The benefits of fallible prophets

Posted by on May 27, 2014 in charity, leadership | 23 comments

My ward meetinghouse

My ward meetinghouse growing up

 

I spent my teenage years in another country as the daughter of an ex-pat banker.  I attended a very small English-speaking ward and was often one of very few Mormons my age.  Because our ward was the only English-speaking one in a city of many millions of people, we were the hub for American Mormons coming through for 2-3 years at a time.  We had folks working for the embassy, plenty of folks working for large American corporations, and quite a few Americans working for the church, including mission presidents and general authorities (and one that is now an apostle).  Because of this unique situation, I interacted with lots of church leaders (both past and present) in a much more informal setting than I do now.  I went to seminary and school with their kids.  We had birthday parties at each other’s houses.  They came to my house and sat around a grill while we had ward cookouts.  We ran carpools and had movie nights together.

Sometimes, when I was at their houses, these church leaders yelled at their kids.  I spied a few R-rated movies in their movie collections.  Sometimes I heard them gossip or say unkind things about other people, usually in exasperation or frustration.  I even saw a few of them drink caffeinated soda (oh, the scandal!).

The one who is now serving as an apostle ended up being my home teacher for three years.  In all those years, he faithfully and regularly cared for our family.   He didn’t just come to teach a lesson and check us off a list – he always took special interest in the everyday happenings in our lives, and especially in me and my siblings.  He wanted to talk with us, to laugh with us, to hear our concerns, and to learn about us.  I remember him specifically encouraging me to pursue a career in medicine (which had been my plan at the time), saying that the world needed more doctors like me.  And so even though I knew he wasn’t a “perfect” Mormon, and that his kids sometimes complained about him being an impatient or mean parent, I knew him to be kind.  And earnest.  And generally engaged in trying to learn and grow and do the right thing.

This experience has heavily informed my testimony of prophets and apostles.  Since my teenage years, I’ve never considered the leaders of the church to be spiritual giants that are incapable of making mistakes or being influenced by bias or culture.  I’ve thought of them the way many of us perceive our bishops and relief society presidents: wonderful people who have a calling from God, who are adamantly trying to do the right thing, and yet who can be frustratingly imperfect at times.

When I listen to General Conference, I find that, because of my personal interactions, I give more credence to the words of the leaders I know.  I listen to their words intently and with compassion, and the messages often feel personal and direct.  That said, sometimes the leaders I know have said things that don’t sit right with me, or even hurt a little bit.  But when they’re spoken by the people I know to be kind and earnest in their personal lives, I’m more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.  I’ve seen them lose their tempers and miss their kids’ birthday parties – I know that they are far from perfect.  But I know they’re trying, and sometimes I feel like if we were sitting around a potluck again, we could talk about these things and have a compassionate dialogue.  We might not end up agreeing, but we would know that we care about one another and share a heartfelt love for this church and this gospel.

But when I listen to somebody that I haven’t met proclaim things that I find to be backwards, hurtful, or shaming, I find myself getting increasingly impatient with their obvious bias and/or cultural upbringing.  Don’t they know that their words hurt perfectly good people?!  Don’t they understand how their messages make certain groups of people feel?!  Have they really not read that article/book/etc. that complicates and nuances this oversimplified message?!

And the answer?  Probably not.  I would be surprised – shocked, even – if any of the people speaking at General Conference got up with the intent to hurt feelings or alienate people.  And yet I have a hard time extending the same compassion to the people whose frailties I haven’t witnessed firsthand, and I end up having to remind myself (over and over) to give my church leaders the benefit of the doubt.

I am of the opinion that having prophets with imperfections is beneficial, not harmful, to our faith community and to our testimonies.  For one, it puts the onus of testimony back on the individual – instead of relying absolutely on the words we hear, we’re compelled to gain our own testimony of a principle.  We should be thinking, studying, and praying about the teachings we receive.  Second, because of this process of gaining our own knowledge and testimony, we are able to form a better relationship with God.  The prophets aren’t here to become our fountain of truth and knowledge – they’re here to steer us towards God and to bring us to Christ.  When we hear their words, we should not be blindly accepting them and going about our day – we should be taking their words to God and Christ.  Doing this, regardless of whether we end up agreeing or disagreeing with the counsel given, helps us build an intimate connection with our parents in Heaven, and with our Savior.  Third, it gives us a pattern for working with each other in our own wards, branches, and communities.  Rather than becoming frustrated with the failings of those around us, including those who lead us and serve us, we should be extending mercy and compassion, as well as a helping hand.

I think we do a great disservice when we start putting people on pedestals and thinking of ourselves as above or below one another.  While I recognize, honor, and sustain the priesthood leaders of my church as prophets and apostles, I also recognize, honor, and sustain them as imperfect human beings, and my brothers in the gospel.  In Letters to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller writes, “It is truly a false dilemma to claim that either God works through practically flawless people or God doesn’t work at all.”[1]  Elder Holland seems to share that sentiment, as he recently said, “Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.”[2]

And yet we hear, over and over, that “the prophets will never lead us astray,” as though a prophet or apostle has never said a harmful word nor preached something that isn’t perfectly in line with Christ’s gospel.  My personal experience suggests to me that this frankly isn’t the case.  Instead of an absolute proclamation, I now see that phrase as an invitation.  Let’s not let the words of the prophets lead us astray – instead, let’s have them (however correct or incorrect) lead us – in searching, in study, and in prayer – to God.

 

 

 

[1] Adam Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon, Maxwell Institute: 2013

[2] Jeffrey R. Holland, Lord, I Believe, April 2013 General Conference

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23 Comments

  1. What a fantastic post! Your ideas surrounding the fallibility of the prophets are, no doubt, very different than mine, but I think your very unique perspective is something that we can all appreciate and learn from. Thank you so much!

  2. Beautiful thoughts! I do not know any apostles. It is interesting to hear from someone who does.

  3. It puts far too much pressure on our leaders to expect them to never make a mistake. I’m greatful I don’t work under that kind of pressure. It strengthens me to know that God chooses imperfect people to care for the church, it confirms that my imperfections won’t preclude me from being a productive part of His work.

  4. This is such a thoughtful post. I found myself nodding my head in agreement to each sentence. We have all been given an ability to think and to know for our own selves what is right or not. The church leaders are there to guide the membership but they are not perfect. The older I get the more I truly know that I have to listen to my own feelings and conscience. I am so much happier being true to my own beliefs in areas that differ from the official/unofficial church line.

  5. Thank you for this! While I don’t know any church leaders personally (on any level beyond my bishop) I too agree with the opinions presented here.

  6. This is such a nice perspective, and one that resonates with me. I have long loved something Richard Bushman wrote in the preface to his biography on Joseph Smith (or possibly in an interview) about how he would rather believe in a rough prophet. I would, too. The very neat packages we are so often presented of GA’s does not always help me see myself (or God) in them.

    I really can imagine how knowing GAss as real people could help you receive their words in a compassionate way. That more members can’t know GAs personally is for me, one of the greatest losses of our worldwide church.

    • “That more members can’t know GAs personally is for me, one of the greatest losses of our worldwide church.”

      Excellent point, Rachel. That’s what I kept thinking as I read this post. It’s a shame more people don’t get this experience.

      I really like this post, Liz! It totally makes sense to me: I know I’m more able to listen to words in my ward from people I know better. It makes sense that it would work at a larger level too.

      Also, I really like your reframing of the “prophets will never lead us astray” teaching.

      • Thank you. I also appreciate your point about people in your own ward. I remember a friend saying something once about how he would trust the testimony of his friends in a way that he might not the average person, even if they said similar things. It is understandable, really.

  7. Fantastic post, Liz. I agree with every word. A lot of what you write reminds me of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s essay ‘Lusterware,’ which is about the dangers of expecting too much from our leaders and our church. She talks about gasping when a woman wrote to her and said that she used to believe the church was 100% true, but now believes it’s only 90% true. Laurel’s reaction: if it’s even 10% true, hold onto it with all you’ve got.

    • I absolutely love that part in Lusterware.

  8. Liz this was so affirming. Love it. It reminds me of something my wise professor Gloria Cronin used to say: “The Cathilics say the Pope is infallible and nobody believes it; the Mormons say the Prophet is fallible and nobody believes it.”

  9. Perfectly said. Thank you!

  10. Thank you all for your kind comments!

    Caroline – I’d love to read “Lusterware.” Do you know where I can find it?? I’ve found lots of references to it, but I can’t seem to find the whole essay anywhere!

    • It looks like it’s not available online (at least that I could see), but was published in the book _A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars_. Here’s the Amazon link.

      http://www.amazon.com/Thoughtful-Faith-Essays-Belief-Scholars/dp/0939651009

      Or if you live in the Mormon corridor, your local library might have it. Or even if you don’t, maybe you could get it through ILL. (Or maybe someone else knows of an easier way…?)

      • I love this book. So many thoughtful (and classic) essays on Mormonism. I bought copies for several family members as Christmas presents a few years ago.

        Then again, I’m anxiously waiting for a certain anthology of mormon feminist essays to be published. I hope “Lusterware” is included there.

        Thank you, Liz, for this wonderful blogpost. I think that willfully turning a blind eye towards others’ ( or even our own) frailties and weaknesses, is a dangerous practice. It is only through confronting these limitations that any progress can be made! So for the average mormon, as well as the authority figures citadelled in SLC.

    • It’s also in All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir by Ulrich and Thayne. Which, by the way, is a wonderful collection of Mormon feminist essays. You can often find the book used on amazon for pennies.

    • All God’s Critters is one of my favorite books. Period.

      Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Emma Lou Thayne did give Exponent II permission to sell an online PDF version, which we’re working on. Stay tuned!

  11. Beautiful essay! I love how you turn the idea of prophets never leading us astray into a proactive idea, something we as members can control. Instead of being lazy and dependent on a force outside ourselves, we can proactively work to not let our leaders lead us or the church astray. Love it.

  12. This is a lovely essay, Liz! Thank you! Its made me re-think my current approach to General Conference, which is to hold my breath and prepare for the punches. I do need to seek the spirit from the words offered there, and I needed your reminder. Thank you.

  13. I really like this. It reminds me of this quote I love from Brigham Young –
    “I am…afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation.”
    It makes me feel a lot better to know that my faith doesn’t have to be (in fact shouldn’t be) built on another fallible human being. Church leaders provide an important piece of the puzzle, and are certainly good people with the best intent, but ultimately it’s between me and God.

  14. Vigorous head nodding throughout your thoughtful and compassionate reflection on the fallibility of leaders. I especially loved your closing statement about letting the prophet lead us in receiving our own answers through searching, study, and prayer.

  15. My grandma was in the general RS presidency when I was a teenager, so I met a couple of general authorities and they were all so unbelievably warm and kind (even if they didn’t come across that way on the screen). But, even if I hadn’t, I firmly believe this statement that you wrote, “I would be surprised – shocked, even – if any of the people speaking at General Conference got up with the intent to hurt feelings or alienate people.”

    I need to remember that more often with all my interactions with my sisters and brothers in the Church.

  16. Years ago I had a job overseas and had the opportunity to work with many general authorities. The company I worked for had a president, who was a member. The two times I met with him personally he was mad, unfair, petty, unappreciative, demanding and not Christ-like.

    He is now in the presidency of the 1st Quorum of the Seventy.

    All I can say is, I must have seen him on two of the worst days he had in many years. My impression of him was only limited to those two times. Luckily the Lord saw him a lot more than I did and liked what he saw.

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