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General Conference swiftly approaches. This is a cherished time of year. Whether Conference occurs in the fire of fall colors or in the sweetness of life-giving spring returning to earth, hearing the word of God through His chosen leaders is always the right time of year.
One of the events of General Conference that we probably don’t think much about, though we should, is the sustaining of church leaders. I rarely hear anyone speaking in breathless anticipation of this portion of General Conference.
Each year we are presented with the privileged to sustain church leaders. Typically sustaining of church leaders happens in the Saturday afternoon session of General Conference. The introductory words for the sustaining may be similar to what we heard from President Eyring during the October 2018 General Conference.
“Brothers and sisters, I will now present to you the General Authorities, Area Seventies, and General Auxiliary Presidencies of the Church for your sustaining vote.”
These words may not feel particularly revelatory or stunning. For many of us in the Church, so often have we participated in formal acts of sustaining that we seldom consider the significance or meaning of the words or actions we employ. Let’s pause for a few minutes to more seriously consider what we are doing.
Here are some reasons why I think the sustaining of church leaders is such a covenantally significant event in General Conference.
First, we are asked to sustain the church leaders not to obey them.
The church leaders are servants of God. They have not aspired to these positions. They have not campaigned for these positions. They have not sought for these positions. And once they are in these positions, they are never released until they are dead (speaking specifically of the apostles). Can you imagine truly consecrating all that you have to the work of the Lord for the rest of your life? Nearly every weekend is gone with travel to places throughout the world where you are expected to be in top form to encourage, inspire, uplift, bless, guide, and lead. Sleeping on planes doesn’t sound to me like a fast-track for a long-life of joy and happiness.
Church leaders never ask us to obey them, but to sustain them. Sure, these two words seem interchangeable, and if I truly do sustain God’s chosen servants then I should also be willing to obey the voice of the Lord as revealed through them. But my obedience to the word of God, as revealed through living prophets, is a consequence of my choice to sustain, not requirement.
I may claim to sustain the Brethren, but then of my own free will and choice not obey what they teach. In so doing, I nullify any words or actions of sustaining that I have promised.
Second, the word “sustain” literally means to “stand under, bear up, support, suffer, endure.”
Just as Jesus suffers and endures with us, just as Jesus supports us and bears us up, we are to do for the church leaders. Alma teaches expounded on Jesus’s role, saying, “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12, emphasis added).
This beautiful word “succor”, which literally means “to run or flow underneath,” is intimately connected to the word sustain. And as I’ve written elsewhere, “no matter how far you have been carried under [in suffering], Jesus has descended below all and He flows under you to support you. At all times. In all places.” (See Taylor Halverson, Why Suffering Is Good For Us and Can Make Us Happy.)
Third, we are voting or vowing our enduring support.
The Church is not a democracy as the world understands the word. We are a Church in the true sense of the Greek word ekklesia “those called out [of the world to join a covenantal community].” We do not surrender our agency by joining a covenantal community. Instead, we take upon ourselves mutually reinforcing obligations to sustain each other in truth and love. Our voice is not lost in the mix. Rather, the community cannot exist without our individual voice joining the chorus of unified voices bringing harmony to the community.
And what does the word “vote” really mean? To vow or dedicate. We make a solemn pledge and promise, we bind ourselves in a commitment. We are making and enacting a covenant, the most sacred form of promise making and keeping.
Our sustaining vote of the church leaders is our vow or dedication to support them, to bear them up, to suffer and endure with them.
Fourth, we raise our hands to the square to signal our support.
Why do we raise our hand to the square? Because the square is the firmest building-block foundation. A square rock is firm, immovable, strong, enduring, foundational. We want to be square with the Lord, not mis-aligned. We want to be square, not askew. As we want to have Jesus as a firm foundation, we therefore should serve as a firm foundation of support to those who bear the work of Jesus.
Sustaining church leaders is covenantally ennobling.
Why is the sustaining of church leaders one of the most covenantally ennobling and significant events of General Conference?
In the act of sustaining church leaders we become like Jesus.
We follow in the footsteps of Jesus when we use our agency to bind ourselves into a covenantal community through the solemn pledge to enduringly support each other, especially God’s chosen leaders.