Just Say No?

We have had horrible luck while traveling with finding church services through Mormon.org. On one trip, the address it gave didn’t exist. (How do I know? After nearly an hour of looking, asking people in the shops nearby, meeting up with friends who were also looking, well, we never found it.) On another, church started an hour after Mormon.org claimed it did. So I’m gun-shy about trusting Mormon.org when I’m looking for church services.

Which is why, last summer, on vacation, when my wife saw an older couple wearing missionary name-tags, we decided to confirm when and where the church met. Turns out that they weren’t assigned to that particular area.[fn1] Still, we started talking. At one point, the husband mentioned something he’d been asked to do, and said, “You don’t say no to a Seventy.”

Let me interrupt myself right here to emphasize that it was a throw-away line. They had been asked to report on establishing some program or committee or something. He was not implying that, if a Seventy asked him to do something immoral or illegal or even questionable, he would mindlessly obey. I assume that, if pressed, he would admit that he would say no in that situation, except that he couldn’t imagine that situation actually happening. But we were in a pleasant social situation, he was a pleasant missionary, and there was no point in pressing him on a laugh-line.

I’d been thinking about writing this post for a while,[fn2] but in light of Ronan’s excellent post, which makes clear that some people seem to believe that Mormons literally do not say no to a leader,[fn3] it seemed like an opportune time.

See, I suspect that the attitude of we don’t say no is fairly prevalent in the Church. Not, of course, because we’re mindless zombies,[fn4] but because of some combination of belief that our leaders are inspired in their choices and an aversion to conflict. But that seems like a bad organizational trait, if it’s true. Not bad because we’ll commit every evil asked of us, but bad because the Seventies (stake presidents, bishops, RS presidents, etc.), though inspired, are human too. And if we just do whatever is asked of us, and accept that they have all knowledge and inspiration, they won’t get decent feedback to know what works, what doesn’t work, and how the average person will respond to their requests/ideas.

So let me know:

(a) Do we say no to Seventies (or better, is there a level at which we stop providing honest feedback)?

(b) Should we ever say no to Seventies or whomever (with the caveat that I’m assuming we won’t be asked to do anything immoral, though we may be asked to do something inefficient)?

(c) If we ever should, how should we go about saying no?

[fn1] Actually, they weren’t even assigned to the mission we were in; they were, however, headed home in a week or two, and were doing some sight-seeing before they left.

[fn2] About nine months now, actually.

[fn3] If you’re one of those people, btw, this may not be the comments section for you. If you actually believe that we will obey every edict that comes out of Salt Lake, you either don’t know us very well (see, e.g., many wards’ home and visiting teaching numbers contra this), you’re an ideologue, or you’re an idiot. (Sorry—as my daughter tells me whenever she hears me say “idiot,” that’s really not a nice thing to say.)

[fn4] Though that could be kind of cool.

19 comments for “Just Say No?

  1. A lot of the information depends upon the wards updating the data at lds.org which frankly most don’t.

    I think people won’t say no if they don’t have a good reason. I think it’s perfectly fine to say no if you have some legitimate concerns. That said I think most people think (somewhat legitimately) that if an apostle wants you to do something it carries more weight than a bishop wanting it.

  2. Actually, I wrote about this not long ago. I think there is a way to sustain a leader even when you don’t agree. It doesn’t mean you don’t speak up, but that you speak up 1) directly to the leader (not behind their back or in a forum where they can’t defend themselves,) then make sure you 2) respectfully engage the leader, without trying to undermine or control him or her, and in the end 3) support the leader’s decision, after they have made it with your information in mind (assuming that the Spirit doesn’t tell you directly to do otherwise.)

  3. In most cases, I don’t see a problem with sustaining one’s leaders. The project or task may be something they want to try and do, in order to see if it is effective. The Church does this all the time. The “I’m a Mormon” campaign was sent out to just a few test areas to see how well it would work, before sending it out to more places.

    When I was in the stake mission presidency in Montgomery Alabama many years ago, our Area President asked us to do a test program, using family history as a missionary tool. He gave us certain guidelines, and then let us use our imaginations to expand the program, as needed. We quickly found some things that did not work, others that did work. Doing such a test program would then allow that 70 to give recommendations up the chain, or to other stakes in his area, regarding a similar program.

  4. rameumptom, at the risk of derailing, when were you in the stake mission presidency? i served in al from 1985-87 and have very fond memories of the wetumpka branch/ward. pres john enslen was the stake president then.

  5. I’ve never had a problem with lds.org info on meetingplaces and times.

    I don’t say no. I tell them what my reservations are and about how I expect to go about doing what it is I am being asked to do. And I like to add something along the lines of “and if I see a better way of doing “it” then I assume I am authorized to change things to be more effective, right?” it’s a leading question that usually gets me permission to most of what I want to do anyway.

  6. In my current church calling, I’m always running into priority conflicts between what Church asks, the Boy Scouts of American plans, work plans, family plans, and what the individual boys have planned.

    The most critical issue is to always manager programs requests against your own personal physical & emotional limitations.

  7. Your example was of missionaries. Missionaries explicitly agree to obey Seventies, full stop, signed up to execute part of the Church’s proselyting or service program. That’s why, if you’re a missionary, you don’t say no to a Seventy.

    Speaking as someone who in the last few years has found ways to say “no” and “no more” to Church leaders, my answers are:

    (a) Interacting with a Seventy is, for a normal member, pretty rare. One is more commonly faced with refusing a Bishop or Stake President. Honest feedback, as contrasted, perhaps, with feed-back-biting, has never been unwelcome in my experience. I think the key is not to expect that changes will take the form one desires.

    (b) Yes, there are circumstances where I’d say “no” to a Seventy, if it were clear that he was asking for something outside his stewardship, based on how that’s defined in leadership materials in the Church. I won’t let him tell me what or whom to vote for, for example. I’ve never had a church leader ask for a large commitment without first reviewing with me whether my circumstance could permit it, with one exception.

    (c) Something along the lines of, “I regret that my circumstance prevents it,” perhaps with an explanation of the circumstance, if pressed. The times I’ve said, “no,” to a local leader, they replied with understanding and went back to the drawing board for me.

    For a personal example, I’m waiting for all the kids from my old seminary class to graduate high school before I agree (or offer) to substitute-teach in the classes there. My circumstance is that I’m just plain burned out on managing classrooms of unruly, sleepy teenagers, and don’t want to have my good opinion of said teenagers destroyed by examples of their immaturity.

  8. Sam, this is such a great question and brings up so many thoughts. Tonight I’m just too tired to type — to much PHP for my brain today. But I wanted you to know that I read and enjoyed this. Look forward to reading other comments.

  9. I live in a place where our priesthood authority is a Seventy, although he lives thousands of miles away. We’ve had two different Seventies over us in the time we’ve lived here. I’ve thought about your questions often.

    For me, we have to be able to provide honest feedback (and have reasonable access) to whatever level of authority we’re dealing with directly. This can be hard. But it’s important. We also need to be able to disagree with what they say. I don’t necessarily think it’s particularly useful to just say no, but we need to be able to discuss things, and if we still disagree, then it’s fine to say no if you feel like that’s the right thing to do.

    The place where this really gets hard is that you often don’t have a personal relationship with a Seventy, whether it’s when you’re a senior missionary or living in the boonies of Mormondom or whatever. Saying no, or disagreeing, or trying to change someone’s mind isn’t easy when you don’t have a personal relationship already. Like others have mentioned, normal members don’t interact with Seventies, and sometimes I wonder if Seventies get a little isolated at times, in a way.

  10. There is a difference between saying no because we don’t want to be inconvenienced and saying no temporarily to provide more information and let a new analysis proceed. I know of someone who served as a bishop and asked a woman to serve in primary. She flatly told him that she felt he was not inspired but was pulling a “plug and play” rather than finding an inspired place for her. He was, and is, an incredible man, so he went back to the Lord to find out if he had been mistaken. He went to her the next week and explained what he had done and that the Lord verified that this was a good place for her.

    It isn’t always true for everyone, and I’m not trying to judge anyone’s (even this woman’s) willingness or lack thereof, but sometimes I think we think pretty highly of the worth of our time/talents/treasure. I can recognize times when my primary lesson was to learn that I was a cog that kept a larger machine going, and the humility was dang good for me. Sometimes it’s okay to be a placekeeper.

    Also, I can think of times when I drew my line in the sand and said, “I can’t do any more than that and the Lord promptly drew a line a bit further over and said, “I’d like you to do it anyway.” We get to make that choice ourselves (glory be) but I’ve been glad when I swallowed and said yes when I wanted to shout no.

  11. While “You don’t say no to a Seventy” was a light-hearted comment, I think it reflects a respect for authority that older generations understand implicitly. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and personal inspiration is necessary. Laman and Lemuel had a totally different approach… why say no to ship building when you can throw the guy in the ocean? That would have solved the ship building problem, but it might have made it a little more difficult to cross the ocean.

  12. Interesting question. And some more interesting caveats:

    Is this in a personal interview or a directive / request given over the pulpit?

    What is my relationship vis-a-vis the Seventy / other church leader? Is he my “file leader” (as Elder Packer likes to say) or a visiting authority?

    These are important questions, I think, for specific circumstances.

    For instance, in an interview, I could, as other have suggested, discuss concerns, ask questions, seek clarification and share my view. Of course I could not do this with a directive given over the pulpit.

    If this is my file leader, I probably have enough of a relationship with him that I could follow up, even on direction given over the pulpit. I do this all the time with my bishop, for instance. If I wonder about something he’s said, I shoot him an email and he responds and we go on being able to act on his request.

    If this is a visiting authority, my experience suggests that “directives” are generally quite broad so that application to my specific circumstance allows for my own consideration of my sitution and needs. And if I have concerns, I can go to my bishop or stake president for clarification. (I did this a number of years ago when a visiting member of the presiding bishopric said something in a leadership training meeting that I found very disturbing. I was a bishop at the time. I had a conversation with my stake president and he was able to help me sort through it without any collateral damage.

    In the end, agency rules the day. And with that exercise of agency comes attendant blessings (or lack thereof).

  13. a) I think the LDS church has a culture of obedience that means that no, in practice, most mormons don’t say no to seventies (or any other leaders, at that). I’m sure there are some who do, and I’m sure there are many who have done it at least once in their life (in the form of refusing callings because they simply can’t do it for whatever reason, regretfully declining to do a favour asked of them by the bishop etc), but on the whole, I’m sure most mormons always strive to obey their leaders. I think this stems from the belief that they are divinely called, divinely inspired and appointed to their position by God Himself, and hence when they ask you to do something, it is equivalent to God asking you to do it. I think another aspect of it is the belief that obeying church leaders (and especially general authorities) is part and parcel of sustaining them.

    b) I think there are definitely times when it is appropriate to say no to a church leader (including a seventy). If you are asked to do something which you think would detract from your relationship with your spouse/family, I am sure the Lord would not wish you to place that above your commitment and responsibilities toward your family. I do think there is a danger, when asked to do something that appears to be inefficient, or that you wouldn’t have done in their situation, to criticise them or tell them that what they are doing is flat-out the wrong way to do things. However, I don’t see any harm in raising more issues for them to think about, giving helpful, constructive advice and offering an alternative point of view for them to consider. Indeed, I think this is an integral part of sustaining them and assisting them in fulfilling their calling.

    c) It is always best to ‘say no’ by offering something alternative for them to consider and ponder. Don’t simply denounce what they are doing, offer something different as an alternative. Don’t be offended if they ultimately discount your idea – they are, after all, inspired of God. And finally, I think that your comments should always be phrased as helpful suggestions, not destructive criticisms.

    Anyway, that’s my opinion : )

  14. I have on some occasions felt strongly that a call was disperation not inspiration.Particularly, Although I understood the circumstances I did feel free to answer “You and I both need time to pray and consider this calling and are you aware of the following personal information.” In every case the priesthood member withdraw the call and in several apologized. Having been the source of many names suggested for calling I would rather the individual decline rather than accepted and then not served.

  15. Most organizations have other means of creating incentives other than ideological or cultural practices of not saying no. Coercion or financial rewards, for example.

    While a widespread acceptance that saying no to leaders might increase feedback (but would it really? Is people saying ‘ no, I won’t hometeach’ really communicating anything more than their failure to hometeach?), I don’t see that it would be worth the decrease in cohesion and institutional functionality.

  16. “Is people saying ‘ no, I won’t hometeach’ really communicating anything more than their failure to hometeach?”

    Speaking from personal experience, I’d rather someone say “No, I won’t hometeach” than say “Yes” and simply not do it. In the first example, the priesthood leader at least knows to assign the hometeachees to someone else. In the second example, the priesthood leader has to wait at least a few months before he knows the job’s not being done and assigns someone else to do it.

    If you’re not willing to do the job once it’s yours, don’t accept it.

  17. Regarding meeting times listed in lds.org: my friends and I like to visit Jackson, Wyoming in the summer. The church there has a special sacrament meeting for visitors at 9 am throughout the summer. One year we decided that we didn’t want to get up early enough to take down our tent, pack up everything and get into town by 9 am, so I had previously looked up the other meeting times online. However, when we got to the chapel, we found a “Summer Meeting Times” list posted on the door and we had missed sacrament meeting entirely. So now, if we are staying past Sunday and don’t need to do the taking down of our tent, etc., we will do the 9 am meeting (one time L. Tom Perry was vacationing up there and not only attended the same meeting, but spoke to us). However, if we are heading home, we will stop in Afton, Wyoming or Paris, Idaho for sacrament meeting along the way. They don’t change their meeting times for the summer, so the listing in lds.org is correct.

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