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?
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.