Zelophehad’s Daughters

“Gotcha” questions for GAs

Posted by Ziff

A recent guest poster at fMh asked for suggestions about what question she might pose to a visiting Seventy who had agreed to a Q&A session with members as part of stake conference. In a post at Nine Moons, Rusty pointed out that many of the questions seemed to be “gotcha questions,” intended to make a point rather than to genuinely seek information. (Several commenters on the fMh thread made a similar point.) I agree with Rusty. Many of the questions did appear not to be serious attempts to get information, but more attempts to show the Seventy up. That being said, I really liked a lot of the “gotcha questions.” I began to wonder why so many people thought of asking them.

What’s the purpose of asking a Seventy a “gotcha question,” something like this?

I would ask about the Temple and why a woman covenants to hearken unto her husband and not directly with God. Does this patriarchal order actually have to do with gender or is it just that one person has the Priesthood and the other doesn’t? If women had the Priesthood would it be worded the same or differently?

I think the answer is pretty clear. A question like this is intended to communicate something rather than to ask something. From this question, I would guess that the asker isn’t comfortable with the hearken covenant in the temple. (By the way, I didn’t choose this question as an example because I dislike it. Quite the opposite. I think it’s a good question. I just can’t imagine a Seventy providing an answer that would satisfy anyone who seriously asked it.)

So if it’s an attempt to communicate rather than ask, who is the intended recipient? It seems equally clear that it isn’t the Seventy. The fMh poster didn’t say which Seventy was visiting, and none of the commenters asked. Apparently it didn’t matter. I would guess this means that the intended recipient of this communication by “gotcha question” is therefore the GAs as a whole, or probably more specifically the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, rather than the particular visiting Seventy.

This seems like an awfully roundabout way to try to communicate with the FP and Q of 12–phrasing your statement as a question (Jeopardy, anyone?) and posing it to a lower level authority who can do no better than pass it along to the higher authorities. Why would people resort to it? I think the answer is obvious. There is no reliable, approved way of communicating concerns to the general leadership of the Church.

Actually, it’s even worse than that. Members are systematically discouraged from contacting General Authorities. Periodically a letter is sent from the First Presidency to be read in sacrament meeting that tells us to go to our local leaders if we have questions or concerns rather than writing to General Authorities. I’ve heard (but haven’t actually experienced) that letters that are sent by members to General Authorities are simply returned to the writer’s stake president or bishop.

I’ve heard three possible solutions to this dilemma:

  • Go over their heads. If General Authorities won’t listen, why not just pray to God and ask him to convey your concerns to them? In my experience, this doesn’t seem to work very well. Either God isn’t listening to me, or he doesn’t think my concerns are worth bugging GAs about, or they’re not listening to him. Or one or more of the connections is slow.
  • Talk to local leaders. This is what’s suggested by the letter from the First Presidency. I think it breaks down because it assumes there can be no concerns with how the Church as a whole is run. If the asker of the question above feels hurt by the hearken covenant in the temple, what good will it do to talk to her local leaders? They can’t change the temple ceremony. At best, they might sympathize. At worst, they might treat her badly for expressing concerns about the temple.
  • Leave. This solution seems to be suggested frequently by first-time commenters at fMh in particular. People ask why someone who doesn’t accept (effective) prophetic infallibility would stay in the Church. Interestingly, I’ve seen this suggestion made by both those in the Church (“you’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing”), and by those outside the Church (“if you don’t agree with it, why don’t you find another church”). I find this approach unsatisfactory because I find a lot of value in participating in the Church. I also hope others who have concerns don’t use this solution, because if I’m going to stay, I want other people like me to stay to make the experience easier.

Given the drawbacks of all these solutions, I think it’s no surprise that people who have concerns about Church policies and doctrines might resort to asking “gotcha questions” to a visiting Seventy.

What would be a better way? I think the Church should set up a formal way for members to contact GAs with their concerns about doctrines and practices of the Church. This method of contact could be easily made a part of the Church website. Or it could be limited to postal letters, which might make the comments they get a little better thought out, considering the greater difficulty of writing and mailing an actual letter versus filling out an online form. If it were made a feature of the website, it could even require a member login to use. You might doubt me given that I blog using a pseudonym, but I’d be willing to attach my real name to feedback to comments to GAs through the Church website if I thought they actually had any hope of being read.

I can definitely see how there could be problems with such a system, probably reasons why the idea hasn’t been implemented already:

  • Too much feedback. It would be a big hassle to comb through all the feedback and deciding which of it is worth considering.
  • Unrealistic expectations. Members who submit suggestions may have some expectation of having their suggestions implemented. This might lead to a lot of people being frustrated when their suggestions are ignored.
  • Showing fallibility. If members make a suggestion and it is put into practice, this would signal clearly that General Authorities don’t have a monopoly on good ideas for how the Church could be run. If lots of members are busy thinking about ways we would improve the Church, we’ll probably be less compliant when GAs ask us to conform to some new policy or other.
  • Difficult to rescind. If an option to provide feedback were made available, it might be awfully hard to take away later. Members would likely complain more about having the feedback mechanism taken away than they ever did about not having it in the first place.

I think some of these, like the hassle of reading letters, and avoiding setting up unrealistic expectations, might be handled quite easily. A few Church employees could be assigned to read letters, maybe tally up lists of concerns, note any particularly interesting suggestions, and pass brief summaries on to GAs. As a potential giver of feedback, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that any GA I wrote to would be far too busy to read my letter himself. I think unrealistic expectations might be managed the same way big corporations do it when they ask for feedback. You send them an email, and they send an automated reply saying, in effect, that they’re not likely to reply directly to your concern, but it may be aggregated with others and passed along to serious decision makers. Maybe. But don’t count on anything. The Church could do something similar.

As far as the concern about making members less compliant because they no longer thing GAs have all the answers, I think it’s already true that they don’t have all the answers, and it wouldn’t hurt to be more open about this. And if taking the option to provide feedback away would make members mad, they could just commit to it for the long term and not take it away.

Of course I don’t have great answers to all the potential concerns with setting up a system to let members send comments to GAs (and I’m sure there are ones I’m not even thinking of). It is my impression, though, that on balance, it would be good for the Church to do such a thing. I suspect if nothing else, it might reduce people’s desire to ask visiting GAs “gotcha questions.”

49 Responses to ““Gotcha” questions for GAs”

  1. 1.

    That automated answer is pretty much what you get now when you respond to the request for feedback on manuals — the recent reply to such feedback discussed at fMh is an anomaly, I think. It can be disappointing to get such an automated response when you’ve really thought carefully about your feedback and how to word it — discouraging even when you know it’s all you should expect — but it’s probably the best practical way of handling feedback, if you’re going to solicit it at all.

    I’d add this to your list of proposed reasons people ask gotcha questions: The target audience wasn’t really the GA at all — it was posing for other readers of the forum.

  2. 2.

    As someone who asked a “gotcha” question once of a GA, I did it because I was sincerely seeking help and trying to express love and concern for someone who was having a hard time.

    I think the feedback loop issues would need to include the inability to discern intention in regards to the question. How do we tell if a letter is a serious question or merely an attack?

  3. 3.

    My husband wrote a letter to the prophet a few years ago (before we met) requesting that the language of works-based salvation we hear in conference (“how can we merit the blessings of eternal life?” etc) be toned down to emphasize grace a little more. It was forwarded back to his SP, who threatened him with excommunication for apostasy. The interesting part was that the SP agreed with my husband- the language is problematic in that it causes many members to misunderstand what the scriptures clearly teach. The “apostasy” was my husband’s belief that he could give legitimate feedback to the prophet, because feedback in the Lord’s church only comes down from the prophet, never goes up to him.

    We’ve recently chosen the “leave the church” option. Many of our friends have told us some variant of “if you can just stay and make it work somehow, it will make my experience easier.” In the end, though, we couldn’t find a way to reconcile what you rightly call “effective prophetic infallibility” with our beliefs, and we’re much more able to learn and grow elsewhere.

    Ardis, if you’re reading this, hi. We really loved your lessons. With increasing regularity, the rest of Sunday meetings left me in tears, but your lessons were the bright points.

  4. 4.

    Hi there – I was the one that asked the question on fmh that you posted above. I just want you to know that I really am sincere about asking the question. In my original post I state that I really don’t understand the Patriarchal order very well and this question stems from my observations of my parents divorce. It isn’t a question I would ask in a public q & a with a Seventy because I think it wouldn’t be appropriate and it isn’t my intent to say, “ha ha, gotcha!” So I guess I should have clarified that point. I have been tempted to ask the Temple President the same question but have always chickened out. You hit the nail on the head when you stated that I am not comfortable with that particular covenant but my intent in asking about it is to seek clarification on it because I know that it is something I struggle with understanding. Sorry if the question came across as a “gotcha” question because I do see the point you are trying to make with that but I just wanted to say that I wasn’t asking because I have already made up my mind about what I want the answer to be but just admit that it is something I am uncomfortable with because of personal experience and if someone could help me be more comfortable with it, then I am all ears. I realize part of being able to understand this covenant rests with me in continuing to be prayerful about it. Thanks.

  5. 5.

    I understand the frustration, Ziff, but your suggestions assume the leaders of the church aren’t already well aware of these questions/issues/concerns. I think that assumption is unfounded. They hear them all of the time–from letters (even if not responded to), from individuals at these Q&A’s, in private discussions, in counseling with local leaders, etc. None of these questions is new or unique.

    At the heart of many of the suggested questions is really a plea that the church change one thing or another. But there may be good reasons that such things are not changed that have nothing to do with the Church’s knowledge regarding the concern.

  6. 6.

    Google has (of course–what doesn’t it have?) a snazzy system that shows one possible way to try to handle this kind of thing. It’s called Google Product Ideas and it allows people to propose ideas for gmail or Google Documents or other services they provide, and then allows other people to vote for those ideas, with the idea being that the best/most popular ideas rise to the top. Doing this in the church might be a bit more tricky (they might not want people to see “Why don’t women have the priesthood?” or other controversial questions/ideas becoming popular) but it is one approach.

    I agree with you that in some form allowing some direct feedback would be a Good Thing. And it would surprise me to hear that GA’s wouldn’t want to hear (in a way that can be handled efficiently) more from members about their day to day concerns.

  7. 7.

    Ardis, good point. I’m sure that context affected what people proposed quite a bit.

    Matt, good question. I guess I figure if a Church employee is going to be filtering through such suggestions anyway, they can likely decide based even just on tone what is written as an attack versus as a question. Of course, maybe the whole enterprise could be doomed from the start if employees tasked with this interpret most everything as an attack and discard it all.

    Ariel, I’m sorry your husband was treated so harshly for writing what sounds like a very reasonable letter. I’m also sorry you ultimately chose the option to leave, although I understand why you would.

    Hillary, I’m sorry sorry I misunderstood the context of your question. I was afraid that I would do something like that with any question I chose from the thread as an example, and rightly so apparently! ;) But I chose yours because it’s one I share. So I meant it as a good thing. Again, sorry that I misunderstood you and accused you of wanting to “gotcha” when that wasn’t your intent.

    Pan:
    I understand the frustration, Ziff, but your suggestions assume the leaders of the church aren’t already well aware of these questions/issues/concerns.

    I don’t know that I believe that, at least not entirely. I guess there’s awareness in the sense of having heard of people’s concerns, and then there’s awareness in the sense of believing people really do have those concerns. I wonder if GAs have heard of lots of concerns, but the way they talk about some of those concerns is so trivializing that I don’t think they take them at all seriously. I guess I’m hoping that the volume (or potentially articulateness) of the expression of those concerns might lead them to take seriously what they’ve previously ignored.

    At the heart of many of the suggested questions is really a plea that the church change one thing or another. But there may be good reasons that such things are not changed that have nothing to do with the Church’s knowledge regarding the concern.

    True, there may be good reasons. But there may also be bad reasons–institutional inertia and unwillingness to take people’s concerns seriously I mentioned above, for example. Certainly you’re right in suggesting that not everything members complain about will get changed. I’m just hoping that there are even a few places where the Church might change a little more quickly if they knew how more members felt.

  8. 8.

    Ziff – I’m not offended or anything of the sort because I can see how my question would come across that way. I just saw that there was apparantly a need to clarify and judging from the other posts on fmh regarding the topic, it seems like this is one that people share varying opinions on. Sorry if my original fmh post came across as if I was really angry and had a score to settle. I just wanted others to know that wasn’t the tone of my message so I felt bad it came across that way. If I get the guts to ask the Temple President or anyone else about it, I’ll gladly share what I learn!

  9. 9.

    Ziff,
    I read that thread on fMH as well and agree that a lot of it were statements of discomfort worded as questions. As of right now there doesn’t seem to be a good way of communicating concerns to church leaders who actually have the power to affect change.
    I have some personal questions that I will put in a letter and send to the first presidency just to see what happens. I can’t complain that they only send back form letters until I have actually tried it myself.
    I remember many GC talks when GA’s and first presidency members talk about or quote letters they have received. So they must be reading some, even though they don’t quote the doubtful ones ;)

  10. 10.

    Looks like a decent enough idea Ziff. Why don’t you submit this suggestion to the GA’s? Oh… wait…

  11. 11.

    #10: hahaha.

    Ziff, this post is great. Thanks for taking what turned into a bit of a dust-up and I’m afraid some bad feelings (blog vs blog), into a nice synthesized piece that adds new insights.

    the way they talk about some of those concerns is so trivializing that I don’t think they take them at all seriously

    YES. This happened during Prop8. The attempts at “I know some of you are hurting” sympathy from TPTB were always framed as “I know it is hard that some of you find your social life is being hampered because your friends don’t like the church’s involvement in the campaign.” It was insulting that the insinuation was that people who were really hurting during that time were simply having some vanity issues. The church is way more important to me than my social life, there’s just no contest. That wasn’t the problem. But, like you say, there was really no way to communicate what the true problems were.

    (Sorry hope that doesn’t cause a threadjack)

  12. 12.

    Hi, Ariel. I wondered where you were, although since you’ve mentioned illness of both you and your husband, I thought that was the cause.

    Come back.

  13. 13.

    Post 99 in the comments on the OP at FMH has a report from the session and the answers.

  14. 14.

    12 That’s the thing about Ardis; you never know where she stands.
    :)

  15. 15.

    I actually wrote a later letter, addressed to my Bishop this time, which he dutifully forwarded to the SP (trying to follow the prescribed order of things). The reaction was the same: no mention of sending it up the chain, still viewing it as a doctrinal issue I was struggling with, and still telling me that only God can give the prophet feedback.
    So if you want to tell Pres Monson about your service projects, go ahead, the secretaries let those by. But it seems like other types of feedback dont really get listened to.

  16. 16.

    Thanks for this post, Ziff.

    I think another thing that causes member’s concerns right now to be taken less-than seriously is that we have plenty of rhetoric about apostasy and the road thereto. If someone has a doctrinal concern, they are often written off as people who are being “carefully led down to hell”. I wish our leaders were more aware that doubt can exist in the faithful, and faith can exist in the doubters.

  17. 17.

    Austin, thanks for the pointer. I should’ve known Google would have a tool already for stuff like this!

    Hillary, thanks. And no, my impression at least was not at all that you came across as angry in the fMh thread.

    Juliane, that’s great! I’d love to hear what you hear back. You’re far more proactive than I am to actually write. I’m happy to moan online about the issue, but I’ve never actually tried writing to see if my letter would be passed back down to my bishop.

    Also, you make an excellent point about how GAs are always quoting from people’s letters in Conference. To me this suggests that maybe they do want to hear from the general membership, and that they only send the letter out saying “don’t write us” because they don’t want to raise expectations that they’ll actually respond to everything. Either that or (more cynically) I wonder if when going to write a talk on a particular topic, they don’t ask a staff person to go through letters they’ve received to find one that illustrates the points they want to make.

    Stephen, thanks for the pointer. I was encouraged to hear the visiting Seventy was Elder Jensen. I really like him a lot.

    Andrew, good point about the content of a letter being predictive of what happens to it. I guess that same pattern could still hold even if a formal feedback system were set up like I suggested. Maybe the more controversial sounding letters would be ignored and the information from the more benign sounding ones would be passed along.

    Nat, thanks! Good point that there’s lots of basis in Church rhetoric for ignoring or disparaging anyone who even asks questions.

  18. 18.

    I don’t consider a question about the temple ceremony a “gotcha” question. It is hard to understand and frankly, they don’t go to any great lengths to explain it. The church does try to smooth things over without really going into details, and it does hurt some of its members. It really does provoke the question “what are they hiding? why can’t there be honest dialog about these issues?”

    I can’t even get my stake to move the Mother’s Lounge from a closet into a normal sized classroom and to replace the chairs that have been there since our building was built (before I was even born). And its not just me…its been dozens of women, from multiple wards in our building, for years trying to get them to do something about it. The Bishops just say they will bring it up at a Stake Meeting (because its not their authority), and surprise, nothing changes. If its that hard to have your concerns heard and acted on at the lowest level, how in the world can we expect to have our concerns addressed by the higher level? If at the lower level they always deflect by saying “its above my power” and the higher level always deflects back to the lower level, how are we to get answers and change???

    No wonder so many people are frustrated! Other big companies and corporations manage to handle customer feedback, complaints, issues, etc. This isn’t a matter of how or man power or cost. Its an issue of WON’T. They won’t do it because they don’t want to. Its makes it rather easy to keep those blinders on when they have bouncers at the door deflecting any serious concerns. All they want to hear are stories to retell at Conference so the general masses *think* they actually have a line of communication with their leaders.

  19. 19.

    SB2, thanks! And thanks for a perfect example of trivializing. I wasn’t even thinking of that when I made that comment, but that’s spot on!

  20. 20.

    Great post and superb questions. I too wrote a detailed letter to the 1st Pres. concerning my x-husband’s subsequent marriage/sealing in the temple. I knew I would be asked to do this, not as a permission-giving letter, but as a factual letter. I was asked by my young bishop to address three items: my feelings on the upcoming sealing, what happened in our marriage, and child support status of x, I complied with all three requests, adressing it to each member of the 1st pres, my sp and bishop. I wrote a 7 page heart-felt letter. NOTHING!!!!! Then I heard from one of my older kids that x would be sealed to 2nd wife, essentially making me an unwilling polygamist wife beause he and I are still sealed. I am married to a nomo and to cancel the seal to x, I would lose my sealing to my kids, which was part of my letter, that women have no recourse in this situation. I initiated a talk with my sp, who had no answers. Then, I wrote a one page letter to all of the above, attached a copy of my first letter. I am angry and disappointed that not one of the five man I addressed my letter to acknowledged it or sat down with me to give me answers. I think that is rude! They asked me for my feelings and info, then ignored what i wrote. Where in the real world do real people do that? I do not ignore people in my family or circle of friends. Why is it ok for them to ignore me? Really upsets me. The letter writing began in April and to this day I have not had one of them respond to me. I do not plan to continue asking for acknowledment and answers. As an intelligent woman, the church, ie male priesthhod leaders, do not impress me. I am a 4th gen Mormon, was extremely active, lenghthy temple marriage, etc. But X was abusive, even as a bishops counselor, etc. You get the picture. I am the one shunned in our ward because of marrying a nomo, currently have no callings, and do not feel at home in the church. I figure if the 1st Pres, sp and bishop can ignore something I was asked to do and is of great importance to me, there is something deeply wrong in the church. That’s my .02.

  21. 21.

    Thanks for your comment, Sher. I’m really sorry you haven’t even gotten a response on your clearly more important letter than the kinds I was largely thinking of (suggestions on procedural changes). Although ideally, I would wish that letters such as yours might push for actual doctrinal changes, for example about polygamy as you mention.

  22. 22.

    Ziff,

    I think your post sort of rests on the assumption that every concern can or should only be dealt with by going to Church leaders, which I think is a wrong assumption.

    I think you’ve probably heard other options that could be listed with your three, like:

    - Let it go. (No, for real, not just in begruding way as though doing that signals that the leaders don’t care)
    - Go to God for insight and help and relief and that one-on-one ministering that we crave.

    I think in addition to the problems you raise about having free access to our leaders, I think we also would risk not expecting enough of ourselves to sift through our ideas and questions enough to figure out what really ought to be brought before our leaders. And also risk our own personal spiritual self-reliance.

    BTW, I believe our leaders care *deeply* about us individuals, and if they could, they would minister to us individually.

    As such, while I think it’s normal to want audience with a leader (who hasn’t had that instinctual desire to ask a GA a question, and even who doesn’t think first of talking with the bishop or SP when something happens in the ward/stake before any other solution is considered?), I think we should be more willing to consider that as important as we fell our ideas/questions may be, it really may not be the right thing to go directly to them.

    I would suggest that in most cases, if we were honest with ourselves, the instinct we often have to go as far up the chain as we can to address questions or concerns is more a reflection of our own our impatience with the process of personal or Church growth than it is evidence of inspiration that such an action would be the ‘right’ thing to do.

  23. 23.

    I wanted also to share a personal experience:

    I once had a spiritual “aha” that blew me away (came after some serious study significantly above my usual daily habit). I confess that I sat there simultaneously in awe and also feeling some frustration, like “why don’t our leaders talk more about these things?” (The aha was related to something very significant in our doctrine.)

    Wouldn’t you know it, open on my bed was an article that basically outlined what I had studied to get the aha I had. The keys were right there in a talk/article I had heard or read multiple times! I was so sobered and humbled and gently and lovingly chastised by heaven.

    They HAD talked about it. I just hadn’t been ready or willing to pay the price or the time wasn’t right for that layer to be taken from my mind with the Spirit.

    (Remembering this experience always leaves me wondering what else I’m missing! I’m sure it’s a lot.)

    I think in general, our leaders are telling us more than we think they are, they are doing more than people give them credit for, they are more plugged into issues than those who insist they are out of touch think they are, and they don’t need unsolicited ideas to come nearly as often as we’re inclined to think they do (I think they seek and have access to more input and feedback than people often think).

    And we can receive more inspiration than we sometimes believe we can. ;) Their words and teachings can be seen as springboards and testing points for our own personal revelation, but shouldn’t be relied on as a substitute for it. I suspect we all live way beneath our privileges in receiving answers. Are we really paying the price in patience and hard work and fulfilling our own stewardships with deliberateness and diligence? Are we really receiving what are leaders have already given us to study and learn from?

    And similarly, I bet most of us don’t even get our visiting/home teaching done every month, we ignore our families and other things too much in order to blog or whatever (said only half jokingly), and we probably only give cursory attention too much of the time to prayer and scripture study and other personal worship. Who are we to tell the leaders what they should be doing? (Seriously.)

    (Now excuse me while I finally stop pontificating here to go repent since I haven’t even cracked my scriptures open today.)

  24. 24.

    And I am coming back to reiterate that I know there might be exceptions to what I have said above. There may be situations where some direct communication would be appropriate. (e.g., If I had concerns related to a sealing cancellation situation, I might be writing a letter to highest leadership because that is one of the few examples where going to that level makes sense since that decision is personal and only can be made at that level).

    Sher, I don’t know much about that, but seem to recall that responses regarding sealings are not always quick. I hope you get some response sooner than later, but do also hope that you can give them the benefit of the doubt — if for no other reason than for your own sake; it sounds like it’s eating you up inside.

    I’m sorry for all you have been through.

  25. 25.

    I think your post sort of rests on the assumption that every concern can or should only be dealt with by going to Church leaders, which I think is a wrong assumption.

    No! It absolutely does not. Currently the GAs tell us that we can never go to them with concerns about the Church. Never! They tell us they do not want to hear from us. Ever. All I am saying is that we should be able to pass concerns along to them sometimes. That you read this as my wanting to be able to pass concerns to them always is bizarre.

    I think in addition to the problems you raise about having free access to our leaders, I think we also would risk not expecting enough of ourselves to sift through our ideas and questions enough to figure out what really ought to be brought before our leaders. And also risk our own personal spiritual self-reliance.

    You think we would risk having the ability to work out anything on our own if we had any option at all to pass even a few concerns on to GAs? I guess this makes sense in light of your inability to distinguish between passing all concerns on to them and passing only some. But really, do most people have trouble working things out for themselves because they can complain to local leaders? Sure, a few people may fail to work some things out because they’d rather complain, but everyone?

    I would suggest that in most cases, if we were honest with ourselves, the instinct we often have to go as far up the chain as we can to address questions or concerns is more a reflection of our own our impatience with the process of personal or Church growth than it is evidence of inspiration that such an action would be the ‘right’ thing to do.

    I don’t deny that a desire to push concerns up the line is due partly to impatience. But it’s also very much driven by the fact that local leaders can’t do anything to solve general concerns. Recall the example in the OP. If someone finds the “hearken” covenant in the temple to be belittling, what good is it going to do her to talk to her bishop about it? What she needs is to convey to the GAs that if “obey” can become “hearken” then maybe “hearken” can become “mutually hearken” or something.

    I think in general, our leaders are telling us more than we think they are, they are doing more than people give them credit for, they are more plugged into issues than those who insist they are out of touch think they are, and they don’t need unsolicited ideas to come nearly as often as we’re inclined to think they do (I think they seek and have access to more input and feedback than people often think).

    These are assumptions not backed by evidence. I disagree that they’re plugged into all the issues you think they are. Like I said in an earlier comment, they may be aware of some concerns in the vaguest sense, but they don’t take them at all seriously.

    Also, the idea that they don’t need any unsolicited ideas passed up from the general membership rests on the assumption that they are, for practical purposes, infallible. I do not share this assumption. To deny it would be to deny experiences like that of Zelophehad’s daughters, who pushed to get their father’s inheritance because they had no brothers, or Emma Smith, who pushed for a solution to chewing tobacco.

    I suspect we all live way beneath our privileges in receiving answers. Are we really paying the price in patience and hard work and fulfilling our own stewardships with deliberateness and diligence? Are we really receiving what are leaders have already given us to study and learn from?

    And similarly, I bet most of us don’t even get our visiting/home teaching done every month, we ignore our families and other things too much in order to blog or whatever (said only half jokingly), and we probably only give cursory attention too much of the time to prayer and scripture study and other personal worship. Who are we to tell the leaders what they should be doing? (Seriously.)

    This goes with your idea that impatience causes desire to give GAs feedback. Sure, maybe sin also leads to it. But it’s not the only cause. Your assumption that GAs are effectively infallible rears its ugly head again.

    Really, if you’re going to call me to repentance and suggest that I don’t read scriptures or pray enough, I appreciate your at least doing it obliquely. But you’re still violating our comment policy, and I’m still going to ban you if you don’t quit it.

  26. 26.

    I wanted to follow up on the point made so well by sb2 in #11, and by Ziff in the OP. There’s a difference between being aware of a particular concern, and understanding it. I have absolutely no doubt that church leaders are aware, for example, that there are feminist Mormons who have some real concerns about the church. But I honestly don’t think they get the concerns. The reason I think this is that the ways they talk about gender almost inevitably exacerbate the problems feminists raise. If they understood the issues, I think they would at least talk about them in a way that conveyed that–even if they then disagreed with the feminists.

    And I actually don’t think it’s fair of us as members to assume that the GAs, by virtue of their calling/inspiration, are not only aware of but understand all the concerns of church members. When I hear a GA make a comment about gender that I find extremely problematic, I don’t think, wow, he’s really trying to be hurtful–which is what I might assume if I thought he really understood the issue–instead, I think, he’s clearly well-intentioned, but I don’t think he really gets the problem here. Taking a position that leaders are fallible, remembering that they’re human beings, in other words, allows me to take a more charitable stance.

    As GAs travel to different stakes, my impression is that they mostly spend their time meeting with the leadership of that stake. And while I’m sure that to some extent keeps them aware of what’s going on with the membership, it also means that everything’s getting filtered through middle management, so to speak. I don’t know how practical this is, but I think it would be fabulous if there were more times when–as actually happened recently in my stake–a visiting GA spent some time with a group of members just listening to what they had to say. Not dispensing answers; just listening.

  27. 27.

    michelle, you’re framing this as an issue of wanting one-on-one ministering, and I don’t think that’s what Ziff is talking about in this post. It’s not about the desire of people to go to various authorities to work through their personal spiritual challenges. It’s about the frustration of not having a way to convey to the leaders of the church the problems that are caused by various teachings and practices. And given that they’re the only ones who can do anything about this, the desire to communicate with them seems pretty reasonable to me.

    In fact, this struck me as a really mild proposal. It’s not calling for picketing outside Temple Square or angry letter-writing campaigns or making dramatic statements to the press or I don’t know what else. Ziff’s simply proposing that we find a realistic, practical way to allow for members to convey concerns. He’s not asking for the GAs to respond to them personally. He’s not demanding that the church change particular things. If you disagree with the set-up he’s proposing, okay, but it seems a bit over-the-top to respond by exhorting us all to seek out more personal revelation.

    Because it’s not an either-or. It’s not that you have to choose between seeking out more personal inspiration/revelation, or looking for a way to convey questions and problems to church leadership. I see no reason why you couldn’t do both–in fact, that would seem the ideal.

  28. 28.

    One more thing–

    I would suggest that in most cases, if we were honest with ourselves, the instinct we often have to go as far up the chain as we can to address questions or concerns is more a reflection of our own our impatience with the process of personal or Church growth than it is evidence of inspiration that such an action would be the ‘right’ thing to do.

    I have a hard time with comments like this because while it’s one thing to talk about your personal motivations, it comes across as rather presumptuous to talk about the motivations of others.

    (who hasn’t had that instinctual desire to ask a GA a question, and even who doesn’t think first of talking with the bishop or SP when something happens in the ward/stake before any other solution is considered?),

    I actually imagine that to some extent this is a personality issue. Some people might have an “instinctual desire” to ask questions of GAs and go immediately to the bishop, whereas others might have an instinctual desire to avoid/ignore authority and do their own thing. Again, I’m uneasy with your generalizations.

  29. 29.

    OK, let me back up a bit with my thoughts. I know we will always likely have some fundamental disagreements, but I ask you to please hear me out so you can understand where I’m coming from on this.

    It’s about the frustration of not having a way to convey to the leaders of the church the problems that are caused by various teachings and practices.

    I understand the frustration, but I am not convinced the solution Ziff proposes would do anything to that frustration as much as some think it might, except perhaps to get it off one’s chest (which in and of itself is a valid need, so I get that idea).

    But I guess I wonder if that would be enough. It think it risks setting everyone up for more frustration. If they don’t respond and/or if they don’t change things according to one’s suggestions, then what?

    I’m honestly concerned that the kind of feelings that have shown up in this thread would result — feelings of not being cared about or heard and such (including attacking their character and/or making assumptions about their motives), which I think is unfair to the leaders, too.

    I’m uneasy with your generalizations.

    Fair enough. But I’m uneasy with the generalizations about the leaders and also about *my* feelings about them. I am not saying that I believe they are infallible at all. There’s a lot more nuance to my thoughts than that.

    If they understood the issues, I think they would at least talk about them in a way that conveyed that–even if they then disagreed with the feminists.

    I’m not so sure that it’s that simple. I’m not convinced there is a way to talk about some of these things in a way that won’t be offensive or frustrating to some simply because I think the core of some of our doctrine and practices fundamentally fly in the face of feminist ideology. I certainly have no authority be able to delineate where that line may be (what is or isn’t able to be changed), but I think it needs to be acknowledged that that could be part of the challenge here.

    I have a hard time with comments like this because while it’s one thing to talk about your personal motivations, it comes across as rather presumptuous to talk about the motivations of others.

    Sorry if I went overboard there, but then let me say that I do think there is some potential presumptuousness in all of the dynamic and assumptions I see and have seen for years on these topics. Members are fallible, too, but I don’t see that acknowledged much at all. The problems are always seeing as being the leaders’ or the Church’s fault.

    It’s not that you have to choose between seeking out more personal inspiration/revelation, or looking for a way to convey questions and problems to church leadership.

    OK, I get that. But the thing is, in my mind, such a system really does already exist. Someone mentioned corporations in a previous comment. So let’s play with that idea for a minute. Can you think of one organization the size of the Church (with 13 million people in its ranks) that would dream of providing or inviting unfettered ability for individual people to air concerns directly to its high-level leadership? There is a chain of reporting and a process for airing concerns that pretty much never includes employees going directly to the leadership. The church has such a system. I’d also argue that the leadership is a lot more out and about and around and involved with it’s people, investing themselves directly and through other GAs and other leaders than many if not most corporate leaders in comparable positions with comparable responsibilities in a worldwide organization would be.

    FWIW, I know of concerns taken to stake leaders that were then sent to SLC. I know it’s not necessarily what people want, but there IS a system for getting feedback ‘up the chain’ and I think it’s pretty similar to what any organization would set up.

    I don’t know how practical this is, but I think it would be fabulous if there were more times when–as actually happened recently in my stake–a visiting GA spent some time with a group of members just listening to what they had to say.

    I agree this is fabulous. I am personally aware of other situations where input-seeking has happened even more directly from levels higher up. I know they are asking questions of people, because I’ve seen it. Again, being heard matters. I get that. But I think they are asking questions more than some think they are.

    But besides that, if I’m understanding Ziff’s post, a main crux of his point is that meetings with ‘lower-level’ leaders like the one you mention are insufficient because they aren’t directly with the apostles or prophets, so that kind of nulls out the value of what you have mentioned.

    Hope some of that helps explain what I am thinking.

  30. 30.

    I am not saying that I believe they are infallible at all. There’s a lot more nuance to my thoughts than that.

    It seems clear, though, that you believe they are effectively infallible. If there’s no information or feedback or complaint or concern that could ever be brought by any member that deserves to reach their ears, isn’t that just another way of saying that for practical purposes they’re infallible?

    Can you think of one organization the size of the Church (with 13 million people in its ranks) that would dream of providing or inviting unfettered ability for individual people to air concerns directly to its high-level leadership?

    Maybe I wasn’t clear enough in the OP. I said that I’d like some mechanism for them to officially take feedback, and that I realized that it would be a huge administrative hassle, so some Church employees would probably have to filter through everything and pass on digest versions to GAs.

    I think this misunderstanding was there in your first string of comments too. Currently, there’s no official way to give feedback. Here I suggest a way to provide some feedback. But it appears to come across to you that this can only mean unfettered access–meaning it appears that I can have President Monson’s cell phone number and call him daily with my concerns? There’s a wide range of possibilities in between. I’m hoping for something that’s just a little way along the range from the current nothing at all.

  31. 31.

    If there’s no information or feedback or complaint or concern that could ever be brought by any member that deserves to reach their ears,

    {snip}

    I realized that it would be a huge administrative hassle, so some Church employees would probably have to filter through everything and pass on digest versions to GAs.

    I don’t see that as being so much different than local or even some general leaders gathering and sifting through the feedback that members might have (verbal or written) and deciding what goes up the chain…

    …which mechanisms already exist, imo.

    I guess the bottom line here is that I disagree with you at a fundamental level that members currently have no voice or way to get messages to the leaders.

  32. 32.

    Thanks for clarifying, michelle.

  33. 33.

    The problem with gatekeepers for feedback is that the gatekeepers have biases. Since GA’s can’t be expected to read and respond to every letter perhaps a better method would be a random sampling of letters or something. But I don’t expect that to happen.

  34. 34.

    Excellent point, Geoff.

  35. 35.

    Thanks for clarifying, michelle.

    Thanks for giving me the chance to do so.

  36. 36.

    There is a chain of reporting and a process for airing concerns that pretty much never includes employees going directly to the leadership. The church has such a system.

    Companies also have an ombudsman to handle issues where the chain of command *is* the problem- the church has no such thing.

  37. 37.

    Thanks, Ziff, for this post. I think one of the biggest problems in any big organization is the tension between the nuts and bolts bureaucracy and the needs of individuals.

    Here’s a very practical (non spiritual) problem I faced with church bureaucracy: When I was called on my mission to a tropical island, I received a packet with instructions about precisely what to bring and was told not to try to contact my mission president directly, but to communicate with the Salt Lake office if I had any questions. My packet included directions to bring a heavy winter coat, a rain coat, two pairs of woolen stockings, etc. -things that just didn’t make sense in a place in which nighttime temperatures don’t fall below 80 degrees. I called the Salt Lake office and asked if it was possible that I may have been sent the wrong packet. I was informed by a very frazzled and indignant man that I needed to have more faith and that my mission clothing assignment had been inspired by the Lord and prayed about by my temple president, etc. He actually called me to repentance over the phone, which shocked me a little bit since I had just assumed there was some sort of clerical error. I foolishly went ahead and brought a bunch of useless clothes, against my better judgement.

    When I finally arrived on the island and had the chance to meet my MP’s wife and ask her about it, she explained that we had been sent a packet with the generic missionary guidelines. What struck me as interesting was that she said that she understood it was a burden and people were buying and bringing things that they couldn’t use, but that if she were to send a more detailed and precise listing of reasonable clothing it would have to be approved by the Quorum of the 12, would take months to go through, and may have negative personal consequences for her because she would be perceived as some kind of rabble rouser. She intimated that she had attempted to communicate some other minor, location-specific suggestions for change earlier and had been met with raised eyebrows and rebuke, and she “didn’t want to get her husband in trouble.”

    While I recognize that missionary work is in a class by itself in terms of church bureaucracy, I still feel like that incident illustrated a few things – first, that the current chain of command system is certainly not without its flaws and breakdowns; second, that there are many instances in the church, whether relatively minor hassles (like my issue) or deeply troubling lifelong spiritual agonizings (like questions of presiding and equality) that may be subject to fundamental misunderstandings on the part of leadership; and third, that it may be that middle management is trying to advocate for change at the local level but is being shut down.

  38. 38.

    Wow, Lurker, thanks for sharing your experience. That’s really interesting that the MP’s wife found the bureaucracy so unforgiving of such a minor and obvious customization!

  39. 39.

    One more thing – I just realized that I was taking for granted a couple of things that weren’t explicit in the OP or in my comment, so here goes:

    I think one of the reasons that people want to communicate with the GAs is because often the only way to affect reasonable administrative change at the local level (like allowing sister missionaries to wear tropical appropriate clothing from my first comment) is to get permission from the highest levels. When people are told to communicate with their local leaders and then their local leaders are discouraged by higher levels from making changes related to their stewardships, the result can be circular chains of buck-passing and the prevention of real communication and real change.

    I also feel like my experience is typical of responses to questions and suggestions for change or even requests for clarification in the subculture – regardless of the topic, there really is a top-down structure that discourages (to the point of pathologizing) almost any kind of active questioning.

  40. 40.

    Lurker: may have negative personal consequences for her because she would be perceived as some kind of rabble rouser… didn’t want to get her husband in trouble.

    Interesting case study. This story illustrates the other problem with the current system of gatekeepers between the front lines and the top management. The reality is that in many cases Yes-Men are much more likely to rise in the ranks than people with maverick tendencies. But it is the mavericks that usually are sending the comments up the chain. So basically you have the mavericks having to get past uber-compliant-with-the-status-quo gatekeepers. It is no wonder that the feedback system is ineffective.

    As Starfoxy noted, there is no Ombudsman in place and there probably should be.

  41. 41.

    If they understood the issues, I think they would at least talk about them in a way that conveyed that–even if they then disagreed with the feminists.

    I’m not so sure that it’s that simple. I’m not convinced there is a way to talk about some of these things in a way that won’t be offensive or frustrating to some simply because I think the core of some of our doctrine and practices fundamentally fly in the face of feminist ideology. I certainly have no authority be able to delineate where that line may be (what is or isn’t able to be changed), but I think it needs to be acknowledged that that could be part of the challenge here.

    I’m not calling for a way of saying things that won’t be offensive or frustrating to anyone at all; I agree that that’s impossible (and probably not even desirable). And I’m not talking about the fact that they say things I disagree with. I’m talking about leaders conveying that they understand what people’s actual concerns are, even if they for various reasons are opting not to change anything. But the concern I hear being addressed over and over and over is that women don’t realize how special they are, how important their role is. There might well be women who need to hear that message. But if that’s a response to feminist concerns, it’s completely missing the boat. And if it’s not a response to feminism, it would seem that they’re simply opting not to address feminist concerns at all, or are not really aware of them. Either way, it doesn’t leave me with much evidence that they understand the issues or take them seriously.

    Let me add that I genuinely believe that the leaders of the church are good men—this isn’t at all meant as an attack—and I realize they have a lot more on their plate than issues of feminism. And that there’s doubtless a lot about their position and challenges that I don’t get. But I would find it hard to believe that they, like all of us, aren’t limited by their experiences and position in life. I’ve talked about these issues with lots of priesthood leaders over the years. Many of them were amazing, caring, spiritual men, whom I admire deeply. Very, very few of them really got the feminist stuff. I think it’s actually pretty unusual for LDS men to be tuned into this kind of thing. And those who are aren’t usually the ones who get called to leadership positions in the church.

    Thinking about this more, I wonder if Ziff’s proposal would be more useful for some issues than others. I think it would be fabulous for some of the changes that WAVE is working on, for example, in terms of specific suggestions, ideas, proposals. It’s possible that other issues might be addressed better in a different context. But I think the issue of how communication happens in a top-down organization like ours is, and how to make it happen better, is certainly one worth discussing.

    (By the way, I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “feminist ideology,” but around here I would hazard to say that we use the term feminism to express a commitment to the personhood of women, and resistance to ideas, practices, teachings, structures, etc. that go against that. Whether or not that goes against “the core of some of our doctrine and practices”—well, I guess that’s the one of the continuing questions on this blog.)

    I’ve often seen you make statements like your comment above:

    I think in general, our leaders are telling us more than we think they are, they are doing more than people give them credit for, they are more plugged into issues than those who insist they are out of touch think they are, and they don’t need unsolicited ideas to come nearly as often as we’re inclined to think they do (I think they seek and have access to more input and feedback than people often think).

    I’m not sure how to parse what you mean by “we” and “people,” and where you’re situating yourself in relation to these groups. The gist of this comment sounds like an assertion that you, unlike the rest of us, have a special knowledge of what’s really going on with our leaders. But these kinds of vague assertions aren’t very persuasive without evidence.

    Members are fallible, too, but I don’t see that acknowledged much at all. The problems are always seeing as being the leaders’ or the Church’s fault.

    I will freely admit that I can be self-righteous and arrogant at times, and if what you’re looking for is an acknowledgment that I’m fallible, I’m more than happy to give it. Honestly, once I start talking about things, I’m not always sure that I even agree with myself. If I ran the church, it would be a disaster.

    But this is the thing. I don’t object to something like patriarchy because I want to set myself up as some kind of competing authority to the prophet. It’s because I’ve seen it wreak spiritual havoc in the lives of people I care about. And the explanations of how the fault was in the people who got hurt, because they just failed to perceive things correctly or didn’t have enough faith—that rings pretty hollow to me. Because the people I’ve seen get most hurt by the system are the ones who believed in it, who really made an effort to make it work—who didn’t take the route of deciding the Church was in the wrong. I’m obviously not saying that everyone who believes with that kind of commitment ends up that way. But I can say quite confidently that my own spiritual sanity, such as it is, rests on being able to say that when it comes to certain issues, I simply disagree. Hubris it may be, but it’s what keeps me going.

    And as for the concern that those who raise objections are unwilling to consider the possibility that we might be in the wrong–believe me, we get that message loud and clear. All the time. From General Conference, from fellow ward members, from church publications. There are wards in which if you object to the color of President Monson’s tie, you’re warned of being on the high road to apostasy. If the blogs go too far in the other direction, I think it’s often as a reaction to that, and I think it’s useful to read what people are saying with that context in mind.

    Can you think of one organization the size of the Church (with 13 million people in its ranks) that would dream of providing or inviting unfettered ability for individual people to air concerns directly to its high-level leadership?

    As a practical matter, I completely agree. (Though I’m still not with you on your concern that having free access to leaders could be spiritually problematic because it would make us less self-reliant; in that case, the early Saints were a bunch of spiritual weaklings.) But I think where we disagree is whether the current system is effective. I think something like the FMH thread that inspired this post is evidence that for a lot of people, it’s not.

  42. 42.

    If they understood the issues, I think they would at least talk about them in a way that conveyed that…

    I agree with this. There is a world of difference between understanding that a problem exists and understanding the problem, and I have some direct personal experience with this.

    At a stake conference just two years before the 1978 priesthood revelation, one of the most popular and charismatic general authorities of the last half of the 20th century told a joke about “a little colored boy” who got caught stealing watermelons. It was painfully obvious that he meant well but also that he really didn’t get it. He came from a time and place which rendered him unable to think about race in a serious way.

    My second example has to do with the dysfunctional way we speak about gender. The easiest way for modern Mormons to reconcile the obvious structural inequality of a male-only priesthood is to go overboard in the other direction rhetorically. So women are not just loved children of God, they are super-spiritual, long-suffering angel Mothers, and by comparison, men are doofuses a la Al Bundy. Just a few years ago in general conference a senior apostle cracked a joke about the the way men help get the children ready for church — while Mom is inside the house actually doing the work, Dad does his part by sitting in the car in the driveway and leaning on the horn. Har dee har har.

    This has nothing at all to do with the leadership being unable to address problems because they are constrained by eternal doctrinal truths. It has to do with them feeling comfortable making public wisecracks in a way that streamrolls over faithful LDS people doing their level best. It is much more charitable to assume that they mean well but really don’t understand what is going on than to assume that they get it but go right ahead and act thoughtlessly anyway.

  43. 43.

    This is a *great* idea! My employer is a large company which holds regular meetings between the CEO and all employees in groups of around 100 at a time. You’re allowed to submit questions in advance, anonymously if you like, or you can raise your hand in the session and ask whatever you want. It works great!

    I asked in one session what our pandemic flu plan was, and got an answer about our Y2K plan that was still active for big emergencies, but no specifics on a pandemic flu plan. But within a few months the new pandemic flu plan was announced on our website. That’s an one example of a time when the system worked and I was able to help. I’m a total peon, just one of the thousands of engineers who work for my company, but definitely feel I was heard.

    The church is a body. The 15 are the brains and heart, and the members, are like cells and limbs…. members, in fact. The motor nerves are well-connected in this body. The 15 are well able to direct us via conference talks, lessons, manuals, and letters read across the pulpit. But we all know that the sensory nerves aren’t really working so well. The signal gets lost on the way up. I just do think the church body needs some sensory nerves in place to be able to function well as a whole.

  44. 44.

    I think one of the reasons that people want to communicate with the GAs is because often the only way to affect reasonable administrative change at the local level (like allowing sister missionaries to wear tropical appropriate clothing from my first comment) is to get permission from the highest levels.

    I think Lurker brings up an important point here.

    Change in the church can only come from the very tippy-top.

    Maybe what we need is not a way to communicate our ideas and concerns to the GAs, which, as people have pointed out, is impossibly inefficient and time-consuming.

    Maybe what we need is a diffusion of power, where it’s not just the president of the church that gets to have the final say on everything. We have the framework for such a diffusion readily laid with our focus on personal revelation. We should be allowed to decide things such as “what to wear in our tropical mission area” without worrying that we’re disobeying the prophet and, by extension, God.

    But as long as we remain completely non-democratic, with absolute authoritarian control by a small group of individuals, we have to rely on our access to them to bring about change.

  45. 45.

    Sorry for the following threadjack, but #20 has been bothering me since I first read it.

    I am married to a nomo and to cancel the seal to x, I would lose my sealing to my kids, which was part of my letter, that women have no recourse in this situation.

    I’m a born and raised member who served a mission, but I had never before heard that a temple divorce will dissolve the sealing between parents and children. Is this really the doctrine? Sher – I’m sorry for your situation, it sounds dreadful.

  46. 46.

    No. It is not doctrine. I know from personal experience that whenever a sealing between a man and a woman is cancelled their respective stake presidents each get letters from the first presidency advising them to make sure that any children in that family fully understand that the cancellation of sealing in no way affects the sealing blessings in their (the children’s) lives.

    So, no, children do NOT automatically not lose sealing to their parents if their parents’ sealing is cancelled.

  47. 47.

    oops. Double negative. Poor proofreading.

    That last sentence should read:

    So, no, children do NOT automatically lose sealing to their parents if their parents’ sealing is cancelled.

  48. 48.

    Lurker,
    My experience is that most bishops and stake presidents are simply inexperienced with temple sealing cancellations and have never received one of those letters and therefore they don’t know what the facts are and, unless someone specifically asks them to ask their regional authority, don’t know where to find those facts. It is one of the challenges of a lay clergy.

    Reading Sher’s comments I think she was probably misinformed about the intended role of her letters in the decision about her ex’s situation. Former spouses are routinely asked for their input in writing in such decisions. It would be unconscionable if they were not. However, those letters are not responded to any more than any of the other letters solicited from bishops or anyone else involved in the case. They are used similarly to the way a “brief” submitted to a secular court would be. It is added to the body of evidence used in the decision making. I am sad that this was not explained to Sher. She obviously feels like there is much left tragically unresolved in her relationship with her spouse and his relationship to the church and was hoping that this venue would lead to some resolution there. However, in neither secular nor religious courts will a brief that has been submitted and lists injustices that have not been resolved, have those injustices addressed in that venue. They need to be addressed in a venue specifically called to address those issues. Her bishop or stake president, if they are wise, can start that process with her. I hope for everyone’s sake that they are and they do.

  49. 49.

    When I have had questions raised by reviewing the lesson manual, I have written the Church Education department for clarification or to ease my mind. They have responded every time. However, I did notice a black helicopter with an angel Moroni on the tail circling my house from time to time…its the risks I take…

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