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What "Sustaining" Our Leaders *Really* Means
One of the best statements about sustaining our leaders was written during this past tumultuous Mormon summer by my friend, Christian Harrison. The following is an excerpt from his guest post: "A Prayer from the Sidelines":
In a church that readily — or, perhaps, merely repeatedly — reminds us of the fallibility of our leaders, yet urges us to sustain them, we can’t help but ask ourselves how we sustain those who are mistaken (especially in light of D&C 121:39). Sometimes the mistakes are small or inadvertent. Sometimes they’re howlers. Sometimes they resolve themselves. And sometimes they persist for generations.
I think the problem is born of two errors: a mischaracterization of what it means to sustain our leaders… and a misunderstanding of what our responsibility is to those who might disagree with us.
The principle of sustaining our leaders is often coupled with the principle of obedience. It’s natural for leadership to feel sustained when they observe obedience… but this is an error of perspective. When I raise my hand to the square to sustain someone in their position — regardless of whether it be the President of the Church or the person who prints the ward bulletin — I’m not promising to obey them. I’m promising to sustain them.
The term “sustain” is rich with meaning. Food sustains us. Love sustains us. Unblinking obedience does not sustain us. My sustaining vote is evidenced and manifest when I pray for their success — when I’m rooting for them and helping them to magnify their calling. And, like food and love, the act of sustaining is reciprocative. My sustaining vote is accepted when those I sustain embrace and facilitate me in my work as the sustainer.
And when we disagree — and we will, it’s inevitable — we’re not called upon to simply succumb to the demands of begrudging obedience, which is a destructive act; we’re called, instead, to the godly and creative act of loving someone despite their failings. This is at the heart of the weighty calling of sibling-ship.
This is easier when the person we’re sustaining lives in our ward and when the lines of communication are vivid and vibrant — full of life and light. It’s much harder when the lines of communication have crumpled under the crushing weight of a growing and global membership. And since the act of sustaining is reciprocative, the difficulties that arise from broken or missing lines of communication don’t fall solely on the shoulders of those who have grievances. They must be shared by all parties, jointly and severally. Calling on those who feel wronged to bear their grief in silence is to reject their sustaining vote. And who, then, carries the greater sin? Instead, it behooves our distant leaders to open lines of communication and to clear the way for dialogue. Only then can the process work as it should — feeding the Body of Christ.
Sadly, the grieved don’t always want to be comforted. Sometimes, they want to simply walk away, to defect — which is the true meaning of apostasy. What, then, is our responsibility to the defector? It’s clear, really. Among the lost sheep there are those who were left behind accidentally… and there are those who simply walked off. But no distinction is made in the scriptures. The good shepherd goes after all of them. At no point does the shepherd cut them off or throw them to the wolves.
" I’m not promising to obey them. I’m promising to sustain them." Say you're the EQ President, and the Bishop has laid out an approach to homesteading that involves the EQ presidency personally interviewing each Home Teacher every month. You don't think they need to be interviewed every month. Do you "obey" the bishop and do the interviews? Or do you refuse to do the interviews and just pray for the bishop? I like the thoughts expressed but I would have rather heard what leaders think it means to sustain them.
I appreciate the original posting!
For anonymous, the bishop must persuade the elders quorum president with patience and long-suffering and meekness -- the bishop does not give orders to the elders quorum president. The elders quorum president's lack of enthusiasm for the bishop's ideas need not be seen as a lack of sustaining. If the bishop cannot persuade in the D&C 121 pattern, well, the elders quorum president shouldn't adopt the bishop's ideas.
It's not a matter of the elders quorum president obeying. Rather, it's a matter of the bishop persuading. But really, the bishop should let the elders quorum president magnify his calling.
My joking response to the hypothetical of being the EQ president choosing not to "obey" the bishop would be to rejoice at having such an easy excuse for being released!
In all seriousness, though, if you were to ask a leader about what "sustaining" them means *to* them, there would likely be as many different answers as there are leaders, since not one leader is alike. I personally think it means they are entitled to my sympathy, my support, and my suggestions.
There are some very, very good leaders without ego who understand the balance between personal agency and institutional conformity. But there are also some who "as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion" (D&C 121:39.)
The good ones--the truly "chosen"--don't dictate policies for the ward "because I said so" or out of coercion or compulsion, but they serve with love and kindness, gentleness and meekness, persuasion and long suffering (D&C 121:41-42.) They counsel with their councils and receive input from fellow ward members about how to best oversee their stewardships according to righteous principles.
Everybody should recognize that obedience is to principles, not to persons. Nobody should expect that "sustaining" involves mindless obedience to authority.
Whatever the case may be, if my conscience tells me it would be a good thing to do, I'll typically have no problem with it. But if my conscience objects, I'll follow the dictates of my own conscience unless persuaded otherwise.
I've seen both ends of the spectrum of ecclesiastical roulette. I recognize and appreciate the human fallibility in all our leaders, and I therefore keep my expectations for their performance quite modest.
Of course blessings *do* come from obedience, but from obedience to laws decreed “before the foundations of the world” (D&C 130)--not from obedience to made-up arbitrary rules used as litmus tests for institutional acquiescence.
It's been written that "when we elevate obedience for the sake of rule-keeping above all else, regardless of the actual value or content of the rules, we’ve become idolaters of law, and we’ve distorted and diminished godly obedience to a pathetic and obsequious form of self-congratulation."
On this blog I've also quoted the following and I think it's quite applicable:
"[Ideally] each individual is an irreducible, independent moral agent. Those who are able to think for themselves, are not only essential to the existence of free institutions but also fully prepared to enjoy and benefit from the blessings of life itself. For them, obedience is to principles, not persons; an informed conscience is their guide. General Alexander W. Doniphan possessed the unusual courage to resist a written military order, and Joseph Smith was spared execution on the morning of 1 November 1838 (HC 3:190-99). We honor Doniphan for disobeying his military superior; his ultimate loyalty was to principle.
"The irony today, regarding the obedience issue within the LDS Church, is that distinctions are rarely made between loyalty to leaders and loyalty to principle. It is simply assumed that they are one and the same. Yet this union would require a claim of infallibility, not only for the president of the Mormon Church but for the entire priesthood. Omni-infallibility. Since such a claim has never been made and scriptures clearly warn us about the dangers of exercising unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:39), we inevitably face the task of making distinctions about obedience. My ultimate loyalty may be to God, but how do I know God's will? Through the study of scripture? By listening to Church leaders? By applying gospel principles? Or, by sensing the still small voice? These sources of understanding are not always consistent; but even if they were, they could not fully anticipate or inform every action or judgment I must make. New situations constantly confront me; only an enlightened and prayerful conscience can blend divine intent with personal knowledge to guide my decisions. No one has the wisdom or right to do this for me.
"Gospel principles and the Church are not synonymous. But one reason these concepts have become so blurred is that we seem to be making obedience to Church into a terminal principle, rather than an instrumental one. It has become an end in itself. Therein lies the confusion about the first commandment: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22: 37--40). Loyalty to God and love of neighbor are the ends. Obedience to enduring principles is a means. Once obedience itself becomes an end, however, the believer no longer takes full responsibility for the consequences of his or her own actions. If things go awry, the sin be on someone else's head. Never mind those sinned against. Fortunately, "love thy neighbor as thyself," the ultimate principle, dams this stream of faulty reasoning."
Thanks for thoughts. I used the example because, while the bishop is the presiding officer in the ward, the EQ president is a stake calling. And, the bishop presumably raised his hand to sustain the EQ President. Yet, they are to work together for the good of the ward. Sustaining gets really tricky as men and women with diverse callings and responsibilities interact and overlap at the seams.
Anonymous raises a good question. If sustaining means obedience, then what does it mean for a "superior" to sustain an "inferior"? I believe we all sustain each other, and that the word has generally the same meaning all the way around.
"we all sustain each other"
I don't think in terms of "superiors" and "inferiors". We're all equal in the eyes of God, fellow sojourners finding our way back home.
Since we're all brothers and sisters and we are to love one another above all else, I think Christian hit the nail on the head by calling this "sibling-ship".
"We’re called, instead, to the godly and creative act of loving someone despite their failings. This is at the heart of the weighty calling of sibling-ship."
An example of sustaining. Served as a counselor to a bishop who had moved into ward a couple years earlier. We had long standing tradition of having a youth fireside the second Sunday of the month. New bishop suggested doing it once a quarter, and then doing it on a regular Mutual night, reasoning that he wanted to cut down on Sunday meetings, give youth and leaders more time with their families, etc. I countered that youth liked the social aspect, plus it gave us as a bishopric good private, mostly serious time with youth. Bishop listened to the various points, and in the end, decided to do the once a quarter approach. Now, I knew there would be questions and push back from both youth and parents. I could have reiterated my arguments and said things counter to the bishop's position. Instead, I chose to sustain his position and offer his reasons for wanting to make the change. Things went along okay. The youth adjusted. And eventually, that bishop was released and the next bishop went back to having more youth discussions, though not exactly every month. My point is that blind obedience isn't always the right description of sustaining leaders. More often than not, sustaining leaders means offering input and counsel, then accepting their decision and doing your best to implement their counsel. I've never come across anything like a Mountain Meadows type situation where leaders asked me to do something inherently immoral. Instead, we sustain leaders in small and simple ways.
And yet, if you search the talks and manuals published by the church, it is made perfectly clear that to sustain means to hearken to their council and to not criticize - just like we covenant to do in the temple.
I'm not advocating criticism.
I listen to and consider all counsel. But I also allow the possible that counsel might not be right for certain circumstances--so listening to the Spirit is important as we decide how best to follow counsel.
"My ultimate loyalty may be to God, but how do I know God's will? Through the study of scripture? By listening to Church leaders? By applying gospel principles? Or, by sensing the still small voice? These sources of understanding are not always consistent; but even if they were, they could not fully anticipate or inform every action or judgment I must make. New situations constantly confront me; only an enlightened and prayerful conscience can blend divine intent with personal knowledge to guide my decisions. No one has the wisdom or right to do this for me."
I realize you aren't pushing for criticism, but your post does endorse those habits and mindsets which are the foundation for criticism.
For example, I think that there is supposed to be a priority between following the prophets, scriptures, promptings, human reason, etc. I worry that your post is aimed at dissolving the structure and prioritizations among these guiding lights. Inasmuch as a kind of prioritization is to be found in the post, however, another problem arises. Namely, you do not include human reasoning as one of the guides in our lives whereas the very structure of the post clearly presupposes that human reason is to be the standard according to which all those other things are balanced and prioritized. This just is to place human reason over any of those other sources of guidance.
But then, I disagree with the post from the very start. I don't think the church harps on the falliblity of the leader much at all. The issue simply isn't all that relevant since their legitimacy comes not from being right, but from a combination of their ordination and their personal righteousness. D&C 121 says that personal unrighteousness is the only thing that voids priesthood authority, not being wrong. No doubt, those higher up in the chain of authority (God being the highest authority) can over-rule those lower, but this is a perfect case of *obeying* rather than merely taking priesthood authority into consideration.
In summary, your post tacitly places human reason as a judge over priesthood authority and conflates unrighteous abuses of authority with a kind of epistemelogical falliblity. Both of these conceptual moves are the bread and butter of criticism.
So, properly ordained and personally righteous priesthood leaders can demand obedience from underlings, because "their legitimacy comes not from being right, but from a combination of their ordination and their personal righteousness"?
How about "No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile"?
I cannot imagine that any priesthood leader in the church would ever give me a command and demand my obedience. It just doesn't happen. However, I am seen as a very loyal holder of the priesthood because I willingly choose to sustain and support and build-up. Even so, I have had priesthood leaders try to persuade me, with long-suffering and patience and so forth, and that can work miracles.
You can't possibly believe that to be a fair characterization of my position. Where did I ever say "demand"? To be sure, most kinds of bullying probably fall under a kind of personal unrighteousness, but again, this issue is totally orthogonal to the question of whether they are right or not - and posts like these consistently run the two questions together.
The biggest threat to authoritative hierarchies is not authorities being wrong, but authorities using that authority to their own advantage. That is why personal righteousness is far more important - and thus receives far more attention within gospel teachings than rationality or some such epistemic virtue.
Jeff G, I'm not 100% sure I understand where you're coming from exactly, but if I'm hearing you correctly, we may just have a different idea of the importance of the authority hierarchy. It sounds like you place priesthood authority as more of a priority or more important than human reason or personal revelation. I'm grateful for the Church, but I think it exists to support the individual and not the other way around.
They're "all good things", but I suppose you have your bias towards one, and I have my bias towards the other (personal agency vs. institutional authority.)
We all evaluate things subjectively. Even absolute truths are evaluated subjectively, and I don't think prophets and apostles are immune from this either, so just as *they* disagree I think there is room for *us* to disagree.
This kind of speaks the paradox articulated by Armand Mauss in his latest memoir: "[T]he paradox: in considering a given commitment, either to believe or to action, wherein a Mormon believer sees a conflict between official church doctrine or policy, on the one hand, and his or her own lights from secular learning or personal revelation, on the other hand, which should take priority?"
Just wanted to quote Mitch Mayne here:
"My .02: Sustaining our leaders doesn't mean blind following. It doesn't mean s/he's the most well liked or popular. It doesn't even necessarily mean we think they're the right person for the job. What it means, simply, is we agree to do all we can to help them succeed in their role. Sometimes that means following. Other times, it might mean tugging them gently on the sleeve and saying, "Hey, what we're doing here isn't really working anymore. Can we pray for more guidance?" A good leader (spiritual or otherwise) is one who listens to wisdom--independent of its source."
"It was one of those moments of quiet revelation in my life: the time that I realized that sustaining a leader is not something we do because our leaders are good, strong, enlightened, or always right. It is, rather, something that we do because they are flawed, weak, limited, and often wrong...
"Moses had an important job that only he could do, and it required abilities that he did not have. Aaron and Hur lent him the physical strength necessary to do something vital for the entire community. They didn’t raise their hands to sustain Moses. They raised HIS hands at a time when he couldn’t raise them by himself. That is what it means to sustain a leader."
Sorry, but it's more than that. Feelings are meant to be discussed. Not in a "I'm right your wrong" vein, but more of "This is simply how I'm feeling..." then speak freely. Do you think unity can exist when we refuse to counsel?
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