8 Minute Talks

I had dinner last weekend with a man in my ward who admitted it had probably been more than two years since he last gave a talk in sacrament meeting. Given my past participation on the stake high council, I used to hold the opinion that going more than a couple months without giving a talk seemed outrageous. Having since returned to traditional ward callings, however, I’ve come to understand that a gap of 18-24 months or more is typical for most adults in the Church.

This needs to change.

There are 52 Sundays in a year. If we subtract five from that number for the purpose of general, stake and ward conferences, and take another one out for the annual primary program, that leaves 46 regular Sundays where members of the congregation can be called upon to deliver talks on various subjects. Assuming the average LDS ward has 125 active adults (as mine does), and assuming that two adults speak each Sunday, it should only take about 15 months to cycle through – 18 months, at most, if we add an extra 3 months to cover visiting high council speakers or Sundays when there is only one adult speaker with multiple youth speakers, etc.

Then how does a member, like my Friday night dinner companion, end up going over two years between speaking assignments?

My stake president brother recently held another conference in his stake. As part of the instructions he provided to each speaker, he directed that they eliminate any pre-talk introduction of how or when they were asked to speak, or announcing of what their talk was going to be about, or ice breaker humor. Instead, he asked that they proceed directly to the substance of their talk, as demonstrated by nearly every address given in general conference. He estimated that if his instructions were followed, all speakers combined would save at least 10 minutes of non-essential air time during a meeting where time constraints are universally more often exceeded than not.

His ingenuity got me thinking. What if we could devise a system that would allow all adults to speak in their ward at least once a year? We can. It’s called the 8 minute talk. If you can’t make your point in 8 minutes, another 10 is not going to help.

If you’ve never noticed the time limits given to various bodies of authorities and presiding officers during general conference, go back to a recorded session online and watch the clock. Members of the First Presidency and Twelve Apostles generally speak for 15-20 minutes, each. Members of the Presidency of the 70 and Presiding Bishopric generally have between 10-15 minutes, and the rest of the 70s and auxiliary presidencies get 10 minutes.

If the highest authorities in our Church are limited to 15-20 minute talks, how in the world are we allowing the garden variety members the same podium time? The only people who should be delivering sermons (i.e.: long lectures of 10 or more minutes) are general or presiding authorities – and even then, the point of the message has been well made before most of the sermons are half delivered.

By the time the sacrament has been passed, most weekly sacrament meetings are left with between 35-40 minutes of speaker time to fill. Can you imagine a sacrament meeting with one youth speaker, three adult speakers and a musical interlude? It’s possible! And in a ward of 125 adults, everyone would get a chance to speak within the same calendar year.

Granted, if members already have a problem stopping their talk after 15 minutes, asking them to stop after 8 might be impossible.

We are a Church that celebrates diversity and recognizes the contribution all can make to the Kingdom. I would much rather listen to three different 8 minute talks than two 15-20 minute sermons. Mormons are a willing bunch, eager to participate on a regular basis. Knowing you’ll have at least an annual speaking assignment in Church might improve overall Sabbath day experiences/opinions.

Think about it.

 

The “Walking Book of Mormon”

I don’t know how other religions deal with celebrity members, but it seems like those of us in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) treat them like we treat Diet Coke and the Word of Wisdom: we either embrace them, regardless of their activity in or representation of the Church, or we shun, ignore or otherwise pretend they don’t belong to us.

I have to be honest; sometimes I’m shocked to learn that a particular celebrity has a Mormon background. (Christina Aguilera, Amy Adams and Roseanne Barr anyone? WHAT?!) Other times, I like to think I have Modar and can call them out before it’s somehow revealed. (A SYTYCD contestant from Utah? Mormon.)

Anyway, considering that I think of myself as an above average sports fan, I was shocked to learn recently that Bryce Harper, of the Washington Nationals, also identifies, not only, as a member of the Church, but as apparently as active a member as one can be who plays in Major League Baseball. At least, that’s what he told the Washington Times three years ago. (“I try to be the best walking Book of Mormon as I can.”) Fast forward a couple years, and I’m not sure that looking at him in the 2015 ESPN Body Issue would necessarily convey the same sentiment. Mormons don’t usually pose naked in national publications (to say nothing of the tattoo). So somebody call Deseret Book STAT and get Brother Harper a life-size scripture tote for his naked Book of Mormon.

Being a celebrity and a poster member of the Church is a very difficult, if not impossible. If you’re an actor, you’re probably going to be given scripts with objectionable content. If you’re an athlete, you’re going to be playing sports on Sunday. If you’re a performance artist, you’ll undoubtedly be performing in venues on Sunday. (And even if you manage to get to a local Sunday service, somewhere in the world, attending sacrament meeting is not nearly all that goes into a Mormon membership.) Whatever the profession, the fame, fortune and fast times are tough to keep in check.

My all-time favorite Mormon celebrity (if only for a brief moment in time) is a guy I had the pleasure of literally running into on a daily basis during my football playing days at B.Y.U. His name is Eli Herring, and he played right tackle for quarterbacks like Ty Detmer and Steve Sarkisian. I was a third string defensive end, which meant that I was first string defensive end for whoever the opposing defense would be in our next game; which meant that I lined up across Eli every, single practice.

If you’ve never heard of Eli’s name, or read his story, now’s your chance. He turned down a three year contract with the Oakland Raiders worth $1.5MM to become a math teacher making $22K. Why? Because he didn’t want to play a game on the Lord’s Day. Eli’s rejection of the NFL made national news, and then was faded into history like everyone and everything else.

I haven’t seen Eli since the last time our heads butted in practice. But I can tell you this, if anything rubbed off on me, from all those impacts with Brother Eli, it was this: he loves his God, and isn’t afraid to show and tell the world about it.

Now THAT is a walking Book of Mormon.

 

“You don’t thank for this.”

If you’re an Avatard or just someone with a penchant for remembering odd movie quotes (like me), then you’ll recognize the title of this post as belonging to Neytiri, from James Cameron’s Avatar, when she rebuked Jake Sully, who was only looking to express gratitude for Neytiri’s having saved him from a gaggle of dark forest creatures.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the ward of a younger sister, because my niece was giving her mission farewell talk. I love visiting this particular ward, because it’s inevitable that I’ll pick up on something being done there that isn’t being duplicated in my ward, or any other ward I’ve ever attended. It must be something in the local water. It doesn’t matter who is serving as the bishop, there’s always something different being done; and I have yet to dislike anything I’ve witnessed. (Here’s a previous POST, the inspiration for which also came from this particular ward.)

On this day, my administrative radar started beeping, when at the end of the administration of the sacrament, the priesthood men and boys dismissed themselves and returned to sit with their families. What’s more, when the bishopric member conducting the meeting took the stand to announce the remainder of the program, nothing more was said about the sacrament. There was no acknowledgement about the reverence of the congregation or the priesthood, nor was there permission granted for the men and boys to return to their seats.

In all my years of church attendance, this was the first time EVER that the usual protocol of priesthood waiting to be dismissed and a bishopric member dismissing them did not occur. And I loved it.

We should not be thanking the priesthood “for their reverence in administering the sacrament and excuse them to sit with their families.” When did this practice begin; and why is it so universally applied? Sure, it’s polite; yes, it’s harmless. But what happens (as I’ve seen happen before) when a bishopric member takes the podium and forgets to dismiss the priesthood? You see the boys turn to each other as if to ask, “Are we stuck here?” and “Are we allowed to just get up and leave?” Inevitably, the meeting is interrupted so that permission can be given for the priesthood to rejoin their families.

There is nothing in the handbook, of which I am aware, requiring ward leaders to thank or dismiss the priesthood relative to their service with the sacrament each week. This has become one of those unwritten (and frankly unnecessary) traditions in the LDS faith. From Paul H. Dunn: “Leaders should not be afraid to break with the traditions of the past if, in doing so, they have something better to offer. It is a very dangerous thing to find a good procedure, then do it that way continuously.” (Ten Most Wanted Men, pg. 93)

As it relates to the weekly administration of the sacramental emblems, it seems clear to me that the best way to say thank you, is to say nothing at all. Or, if anything has to be said, it should be some commentary on the atonement, and the privilege it is to renew ourselves each week.

I agree with Neytiri; there are some things for which you just don’t thank.

Restricted Access

When last I logged an entry on this blog, my calling was as the High Priest Group Leader. Now I’m a primary teacher to the Valiant 9 class. Such is the nature of callings in the Church. One Sunday you’re leading a group of senior, seasoned men. The next, you’re helping mold the next generation of senior, seasoned men and women.

The lesson assigned for instruction yesterday covered the story of Nephi and the Brass Plates (1 Nephi 3-5). I had wanted to show the kids the Living Scripture, cartoon depiction of the story. In Primary, as with any other age, I suppose, varied teaching is key. Having the kids be able to watch an illustrated version of the scripture story would have been a nice diversion from the usual read and discuss method.

Except when I went to pull up the video clip on YouTube, as I had at home in preparation, I discovered that the Church’s internet filter would not permit the use of YouTube.

Sorry kids. Guess we’re reading and discussing, again, today.

I actually knew about the Church’s prohibition on YouTube years ago, when my wife ran into the same frustration as a seminary teacher. Many were the nights we spent learning and trying to download some YouTube video in order that she could share it the next morning in seminary.

I understand why the Church has prohibited the use of YouTube on their internet service. A lot of the videos posted to the site are inappropriate, and do not comport with the Church’s standards or values. Then again, not every video that is useful or relevant to gospel topics is contained on the Church’s website, either. The Church will never host the Living Scripture videos, because the Church didn’t produce them, and they don’t want to spend the money necessary to license the access to those films. I suppose that proper legal licensing is as much a concern for the Church’s YouTube filter as the content of the videos.

Regardless, I’m of the opinion that the Church’s internet filter needs to be readjusted to accommodate YouTube use. I can’t imagine that there’s a single LDS house where an internet filter restricts use of YouTube. Even the Church’s Brigham Young University had to capitulate to the demand for YouTube access by its students. And that was nearly seven years ago.

If the Church is going to allow internet access in its buildings, then it should also allow access to sites that can facilitate gospel learning. By all means, the Church should continue to block obviously inappropriate content like pornography. But in this particular instance, by preventing YouTube access, LDS teachers are being handcuffed in their attempts to vary and enhance the gospel scholarship of the members.

Clarity

The Church has had a busy, public relations, November. On November 13th, the First Presidency issued a clarification/change to the handbook referenced by priesthood leaders. Specifically, it provided that people who elect to enter into same-gender marriage are subject to disciplinary councils, and that children whose primary residence is with a same-gender married couple are potentially prevented from participating in ordinances like baptism. Then, on November 23rd, a Church spokesman had to issue a statement clarifying that the Boston, Massachusetts Stake would not be experimenting with a two hour Sunday meeting schedule, contrary to the general church-wide practice of a three hour meeting schedule.

There’s not much for me to say about the handbook update. I am neither a priesthood leader who would have to handle any such situations, or enforce the new policy, nor do I know any members or children of the Church who are currently in a same-gender marriage/household. I therefore find little value in my attempting to pontificate upon a subject about which I know very little, nor have reason to ponder possible applications or ramifications.

On the other hand, I am a member of the Boston Stake; and I was part of a ward council discussion where instruction from the stake presidency was shared by our bishopric on the proposal to experiment, beginning January 2016, with reducing the Sunday meeting schedule from three hours to two hours and 15 minutes. The primary motivation for the potential time reduction was based on the Church’s general emphasis on making the Sabbath more of a delight for its members and families.

Ask any seasoned veteran of LDS Church administration, and they’d likely tell you that the Sabbath is anything but a delight, given the 12-15 hour schedule they’ve likely all experienced, for the majority of any administrative tenure they’ve operated. A typical Bishop, for example, probably starts his Sunday between 6-7am, in meetings with his counselors and other ward leaders, attends the three hours of church meetings with all members, and then stays after church to continue meeting with members, potentially attending a fireside that afternoon or evening, before returning home in time to kiss his children, whom he might have seen in the halls at church for two minutes, goodnight. That’s hardly a schedule which provides delight for a Bishop’s wife or children. But changing the overall schedule from three hours to two hours wouldn’t, by itself, alter that, anyway.

Ask any seasoned LDS parent, and particularly a mother with young children, and they’d also likely tell you that the Sabbath is anything but a delight. A typical mother, for example, probably starts her Sunday between 6-7am, getting herself ready, before waking her children and going through the morning routine of getting them ready. She may or may not also be involved in pre-church leadership meetings, causing an additional strain on her family’s pre-church preparation time/schedule. Once in church, that mother will struggle during sacrament meeting to keep her children quiet, probably missing the majority of what is being said over the pulpit, and then – more than not – spend the next two hours struggling to teach other people’s children the gospel. She’ll come home from church exhausted, wanting nothing more than to take a nap, but end up dealing with lunch and/or dinner preparations, as well as finding ways to keep her children occupied for the remainder of the day, in addition to the possibility of having to return to church later that night for a fireside or other program involving one or more of her children. That’s hardly a schedule which provides delight. But changing the overall schedule from three hours to two hours wouldn’t, by itself, alter that, anyway.

 

While the rest of the church was focused on the potential hour reduction in the Boston Stake meeting block, what they missed, and potentially don’t yet know, are the additional experiments the stake will be conducting in 2016, which will undoubtedly have a more real and lasting impact on a member’s Sabbath delight, than simply cutting one hour from the block. For example, one proposed change in 2016 is the elimination of all post-church meetings, save (potentially) one, per month. That means that when church meetings end, no members or families will be coming back to church for a fireside or other church event, except (potentially) once a month.

The point of my post is this: Whether on a world-wide scale, or more localized, leaders are continually seeking revelation/ways to safeguard and promote the spirituality and delight of all members, as we strive together to advance the gospel and ultimately return to live with our Heavenly Father. Some things are not for man to decide; others are within our prerogative to manipulate.

Prophetic leadership and continuing revelation are two of the many reasons why I love this Church. And on those points, I am crystal clear.

Much Ado About Tables

Regardless of your occupation, all of us have seen enough television, movies or magazine shoots depicting the typical business conference/meeting room to know that the layout is always the same. There’s a large table in the center of the room surrounded by an appropriate number of chairs. Presumably, the table’s presence has always been to facilitate the note taking attendees are expected to perform, in addition to providing a placeholder for beverages, food, laptops, etc. Never have I seen depicted in any of the above mentioned media, a meeting where the attendees were sitting in chairs lined against the walls of a room, or chairs assembled in some sort of a circular pattern in the middle of the room – in both cases without a table, where participants awkwardly balance on their laps whatever device is being used to take notes, if notes are being taken at all. And yet, for the majority of the administrative meetings which take place in the LDS Church, the absent table layout is primarily what we use.

I have been attending administrative meetings in the LDS Church for nearly a quarter of a century. But for a brief four year stint as a high councilman, all of the administrative meetings I have attended have been chair only. For the most part, those chair only meetings occur in the bishop’s office, or some other classroom large enough to accommodate the attendees. Occasionally, these meetings have taken place in a section of the gymnasium, where a circle of chairs is manufactured. An outsider looking in might wonder if our church buildings come equipped with any tables. They do. The building I regularly attend not only has a number of round banquet tables, but also many rectangle banquet tables. What most LDS Church buildings don’t have is a conference table. Generally, only so-called stake centers have a large conference table to facilitate the fifteen men meetings which occur on at least a bi-monthly basis.

Aside from the notably absent table, there is a difference between meetings which take place around a table, and meetings which are chair only. There is a different tone; there is a different expectation; there is a different spirit. Absent table meetings are generally casual, light hearted and unfocused affairs. Meetings with a table present create expectations, typically include a formal agenda, and (at least in a church setting) allow presiding officers a better opportunity to function in their designed roles, as well as receiving the appropriate respect their office deserves.

Maybe this is much ado about nothing, but my experience has taught me that the absence of a table at regular LDS administrative meetings is an easily remedied oversight that all ward units would be wise to correct.

You Say Tomato, I Say…

If there’s one skill that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can identify, it’s good public speaking. Every Sunday we get to hear two to four, and sometimes more, speakers. Multiply that by 52 Sundays in a year, and over the course of a lifetime, your garden variety Mormon has easily heard over 10,000 talks or testimonies from nearly as many different people. (And that doesn’t even include lessons, administrative meetings and brief spiritual thoughts.) Contrast that to another faith where just one person, the same person, is that week’s only speaker. That’s not to say that any percentage of us can actually speak very well, but we’re certainly qualified to opine on what is and is not good public speaking.

To that end, I offer Exhibit A. Last night I took two of my children to a fireside given by a fairly prominent member of the Church. The event was billed as a “regional youth fireside,” and so young men and young women from many neighboring stakes converged on our stake center. The crowd that assembled nearly matched our building’s capacity. If I had to guess, I’d say that there were 600 or more youth present. Frankly, I’ve never personally seen so many LDS youth under one roof.

From a speaker’s standpoint, having access to such a gathering of young people is desirable and priceless. This is a golden opportunity to reach a huge number of impressionable minds and hopefully in a way that allows for the Lord’s Spirit to leave a favorable impression. If you’re on the other side of the podium, and you’re somewhere between the ages of 12-18, the mindset is (in this exact order): 1) you’ll see some friends and have a chance to interact with them before the night ends, 2) you get lucky and have a chance to sit near or next to that boy or girl you think is really cute, 3) that there’s refreshments to eat after the fireside, and 4) that the speaker isn’t boring.

Whether speaking in the LDS Church or outside of it, the first rule of public speaking is arguably: know your audience. The individual who spoke last night opened his 75 minute remarks saying: “I’m not going to entertain you.” Considering his audience, I thought that was a rather risky opener. (If I was opining on attention catching lines, I can guarantee you that every single youth in the building heard that statement.) When I later asked my thirteen year old daughter what went through her mind when she heard that, she said: “I thought it was going to be a long night.”

The speaker immediately explained why that was his opening line. He said that his soul and the souls of each individual in that building were at stake in the grand battle between the forces of good and evil, thereby implying that he couldn’t afford to waste any time on humor or other entertainment. He wanted to get right to the heart of the matter and drill down with the youth. I think it was his way of rephrasing a famous line from President J. Reuben Clark: “You do not have to sneak up behind this spiritually experienced youth and whisper religion in [their] ears; you can come right out, face to face, and talk with [them]….There is no need for gradual approaches.”

I did not take a post-fireside poll among the youth for how they thought the evening went, or whether they enjoyed the talk, or whether they learned anything, etc. I have no doubt but that in the sea of 600 plus faces, at least one person loved every minute of that evening, and maybe there were others. Considering that we believe and preach the worth of one soul (See D&C 18:15), that makes it all good. Nevertheless, I think it would have been better if the speaker had found some ways to weave entertainment into his message. Towards the end of his talk, he did show a 5 minute clip from the movie “Miracle on Ice;” so I guess there was that. But that was an hour after first telling everyone he wasn’t going to entertain us.

One of my favorite LDS speakers was Paul H. Dunn. And without going into the allegations of his fabricating war stories, I’ll simply say that when Paul Dunn spoke, people laughed. And because people laughed, people were focused on whatever else he had to say. And after sharing a few laughs with his audience, Brother Dunn would then usually cause a profound silence to come over them as he shared spiritual insights and bore his testimony. My experience with and understanding of today’s youth is that they’re the same as I was when I was a kid listening to Paul Dunn. They want to laugh; they want to learn; and they love when the two intersect.

Different strokes for different folks. If I’m ever fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak to 600+ youth, my opening line will not be: “I’m not going to entertain you.”