I’m not sure what prompted this burst of holiday cheer—probably the stress of a high pressure job—but it left us looking like sheep with a secret sorrow that evening, and in the months to come we came to learn he meant it—concerns were routinely dismissed on the grounds that the employee was alone in his or her concerns.
Well, in a world where the ground is cursed and we are doomed to eat bread by the sweat of our faces until we return unto the ground, it goes without saying that time is short and resources are scarce. And when you consider that problems are like a gas—at least they have a way of filling the available volume regardless of how significant they are in the overall scheme of things—I can understand the pragmatic inclination to tamp down on individual complaints in order to focus on the big picture, even if I think the approach reveals less than heroic leadership qualities.
But when an acquaintance related an experience with her ecclesiastical leaders in which they deployed the same line of reasoning to dismiss her concerns—she was the only one raising a particular issue out of all the people under their stewardship, so it must not really be their problem but hers—it grated in a way my boss’s Christmas speech didn’t.
Now, I hesitate to assume the role of Statler and Waldorf and offer commentary from the peanut gallery about those who have answered the Savior’s call to serve; after all, I sit with honorable women and men and witness their desire to be good shepherds and the sacrifices they make in the line of duty—skipping meals, foregoing family time, using vacation time for church activities and so on. And as long as we are subject to temporal and spatial constraints, there’s no question that even the best of us will have to make tough calls about the use of time and talents.
And yet the notion that a problem isn’t a problem for leadership unless an arbitrary critical mass is reached reveals a utilitarian approach to pastoral care that I believe is incompatible with the heavenly calculus regarding the individual worth of souls and the price paid to redeem them, which suggests that an infinite cost to save the one is not too high a price to pay.
Unlike middle managers, would-be disciples of Christ are called upon to demonstrate heroic leadership qualities, improbably navigating the thinnest of lines between the scarcity of mortality and the promise of the bounty of the eternities. Though the saint’s day is no longer than the sinner’s, the former is called on to pay particular attention to the exceptions—to leave the ninety and nine, and go after that which is lost.
This is not to say that individual voices should not be weighed against the overall well-being of the group; but the fact that only one of the flock is bleating—or perhaps more accurately: that we perceive only a single call—shouldn’t disqualify a voice from being heard at all. Dismissing it out of hand on the grounds that it doesn’t reflect widespread views simply won’t do as a general rule for pastoral care.
On the one hand, there’s plenty of precedent for non-representative voices speaking truth to those who would hear—the one crying in the wilderness and children come to mind. On the other, members of the top-down hierarchy of the church, which considers even policies and practices to have divine origins and draws on a long tradition of looking askance at even well-intended individual initiative, members will not always be free to solve their problems themselves, this guidance notwithstanding.
But what do you think—is listening to everyone with their idiosyncratic issues an unrealistic expectation given the time available to fulfill a leadership calling? Is the church as we live and experience it more utilitarian with more room for individual initiative than I’ve given it credit for? How have you managed the balancing act between hearing out individuals while ensuring that the group prospers?
 Then again, we also have 1 Nephi 4:13 which does suggest a strand of utilitarian thought according to which the individual is less important than the collective.