"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
September 4, 2014
Counselor to an Abrasive President
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


I am in the Primary presidency. The President does a great job running things and planning activities. However, she is very particular about how things are done. She micromanages everything, and when teachers or other Primary workers don’t meet her expectations, she lets them know.

Recently, she chewed out a good friend of mine who teaches Primary. My friend was angry and upset, and vented to me about it. I felt awkward because although I sympathize with my friend (and agree with her), I also feel a duty to be loyal to the Primary president.

How can I be a good friend and a good counselor when those two roles are at odds?


“People before Programs” is a staple of church training meetings. And it is usually understood to mean that the people to be served by a program are more important than the program itself.

For example, the individual young women in a ward, with their particular situations and personalities, are more important than any of the programs designed to serve and help them, such as Personal Progress, camp or even seminary. These programs must be implemented in a way that supports and teaches those young women.

Reluctant campers or lukewarm gospel scholars should be treated with care and encouragement, with demands that are sufficient to bring personal growth and a sense of accomplishment, but which are not overwhelming.

But “people before programs” also applies to the people who run those programs. They, too, are more important than the programs. A leader cannot allow his vision for an activity, lesson or group to justify unreasonable demands or unkind words. Instead, he must treat the people who report to him respectfully, kindly and with gratitude.

Further, a leader should not dictate every detail. He should respect people’s efforts to plan and fulfill their assignments. Handbook 2, section 3.3.4. This applies even when a program is, objectively, not running as well as it could.

It appears that your Primary president has run afoul of “people before programs.” If your assessment is correct, she has allowed her vision for how things should run to justify her poor treatment of the people in her organization.

Your immediate problem is navigating the actual conversations with disgruntled Primary workers. But your bigger goal is to do what you can to improve the underlying problem.

First, encourage your friend to talk to the Primary president directly. If this had been a one-time conflict, you might suggest she let things lie. But it appears that it was not a one-time conflict. And if the Primary president is treating the teachers badly when they fail to meet her demands, she needs to stop.

In my opinion, the best person to confront the president about her behavior is the person who was actually hurt by it. That person is in the best position to know what happened and to describe her thoughts and feelings about the incident. That person is also in the best position to suggest ways the president might adjust her expectations or communicate more gently in the future.

In other words, this conflict must be resolved between the actual parties, or it will not be truly resolved. Adding a go-between (you) only increases the opportunity for misunderstanding and confusion. And it seems juvenile for you to run between them, explaining to Jessie why Patty is mad at her. Let Jessie and Patty work it out directly.

Also, you don’t know the whole story. You only know what you know. There may be a history to this dispute that renders the Primary president’s behavior at least understandable, if not actually justified.

So, the next time your friend (or anyone else) approaches you with a legitimate complaint about the president’s abrasive behavior, listen calmly and carefully, ask questions to clarify what happened, and then say something like, “Patty, I’m sorry this happened. I think Jessie needs to know what you just told me. Would you please call and talk to her this week?”

Don’t say anything that you don’t want repeated — in a snippy or breathless tone, no less — to the Primary president. Even if you disapprove of her behavior, you should not criticize her behind her back.

Second, in presidency meetings, advocate for increased autonomy for the Primary teachers and other Primary workers. When you see the president micromanaging or criticizing the failings of others, speak up.

You might say things like, “I like that idea. But I think we should discuss it with Brother Smith since he is the one who will have to actually do it.” Or, “I’m concerned that we are putting too many demands on the Cub Scout leaders. I think we should let the parents handle the Cubs’ transportation instead of asking the leaders to arrange car pools.” Or, “I think we should let each teacher make that decision based on the needs of the class.”

Third, you may need to step in and talk to the president about her behavior. If someone was deeply hurt, he may be unable or unwilling to talk to her. If this happens, find a private time and place to talk. Be specific about the complaint and resist the urge to say things like, “You always do this to everybody.” Or, “You need to back off.”

“Jessie,” you could say, “Talia was really upset about what happened Sunday. She came to me in tears about the email you sent her. I’m sure you didn’t mean to hurt her feelings, but she was devastated by your critique of her Sharing Time. I asked her to call you personally about this, but I don’t think she can. I really think you should call her.”

Hopefully, the president will realize that she was out of line and be horrified that one of the teachers in her organization was so affected by her actions. But it is possible that she will justify her behavior, saying, “It’s not fair to the kids to have to sit through a Sharing Time like that,” or, “I gave her an outline to follow. She should have followed it.” Or even, “She’s too sensitive.”

If that happens, respond slowly and gently. “I don’t think that’s the point,” you might say. “She tried her best. We need to encourage and support her.” See again, Handbook 2, section 3.3.4.

Be thoughtful and careful during this conversation, especially if you don’t know the president well. It has been my experience that the most abrasive people are also the most sensitive to criticism. So remember that “people before programs” applies to her, too. And do not assume she can take what she dishes out.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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