I am one of many who have undergone a slow evolution over the past few years in terms of how I view prophets. [More on my faith transition here.] Perhaps as a kid I might have believed that the prophet could do no wrong, but as a kid I was also naive. Unresolved questions and examples of prophets being wrong on doctrinal matters never even entered the radar.
I go on as a Mormon appreciating what I can, not hesitating to take personal responsibility for what I personally believe rather than what "the institution" says I believe. I once shared my prophet/parent analogy, but at the same time I recognize that there are a lot of great parents in the world. Yet Latter-day Saints expect that there's something unique about the prophet. Some Mormons use rhetoric such as "mouthpiece of the Lord" and that "God speaks to a modern day Moses". Naturally, that kind of rhetoric can lead to high expectations. And naturally, there is also a wide diversity of belief about how literally to take that. (I've already shared some of my feelings about overdoing the mantra to "follow the prophet" here and here.)
Aaron B. once shared his experience teaching Sunday School about the Priesthood ban and subsequent 1978 revelation. In "Teaching OD-2" he articulated some important points concerning prophets: "As the hour drew to a close, the conversation turned to the nature of prophets, how to trust prophets if they are partly products of their time (capable of giving us erroneous instruction), the role of personal spiritual confirmation in evaluating truth claims (even when they come from prophets), and the limitations of this approach as well. This was an inevitable turn in the conversation, and for some, a potentially troubling one. I refused to give everyone easy answers where there are none."
Upholding a certain mystique about how (and how often) God actually speaks is probably to the advantage of our "prophets, seers, and revelators". I think this was illustrated when apostle Howard W. Hunter met with new Church Historian Leonard Arrington, shortly after Arrington was called and Hunter was made his advisor. Hunter "said that he felt the church was mature enough that our history should be honest. Our faith should not overpower our collective memories and documented experiences."
He did not believe in suppressing information, hiding documents, or concealing or withholding minutes for 'screening.' He thought we should publish the documents of our history. Why should we withhold things that are a part of our history? He thought it in our best interest to encourage scholars--to help and cooperate with them in doing honest research. Nevertheless, Hunter counseled me to keep in mind that church members reverenced leaders and their policies. To investigate too closely the private lives of leaders and the circumstances that led to their decisions might remove some of the aura that sanctified church policies and procedures. If the daylight of historical research should shine too brightly upon prophets and their policies, he cautioned, it might devitalize the charisma that dedicated leadership inspires. I accepted Hunter's counsel as a mandate for free and honest scholarly pursuit, with a warning that we must be discreet."("Adventures of a Church Historian" by Leonard Arrington, p. 84)
I do believe Hunter knew what he was talking about. In my case, learning about our history has actually changed the way I view prophets and their policies. While I respect and sustain our prophet leaders, I no longer feel the same reverence or mystique I did even just a few years ago. As I've adjusted expectations I've also had to let go of that aura--some of that Mormon mystique which surrounds those holding apostolic positions. I have come to identify with what Mormon historian Richard Poll once said: "History tells me that leading any organized religion is more of a priestly rather than a prophetic function."
In an article by Peggy Fletcher Stack published just days before the last spring General Conference (Infallible? Mormons told to ‘follow the prophet’ in the Salt Lake Tribune and Mormon president can do no wrong to religion's members in the USA Today), John Fowles spoke of those whose faith is sometimes shakened because of “unrealistic and unnecessary expectations” for our prophets. I agree 100% with what John said. But I still wonder what realistic and proper expectations of our prophets should look like.
Philip Barlow, Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, was also quoted by Peggy Fletcher Stack in the same article. He said that disillusionment with LDS leaders "would evaporate if people saw the church not as essentially divine, marred only by the weaknesses of human administrators, but rather … [as made up] entirely of human beings — with all of their limitations—who are trying to respond to the divine with which they have (in faith) been touched.”
He best articulated my view of the Church. (And this is also why I no longer prefer to conflate the Church with "the Kingdom of God on earth".) Not everyone shares the same experiences or arrives at the same place when it comes to learning about Church history, the way things work, or even their level of religious enthusiasm/commitment. Some might have once sang "We Thank Thee Oh God For a Prophet" with zeal but now feel a bit more restrained. Others have felt the need to lower their expectations of a prophet in order to still maintain a connection to the Mormon prophetic tradition. Those with reasonable expectations of prophets can even feel out of place when attending church with members who still have expectations that go through the roof--including those who believe that the prophet literally speaks directly with God in a way the rest of us cannot/have not, or those who think that when the prophet speaks the thinking is done.
I have no insight into the perfect or ideal set of prophetic expectations. But I do agree with John Fowles in the sense that "unrealistic expectations" exist and may make people ripe for a faith crisis. Ironically, by wanting to tell only the "faith promoting", as if everything prophets do is inspired, leaders can further perpetuate the "unrealistic expectations" that set people up for a faith crisis. Like a balloon going high in the sky, those expectations might just end up popping--or simply deflating.
Andrew S. (a thoughtful self-described atheist and "cultural Mormon") probably had these folks in mind when he remarked: "For some people [it] isn’t that “the grass will be greener” outside [of the Church], but rather, for a church that claims divine revelation, the true gospel, inspired leaders, it’s surprising that the lawn *is* just the same as everyone else’s, if not quirkier in some areas (while other lawns are have quirks in other areas.)" Or in other words, "If we are taught that the church’s grass is superior, restored, and full, then shouldn’t finding out that the church grass is just on par with everyone else’s grass be a great let down?"
Ultimately, we Latter-day Saints sustain our leaders as prophets, seers, and revelators, although the meaning given to those very words vary according to each believer. And as Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote, "Mormons have to decide for themselves how much deference to give the words of their leaders and deal with the consequences of their choices."
Some may question the benefit in having a prophet "to guide us in these latter days" if we as individual agents must ultimately rely on our own combination of "inspiration and perspiration". However, the prophet's role is not for us to rely on him, notwithstanding the rhetoric, but to point/guide people to Christ, and to rely on "the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah". Placing faith in Him--our ultimate "Prophet, Priest, and King"--means that we'll always have expectations that will not be disappointed.