. I just don’t know how the church keeps progressing with these things going on in the mission field. Its a real miracle.
edit #12: The Nauvoo guest ‘house’
“Nauvoo Mansion House”
(I can’t edit what has already been submitted)
CarlosJC — too bad you’ve chosen the narrative you’ve chosen. You are missing a great deal by doing that.
angrymormonliberal — thanks for the perspective. I remember my second mission president (they changed over during my mission) who kept trying to manage idealistic men as if they were 55 year old managers. I’m grateful that my essay helped.
#4: “ALL THEY EVER DO is meet with people to discuss their challenges and problems.”
But unfortunately they rarely meet with ordinary members. They meet with stake presidents, they may interview the prominent leaders in a stake when choosing a new president, but the amount of time they spend even with bishops is slight. It’s exremely rare that they would mingle with members after a meeting except to shake hands. So their interaction is always indirect; the information they get about problems has been filtered through local leadership. They are insulated from almost all members except the leaders.
I know a prominent Seventy (in-law twice removed) and have heard him talk about his assignment. During the first few months he was in the calling, one of the family asked him what it was like to go to the church office building every day to “work”. He essentially said that it was like any other high level management job–go to the office, deal with meetings and assignments, and so on. There’s a whole business side to the calling that is just that, business.
This Seventy, after a few years, was chatting with the family and talked about the day to day work. He was unhappy that his contact with church members was so sporadic. He did attend his home ward very infrequently, but with all the demands and travel and so on, rarely was able to relax around church members in everyday settings.
Your post is interesting, and you make many good points. These are men who do sacrifice enormously for their calling. But I sense a hint of putting them on a pedestal, which is unfortunate because they themselves generally do not want to be there. Well, maybe a few of them like the pedestal. On the other hand, sometimes they just want off the pedestal, like the member of the Twelve who was assigned to my Orem stake during BYU’s basketball season. He requested that the Saturday evening adult session of conference begin at 5:00, which meant that some members had to make arrangements to leave work early to attend. Word was he was concerned about travel on that snowy winter night. After the meeting, he made a beeline for the door, not even stopping to shake hands. We found out later he didn’t want to miss the Cougars’ game that night at the Marriott Center.
because they themselves generally do not want to be there.
I would very much agree. Putting them on a pedestal denies them their essential humanity.
That is a post for another day, but one real change from the Church of 1968 to the Church of 2008 is that normal members no longer have constant and regular contact with general authorities of the sort that keeps one from thinking of them as on a pedestal. That is one of the challenges that the Church has today.
Excellent post. We just had a change in Stake Presidencies here and I was interviewed. The experience was not what I expected and a bit daunting to say the least. A member of the 12 was involved and it was a profound experience. Your post has given some needed insight into the whole weekend.
In regards to being berated in a missionary setting let me say I am a member of that club as well. Elder Packer came to a Stake Conference in my mission and he wagged his finger at us from the time before the meeting began when he got up and told us to be more reverent, to his talk when he told us missionaries that we were lazy and not working hard enough and let the members know that they were not yet righteous enough for a temple (it has since been built).
Elder Ballard also visited our mission before he was a member of the Twelve. Not to long ago one of my former companions mentioned that during E. Ballards visit he was given the opportunity to be interviewed by him. Here is the jist ot that experience:
E. Ballard: Elder K. how did you get here today?
E. K: The subway
E. Ballard: Elder how many times did you ask the Golden Question on the way here?
E. K: None
E. Ballard: It appears to me that you are just wasting your time here.
Gee sorry that I missed out on that experience.
Serving as a Bishop I was able to have some very positive experiences being exposed to President Uctdorf (when he was a Seventy) who was fantastic. What a teaching session.
My personal favorite and the most spiritual stake conference I have every attended (yes even more spiritual the the one presided over by the member of the 12 IMHO) was presided over by Elder Marlon K Jenson. I do not believe I have met a more humble servant than he. He just sets you at ease and teaches. At the priesthood session he had everyone stand up and tell his name and calling. Then for the next 45 minutes he called us by name and asked specific questions regarding our callings and stewardship. It was an incredible experience.
Nice insights. I think you should add one characteristic which General Authorities also share, at least from the time of their calls onward: spiritual and temporal security. From the old days when the Second Anointing was the entrance ritual to these and other callings, to the present when we are told to look to the Brethren as our examples, there is a powerful message communicated to us and them that they are spiritually OK, indeed, more than that. To be leading the flock of God they are all but assured of exaltation. For if these devoted servants are not to be exalted, what does that say about the rest of us?
Their temporal security is also provided for. No longer do they need to worry about financing their children’s education, providing for their own retirement, or climbing the career ladder.
The factor of security likely gives General Authorities added strength when making the decisions they do, and added authority.
angrymormonliberal: I served in the same area, and had similar experiences, though with different GAs. Also had meetinsgs with (and the title just comes to me from memory) the head of the Missionary Department. We were shown a poselytizing video and asked what we thought. It was cheesy in the extreme, and we said so, adding that we would be embarrassed to deliver it to people who were interested in our church. (We thought we were being shown the “less effective” example. What followed was pretty scary.
We honestly got yelled at and told that the video represented the new media program of the church. We were also informed that if the video failed to bring results, it would be our fault. At the time, while still thinking the vid was crap, I tried really hard to get myself emotionally and spiritually behind the program and be supportive. If I went through the same thing now, I probably would have started arguing with the twit. Had a few similar experiences like this, all during the time period my first mission president served. My second one came in, and suddenly all exposure to GA’s were of the kinder, gentler sort. Probably coincidence, but still noticable.
I had one encounter with a Regional Representative in my mission which made me think that GA’s weren’t communicating with rank-and-file members. This was in 1985 in South America, and took place during some informal mingling among the office elders before lunch. The regional rep (now the position is a 70 or area presidency) asked the mission president why the inactivity rate was so high, as if it were some kind of great mystery. He wasn’t really expecting a precise answer, but it was not just a rhetorical question either.
The problem I saw in that country was the same pretty much what John Dehlin and others have written about, and such things required Apostles living abroad for a year to fix (Elder Oaks in the Philippines, and Elder Holland in Chile) in the early 2000’s.
The process of questionable baptisms (not just “invalid” but the whole “elder-izing” and high-pressure sales-techniques and “pump-and-dump” and baptizing people for social reasons, and using the emotional force of Type-A personality missionaries to persuade extremely timid people, etc.) had been ingrained in the missionary system in Latin America and in the Philippines.
Based on what and how that RR asked the question, it dawned on me: “They don’t have a clue what’s going on at street level among the missionaries.”
I didn’t dare pull him aside and say “Hey, let me tell you what’s _really_ going on here.” But looking back, maybe I should have. But, I probably would have been ignored, with the retort “Gee, elder, no one else is telling me that.”
In the church, like in most organizations, people don’t like to give “bad news” up the chain of command. And, those in authority don’t want to be given bad news. And, in church culture, giving bad news is often taken as complaining (murmuring) or else as evil-speaking.
The gospel is true, and the church is true, in spite of imperfect systems and imperfect people. The church has grown, is growing, and will continue to grow. None of the hiccups (or even tragedies) disproves the church’s claim on authority to administer the fullness of the gospel as it has been revealed so far. Growing pains and human frailties have always been a part of the true church in all ages.
But it looked to me like the church (as an organization of people and policies) was 20 years behind the curve in recognizing and reacting to what was going on at the individual and street level.
Yes, sometimes, oftentimes, the Lord will reveal all sorts of things to a G.A. via the Spirit. And also in many matters, the Lord apparently leaves many things up to the individual GA to learn on his own. And also in many matters, the Lord leaves it up to the rank-and-file members to communicate things upward.
So I guess I saw two shortcomings: 1) a management system that discouraged the reporting of bad news. and 2) members who were too timid to communicate things en masse, or as a group, because infrequent individual reports were dismissed as outliers or localized anomalies.
So yes, Stephen, there is a lot of revelation and “special powers” given to GAs. But those things don’t overcome all challenges found in a growing world-wide organization. The Lord still leaves enough for both the leaders and the members to struggle with and agonize over and work out.
So yes, Stephen, there is a lot of revelation and “special powers” given to GAs. But those things don’t overcome all challenges found in a growing world-wide organization.
That is extremely true Bookslinger. I need to find the time to do a follow-up post on that subject.
You need to be careful. No one is assured exaltation and I believe the brethren would agree and possibly be embarrassed by such a statement. I am not trying to be rude but we have plenty of examples throughout our history of church authorities making human error that lead to discipline. Even in the last century.
They are truly remarkable men that sacrifice much of their personal life on the behalf of their brothers and sisters. They take unpopular positions that put them at odds with the world and currently with more than a few members of the church (SSM issue).
Please do not misinterpret what I stated regarding President Packer and Elder Ballard. I wish President Packer spoke more about the “order of things” church related because it seems like we are losing a bit of that “order” with the rapid growth of the church and while it seemed Elder Ballard may have been perturbed with my former companion for lack of effort I might take offense as well if I felt a missionary was not maximizing his time particularly where I served as Mission President previously.
You know President Romney used to bore me to tears with his cadence when he spoke. Recently I was researching for a talk about the welfare system of the church. I noticed a talk he gave in 1981 at General Priesthood meeting. I remembered it not because of what he said but becuase I remember him putting me to sleep in a very darkened Marriot Center. When I read that talk today I am in awe of his spiritual brillance. My how our perspective changes with age. He was so frail and unfortunately at my tender age that was all I saw.
These are truly great men. Not perfect men but excellent examples. I hope that through their direction I can become a better disciple.
John if I have misinterpreted your words my apology in advance.