These Guys Are Just Men
In 2004, I lived in South Carolina for a few months while my military husband attended training at Fort Jackson. I’d just graduated from BYU and moved away from Utah with him for this temporary assignment. While there, I met a very friendly woman who was part of the housekeeping staff where we lived. She’d had a rough life and I came to love her very quickly after she helped me use my room to conceal a starving, lost kitten I found in the parking lot for several months. I adopted that cat and he was with me until he passed away in 2019. She brought all kinds of goodness to my life.
At the same time, I attended the local institute class with a very engaging teacher. A regional conference was planned while I was there for the members in South Carolina and Georgia, and the teacher told us, “President Hinckley decided this past year to hold all regional conferences over satellite broadcast systems – but as he sat down to go over the list of locations he said, “All of them will be broadcasts except for South Carolina. The Lord has told us we must go in person to that one.” The class was abuzz with excitement that the prophet (accompanied by the apostle Elder Russell M. Ballard and then seventy member Elder Todd Christofferson) was directed by heaven to physically travel to our location, and I was more enthusiastic about this news than anyone.
I wanted to invite my housekeeping friend to the regional conference. I just knew that Heavenly Father sent that kitten to bring us together so I could share the gospel with her. And now the opportunity arose to bring her not just to a regular church meeting, but a meeting in-person with the prophet, an apostle, and a seventy?! There was no way she wouldn’t feel the Spirit and know the church was true and join.
I invited her, and at first she agreed to come – but then she changed her mind and said she couldn’t. I don’t remember exactly why she backed out, but I remember it was with a questionable excuse when I reminded her about it the week before (like a family member might be coming by for lunch that day), and I couldn’t believe she was going to miss a once in a lifetime experience for something so meaningless! I was bummed, but I knew God had a plan and trusted she’d still hear the gospel another way.
The morning of the big meeting finally came, and I showed up very early to get a good seat – only to realize that President Hinckley wasn’t at the building I was in. He was at another one, and they were broadcasting it to a screen where I was. (I thought, “How is this different for the majority of us than a satellite broadcast from Salt Lake City?”) Then the speakers all spoke, and it was…underwhelming. It had a very heavy focus on missionary work, and I was suddenly relieved that my friend wasn’t there. It would’ve felt awkward to hear my leaders talking about recruiting new members as I was trying to recruit her as a new member. I had told her it was going to be an amazing message from God’s mouthpiece on earth, and they were saying less than groundbreaking things like, “New members of the church need a friend and a calling or they’ll stop coming after they’re baptized.” Elder Ballard talked about the new Preach My Gospel manual and emphasized needing more missionaries to go out and preparing the young men better. It wasn’t anything new or revelatory, and it would likely have been very boring to an outsider. Because I’d been trying to bring my friend along I imagined viewing the meeting through her eyes, and what I saw was a very slow moving and not particularly interesting meeting presented by really old men. I read a glowing report afterwards in the church news where a young woman said she’d never felt the spirit so strongly, and I wondered what meeting she had attended. (HERE is the church news report where I read that in back in 2004.)
Another close encounter with an apostle came in late 2010 when I was invited to attend a special fireside with Elder Dieter Uchtdorf for military families right as my husband was about to deploy for a year to Iraq. I was going to be right in the actual chapel with an apostle this time (not broadcasted!), and he had a message crafted specifically for someone like me. I couldn’t wait.
But as Elder Uchtdorf began to speak, I immediately felt confused and weird. He told airplane stories and I sat there kind of stunned that I was sitting in a chapel within baseball toss distance of an apostle, and I felt… nothing. No big spiritual confirmation or anything. Just… oh look, there’s a guy up there talking.
My enthusiasm for his apostolic message waned even more as (against my will) the thought “He’s just a man – just a totally ordinary man” intruded into my mind. By the time he said “amen”, I was overwhelmed with (and hiding) my alarm that I’d felt zero inspiration from his perfectly acceptable talk and was instead inundated with feelings of his humanity and ordinary-ness.
If you are interested in the Deseret News coverage of this military-only fireside, you can see it HERE.
A couple years later in March of 2013, another general authority spoke at my stake conference when my husband was out of town. (Try as I might, I can’t remember who the speaker was, but my memory tells me it was an apostle.) I asked around for a babysitter for my young kids during the adult session, and was surprised when a friend offered to watch my kids for me since she wasn’t attending the session anyway (only her husband was, and she was staying home with their kids). She didn’t seem bothered by this situation, and just shrugged and said, “Eh, at least one of us gets to go.” I was bothered though – how could she so nonchalantly just skip a meeting with such an important church leader coming right to her stake? He was coming to speak God’s will directly to us!
But the meeting came, and I had a similar experience as in the past. I don’t remember much of what this general authority said when he spoke, but I remember how I felt about it. He didn’t seem to have anything prepared or particularly important to say and seemed almost irritated to be there. He said something like, “People always expect me to come and have some great answers, but…”, and then his words trailed off and he just shrugged his shoulders without finishing the sentence. It was so out of character from every talk I’d ever heard from a general authority that I was confused and disappointed. He did not seem interested in being there and did not have anything particularly special to tell us. He kept pausing and sighing, and his remarks seemed flippant. It was a huge letdown. (Afterwards, I heard people fawning over how great it was to have him speak unscripted and unfiltered – that he’d brought no notes whatsoever and just talked off the cuff to us. Again I thought, “What meeting did you go to that you thought was so great?”)
These and other experiences with general authorities eventually led me to stop seeing apostles and prophets as perfect all-knowing beings who spoke only the words of God. I know not everyone learned they were flawless growing up, but I did. It took many years to see them as human leaders, who (just like the rest of us) were trying their best to figure things out as they go. They are tasked with running the church, but there’s nothing that necessarily makes them any better at it than any other church members, male or female, anywhere else in the church.
I believe church leaders should be allowed to make big mistakes, say the wrong thing, be in a bad mood the night they have to speak at a stake conference, say things they later regret over the pulpit, ask for forgiveness without being criticized for it, and get embarrassed or hurt feelings over the way they are talked about and responded to. I think most of them would appreciate everyone else ending the unnecessary pressure to be perfect and always have the perfect answers. One of the most freeing things in my own life is my ability to say, “I’m so sorry. I was wrong. Can I try again to do better?”
Last month Elder Renlund gave his widely discussed talk about Heavenly Mother in Women’s Session right HERE. As I listened to him deliver this talk, I felt the exact same disappointment I’ve felt in the past. His reasoning didn’t make sense to me when he said we should never demand revelation but instead must wait for it to come on Heavenly Father’s timeline. (His exact words were, “Demanding revelation is both arrogant and unproductive. Instead, we wait on the Lord and his timetable…”.) I mean, I understand he believes we can’t demand it, but can’t we at least *ask* for it? What about “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God”? Why does he think the only options are to arrogantly demand it or sit on our hands and do nothing? It honestly seemed like such a dumb thing to say when I heard it. But hey, that’s what humans do – they say dumb things.
I’ve been disappointed by the talks of many general authorities in the past, but the difference now is that I no longer expect to hear anything life changing from these men’s talks. I assume I’ll hear their opinions on a topic, and whether I decide it’s good advice for my own situation or sparks some heavenly inspiration is up to me. All of the leaders will make mistakes – and I believe forbidding Latter-day Saint women to ask for revelation about their own eternal destiny as mothers in heaven is a HUGE mistake.
But go easy on them. They’re just men.