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.