I've been engaged in a conversation about seeking counsel from church leaders over at another blog, and I decided to consolidate some of my thoughts on this subject.
A couple of premises from which I operate as a member of the LDS Church:
1. I have a testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and the restoration of priesthood authority which allows for administration of ordinances and the organization of the church.
2. Men and women who serve in leadership callings in the church are called by inspiration. The Fifth Article of Faith says they are called "by prophecy and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority to preach the gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof."
3. Those who serve come from a "lay" ministry. Although General Authorities serve full time, clergy in our church do not receive specific training in the ministry beyond what is available to us all: study of the scriptures and inspiration (or revelation) for their stewardship. Although local leaders (bishops and stake presidents) spend part of their time in offering counsel to individual members they are not particularly trained to do so; they do not receive academic training in their leadership capacity in psychology or counseling.
4. I have served as a bishop twice (once in Latin America and once in the United States), so I have my own experience, and I have spoken with others I know who have similarly served, but I am not aware of rigorous academic study of counseling practices among lay leaders in the LDS church.
5. Members generally respect the office of bishop and stake president; they have faith that men who hold those callings are called of God and can speak for Him. This faith comes from their experience with good men who have served in those roles, along with the teaching that we trust in the Lord and in His servants, and we accept inspired words as His words. Often seasoned members will respect the office more than they do an individual who serves in that office, meaning they recognize that the calling comes with certain gifts and blessings from the Lord. Seeking advice from your bishop is not the same as seeking advice from a trusted friend.
6. The men who serve in these callings are (in my experience) good men who do their best to serve in the way the Lord wants them to. They rely on their own experience (often as counselors to other bishops, for instance), on training they receive, on the scriptures, on the handbook of instructions and other church policy, and on personal pleas to the Lord for wisdom and guidance in specific cases. But these men are not perfect, and they are not infallible. Sometimes their counsel is limited by their own experience. Sometimes they do not know what they do not know. Sometimes they may not have read the latest policy, or do not remember it.
That last point may be troubling to some.
I remember a play I wrote when I was in college. In it, a bishop expressed private doubts to his stake president about a decision he had made as bishop. My father-in-law, a very faithful and somewhat conservative Latter-day Saint, was troubled by my characterizing the bishop as doubting, not because bishops do not have doubts, but because he worried that I might unfairly suggest that doubt is a regular part of a bishop's experience.
I do not believe that bishops spend a lot of time in doubt; they may simply not have time. In one ward I served, I easily spent twenty or more hours a week "bishoping" in addition to my 50-60 hours a week of work. (It was only later that I realized what a toll my service had on my family, and my next time around I tried to be more sensitive, though the time required really was more a sacrifice by my family than by me.)
Knowing that bishops are not perfect (I used to joke when I was a bishop that no one should think I was perfect, and if they did, they should consult my teenagers, who could set them straight), one might worry whether a bishop is acting under inspiration. This question seems to pop up often – wondering for instance when the General Authorities are speaking for themselves or for God. And of course the same question may apply for bishops and stake presidents.
The problems that may arise are easy to imagine. If we assume leaders are always inspired, we will be obedient, but may be troubled by discrepancies of history or finer points of doctrine or our own spiritual experiences. If we assume leaders are not always inspired then we are left with inevitable inconsistency in the application of their counsel.
Here are some ways I have come to terms with this question. These ideas are not new with me, but they do work for me.
1. If I receive a calling, I assume that calling is from the Lord. I know the process that most leaders follow when issuing a calling. Auxiliary leaders pray about the calling and offer inspired recommendations to bishoprics, and bishoprics pray to confirm the correctness of calls. Even if a call is uninspired, it would rarely be detrimental to accept it, but in my experience, the callings I've received have been great blessings to me, even if I was reluctant to accept initially. (I do remember one occasion when my wife received a calling she questioned. She asked if she could pray about it for a few days, sincerely not wanting to decline. By the following Sunday, the bishopric member who had issued the calling informed her that the bishopric had reconsidered and extended a different calling instead.) I remember sweet experiences extending calls where the person to be called seemed to be aware of the calling before I extended it. On one occasion, I was extending a release and in the middle of the interview I received the distinct impression that I should not extend the release after all, so I didn't. I am comfortable assuming that calls (and releases) come from the Lord, and I can seek that confirmation for myself, as well.
2. If I receive counsel over the pulpit, I assume it is the result of significant preparation. I understand that general authorities give a great deal of time and effort in preparing general conference talks. I have heard accounts of multiple drafts, reworking, rewording, and seeking the right nuance of meaning. If I have a concern about the counsel, I can seek my own confirming witness. I do not know if local leaders spend the same time and effort in their public addresses, and stories I hear suggest there is a wide variety of experience. I know the care I took when I spoke in sacrament meeting, and I try to assume that others do the same. (I reserve this position for counsel, but not necessarily for doctrine or history; if a bishop reads a source that has the history wrong, he may well repeat the wrong history.)
3. If I receive counsel in a blessing, I accept it as revelation for me. Elder Oaks' talk has caused me to think about this principle, and frankly I'm still working on it. But if my stake president were to give me a blessing that I sought, or pronounced a blessing while setting me apart, I would accept the words he spoke as revelation. This is particularly so if the blessing came after I had prepared myself and the person pronouncing the blessing had prepared himself. Of course I still have the opportunity to go to the Lord in private prayer to discuss particulars of a blessing for further understanding.
4. If I receive counsel in an interview, I try to have an open conversation with the interviewer to understand the counsel, why the interviewer recommends it, and how I should receive it (am I getting his opinion or am I getting inspired counsel?). Frankly, most often in an interview setting I'm told to go find my own answer. In fact, sometimes that's the answer I'm given in a blessing as well. In this kind of counsel, as in all counsel, I look for consistency with the scriptures, accepted church policy and the teachings of the prophets. When I gave counsel in an interview, I tried to hold to the same standard. One stake president suggested that the bishop in an interview should spend less than 20% of the time talking, and the other 80% praying for inspiration to say the right thing. Not bad advice.
I am grateful for the opportunity to receive personal revelation and for a faith which teaches me that is possible. I'm also grateful for inspired leaders who likewise receive revelation for their stewardships.