The benefits of fallible prophets
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.” 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.”
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.
 Adam Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon, Maxwell Institute: 2013  Jeffrey R. Holland, Lord, I Believe, April 2013 General Conference