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.”