Some Thoughts About Shadow Leadership
1. Senior Couples Are Not in the Chain of Priesthood Authority
For the most part, a senior elder called to serve as an “MLS” missionary is not in the line of Priesthood authority. He is not asked to serve as a district or branch president, or an elders quorum president, or a seminary or institute teacher—or, in short, to hold any position of authority to which others are expected or asked to give deference or from whom members are expected to take counsel. Instead, the MLS senior elder, and his wife, are asked by the Mission President, to whom they directly report and to whom they are ultimately accountable, to support existing “authorized” leaders of the local church units, whether they be established wards or new or struggling branches. Senior elders have no authority or mandate to step in and assume responsibility for branch operations, such as conducting meetings, setting agendas, calling others to church positions, asking members to make commitments or be accountable. Instead, they are to work with, support, encourage, and guide local leaders, who have been called to those positions of authority and who are, by virtue of those callings, given the authority to preside. The role of the senior missionaries is largely ill-defined, fluid and outside of the customary chain of authority and formal organization. They do not operate within the traditional priesthood hierarchy, with authority over the Church leaders with whom they labor, but instead stand, as it were, off-to-the-side, in an advisory or consulting role.
2. Desire of Local Leaders to Be Independent
The local leaders in Blantyre are well aware of the senior missionaries’ church experience and their willingness and availability to serve, but they are also mindful that the senior missionaries are not in the chain of priesthood authority. In our experience, the local leaders generally understand the sacred callings to which they have been called and appreciate the order of the Church. They understand the priesthood keys have been conferred upon them empowering them, subject to the oversight of those in the Church hierarchy, to govern the local affairs of the Church. With few exceptions, they are anxious to stand on their own feet without relying too much upon senior missionaries for support. They are equally desirous that the local members of the Church be independent.
This sentiment is widely held and frequently expressed within the local congregations. Several months ago, during a Fast and Testimony Meeting, President Chikapa, speaking of personal testimonies, stated without hesitation that neither he nor the branch members could or should rely upon the Beals as a senior couple or the younger missionaries, for their testimonies. They needed to be converted on their own; they needed to have their own testimonies; they should not look to the senior couples or others for help. The local Church must grow on the backs of the local members. Certainly this is the right answer—as similar comments have been made repeatedly by the General Authorities when speaking of the Church membership at large. Each members must be self-sustaining. In a similar vein, this past Tuesday evening, the physical facilities director for Zambia and Malawi, when meeting with the branch presidents and branch physical facility representatives, reminded those in attendance that they should not look to the senior couples to stay on top of maintenance issues in the local buildings. It was the responsibility of the local members to do their duties. The time might surely come when there were no senior couples around.
On occasion, local leaders may be quick to abdicate their responsibility in favor of more experienced senior missionaries. Sometimes this occurs because they lack confidence or have yet to grasp fully the scope of their callings. They may not have been trained and feel embarrassed or ill-equipped to discharge their responsibility. How can they perform their callings when they don’t know what to do? On occasion, they are uncomfortable exercising their authority in front of those who they suspect to have much more experience or possess greater skills. Even worse, they may have been burned in the past, when senior missionaries were quick to take over, whenever they felt local members were struggling to find their way. What is easiest is to step aside and let the senior missionaries take over. But whatever the reason, whenever this occurs, senior missionaries do the Church a great disservice by stepping in the breach and assuming the role of the called leader, for doing so undermines the authority of the local members, deprives them of growth opportunities, and upsets the divine order of the Church. Those who have been called to serve are those entitled to the promptings of the Spirit. It also further perpetuates the myth that leadership skills are uniquely vested in senior missionaries or those with the most experience in the Church.
3. Looking to Senior Missionaries for Support
Local leaders’ desire to be independent is commendable, but it does leave the senior missionaries in a somewhat peculiar position when the Church is new in an area and local members have little hands-on experience. Under those circumstances occasions frequently arise when the new leaders and members lack the experience to conduct properly Church programs and could benefit greatly by getting advice from those more experienced. Yet local leaders, knowing that they are the ones “called” to run the Church, and not wanting to be upstaged, may be slow to ask for assistance, even when they should. They are sensitive to being second guessed, hate the feeling of being on trial, or don’t want to be upstaged by others with more experience. As long as they don’t ask for help, they feel more certain of themselves and are not dependent. Moreover, they may on occasion resent offers of external input, however well-intended or generous such gestures might be, even if they know they could use the help. The challenge of the senior missionaries is to counterbalance this natural tendency on the part of independent, well-intended local leaders by encouraging them to look for and accept advice, without trampling upon their local authority.
4. Keys to Providing Support—Earn Confidence and Give Advice Privately
For these reasons, senior missionaries need to trend carefully, using a light touch when working with local members and leaders. Ultimately, the efficacy of senior missionaries as “closet” advisors is largely dependent upon two factors: first, their ability to earn the trust and confidence of local members—so that they are willing to turn to them for advice--and second, giving advice and counsel in a constructive way that supports, and does not undermine, the authority and leadership of those who are actually called to serve. Only if those local leaders turn, on their own initiative, to the senior couple for assistance can they play a meaningful role in helping the leaders and members.
5. Earning the Trust of Local Members and Leaders
There is, in my experience, no magic for earning the trust of local members. Malawi Church members are, in this regard, no different that members throughout the Church. They respond to those who demonstrate hard work, patience, good will, love unfeigned. They dislike arrogance, mean spiritedness, pettiness, displays of ill-temper, condescension. They can sense whether senior missionaries have a genuine love for the Church and the members. I have seen senior missionaries, with varying skill sets, and with different areas of focus, all be successful. But there should be no confusion on this point—without that trust, no senior missionary will have much success in working with Malawi members.
Earning such trust often takes time, as the local leaders come to respect the judgment of the senior missionaries. Otherwise, there is little they can do in a formal way to help a branch or ward, other than to act as “good” Church members. Attempts by a senior missionary to insert himself or herself into the decision-making roles of the Church, without invitation, is counterproductive and disruptive. In this regard, their role is radically different from that of the Mission President, in those areas where the local units are branches which are organized into districts rather than stakes. Under those circumstances, the Mission President himself is the senior or, as we say in the Church, the “presiding” authority in the area. The Mission President is responsible, not just for missionaries working within his mission field, but is also directly responsible for all units within that area that do not belong to a formally-organized stake of the Church. This dual responsibility—oversight over the missionaries and the existing branches—is what makes the calling of a Mission President in Zambia and Malawi so challenging.
6. Working Behind the Scenes
On occasion, the temptation is almost overwhelming for senior missionaries to take over and run the show. This occurs when the local members are struggling with their callings. It is so much easier to step in the breach and assume responsibility than to take the time to work with the local members to learn their duties. As mentioned above, the advice given not only should be asked for, it should be given in a way supportive of the local members. Senior missionaries should not take over the responsibilities of others, even if the local members are more than willing to transfer the responsibilities. The senior missionaries should be patient, loving, long-suffering. And most importantly, they should be willing to train in private, giving instructions and direction, and then empowering the members to fulfill their duties publicly. The credit for successful performance should always be given to the local members.
7. Two Keys to Shadow Leadership—Patience and Humility
There are at least two keys to successful shadow leadership. No senior missionary will be effective unless the missionary is prepared to be “patient” and “long-suffering,” and is willing to stand aside, working in the “shadows,” allowing the local leader to be the one who publicly performs his or her duties. The Apostle Paul captures both of these principles in Ephesians when he says: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love.” Eph. 4: 1-2. The missionary must act with “longsuffering,” and “forbearance” with one another—because of the love the missionary has for the saints. In addition, the missionary must act with “lowliness and meekness,” not putting his or her ego ahead of the goal of uplifting and training the local members.
8. Challenge of Patience
Probably the hardest lesson to learn is that of patience. To be sure, it is painful for senior missionaries to watch local members struggling with their callings: They know this affects not only the struggling member, but also detracts from the experience of those they are called to serve. Hence, it is hard to watch the presiding leader who has difficulty conducting church business during Sacrament meeting, the Sunday School teacher who reads the lesson and cannot formulate for the class questions that might generate active and thoughtful discussion, the elders quorum president who fails to encourage home teaching or cannot come up with home teaching assignments, despite encouragement. The temptation is almost overwhelming to step in for the struggling member. Yet doing so not only undermines the confidence of local members, it also serves to undercut their credibility and authority in the eyes of others. The message to others is clear—the local member cannot do the job, best to turn the assignment over to the more experienced senior missionary who can get things right.
What patience and prudence require is to take the time, outside of the presence of others, to train and to guide. But such training is much harder, takes more time and commitment, than rushing in and taking over for the member who is floundering. And at the same time, the training builds the confidence of the member, and does so without signaling to others than the member is inexperienced, inadequate, falls short of the mark. This allows training to occur without parading the skills of the senior couples. In some cases, perhaps in many, the local members will never develop skills (or at least presentation skills) on par with those senior members who have decades of Church experience and may possess skills and have educational backgrounds far superior to whatever the local members might acquire. Fortunately, the Spirit can and does make up the difference. Often, after watching local members do their duties—conducting meetings, giving instruction, teaching lessons or giving talks—I have been left with the distinct impression that these members, though new to the Church, inexperienced, just learning their duties, have been abundantly blessed by the Spirit, such that their service was truly inspired. I have known that I could not have done better, even with my years of experience both in the Church and in private affairs.
9. Desire to Take Center Stage
The scriptures counsel us against pride when exercising our authority in the Church. “Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake …. to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.” D&C 121: 35-37. I don’t know how many senior missionaries are affected with this malady—but at least some of them are, even if the temptation is subtle. They would rather be “front and center” than laboring in the shadows. They enjoy teaching Sunday School far more than they like working privately with a struggling member, helping him or her become a better teacher. They can’t stand the bungling efforts of a local priesthood leader—far better from them to take over the class or the instruction. They want the local members and leaders to know of the success of their missionary efforts rather than leaving the credit to others.
 What is true for the priesthood bearer is equally true for his wife, who also operates outside of traditional lines of authority. Rarely will she serve as a primary or relief society president, at either the branch or district level, but will be asked to “train” or “help” the presidents then in place.