In one of my recent posts I talked about the connection between wealth and Church leadership; one of the issues that naturally rose to the surface in the comments was the connection between Church leadership and one’s standing before God.
On this issue there’s a somewhat uncomfortable tension between different truisms in Church teachings and culture. On one hand, we generally recognize that righteousness isn’t irrelevant to church position. All things being equal, the higher up one goes the more righteous the individual is, to put it bluntly. I’d expect more from an apostle getting cut off in traffic than I would my local bishop. (I suspect having your reaction during a moment of weakness on your worst day becoming part of a multi-generational lore about what Elder so and so did is a stressor; it certainly would be for me).
On the other hand, in theory we recognize that God needs all types, and that the calling of nursery leader isn’t any higher than the bishop. This is especially true when we layer gender issues on top of all this, since we limit leadership positions with priesthood keys to about half the Church, the only way this is not discriminatory is if we honor the female roles as much as the male leadership roles. (I’m fine with the current setup, think we should honor both equally, and do see it as discriminatory when we don’t, but this is not a post about female ordination and I won’t be engaging that debate here).
However, for men at least, because of the first belief the lack of a leadership calling often causes people to doubt their importance or righteousness before God. (Also, this is not particular to the Church; the rhetoric we constantly hear about creating leaders and raising leaders is pyramid scheme-ish. If anything we have too many people who want to be leaders and not enough people who want to have a fulfilling internal life without the honors of leadership).
There are a couple different problems with this. First, to start off with a very non-Sunday School answer: there have been more than enough mistakes made to obviate any sense that a leadership position is a clear one-on-one correspondence between the position and standing before God, whether it’s the Stake President arrested for a Ponzi scheme or the newly called Bishop who gets released because skeletons in the closet come out after the fact, it’s clearly a thing. That’s not to say that the vast majority of church leaders aren’t righteous men, but like a lot else in this lone and dreary wilderness it’s messy. However, a silver lining of this messiness is that it helps mitigate against the use of ecclesiastical structure to create some sort of tightly controlled spirituality hierarchy that otherizes people who never happen to serve in leadership callings.
It was a while ago, but one of the most spiritual Church leaders I had was an Elder’s Quorum president who constantly beamed that Christ-like presence that I’m lucky to momentarily carry with me on my best temple visit. However, his tenure was also an organizational disaster, and he understandably never got called into a “higher” position. Conversely, I’m personally familiar with another church leader who was quite wealthy, but frankly didn’t really strike me as being terribly spiritual, seemed a little artificial, and was later arrested for a Ponzi scheme (I doubt he or the EQ President reads T&S or would recognize themselves here).
In CS Lewis’ stunningly insightful work The Great Divorce the main character is being given a tour of heaven, in the course of which he encounters a God-like being. It’s a bit long for a blogpost, but it nails it on the head enough to be worth quoting:
First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done…
But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.
‘Is it?…is it?’ I whispered to my guide.
Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.
She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?
Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.
And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing and throwing flowers before here?
Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.
On a more personal level, like a testimony, the times when I felt validated in my spiritual bones were very direct, sometimes unexpected, communications from God. Of course, “validated,” is different from “justified,” (since none of us are on our own merits. In a sense theologically there really is none that doeth good, and we are all in the same category of sinfulness). While there may be people with spiritual anxiety who find it very difficult to recognize God’s validations and have to rely on the theology or other people telling them that His grace is sufficient, for me personally I’ve learned that in general the personal communication with the divine, either personally or through a priesthood blessing, is the only signal of standing before God worth putting much weight on.
On that note I’ll end with a story my dad sometimes tells. When he was younger he was in one of those not-glamorous-but-time-intensive positions that wore him out. He received some indication from the higher ups that he was under consideration for a leadership position and felt some relief that he would finally be able to move on from the grind of that calling; however, after enough time had passed it became clear that he was no longer under consideration. While he was in the temple feeling discouraged about recent events he had a powerful spiritual communication that God knew him personally and was involved in the details and trajectory of his life. While he was still marinating in the aftermath of this experience he was in the temple bathroom when he noticed somebody had missed the target on the urinal. Not finding it appropriate for there to be splashed piddle in the temple, he crouched down with some toilet paper and started wiping, during which he thought, in the aftermath of that divine communication, “I would be happy doing this for the rest of my life if He wanted me to.”
Elder Neil L. Andersen divided our stake a few years back–this was when he was the newest apostle. I’ll never forget how he practically pounded the pulpit when he forcefully reminded the congregation that God does not care about position–only faithfulness.
Take two fathers, one is who is somewhat neglectful and spends too much time on career and social status, but he is a popular personality who spends decades in church leadership. The other is a quiet man, who serves others and frequently communes with angels. If both have sons called into a bishopric, the first father takes his place in the circle to ordain his son. The second father quietly remains seated, he cannot participate because he is only an Elder.
We can claim that God doesn’t care where you serve, but the results of lived experience for many quiet, gentle men demonstrates conclusively that the church policies are organized to reinforce hierarchy, even to the point of placing worthy fathers with decades of church service outside the circle of their sons’ ordinations.
And if any doubt this is true, I’ve seen it happen multiple times already. The church is no longer ordaining those older men to high priest who are outside the leadership track. Wish we could recognize the value of time and experience served in the “lesser” callings.
Old man, As another old man who was blessed with 4 daughters, no circles for ordaining sons either.
If we assume heaven/God is just the order of things will be very different.
What we say, when we assert that God does not care about whether our calling is high profile (Bishopric, RS Presidency, EQ Presidency), is often belied by the way we act. Mormon culture has long glorified leadership callings, including hagiographic adulation of our leaders. We should support our leaders, but as a people, we sometimes are overly awed by hierarchy, Elder Andersen‘s claim to the contrary. Look at the over-the-top flattery of President Nelson in GC. He is a good man called of God, but it gets a bit ridiculous.
In one of my favorite Stake Presidencies, all three men were humble, down-to-earth, and had a good sense of humor. The First Counselor, an airline pilot, came to visit our Ward, when I was in the Bishopric, and asked me where we wanted him to sit. When I suggested that he sit next to the Bishopric, he impishly countered with the suggestion that he stand in the corner, facing the wall. I laughed and observed that he would cause our Bishop heart failure if he did that. He smiled broadly, knowing that our Bishop was an excessively hierarchal person.
Wonderful, Stephen C., thank you.
Reminds me of https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/liahona/2012/08/serving-the-one
Stephen C: Thanks for sharing that story of your dad cleaning the temple bathroom. Powerful.
It seems to me that this issue has a particularly unique manifestation in the Church. In most other Christian traditions, ones arrival in leadership positions is appropriately viewed as part of ones vocation, something one pursues as an honored individual calling. In the LDS Church, where all men are called to the priesthood whether you like it or not, and where we are all discouraged from seeking leadership positions, a lack of leadership positions is bound to cause a feeling of being “lesser-than.” I guess I just feel like the average lay member of, say, a Methodist congregation doesn’t feel as if God loves them any less because they weren’t ever a pastor. (And in the reverse, I think we all know plenty of older LDS men who feel discouraged at how they feel passed up by God.)
How to counteract this uniquely LDS problem? Two ideas: (1) We need to increase the cultural acceptability of pursuing individual spiritual callings in the Church; and at the same time, (2) we should actively remove as many of the “soft benefits” and honorifics currently associated with priesthood positions.
As a younger man I very much felt my value was demonstrated by which callings I have had. A lot of that stemmed from the constant, “You will be a bishop someday” comments as a youth. As I have grown older and have served in bishoprics, but never a bishop, I have realized how human each of us are, despite our callings. I have been in awe at those who diligently fulfil their “minor” callings and are far closer to God in this life than I ever will be. I have also watched as those in revered callings have gone through disciplinary councils or have left the church altogether. I have finally concluded that we are often called into leadership for one of 4 reasons:
1.) We have a giftedness that the Lord needs in the moment.
2.) We need to learn something from the calling to help us grow.
3.) We need to realign our lives and the Lord is creating a place where those with internal integrity will repent and recommit: whether that be by declining the calling or confessing.
4.) Familiarity/Convenience. Our Stake Presidency just lost a counselor. The Stake President called his former bishopric counselor to fill the spot. He knew he could work with him and he was familiar and convenient. That does not negate the other three could still be at play for this new counselor.
My father, who was a deeply faithful man, never served as a bishop and never wanted to. Instead he served where he was called and focused on why the Lord may need him there, what he needed to learn from the calling and how to make sure he was in alignment with the Lord’s goals. He was a professional teacher and mostly was called as a teacher. It was convenient for his bishops, but he still sought to learn and grow in each calling. He also had time to spend with our family and Sundays were always days together talking and playing games. No meetings in the way of our family time. As a dad, I am now feeling blessed that I have not had callings that take me away from my family.
Recently I kept getting callings piled on top of me. With each one I told the District Presidency that I wasn’t up for it and please call someone else. They ultimately convinced me to give it a try, promising me they would release me from my current calling soon. Last fall they had me as the Addiction Recovery Program Coordinator, The ARP Group Leader, The Institute Supervisor, the Seminary Asst. Supervisor, and a District Counselor. After a Sunday from 7:00am – 8:30pm meetings, with 3 speaking assignments and teaching a class, I told them it was too much and I needed to be released. (It was having a negative impact on my mental and spiritual health.) They said they weren’t comfortable with that, and I said, “Okay, well I’m not going to continue serving in all of these callings.” The eventually released me from some of them.
This week I went to re-new my temple recommend and the District President told me he was “relieved” to see my name on the list (I think you could also add “surprised”.) Even though I continue to come to church every Sunday, I’m at all the activities, I clean the building on my weeks, and pay tithing- I think he viewed my asking to be released as a sign of unrighteousness. It kind of blew my mind.
So I think the correlation does go both ways- those in callings are viewed/considered more righteous. Those who aren’t in callings or say no to callings are viewed as less righteous.
@Jack: Good to know; I suspect the brethren are aware of a lot of this.
@Old Man: That’s an interesting point, I didn’t know that only HPs or < could be in the circle to ordain HPs.
@Taiwan Missionary: I LOLed at the the standing in the corner bit. He sounds like a really down-to-earth SP. A long time ago I had a Church leader give a 30 minute talk about how he wanted to sit with his family but part of presiding was sitting in the stands. I didn’t understand the point of it; some people take the “chief seats in the synagogues” very seriously.
@[email protected]: That’s a beautiful story, thank you.
@Hunter: I also think we also see some of this with sisters. Because they’re removed from the rank and file of leadership I suspect there are less hang-ups about correlating callings with righteousness, but I might be wrong.
@Gilgamesh: That’s a poignant homage to your father; that we could all be like that!
@Aporetic1: Probably another post for another day, but that’s also an issue. On one hand I know Church leaders that can barely get any members to say yes to certain callings, but on the other hand there are situations like yours that are often compounded by the fact that some members (myself included) are very skittish about asking for help in a calling or saying no when they’ve simply hit their limits, and in those cases it’s incumbent on leadership to try to be sensitive about such limits. I get the sense that the higher echelons of the Church are becoming more sensitive about time demands with meetings and such, but I suspect in some places the message hasn’t gotten through yet.
My current and most frequent calling has nursery leader. I sometimes wonder why this calling is used as the example of the “lowest” calling, the one opposite of the bishop. I’ve also had months at a time without a calling, when other ward members have had two or three callings and I haven’t even been asked. I’ve often felt invisible in my ward.
I can comment re what I have seen with the sisters; leadership callings are extremely limited for women in the church so there is much less angst about them as far as markers of standing. Ward Relief Society President is about all there is. What I have seen as a Relief Society President is that social opportunities are what are important to many sisters. They want to serve in presidencies with friends. Primary callings are much less desirable because they don’t provide those social opportunities. I have also been surprised to learn that teaching Relief Society or adult Sunday school are coveted callings for many women (I did not realize that before). I have been frustrated at times that some women don’t want to minister to or with other women who are not in their social clique.
As far as all callings being equal, Elder Andersen can say whatever he wants, but no matter how impassioned he is when saying it, that is not the message communicated by the behavior of church leaders (including him). There are many ways church culture reinforces the idea that leaders are more righteous and important than others and in direct proportion to their place in the hierarchy. Honestly I don’t even know what he means when he says otherwise the message is so strong.
I remember when I was younger and I attended youth meetings with stake leaders or some authority that was coming, in which we were told that we would be the bishops and stake presidents in the next generation and that we should live worthy lives for it. Honestly, today if I were on the other side encouraging young people to live virtuous lives, I would not even name them leadership, but rather the preparation to become a good father or husband, even to be a person of integrity, which at least in my life is much more challenging than being a leader in the Church and also does not give the wrong concept that because he is a leader of the Church the Lord loves those people more.
This is a wonderful post, I agree with all of it, and thank you for writing it. Also, your father sounds like a wonderful person.
As I commented in the previous post, I do think being a bishop takes a certain level of righteousness, and I agree with you that higher levels of leadership call for higher levels of righteousness. So it’s not totally crazy to take someone having had a certain calling as an indication that they probably have (or had) that level of righteousness. The big mistake is assuming someone who has not had a calling like that must not have that level of righteousness. I like Gilgamesh’s list of reasons we get callings.
But the bigger mistake is judging, competing, or comparing at all! President Benson talked about this in his classic talk Beware of Pride (October 1989). He quotes from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and I recommend reading that whole section of the book, plus chapter 14 of The Screwtape Letters. In my opinion losing the whole competing/comparing mindset is essential to both accepting grace (for ourselves and for others) and having charity.
I think the Church has gotten better about equating place in the hierarchy with righteousness, but we’re certainly not there yet. In Kurt Manwaring’s recent interview with Dennis Horne about Bruce R. McConkie it came up that Elder McConkie said that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve were the best men on earth, and my first reaction was “Wow, I haven’t heard that for a long time.” But it turns out Elder Bednar said it recently. I do think the members of the First Presidency and the Twelve are remarkable, but anyone in the top 10,000 men on earth is going to be remarkable and whether they are called as an apostle or not depends on many other things than just “righteousness.”
Our society in general has a leadership fetish. HR guidelines where I work say that supervisors like me should make at least 20% more than the people they supervise. I work in a research computing group at a major university, and my co-workers with deep expertise and excellent problem-solving skills make huge contributions to the work of many researchers–but HR won’t even consider the possibility that their contributions are at least as valuable as mine. And that’s nothing compared to the relative salaries of CEOs and workers in the private sector. We should not be surprised that this over-valuation of leadership carries over to the Church–but we should resist it.
@Dagmar: That’s a wonderful point that I hadn’t thought about. Why is nursery worker always the first calling that is juxtaposed with bishop? It probably speaks to our unconscious biases (mine included) about the value of childcare, which obviously has a gendered component to it.
Also, on the calling-less status. One time we were in a high needs ward where over the pulpit they would complain that there just weren’t enough people to fill all the needed callings—which made the fact that we were callingless for about four months all the more awkward. Of course, eventually we did start drinking from the calling firehose and had more than enough to do, but with all the moving pieces I do think sometimes people just fall through the cracks administratively.
@ RSP: I noticed that with sister missionaries on the mission. Not to put them on pedestals but I did get the sense that the fact that they weren’t involved in the status competitions seemed to make their intentions a little more pure (or maybe they were just older and more mature).
@ Frank S. Good point. Telling any group that they will be the bishops and SPs of the future is problematic in a number of ways, one of which is that most of them probably won’t be given the numbers involved.
@ RLD: Yes, fetishization of leadership is a societal problem. As much as I share in various gripes about my fellow millennials, one thing where I do think we have it figured out more than our elders is that we take status hierarchies less seriously, which I think is a good thing.
I think the principle of anointing brings a unique perspective into the purpose and function of leadership in the church. While there’s a myriad of ways that we might fail in leadership positions I think it helps to know that 1) folks are not called into high ranking positions (generally speaking) because they sought for them. And 2) that we can have some assurance that the Lord will be able to work through them if they honestly seek to do his will.
And so what we have is a situation wherein the fruits seem to bear out–more often that not–the anointing involved in the initial call as well as it’s influence in the performance of the respective calling.
Can we actually know who has the highest standing before God? Oh yah, simple formula:
Said the Master: “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he/she that shall humble himself/herself shall be exalted…Ye shall know them by their fruits.”
I think that leadership callings have become increasingly synonymous with spiritual superiority.
As I look at my pioneer heritage, men and women were part of an interdependency between tradesmen and craftspersons, scholars and farmers, seamstresses and bread makers along with grocers and carpenters. People needed each other and the church needed you. That interdependency created a type of equality. (And maybe there was more Masonic egalitarianism back then. I think we’ve sadly lost a lot of our egalitarianism with leader worship and the abominable prosperity doctrine.)
The church no longer needs any trade or craft, except business bean counters who can serve as surrogate local leaders. Everything else is correlated. Ergo, the only “value”’ to the church is serving as male PH leaders. Couple that with our worship of corporate culture and money (which we equate with male leadership) and we have our current Pharisaical establishment.
Yes, men are absolutely judged/equated with their callings. It takes maturity, self actualization, and spiritual enlightenment to rise above this mindset. It’s toxic to spirituality. And sadly, oftentimes the spiritually immature and non-self actualized men are the ones who see the leadership ladder as a necessity and do the most to prepare for (or worse, to claw their way) into those positions. Then, from those positions of power, the dysfunction and the myth are perpetuated.
What would change it? Perhaps if Salt Lake cut the apron strings and allowed local units to function more autonomously. Let us build our own temples, churches, use our own art, (heck, even choose our own art), use our own hands, compose our own music, contribute our own local expertise, use the spiritual light of our own teachers (stop correlating the air out of every classroom), etc. perhaps it might help, but I frankly think we’re too far gone- the culture is too permanently steeped in leader worship to reverse things. And lds.Inc isn’t going to relinquish any control or step away from their pursuit of perfectionism and imperviousness to our detractors, to allow the saints to help.
I just want to comment on Elder Anderson’s pulpit pounding about the importance of all callings. Baloney. If that were the case, we wouldn’t see GAs gushing with humble brags at press conferences as their giant extended families swarm around them in adoration and they all cry with gratitude like everyone had just won the lottery. We wouldn’t have the pageantry, the lds.Inc PR blitz, and the tearful testimonies of God’s mantle being bestowed. Then, every time a GA’s wife speaks she testifies of the gloriousness and godliness of her husband and the sacredness of his calling. Why not testify directly of god? Or the work we are all engaged in? Oh no. They don’t let the opportunity pass to remind us all about their wonderfulness
Yeah, sorry Elder Anderson, try leading by example first. The saints do as you do not as you say. When GAs come to local wards, 9x out of 10 they are reorganizing leadership, and testify of the leader(s) and their chosen-ness as a way to set them in their new place. So, we, the rank and file see leader worship modeled all the time by the GAs. We have perfected the brown-nose talk, the leader-launch. But, we haven’t really perfected praise for any other calling.
Dear Mortimer, your PoV on this subject is a little too cynical for my tastes. Perhaps we do go too far in our praise of leaders–but I, for one, am glad that there are people who have the talent and commitment to serve in those positions.
At the rate things are going for me I’ll never be able to serve as a leader in the church–and I wouldn’t want to. So I give my three cheers for those who can step forward and take on the burden of leading the flock–which, next to raising a family, has got to be the most stressful kind of work one can be involved in.
Thought provoking post; thank you.
I’m with Mortimer on this one. When a GA enters the room, we are instructed to stand. When I was a missionary, we stood when our MP entered the room. We recently had a training by a 70. He went around the room and shook all our hands. After that, he told us that he had shaken President Nelson’s hard the day before, and how privileged we were to shake his hand so soon after he shook the prophet’s hand. So much for Jesus statement that “there is only one that is good, which is the father.”
A few years ago, I decided to view the more visible, time-consuming callings as being extended to those with capacity. Maybe their kids are grown, maybe they stand to inherit wealth and don’t have to work as hard as others, maybe they have more extended family support than I do, perhaps life has dealt them less tragedy to process than others, etc. Of course there are exceptions. For many of us, we have enough on our plates just navigating life. For the few whose lives may be somewhat less complicated, theirs is the obligation to serve. (This notion sounds better in my head so apologies for the clunky conversion to my written communication).
See also chapter 2 of the latest book by Richard Ostler.
GA’s are speaking out of both sides of their mouths: Anderson saying positions don’t matter, then an area 70 comes by our stake and quotes President Nelson telling him that the leadership meeting of stake conference is the best because its where the “elect” saints are.
I think The level of leader worship has gotten way worse in recent years, and now we have elevated spouses somehow to similar status, having them speak at events and giving their words as much weight as the prophets.
My recently passed mom had the right attitude when I asked her why she didn’t attend he assigned ward in Holladay, since Elder Renlund was in that ward. She said, “oh he’s just a man.”
Interesting discussion. I would be interested in people’s views of Alma 13 relative to this topic.
Wizard of Oz, IMO, that would be a topic worthy of its own post–as it relates to leadership, that is.
Food for thought Stephen C.?
So much wisdom in many if these comments. I agree wuth the way we worship/idolize the top leaders and not as much on the regular callings. I have had two extended times in life where I was without a calling. One time lasted 7 months, during that time others would be released and called to a new calling on the same day. Eventually the hurt was so great that I decided I would go to another ward. I mwntioned this to my RS president. That day I was called to see the bishop and he issued two callings, one was especially inspired I felt.
Most of my callings have been repeat callings..ie primary callings or some Relief Society callings.
I wish sometimes leaders would ask us where we are serving and how we would like to grow in our church service endeavors. For example, as a convert in my youth, I would love to serve in young women’s as an advisor or have some involvement yet have never been given this chance. As one without kids, it is especially painful as it makes me feel I am simply not needed or wanted..yet I have a good heart and strong service ethic and would try to.do good job. So I just wish that leaders would ask us about how we feel about church service opportunities that we have had or would like to have.
I do feel the Savior would have done what your dad did in cleaning up that urine spill, that is a great example of true service!
During the early pandemic, when single sisters were not able to have the sacrament, there was a short time when my ministering brother was the EQ president but he did not offer the sacrament to me. My friend and her husband were sensitive and aware to this not being done. I appreciated my friend’s husband and son who did come to my home a couple times during that period to bring the sacrament. They did it out of kindness and honoring the Priesthood, even though giving the sacrament to me was not their formal responsibility.
Thanks for this post, much food for thought.