(Note: This post has been nagging at my brain since General Conference. I hope I can clearly communicate my thoughts…)
This past summer, a friend of mine happened to see one of the Brethren in a public setting. He approached him and engaged him in conversation (Which is always a nervous thing to do.)
This friend is a wonderful man that I have known for decades. Right now he is struggling with some of the Church’s teachings and policies and has stepped away from activity. It is with that context that he visited with the leader he ran into.
In the course of the conversation, my friend explained his struggle and asked what the leader thought. It turns out that my friend was touched by how caring, loving and interested this leader was in discussing things together. He said he could feel his love, and left the conversation with good feelings – even though nothing was “resolved” per se.
When General Conference came around, my friend listened and was stunned to see that the very leader who had been so kind and loving with him personally, spent part of his talk drawing a hard line regarding the Church’s stand on the very issue that they had talked about. My friend was taken aback. Where was the gentleness, the kindness? He felt betrayed, and chagrined at the difference between the private and public persona of the leader’s presentation.
I think I might have something to offer on this apparent paradox, and part of it comes from a post I wrote several years ago – in case any of it rings familiar.
For discussion sake, let’s bring it down from a General Authority and General Conference level to a regular Sunday level at your ward or branch. Here are some scenarios:
• 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 somewhat 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 this very situation.
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.)
Here’s the 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. I read a talk by President Boyd K. Packer that he gave way back in 1993. As you know, President Packer joins others such a Elder Oaks, Elder Bednar, and Elder Christofferson as some of those who preach truth, and do not “tone it down.” They are unapologetic, and I know that there are some who turn off General Conference offended and/or wounded by their directness.
In his talk, President Packer discusses this exact dilemma. Rather than paraphrase it, I will just share the passage with you that applies. The issue he addressed was working mothers – which stirred strong reactions, even back then.
“To illustrate principles which apply to all of these problems, I have taken one common one — working mothers. President Ezra Taft Benson 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. (I recently wrote about being careful to not search for ways to be “the exception” to the rule. I think it applies here as well.)
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? Minister to the one? I think understanding this idea would help temper my friend’s response to General Conference. We don’t “Minister” from the pulpit or the front of a classroom.
Christ preached some heavy doctrine about eternal damnation to the masses, but when he was one-on-one with very sinful individuals, he demonstrated remarkable compassion and love. The same contrast my friend experienced with the General Authority.
How does this apply to our lessons and talks in church? We should still seize the opportunity to teach truth to every class or congregation in front of us. Full blast and unmodulated – even though we know not everyone wants to hear it.
How does this apply to those we minister to? Here are a few examples of how individual ministering can help lessen the “sting” some may encounter:
If you are assigned to minister to a sister who has struggled for years to bear children, and has been unable, perhaps the week before the Mother’s Day talks in Sacrament meeting would be a good time 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.
Sometimes it might require some after-the-fact ministering. “Hey, Kevin, I noticed you looked frustrated during quorum meeting last Sunday. I know that we strongly encourage full-time missionary service, but I do know that since your health won’t allow it, the Lord will accept the service you can offer – I know you will do the very best you can – and that will be awesome.”
To be able to minister in in advance or after-the-fact requires that we know what struggles and challenges are being faced by those we minister to beforehand.
One of the most effective ways of learning what those struggles are is not just to ask, “What can we do for you?” It requires us to be involved and available enough to actually see what those needs are, or to develop a relationship that is deep enough where they would allow us to understand their challenges.
If we know what those challenges are, we can pay attention and respond when we know that a particular doctrine or policy might cause concern, angst or pushback with those we serve. Sometimes we can proactively address those things, sometimes we can help “bind up the wounds,” afterwards.
In speaking to the Priesthood, President Uchtdorf said, “It is our job to build up, repair, strengthen, uplift, and make whole. Our assignment is to follow the Savior’s example and reach out to those who suffer. We “mourn with those that mourn … and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” We bind up the wounds of the afflicted. We “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” (Link)
There are many active in the Church that are yet afflicted, and wounded by doctrines or policies that they wrestle with. Doctrines that are preached on a regular basis. Our role as ministers requires that we are there to help them, not just to preach at them. Changing their mind is not the top priority here. Helping them feel loved is vastly more important.
As President Packer asked, “How can we give solace to those who are justified without giving license to those who are not?” His answer? “The comfort they need is better, for the most part, administered individually.”
Courageously preach truth to the group – minister to the individual.
That courage will help save the 99.
That kindness and charity will help save the one.
Which makes for 100. 100 is awesome.