Earthly Failings, Heavenly Success


Mormonism is navigating unpredictable waters in the Age of Information. For the better part of half a century Church members have held unwavering confidence in Church leaders—in counsel, in doctrinal explication, in moral guidance, and in running the Church—as a cornerstone of their religious lives. Of course we don’t embrace the notion of prophetic infallibility (the joke goes: Catholics claim to accept Papal infallibility, but none of them act like it, while Mormons claim to reject prophetic infallibility, but act like they believe it unconditionally—a bit of a disservice to both traditions, really, but still funny). The Mormon version of Papal Infallibility actually goes something like this: Church leaders, including the president of the Church, are imperfect human beings, but God will not permit their imperfections to fundamentally lead the Church astray. (There is a bit of irony here, in that this truism was first articulated by a Church president who many in the Church were frankly and openly concerned was, in fact, leading the Church astray).

That approach to confidence in Church leaders actually leaves quite a bit of latitude for application. It could inspire absolute confidence in what leaders say and do, and a hesitancy to ever question Church leaders, practices, or policies. Or, it could inspire freedom to disagree with and question all manner of, well, questionable teachings, policies, claims, etc., safe in the basic confidence that the Church is still being guided by the Lord, He is in control, things will progress, we will progress, more revelations are coming, and problems will work themselves out with time. And most of us find ourselves somewhere in between these positions, accepting both in various ways an to varying degrees, regardless of which pole we happen to gravitate toward.

The Information Age is changing things only insofar as it has made the evidence for prophetic fallibility—something we all, to some degree, already accept—more public, accessible, and widespread. It is a potent tool. We all use it in one form or another. Skeptics of this or that current church policy or position sometimes use obvious examples of past prophets getting it wrong (“Mark E. Peterson was a racist git”) to explain their current skepticism, while those who are uncomfortable criticizing current leaders can point to past mistakes as evidence that the Church has acquired more light, has more truth now than it once did, that we should be more confident in present leaders than in obscure statements from the past. And, of course, ex-Mormon, post-Mormon, and straightup anti-Mormon critics of the Church use examples of prophetic fallibility as a flog for almost relentlessly mocking and disparaging the confidence of Church members in our leaders, in revelation, in Joseph Smith, in the Restoration.

As the fact of prophetic fallibility becomes more inescapable and obvious in our brave new world, and as we are increasingly confronted not just with the evidence of it but with people who wield it with sometimes rather less than friendly intent, I would like to propose a framework for better integrating it with a testimony that Mormonism is true and with a confidence that Church leaders are called of and regularly inspired and directed by God.

It’s not a cognitive dissonance manager, it’s not a jedi mind trick, and it’s not a trojan horse for a progressive takeover. It’s not even new. It comes from within one of the most faithful, and faith-promoting parts of our tradition: Missionary Work.

Mormons fervently believe that the missionary work is among the most vital and important works in the history of the world. We fervently believe that it is strongly directed by God, that missionaries are regularly and routinely guided and inspired in their work, that it is the Lord’s work, that nothing can stop the work from progressing, and God is the one who makes it what it is. And yet every single one of us has wondered, privately or aloud, in amazement at the fact that God manages to perform such a work despite the obvious and plentiful and sometimes embarrassing weakness, inexperience, foolishness, lacking wisdom, and general unimpressiveness of the barely post-adolescent kids we entrust it to. Indeed, it is the manifestly lacking qualifications and ubiquitous foibles of our missionary force that underscores for us the miraculous, divinely-directed nature of missionary work. We love missionaries, we appreciate their efforts and their sacrifices, we see the Lord’s hand in what they do even when their failings are laid out before us, we pray for them, and we really believe that God will and does answer our prayers by guiding and empowering their work.

I get that there are real concerns among faithful Mormons that weakening confidence in Church leaders, accepting their fallibility, accepting that they might be doing something wrong, even now, could have a baby-bathwater effect. It could destroy so many people’s confidence in the Church itself, and in the Restoration. It could leave people without a foundation, without an anchor in choppy waters. But I also think that shifting a bit away from “Never Lead The Church Astray/Follow The Prophet” and applying our already well-worn framework of “God clearly must be running things notwithstanding the shortcomings of His servants” to general Church leadership would serve us well as we navigate together.

A little more embrace of our common humanity and shared confidence in the divinity of the work.


  1. Excellent comparison, Brad.

    I’ve said for a long time that the issue, generally, isn’t our leadership; it’s our (at all levels) unrealistic expectations of them. I understand the issue of white-washing, but we know of most of the warts in our history largely because the records that detail them have been kept, scrupulously and meticulously, by the Church itself.

    I find it interesting that our top leadership now, and with a few exceptions in my entire lifetime, are much less confident in their own view of leadership fallibility than so many of we members are.

  2. Former BYU-I student says:

    So should we do when a leader says over and over that he is speaking for God, both the Savior and Heavenly Father, but then proceeds to go completely off the rails in homophobic, racist, and sexist ways like Elder Tad Callister did at the recent BYU-Idaho devotional?

    Just say, “nah, he isn’t” and go on with our day?

  3. ‘Just say, “nah, he isn’t” and go on with our day?’

    Well, actually yes.

  4. Former BYU-I student says:

    And how do we make that distinction? More specifically, how do those naive BYU-Idaho students make it? Because it’s pretty institutionalized that we accept the “I’m speaking for God” as just that.

  5. If the general church membership were a blank slate, Brad, this framework for understanding Mormon leaders and their limitations would be easy as pie to embrace and integrate into our culture and curriculum and religious self-understanding. Unfortunately, we aren’t a blank slate — we are, collectively, a repository of silly and downright noxious ideas. Transitions are tricky, and they are sometimes costly. But transition we must, regardless.

  6. Interesting analogy — it seems like the Church is moving haltingly towards a more realistic view of our leadership. In my mind, this is a really positive development, but there will surely be growing pains as we continue to redefine what we mean by the ‘Lord’s Anointed.’ It sure is an exciting time to be a Mormon!

    [edit: I modified your handle to avoid confusion—The True and Everlasting Brad]

  7. Got a reference for the Callister talk?

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent thoughts, Brad. I credit the fact that I’m a faithful believer today largely to my father, who ingrained in me the idea that church leaders are genrally good men doing their best, but human after all with the foibles and fallibility that comes with that. Having for most of my life a relatively low view of Church leaders (putting them on a two-foot pedestal instead of a 12-foot one) has actually been an anchor to my faith all these years. I know it seems paradoxical, but in this case less GA worship is a good thing. At least that has been my experience.

  9. its a hard balance, as a local leader I am very well aware of my own personal failings and how many things I do come from me trying to figure things out. I also know that I have been inspired by God to do and say things and call people to things that are beyond my capacity.

    The problem comes in when there are things that I ask people to do (some of which are very difficult) which I am certain do not come from myself and are inspired by God and people who do not want to do these things have explained them away as not from God but just my own opinion.

    So its hard to keep telling people that I’m human and make mistakes and yet reassure them that the difficult things I am asking them to do are not mistakes but are from God.

    I think that happens all the time on a church wide scale. People who find a doctrine difficult to live or understand will automatically brush it under the rug as human failings when it may actually be from God.

  10. I think this is an interesting point! To the extent God’s hand is seen in missionary work it does appear to be an endorsement of something, at least the basics of the path being investigated. Is it an endorsement of current LDS leaders? I’m not so sure but it may be an endorsement of the basic LDS gospel. I doubt God would abandoned the efforts invested thus far to build his church so I can see why the building continues but he may be waiting for the right leader or group of leaders to make their way through the institutionalized maze to a high enough level for a course correction. I tend to agree with Ray that many have or had unrealistic expectations of them and I believe it is healthy to bring those expectations more inline with reality. Also I would hope that accepting fallibility and currently infrequent heaven openings would not be seen by the membership as a cap because history clearly shows greater acheivement in the past. I would love to see the brethren pursue a reopening of the heavens with the goal of receiving more meat than a lowering of the missionary age. I would also love to see church sponsored sharing of personal experiences with the Spirit for the purpose of discovering methodologies that are more efficient at allowing members to commune with the Spirit and then teaching those methods so that we can approach and our leaders can begin to close the gap between our current inspiration and the clear and open channel revelation Joseph and the early church enjoyed.

  11. The Callister talk is on, and it is pretty discouraging.

  12. it's a series of tubes says:

    Is there a video or transcript of the talk? I read the linked news blurb and didn’t see anything like what #2 described.

  13. tubes, I too was trying to figure that out. I think modesty talk = sexism, speaking against gay sex = homophobia, but I couldn’t find the racism. Guess I need the transcript.

  14. Maybe there’s a reason no one can find the transcript or a video of it…

  15. This was a great post Brad. I have often remarked, to turn a phrase often said of missionaries, the church must be true or the General Authorities would have ruined it long ago! :)

  16. I just linked to the BYU-Idaho website for the MP3 and video, which I haven’t listened to yet, but my comment appears to be in moderation. Go to their website, and click on “Speeches and Devotionals” on the lower half of the page.

  17. Brad, excellent thoughts. I owe the church’s institute program (from a previous generation) the credit for helping me down this road of reconciliation.

  18. From the Callister summary, stupid question – “Self Abuse”? What does that mean? Is that like cutting oneself?

  19. Aaron, yes self abuse includes cutting oneself, burning, etc. Quite common among young girls.

  20. I have just finished to listening to Elder Callister’s talk, which is linked (in audio and video) from the page kevinf tried to link to. It’s not hard to find.

    In general, the talk feels a bit retro, but very few Mormons are going to see their understanding of prophetic authority challenged. I didn’t find that he greatly emphasized his divine spokesmanship at all. Instead he emphasized that the Church’s teachings on issues of sexual morality are unambiguous.

    There really isn’t anything homophobic there, except for Elder Callister’s reiteration of the church’s recent teachings on homosexuality. Some people will find those teachings homophobic in themselves, but few Mormons are going to experience a crisis over a leader repeating them. He’s unequivocal in calling gay sex sinful, but mentions that sexual orientation isn’t a choice, and that we should treat everyone as children of God. In other words, he’s repeating the current line.

    I think the treatment of modest dress was clumsily handled. He spoke nearly exclusively about women’s dress and its effect on men. It was brief, but someone should send him the memo that modesty is for everybody. He should omit this line from future talks: “In the end, most women will get the kind of man they dress for.” The single sisters of the church could give him an earful. Also, the women who marry men who turn into abusive a**holes. How those women dressed didn’t have anything to do with it.

    The use of American Indians in a few places is, again, retro but not what we usually think of as racist. He repeats a popular story ascribed to Iron Eyes Cody beginning “Many years ago Indian braves would go away in solitude to prepare for manhood.” Google it; you’ll find it. Also, look up Iron Eyes Cody, an American Indian icon who was actually of Italian heritage. I don’t know if the attribution of the story to him is accurate. In the discussion of modest dress, Elder Callister also cites a General Authority in the 19th century who praised American Indians for the modesty of their dress. So the talk certainly participates in problematic discourses about Native Americans, but the problems are complex rather than simplistic. See the biography of Iron Eyes Cody for an example of their complexity. Again, the talk felt retro, but it’s not like he was regretting the lifting of the priesthood ban, or condemning interracial dating, or talking about fence sitters.

  21. Oh, my goodness. What are they teaching the young people of the church these days? “Self abuse” = masturbation.

  22. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Thats not the definition of self abuse that I remember being taught in my teens…but will need to read the talk.

  23. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    That’s the def Fred J!

  24. I fear this analogy fails for exactly the reason you propose, Brad. Missionaries are expected to fail. They fail often. Perfection isn’t expected of them, and their tasks are extraordinarily narrowly defined. Most of what a missionary does doesn’t require revelation. In fact we can basically enumerate the types of revelation a missionary would be expected to receive:

    1) How/where to contact individuals (i.e., let’s pray to tract this street)
    2) How/what to say to inspire members to share with their friends
    3) How to phrase the discussions in a way that is paletable and appropriate to the investigator
    4) Discern an investigator’s concerns in order to know how to address them

    And even of those things, most of us on my Scandinavian mission failed 99% of the time, if the measure of success is baptisms. The fact that there were occasional baptisms proved only that the rest of the time, we were doing a poor job listening to the Holy Ghost and following its inspiration. And a Scandinavian mission is a more appropriate reference than a South American one for this very reason: in South America, even the worst missionary can stumble into an open-minded individual and bumble his way through the principles of the gospel, and it won’t matter because they’ll feel the Spirit of the Book of Mormon and ask to be baptized. But in countries where revelation is required to find those searching for the truth, the success rate drops much lower. And I’m not blaming European missionaries for being subpar, but rather just illstrating the difficulty of being worthy of, listening for, and recognizing the whisperings of the Holy Ghost in the most narrowly-defined, straightforward tasks that missionaries should supposedly be able to do.

    Incredibly, we were constantly told that we were doing a great job. We worked hard (we did), we prayed hard, and we did everything we could to try to find that one soul searching for the truth that had been prepared. We sacrificed ourselves emotionally and physically. We followed every rule to the tee. We eschewed every form of laziness and disobedience, because we WANTED those baptisms! And we were told by GA’s that we were model missionaries, that they had never seen such obedient missionaries in the Philipines or Mexico or Chile. So the only conclusion possible here is that medoicrity is okay — that despite the promise that thousands were waiting to hear the gospel and would convert to the truth if they knew where to find it, and despite the fact that we were unable to listen to the Holy Ghost well enough to deliver on that promise, that this was all okay. We were performing as expected, or even better.

    In short, nobody expects the missionaries to be able to do the things they’re actually supposed to do, because it’s really, really hard.

    So sure, perhaps the GA’s have evolved past this point and could go out and be successful missionaries in well-to-do secular countries (which begs the question, why don’t they, at least occasionally, to show how it could be done and inspire some faith?). But then, the missionaries aren’t expected to act as prophets, seers, and revelators. So if the norm is that missionaries constantly fail at receiving basic inspiration, and that this is okay, then wouldn’t the corrolary be that GA’s constantly fail at receiving more advanced types of revelation, and that’s just okay too? If a given amount of time, experience, learning, etc past the page of 20 is required to be able to actually perform missionary skills (ten years? twenty years? fifty years? Even the senior missionaries in Scandninavia, many of them former Stake Presidents, have trouble finding those that are supposedly prepared to receive the gospel), then how much longer, how much more knowledge and progression would it take to be able to receive pure revelation from God?

    I get that your point is “Missionaries fail, and we’re okay with that, so we should be okay with GA’s failing too.” But we shouldn’t be okay with either failing. Because accepting the Doctrine and Covenants as scripture means accepting that missionaries are supposed to succeed.

    I don’t want to be a part of a Church where the status quo is failure. I want to be part of a Church that truly receives revelation from God, and he gives us clear direction, and we’re sure of what he tells us and don’t change our mind later or question whether it was really God or not, and we test him on it, and he proves to us that he is God by showing us success. That’s how I envision the Church of Jesus Christ, and sadly, I don’t feel that that description represents our Church in its current state on any level.

  25. demon butterfly says:

    Iron Eyes Cody was of Italian descent.

  26. “Self abuse” = masturbation”
    Fred J, seriously?. Darn, I feel dumb.

  27. #2 – Great way to divert the discussion by use of hyperbole. Classic.

    #21 – “Self abuse” has been code for masturbation for a long, long time – and it’s not a Mormon term. I don’t like it, but it certainly isn’t anything new the Church is teaching “now”.

    Elder McCallister’s talk is a great example of the point of the post, imo. Nothing extraordinary, over the top or “off the rails” in it; lots of repetition of standards that have been around for decades and conflict with lots of younger members’ views; lots of chances to take the exact stance outlined in the post.

    We have a culture that emphasizes a black-and-white view in a multi-colored world. Shed that view; be OK seeing through a glass, darkly; start valuing faith again and not obsessing over knowledge in everything; quit expecting perfection – of anyone; etc.

    That seems like the point of the post, to me, and it’s great advice. I can see how I see and still believe the Church is “true” and its leaders are “called of God” – as long as I am willing to define those terms in very legitimate ways but differently than many other people right now.

  28. Interestingly, when I have had the missionaries come and visit, I ALWAYS knew more than the Missionaries and I have never been a church member, even though my Bishop Neighbor was thoroughly convinced that I had been a card toting (temple recommend) member in good standing at one time! Yes, I know a LOT about Mormon Theology and am proud of knowing it. That does not say that I agree with any of it– my point is that I have had many, many missionaries come and visit and they admitted that they knew little about the church until coming on the mission.

    Missionaries are sent out with little real preparation. Oh, the 3 weeks at the MTC, the 6 weeks at the Mission home and then out and going. Interestingly, I was always amazed at the amount of planning each team did each week– they had the same territory every week, however, they always needed 2 hours on Sunday to plan for the week. After the second week, they had covered the territory, with the shared car from another team (companionship), but the results were always the same– coming to my door for a visit, something to drink and talk, with no pressure whatsoever. I was amazed at some of the missionaries– some were super folks, others, I wondered how they got through the MTC. What I told the Bishop was that the standards must have been reduced significantly from when I lived in Utah. The Bishop always told me all worthy brethern can serve if they are able– the “company” line.

    With the new MTC in Mexico City announced yesterday, my interest is what is going to happen in 26 months when all of these RM’s are back. I speculate that we’ll see a surge in birthrates and lots of poor, poor families. Hope I am wrong, however, doubt it. Not sure that the lowering of the missionary age was as well thought out as church leaders would suggest it has been. I believe that church leaders are now seeing some unforeseen challenges that were not carefully vetted before the Profit announced the change. Time will tell.

  29. Chris Kimball says:

    “absolute confidence in what leaders say and do . . . or . . . freedom to disagree with and question all manner of, well, questionable teachings, policies, claims”

    How about a position that leaders get it right about half the time? In the world at large, 50% would be an incredibly good score. Further, 50% right would mean taking everything said very seriously, but not as an absolute or guarantee.

    “we will progress, more revelations are coming, and problems will work themselves out with time”

    We may need a framework for “work out with time”. My guess is that “time” is in the 25-50 year range. In other words, it is fairly likely that I will live most of my life in the middle of something that seems wrong, and may not live to see the end.

  30. The definition of “by common consent” in the Doctrine and Covenant’s Commentary by Elders Smith and Sjodahl says, “the initiative in all that pertains to the government of the Church rests with the Head of the Church, even our Lord Jesus Christ, and He exercises this sovereign function through his authorized servants, upon whom He has bestowed the Holy Priesthood; but it is the privilege of the people to accept, or reject, His laws and ordinances, for God has given every individual free agency.” (p. 131 in in 1972 edition) This could just mean that everything that comes from priesthood leadership is true, and people are free to accept or reject it as they wish, but that seems an awfully simplistic interpretation. His “authorized servants” are imperfect tools, and will enact the will of their master imperfectly.

  31. Christian J says:

    Brad, here’s a similar sentiment from Ms. Jack that I like.

    I love the idea and really find that it can be a beautiful way to look at our leaders – hopelessly flawed like the rest of us – in desperate need of the blood of Jesus like the rest of us. It makes me want to support and “sustain” them more – not less.

    The problem of course is that prophetic infallibility *is* essentially taught in the Church (by allowing the rampent belief in it among the membership to persist) – even if its not doctrinal.

  32. [Edit: Sigh…]

  33. speaking of the mormon version of papal infallibility you say, “There is a bit of irony here, in that this truism was first articulated by a Church president who many in the Church were frankly and openly concerned was, in fact, leading the Church astray”

    i think this is a key point and deserves further reflection and discussion (though it’s a bit uncomfortable). As you allude to, Wilfred Woodruff made the statement that the Lord would not allow the prophet to the lead the church astray during a moment in mormon history when many were questioning exactly that. my understanding of the context is that polygamy had been banned and suddenly was an excommunication worthy offense only a few years after it had been believed by many to be a requirement for the highest kingdom of exaltation. people were understandably upset that such a central part of then mormon doctrine and identity was suddenly sinful and this was cause obviously for many people to splinter off into separate branches.

    causes one to consider how eternally divine vs. contextually pragmatic that doctrine of prophetic infallibility was and is. (and maybe there isn’t much difference between eternally divine and contextually pragmatic??)

    another irony for me is that in some ways believing that the prophet could lead me or the church astray suddenly invites me to be much more anxiously engaged in seeking personal revelation and studying the prophets words more earnestly and prayerfully. it’s possible that this pragmatic doctrine that was introduced in a specific context stifles the very independent seeking and faithful inquiry that the brethren and the scriptures seem to require of us.

  34. If the discourse of the fallibility of church leadership became more widely circulated, accepted and even correlated, would we be open to a kind of institutional repentance? acknowledging where we as the church body may have deviated? Much like the children of israel often did and had to acknowledge their missteps individually and as a collective?

  35. The children of israel had to repent individually, but it was still Moses, and his chosen successor Joshua who led them into the promised land. Whatever weaknesses the leaders have in the church I believe that it is still through them that we will be led to Zion.

  36. JTB – The difficulty you describe in 9 is exactly the problem. It’s not that the members won’t take you at your word (because they shouldn’t), but that they aren’t seeking and receiving personal confirmation. It is my belief that accepting prophetic fallibility stimulates more personal seeking of such confirmation.

  37. I’m only 21, and I really like the idea of God using me to help bring people unto Christ despite the follies of my youth. :D But the topic I find most important to address is the fallibility of the church. I think the main issue is that people think the church is perfect because it was restored by Joseph Smith. And in result they not only overlook the mistakes of Joseph Smith, but do not understand that we do not yet have the full glory of our father in heaven. We are to go from glory to glory, until we receive all that the father has. Likewise the glory of the latter house shall be greater than the former. Is this not true? How then can we say we are perfect as a church when we only have a form of glory, a form of the law, and a form of understanding of scriptures? We cannot say this! Especially since we can learn from D&C 10:67-68, as well as the parable of the body, that people are the church. Thus concluding that if people are the church, the church is only as perfect as the people. Thus also making the statement “the church is perfect, but the people are not” a lie from the devil to catch us in a snare. So I conclude that the prophet and apostles teach with great confidence what they believe to be perfect, overlooking the fact that they do not fully understand God. And in so doing do they become full of pride, and as they are full of pride their teachings become of themselves and not God. But what then? Does this mean they are not apostles and prophets and that we should not learn from them? God forbid! But let us pray for them, as well as the whole body of the church to come where God wants us to be. Knowing this first: EVEN when the worlds appears to be spinning out of control….God is sitting on the throne at all times. Everything happens for a reason, even so that we may learn from our mistakes and become more like God. :-)

  38. One of my roommates, a convert of about 2 years, was seriously dating a guy who asked her what she would do if the prophet at General Conference asked all of the members to do something she wasn’t currently doing. (something like that) She said she would pray about it and if it felt right, she would do it. He told her that was the ‘wrong answer’. If the prophet asked her to do it, it was the same as if God asked her to do it and she would never even need to pray about it. She was dumped and was completely befuddled as to why.

    We are told that when a new prophet is called, we can pray and ask God if he is the prophet. However, once that same prophet speaks, we’re not allowed to ask God anymore?

  39. 36. I agree that I want nothing more than for people to go to the Lord for their own personal confirmation and to get personal revelation. I have found that those who don’t think I am receiving revelation are those who won’t seek for a confirmation but dismiss it out of hand.

    38. I think that the prophet would agree that its a good thing to ask for personal confirmation.

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