I 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.