Throughout my life I have raised my hand countless times to sustain those that have accepted callings to serve in various church positions. For the uninitiated, Latter-Day Saints hold to the practice of common consent. Each person being called to a church position of any nature is presented before the church body to be served. Members of the body are then asked to raise their hands to indicate that they either will or won't sustain the individual in that calling.
This raising of the hand does not demonstrate democracy. Church members are simply indicating whether they support the calling that has come through proper channels. As explained by Joseph Fielding Smith in his book series Doctrines of Salvation (vol. 3, p. 124), we are only justified in voting against an individual if we are aware of some wrong doing or transgression that would disqualify that person from serving. We are not free to vote against them simply due to some type of personal disagreement.
Throughout the years I have occasionally seen church members refrain from voting either way, perhaps in silent dissent. (Or maybe they were just distracted at the moment.) Only twice have I seen members vote against sustaining someone. Both times it was the same church members voting against the same church leaders.
Years ago I was attending a ward conference. As is customary at such gatherings, the stake clerk went through the sustaining of general and stake officers. He then moved on to sustaining the ward (congregation) bishopric. As usual, most of the congregation voted to sustain. When the clerk asked if there were any opposed, he was shocked to see several hands raised high.
The confused clerk turned to look at the stake president, who was seated behind him on the stand. The stake president was a man with a very calm temperament. He beckoned to the clerk and whispered in his ear. Then the clerk asked the dissenting individuals to step into a room outside of the chapel with the stake president.
This was such a rare occurrence that it was obvious that nobody really knew how to handle the situation. The entire congregation sat in an awkward silence for the next several minutes. Those minutes passed very slowly. Nobody stepped to the pulpit to speak. The organist played no music. No person that was old enough to understand what was going on was comfortable.
Finally the stake president and the individuals returned. The stake president went to the pulpit and explained that several members had expressed some disagreement with certain administrative decisions made by the bishopric, but that none of these members cited any evidence of unworthiness among the bishopric.
The stake president then briefly explained that the members of the bishopric had been called of God through proper priesthood channels. It was his duty as their priesthood leader to handle any worthiness issues, but he stated that he knew of no such problems. If members of the congregation likewise knew of no unworthiness, he explained, they had no basis in church doctrine for opposing these men. The clerk returned to the pulpit and the sustainings continued as normal.
When ward conference rolled around the following year, the stake and ward leaders were ready. They had studied the handbook to know how to handle dissent during the sustaining of officers. When some of the same individuals again voted against sustaining the bishopric, the clerk noted the dissenting votes. He explained that the stake executive secretary would make appointments for the individuals to meet with the stake president about their concerns and said that stake leaders would subsequently report to the congregation. The clerk then continued with the sustaining of officers.
Several weeks later the stake president visited the ward. He reminded the congregation that some members had voted not to sustain the bishopric at the recent ward conference (as if anyone needed reminding). He explained that he had met with each of these members about their concerns, had conducted an investigation, which revolved around possible misuse of church funds, and had found no improprieties. He said that he had reported the findings to the concerned parties and that most of them now felt to sustain the bishopric.
One of the accusers said nothing during the meeting. But over the ensuing weeks he took every possible opportunity to corner members of the ward and air his gripe. Money had been set aside in the budget for the three members of the bishopric to attend an intensive Boy Scout training course. But the three men ended up not attending due to other commitments. The money intended for the course "disappeared," according to the accuser. The stake president, this man charged, was obviously in cahoots with them because he had "whitewashed" the matter.
I served in a calling that had some insight into church finances and I was aware that the money had simply been shifted to another budget category where need existed. This is a fairly regular and accepted practice. The supporting paperwork had been properly completed. The men had not "pocketed" the money (about $100 each), as was contended.
When the accuser found few sympathetic listeners, he asserted that pretty much the whole congregation was dishonest and/or deluded. He purposefully chose a job assignment that would keep him out of town most weekends for a few years until the leaders then serving had been released.
After those years had passed, however, the man had only become more bitter and rancorous. As he regaled others with his supposed concern about church funds, his rantings came across as increasingly ridiculous and vindictive.
In reality, this brother felt that the bishopric had offended him when they had once counseled with him about ways he could better fulfill the calling he had. The unfounded finance complaint was just a surrogate tool for getting back at the bishopric. Instead it made this bright and talented man increasingly seem like an angry toddler pitching a fit.
Moreover, the man's years away from church worship had changed him. He had let his personal religious practices lapse. He felt like an outsider and could no longer find the spiritual fulfillment he had once felt. He stayed away from church and created a great deal of unnecessary animosity among his own family members. It was a sad and pathetic thing to watch.
A fair number of people—both church members and others—have misconceptions about the law of common consent. According to Article of Faith #5, Mormons believe that church callings come from God through earthly priesthood leaders. While those leaders are imperfect and make mistakes, church members are obligated to sustain others in their callings unless they are aware of disqualifying behavior. Then they are obligated to make proper priesthood leaders aware of such behavior.
Sustaining others is more than just raising one's hand in a public meeting. It means doing everything we reasonably can to help them properly fulfill their callings. This can include doing things we'd rather not (perhaps like public speaking or helping someone move) when asked.
Since everyone that holds a church calling is imperfect, it's exceptionally easy to find fault with their service. Sniping and holding grudges is no way to sustain someone. That's the path to greater pain and less peace.
Everyone that holds a calling can only properly fulfill it when sustained by others. We all need others to lift our hands and strengthen our knees (D&C 81:5). Moreover, for our own good as well as that of others, we need to help lift the hands and strengthen then knees of others in their church callings. Imperfect people helping each other as we try to fulfill divinely issued callings brings mutual strength and peace.
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