A look back at the Monson decade

thomas-s-monson-mormonHow do you take the measure of a prophet? Is it by the prophecies he delivers? By his leadership in building the kingdom? The way he exemplifies Christ and treats those around him? Is such an exercise even appropriate, or does faith require us to assume that every prophet is a successful prophet?

Thomas S. Monson gave his life to church service and to the Lord in a way that very few have been asked to. In his public addresses, he was more a poet than a theologian, but I also think of him as the world’s foremost hometeacher—the funny old guy who can wiggle his ears, tell a good yarn, share a brief message that leaves the family feeling good, and help out during times of trouble. And he was more than that, of course—he could be audacious, organized, charismatic, private.

Above all, I think he’ll be remembered for caring about people, and he implemented that compassion and Christ-like charity as the fourth mission of the church: Care for the poor and needy.

He was a beloved leader who was in the Mormon spotlight almost all his adult life.

But gosh, the 10 years of his presidency were difficult. I’ll probably look back on this era not as one of increased compassion and charity, but as a divisive period when so many friends and loved ones left the church. I don’t know if that’s fair to President Monson. The world changed so fast during his tenure, and I may never know which church actions and policies should be attributed to him. There isn’t a lot of information about his deteriorating mental faculties, the mechanics of how specific decisions were made, or his views on crucial issues.

From the outside, it does seem like after so many decades of witnessing church administration and contributing his considerable talents to it, when it was his turn at the helm the seas turned choppy and the wind was against him. I have no idea if that’s due to church structures, his leadership skill, his age, his infirmities, societal shifts toward secularism, or anything else.

Prophets shouldn’t be evaluated like corporate CEOs, and these are likely the wrong ways to measure a committed servant and a faithful man like President Monson.

But from what I can tell, church growth has slowed, member retention is tough, and I’m not sure our public visibility and perception are particularly glowing right now.  The kerfuffle yesterday over the New York Times headline was a reminder that we don’t always get to frame the narrative, that others might not see us or our leaders the way we do.

However Mormons view ourselves, we aren’t necessarily viewed by others as an inclusive, nurturing church. Not by the “liberal elites” at The Times, but also not by many of the rank-and-file members who’ve left over the past decade. The “needy” (ugh that word) includes members who are suffering from faith crises; our LBGTQ brothers and sisters and their family and friends; those of us seeking further wisdom about Heavenly Mother and the role of women in the kingdom; minorities who still, in the 21st century, don’t feel welcome in their ward. We can dismiss these as edge cases, but so was the lost sheep (only 1% of the flock!). Our institutional (in)ability to welcome people, include everyone, and care for the poor and needy became a reason for my friends to leave. It became a subject of divisiveness instead of a reason to stay engaged and excited about the church.

The sustained exodus of people I care about is a difficult thing to get past, and whether or not it’s a trend that’s felt church-wide, it’s a personal tragedy to me. It will always color my perception of the Monson Era, though perhaps not President Monson himself. Have we lived up to that fourth mission of the church that he espoused?

It’s difficult for me to think of a Zion that doesn’t include the friends and family who’ve drifted away, especially because inclusion, care for the needy, and seeking out lost souls should be what we’re best at. I believe President Monson would agree. 


  1. I love the image of President Monson reaching out to the outskirts of the flock, just like Christ did. I hope all of us Mormons can follow that model, to all of the hurt and disaffected in our midst.

  2. what might help understand President Monson’s legacy is just how much of Prop 8 and the Nov ’15 policy to exclude children of gay parents was his. Those are the two big divisive issues during his time as strictly the prophet. Since most of his tenure as prophet he really wasn’t that physically able to do much, how much did he really run the church, and how much of it was the Quorum of the Twelve under Nelson and Oaks?

  3. Great question, Daniel. I’m hoping future historians are able to shed light on that someday.

  4. obviously anonnnn says:

    Yeah, this rings true – thank you for sharing this. I loved President Monson’s talks about caring for the poor and needy, but when I was dealing with faith crisis issues, hearing a message that we should be charitable wasn’t helpful. I can be charitable and provide help to others without believing the church is true. I don’t need a beautiful talk on charity – I need a real reason to stay connected when it often feels like the global church as a whole both doesn’t want and doesn’t need someone like me. (Luckily, being in a great ward helped alleviate some of this – the church as a whole may not want or need me, but my ward does, gosh dang it!). It doesn’t help that I’ve felt that if I truly live up to President Monson’s teachings to reach out to those in need, then I may have to leave – can I truly help and love my LGBTQ friends and family if I continue to associate with a church that pushes them away? Tough stuff.

  5. Scattershooting –

    I think the intensity and commitment of active Mormons is higher than it has ever been. Many may be leaving and the public perception of the Church as an institution may be waning, but the engagement level of almost everyone I know within the Church has increased. President Monson pushed us to become more involved with our friends, neighbors, and communities, and it shows.

    I always question the idea that the “growth” of the Church should always be an upward trajectory. The Church is growing across the globe, even if the activity level and membership numbers aren’t.

    I served in a bishopric where the Bishop was the spiritual guide for the ward, and he set the strategic tone, and the ward did great things during his tenure, but he himself did very little of the administrative heavy lifting. Perhaps that’s how things functioned with Monson and the Twelve.

  6. Thanks for this. I largely agree. I can’t quite articulate my disagreement yet, but wanted to quickly say that this was thoughtful.

  7. I take it back. I agree.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I too question the notion that the growth needle should always point up, but the institutional church has no one else to blame for establishing that metric and that expectation. When the growth rate was high we portrayed that as evidence of God’s favor, but now that growth has flattened, it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle.

  9. Honest question regarding Daniel’s response: If the Church never came out with the November 5 Policy/revelation, but continued with the status quo ante, in that it continued to teach that homosexual sex was actionably sinful, and that gay marriage was never going to be allowed in the church, regardless of the law of the land, would we be having the same discussion? That is, was it the official nature of the policy itself that really changed the PR issues here (i.e., the optics of it)? Because my sense is that what we had previous to the Policy was equally unpalatable, at least to those who disliked the Policy.

    I know there’s the non-baptism of children at issue, and maybe that made it different, but again, my sense is that had an effect on a really, really small subset of people. I mean, even before the policy, how many gay couples were lining up to get their children baptized in a church which taught that their marriage was ersatz?

    I’m not trying to rehash all the arguments that were had here in 2015 so much as figure out what President Monson did so different than was done before, and why he’s bearing the brunt of the angst. Or, put another way, isn’t the real issue not that the Church hasn’t *appreciably* moved much on this issue, but society has, and that now that intransigence (steadfastness?) has become socially repugnant? And if that’s the case, why are we blaming President Monson? Is it his putative failure to correctly message our efforts? Or is that he wasn’t willing to do away with our doctrine on homosexuality altogether? I frankly assume the latter.

  10. I really appreciated this perspective. I had a very challenging gig in Asia as an executive. How much of that was the task I was faced with? A lot of it. Could it have been better? Could it have been worse? Yes to both. I appreciate those who appreciate the good I did and forgive the good I wasn’t able to pull off.

  11. We live in very dark and selfish times.he stood for goodness and mercy even if you didn’t agree with him. His legacy is goodness and mercy all his days. That is a prophetic way to live.

  12. jimbob, I don’t think his beliefs were any different than those that came before him. Attitudes changed very quickly during his tenure, and the church took some proactive steps to combat those changing attitudes. I don’t know how much of that to put on him, and from what I’ve seen over the past couple days, even those who are disaffected still respect him. I think that’s why the divergent NYT narrative—”the church under this man did XYZ”—is so interesting. As are the mormon reactions to it.

  13. I have nothing interesting or provocative to say, just that I liked what you wrote. Your description of him as the “world’s foremost hometeacher” was spot on. I will always remember him as a faithful servant.

  14. Kyle M – The presumption that people who exit the church automatically qualify as “poor and needy” feels patronizing and a tad ignorant. Historical whitewashing, false narratives, and doctrinal contradictions catapult members into faith crises just as much as the current social justice issues you cite (LGBT standing, gender inequality).

  15. I liked this post a lot in large part for the way it observes Mormon sensibilities when discussing a prophet while still trying to assess his contributions to the church while acting as president. It’s a difficult line to walk and you’ve done it very well.

  16. Very well-written, and I agree.

    In my personal faith, Pres. Monson occupies an important space with his messages of compassion, service, etc. I have little understanding of his work and approach in church administration or his role in shaping church policy over the years. Because of my sharp disagreement with the church’s position on certain issues (e.g. same-sex marriage, the exclusion policy, women’s role in both church administration and the divine plan – I promise I really am a faithful, active Mormon, though!), and my affection for Pres. Monson’s teachings generally, I am tempted to convince myself that he simply was not a major part of the development, propagation, or implementation of those things I don’t like – that Prop 8 was set in motion by his predecessor, etc. But the fact is that he was among the highest-ranking church leaders throughout the development of those policies and practices. If we lay the exclusion policy at the feet of certain Apostles rather than those of Pres. Monson, don’t we have to similarly give him credit for whatever role he played in, for example, the Family Proclamation? I’m not saying he was the driving force behind that, necessarily. Just that it’s complicated.

  17. We may come to think of his tenure as the time we started to accept the idea of a shrinking and marginalized church (at least in the US). Instead of a church destined to grow and grow. Maybe that will change.

  18. “the 10 years of his presidency were difficult”

    Yes. For me, for many friends. Thank you for articulating this, for acknowledging it. It felt important. Thank you.

    God bless our prophet, his family, friends and colleagues at this time of parting.

  19. Thank you, Kyle, for this sensitive and perceptive piece.

    We follow our prophet as the Lord’s oracle, but I think it has become very hard to attribute the church’s big-picture policy directions to the prophet personally. I can’t think of a single policy initiative during President Monson’s tenure that was presented as his. (Maybe someone can think of something that was?) No doubt this is partly because President Monson was ill during so much of his presidency, but I sense that this way of doing things has really settled in for the Q15.

    I don’t really blame the New York Times for getting it wrong. Reading the church’s policy shifts feels more than ever like a kind of Kremlinology. For non-Mormons, it’s probably quite difficult to see the point that divides our personal veneration of the prophet from a more hardheaded analysis of church affairs.

    Maybe President Nelson will reassert a much stronger personal image for the president in policy making. We’ll see. And if he does, will there be a divisive backlash? Have we come to a time when we are better off without that kind of dominating individual presence at the head of the church?

  20. Fair point, Anonym. I think the church has so much to offer, and when people are suffering for their faith or experiencing a painful transition out of it—regardless of the reason—I would classify that as a needy person we should serving with extra attentiveness.

  21. Geoff - Aus says:

    If you believe as I do that all are alike unto God, then the world got closer to God in it’s treatment of women, and gays, and other minorities.
    The man who was holding the position of Prophet, and leader of Christs church
    1 either was not leading because of health – in which case he should have retired
    2 was in charge, but not asking for revelation to get us in line with God

    Either way not what we expect from a Prophet of God
    Yes he was a good man who did good things on an individual level. My wife does too, but she is not claiming to be the spokesman for God to the Church.

    Wasted opportunity to bring the Church closer to God/zion.

  22. jimbob, in response to your question above, two quick points:

    1. I don’t think the Nov 5 policy put the Church on a radically different trajectory than the one it was already on. But for some of us, the policy somehow made everything more “real”; we realized that Church leaders really were willing to double down, not just maintain their current course by default. That they were taking steps to ensure that the LGBT issue, and one’s posture towards it, becomes a DEFINING issue for what it means to be a Mormon (not to mention defining what Mormonism is for those looking at it from the outside). It becomes much harder to hold onto a “maybe modern revelation will change things” stance — even one held very tenuously and provisionally — if Church leaders are actively promulgating policies and adopting rhetoric that seems to foreclose the very possibility of future change.

    2. Yes, there were aspects of the Nov 5 policy that shocked people, that went beyond the Church’s standard moralizing about homosexuality and marriage. To withhold church ordinances from minor children of gay parents crossed a major line for lots of folks. Some saw it as anathema because it punished innocents for others’ transgressions (yes, the 2nd Article of Faith argument is arguably problematic, since LDS leaders presumably don’t see the policy as “punishment”, but it still must feel like punishment to those most affected by it). Some (myself included) saw it as an inadvertent acknowledgment that the companionship of the Holy Ghost isn’t REALLY a vital thing for Mormon children in their formative teenage years. There are other concerns too. But none of them get assuaged by pointing out, in lawyerly fashion, that the Church’s treatment of polygamous families’ children served as the guiding precedent (even as that claim is probably true). And the fact that very few children are affected by the policy in the real world doesn’t usually impact the moral outrage people feel.

    Aaron B

  23. I appreciate the considerations encouraged by this post. I relate to what obviously anonnnn expressed about desiring to live as much like Christ as possible and finding it increasingly difficult to determine whether or not the LDS structure reflects my understanding of Christlike behavior and focus. The difficulty is, even if I believe a more optimistic alternative exists to Geoff-Aus’s 2 possible conclusions about the prophet, I agree that I am more encouraged by how “the world” is handling the mentioned issues than by how the church is. I thought church was supposed to be a refuge…I can’t say it feels like one anymore. I’m hoping there is a way to stay engaged despite major misgivings, but how to do that in an organization that is ran so hierarchically is a mystery to me.

  24. Paul Ritchey says:

    I wonder how President Monson, now that he has cast of the darkened glasses of mortality, would respond to the misgivings, doubts, and heartache expressed so well here. For that matter, how would the Savior respond? I genuinely wonder. I can’t imagine what either of them would say – which is odd considering that I also believe that both still exist and are aware of these sentiments.

  25. I wonder that too, Paul.

  26. Really great post, Kyle. I echo Leona’s and Loursat’s comments.

  27. I always echo Loursat’s comments.

  28. Someone above asked what the POX really changed. Well, as the mother of a married lesbian daughter, it did change things. Up until the POX was announced there was hope that the church was at least softening the stand it took. I saw it move from officially saying that gay feelings were a terrible sin, whether acted on or not, to saying that it was only the behavior that was sin. And it went from saying that repairitive therapy would work, to saying it was ineffective and best to just not ever act on feelings that would not change. It went from saying that marrying a straight woman was the solution, instead of deception and a formula for divorce, to recommending remaining single. So, we all saw some good changes, a more realistic humane approach.

    Then the POX was announced. The idea that bishops might to continue to just ignore my daughter and her wife changed as the church announced they should be excommunicated. It dashed the hope that the church might continue to soften, or listen to what science was telling them about gays. Hope of continued progress is what changed when the church took a firm step backwards. Not only was the church saying that married gays were living in sin, the church declared gay marriage a worse sin than child molesting or rape, because those sins are not mandatory excommunication as is gay marriage. Then it went a step farther and punished the children of gays and the ex spouses of gays by saying that children who live with gays cannot be baptized. And, yes, there are gays who want their children baptized and raised in the church even if the church teaches that gay marriage is wrong. Just as there are smokers, coffee drinkers, and sinners of all striped who still want their children raised in the church even though the church says their behavior is wrong.

    As to the OP, I really like this look at Monson’s leadership style and what he may or may not have been involved with as prophet. Personally, I think he has been incapacitated for most of his term as prophet. The added fourth objective for the church to help the poor and needy sounds like him. I believe he was behind that. Prop 8 and the POX, I don’t think he was the push behind those. He may not have stood up to Packer, Oaks, and others who were strongly against gay marriage, or he may have been unable to because of his health, but those ideas sound unlike anything he ever said in a talk. I just cannot see him as the homophobe behind such policy. He never seemed to care one way or the other about gays, so I can see him allowing the phobes to get heavily involved in the politics of prop 8, I just can’t see him as the one leading others that direction.

  29. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Interesting comments Anna. In the past I often wondered if the FP and Q12 assigned BKP and others to provide the heavy-hitting morality sermons. What I have heard more recently is that Apostles select their topics individually and do not correlate their topics with other Apostles. So I read your comments and can see the implications as you line them up. Did he never seem to care one way or the other about gays? Well, from his individual selection of topics for conference talks, it doesn’t seem like he was inspired to make it a subject of a conference address anyway. According to Elder Bednar, when you are too old to do everything you used to do, you do what is most important. So what were the last things President Monson spoke about in conference? 1. “The Power of the Book of Mormon.” and 2. “Kindness, Charity, and Love.” Those must be the most important messages he wanted to communicate in his final addresses.

  30. Thanks for your comment, Anna. It sounds like it’s been a hard road for your family.

    I think, though, your comment gets to the heart of what I was trying to say. The Policy didn’t change much from what we were doing before, but it did formalize our procedure and crystallize the Church’s stance, which obviously made people who were hoping that we would go further (or continue to evolve) pretty sad. But the truth of the matter, to my mind, is that unless the Church was going to change its doctrine on homosexuality completely, it was never going to be far enough to avoid serious criticism from outside the Church (and from some corners inside). In which case, maybe the Policy did little more than force that line in the sand a earlier than, rather than later, which may end up being a benefit to both sides.

    That said, it’s easy to be antiseptic about this when you don’t have as much skin in the game as you do. My best to you as you navigate forward.

  31. Big shout out to Kyle for the OP. This post was cited in the Federalist as a counter point to the disgraceful NY Times obituary post for President Monson. No need to pile on them, but the Federalist piece compares the attack on Monson, to the relatively benign obituaries for truly despicable people like Fidel Castro, and Hugh Hefner.
    Clearly, Kyle did not have only positives in the post, but the highlights of Monson’s life and ministry were definitely included.

  32. While not on topic, the different comments here about friends leaving the church got me to ponder about why I’m not experiencing that. I’m really good at making acquaintances, but I’ve never been one to build long term friendships. Even then, I’d think that I could think of someone that I knew as an active member going inactive in the last few years, but I can’t.

  33. I’ve been thinking about this post almost non-stop for two days now. I appreciate the perspective; thank you.

    As a California boy I’ve survived both prop 22 and 8. In the 90’s, the church involvement in prop 22 was quite successful. We made allies, the members came together for the cause, and the measure passed.

    I think therefore prop 8 seemed like a no brainer; except the ensuing decade brought so much change that for some reason church leadership seemed oblivious. The LGBTQ community moved into our neighborhoods and we no longer wanted to really participate. Meanwhile, our previous allies were hesitant to as well and the church took the fall for the whole of it.

    I think I will forever miss the Hinckley-Monson-Faust dynamic and the Hinckley-Monson-Uchtdorf dynamic. Those were powerful and engaging leaders, from my perspective. Monson’s tenure was great but just couldn’t measure up for me. I always felt wanting.

  34. I realize that the actions or inactions during President Monson’s tenure as presidents have caused much pain for certain people. But I feel the need here to praise him for a policy change that personally brought great relief in my life. He allowed divorced people to receive sealing cancellations without needing to remarry immediately after. As someone who was married to an extremely manipulative man who used the Church’s former policy as a way to stay in touch so that “I would know how to reach him” and then to try regularly to destroy my life through his contacts, this change brought great peace and healing, something I had been unable to achieve for decades. I praise President Monson for seeing that and making the adjustment necessary to help those of us trapped in these situations. It has meant the world to me.