The earliest event I can remember that may have launched my thoughts in a skeptical direction was something that occurred on my mission. While I was serving as Assistant to the President (AP), all of our mission’s zone leaders were called to Rome to join us and the mission president in a special meeting at which a member of the seventy would speak. (Seventies are just below apostles, who are just below the prophet and first presidency, in LDS church leadership.) Hans Ringer, the visiting seventy, more or less inspired us to “lengthen our stride” at that meeting. In reasonably gentle but blunt terms, Ringer told us our outcomes (my mission of about 150 missionaries baptized around 50 people per year) were unacceptable. He told us that what we lacked more than anything was faith that we could do better. I was as orthodox as possible at the time, so I was not the least bit skeptical that with prayer, fasting and just a little more hard work, we could increase our baptisms to some degree. But one small part of Elder Ringer’s presentation bothered me for years. At one point he paused and asked all those present to raise their hands if they believed baptisms could be increased by several factors in the next 12 months if the whole mission would just exert greater faith and effort. All right hands in the room shot up, including mine.
The “spirit” I had been feeling up to that point in the meeting vanished, and I was instantly angry about being pressured to raise my hand to endorse a goal so absurd that none of us, including Elder Ringer, could possibly have genuinely believed. I was a seasoned missionary and a leader at that point, so I knew our missionaries almost as well as our mission president did, and I knew that Salt Lake did not send the crap of the crop to Rome. The only thing that was going to produce a baptismal increase of the magnitude Ringer was contemplating would be an unexpected and highly unlikely change in the Italian people. So why did I raise my hand? With the benefit of education, I can say I did so because I am human, and I was in a room full of the Lord’s anointed, who all had their hands in the air. But I knew that day that Elder Ringer was too smart to really believe what he was implicitly promising. And I also knew that it was wrong to coerce missionaries to submit to a preposterous goal in front of their leaders like that.
So is that how I decided the church was not true? No, but that was my first confrontation with the fact that, like good people everywhere, general authorities occasionally do bad things. (Elder Ringer’s offense was obviously a small one; but it was the first time I had witnessed such a high-ranking church authority do something so obviously deceptive—and support it with his testimony.) I certainly did not believe that Elder Ringer was a horrible person or unworthy of his calling. But when my mission ended, I returned to BYU with a more mature and realistic view of the behavior of church leaders.