Ministering: One vs. the Crowd

(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.


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  1. I can’t tell you how many times I have quoted you in lessons I have taught. This blog is one of your best, among many. When I first was put into a Stake leadership calling, I knew that I needed to teach the Sisters that they were all eligible for exaltation, no matter their present circumstance, if they were worthy. I realized that about half the women in our wards were divorced, single, married to non-members, or to men who did not have or honor the priesthood. I was discouraged from teaching this at first, but Heavenly Father supported me by having that be the year that we studied the teachings of Joseph Fielding Smith, who taught this very doctrine in one of the lessons. I had witnessed too many sisters crying through the lessons on temple marriage that always ended with that short phrase,”And to those sisters who have never had the opportunity to have a temple marriage, the Lord will make it right for them.” Too many sisters left with the feeling that they did not have a chance to be exalted. Some had even been told that by their priesthood leaders. I was so grateful for the opportunity to teach true doctrine that gave hope to many while not diminishing the importance of temple marriage. I wasn’t trying to reach the one, but the 50%.
    I’m sure the thoughts you used in this blog will find their way into a future talk or lesson. I’m so grateful to have found your messages.

  2. Without going into too much detail, let me just preface with the fact that my husband and I are the only active members in our immediate/extended families. Sometimes our Sundays are interesting. We spoke in sacrament meeting once (years ago) on ‘keeping the Sabbath Day holy’, and we shared how we spend time with our families on the Sabbath. We didn’t give specific examples that we were saying were “OKAY”, we just shared some of the things that we do to spend time with our families (which is obviously highly encouraged as a Sabbath Day activity). One of the things mentioned was how sometimes when my husband’s brother is in town, we go to a sports bar with him and watch their favorite NFL teams. On occasion we’ve gone boating with my brother. If we want to spend time with our families, often we have to do it at their convenience and their desire on a Sunday, if this is the only day they have off work, are in town, and/or the only day they can get together, doing whatever activity they want to do. It is hard for us, but we go to church first and try to bring family-centered gospel topics into our conversations, while at the same time trying not to alienate anyone due to many family members not liking or wanting to have anything to do with the church. It’s a hard position to be in when you want to be an example, but to some of them you seem judgmental and “too good” for your family if you don’t go. When we gave this talk, we had so many people come up to us after and say how glad they were to have someone understand how they feel, how their Sundays are often the same way, how they also have inactive or non-member family members, how they try not to be too “mormony”, how they “get it” that sometimes refusing to participate in non-Sabbath-worthy activities is only going to cause hurt feelings, and definitely not going to get any of their family members to join or even be more accepting of the church. However, the bishop got up to the pulpit the next week and said that our talks represented incorrect information and that what we were doing was against the law of the Sabbath and that we would be reprimanded, and that no one was to accept the examples that we gave as anything that was okay for them to do. I would like to think everyone’s Sabbath Day decisions should be between them and the Lord, but I suppose that logic would also apply to other situations that are “individually specific” (insert topics such as ‘working mothers’ here). I’m not sure that what we did (regarding the talks) was wrong, but after reading your post, I think our sharing of that information over the pulpit was probably not the best place. We’re doing the best we can with the situation we have, and obviously there are others who can relate, but I suppose that would be best talked about among ourselves as individuals. The Lord knows our hearts. Thanks for your great insight, as always.

    1. Thank you for sharing that experience – very cool that you responded the way you did, and took it as an opportunity to improve. Some would get bent out of shape and hat that bishop forever.

  3. I’ve been praying about how to help a friend who is currently not active in the Church, especially since she told me she is reading anti-LDS literature. Mostly I pray that she can remember the testimony that I know she has. But I love your advice that changing minds is not the priority: love is.

  4. This was wonderful and so true! A few years ago I was teaching the Word of Wisdom in seminary. After talking about what “hot drinks” means and defined by General Authorities. I had one young man ask if iced tea counted because his parents and grandparents (members) kept pitchers of tea in the fridge all the time. So I stopped and thought do I de edify his family or skim around it. But I realized I couldn’t do that because of all the kids that were watching for my answer. So I said yep it applies. Afterwards I talked with him and called his parents to explain. It was actually a great opportunity for that family to make some changes.

  5. My impression was that Elder Oaks spoke plainly, but I didn’t find him particularly harsh or insensitive. I think one can teach doctrine while still being careful with vocabulary and tone. You can speak to the group and still be mindful of the one at the same time, imo. I have witnessed at the ward level, lessons where words and examples used were insensitive and unnecessary. I always find the general authorities to be masters at teaching truth and transmitting love and hope at the same time. I loved the examples used in the article showing ways to administer to the one in private. My point is that one can also be mindful of the one while teaching correct principles and doctrine. Obviously, given the response to Elder Oaks, there will be people who are offended no matter what, but I still think it’s important to strive to be as unoffensive as possible.

    1. I agree, but even with best efforts to avoid offense, Nephi’s observation can come into play: “the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.” (1 Nephi 16:2)

  6. Thank you I love how you phrased this. I heard years ago in a World Wide leadership by one of the apostles that in General Conference they talk about things generally, it is the responsibility of leaders in all offices to help people with specific situations. Your comments fit along with what I heard before.

  7. Great insight. I just got called to YW and I’m becoming aware of situations that the girls face that may make some lessons difficult so this is timely. Thank you!

  8. This was great on many levels. I wanted to respond to the comments from the FB page about the exceptions. I have seen far too many criticisms over Pres. Oaks’ recent comments about marriage, family, gender, abortion, euthanasia, and then the following day on motherhood being #1 priority. Gotta love how he touched on all of them at once. President Oaks is fearless! But one thing I will not do is murmur with those that murmur.

    You know that my husband and I haven’t ever, nor will we be able to, have children (in this life … love the restored gospel teaching about children in the next!) Anyways, I wanted to say that while Mother’s day or baby blessings and all those things were difficult at times and yes, there were tears because I realized very keenly what I wouldn’t get to be a part of in this life. But how could I ask or wish my ward or stake to stop testifying of or teaching about the importance of motherhood? Why would I do that? Truth is truth, and doctrine is doctrine. At one point I had a light bulb moment and knew I had to do the hard spiritual work necessary to learn what God wanted me and my husband to learn. It’s been actually kind of amazing to see how the hole in our hearts has been filled with Christ and the gospel. It’s possible! For any trial! Saying it isn’t is denying that Christ’s atonement works for others, but not you. It works for all who will come unto Him, the Master Healer of wounded hearts and souls. He takes our hearts and creates something newer and stronger and better.

    I just have to say that no one’s life is perfect and all of us have unmet expectations, so if leaders were to avoid teaching and testifying boldly about the importance of the family, where would we be? I shudder to think of all the talks we’d have missed if our prophet and apostles were super worried about offending people. They wouldn’t be able to talk on anything because someone, somewhere would be living a particular trial or dealing with a particular sin!

    We all sin! We are all imperfect and wounded! And that’s why boldly testifying doctrine to all and then ministering to the one is so important. We all need it.

  9. This is a great post. Probably one of my favorites so far. Thank you for your insight, faith and testimony. I enjoy reading your thoughts every week!

  10. Fabulous. I love the way you can communicate what you are trying to say. This is a delicate concept and I feel
    you got it just right.
    I love the unapologetic teachings in Conference.
    We live in a world of “dumming down”, stepping lightly as to not offend, trying to appease those who don’t agree, “softening up morals so people who aren’t living morally won’t feel bad”, etc. etc. I find it frustrating that the bar is being lowered in so many areas. I am not at all frustrated with our leaders. They do not lower the bar. God’s way is their way and they speak about it trying to get it to be our way. We are encouraged to want to choose to do the right thing. For us to do that, we need to know what the right thing is with no question or waffling.
    Thank you again for your wisdom and sharing it with us.

  11. 100 is awesome; your whole message is awesome and so very timely. Thank you for being in tune and sharing your light.

  12. Beautiful. I’ve been struggling with feeling like I need to know all the answers to the struggles of others…along with my own! “Changing their mind is not the priority here. Helping them feel loved is vastly more important.” It is THE answer. Because it’s not my job to “change” any one other than myself…but, loving others is my job 🙂

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