"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
August 20, 2015
First Class
by Orson Scott Card

It’s a parlous thing to criticize Church leaders publicly. Not because of repercussions — Church leaders are reluctant to bring to bear the few disciplinary tools they have.

Nor does the peril come from the mote-and-beam situation Jesus described during his mortal ministry. When someone is in a position of public trust, he is accountable, not just to his superiors, but also to those over whom he exercises authority.

And there is no requirement that someone be perfect before he can bring to people’s notice a flaw in the Church (or anywhere else) that needs correction.

The real peril comes from simple ignorance. It is easy to notice something “wrong” that is not wrong at all — if only you thought or learned more about it. So to bring the matter to public attention prematurely runs the risk of damaging the Church, or someone’s reputation, unjustly.

These thoughts came to my mind because of an essay I recently read online. I don’t think the person who wrote it meant to attack the General Authorities, and his original point — to call into question a statement attributed to one Apostle — was a legitimate one, and it is quite possible that the Apostle in question, if he really said it, already regrets his words. Those things happen, and sometimes give rise to false doctrines and unproductive attitudes in the Church.

The essay crossed the line for me when it included a picture of one of the Apostles sitting in the first class (or business class?) section of a commercial airliner. The essayist pointed out that first class tickets on a particular international flight cost $13,000 each, while coach tickets cost about $1,300. (Business class would usually cost somewhere between.)

Now, when I looked at that picture, what I saw was normal first class seating on a domestic flight. I’ve flown international business class, and the seats are much nicer. So right from the start, I realized that somebody was using a picture of a real Apostle, but criticizing him for the cost of a completely different flight.

But let’s pretend that the picture was appropriate, or that using it as an example of a hugely expensive flight was an honest mistake. Let’s simply take the given numbers and see what they imply.

The writer’s point was that tithing money should be well protected, never wasted on luxuries, and that our claim that nobody gets paid for their ministry in the Church was false because General Authorities are well paid — at least in perks like first-class tickets.

Now, anybody who has worked for the corporate Church knows that the phrase “widow’s mite” is spoken hundreds of times a day at 50 East North Temple. It is usually said to paid contractors, with the stern implication that they are not worthy of the money they are being paid — even when it is a tiny fraction of their normal fee.

(It is especially annoying when the person saying it draws a nice salary from the tithing funds of the Church. I am always tempted to suggest that their job could be done for free by a retiree on a Church service mission.)

And I share the essayist’s concern for how the trappings of wealth can give a false impression. I remember, back in the late 1970s, walking through the top level of the garage under the plaza at 50 East North Temple, where General Authority cars were parked, and I noticed that the cars were all late model luxury cars.

I did not begrudge the Brethren a nice ride. What I wondered about was the impression it would make to financially strapped Church members if a visiting General Authority drove up to stake conference in a chauffered luxury car. It is easy to imagine some of them having bitter thoughts about the sacrifices they’ve made to pay their tithing.

But a few years later, I was relieved to see that someone else must have noticed this sour note, and all the Cadillacs and Town Cars had been replaced by cars in the Crown Vic and Caprice category. Not only did this change represent a frugal use of tithing money, it also improved the impression made by the General Authorities both in and out of the Church.

It is hard for us to keep the worldly attitude toward wealth out of our own thinking in the Church. In the outside world, rich and powerful people are expected to display their success in the clothes they wear and the cars they drive. It enhances their prestige and therefore increases their power.

Unfortunately, this carries over into the Church far too often. People who have achieved worldly success are too often given deference in their wards and stakes that should properly go only to those who have earned it through years of good and wise church service.

And far, far too often, people believe that outward signs of wealth — the big house on the hill, the luxury car, the expensive clothing, the jewelry — are signs of the favor of God. The idea apparently is that God blesses the righteous, so all these “blessings” are a certificate of righteousness.

(Let’s remember that anything we buy for ourselves is not a “blessing,” it’s a “purchase.”)

A careful reading of the Book of Mormon makes it clear that pride in wealth is the primary cause of breakdown and division in the Church. That “pride cycle” is inseparable from a love of displaying wealth while disdaining those who don’t have it.

So it is a good thing for General Authorities to set the tone for the Church as a whole. No expensive jewelry. No needlessly fancy cars. Relatively modest living quarters.

But they also do not need to adopt a pose of fake poverty. Some General Authorities achieved worldly wealth before entering fulltime Church service, and they are not required to sell all they have and move their families into tenements or huts.

Likewise, those General Authorities whose prior careers never made them wealthy are given reasonable compensation so that they can afford to live comfortably. To me, that means having enough money to occasionally eat out, and a large enough dwelling place to have the grandkids over for a visit.

I would go further — if the decision were mine. Every General Authority is required to make constant public appearances, wearing suits. With all due respect to the suit-making industry, I think it would not be inappropriate for General Authorities to be regularly provided, at Church expense, tailored, well-fitting suits, and for their wives — who are often required to join in their ministry — to have enough of a clothing budget to provide themselves with nice church dresses.

This is not a waste of tithing money. People should concentrate on what General Authorities say, not on how they’re dressed. Their clothing should not be noticeably expensive — or noticeably shabby or ill-fitting. It should not be noticed at all. And that takes a little money. Maybe even tithing money. It is well spent, when it helps them to conduct their ministry.

I have never seen or heard of a General Authority bedecking himself with the kind of flashy, expensive accoutrements that TV preachers are famous for wearing or using.

But if you see a General Authority at Disney World, surrounded by a flock of grandchildren or great-grandchildren, it would be uncharitable of you to think, Is tithing money paying for this?

If such a thought crosses your mind, then perhaps you should go home and talk to your bishop. Tell him that you want to pay for a poor family in your ward or stake to take a trip to Disneyland or Disney World. He should select the family — you don’t want to know who it is — and tell them that the trip is being paid for by a Church member who does not know who is receiving it.

Then let him pass the funds on to them — and don’t deduct it from your taxes, because it’s not a Church contribution, it’s just an act of anonymous kindness that should not be partially billed to other taxpayers.

My point is that instead of resenting Church leaders for using some of their stipends (as you suppose) on “luxuries” that struggling tithepayers may not be able to afford, you should do what you can to make sure that those poorer Saints have access to luxuries that, in our culture, come to feel like necessities.

Now, let’s come back to the specific criticism leveled by that essayist: General Authorities flying first class instead of coach.

It’s good to keep in mind that the Church could easily afford to operate a fleet of private jets, or charter planes at need, to take the Brethren to foreign countries. The same jet could carry a group of Brethren across the Pacific, dropping some off in Tokyo and others in Manila. This would be a defensible use of funds for any corporation whose executives must travel constantly to other continents as part of their duties.

But the Brethren do not do this. They modestly fly in commercial jets.

When you leave the Western Hemisphere, serious jet lag is also involved. Yet from the moment they get off the plane, they are expected — they expect themselves — to put in a full schedule of conferring with Church leaders and members in the place they’re visiting. They hit the ground running.

These are not young men — no, not even Elder Bednar — and it does not get easier to cope with the rigors of travel when you get older. Ever since heart doctor Russel Nelson joined the Quorum of the Twelve, I’ve noticed a trend toward better physical fitness among the Brethren, but that doesn’t change the fact that sitting for hours on an airplane does not invigorate anybody.

These days, I’m too heavy to sit in coach — and not just because I can’t bear the look of horror from people who fear that this fat old man will sit down next to them. In a first class seat, there is some hope that I can nap — or, on an international flight, sleep — so I arrive with enough vigor and mobility to fetch my luggage and get to the rental car bus.

I was much thinner and fitter when my wife and I flew to Djakarta for a teaching gig, and we decided to fly coach. Djakarta’s time zone is exactly twelve hours off from my own in North Carolina; you can’t have a worse jet lag experience.

In coach, sleep — even drugged sleep (thanks, diphenhydramine) — was barely possible, and when we emerged from each plane, I could hardly walk from the cramped position I was forced into for so many hours.

At least I didn’t have to teach the same day I arrived. But General Authorities are usually hard at work before the plane has been refueled.

So I must ask: Should we endanger the lives, health, and mobility of General Authorities by making them travel in cramped coach seats? We all know how the penny-pinching airlines keep shrinking the seat space in order to fit in more fare-paying coach passengers; do we really need to torture the General Authorities in order to save money?

Or is it money well-spent, to give the Brethren a chance of arriving in a physical condition that will allow them to fulfil their rigorous schedule of meetings?

I suppose it depends on how you value the apostolic work. Is it worth $11,700 to let Apostles fly first class on a long international flight, if it means that they can arrive in physical condition to perform their duties without impairment? Personally, I think it would be stupid and cruel to expect them to fly coach and yet maintain their work schedule.

And then there’s another point here. Who is actually paying for the upgrade from coach to first-class? Do we even know that the cost comes out of tithing funds? Remember that the Church used to own many extremely valuable companies, and General Authorities served on their boards, which entitled them to salaries and corporate perks.

Even if that practice has been discontinued (and if it has, I’m glad, because I can’t imagine wasting the Brethren’s time, staying up to speed on the needs of businesses), the Church has many investments that pay dividends. For all we know, not a dime of tithing money has ever gone into General Authority air travel.

The essayist called for the Church to open its books and account for every dime and dollar that are spent on any purpose. But I believe his essay is a complete explanation of why the Brethren do not and should not ever do this. No matter how carefully they husband the tithes and offerings, I am absolutely certain that there would be hundreds or thousands of critics, in and out of the Church, who would find fault with every financial decision they made.

Instead, the Church uses auditors to make sure Church funds are disbursed as directed, and nobody is pocketing the money that passes through their hands. I assume they also monitor to make sure that nobody is getting kickbacks for awarding Church contracts to favored businesses, and that nepotism is not involved in any spending decisions. (It’s wise for any institution to assume that its employees are subject to the normal human temptations.)

But I do not believe that any General Authority is overcompensated for his labor in the vineyard. When I look at the killing schedule that most of them keep, taxing their bodies to the utmost, and the high level at which most of them perform, day after day and year after year, I have to think that no amount of money could compensate them for their work.

I know that no amount of money could induce me to work that hard at anything. I would have to love the work. I think they love the work — the gospel, the people, and the Lord. They are not rewarding themselves with misspent luxuries. And it is ignorant and churlish to imagine that they are.

It is parlous to criticize the Brethren, because it is so easy for uncharitability to arise from a critical attitude. I think the writer of the essay revealed more about himself, when he assumed the worst of motives for a perfectly understandable expense.

He should not be punished for writing his thoughts; but perhaps he might examine his own heart, and try to determine why he seized so eagerly upon the opportunity to find fault with other Latter-day Saints who are merely serving, like everyone else, in the calling they’ve been given.

What Should We Do With Our Doubts?

Since I don’t know the writer of the essay I refer to, I cannot make any statement about his standing in or attitude toward the Church beyond his own remarks.

But a clear, simple, and truthful essay by Cassandra Hedelius, “A House of Order, a House of God: Recycled Challenges to the Legitimacy of the Church,” seems to me to be a very helpful guide to Latter-day Saints in sorting through and reacting to the writings and sayings of those who set themselves up as critics of the Brethren or of Church policy.

Here is a link to her excellent essay at FairMormon.org: http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2015-fairmormon-conference/a-house-of-order-a-house-of-god

Meanwhile, let me address an obvious question. If the essayist I responded to was troubled by the fact that at least some Apostles sometimes fly first class while on Church assignments, and believed this might be a misuse of tithing funds, then what should he have done?

He should have talked to his bishop and/or stake president.

He could also have written directly to any of the Brethren, either one of his Area Authorities or one of the General Authorities, though I believe the most likely response to such a letter would be a meeting with his bishop or stake president, in which the bishop or stake president had a copy of the letter with the pertinent points highlighted. The Brethren usually bounce such routine questions and criticisms back down the chain of command to local leaders who are personally acquainted with the complainant.

To some members — the ones Hedelius addresses with “A House of Order” — this process represents a complete breakdown of communication because “of course” the stake president or bishop will counsel you to keep such doubts to yourself, and will assure you that the tithes and offerings entrusted to the Church are disposed of very carefully by those in authority, according to principles established after prayer, discussion, research, and inspiration.

Yet this is exactly right. The tithes and offerings are disposed of by those in authority — and no one else. Those authorities do use principles that came by inspiration after prayer, research, and discussion.

And the advice to “keep such doubts to yourself” is essential. The moment you speak a “doubt” aloud, it stops being a doubt and becomes a criticism. You may feel sure of your own testimony despite such doubts, but many to whom you say it may respond much more negatively than you. And what does anyone gain?

By sharing his thoughts about flying first class, what did this writer hope to accomplish? Some of his readers might then stop listening to the particular Apostle pictured committing the non-sin of “First-Class Flying” — or listening to any Apostle, because a new cynicism and skepticism has been introduced into his relationship with Church leaders.

And yet, as I hope I showed in my response, this skepticism is, to put it clearly, both short-sighted and absurdly uncharitable. The automatic assumption of evil motives is a marker of paranoia or of enmity. When you immediately leap to the conclusion that there is no good motive for an action you disapprove of, you reveal your own prejudice and declare yourself the enemy of those to whom you ascribe such motives.

This is inappropriate behavior for any Christian — though, being human, we all do it at times almost by reflex. But the wisest among us stop before publishing it, lest by doing so we cause harm to the innocent.

If there are abuses, then it is our responsibility to notice them and to call them to the attention of the appropriate (usually local) Church leaders. Once we have spoken or written our observations and turned them in, then our responsibility as a fellow-citizen of the Saints is fulfilled.

The leader to whom we gave our observations then has the responsibility to call the matter to the attention of those who have stewardship over him; if all of them do their work properly, then the matter will reach those who are responsible for solving the problem. Then they will either fulfil their responsibility by making sure no harm is being done, or they will not. But it is their responsibility; your responsibility was discharged already.

Not every local or intermediate leader will pass along the concern, of course — they can be busy, forgetful, or simply human, and sometimes their inspiration takes the form of “stupor of thought” about bad ideas. But if it is a matter that concerns the Lord, he will make sure that either your or some other expression of the problem reaches those who are in authority. The Brethren are constantly alert to whatever is in the minds and hearts of the members.

I think, however, that our responsibility goes a little further. For instance, we might hear other people voice the same concern. We could egg them on by saying, “That’s exactly what I think! What’s going on with those guys?” Or we could hide from their concerns, thinking, I’ve done my bit, now let them work it out for themselves.

Or we could say, “I once had a concern about that, and gave a letter to (or had a discussion with) the stake president about it.” Then you can report what you learned and either assure the worried member that you are satisfied with the response you got, or assure him that you trust the Lord to direct his Church and correct all abuses in his own due time.

In other words, you don’t goad others into a frenzy of outrage; you don’t ignore their honest concerns; and you support the Church and its leaders.

And you never seek to replace revelation and inspiration with rabble-rousing. If you ever think that by agitating and propagandizing (agit-prop) you can get the Brethren to change a Church policy, you have already lost your belief that the LDS Church is led by revelation to living prophets.

In such a case you are already speaking and acting from outside the Church. The methods of agit-prop are coercive. They represent “unrighteous dominion.” Amen to whatever authority or influence you had.

But I don’t know the motives of the writer of the essay I responded to. He may be the kind of Mormon Gnostic that Hedelius addresses so clearly and well. Or he may be a guy responding to somebody else’s agit-prop — and all he needed was to have somebody point out the logic behind having aged Apostles fly first class so they can retain the health and stamina to continue their demanding schedule of work.

The question of whether someone is falling into apostasy is, for the first while, a matter for them to ponder in their own hearts; then in conversation with priesthood leaders; and finally in formal departure from the Church, if that’s the only resolution that makes sense in the end. If someone truly comes to believe that the Church or its leadership is corrupt and fallen, then conscience should require such a person to cease to pose as a believing Mormon.

Because you can’t have the gospel without the Church.

The most vital quotation from Hedelius’s article is this paragraph: “There are no ‘deep doctrines,’ because there are no shallow doctrines that we can outgrow and deemphasize. The deepest doctrines are faith in Christ, repentance, obedience, and service. Any enticing gospel hobby that detracts from those is a snare. Any belief that you’ve found a more ‘deep,’ more ‘spiritual,’ way to understand those doctrines, apart from steady dedication and humble incremental progress among your fellow Saints, is a snare.”

Let me repeat a more easily memorized portion of that: “There are no ‘deep doctrines,’ because there are no shallow doctrines that we can outgrow and deemphasize. The deepest doctrines are faith in Christ, repentance, obedience, and service.”

Now let’s distill this down to its essence, when people are tempted to believe they are seeking, or have found, superior understanding: “There are no ‘deep doctrines,’ because there are no shallow doctrines.”

Repeat this as a mantra whenever you catch yourself feeling wiser, better-informed, or more virtuous than Church leaders.

Let me add one more question that should accompany any other questions we have about the practices of the Church or its leaders: “Is this my calling?” Or, to put it more broadly, “Have I, by revelation and the laying on of hands, been given stewardship over this aspect of the Kingdom of God?”

Let that question automatically accompany any doubts or criticisms that might be festering in our minds. The purpose of that question is not to stifle all doubt or criticism, but rather to put it in perspective. Somebody has been given that stewardship. It is never wrong to discreetly call a problem to the attention of its proper steward, even if that steward takes no pleasure in hearing it.

Remember, too, that not all problems in the world or in the Church require authoritative action. For instance, if a person is in need of assistance, but Church welfare rules don’t allow the bishop to help meet some or all of their needs, there is no rule against individual members providing whatever help they can, and inviting others to join them. I have seen this many times, as kind Saints do what Fast Offering funds cannot. (Such private help should never be accompanied by criticism of the Church for not acting officially in the case.)

It is never a sin to be the Samaritan who picks up the wounded traveler from the side of the road. This is a matter of service, and Jesus’ teaching is clear: If you have done it to the least of my brethren, you have done it to me.

So where it is within our reach to resolve a problem, resolve it (as I attempted by explaining a reason why first-class flying for General Authorities might be an appropriate use of funds available to the Church). Where the responsibility lies with another steward, call it to his or her attention. Other than that, we attend to our own houses and our own stewardships, and beseech the Lord in prayer. It is all within his stewardship, and he always hears.

Please don’t forget to read Cassandra Hedelius’s essay: http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2015-fairmormon-conference/a-house-of-order-a-house-of-god


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About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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