A Need for Nourishment: Giving Our Leaders Honest Feedback


During the last month, I’ve been combing old issues of Exponent II for some great essays that I might excerpt for blog posts. I was especially struck by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s essay “A Need for Nourishment,” in which she talks about how she nourishes and supports her leaders by communicating honestly with them – which includes letting them know when she disagrees with them.

I suppose I was attracted to this essay because I myself have been wondering recently what role I should play in my ward. I’ve become frustrated with some not so great lessons we’ve been getting (lessons in which not one question is asked – just pure reading of quotes from the manual and lecturing), and I’ve been very tempted to preserve my sanity by skipping out on some of my meetings. (ok, I actually have skipped out on quite a few RS meetings.)

Part of my frustration stems from the fact that I feel I have no power to make things better. I actually have taken Ulrich’s advice and have talked to our RS education counselor about our need for some discussions during our lessons. She was very receptive, but I’ve yet to actually see major improvements. On the other hand, I have had what I consider a positive experience with the bishop. When he called me to something that required very little sacrifice, time, effort, or brainpower, I accepted the calling but openly told him that next time around, I’d appreciate it if he would consider me for a calling that utilized my talents and interests in teaching or humanitarian work, since I felt like I really might be able to contribute something in those realms. A couple of weeks later, he rescinded his original calling and called me to be the humanitarian assistant. I was really impressed that, with the additional information I gave, he was willing to backtrack and find something that would allow me to feel like I was contributing more.

Below is an excerpt from Ulrich’s essay. I would love to know what experiences, positive and not so positive, you have had giving honest feedback to your leaders.

“A Need for Nourishment” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Exponent II, Winter, 1980

“A refusal to communicate is the ultimate form of rejection. To talk to one’s leader is a sign of trust; to listen to one’s followers is a sign of confidence. Honest disagreement, appropriately expressed, is a form of nourishment. It helps leaders and followers grow through enlarging their perceptions and improving their ability to understand and communicate. Of course, this communication must be suited to the situation. One does not water petunias with a fire hose or serve tacos to a victim of indigestion. I suspect, however, that some leaders in our church are malnourished from too much whipped cream and Jello.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the passage in the Doctrine and Covenants which reads:

We have learned by sad experience that it is in the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. 121: 39

The phase that stuck in my mind is “almost all men.” The Prophet seems to be saying here that the tendency toward authoritarianism is so widespread that it affects nearly everyone. Since this verse is in a passage discussing the priesthood, I assume that he meant bishops, stake presidents and other officers, as well as ordinary members of the church, male and female.

Now, I don’t think it is my job to decide which of my leaders is exercising unrighteous dominion, but I do think it is my responsibility as a member of the Church to make it very hard for any of them to do so. I can do this by letting them know in word and in action that I intend to nourish as well as support them, that I will tell them what I think as honestly and as openly as I can, that I will prayerfully and thoughtfully consider every assignment and add my inspiration to theirs, and that I will even raise my hand in opposition to a program if the spirit tells me to do so. To do any less than this is to withdraw the lifeblood of the church – the sustaining testimony of each member.”

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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  1. Tracy M says:

    We have a marvelous Bishop now, one who listens to the members and pays attention to thier lives and needs when extending a calling. I can’t say enough good things about this man’s spirit.

    However, a previous Bishop extended a calling that I felt I could not accept without seriously straining my family and jeopardizing my recent-convert husband’s activity. When I met with him to fully explain my circumstances, he completely disregarded my concerns and extended the calling anyway. In an attempt to be obedient, I accepted, and soon afterward, my husband stopped going to church completely. I was completely lost as to what I should do. The Bishop was counciling one thing, but my heart and my mind were telling me another thing.

    Our marvelous Stake President called us one night; an unkonwn member has called him with concern over our family, and he wanted to do whatever he could to get us back on track. That very night he transfered our records to another ward, and my husband soon returned to full activity.

    Two examples of men in leadership positions- one broadening the kingdom, the other constricting it. And the clear difference was: One was willing to listen.

  2. jana says:

    Caroline:

    I absolutely agree with you that we need to give honest feedback to our church leaders (both male and female).

    However, I know that most church leaders are struggling hard to manage their busy lives. I hate to blame a RS teacher for an awful lesson if she had lots of other commitments eking away at her ability to study and prepare thoroughly.

    While I admit to zoning out during many talks and lessons (and even reading a book during them if they are _really_ awful), I really worry about being too critical of church leaders. After all, I would hate to think that people were making fun or criticizing me behind my back. I don’t want to do the same to anyone else.

  3. TftCarrie says:

    I very much believe in communicating disagreement to leaders. The church has set up “proper” channels of communicating, but most of the time, I think it is ineffective, but I always try it first. But if I have to, I have never been afraid of asking for a meeting with the Stake Pres, or even higher than a stake pres (depending on the problem and we had some doozies where we used to live). But we are talking about BIG problems here.

    When it comes to “substandard” lessons (I know we have all been through many of these and will continue to sit through many on our lifetime) I like to think of a metaphor I once heard from a Stake Pres. And I am paraphrasing here: Running a ward is kind of like running a church YW basketball team. We don’t only play only the best players. We give everyone a chance to play so they can have the experience, and hopefully grow from it. And when there is a teammate who struggles, we cheer them on, we try to help them in any way we can so they can feel the joy of success. We are not part of the team to always enjoy the win. Did that make any sense at all? I think it resonated with me because I played on a church basketball team at a youth. I was short and not that athletic, but I got the chance to play and feel like part of the team.

    I think teachers are not always called to teach. I think sometimes they are called to grow. I used to bail out on lessons that weren’t “good”. Now I try to be a better team-player.

  4. Deborah says:

    I think constructive dialogue is a great antidote for frustration — mostly because it reminds me that this we have a lay leadership, and it depends on the voice and support of its membership.

    A couple of years ago I was in a YW presidency and found myself quite upset by some of the lessons in the manual (another post another day). I also looked at the girls — 99% recent converts, 95% living below the poverty level — and the assigned lesson on “writing missionaries” didn’t seem to fit. Rather than grumble in frustration, I had a long lunch with the YW president and asked for her permission to teach the life of Christ when it was my week to teach. (The girls, mostly, had little experience with the Bible.) She agreed, we worked out a schedule, and I brought a renewed energy to my calling. Of course, I’m not sure I would have brought the same suggestion to a bishop, and I wonder about this discomfort. I am simply more at ease sharing ideas and concerns (personal and organizational) with the Relief Society President than with male leaders. Thus I am always heartened when I see a bishopric who really does hearken to the feedback of the RS presidency — I’ve seen it change the whole tenor of a ward.

  5. Julie M. Smith says:

    “I hate to blame a RS teacher for an awful lesson if she had lots of other commitments eking away at her ability to study and prepare thoroughly.”

    A responsbile teacher unable to give a proper lesson finds a substitute. It isn’t fair to inflict an ill-prepared lesson on a class because you got busy.

    (This is different from native ability, however.)

  6. Caroline says:

    Julie,
    I’m with you. I really do want to be sympathetic to people who just don’t have the time or talent to be good teachers. However, teaching is one calling that I strongly feel should not be given to people who have no aptitude/time for it. I understand that it may help that individual grow, but I don’t think one member’s growth is worth making 40 other people suffer. Particularly when that person’s growth could also probably be facilitated just as well by a non-teaching calling.

    But Jana, point taken. If I ever am in a position of any type of visibility (probably won’t ever happen) I would like to think of people giving me the benefit of the doubt when I screw up.

  7. Katie says:

    I agree in theory with Carrie’s metaphor about the church being like an amateur basketball team, where everyone gets to play. I am sure people do grow when placed in callings they do not have natural talents for. But while they have personal growth, they may be hurting the growth of many others. So you call someone who is a terrible teacher to teach Gospel Doctrine, and they are personally growing (at least in theory….in reality that are probably just miserable and can’t wait to me released), but the whole class is bored and leave class without feeling spiritually uplifted and edified. Or, you call someone who is a gifted teacher, and perhaps they are personally growing less because they are stretched less, but the thirty people in their class get a wonderful spiritual boost each week. Which then is better? I think if we are to use the basketball team metaphor, a more accurate rendering would be to say, that yes, we may be amateurs but we are playing against a fierce professional team (the world) and if we hope to win we need to put our best players out there to carry the whole team to victory. Should the whole team lose so everyone gets to play? Maybe in a game for fun, but our spiritually is a serious business.

  8. TftCarrie says:

    Obivously if the teacher is seriously jeopardizing his/her class members spirituality, this is a big problem that should be taken up with church leaders. But for me, this would take repeated offenses of teaching false doctrine , chauvinism, etc. I guess I might not be sure what kind of “suffering” Caroline is talking about.

    Also, I do think the metaphor is idealistic for sure. It probably also worked far better when discussing the small ward/branch that I was in. You couldn’t fill all the “important” callings with all the “best” people. There just weren’t enough people. But giving everyone on the “team” a chance to “play”, being patient and supportive of one another was how we grew our small branch into a ward.

    Now, for a comment that goes back to the heart of the post. My Stake President made a decision a while back that, IMHO, was completely wrong. Hopefully I won’t get struck by lightning for that statement. I went through the “proper” channels to voice my opinion but this yielded no success (ie: didn’t change his mind). But I just couldn’t leave it at that. I scheduled a meeting with the Stake Pres. himself. I didn’t think it would make a difference, but I just needed to feel like my voice was really heard. After a long, grueling talk, he actually changed his mind (for the most part). I couldn’t believe it. I think he had to swallow a lot of pride that day (which is why I think he couldn’t do a complete 180) but he gave me back some faith in priesthood leaders.

  9. Aimee "Roo" says:

    I really like this post. Too often we forget that we do have a voice. We can decline a calling if we know it’s not right for us, we can make suggestions, and help make things better. Why do we forget this so often?

  10. Caroline says:

    Hi Carrie,
    I’m talking about the kind of teachng that induces mental stagnation and atrophy in its listeners. These teachers aren’t teaching false doctrine. Some are just making little effort to sollicit people’s comments, ask good questions, or be insightful.

    Your point about the branch is well taken. I would probably have much more of your point of view if I were in your situation. As it is, I am in a huge ward with 700 members. Some of whom are very talented teachers, as it is a ward that contains a university and a plethora of other dynamic individuals.

    Carrie, what a fantastic story about you and your stake president. That’s great that you were willing to bring your concerns to his attention, and convince him to change his mind. So cool. It does comfort me to know that people like you are out there going to bat for yourself and others when you see questionable decisions being made by leaders.

    Now I know I’m digging and asking something you’re probably not willing to talk about, but could you satisfy my curiousity and tell me vaguely what realm your issue was with this S.P.? Implemtation of a program? Just wondering 🙂

  11. Caroline says:

    Aimee “roo”
    I think we forget we have voice and choice because of the social pressure to “support” our leaders. (I get like 4 lessons a year on supporting the priesthood. Sometimes I think the manual makers and my ward/stake are obsessed with the idea.) Many people I know think that the only way to support leaders is by doing what they ask without complaint or discussion. So even if we know a calling is not right for us, I think most Mormons feel guilty if they turn down something they are asked to do.

  12. John says:

    My impression is that there is actually a lot of criticism of leaders at the local levels. I experienced a fair amount of criticism in my few leadership roles (before I adopted the call-repelling tie-less, dark shirt and tousled hair look), and it was very frustrating. It reminded me of my dysfunctional family upbringing–long on the criticism, short on the support.

    Having worked in both professional and volunteer organizations, I realize that there’s quite a contrast. The Church is essentially a large non-profit, and the jobs are filled by people with zero experience who get all their training on the job and no material compensation.

    As a radical feminist iconoclast Green Party Sunstoner Mormon, I’m all for criticism of authority. But as I think about Ulrich’s meditation on D&C 121, my mind slips down a couple of verses to “reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase in love…lest s/he esteem thee to be her/his enemy.”

    As a parent, I reprove my children all too often with sharpness, moved more by my own frustration than by any Spirit of Holiness. I think we criticize each other for all sorts of reasons: in frustration, anger, fear, self-defense, to name a few. I think it works best when we can criticize when we are genuinely inspired and feeling the peace of the Spirit (that’s a tough one); when we can do it in an established relationship of love and respect, and when we are willing to invest the time and effort to understand and support the person we are criticizing.

  13. John says:

    I just re-read the post and all of the comments, and I think my last comment was a bit strong. I was thinking less of leaders and more of some poor, struggling souls I know who really are trying to do their best, but bless them, they just aren’t very skilled teachers. Ulrich uses positive and constructive terms like “nourishment” and “honest feedback.” I like the connotations those words carry.

    Anyhow, I encourage women and men who are not in leadership positions to speak up and out. The vocal balance in the Church is top heavy–we need more from the grassroots. Just be gentle with those timid Sunday School teachers.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I’d like to be anonymous for now.

    My church experience became 100% better when I realized that I was there to serve rather than be served. Let’s face it, we are all a bunch of idiot savants who can do a few things OK and who are totally, completely, and hopelessly incompetent at everything else. My son’s scoutmaster doesn’t like camping, our tithing records are always wrong because the clerk is dyslexic, the chorister can’t keep time, my priesthood instructor has a serious speech impediment, and our RS president has a special knack for getting on everybody’s nerves at once. You know what? I absolutely love them all, and I love my ward.

    Leaders have a hard time staffing wards. I went to my bishop about my son’s experience with scouts, and he told me he called 9 different men before one accepted. I then saw both the scoutmaster and the bishop in a different light. I see it as part of the covenant I have made to sustain that that I do all I can to help them both succeed.

    I think leaders welcome information about our personal situations, such as the condition Tracy M. described. But if we get in the habit of declining calls to serve because we don’t think it fits our interests or talents, I’m pretty sure we are missing out on opportunities for growth. I was in a ward once where a woman more or less called herself (by badgering the bishop) to be GD teacher because she thought she was good at it. She did have some teaching skills, but she was so full of herself that the class was horrible. It was a relief when she was replaced by a shy woman who read straight from the manual, at least we got some testimony and weren’t forced to witness a one-woman theatrical performance every week. After that, I decided that leaders should be a little suspicious of people who know, just know, what callings they should have.

    I think sister Unlrich is right that our honest communication is a check on the temptation leaders may face to abuse their office. I also think that a lot of mischief is concealed under the guise of honest feedback. We also need to be prepared to get honest feedback. I have no ax to grind with my bishop now about the mediocre performance of most aspects of my ward because my own performance in my home teaching calling is less than it ought to be, and he would be absolutely justified in pointing that out.

    I’m looking through my bookshelf now and can’t find the reference, byt I am about 75% sure that it was sister Ulrich who described a meeting with her bishop where she expressed her dissatisfaction with something or other. Her bishop listened patiently, then observed that the church is a good place to learn the virtues of patience, charity, and longsuffering.

  15. Caroline says:

    Anonymous, I agree. We all, including our leaders, are a bunch of clueless servants. And I do feel that the more constructive communication and feedback we give each other, the best for everyone involved.

    When it comes to turning down callings, I think we just need to be really in tune with our inner selves (i.e. the spirit). If we just know that something is not right for us and will bring serious problems into our lives, I think it is perfectly right to turn it down. (And for the record, because I want to defend myself 🙂 let me say that I did accept the calling that didn’t require me to really contribute anything, but told him that next time around I’d like him to consider me for callings that involve such and such, since I felt like I could really have a positive impact there.)

    I think you’re right about the Ulrich essay. The book is called All God’s Critters Got a place in the Choir, and I think the essay is called Lusterware. I might be wrong on the essay title. But I remember liking the essay very much.

  16. Caroline says:

    John, I agree that reproving followed by love, or, to update it to a more realistic interaction with a leader, giving honest feedback/criticism out of a pure desire to help, is ideal. I hope that, as I grow and become a better person (hopefully), I will criticize to bystanders less and criticize constructively to the person in question more. It’s good to remember that leaders need compassion too.

  17. Naomi says:

    When I moved into the ward where my records now are, I was called to be a Relief Society teacher. Like everybody else, I’ve been in lessons that I thought were less than satisfactory, so I was determined to do a good job. I learned two things very quickly: 1) That it’s easier to say than to do; and 2) You can’t please everybody, because people come to meetings looking for different things. Some want to be spiritually uplifted; some want to go heavy on the doctrine (not saying those first two are mutually exclusive, but you get my point); some want to be entertained; and some are looking for a chance to be offended.

    That said, I tried hard to do the best that I could. Were people enlightened or uplifted or even interested? I honestly can’t say, although I do think we had some awesome discussions. What I do know was that it was a tremendous experience for me personally. It forced me to study my materials (I know I could have studied them on my own, but somehow that never happened without the added impetus), which led to some spiritual experiences and (I hope) increased understanding of my own. And it provided a wonderful entree into my new ward. I’d moved from a singles ward to a family ward and was prepared to come, sit in the back, and leave, but here I was put in a position where everybody knew who I was because I was standing in frnot of them once a month, and where we interacted on a regular basis. For someone who’s not the most social of people, that’s a true blessing.

    Again, I don’t know if anybody besides me benefitted at all from my lessons, but I look at the time I got to spend as a Relief Society teacher as a gift that I was lucky to have. So if anybody felt the need to express dissastisfaction with me or my lessons to the education counselor or the president or anybody else, I’m just glad I never knew about it.

    Just saying that I think we need to err on the side of tolerance and non-judgement — we don’t know what’s going behind the scenes, and besides, there are so many feelings out there that can be hurt.

  18. Caroline says:

    It sounds like you were a very good teacher, Naomi. 🙂

    And because I feel like I’m getting people’s backs up with my comments about the lessons in my ward that could be improved, let me explain a little further.

    A few months ago, we had a spate of lessons in which there was not one discussion question asked during the whole lesson. Not one. The teachers just read from the manual and lectured. Now personally, I really like some of these teachers and enjoy talking with them. But I do feel like the lessons would be improved with a little discussion, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me saying that to one of the counselors. (Who heartily agreed with me.)

    But, I’m very interested in hearing from people who disagree. To each her own. And let me affirm that I absolutely appreciate the comments about having compassion for people who are trying. This is good for me and everyone to keep in mind.

  19. will not return says:

    “But, I’m very interested in hearing from people who disagree.”

    An interesting comment considering you deleted the last comment I made her. It turns out this forum is not really “a forum for Mormon women to share their life experiences in an atmosphere of trust and acceptance” like you claim.

    My comment did not single anyone out, did not make any personal attack, did not question anyone’s personal beliefs. I simply stated how I felt.

    A censored forum (taking into regard the comment guidelines, which I felt I followed) isnt a forum, its a soapbox. Im sorry this blog isnt what it has the potential to be.

    Goodbye

  20. Caroline says:

    Anonymous,
    Actually, I deleted your comment because you did make personal attacks. You referred to me, among other things, as “pathetic.” So yes, that does violate the comment policy as we do not allow personal attacks. By all means, disagree, but please try to be nice.

  21. Amanda says:

    I think Naomi hit it on the head when she said she tried hard and did her best — I find I can appreciate lessons and talks more when I get the sense the person put some effort into it, even if the final result isn’t what you’d get from a trained teacher or speaker. I too have sat through lectures that probably got put together in sacrament meeting before GD or RS started, and I think it is okay to tell ward leaders that I appreciate a little preparation.

    Good post, Caroline, and thought-provoking.

  22. Anonymous says:

    I did not refer to you as pathetic. I refered to a situation as pathetic. Thank you for only showing one side of a disscussion. If you cannot tolerate a different opinion, this is no place for me.

  23. AmyB says:

    I’ve enjoyed this post and the ensuing conversation. Like someone mentioned, it’s very helpful to me to remember we have a lay clergy.

    When one bishop extended me a calling to be primary president over the phone on a Friday night, and expected me to have a functioning presidency by Sunday, I was pretty offended (and stressed out and overhwelmed) for a while. He said and did many things that really raised my hackles while in that ward. Over time though, I came to realize that he was genuinely trying to do his best.

    Perhaps if I had been courageous enough to give him some honest feedback a lot of good could have come from it.

  24. Starfoxy says:

    Perhaps something that may also be useful is to only give praise when someone has really earned it, but to give it every time they earn it. As a youth I was complimented on talks that I prepared during the passing of the sacrament. Those compliments meant nothing, and soon most compliments came to mean nothing to me.
    If someone prepared a good lesson let them know, and not with the vague “I enjoyed your lesson.” Be specific. “I really liked that quote you shared from Sister [former gen. RS pres.] Most people will catch on to what you like in lessons and will be happy to give it to you as often as they can.

  25. Caroline says:

    Amanda, AmyB, and Starfoxy, thanks very much for the comments. I’m glad this thread has been interesting to you.

    Starfoxy, I think your point about specific positive feedback is excellent. You’re right, if people communicate to a leader something specific that they really liked or appreciated, I bet that person would make more of an effort to do that thing again. I will remember that next time I want to be proactive about something.

  26. Tigersue says:

    A pretty interesting thread and comments here. You are right about critising our leaders, I think the biggest problem comes when we think we know more than they do when they are the ones with the mantel. We also need to remember they are human and trying their best.
    AS for the teaching issue, I taught RS, teaching for our Times, and in our board meetings it was emphasized the importance to have questions and discussion. To give everyone a chance to speak, and I also tried very hard to use the scriptures in every lesson. IT can be done, and there is one month to prepare a lesson, as a mom with a new baby I was able to do this. Everyone is busy, it isn’t that hard to incorporate questions in the lesson, in the manuals there are even some suggested so it can be done.

  27. Mike says:

    Lots of great comments. In the spirit of other commenters’ words, I’d like to stress the distinction between honest feedback and criticism. My experience is that leaders generally welcome people’s honest feelings when those feelings are expressed as personal, when the person is not confrontational, and when the person is still willing to support the leader even if the leader doesn’t change the status quo or do what is requested.

    And I also agree with those commenters who stressed that people are trying their best. I’ve been a leader and had to make difficult decisions, and I made mistakes. But I also was a tool used to bring about much good. I assume this is true for every person in every calling, from hymn book picker-upper to Bishop to President of the Church.

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