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Safety In Stewardship

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

I had a massive paradigm shift recently at a women's retreat hosted by Leading Saints. I'm still processing and the next few posts are probably going to be part of that. In this post, I want to address my decision to discard my terror of being led astray, and how I have learned to find security in stewardship rather than in strict obedience to authority.

I realized that I had a deep and problematic fear of being led astray just days before the retreat began. It was while I was writing a post about the covenant path. I wrote that the possibility of my own apostasy was terrifying to me. Terrifying? I paused over that word. I have come to believe that faith and fear are opposites, and that pretty much all evil has its root in fear. Mormon writes "Perfect love casteth out all fear" (Moroni 8:16). So, was I really terrified of apostasy? I examined my feelings and realized that, yes, I was. Uncomfortable with owning up to a fear I didn't believe in, I softened my language to "almost terrifying" for my post. I went on to note that I had been inspired to commit to daily scripture study and genuine prayer in order to stay in relationship with God. I did not note that I had also adopted the idea that if I would be exactly obedient to my church leaders, I would never go astray.

Obedience Based in Fear

Is there a problem with strict obedience to authority? Don't I want to be like the stripling warriors, who "did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness" (Alma 57:21)? I do want to be like the stripling warriors in their faith and courage. But their exact obedience to every word of command from their leader was in the context of military life. Exact obedience is appropriate on the battlefield. It's not appropriate when it's a fear-based choice to discount your own inspiration in order to follow the direction of an authority figure who doesn't understand the nuances of your particular situation.

My fear of getting lost has led me to be inappropriately obedient at various times in my life. The most troubling was when I put myself in serious danger. In the wee hours of the morning after "Roy," my then-husband, told me, "I desire your unhappiness more than my own salvation," I awoke to a profound impression from the Spirit that it was time to separate. Within the previous weeks, Roy had begun talking about taking my life but I had stayed. Now, I knew I had to go. But Roy didn't want to separate just yet and insisted that we counsel with our bishop. Wanting the safety I looked for in obedience to my priesthood leaders, I agreed. Our bishop was a good man. Looking back, I suspect I didn't give him the whole picture. That would have been very difficult to do, not just because Roy was sitting right there but also because I still felt a need to protect him. What I do remember is the bishop counselling me not to leave right now, but to go home with Roy and consider. In my 3-months-pregnant condition, I replied, "I expect to be blessed for my obedience. I may be sent to the hospital but I will not be killed." And I went home with the man who had both threatened my physical life and told me he prioritized my unhappiness over his own salvation, because I believed that failing to exactly obey my bishop threatened my spiritual life.

Rejecting My Fear

With that background, when presenter DeAnna Murphy challenged us at the retreat to write out a list of fears and to discard one of them, I knew I was being invited to let go of my terror of apostasy. She invited us to imagine how our lives would be without our fear, and I could see that I would be less defensive, better at ministering, more filled with faith. So I wrote "terror of being led astray" on a little post-it note, tore it into pieces and threw it away.

Encountering Bold Stewardship

That afternoon, another presenter spoke about her recent experiences co-leading a mission with her mission-president husband. She talked about her setting-apart blessing, where she was given keys and told to turn them. And then she talked about significant and inspired initiatives she and her husband took in order to transform the mission culture from one based on salesmanship to one based on discipleship. We listened, transfixed, to her descriptions of vital changes that brought their mission more in line with Ammon's ministry to the Lamanites. Then someone asked the fateful question, "how did you get the Area Authorities onboard?"

"We didn't," the mission mom replied. "But I figured that God knew who I was when He called me." She'd been set apart, given keys, and told to turn them. So she and her husband acted in their stewardship according to the revelation they received, without permission from those who ranked just above them in Church hierarchy.

I sat there, dumbfounded, part of me thrilled and inspired by this example of boldly doing as the Lord directs, while a dying part of me chittered "but...but...disobedient!"

So I took that conflict in my heart, prayerfully sat with it, and have come to a conclusion: Safety doesn't lie in exact obedience to our leaders, but in standing in our stewardship.

A Discrepancy in the Allegory of the Olive Tree

I believe the Allegory of the Olive Tree in Jacob 5 uses an apparent inconsistency to illustrate what it means to stand in our stewardship. On one occasion in the allegory, the Lord of the vineyard tells the servant, "Counsel me not." Yet, on at two subsequent occasions, instead of simply obeying the Lord's instructions, the servant suggests a different course and the Lord agrees with it. Why the difference?

I think it's important to note that the allegory stretches across centuries. So, while the Lord of the vineyard represents the Lord, Jesus Christ, the servant represents more than one mortal person; mostly prophets. So, it is with a prophet (or series of prophets) that the Lord initiates pruning out diseased branches from the decaying tree of Israel. He has His servant graft in some branches from a wild tree (the Gentiles). That done, the Lord instructs the prophet(s) to "watch the [mother] tree, and nourish it, according to my words" (Jacob 5:12). He then takes some new growth from the mother tree and walks away, saying, ""And these will I place in the nethermost part of my vineyard, whithersoever I will, it mattereth not unto thee" (Jacob 5:13).

Sometime later, the servant reports on his assignment. He shows the Lord that the mother tree is bringing forth good fruit. Then the Lord shows him all the transplanted branches. They find that the first is thriving, although planted in a poor spot of ground. The servant asks the Lord what He was thinking planting the branch in what the servant hyperbolizes as "the poorest spot in all the land of thy vineyard." The Lord answers, "Counsel me not; I knew that it was a poor spot of ground; wherefore... I have nourished it this long time, and ... it hath brought forth much fruit" (Jacob 5:21-22).

A few trees later, the Lord shows the servant a branch that was planted in good ground but is only partly producing good fruit while another part is wild. The Lord says to pluck off the wild branches and burn them, but the servant replies, "Let us prune it, and dig about it, and nourish it a little longer, that perhaps it may bring forth good fruit unto thee" (Jacob 5:27). Here, rather than reprimanding the servant for trying to counsel Him, the Lord allows the servant's plan to stand.

Later, when all the trees are bringing forth wild fruit, the Lord calls the servant to join Him in hewing down the trees and casting them into the fire. Again, the servant says, "Spare it a little longer" and the Lord replies, "Yea, I will spare it a little longer, for it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard" (Jacob 5: 50-51).

The Difference is About Stewardship

This allegory illustrates that there are times when the Lord not only welcomes input from His servants but even alters His process at their request. It appears He is pleased with a deeper relationship than "I say, you obey." The servant who suggests a course that differs from His initial instructions might be considered less than exactly obedient, but I think it's actually more: they're living a higher law. They're collaborating; interceding in a way that forwards the Lord's work and aligns with His will. Meanwhile, there are other times when, not only is a servant's input uncalled for, but they don't get the merest explanation about why the Lord has proceeded as he has. The key difference seems to be about stewardship.

It is helpful for me to consider the identity of the servant who is first recorded asking the Lord to postpone cutting off the wild branches and instead to nourish a particular tree a little longer. The details are strongly reminiscent of covenant-keeping Lehi claiming extraordinary blessings for his posterity, as recorded in 2 Nephi 4. Foreseeing Laman's and Lemuel's falling away, Lehi cannot go down to his grave without leaving a blessing on their children. He promises them, "Thou shalt not utterly be destroyed; but in the end thy seed shall be blessed" (2 Nephi 4:9). The Lord later renews this promise to Enos (Enos 1:16-18) and other Lehite prophets. So, if the servant in Jacob 5: 27 represents Lehi and some of his prophet descendants, then they are acting within stewardship as they intercede with the Lord in behalf of their family.

By contrast, the servant who is entrusted with the mother tree is outside of stewardship when he questions the Lord's placement of young and tender branches in poor spots of ground. The Lord had told him earlier, "These will I place... whithersoever I will, it mattereth not unto thee" (Jacob 5:13).

Honouring the Brethren's Stewardship

For me, this has far-reaching implications. I can relate to the servant who has been carefully and arduously tending the mother tree. I can imagine him perceiving the Lord's choice of ground for the precious, young and tender branches as a careless mistake. He wants an explanation, but it isn't forthcoming. Instead, he's reminded that this is outside of his stewardship; his job is both to collaborate with the Lord in caring for his own assignment and to let go and trust the Lord with what is not.

This tells me that I can expect to be mystified by some of the things the Lord does. That doesn't mean something's wrong, but only that I can't see the end from the beginning, especially when it comes to things that are outside of my purview. God moves in mysterious ways and has wise purposes that will come clear to us in the end. So, for example, when I see marginalized groups who seem to be treated unfairly by the Church, I may be tempted to take offence at the Lord's planting them in a poor spot of ground. I might want to criticize, demand an explanation and/or push for changes in policies and/or teachings I think would allow them to thrive. But Church policies and teachings are outside of my stewardship, so these are dead ends that will take me out of partnership with God if I pursue them. What I can do is take a better look at what is within my stewardship and then double down in my efforts to collaborate with God for the benefit of my neighbours. It is within my stewardship to influence Church culture. I can reach out, love and include the marginalized near me. I can blog about the changes in my understanding. I can earnestly pray to get my own heart right and to treat "the least of these" as I would treat Jesus Christ.

Honouring My Neighbour's Stewardship

I can also avoid judging and condemning others who are trying to work out their stewardships with God in a manner that perplexes me. I don't need to understand their journey in their quest for truth and wholeness. I can stay anchored in my own testimony that Jesus is the way, while allowing others the dignity of their own wrestle with God.

In his classic talk where he coined the phrase "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith", then President Dieter F. Uchtdorf also said the following about the decision some make to leave the Church:

"Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations.

"Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question whether they should separate themselves from the Church.

"In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege (Deiter F. Uchtdorf, "Come, Join With Us", October 2013 General Conference).

What Lies Outside a Prophet's Stewardship?

To me, President Uchtdorf's words suggest the possibility that for some, honestly following the dictates of their own conscience may take them on a journey that departs from the restored Church. The contours of another's journey may be incomprehensible to me. According to the Allegory of the Olive Tree, it may even be incomprehensible to the prophet. I believe, as Sister Dew recently testified, that the Lord will always reveal to the prophets His direction for the entire Church, so that "prophets help us see around corners." But I don't think the Lord has promised to reveal to even the prophets those things that are outside of their stewardship.

I'm reminded of Elisha's experience with the Shunammite woman as found in 2 Kings 4. When she came into the wilderness to appeal to Elisha to bring her little boy back from death, Elisha knew by inspiration that the distant, fast-approaching figure was she, but he did not know the nature of her errand. "Her soul is vexed within her: and the Lord hath hid it from me, and hath not told me," he said (2 Kings 4:27). Not understanding that the boy was dead, he then prescribed an inadequate course of action, urging his servant Gehazi to go with utmost haste and lay Elisha's staff on the child's face.

With great faith in both the prophet and in the promptings of the Spirit to her own heart, the Shunammite woman was not satisfied with Elisha's prescription. Gehazi left to fulfill his errand, but the woman held onto Elisha's feet, saying, "As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee" (2 Kings 4:30). So Elisha himself took the journey with her. When Gehazi's ministrations had no effect, he was then able to raise the boy from the dead.

Honouring the Brethren's Stewardship And My Own

As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. That's the attitude I want to have when there's a conflict between the direction I'm receiving for my stewardship and the direction I'm getting from Priesthood leaders who have a stewardship toward me. I'd want it to guide me in a situation like the mission mom's, where an Area Authority was telling my companion and me that we shouldn't be making the changes we felt inspired to make in our mission. My hope is that I would be able to say, "Elder ______, thank you for sharing your concerns and your counsel with us. We honour your stewardship toward the missions of this area. We also have a stewardship that we need to fulfill according to the revelation that the Lord is giving us. Would you please pray for us that if we're mistaken, the Lord will let us know?"

Going forward, I aim to own my stewardship, to honour the Brethren's and my neighbour's, to stay in relationship, to collaborate.

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