Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Criticism of Church Leaders: Is it ever a good thing? (updated)

This was supposed to be a response to a recent comment on my blog, but got far too long, so I'm pulling it out as a separate post. Please withhold judgment on the post until you have read the whole thing. I think Elder Oaks gives us some really, really good insight on how we truly can make a positive difference in the Church.

p.s. This is one of those posts that deals with the "rule" not the exception. I know some people have their horror stories about leaders, but I think there is value in focusing on the rule, not the exception. And, you will note that Elder Oaks gives guidance about how to deal with potential problems or differences that can arise, so this isn't just a post about blind following 100% of the time. Again, it contains wise counsel about how to deal with differences in an appropriate way. Lastly, I think there are different viewpoints out there of what "criticism" means. I sense that Elder Oaks' use of the word as truly speaking evil of a leader, truly (and publicly) criticizing him/her. I think it's possible that there might be a different word he would use for "feedback." I think I can believe in the value of feedback without upholding criticism as acceptable.

I submit that there may be more than meets the eye on the issue of criticism and why it is discouraged in the Church. There is more to consider than just the process of "There is an idea out there that somehow our leaders will benefit from our criticism, but there is more to consider. Elder Oaks spoke clearly on this:

I have given the following counsel to Church members—those who have committed themselves by upraised hands to sustain their church leaders:

“Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities, general or local. Jude condemns those who ‘speak evil of dignities.’ (Jude 1:8.) Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true. As Elder George F. Richards, President of the Council of the Twelve, said in a conference address in April 1947,

“ ‘When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and his cause.’ (In Conference Report, Apr. 1947, p. 24.)” (Address to Church Educational System teachers, Aug. 16, 1985.)...

The counsel against speaking evil of Church leaders is not so much for the benefit of the leaders as it is for the spiritual well-being of members who are prone to murmur and find fault. The Church leaders I know are durable people. They made their way successfully in a world of unrestrained criticism before they received their current callings. They have no personal need for protection; they seek no personal immunities from criticism—constructive or destructive. They only seek to declare what they understand to be the word of the Lord to his people.


Everyone will obviously take his or her own approach, but I think Elder Oaks' counsel is really significant. I have found that I don't feel the Spirit with me as much when I have a critical spirit. Of course that applies to criticism of anyone, but I feel it's particularly offensive to the Spirit when I criticize those whom I sustain and who are called of God. It affects my spirituality, without question. When I trust them, even when I don't agree or don't understand, there is a power, a confidence, that comes into my life. It becomes an anchor that makes a tremendous difference for me personally, for my family. I believe MORE good would come about in the Church if there was more sustaining of and following our leaders -- not because we think they are always right, but because we believe that sustaining them is right. Perhaps they don't need our feedback as much as they need our hearts. (Does this mean I think that everyone who ever says anything against them is an apostate? No. But I believe this is something that can and would make a difference at the individual, familial and institutional levels.)

I am particularly struck by Elder Oaks' comment that it doesn't matter if what we say is true; criticism of church leaders is always a negative.

But does that mean that feedback can never be shared, or that there aren't things to do when there really is an thought about something that can be improved? NO. Elder Oaks continues to help us understand the characteristics of appropriate behavior and how we handle differences in the Church:

Our Father in Heaven has not compelled us to think the same way on every subject or procedure. [This isn't about being cookie cuttered people, or blind followers!] As we seek to accomplish our life’s purposes, we will inevitably have differences with those around us—including some of those we sustain as our leaders. The question is not whether we have such differences, but how we manage them. [Emphasis mine.] What the Lord has said on another subject is also true of the management of differences with his leaders: “It must needs be done in mine own way.” [I think this is so significant!] (D&C 104:16.) We should conduct ourselves in such a way that our thoughts and actions do not cause us to lose the companionship of the Spirit of the Lord.

The first principle in the gospel procedure for managing differences is to keep our personal differences private. In this we have worthy examples to follow. Every student of Church history knows that there have been differences of opinion among Church leaders since the Church was organized. Each of us has experienced such differences in our work in auxiliaries, quorums, wards, stakes, and missions of the Church. We know that such differences are discussed, but not in public. Counselors acquiesce in the decisions of their president. Teachers follow the direction of their presidency. Members are loyal to the counsel of their bishop. All of this is done quietly and loyally—even by members who would have done differently if they had been in the position of authority.

Why aren’t these differences discussed in public? Public debate—the means of resolving differences in a democratic government—is not appropriate in our Church government. We are all subject to the authority of the called and sustained servants of the Lord. They and we are all governed by the direction of the Spirit of the Lord, and that Spirit only functions in an atmosphere of unity. That is why personal differences about Church doctrine or procedure need to be worked out privately. There is nothing inappropriate about private communications concerning such differences, provided they are carried on in a spirit of love."


Sustaining our leaders doesn't mean we won't have differences of opinion, but it does mean we will seek to handle those differences in the Lord's way.

Elder Oaks then lists five options we have:
1. Overlook the difference
2. Reserve judgment and postpone action, in a spirit of patience and trust [I like to use the phrase "benefit of the doubt"]
3. Take up differences privately with the leader (in a private meeting or a letter or other correspondence)
4. In cases of alleged wrong behavior, communicate with the person who is in a position could correct the offending party if that is needed (e.g., talk to a Stake President for issues with a bishop, etc.)
5. Pray. Pray that the Lord can correct the situation and pray for ourselves to discern if we are truly correct in our point of view.

Today's world is full of the idea that we are somehow obligated (and/or entitled) to voice our opinions: we protest, we write public letters to the editor, we rant and rave, we debate issues online, etc. etc. etc. But the Lord asks us to handle problems or perceived problems in the Church differently -- for the benefit of His work and also for our own benefit. This doesn't preclude the potential for feedback, but, can help prevent the spirit of contention, pride and unnecessary criticism from entering the situation, and keep us more open to the influence of the Spirit.

34 comments:

Doug Towers said...

Michelle,

Thanks for your comprehensive and informative reply.

You have presented some ideas for consideration. I find your experience of having the Spirit with you more if you make no criticism, interesting. And I'm not doubting it in the slightest in what I'm about to say, so please don't take this any other way than examination. My mind goes to the great criticism Christ gave to church leaders of his day. "Sons of hell," he called them. And I'm interested in your thoughts there. Also his terrible condemnation of the Jews generally. He told them that their father was the devil. Please don't be one of those who tell me that this was alright for Christ because he was some type of different being from us.

Thanks again for your effort. It really has given some food for thought.

Steve M. said...

When I trust them, even when I don't agree or don't understand, there is a power, a confidence, that comes into my life.

This is dangerous. See my story. There are situations where leaders are just wrong, and to accept and follow their error is dangerous.

M&M said...

Doug,
The difference between us and the Savior is that the Savior could judge perfectly and unselfishly. We aren't always able to do so.

Steve M. ,
I realize that there are situations where following leaders really can be a wrong thing. Your story is a hard one, and I'm sorry for what you have been through. I should say that I have been fortunate to basically have leaders that I can trust, and have not been put in a situation where following them was problematic, at least not to any serious degree.

On the flip side, though, I think we do need to be careful about assuming that every leader might make a terrible mistake. Elder Oaks has talked before about preaching the rule, not the exception. I think it's valuable to discuss the rule and not focus on the exception, and that was the purpose of my post.

Again, thank you for your comment.

Megan said...

I think to say that criticism of our church leaders is always a bad thing is both dangerous and inefficient – and possibly sinful.

God gives us leaders, but he also gives us common sense. We are held accountable for following someone over a cliff. If we follow the advice of leaders that doesn’t ring true with us, or doesn’t jive with our personal revelation, we are responsible for the consequences of it. You don’t get to opt out of thinking for yourself because you belong to the church.

My mom had a bishop that advised her to not marry my father because he is Hispanic and she is white.

IMO, that bishop needed a hell of a lot of criticism. Had she followed his advice, it would have been to her detriment. My parents have been happily married for over 25 years now.

Our leaders are human, and they should be treated as such. I firmly believe that inspiration is 95 percent information. To the extent that people choose to remain ignorant, they deprive themselves of inspiration. Constructive criticism is a way of informing people that something isn’t working or isn’t correct. How is a leader to know that something is having a negative impact on the spiritual and temporal well-being of people if no one ever has the guts to TELL him? Maybe being told would inspire the leader to seek inspiration? It’s worth a shot. If no one ever hears the bad, they think things are running more smoothly than they are.

Sure, you can be overly critical of the church, and that should be avoided. But not be critical at all makes you a sheep, and if the criticism is done with the right sprit and the right intention, I think it is far more righteous than just allowing ignorance to flourish.

“When I trust them, even when I don't agree or don't understand, there is a power, a confidence, that comes into my life.”
I worry about this statement.
When I make my decisions, I know why I do so. I do them because I understand the repercussions and because I KNOW that it is the right decision, because I’ve prayed about it and felt peaceful. Again, we were given minds for a reason, and we are expected to use them. To blindly follow is to remain spiritually underdeveloped.

M&M said...

Megan,

Thanks for stopping by.

First of all, you might want to go back and read Elder Oaks' comments again. The bishop you talked about didn't need public criticism. He might have needed some help on how to give counsel, and to not agree with that counsel in and of itself is not outside the realm of what Elder Oaks says is OK, I think. Elder Oaks gives room for that kind of thing. However, publicly criticizing him would have been wrong under the definitions in this post. But choosing to do something that the Spirit led one to do that didn't correspond to the counsel he gave is not the same thing as publicly criticizing that leader. Again, try to read Elder Oaks to understand the limits and definitions he sets, and the room he leaves for differences of opinion. He totally recognizes they exist! I really think you are missing the point of what he is saying. I think you have missed what I am trying to say, too. I may not have clearly explained myself. Given your reaction, I think we are talking past each other a bit.

So, let me clarify: You are wrong to imply that I don't take responsibility for my decisions, that I don't think about them, that I am somehow ignorant or blind. I don't make any decisions without careful deliberation and a prayerful heart and seeking the Spirit. To imply that I do otherwise is really, really off base. Don't you worry; I haven't abdicated my agency or my brain or my life or responsibility to any leader. :)

Again, note what Elder Oaks is talking about. He clearly acknowledges that there WILL be differences of opinion. You don't have to necessarily AGREE with a leader to sustain him/her. But you shouldn't publicly criticize that person, but should deal with differences appropriately. That is basically what sustaining means -- that if differences arise (which really should be the exception, not the rule, but if they do), we handle them in a Christlike, orderly, private, charity-driven kind of way.

OK, so long story short: Criticism is defined pretty narrowly in this post, folks. (I thought I had made that clear. :) Sorry if I hadn't. Is it clearer now?)

Stephanie said...

Hi Michelle!
Wow. Great post!
"There is nothing constructive about criticism!"

True or false, all criticism does is tear someone else down. I personally don't believe that criticism is EVER effective in ANY instance. Period.

For some reason, this reminds me of the incident where Jesus was to judge the woman taken in adultery and he told her accusers that whomever had no sin to cast the first stone. And in that he taught a great lesson... that no matter how awful a person is or can be or sinful or horrible they are... even a Bishop or church leader... that we are human, sinful, and just as in need of condemnation as those we criticize. Regardless of the sins they have committed or we have. Sometimes in the church we have a tendency to put sin into categories and believe that we are better than someone else because our sin is easier to hide or not as recognizable or not as damaging as someone else's. The truth is that all sin is death. Hence, our need for a Savior!

And I think that as a church leader, their faults and sins are out there for ALL to see all the time. It leaves one vulnerable and in a position to screw up a lot! Having said that I will also say that leaders are always put in a position to be criticized because there will always be someone who is not pleased with the way something is being done or handled. That is the nature of man. I think this is what Elder Oaks was getting at. I think by understanding this it can help us to first give the benefit of the doubt and not assume that all leaders are evil and out to get us.

However, and I do not mean this to insult or hurt you Michelle, but an observation I have made is that I think perhaps your lack of experience dealing with difficult leaders makes it easier for you to see the good in leaders and to give them the benefit of the doubt. Having not been the target of a Bishop's criticism to others in your ward, or having not been the subject of Ward Council meetings because leaders believed things about you that were untrue, or having not been abused in anyway by a leader of the church {as unfortunately myself and other people have} I think it can be a tremendous blessing as you said, but as in many things experience often is a good teacher.

Having some of the experiences I have had with leaders of the church {I have had mostly wonderful leaders and so naively believed and followed as some would say like a blind sheep} and some experiences have shaken me up enough to realize how naive my earlier beliefs were and my understanding and realization of their humanity [even with their Godly calling] has helped me rely more on the Spirit and God than I have ever before... whereas before I put those leaders as the Gods in my life. I do believe that sometimes people do that with the Prophet or the Bishop and believe honestly that if they go against him in anything that they are sinning. I do not believe this. Looking at the scriptures shows us that God has called all kinds of people to be His chosen leaders...both good and bad... all human and sinful. And they have made many mistakes while leading their people. I do believe that we must use our knowledge wisely, listen to and be in tune with the Spirit to be able to follow His promptings and do what the Lord wants us to do. If we are doing that, we will be led to know if our leaders have the Spirit and are leading with the Spirit of the Lord as well. I have had that experience as well. I have met with wonderful, spirit-filled leaders who have enlarged my understanding and love of the gospel and my Savior and I have met with leaders who have been filled with nothing but contempt and criticism and have cared little for the people they served and more about the programs they were promoting in their ward or stake and sometimes to the detriment of trying to ruin other member's reputation and character. I have learned that in this day and age the ONLY thing that we can answer for to the Lord is how well we followed HIM. That will be either through our leaders and the Spirit or just through the Spirit. We will hopefully be in a place where we can discern what is right and what is not. Here is an example... I do not like and have never liked the practice of allowing young children and even teenagers to be interviewed privately by a member of the Bishopric for progressing through primary, priesthood callings, and young women's and young men's programs, etc. I believe personally that the parent should be there with them so that nothing inappropriate will have the opportunity to take place. I have brought this up before to others and usually the reaction is that I am too paranoid. My answer usually is that we have to protect our children and teach them what is appropriate and what is not and thankfully the Church has made some changes in primary policies that have been for the better in making sure that children are safer at church. A good friend of mine was raped at our Stake Center by a dear, close family friend, and he was a good member of the church. I think we can be careful not to publicly criticize and embarrass our leaders, or anyone for that matter, regardless of their sins and deeds as we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But I am often concerned when these talks focus so much on following our leaders so much that our children are not even taught to be protected, to be safe, and to follow the Spirit regardless of who it is that they are with or trust. I am encouraged by the recent policy changes in the Church in regards to primary teachers, etc, but I do also believe that more can and should be done...to keep our children safe and to prevent the kind of abuse that often happens when members trust their leaders implicitly as they have been taught and counseled to all their lives.

I will sum up with saying I agree with you that criticism in public is never a good thing... I don't believe in private it is a good thing either. Criticism does nothing to build up anyone... it only tears down and for that focus of Elder Oak's talk, I am grateful. I do believe that in the church especially we are often too critical of each other, leaders and members alike. I think as we teach our children about respecting others and not criticizing others, we should emphasize that does not mean that we trust everyone just because they are leaders in the church and also point out that they are human and can make mistakes. We teach our children to recognize and feel the Spirit and follow His promptings and do what we can as parents to make sure we teach our children about the negative influences in the world and how to handle them. We teach them to say no to something that makes them uncomfortable at ANY time with ANY person. I do not believe this kind of training happens enough, especially in our church. We have a lot more naive trusting people who end up with abused and hurt children. And adults are not immune from this either.. especially if you have grown up believing that leaders are perfect and don't do many things wrong because they are called of God. {this was my earlier belief about church leaders}.

I do believe in the general goodness of people...regardless of their faults... but will and do teach my children to protect themselves from "meanie guys" who often disguise themselves as nice people, leaders included.

Whew. Sorry. Didn't mean to be so long winded.

Love
Stephanie

M&M said...

Stephanie,

Thanks for your thoughts.

I would hope that it's apparent especially given my follow-ups that I have never advocated following leaders without seeking and following the Spirit.

That said, I personally think that sometimes there is too much talk about exceptions (since there are a few examples of leaders who abuse their position, but they are not the rule) rather than upholding general principles. And, again, those general principles include following the Spirit and taking responsibility for our decisions. So I'm always a bit baffled that people want to tell me my approach is wrong (not saying you did...just speaking in generalities here). The way I live my life is what brings the Spirit. And the way I live my life is not blind following or mindless living.

I do agree that we should teach our children to follow the Spirit and do as parents what we feel is appropriate to protect them. I think the kind of training you are talking about (re: abuse, etc.) really is ultimately the responsibility of the parents to teach, not the Church. The Church can't handle every exception that our children may run into. The Church teaches general principles and parents should be the ones to help children understand the nuances of issues. IMO. :)

C Jones said...

I think that the vast majority of church leaders are just like us: they are doing the best they can with what they have to give. That said, I'm not naive, and I have had an "exception to the rule" leader. I did express my opinion of him privately to a few people that I trusted, but I would never make my criticism public, and I did always raise my hand to sustain him when asked. Here's why--

His behavior was not illegal
His behavior was not physically abusive to anyone

So I assume that I fall into the category of what Elder Oakes is talking about. So here's the quote from the talk that I wanted to comment about specifically:

"When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and his cause."

I'm not good at analysis, so I'm going to mention a couple of stories. Once there was a bishop who after interviewing some of the young men in his ward who had just returned from scout camp, felt strongly prompted to release one of the scout leaders. The leader was extremely unhappy about his release, and spent the next several months complaining to anyone who would listen to him about the bishop. He even went to the local scout counsel to try to drum up support. Of course, the bishop couldn't say anything in his own defense because of confidentiality. The man had several teenagers, and when they had some of the kinds of trials that many young people fall into, their father's criticism left them without much faith in the good man who was their bishop and who was the one in the best position to help them out of a miserable situation. Did their father impair the bishops' influence and usefulness? I say yes.

And one more example:
I was sitting in Sunday School one day next to my husband, the bishop. Suddenly without saying a word to me, he stood up and walked right out of the room. I didn't see him again until later that night, and I asked him where he had gone in such a hurry. He told me that he had had a strong prompting that he needed to speak to a certain member of the ward and so he decided to go look for that person (He didn't tell me who it was if anyone is wondering). He said that as soon as he walked out of the RS room where the class was being held, the person who was on his mind was standing in the hall right outside the door. They went down to the bishop's office and took care of whatever it was that was needed. He also told me that he didn't think that he was able to 'hear' those kinds of promptings as well when there was contention going on-- when people were expressing criticism of him or even his counselors or second guessing decisions that had been made, etc.
So does even the run-of-the-mill kind of criticism that goes on fall under the label of working against the Lord's cause? I think it can.

M&M said...

C Jones,
Thank you for sharing your examples. I think you helped illustrate Elder Oaks' point well.

Your comment reminded me that I was going to share my own experience with this, only as the "leader." I was in an auxiliary presidency, and apparently I did something to get on the bad side of two of my board members (still don't know what it was, really). They "teamed up" and started spreading lies about me to other board members, disregarding much of what I said and asked for, talked to ward members (including young ones) about their frustrations. It took a while for one of the advisors to start to see the inconsistencies in their stories and realize that they were simply spreading rumors about me. Our presidency was torn, my energy was drained, I and other leaders were distracted and I can't help but think our organization suffered as a result (not to mention that I think the example of disrespect for a leader was not good).

On the flip side, I wasn't happy with the way the bishopric handled it. I wanted them to make releases a lot faster than they did. I think it would have been better if they had. But I supported them anyway, and eventually things were changed and got better. I don't think my public criticism or lack of support for my leaders would have made the situation any better.

The other experience I had was when a bishop did something I really, really didn't agree with. I was upset enough that I didn't want to run into him at church. I said something to his counselor, in a spirit of feedback, but still felt I needed to talk directly to the bishop, which I finally did. Once I did, he was able to explain his actions and tell me that they were actually out of concern for me, not to try to offend. The lesson? We can't know a person's heart, and often our anger/offense is because we aren't seeing clearly, not because the leader is wrong. (I still don't particularly agree with the approach he took, but that's OK because I know his heart. In the end, that should matter more than anything, right? If the Lord can accept our best efforts, can we expect anything else from our leaders?)

Doug Towers said...

m&m

To me if the Saviour does something then it can't be a wrong. Therefore if we came to the same thinking we could do the same thing. Your comment doesn't really deny this, but you seem to be presenting the idea that we can't think as he does.

Also D&C 121 advises us to expect church leaders to make mistakes on a large scale.

Thoughts please :)

Kristine said...

m&m, I think that Elder Oaks' counsel is generally very helpful, especially at the local level where it is possible to handle disagreements privately and constructively. I get very squeamish when people blog about problems with their local leaders--nothing good can come from that.

I have some questions, though (I'm sure you're shocked, shocked!). One major question is how one can possibly deal with disagreements at the general church level. Since writing letter to General Authorities is explicitly and regularly discouraged, how can one possibly address a problem with a General Authority privately? The effect, in this case, of saying that disagreements should not be public is to say, essentially, that disagreement cannot be expressed. It's possible, as you suggest, that there's virtue in learning to simply silence one's complaints. However, if that's so, I think it would be very helpful to have the rationale articulated (perhaps along the lines you have suggested, as resistance to the modern notion that one should be perpetually expressing oneself, etc.)
Second, as we've seen in this thread, the word "criticize" is a tricky one, and means a lot of different things to different people. I would define the kind of criticism one should not engage in pretty narrowly--one should not say that a leader is generally uninspired, is somehow not worthy of being listened to, or is not called by God. Personal, ad hominem sorts of criticisms are both useless and probably baseless, given the very limited contact any of us has with GAs. But I would not consider disagreement with a theological proposition contained in a Conference talk (for instance) "criticism" that shoould be avoided, nor would I consider criticism of a church program or policy to fall into that category. I think being engaged and caring about the church's success will necessarily entail some such disagreements, and expressing those disagreements is just fine, *as long as one is also anxiously engaged in making the programs of the church succeed wherever one has a chance to help.* So, for instance, I think it's perfectly fine for me to think that the Missionary Department does a lot of silly and even some damaging things, but that in no way excuses me from feeding the missionaries, talking to my friends about the church, helping my children prepare to go on missions, etc.

Finally, I think we sometimes have to be honest in acknowledging the limits of our leaders' wisdom. Here's a trivial example: Elder Oaks and Elder Hanks have both said over the pulpit in General Conference that "thee" and "thou" are formal forms of address meant to show respect. This is, as a matter of linguistic fact, simply false--these are archaic *familiar* forms, meant to convey closeness and intimacy. We can read Oaks and Hanks charitably, appreciate the principle they're trying to convey (that we should be respectful and careful in the language of our prayers), but trying to believe that they are correct in their linguistic analysis leads to a kind of mental gymnastics that is counterproductive. Far better (I think) to say they are mistaken, and move on to trying to understand how we can use both forms that are understood to be formal and respectful and, in other languages spoken in the church, actually use the terms of familiarity and intimacy, and what those linguistic paradoxes might signify for our prayers...

That was ridiculously long. Sorry. On the off chance that anyone really wants to read more of my drivel on this topic, you can try here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=544 or here:http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=636 (The first 50 comments or so are worth reading, too)

M&M said...

Kristine,
I'm shocked, I say, shocked! :) You will be equally shocked to see that a long response follows....


So here are some of my thoughts, for what they are worth.

Since writing letter to General Authorities is explicitly and regularly discouraged, how can one possibly address a problem with a General Authority privately? The effect, in this case, of saying that disagreements should not be public is to say, essentially, that disagreement cannot be expressed.

I think there are channels we can go through to have our voice heard. I have watched bishops take the feedback they get and send it right up the chain. It's not a face-to-face, but there is still a way to have one's voice heard, right?

It's possible, as you suggest, that there's virtue in learning to simply silence one's complaints.

That was Elder Oaks' suggestion, just to be clear. I do happen to agree with that as a good option a lot of (most of) the time, though. :)

You asked for rationale for silence, and I think Elder Oaks did address some rationale for this approach quite well, which is to not undermine the leader's effectiveness, to not hinder the Spirit's influence personally (criticism, frustration, anger, whatever have the potential to hinder the Spirit), to not have our personal points of view potentially hinder the Lord's work and its effectiveness. We never know how even one negative comment can have a ripple effect on others or on the work in general.


Second, as we've seen in this thread, the word "criticize" is a tricky one,

Indeed. I suspect most of the criticism of this post is based on misunderstandings or different viewpoints about what this means.

But I would not consider disagreement with a theological proposition contained in a Conference talk (for instance) "criticism" that shoould be avoided,

I think there is a fine line here, and I think that sometimes we might underestimate the negative impact of even publicly negatively analyzing or disagreeing with Church leaders or Church policies or contents of talks. Perhaps if someone could actually show that public expression of disagreement or frustration has somehow amounted to some tangible good for the work, I might consider adopting a different point of view, but I still think some of what Elder Oaks talks about (in terms of negative effects) can apply here, perhaps even in a significant way.

I'm reflecting, for example, on my experiences in the 'nacle, and how expressions of disagreement and frustration often take on a life of their own, are not balanced by positive points of view. I find there are people who will dismiss completely what some leaders say because of so much negative "critiquing" of their words or style...all because of "disagreements with" what they have said.

I also question the value for the individuals expressing their frustrations or concerns...but I can only use my own experience to judge that: when I vocalize frustrations or concerns or even confusion, all it usually serves to do is feed or breed negativity in my heart and I find no resolution or help or peace from so doing. I have found that silence usually benefits me personally, as either I gain more perspective, or the Spirit helps me to give the benefit of the doubt, or I realize that what I was upset about was really not that big of a deal. Sometimes I think we want to give too much credence to our own very limited points of view rather than giving others the benefit of the doubt.

I guess, in short, I am not convinced that there is enough of a positive benefit to actually publicly disagreeing with leaders, their positions, or policies that are put in place, and I see a lot of potential negatives that can still come about. And I do think there are ways to address concerns through the Church network that are more potentially productive than just expressing disagreement "out there" to no one in particular.

To your last point, I think that we need to be very, very careful about making our leaders offenders for a word. What you point out, for example, about Elder Oaks' words about prayer (I only looked up his talk, so I'll use that as an example) is really not truly representative of what he said. He didn't limit his discussion to language that is "formal." He also made allowance for the familiar, and for other languages and cultures. He addressed his counsel about "thee, thou" etc. to modern English. He was pretty comprehensive in my mind. For example, he said:

The special language of prayer follows different forms in different languages, but the principle is always the same. We should address prayers to our Heavenly Father in words which speakers of that language associate with love and respect and reverence and closeness [note that he doesn't only talk about the "formal" here...he leaves room for the familiar as well]. The application of this principle will, of course, vary according to the nature of a particular language, including the forms that were used when the scriptures were translated into that language. Some languages have intimate or familiar pronouns and verbs used only in addressing family and very close friends. Other languages have honorific forms of address that signify great respect, such as words used only when speaking to a king or other person of high rank. Both of these kinds of special words are appropriately used in offering prayers in other languages because they communicate the desired feelings of love, respect, reverence, or closeness.

So, I think this example is an interesting one. You made an assertion about his lack of knowledge, and I actually don't think that your assessment is accurate. But maybe sometimes we hear or see based on our own lenses, our own biases. That, to me, is another reason to be very, very careful about actually vocalizing our "criticism." I think it's just better to give leaders the benefit of the doubt.

And I would ask: Does it really matter if leaders get every linguistic or scientific or _______ fact correct? Can they not be giving wise and good counsel even if every tidbit doesn't line up with one's understanding of things, or even one's expertise? In short, can (and should) we not take the good from what they teach, and let the rest go? (Especially since we are as likely to be wrong as they are in critiquing them, and don't have the mantle they have?)

I would also ask what the perceived benefit is of analyzing their words to the point of focusing on small errors they may be making. In the end, I don't see the benefit of such analysis and "criticism" and think that, again, it can potentially undermine the leader, affect the individual, and possibly even hinder the Lord's work.

OK, so there is a long response, fwiw. I realize that people may approach things differently, but this is how I prefer to approach things. It does no good for me personally to focus on the negative or imperfect and I really see negative potential on a larger scale as well. This is what I was trying to get at in my post. Barring true evil and dangerous behavior, I think it's just usually good practice to be charitable in our acceptance of our leaders' best efforts, to approach disagreements in appropriate, approved and non-public ways, and to try to focus on the positive. For ME, that brings the most peace and strength into my life. And I don't feel that I am ANY worse for the wear because of it. And, again, I have not checked my brain at the door or abdicated my agency in any way. :)

Kristine said...

m&m--I don't particularly disagree with anything you've said, but I will point out that it can be hazardous to generalize from one's personal spiritual experience to arrive at conclusions about what will work for everyone. Temperaments, personalities, and spirits are individual enough that what works perfectly well for you might be a disaster for me.

As for the utility of complaint, I could multiply examples, but the one I know best is me--I would long since have ceased to be able to participate at church if I did not know of the existence of Dialogue, Sunstone, and forums like some of the ones in the Bloggernacle that allow for a slightly less upbeat discussion of the Church than the sites that work for you. It can be argued, of course, that I should be a better and more cheerful person, or that it would be no harm if I were out of the church (many people, I think, would prefer that outcome!), but I know that I am not alone in feeling like a steam valve is essential and that being forced into a relentlessly cheerful and constructive engagement with the words and actions of all church leaders would spell the effective end of my activity.

Kristine said...

Just a practical example, once again involving Elder Oaks--I'm sure that you would find the current discussion on modesty at Zelophehad's Daughters extremely upsetting. Nobody's being deferential to Elder Oaks' talk at all. For me, it's really important to be able to read such a rough-and-tumble argument over his words. If I had to just quietly go over and over his "YW dressing immodestly make themselves into pornography" sentence over and over again in my head, trying to make it somehow not seem offensive and misogynist, I would go crazy! Knowing that other people find that comment equally disturbing but manage to keep living their lives as Mormons and keep having testimonies is very, very important for me.

Your mileage undoubtedly varies :)

M&M said...

Knowing that other people find that comment equally disturbing but manage to keep living their lives as Mormons and keep having testimonies is very, very important for me.

I appreciate that this is important and a valid need for some. It's important for people "like me" to understand this point of view and to realize the value of dialogue for some in helping them keep a testimony going, have some perspective, etc.

And yet I think the concerns I have are valid, too. So, is there a way dialogue can happen so that ideas can be discussed without attacks on the church, or its leaders, or on people who see things differently and want to chime into the discussion (which has too often been my experience when reading or participating in such discussions)? I believe there is. As members of the Church, I think we need to continually seek to find ways to have discourse without criticism, without judgment, without assuming our view is the correct view. The less personal contact we have with someone, the more the situation demands our charity and withholding criticism IMO, because it's impossible for us to understand the full context of what is going on. Add to that the fact that our leaders DO sometimes see or understand what we don't and we have made a commitment to sustain them, I think our treatment of them and representation of them and the Church in discussion requires great care and respect.

As a general example: I think it's one thing to discuss ideas, questions, concerns:

"Hey, did anyone else struggle with comment/concept X? Is there some other way I can look at it, cuz it was a hard one for me to swallow. I'm interested in other points of view, or to know if I'm the only one who struggled. What helps you get through times like that when something hits you wrong?"

One can approach a discussion discussing the idea (being open to the possibility that one's perception may not be accurate), without even tying it to a person and a chance to be critical (too tempting and easy to become generally critical, or to allow someone else to be so). I think productive discussion can -- and should -- take place without criticism.

But too often, I see the situation handled like, "Can you BELIEVE he/she even said that? If I have to hear another talk/comment/whatever like that, I just might scream! Just another example of how _________ our church is!"

Unfortunately, I have seen an awful lot of example #2 (or some variation). Sometimes it feels like the goal really isn't discussion but instead venting and looking for validation. I would like to see more discussion that seeks more to understand, that is open to differing points of view, and that is willing to give the Church and its leaders and members some benefit of the doubt.

A great example of this came during conference. Someone was clearly upset by something that was said, and impulsively "vented." But then he/she IMMEDIATELY apologized, retreated from the intensity, and tried to step into the speaker's shoes to give the benefit of the doubt. I was very impressed. I think that kind of care is really important when we are talking about public discourse (or even private discourse) re: our leaders.

I'm all for helping each other through rough spots. I'm all for for discussing ideas. But I'm not a fan of the quickly escalating critical discourse (not like analytical critical, but negative and condescending and "I'm-right-and-that's-that" critical) that I have seen over the years. This can happen on any "side" of an issue, but I find it particularly troublesome when those we are supposed to sustain become the personal targets or are held somehow personally responsible for the things that may cause frustration.

Hm. Long comment. Short summary:
I believe we can discuss issues without discussing or questioning people, and I think charity and the principle of unity demands that we do.

(p.s. I think this should apply to any interactions we have...there is a real lack of charity on many fronts in our "discussions." Seek first to understand, not to be understood, right? It's something I know I still have a long way to go on, but it is something I care about.)

Kristine said...

"I find it particularly troublesome when those we are supposed to sustain become the personal targets or are held somehow personally responsible for the things that may cause frustration."

But sometimes they *are* responsible. Sometimes it is their ill-chosen words or mistaken ideas that cause pain, and I believe we may say so without failing in our duty to sustain. Sustain does not mean to obey unquestioningly or to engage in intellectual dishonesty for the sake of being nice to one's leaders.

I think your model of discussion, m&m, is one that can't go anywhere, because it assumes a conclusion--the leader is right, I am wrong--from the outset, and asks people to cut off their own feet to fit the bed.

Moreover, your view (whicy may be the same as Elder Oaks')absolutely requires that I be converted or silenced. There really isn't any way you can understand me in the framework you've outlined--my feelings are predefined as unacceptable. If criticism is disallowed, then your role in the bloggernacle is necessarily going to be that of trying to get people to stop saying what they think in the ways they feel comfortable saying it. In that case, it's no wonder that people respond badly.
The terrible thing is that it's not your fault--accepting some of the discussion in the 'nacle would require you to compromise what you view as your duty in sustaining the Brethren. You probably shouldn't do that. But if you choose to engage anyway, then you have to accept the likelihood of making people who think some forms of criticism are acceptable very angry. I think there is an irreducible difference there, and all the charity in the world can't satisfy the requirements of an absolute belief that criticism is always wrong.

C Jones said...

Kristine said:
"If I had to just quietly go over and over his "YW dressing immodestly make themselves into pornography" sentence over and over again in my head, trying to make it somehow not seem offensive and misogynist, I would go crazy!"

I'm sorry, but it seems a bit disingenuous to place "YW dressing immodestly make themselves into pornography" in quotes in your comment since it is not what Elder Oaks actually said.

Kristine said...

cjones--fair enough. I should have looked up the exact quote. Here it is: "And young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you."

M&M said...

Kristine,
I really don't think you are understanding me. Either that or we really just see things night-and-day differently. If that is the case, I fear we may never get to a point where we can truly understand each other. I hope that isn't true.

To try to clarify:

You said: But sometimes they *are* responsible." Sometimes it is their ill-chosen words or mistaken ideas that cause pain, and I believe we may say so without failing in our duty to sustain.

First law of human relationships: We truly can't hold others responsible for our feelings. There are few situations where you will get 100% agreement from a random sample of church members about what "you" may see as "ill-spoken" or "mistaken." Truly ill-spoken or mistaken words would require basically unanimous approval of such a judgment, moving it from perception or personal understanding to a fact. Your model leaves no room for the listener to be wrong. It also seems to leave no room for me to disagree with you. Go ahead and say you hurt. I want to understand why you do. But as soon as you turn it on the leaders and make it their fault, you basically leave me the choice of either validating your pain by agreeing with you and implicitly agreeing with your criticism (which I will likely disagree with) or defending the leaders (or at least giving my point of view) and seeming to ignore or not care about your pain (which wouldn't be true).

There really isn't any way you can understand me in the framework you've outlined--my feelings are predefined as unacceptable.

I want to "understand you." I have not tried to define your feelings as unacceptable. (And you realize, I hope, that I am not directing my comments at you in particular but at a general level. But since you have brought it to this level, I will, too.

Elder Oaks has not said you can't disagree or won't disagree ever if you sustain the leaders. He has talked about HOW to deal with such disagreements. It's not about the "what" it's about the "how." If you turn your pain on the leaders, you are right; I won't be able to understand you, because you will not be telling me about YOU, you will be telling me what you think is wrong about THEM and why they are to blame for your pain. That simply isn't fair and doesn't help me step into your shoes. I want to understand YOU. Tell me why certain topics are a button for you. Tell me why certain things cause pain. Tell me about your experiences or your worldview so I can try to walk in your shoes. And then help me understand how certain ideas come into play in that worldview and create pain. I want to understand this. But, I believe this can be shared without blaming leaders for what you have to see as your perception of things, not necessarily the way things really are. My perception will be different, and if the leaders are 'wrong' then so am I and that means you don't want to understand me.

If we leave our judgment of the leaders out of it and seek to understand where each other is coming from, we are on more equal ground. Is it not important for you to understand why something that causes you pain may not do the same for me?

Otherwise, if the leaders are responsible for your pain, then they are responsible for my lack thereof, and that isn't true in either case. Our experiences differ. Our backgrounds and frames of reference differ. Let's seek to understand along that continuum and not make this about judging the rightness or wrongness of our leaders, because I don't think we are usually in a position to so judge and so doing will not allow us the potential to really understand each other. And I would rather understand you than argue about whether or not we think they are "right" or "wrong." Perception is reality. Let's understand each other's perceptions rather than try to convince each other that our perception is reality.

Does that seem possible to you?

M&M said...

p.s. I didn't articulate myself very well. If our perceptions of what our leaders say is different, it's not possible for either of us to convince the other that our perception is right. Therefore, the best we can do is seek to understand each other's point of view. If the desire is for understanding, then I think that is really our best hope.

Kristine said...

"Either that or we really just see things night-and-day differently."

We do.

M&M said...

Kristine,
I'm sorry if that means that we can't have a good dialogue. I hope that you can know that I do care about how you feel, even if that doesn't come across very well.

Kristine said...

m&m, it doesn't mean we can't have a productive dialogue. It does mean, I think, that we are unlikely to agree about much of anything. Ultimately, as I tried to say earlier, I think your commitment to the notion that authoritative pronouncements are the ultimate source of truth is going to make it difficult, if not impossible for you to either understand or accept my sense that truth is mediated through multiple sources, including personal revelation and intellectual engagement with authoritative pronouncements. Doesn't mean we can't be friends...

M&M said...

I think we can seek to understand each other without having to agree. That is really all I was trying to say. :) But just realize that I, too, engage intellectually with the authoritative statements. My point of view and feelings and convictions aren't a package deal straight from the Ensign, bypassing my brain or heart. I spend a lot of time thinking and pondering and chewing on things as well. One can still be "intellectual" and basically and generally agree with authoritative statements. :)

Kristine said...

Of course. I didn't mean to suggest that you weren't also intellectually engaged. Agreement is a perfectly legitimate conclusion, only, alas, one I reach less frequently than you do!

ECS said...

Kristine and m&m - this is a wonderful discussion. Thank you very much for sharing it with us. As I read through your exchange, I wondered if the solution to the impasse may be to distinguish between criticizing the leaders personally and criticizing what they say. Do you think there is there a difference?

As one of the main criticizers of Elder Oaks' words on the Zelophehad's Daughters' thread, I tried to make it clear that I was criticizing what Elder Oaks said (i.e, my interpretation of what he said) - not him personally. I do believe that our Church leaders have our best interests at heart.

M&M said...

ECS,
Thanks for stopping by. I'm must confess that I'm afraid to try to answer your question because on one hand, that is one thing I have been trying to say all along but on the other hand, I still think we need to be careful about how we engage ideas put forth by our leaders. It's one thing for someone to say "I don't understand this idea put forth"; it's another thing to say "I don't agree with this idea"; it's yet another to say "I think the church and/or its leaders are wrong with regard to this idea." I don't think we have to be personally attacking an individual's character to potentially do harm to the Lord's work and perhaps to ourselves. But obviously, I have a different approach than some, and nothing I say will change that, so.... :) Yet another place to agree to disagree. :)

M&M said...

p.s., ECS, I have only glanced at the ZD discussion, so I have no idea what you have said over there. Just so you know that my comments are still general and not directed at you or anyone in particular. :)

M&M said...

I don't know how this happens, but a coupl eof comments got trapped in moderation. They are buried up in the middle of this conversation, so I will respond here separately:

m&m

To me if the Saviour does something then it can't be a wrong. Therefore if we came to the same thinking we could do the same thing. Your comment doesn't really deny this, but you seem to be presenting the idea that we can't think as he does.

Also D&C 121 advises us to expect church leaders to make mistakes on a large scale.

Thoughts please :)


Whoa, I never said that if the Savior does it it can't be a wrong. I'm just saying that I think we need to be very, very, very careful about judging others because we don't have the perfect knowledge and perfectly pure heart He has. That doesn't mean we don't seek toward being more like Him in character in a general way, but I think we need to be careful about how we view and criticize and analyze and condemn others. Very often, we don't know the whole picture. And sometimes we have our own clouded vision, agendas or understanding that make our assessments not complete.

As for D&C 121, what strikes me is the warning about not lifting up our heels against the Lord's anointed. If you see the end of that section as justification for being critical of our leaders, and you are that certain that you are always right in so doing, then we might not have much to discuss. I have seen tooooo many situations where leaders have been wrongly judged, and personal perspectives chosen over their repeated and consistent counsel and teachings. I think such judgment and criticism are potentially very dangerous for those who are "taking on" the Brethren. But in the end, each person has to do what feels right, so....

M&M said...

m&m--I don't particularly disagree with anything you've said, but I will point out that it can be hazardous to generalize from one's personal spiritual experience to arrive at conclusions about what will work for everyone. Temperaments, personalities, and spirits are individual enough that what works perfectly well for you might be a disaster for me.

I agree with this general principle. That is why I seek to back up my personal point of view with words from the prophets, which I believe are more generally applicable (or at least I believe should be). ;)

As for the utility of complaint, I could multiply examples, but the one I know best is me--I would long since have ceased to be able to participate at church if I did not know of the existence of Dialogue, Sunstone, and forums like some of the ones in the Bloggernacle that allow for a slightly less upbeat discussion of the Church than the sites that work for you. It can be argued, of course, that I should be a better and more cheerful person, or that it would be no harm if I were out of the church (many people, I think, would prefer that outcome!), but I know that I am not alone in feeling like a steam valve is essential and that being forced into a relentlessly cheerful and constructive engagement with the words and actions of all church leaders would spell the effective end of my activity.

You have to do what works for you. I try to speak in generalities. I can't tell you what should work for you. That is between you and the Lord.

And I'm sorry if you feel that people feel the church would be better off without you. I'm grateful to hear that amidst the struggle, you want to do what you can to stay engaged. I do hope you can find more peace within the church someday, and not feel the need to find your help elsewhere. But in the meantime, let's continue to try to make sure there is a place in this hospital for spiritually ailing souls (that would be all of us) for all of us who care enough to stay. :)

M&M said...

...and that doesn't mean I don't want to help those who haven't stayed find a place, either.

p.s. I do think, though, that we can't expect the church to be all things for all people and sometimes it's the people who might need to change, not the church. Again, no way to apply that general comment to any specific situation. Only God knows our hearts.

Doug Towers said...

m&m

I was rereading your post and I came to thinking of those people who have been excommunicated that were not guilty of the things exed for. If they make a complaint to SLC the complaint is sent to the area president who then passes it back to the very same stake president who made the bad decision. Caesar is left to judge Caesar. Complaints by the truckload have gone in on this I'm sure. Yet nothing is done. I believe this should be complained about in some way that someone is going to actually be forced to do the right thing about.

The church isn't a theocracy. It is called the Church of Jesus Christ (theocracy) of Latter-Day Saints (democracy). We sustain the leaders. We have a right to expect, and if not get, demand, sensible government. If you lived in the time of Caiaphas would you have condoned his action purely because he was the Prophet of the church? I know that no one was inspired to make such a ridiculous system. God is not that stupid.

So while I share your feelings overall, I think that some things need more than subtle hints about.

M&M said...

I was rereading your post and I came to thinking of those people who have been excommunicated that were not guilty of the things exed for.

There are two possibilities I see here in such a situation:

1. Maybe there is something we don't know that the leaders do.

2. Maybe mistakes are made. I know that that may happen on occasion (although you will never hear me making such an assertion because I don't think we can ever really know as outsiders). In that case, I say that we can know that the Lord will judge perfectly. We can hold onto the faith that He will make all things right in the end. I know, I know, that is not really what helps people now. But even as this is the Savior's church, HE is the one who allows it to be managed by imperfect people! He sees the big picture. He won't let anything go permanently wrong.

I think sometimes we need to remember that we are ALL imperfect, even as members of the Church. All the Lord asks is our best, fallible though we are. If we demand infallibility from anyone, including the people who are leading the Church or all the processes that go on, might we not be expecting that kind of judgment to come back at us someday? Are we beamless enough to determine what the Church "should" be doing? My personal viewpoint is that we aren't, and so I'm content to accept the imperfections of the people and try to do my best within the organization where we are. And guess what? It works for me. :) I think it's too easy to be critical rather than grateful. I prefer the latter approach. Like I said before, a critical spirit FOR ME is harmful.

Doug Towers said...

Michelle

Believe it or not, I do eat up a lot of the things you say. It's just wonderful stuff. And I felt that same thing in reading most of what you have just said in your comment. I totally agree that God will sort it all out. But I feel there are areas where pushing at a flaw in a system is constructive. For an innocent person to get rebaptism they must lie to God's institution. Can you understand the feeling of the person having to do so? That isn't what it is supposed to be. It is God's church. Why should the person have to lie? It's almost like lying to God. A person may see the difference slightly. But it isn't fair (I hate to use that word as it is so abused).

I KNOW that two exed people were not guilty. The leaders were wrong. The leaders didn't know some hidden things because the claims didn't happen. I've had a claimant admit to me that her claims against a man were false, in such a way that I would know but couldn't state that she had admitted it. I know God doesn't hold them guiltless, but it doesn't help them not having the blessings of church membership. Not having the priesthood (where males). Nor their families.

In the end all will be well. But as a people we need to attempt to improve things, even though we don't anticipate perfection - as you say.