Leadership in the Kingdom

Charlton Heston as Moses.
Charlton Heston as Moses.

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

The Friday morning session of the April 1973 General Conference had a remarkably clear trajectory over the course of its five talks: a smooth change of focus from the leaders to the “nobodies” of the Church.

President Harold B. Lee began, in Strengthen the Stakes of Zion, by stating that “the greatest of all the underlying reasons for the strength of this church is that those who keep the commandments of God are 100 percent behind the leadership of this church.” Following that talk. Elder Theodore M. Tuttle (in What is a Living Prophet?) observed that:

It is an easy thing to believe in the dead prophets. Many people do. For some mysterious reason there is an aura of credibility about them. It is not so with the prophet who lives among us, who must meet life’s everyday challenges. But it is a great thing to believe in the living prophets. Our salvation is contingent upon our belief in a living prophet and adherence to his word. He alone has the right to revelation for the whole Church. His words, above those of any other man, ought to be esteemed and considered by the Church as well as by the world. One day this truth will be understood.

And finally, continuing the theme of emphasizing leaders but shifting more to the concerns of the rank and file members, Elder L. Tom Perry described (in Consider Your Ways) how he had:

watched [the leaders] armed with the Holy Ghost as a constant companion, taking on enormous work loads at an age when most men would be confined to rocking chairs, and engaging in strenuous travel schedules with great enthusiasm to be anxiously engaged in building the kingdom of God. Then by observation, the realization has come to me that this great Spirit that blesses them in their activities is not a special gift to them alone, but is available to all mankind if they will but be partakers and earnestly seek it and be humbly guided by it. [emphasis added]

Emphasis on leadership within the Church is not my favorite doctrine nor my favorite cultural aspect of Mormonism. I have never been a very good follower. That is, to a great extent, why I set out on the General Conference Odyssey to begin with: to offset my innate contrarian personality. But I do appreciate the necessity of leaders for the institutional Church and—more than that—the unique Mormon theology that works to combat (to the extent that we pay attention to it) humanity’s innate fixation on hero worship and hierarchy.

Revisiting the talks I quote just now, President Lee’s discussion of a leader’s role is unconventional:

The great responsibility that the leaders and teachers in the Church have is to persuade, to direct aright, that the commandments of Almighty God will be so lived as to prevent the individual from falling into the trap of the evil one who would persuade him not to believe in God and not to follow the leadership of the Church.

Emphasizing persuasion (rather than obedience or command or compulsion) is more than just a softening of the traditional ideas of authoritarian leadership, it radically shifts the obligation away from followers and on to leaders. This is a profoundly service-oriented model of leadership.

Elder Tuttle had a similar sentiment, writing that it is the “right and responsibility of the prophets to counsel the Saints” (emphasis added). I believe that within the Mormon emphasis on leadership and conformity there is also a kernel of subversion. To lead, within the Church, is not the same thing as what we typically expect from leadership in business, or in government, or in the military.

And so we come to the last two talks of this session. In “Go, and Do Thou Likewise”, Elder Robert L. Simpson makes two points that further deepen the Mormon idea of leadership. First, referring to the greatest leader, he writes that “the Savior is even more concerned for our success here in mortality than we ourselves are.” This an echo of the uniquely Mormon teaching that God’s work and glory is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” The kind of leadership that President Lee described—a leadership of calling and enticing rather than commanding and compelling—is God’s own form of leadership.

Elder Simpson goes farther, however. Not only is there a connection (service) between leadership of Christ and the leadership that our prophets and apostles strive for, but all of us are engaged in this same program. This isn’t some kind of exclusive responsibility of formal leaders. The difference between someone with a formal leadership calling and someone without one is a difference of degree, not of kind. Thus, “Before the foundations of this earth were laid, a glorious decision was made allowing you and me to be our brother’s keeper.” In other words: we’re all responsible for influencing (for good or ill) each other, and formal leadership within the Church hierarchy is just one specialized example of the general concept of interdependent influence.

According to Elder Simpson, the most important thing is not some kind of abstract leadership of organizations, but rather concrete concern for singular individuals. Thus: “No man can become “perfect in Christ” without a deep, abiding, and sincere concern for his fellow beings,” and finally:

There are those who associate high calling in the Church with guaranteed rights to the blessings of heaven, but I wish to declare without reservation that the ultimate judgment for every man will be on the simplest terms, and most certainly on what each has done to bless other people in a quiet, unassuming way.

All of this prepares the way for the final talk of the session, In His Strength by Marvin J. Ashton. Elder Ashton begins with a story about all the trouble he and many other people went through to help Bill get married on time despite an impending blizzard. Bill said thank you to Elder Ashton and added, “I don’t understand why you went to all this trouble to help me. Really, I’m nobody.”

Elder Ashton’s reply was both stern and loving: “Bill, I have never helped a ‘nobody’ in my life. In the kingdom of our Heavenly Father no man is a ‘nobody.’” Elder Ashton went on:

I am certain our Heavenly Father is displeased when we refer to ourselves as “nobody.” How fair are we when we classify ourselves a “nobody”? How fair are we to our families? How fair are we to our God?

And then he stated flatly:

I declare with all the strength I possess that we have a Heavenly Father who claims and loves all of us regardless of where our steps have taken us. You are his son and you are his daughter, and he loves you.

In this way, Elder Ashton has completed the shift from an emphasis on formal leadership in the beginning of the talk to the fundamental concerns of Christian religion at the end: love of individual sous, each of which has great worth in the sight of God:

God help us to realize that one of our greatest responsibilities and privileges is to lift a self-labeled “nobody” to a “somebody,” who is wanted, needed, and desirable.

My unease with hierarchy and authority is not the kind of thing that will evaporate in a day, a month, or even a year. In fact, there are aspects of that unease that should not disappear, because the conventional model of hierarchy and authority is one of inequality and coercion. The work I am engaged in is disentangling the counterfeit, worldly model of leadership from the true model of leadership in the kingdom.

This is tricky work, because the true model of leadership is something that you will never see reflected perfectly in any of our leaders here on Earth. As much as we might love and respect the Lord’s chosen leaders, they are mortals just like us, striving in their flawed way towards an ideal that can’t be reached in this life. But—through the example of the Savior and through the teachings of prophets—we can catch glimpses of that ideal.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

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