By the Uplifted Hand

relief_other08I have only seen one “no” vote in person, and it with feet not hands. I was a missionary in a small Spanish branch in Watsonville, California. The name of a new branch president was being submitted to the branch for a sustaining vote. The man had just moved in from Los Angeles, where he had been the bishop of a Spanish ward. Almost everybody dutifully raised their hands when the name was presented. But the couple who had been the backbone of the branch, who held a dozen callings between them, got up and left the building with scowls on their faces. To my knowledge they never came back.

After about a month, the new branch president sent us over to ask what was wrong. We did. They told us they would never come back to church as long as Brother ______ was the branch president. They could not sustain him. “Why not?” we asked. “Because he’s an idiot,” said the man. “And because he’s a sinner,” replied his wife. “He has no business being president of anything.”

When we reported this back to the branch president, he roared with laughter. Then he said, “you go back there and tell them that they are absolutely right. I AM an idiot. I AM a sinner. I DON’T have any business being president of anything. That’s why they need to sustain me.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that incident this week, for reasons that won’t matter much to anybody else. It was one of those moments of quiet revelation in my life: the time that I realized that sustaining a leader is not something we do because our leaders are good, strong, enlightened, or always right. It is, rather, something that we do because they are flawed, weak, limited, and often wrong.

It matters that Latter-day Saints use the word “sustain” instead of “obey,” “follow,” “agree with,” or “say nice things about” when they pledge their support for a leader. To “sustain” somebody means to give them something that they cannot exist without. We sustain people when we give them food or water, without which they cannot live. We also sustain them when we give them love and friendship, without which they cannot live well. We sustain them when we help them do what only they can do without worrying about who gets the credit or who didn’t show up to help.

Sustaining people is vital in an organization that gives heavy responsibilities to untrained volunteers. I love the fact that there are no professionals in our ward and stake organizations. It means that everybody has a chance to learn and grow. But it also means that, at any given moment, about three-fourths of the officials in an LDS congregation will have no idea what they are doing. The teachers don’t really know how to teach, the speakers don’t really know how to speak, and the pastoral caregivers don’t really know how to give pastoral care. That’s why we have to sustain each other.

Our standard scriptural example of sustaining a leader–invoked perhaps more often than understood–comes from Exodus 17. Here, the Children of Israel are fighting the Amelekites, and they can only prevail in battle when Moses stands on top of a mountain holding up a staff–something that one can do for a few minutes without any difficulty but which, after long periods of time, becomes humanly impossible:

8 Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.

9 And Moses said unto Joshua, Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek: to morrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in mine hand.

10 So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, and fought with Amalek: and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.

11 And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.

12 But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.

Moses had to be sustained because he was weak and human. Aaron and Hur didn’t have to obey Moses’ commands. They didn’t have to think he was a good guy or make sure that they followed everything in the Wandering in the Wilderness Handbook. And they did not sustain Moses by agreeing with his political positions or refraining from criticizing him in public. These are functions of “obey” that have crept into our definition of “sustain” through years of imprecise usage. As important as obedience to authority may be, it is not part of what we agree to when we vote to sustain someone.

Moses had an important job that only he could do, and it required abilities that he did not have. Aaron and Hur lent him the physical strength necessary to do something vital for the entire community. They didn’t raise their hands to sustain Moses. They raised HIS hands at a time when he couldn’t raise them by himself. That is what it means to sustain a leader.

 

Comments

  1. I like the close look at the word “sustain.” Cool.

  2. Fantastic post.

  3. Stuart Somerville says:

    I like this. I’m a confessed jack mormon. I’ve long been a little uncomfortable with how we behave towards leadership. But I sort of like this perspective.

  4. Wow! Love this definition of what it means to sustain others. Thanks!

  5. Perfect, but I suppose you’re speaking to typical human weaknesses and not matters of abuse, etc, which is where the sustaining model always breaks down.

  6. Steve, yes, abuse is not covered under this plan.

  7. Excellent, Michael. You say here something here that, in a–like it or not–somewhat authoritarian and hierarchical organization like ourselves cannot be repeated often enough. If you find God in this church, if you feel called to it, if you volunteer to consecrate your time, talents, and blessings to it, then there will be a need for you to sustain those who run the organization. Not necessarily or always “agree with” or “obey” or “imitate” or “refuse to point out errors”; your salvation does not, I think, depend upon submitting whole-heartedly to every jot and tittle of the imperfect women and men who end up being handed organizational responsibilities. But someone has to teach the class, so show up and help it get done. Someone has to clean the chapel; show up when it’s your turn. Someone has to collect and count the tithing, pray with bereaved, write the welfare checks, decide what the rules for Girls Camp are this year. Sustaining means helping those things get done. It means being part of this community, which for all its flaws, is a very good community to be part of.

  8. Mark B. says:

    I like the formulation in D&C 107: “upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church.” (And than, as Russell says, roll up your sleeves and get to work.)

  9. Brother H. says:

    I’ve considered that that may be why we are asked to sustain by “confidence, faith and prayer”. Sometimes we agree with the leaders, and it’s easy to have confidence. Sometimes we sorta play along on faith. Sometimes we have an idiot sinner, and the best we can do is pray (for them and ourselves).

  10. Jason K. says:

    I love this perspective, Michael. Thanks!

  11. J. Stapley says:

    I think we often read the “lift up the arms that hang down and strengthen the feeble knee” verses of the D&C, and forget it is the church president it is talking about. How much more have we need?

  12. Michael, this is excellent.

  13. A Happy Hubby says:

    This is interesting way to think of sustaining.

    Where I struggle is where I see harm being done to others for imperfectness along with a prevailing “if you even point out an issue, you are not sustaining your leader.”

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    The very verb we use, “sustain,” supports your reading. It comes from Latin sustinere, “hold up, hold upright, furnish with means of support, bear, undergo, endure.” (I won’t comment on how often sustaining a Church leader has the nuance of “enduring” him!). That verb comes from sub (here, “up from below”) + tenere “to hold.”

  15. Excellent explication of “sustain”. Of course I would like it because it matches my own thoughts on the subject, although mine were not nearly so well developed. As a result, by tomorrow this piece will have become what I think on the subject.
    The next step is to address the contention that covenants made in the temple take us well beyond the sustain model and well into the “obey, follow, say nice things about” world, with respect to the Church and its leaders. Without quoting from the temple directly, consider these publicly searchable quotes:
    “‘When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and his cause.’ (In Conference Report, Apr. 1947, p. 24.)” (Dallin Oaks(?) to Church Educational System teachers, Aug. 16, 1985; Dallin Oaks on Criticism, in February 1987 Ensign.)
    “We are a covenant people. We covenant to give of our resources in time and money and talent—all we are and all we possess—to the interest of the kingdom of God upon the earth” (Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple, 35).

  16. I will read this again. And again. And again.

  17. Jake Cox says:

    Valuable perspective. But under this perspective, what is the proper purpose for the question, “Any opposed?”

  18. Kevin Christensen says:

    Good essay. Many years ago, my wife was asked to give a lesson on “Sustaining the Brethren,” so we looked up the word, and we found the sort of thing Kevin Barney just posted. Ever since then, I’ve thought of “sustain” as just the right word, a super word. The meanings all call for strength on the part of the one doing the sustaining, and include meanings of being willing and able to endure, suffer, and permit.

  19. A Happy Hubby says:

    @christiankimball So what do we do when we see a leader doing/acting in a way that we feel is hurting the kingdom? Do you pat them on the back and tell them what a great job they are doing, or do you 1×1 point out that you see things that are hurting others and/or driving people away?

  20. Molly Bennion says:

    Very valuable post though I would add more than “abuse” to the exceptions (as I imagine would you). A counselor to my husband proved himself to be hateful, driving others from the church, making the lives of many of those remaining unhappy. Everyone endured, no one could change him. He later became the bishop of the ward. After several years of enduring, his counselors went to the SP and said that, if his name were submitted in the next ward conference for a sustaining vote, they would vote no. They explained why and the bishop was released. Handled nicely, I thought. Rarely the hands to lift won’t rise and public protest should be avoided if possible.

  21. @A Happy Hubby: That’s rhetorical, right? I would just add that there are many approaches. It’s not an either/or question. And that opinions and answers are likely to be different, you, me, the leader in question, other leaders looking on.

  22. A counselor to my husband proved himself to be hateful, driving others from the church, making the lives of many of those remaining unhappy. Everyone endured, no one could change him

    On my reading of the situation, Molly, when someone takes on a position of responsibility in our organization, we’re asked to sustain them in their performance of that responsibility. If they completely trash their responsibility, and they resist every suggestion for improvement or change, then simply enduring the guy without vocal complaint isn’t sustaining–it is, rather, being a slave to some false understanding that if “the spirit” put someone in that position, there must be an important reason for it. Well, yeah–and maybe that important reason is waiting to see how long until people vote with their feet and let the hire-ups know they’ve made a terrible mistake.

  23. For what it’s worth, a Facebook link reminds of this post from last year by Christian Harrison (http://www.wheatandtares.org/14520/a-prayer-from-the-sidelines/), who shows up here occasionally. What he says is, like Michael’s original post, important:

    The principle of sustaining our leaders is often coupled with the principle of obedience. It’s natural for leadership to feel sustained when they observe obedience… but this is an error of perspective. When I raise my hand to the square to sustain someone in their position — regardless of whether it be the President of the Church or the person who prints the ward bulletin — I’m not promising to obey them. I’m promising to sustain them.

    The term ‘sustain is rich with meaning. Food sustains us. Love sustains us. Unblinking obedience does not sustain us. My sustaining vote is evidenced and manifest when I pray for their success — when I’m rooting for them and helping them to magnify their calling. And, like food and love, the act of sustaining is reciprocative. My sustaining vote is accepted when those I sustain embrace and facilitate me in my work as the sustainer.

    And when we disagree — and we will, it’s inevitable — we’re not called upon to simply succumb to the demands of begrudging obedience, which is a destructive act; we’re called, instead, to the godly and creative act of loving someone despite their failings. This is at the heart of the weighty calling of sibling-ship.

  24. Pointing out that a leader has made a mistake, if done in a spirit of humility and charity, is in no way contradictory to sustaining that leader–in fact, I would argue that it is imperative to do so.

    However! The suggestion must be made humbly, with the caveat that one might be mistaken. This deference is not solely that due to leaders, though–pointing out anyone’s mistake should be done in the spirit of “mote and beam.”

    Obviously this relates to everyday mistakes, not abuse, which requires different action. But as several people noted above, a leader who abuses their position does not need to be sustained.

  25. I was in a ward where several people raised in oppositions and turned out the person was released before they took a spot in the bishopric. Turns out he was a dishonest business man and wound up in court. There is a purpose for the opposed but to be used when the leadership is clearly fooled by the individual.

  26. “The next step is to address the contention that covenants made in the temple take us well beyond the sustain model and well into the “obey, follow, say nice things about” world, with respect to the Church and its leaders.”

    “Say nice things about,” I can see as part of not speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed (though I would suggest that in the context of the entire liturgy of the temple, that principle applies much more broadly than just to leadership). So, “say nice things about,” I get.

    I am less convinced that the other temple covenants require church members to “obey, follow” church leaders.

    But that’s the great thing about the temple, there is very little official explanation or interpretation, and we are free to follow the promptings of the Spirit in figuring out what it means.

    (By the way, I don’t think “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed” is a secret phrase that can’t be quoted outside the temple.” I mean, Elder Oaks uses that phrase in the talk linked to above. But I certainly don’t want to offend anybody and if the bcc powers that be think this is over the line and this comment needs to be deleted, that’s fine.)

  27. Lady Kerri says:

    I love this post, and the excellent comments you all have made. Thank you, all of you.

  28. JKC, the phrase “the Lord’s anointed” is used in the Old Testament primarily to discuss King Saul after he has become David’s persecutor. I have always been mildly amused by David’s insistence that his men respect “the Lord’s anointed,” given the fact that he is in the process of violently overthrowing Saul at the time that he does not want his men to speak evilly of him.

  29. eponymous says:

    The question then is where does the line get drawn between sustaining and revolting against? Because that is where this whole question of obedience generally becomes heated. I can have a healthy disagreement with my Stake President on a topic – choose a controversial topic of the day, I’m sure people will immediately jump to gay marriage or women and the priesthood – and even have a deep discussion about our disagreement behind closed doors where we work to find common ground. But if I move from disagreeing with him in quiet to actively encouraging members of my Ward and my Stake to help him see differently then suddenly we fall into questions of loyalty and tone and whether I am really sustaining my leader or actively attempting to undermine him.

    It’s easy to see that there is a correlated perspective and attitude that is encouraged when you read such materials as Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith where Joseph is quoted second hand by Wilford Woodruff stating:

    He then remarked that any man, any elder in this Church and kingdom, who pursued a course whereby he would ignore or, in other words, refuse to obey any known law or commandment or duty—whenever a man did this, neglected any duty God required at his hand in attending meetings, filling missions, or obeying counsel, he laid a foundation to lead him to apostasy and this was the reason those men had fallen. They had misused the priesthood sealed upon their heads. They had neglected to magnify their calling as apostles, as elders. They had used that priesthood to attempt to build themselves up and to perform some other work besides the building up of the kingdom of God.

    So what does that mean in this context? How do you actively sustain and disagree at the same time without eventually being accused of apostasy? I think it’s an effort

    Personally, I would like that chapter better if it included such quotes as this one from George Q Cannon in his personal description of Joseph Smith (borrowed from J Stapley’s post back in 2008):

    I saw Joseph Smith the Prophet do things which I did not approve of; and yet…I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had these imperfections the power and authority which He placed upon him…for I knew I myself had weaknesses and I thought there was a chance for me. These same weaknesses…I knew were in Heber C. Kimball, but my knowing this did not impair them in my estimation. I thanked God I saw these imperfection. (GQC, Diary, January 7, 1898, in Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, 4)

    And then there’s the classic story that Heber J Grant told in April 1942 General Conference when John Taylor as Prophet sent the Apostles Francis M Lyman and John Henry Smith to get a Stake to reaffirm their consenting vote for their Stake President who was clearly incapable in his responsibilities. I love that the expectation was for the Stake to confirm whom the Lord had called first and then for the First Presidency to release him a short time later and call a new leader. There is a lesson in that principle of acknowledging there is no such thing as infallibility in leadership and we are called to sustain and even suffer with leadership in supporting them in their incompetence. Because some day it may very well be us sitting up there for whom the people are suffering in their sustaining vote.

  30. Clark Goble says:

    Great post and this is what I’ve long argued as well.

  31. I was asked to speak in SM on this topic once, about 9 or 10 years ago, and I said similar things, coupled with a talk by Elder Oaks (I think… or maybe Elder Maxwell) about what to do when you have a disagreement with a leader.

    My bishop at the time had a pretty serious authoritarian streak, and I wasn’t asked to speak again until he was released :)

  32. eponymous says:

    Can a moderator please break my post out of purgatory? Thanks!

  33. The post is thoughtful and thought-provoking. In the Church, the concept of “sustaining” has been used to mean many varied things–many of which tend toward “obey.” I maintain that I can sustain a leader without agreeing with him or her, or obeying him or her–primarily by not publicly opposing them.

    However, we also use the word “sustain” for actions such as combining or splitting a ward. In that context “sustain” seems to have a primarily agree vs. disagree meaning–though it is often stated as “sustain the stake presidency in this action.” As with everything else (that I can think of) in the Church, our practices, beliefs, and doctrines, and the current meanings of “sustain” have a very heavy cultural context.

  34. Nice post Michael.

  35. I enjoyed the post but feel that it is somewhat deceptive or at least oversimplified by the fact that it does not differentiate between they dynamic of sustaining local leaders and the general authorities.

    Certainly a lay person who is called to a local position needs to be given the benefit of the doubt and sustained in his calling unless they do something exceptionally detrimental to the well being of those they are serving.

    On the other hand, a career general authority is not in the same situation nor is the gravity of the decisions they make on behalf of a global church on the same par. .

    There is a significant difference between sustaining local brethren who have human imperfections and foibles, vs. sustaining the leaders of the church who claim to have the spiritual gift of prophecy and claim to be revelators, and claim to have the gift of seership and claim (or heavily imply) that they speak face to face with God.

    There is a reason why the D&C provides a protocol for excommunicating the president of the church. There is a reason why the law of common consent empowers members of the congregation to reject someone who is not worthy or qualified.

    There was originally a checks and balances feature built into church protocol as provided in the scriptures. This is because It is possible for people in high places to stumble and when that happens, they need to be held accountable.

    Sadly, that feature has been negated by false doctrine and false protocol. If there was ever to be a leader who was leading the LDS church astray, it would be virtually impossible for the lay membership of the church to remove them. It would be nearly as difficult for his brethren to remove him.

    Moses may have been “weak and human” however, he spoke face to face with God. When his brother and sister became critical of him, God personally intervened and let them know that Moses had a different and higher relationship with God than they did.

  36. Molly Bennion says:

    Russell, we have no disagreement. Sometimes a less patient and possibly public approach is best. But this guy carefully snowed a lot of folks who would have defended him. Lots of subtle manipulation and subterfuge to court power and harm his victims. It took years to build a successful case for his removal. During those years he built up support which would have made a public challenge less likely to leave behind a viable community
    .

  37. April Young Bennett says:

    One of my local leaders recently explained to me that “sustain” means to obey a local leader “as if he were God Himself.” I like your definition better.

  38. gillsyk says:

    This Sunday our ward RS/Phood has lesson 11 of the Ezra Taft Benson manual, “Follow the Living Prophet”. I really appreciate this post as a perspective to help me with some of the rather stark statements in this lesson.

  39. American Mormon says:

    Spoken like a true manager.

  40. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently and this was exactly the type of analysis I’ve been searching for. Thanks, Michael!

  41. DeLys Ostlund says:

    Thanks for sharing this on FB (I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise). As I was preparing to teach “Sustaining our Church Leaders” in YW tomorrow, I knew I needed to quote you — especially the last paragraph.