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.