Preaching and Reaching


Have you ever had to stand up and deliver a message, knowing full well that there are people in the room who do not want to hear what you are saying?

I have. You probably have too.

These past two weeks, bishops all over the USA and Canada have been asked to read a letter from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to their respective congregations. The letter reaffirms the church’s, and the Lord’s, unchanged stance opposing gay marriage. (Even if you don’t live in the USA or Canada, the words are of great value.)

Yet in every one of those congregations, there will be some who disagree. Some may be hurt, some angry. What do you do?

This sort of thing happens all the time – and it isn’t only about marriage. I’m sure many of you have had to teach a lesson, or give a talk, knowing that it would not be well-recieved by everyone who heard it.

When I was serving as a bishop, there were times that I felt to give counsel over the pulpit where I know full well that there would be some push-back. I’ve even felt that way teaching Sunday School! (Full disclosure: I have also been on the other side of the coin, being told things I did not want to hear…)

What do you do in a situation like this? Do you back off? Do you change the subject? Do you tone it down? Do you sheepishly apologize before you get started?

Here are a few examples of what I am talking about:

• You are teaching a Relief Society class on Elder Oaks’ epic General Conference talk “Divorce.”  Sitting right there in the second row, you can’t help but see Sister Jones wiping her eyes – as she has recently finalized a particularly rough divorce. Right behind her is Sister Davis, who has been divorced twice, looking particularly miffed.

• You are teaching about Eternal Marriage in Elder’s quorum, and Brother Smith, the ward’s perpetual bachelor, is listening intently, and looking increasingly uncomfortable.

• You are a bishop teaching about spousal and child abuse, and you see people in the congregation who you know have issues with abuse – some resolved, some unresolved – and they look paranoid, hurt and/or angry.

• You are teaching the Priest Quorum about missionary service, and one of the boys just signed his letter of intent to skip a mission and play football.


What do we do?

Do we tone it down? Do we change up the lesson we have prepared and focus on other things? Do we apologize then and there? Do we just plow forward and avoid eye-contact?

These hypotheticals are not very hypothetical – they are real. Many of us have found ourselves in these very situations that I have described. And many bishops will find themselves in this situation today.

None of us want to stand up in front of a group and offend. We want to teach, and motivate, and build faith. We work hard to have the Spirit with us to guide us in what we say, and to touch the hearts of both teacher and student. We have been directed to “preach the word of truth by the Comforter,” so that “he that preacheth, and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.” (D&C 50: 17, 22)

But it takes two to tango. (Actually three.)

These thoughts were originally triggered by some fears expressed by people assigned to speak about Motherhood on Mother’s Day, yet they are equally applicable to the current issue regarding gay marriage. I have thought a lot about this challenge: How can we preach truth, and not hurt some people’s feelings and offend?

Simple answer: We can’t.

So do we back off?  We can’t do that either.

We aren’t the only ones who struggle with this. In the wake of his recent passing, I turn to a talk from President Boyd K. Packer (Yes, my go-to-guy) that he gave back in 1993.  As you know, President Packer was always a part of that wonderful group with others such a Elder Oaks, Elder Bednar, and Elder Holland –  those who preach truth, and do not “tone it down.” They are fearless and unapologetic, and I know that some turn off General Conference offended and angered by them

In one of his talks, President Packer discusses this exact dilemma. Rather than paraphrase it, I will just share the passage with you that applies.  The example he drew on was the issue working mothers – which immediately stirs strong reactions, as does many parts of the Family Proclamation. (But it could just as easily been a host of other issues where there are divisions in the church.)

“To illustrate principles which apply to all of these problems, I have taken one common one — working mothers. President Ezra Taft Benson once gave a talk to wives and mothers. There was a reaction within the Church. That was very interesting, because if you read his talk carefully, it was, for the most part, simply a compilation of quotations on the subject from the prophets who have preceded him.

Some mothers must work out of the home. There is no other way. And in this they are justified and for this they should not be criticized. We cannot, however, because of their discomfort over their plight, abandon a position that has been taught by the prophets from the beginning of this dispensation. The question then is, “How can we give solace to those who are justified without giving license to those who are not?”

The comfort they need is better, for the most part, administered individually. To point out so-called success stories inferring that a career out of the home has no negative effect on a family is an invitation to many to stray from what has been taught by the prophets and thus cause members to reap disappointment by and by.

I think President Thomas S. Monson may not appreciate what I am going to say now. I know of no one who maintains such a large private ministry of counsel and comfort in the midst of heavy pressures of office than does Brother Monson. He says very little about it, but he visits the sick, hospitals, homes, comforting, counseling, both in person and in writing. However, I have never heard him over the pulpit, nor have I read anything in his writings — not one thing — that would give any license to any member to stray from the counsel of the prophets or to soften the commandments that the Lord has given. There is a way to give comfort that is needed.

If we are not very careful, we will think we are giving comfort to those few who are justified and actually we will be giving license to the many who are not.”

Yes, I appreciate the irony that some readers will be offended by that passage. He is saying that we can’t “tone it down,” because that can be mistaken for an endorsement.

But the main point that jumps out at me is this:

“The comfort they need is better, for the most part, administered individually.”

Doesn’t that ring true? Preach to the multitude, but minister to the one?

Jesus multitude

For Example: From the beginning of time, Christ/Jehovah has condemned adultery when preaching to the multitudes, yet when he was confronted with the woman taken in adultery, he gently forgave her of her sins. (John 8)

It is interesting to note that he didn’t forgive her in front of the crowd – he waited until they had dispersed. Perhaps it is because we know the second the words left the Savior’s mouth, some knucklehead would be running around saying, “Hey! Jesus says it’s OK to commit adultery!!!”  (You know it’s true.)



Why the different tone? Because when we talk to the masses, we must preach pure truth, full out, so there cannot be room for misinterpretation. As President Packer said, we can’t “be giving license” to those who disagree.

Basically, we can’t dumb it down, or back off the truth.

So how do we minister to those who feel differently? It’s a tough tough to do over the pulpit or in a class. Again, I think President Monson’s example of personally ministering is a beautiful solution. It echoes the Savior’s teachings of the lost sheep.

“How think ye? If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains and seeketh that which is gone astray?” (Matthew 18:12)

We seek out the one – but it is OK to leave the 99 with something to chew on before we go.

How does this apply to today’s letter, or whatever tomorrow’s issue may be?

a) Whenever there is an opportunity to teach truth to the congregation, preach it. Full blast, unmodulated. Preach the profound glory of the truths of the gospel – even though not everyone wants to hear it.

b) Then take the opportunity to minister to the individual. If you are assigned to visit teach a sister who had been struggling for years to bear children, and has been unable. Perhaps the week before Mother’s Day would be a good week to visit her and tell her “I know this is a hard time for you, but I want you to know that I love you, and God loves you. I look forward to seeing you Sunday.”

In another scenario, a bishop could call a man with addiction issues into his office and say, “This Sunday we are having a combined meeting about pornography. I know it will be difficult for you, but I feel you need to be there. I want you to know that I love you, the Lord loves you, and that I will be praying for you.”

Of course, these types of conversations would occur as we feel directed by the Spirit – that is expected. But the timing can matter.  I always seem to have these thoughts during the lesson, or when I look over and see Sister Jones weeping, or long after the fact. I never seem to have the forethought to minister in advance. I find myself ministering to pick up the pieces, not to to instill faith or help prepare. It takes effort, and a closeness to the Spirit to find these opportunities preemptively.

Teach truth to the multitude – minister to the individual.
That kindness and service will help save the one.
That courage will help save the 99.

Which makes for 100. 100 is awesome.



About the author


  1. Yes, yes, and yes! I remember as a youth cringing a bit and wishing the leaders would not be so bold in their lessons when I knew that some of my less active friends were there and would be offended by what they were saying. Luckily it didn’t take me long to realize how wrong that thinking is! OF COURSE we should be kind and loving to everyone, but that should never involve altering the Lord’s messages to avoid offense.

  2. At FOML1’s graduation this spring there were a lot of ribbons worn on robes to support “diversity”. While that sounds “good” in the sound byte, I pointed out to FOML that diverse’s root is “divide” You can not come together when you are continually trying to point out the things that divide you. That being said, my extended family is impacted by current events. We have had multiple discussions about the unintended consequences that will come from this legislation and the need of the Brethren to address it. The bottom line is becoming …at which point am I discriminating and/or “hating” as opposed to standing up for my principles and beliefs? I think the attempt is being made to make them one and the same. That platform is looking very spacious.

  3. I love all of your posts so much. They speak to my heart and make me want to be better. So, thank you very much.

  4. This reminded me of President Kimball’so talk to women in Oct 1978 of Privileges and Responsibilities of Sister and how our situations are different; and understanding that reafirmed:
    “The Church will always hold aloft the banner of happy family life, for we can do no other! Family life is the best method for achieving happiness in this world, and it is a clear pattern given to us from the Lord about what is to be in the next world.”

    As a single in the church I totally agree. The Lord loves us all but His ways are not the world’s way.

    Thanks for your kindness on this topic.

  5. Yep. I am one of those people who the message always seems pointed at me, to the point where people turn to look at me as things are read out! I work full time, am a single mum, divorcing a violent man who hurt me and our daughter, and I am politically liberal to boot. However, big however, I always try to support the speaker, I support the message in public (apart from when they start making up their own doctrine, then I ask appropriate questions to get back on track rather than what someones granny once thought about something a neighbour said type gospel doctrine lessons – doctrine first, opinion for the hallway), then I go away and pray about it. If I have need (at the Bishops express instruction to let him know about the pinch points and talk through them) I let the Bishop know that I am working through in private something discussed that week, let him know where I’m getting stuck and reassure him that I’ll still be there with a decent disposition the next week. It is hard. I feel ill-made for this world and this church, but nowhere else has the Joseph Smith experience so I stay, and I allow myself the time to learn and grow, and time to learn to play nice with the other kids.

    1. Great comment! And glad to hear that you have that kind of relationship with your bishop.

  6. I happen to know MMM does a lot of one-on-one ministering behind the scenes of his blog. He’s practicing what he’s preaching here.

  7. Minister in advance … why didn’t I think of that? Brilliant!

    I like that you mentioned the woman taken in adultery. This shows Christ’s pattern of ministry — total love, no anger, just helping the person get it together and do better.

    But, as to that Mother’s Day post you wrote. That post has stuck with me since you wrote it, and I’m glad you did write it. It’s helped me not to worry about walking on perceived egg shells so much. But a good reminder to, as you said, go and minister to the person one on one.

  8. I’ll be teaching chapter 14 from “Teachings of the Presidents/Benson” next Sunday in R.S. “Marriage and Family–Ordained from God” I’m a little nervous about it.

  9. Loved this post. Very timely to as I am preparing to teach a lesson in RS on following the prophet. The same sex marriage issue will come up as a perfect current example. I have been praying for help to present the lesson in a way that the Spirit can teach, that I may have the right words. I had a precursor when I gave a sacrament meeting talk a few weeks ago based on “which way do you face?”. Great GC talk. Loved the principle that my responsibility is to represent the Lord and His gospel to my family to my friends, to anyone I come across. My non member husband (yes, I know all about seat squirming… ) supports same sex marriage. I have had to defend my position frequently on this point. Yet, the Family Proclamation hangs prominently on the wall.
    At any right I count this blog post as being pretty much perfect for me right now.

    Incidentally I remember a husband reacting with anger when a sweet Laurel gave a beautiful talk on temple marriage. His wife had started crying ( they were not yet sealed). I had to add my support to the Laurel. Whatever my personal situation, the doctrine is clear.

  10. Very well said. We had the letter and discussion last week in our ward. Our youngish bishop handled it very well. There were two sisters, one of whom has her FB pic rainbowed who were a little sensitive, when the bishop wrote “love the sinner, hate the sin” on the board. He said that perhaps that seemed harsh, but I commented that Helaman’s teaching to his son, Corianton, was clear that sexual sin (of any type) is an abomination to the Lord, second only to murder. I also was able to share that my brother (who passed away in June) had a 30 year relationship with his life partner, Ron, and that Ron felt loved by my family regardless of our position on homosexuality and sexual sin in general. Delicate topic, but we cannot soft pedal what the Lord has declared.

  11. Wow! I endorse everything commented on above. You must have been an incredible bishop, with this kind of wisdom. I’m so glad to be on your distribution list. This article is absolutely profound, and applies to so many areas of the gospel where some members struggle. I thus feel hesitant in pointing out one miscue.
    The Savior did not forgive the woman taken in adultery; he did not condemn her, but he did not forgive her.
    This was pointed out in a talk by a general authority years ago (whose name I have forgotten).
    Thank you again for this article. It will definitely be of help to some close friends.

    1. Howard W. Hunter called it “forgiveness” (October ’94)
      Mark E. Peterson called it “mercy through repentance.” (April ’82)
      N. Eldon Tanner called it an “Example of forgiveness.” (April ’72)

  12. Loved this. I agree with your view 100%. One question and maybe I can learn here. In John 8, I don’t see Christ forgiving her. He does not condemn her. I don’t think that is the same as forgiving her. She was not seeking forgiveness. She was not trying to change. She was caught in the very act. She was not at all ready (I think). He told her to sin no more. One of the first steps on repentance, not the last one. I believe this is correct. Let me know!

    I have to squire from your wonderful topic. Thank you for having fortitude to remind us the importance of teaching correct doctrine.

    1. I understand your point, and it is probably correct, yet President Hinckley used that story as a key example in his talk “Forgiveness” in General Conference in 2005.

      Truth be told, we don’t know the condition of her heart. We don’t know if she was repentant. There is no timetable she must follow – I imagine Christ would be a better judge of that than we are. I prefer to give her the benefit of the doubt.

  13. Enjoyed this post tremendously. Recently many have taken comments from a recent KUTV interview with Elder Christofferson regarding the recent ruling on same-sex marriage as license to support their public advocacy for same-sex marriage on social media. It served to me as an example of the extent to which license can be taken by a group seeking justification for actions that are in contradiction with the teachings of the church. While I agree that making your Facebook profile rainbow colored isn’t sufficient for immediate excommunication, we probably would be more safe in doing so once we see Elder Christofferson do the same. I’m sorry if relating current events ruffles a reader’s feathers, but in the spirit of this message, I’m only trying to speak truth in a spirit of love.

  14. This is so true. I love that talk.

    I have tended to err on the side of caution with this because almost invariably I am the one getting stabbed through the heart, as it were. Not because someone is deliberately insensitive but because so many of my biggest trials are things people assume someone my age or personality or whatever wouldn’t struggle with.

    As I type this I realize my point is more of a tangent so I guess I’ll present it as an addition.

    A lot of the time we know who is going to be offended or hurt by the truth for whatever reason. But there are times casual unnecessary things we add can deeply wound someone without us realizing it.

    There have been so many lessons I know of (ones I’ve been in and those friends have been in) where the topic is something a little awkward. Pornography, law of chastity, etc. And the person teaching the lesson says (with the good intention of easing the discomfort) something about how they know no one in the room has trouble with this but they have to teach it anyhow, or how the class is a little too young to really have to worry about the problem presented.

    It is such a stab to the heart when it’s implied (even accidentally) that you are alone in your struggles, or that no one would believe you if you told them.

    If you’re teaching a group of youth, especially if it pertains to sexual immorality of any nature, please don’t say anything about how you know no one in the group struggles with it. First because you don’t really know and second because statistically speaking, you’re probably wrong. Even with very young youth, in this day and age these things are becoming a problem so early. I was exposed to inappropriate behavior at 8. My best friend became a porn addict at 9. And I wish I could say we were outliers, but the work I’ve done with youth suggests that it is not terribly uncommon.

    MMM, sorry this kind of turned into a rant. But I want to sum up by saying: Yes. Teach truth without apology and without pretense. But please don’t add little reassurances you believe to be true that can deeply hurt those who have already been hurt enough.

  15. Thank you for this beautifully worded lesson. I, too, have been on both sides. The idea to speak individually to people who might be hurt or offended beforehand is perfect. I believe that we are often prompted while preparing a lesson or a talk who those people might be. Brother MMM, you taught a wonderful and inspired lesson with this post. I wish it could be in a letter to every Stake.

  16. Thanks for being part of my mortal experience. It is amazing how you provide answers to questions in my mind, sometimes before they have occurred to me.

  17. Can I just tell you I am a very soft and gentle soul and I have literally been trying to explain this for years and just now you wrote everything that’s been in my heart perfectly. Some of us are Samuels and Lehis and some of us are Ammons. More prone to crowds or more prone to the one on one. That is as far as I could get with my analogy, and here it is, laid out perfectly. God bless you.

  18. Oh my goodness, Nail. On. The. Head. You have a great way of wording things just right. This is up there on my favorite posts list.

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