I couldn’t understand why Elder Ballard issued a strong warning to CES religious educators in a February 2016 address. Last week my answer arrived in a leaked PowerPoint file: Robert Norman.
For those who don’t know, MormonLeaks released a PowerPoint presentation last week allegedly created for a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in December 2015. The slides give a cursory overview of something called “Area Business Weekends,” weekends kept open on the schedule to give quorum members flexibility to meet special needs as they arose. One particular slide stood out from the rest, titled “Issues and Ideas Leading People Away from the Gospel.” In the slide, colored bubbles of various sizes were arranged along a spectrum, each bubble representing a specific area of concern. (There’s a good overview of the slide on “Dave’s Mormon Inquiry” blog, or you can listen to a more in-depth discussion at Mormon Stories.) The MormonLeaks publication of the file was later removed by a third-party site due to legal pressure from the church.
Background on Robert Norman
One common question among online discussion of the bubble slide is, “Who is Robert Norman?” John Dehlin gave some background info on Dr. Norman in his Mormon Stories podcast (starting around 39:10). Some of Dehlin’s info I can back up through online sources and some I can’t. I’m only including information I can verify below.
Dr. Norman (or Brother Norman or President Norman, depending on who you ask) started working in the Church Educational System in 1967. The BYU Religious Studies Center still has his biography posted, noting that Dr. Norman was educated at Fresno State College (bachelor’s) and BYU (master’s and doctorate). He served in “three stake presidencies and as president of the New Hampshire Manchester Mission from July 1992 to July 1995.” He was teaching at the University of Utah institute building at the time that biography was published (probably 2005). His CES career appears to have lasted well over 40 years.
Dr. Norman is well respected in the LDS community, even though he doesn’t have a big online profile. He is quoted in the current Doctrine & Covenants Seminary Manual (published 2013). He had articles in the Religious Educator, Ensign, and Meridian Magazine. He hosted a Holy Land tour. He spoke twice at BYU’s Education week (here and here), and a 1996 address he gave to the Ephraim Institute on foreordination was often aired on a Utah radio station that played devotionals and general conference addresses (most recently in 2016). In January 2015, less than a year before his appearance on that PowerPoint slide, Dr. Norman was quoted in a Deseret News article. At the time, he was a stake mission prep teacher.
Dr. Norman stopped updating his personal blog in April 2014, but it still indicates he was already moving away from mainstream teachings. In an April 2013 post, Dr. Norman explained that to prepare for salvation and living with God we need to communicate with angels (“just men made perfect”) and learn what they know. His last two posts definitely seem on the Mormon fringe. One had a noticeable doomsday bent, a republication of another person’s post talking about upcoming blood moons and inevitable ominous events that would follow. His last post provides two links to a blog more closely aligned with teachings of Denver Snuffer (another name from that PowerPoint slide). I can’t verify that Dr. Norman’s separation from the church happened the way Dehlin said, but we do know that Dr. Norman spoke at a religious conference last fall in Boise (yes, that Boise) with several other former churchmembers, including excommunicants Adrian Larsen and Denver Snuffer. Among other things, he talked about how the Book of Mormon was designed to help people come to Christ “face to face” (as in, second comforter and everyone getting their own vision of Christ stuff).
Elder Ballard’s Address to CES Teachers
On February 26, 2016 (two months after that PowerPoint was allegedly presented to the Twelve), Elder M. Russell Ballard addressed CES religious educators in “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century.” Most people remember this talk as the one where Elder Ballard announced the church was moving towards an inoculation strategy, insisting each teacher needed to know the gospel topics essays “like the back of [their] hand.”
Initially, Elder Ballard cautioned teachers that they needed to adjust the way they teach. “As Church education moves forward in the 21st century, each of you needs to consider any changes you should make in the way you prepare to teach, how you teach, and what you teach if you are to build unwavering faith in the lives of our precious youth.” While it wasn’t the shower of adoration CES teachers typically receive in these addresses (see 2015 and 2014, for example), it didn’t seem all that unusual given the massive shift towards inoculation. After all, he was asking teachers to “pay the price to better understand our history, doctrine, and practices—better than you do now…”
Where is started to feel unusual is when Elder Ballard issued a word of caution, “Please recognize you may come to believe, like many of your students do, that you are a scriptural, doctrinal, and history expert.” He warned teachers to avoid the temptation of “overclaiming,” and keep updated on the teachings of current church leaders, church policies, and LDS scholarship. “Ensure you do not teach things that are untrue, out of date, or odd and quirky.” (Elder Ballard might have been thinking of #Bottgate on this one…)
Then Elder Ballard went deeper, into the spiritual life of each CES teacher. He repeated a warning to general authorities by President Hinckley that he’d noted earlier in the talk, “We cannot be too careful. We must watch that we do not get off [course].” He urged teachers to practice what they preach, and ensure they do what they should to keep the Holy Ghost with them. But he didn’t leave it there.
Be courageous by seeking counsel and correction from those you trust—a spouse, priesthood leaders, or supervisors. Ask them where you can improve in your personal discipleship. This is especially important for our full-time employees, those supported by sacred tithing funds of the Church. You must avoid anything that drives the Spirit away.
And kept going…
Additionally, may I suggest you hold a personal interview with yourself on occasion and review 2 Nephi 26:29–32, Alma 5:14–30, and Doctrine and Covenants 121:33–46. That will help to identify the kinds of temptations we all may face. If something needs to change in your life, then resolve to fix it.
The temptations mentioned in those scriptures? The first scripture reference is mostly about priestcraft, but also lists a host of others at the end (murder, lying, stealing, taking the name of the Lord in vain, envy, malice, contention, and whoredoms). The second scripture reference covers the famous “Have ye received His image in your countenances?” Specific temptations mentioned in that long passage include pride, envy, mocking brethren, and heaping persecutions on brethren. The third scripture reference has the famous “many are called, but few are chosen” line. What temptations are mentioned in this set of scripture?
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or 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.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
Remember, Elder Ballard is talking to people working in the Church Educational System. He advocates these scriptures as describing temptations “we all may face,” including himself. (Reminds me a bit of President Uchtdorf’s “don’t inhale” admonition.)
Elder Ballard finished off with a bang.
Avoid the temptation to question the motives of your co-laborers. Instead, look deeply into your own heart and search your own desires and motives. Only then can the Savior change your heart and align your own desires and motives with His.
When I originally listened to this talk, I was exercising on a treadmill. It was at this point in the address I stepped off and asked, “Man, what happened?!” A quick online search at the time didn’t give me any insight as to why Elder Ballard might have been so harsh on CES folks. So I forgot about it, until I started re-examining major talks and church happenings in late 2015 and early 2016 after MormonLeaks released the PowerPoint.
In this address, Elder Ballard didn’t seem as concerned about CES teachers following Dr. Norman as much as CES teachers following suit. Like Dr. Norman, CES teachers automatically develop followings because they are, by design, spiritual mentors to the rising generation. Influential CES teachers leaving the church don’t even need to say anything publicly – that action alone can shake testimonies of some who’ve looked up to them for years.
If that PowerPoint slide was legitimately from the brethren, then I suspect Dr. Norman’s placement might not have been about the sheer number of people leaving the church to follow his teachings (as opposed to Denver Snuffer). It could simply have been representative of the risk when current church-sponsored spiritual leaders get sucked into fringe movements.
- Is it a mistake to tie Elder Ballard’s CES talk to Robert Norman being listed as a threat on that PowerPoint slide?
- Do you think Elder Ballard’s call to repentance was out of the ordinary? Any further thoughts on Elder Ballard warning CES teachers not to get too puffed up with themselves?
- The first part of Elder Ballard’s address was the new inoculation strategy designed to address the difficulties members have with church history, a major concern listed on the left hand side of that PowerPoint slide. Elder Ballard’s rebuke to the teachers seemed to apply more to concerns on the right hand side of that PowerPoint slide. Is it possible that the more leaders attempt to address concerns on one church threat, they run the risk of exacerbating others?