While watching last weekendâ€™s General Conference, with the sustaining of President Monson and the calling of new people into Church leadership, one of the things I felt is how fortunate the Church is to have as its leaders men and women who have achieved significantly in many walks of life. This is in contrast to most other denominations, where people with these skills would be excluded from formal church leadership. For example, what other church has attorneys in its most senior leadership?
Any organization in America, business, government or non-profit, would love to have on its board of directors men like those in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. The Church is still small and intimate enough that most of us have had personal experiences with one of the general authorities or auxiliary leaders, and can confirm the quality of these people.
For example, Elder Lyn Mickelsen of the First Quorum of the Seventy has a home in my ward in Idaho Falls. He is a native of this area and anticipated he would soon be retired into emeritus status, so he bought a home here and started attending my Sunday School class several times a year. However, the Church has assigned him as the Area President for Mexico, so he still only gets here occasionally. When he does, he speaks to our High Priests Group about some of the matters he works on for the Church and invites our comments. He is both an astute leader and a highly spiritual teacher.
The general quality of Church leadership extends down to our stakes and wards. Most of those who serve in these callings are achievers in their personal careers as well as in their Church service.
We Mormons tend to accept this very capable amateur leadership as normal, but it is in fact highly unusual among most religious denominations. Most churches think that the fundamental prerequisite for a quality church operation is to have a highly trained pastor or priest who centers the power and ability to guide the congregation on himself (or herself in certain churches). We are taught in the Book of Mormon that having a professional clergy is â€œpriestcraftâ€ that must be avoided, but it is embraced by most of Christendom as the only legitimate form of church organization and leadership.
The difference this makes for the LDS Church was highlighted for me by an interview reported in Christianity Today (a leading magazine of Evangelical Christianity) with Professor Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University, about his new book, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.
Lindsey interviewed scores of Evangelical Christians who were high achievers in business, academia and government, and assessed their relationship with the Evangelical churches. He found that they were often deeply involved with â€œparachurchâ€ organizations like World Vision, but that they were often poor fits with the formal congregations they attended. Lindsay said:
â€œParachurch board members told me, â€˜I relate more deeply to the people on this board than I do to anyone at my church. We live in the same world and we face the same kinds of problems. That’s usually not true of the members of my church.â€™
â€œMost evangelical elites continue to attend a local congregation, but they’re often not involved or engaged in the way they are with parachurch ministries. They get impatient with what they consider incompetence. They go to a committee meeting that may be poorly run, and they can’t stand to waste so much time getting so little accomplished. They realize that for some committee members, just being there is a high point of the week, a real source of stimulation. But for them it’s mostly a waste of time. So they engage elsewhere, where things are run with a higher degree of professionalism.
â€œI was also surprised to find many who feel considerable tension with their pastor. This seemed particularly true of some business leaders I interviewed. Sometimes it’s because the pastor is not a good administrator or a good leader in the same mold as the corporate world’s leaders. And then too, most felt that the pastor just doesn’t have any idea about the world they inhabit. Sometimes, in fact, he or she is downright hostile to it. I talked to one CEO whose pastor preached against Christians who owned second houses and enjoyed perks like personal drivers. Well, this CEO was the only one in the church who had a second house and a driver. Why didn’t the pastor come to talk to him, instead of preaching about him to the rest of the church?â€
By contrast, the â€œeliteâ€ members of the LDS Church, those with the best educational credentials, with the greatest achievement in their chosen line of work, with the greatest number of ties with professional and civic organizations in the larger community, are more likely to BE the â€œpastorsâ€ who lead congregations and stakes, as well as the general Church. In this way, the Church harnesses the best talents of the membership in the service of all.
It also invites those who get ego stroking in their professional lives to practice humble service, in a way that hopefully bleeds over to affect the way they lead and treat people they work with. Humility is also taught through periodic turnover. People like Mitt Romney transition from being the stake president for Boston to teaching Sunday School or Primary.
This strikes me as a distinct advantage for the LDS Church in comparison with other denominations. Not only do we pay nothing for ministersâ€™ salaries and parsonages, allowing â€œmore bang for the buckâ€ from our tithes and offerings, we are getting the services of some of the most capable leaders in all walks of life.
Even in the largely blue collar neighborhood where I grew up, where most of the people worked for Kennecott Copper or the Postal Service, our stake presidents included a mining engineer and an architect for the Church (who later served in the Second Quorum of Seventy).
The other side of this coin is that the experience of being called to Church leadership stretches people into accomplishing things they did not think they were capable of. It is often the case that Church leadership is the catalyst for a person seeking to gain more education and achieving more in a professional context. That is especially the case in areas where the Church is small and its members short on experience of all kinds of leadership. The requirement to staff a branch or ward with volunteers in every position is an opportunity to train 60 or so people at a time in teaching and leadership roles.
Protestants often cite the assertion of Martin Luther that they donâ€™t need the formal priesthood of Catholicism because they have a â€œpriesthood of all believersâ€. Yet the typical Protestant congregation operates essentially like a Catholic parish with a priest. By contrast, with its amateur â€œclergyâ€ and positions of responsibility widely disseminated among the men, women, and youth, we Latter-day Saints demonstrate what a â€œpriesthood of all believersâ€ would actually look like.