Sunday, March 31, 2013

What Christ Thinks of Me

This is the talk I gave in Sacrament meeting today, Easter Sunday.


I'm a little surprised that I was asked to speak on Easter, of all days.  Today is one of only two holidays that have real emotional importance in Mormon culture, with the other being Christmas.  Why the bishopric would think that I, one of the most emotionally detached human beings you may ever meet, would be a good choice for speaking on Easter is beyond me.  And today, you all get to pay the price of that choice.

I want to start today by taking a question from the scriptures.  "What think ye of Christ?" (Matthew 22:42) It was a question that Christ asked the Pharisees and often opens discussion about Christ’s divinity.  But for today, I want to change the context a little.  We can change the context by using a turn of phrase that Elder Andersen introduced a couple of conferences ago when he asked “What does Christ think of me” (Neil L. Anderson, “What Christ Thinks of Me,” Ensign, April 2012)?

This is an interesting question, and one I was excited to explore.  To develop an answer, I had to turn the question around again.  I had to ask, “What do I think of Christ.” After all, what He thinks of me likely depends on how well I emulate Him.

I began reviewing stories.  Sermons were taught.  Devils were cast out.  The blind could see.  The deaf could hear.  The sick were healed.  The dead were raised.

 But when I turned the question around--What does Christ think of me--I began to be irritated with the scriptures.  What does Christ think of me?  How well do I emulate him?  How many devils have I cast out?  How many people have I lifted up and made to walk?  How many people have I raised from the dead?

I was irritated with the scriptures because they are so incomplete.  They are full of evidence that Christ is the Son of God and that He is our Savior.  But they lacked any evidence that he was the kind of person I want to be from day to day.  The Christ I saw in the scriptures wasn't the kind of person I imagined sharing a fence with in my neighborhood.

To be fair, the purpose of the scriptures is to give evidence to Christ’s divinity and not to illustrate his potential as a next door neighbor.  But I still felt like I couldn't fairly answer the question “What does Christ think of me” by comparing myself the the Christ I found in the scriptures.

The scriptures are packed with the mighty miracles.  They are filled with the remarkable things that are written in books and remembered for ages.  They rarely, if ever, contain the little things that make people decent human beings.  And so I began to wonder

How many times did Christ visit a young, terminally ill girl, and instead of healing her, sat down to play Candy Land?
How many times did Christ go to the boy that is bullied at school and invite him to the movies?

Soon, I began to understand that to see what Christ thinks of me, I have to change my perspective of the miracles he performed.

I couldn't think about how great it would be to walk into some stranger’s life and make their problems disappear?  Or how great it would be to give someone their own Happily Ever After?

As wonderful as it would be, I want to point out that these mighty miracles are not happy endings.  They only represent happy beginnings because mighty miracles do not solve all of life’s problems.  Peter once healed a man who had been lame from birth--38 years.  It was shortly after Christ's ascension and he and John were on their way to the temple when they passed this man begging on the street.  Peter reached down to him and said, "Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk."  Now that he could walk, the only source of support familiar to him was gone.  He was a man with a new-found ability to walk, but no employable skills. (Acts 3:2-6)

I don’t mean to be completely cynical here.  Certainly, he was better off in his new state, but he would still face trials and struggles throughout the rest of his life.  But with this understanding I realized how I could answer the question “What does Christ think of me?”  I only had to realize that, in doing these miracles, Christ did not solve all of their problems.  He only solved one of their problems.


A couple of years ago I briefly lost consciousness following an injury.  It was 1:00 AM on a Sunday morning and a trip to the emergency room seemed in order.  While Janelle sat with me at the hospital, Carrie stayed at our place so we wouldn’t have to wake Bug.  In the course of my evaluation, however, an abnormality in my brain was noted in my CT scan--I would need to stay in the hospital until I could have an MRI and be evaluated by a neurologist.  This was problematic:

Janelle, the young women president at the time, had to lead a young women class, was supposed to speak at the baptism of a young woman.  She then had to make sure they were all fed so that they could go to Kirtland for Stake Young Women in Excellence.  And she had to do all of this while her 29-year-old husband was in the hospital trying to decide if he would prefer a surgery through his leg to repair the aneurysm forming in his brain (and be subject to annual MRIs for the rest of his life), or if he should have them crack open his skull and be done with it.

Carrie again rescued us by staying with Bug while I was at the hospital and Janelle was with the young women.  But the thing that stands out the most to us from that weekend isn't the aneurysm, or the baptism.  What stands out the most is that after Carrie left, Janelle noticed something different about the kitchen.

The dishes had been washed.

It hadn't resolved all of our problems.  In the scope of things we were dealing with that weekend, the dishes were nowhere to be seen.  But the relief felt was disproportionate to the effort that went into that act.

The people around us are going to face trials that, more often than not, we are not going to resolve ourselves.

The child who develops a life threatening cancer
The mother who just found out she is pregnant, but doesn't want to be
The woman who wishes to be pregnant, but can’t be
The father who cannot seem to find work
The teenager that is the subject of mockery at her school
The lifelong member who begins to question if the Book of Mormon is actually true
The young adult who struggles to reconcile his sexuality and his faith

Think what you may of these situations, but to the people living them, they are real, and they are painful.

We may not get the chance to perform mighty miracles that solve the difficulties they face--the kind of miracles that get recorded in books and are preserved for generations.

Instead, we can perform the small miracles that get written on the fleshy tables of the heart (2 Cor. 3:3).  The kind of miracles that solve one problem, and make life just a little bit easier for the suffering soul.

I want to close by returning to the question that I still haven’t answered, “What does Christ think of me?”

I think when he tells me, he’s going to ask me why I didn't learn the names of the youth a little sooner? Why didn't I go see their concerts, baseball games, and performances. I think he’ll ask me why I didn't try harder to include a wheel chair bound young adult in the activities that I planned.  Why did I wait until after his premature death to begin wondering if I should have done more.  I think he might ask me why I didn't learn to smile at someone--anyone--ever? I think he’ll ask me why I spent more time dreaming about the big miracles than actually performing the small ones.

I believe, if I start changing now, maybe I can hear that gentle voice say, “Benjamin, you washed the dishes.  Well done, thou good and faithful servant.  Enter now into the rest of the Lord.”

(Because I've already been asked, I'll point out now that the abnormality on my CT turned out to be a shadow.  There is nothing visibly wrong with my brain)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dear Missionaries, Stop Asking. I Won't Be Referring My Friends

Recently, Janelle and I have talked about having the missionaries over more often.  Especially with lower age requirements for missionary service, we would like Bug and Bird to see missionaries more often and normalize their existence a little bit.  Realistically, getting them to the house more often wouldn't be difficult.  For my part, I'm hesitant to do it because I dread the inevitable conversation about how I need to be helping with the missionary effort by referring my friends.

What usually takes place is the missionaries ask if we know anyone they could go visit.  I always answer no.  They then ask if we are preparing anyone.  I always answer no.  They then launch into a dialog about how we should be praying, making lists of people we know and seeking guidance on who we could prepare to be taught by the missionaries.  When they ask if we will do this, I stare off into the corner of the room while Janelle gives some kind of answer to which I'm not actually listening (she tells me she doesn't enjoy this and wishes I would just speak up already).

Why the game?  Because I'm afraid that if I say what I actually think, we'll suddenly become the ward's next 'focus family.'1  I also don't really care to sit through the missionaries' attempts to 'resolve the concern' (that deserves a post all to itself).

Since I'm breaking my silence on so many other issues now, I may as well break my silence on this issue as well.  Simply put, I have no intention of referring any of my friends to the missionaries right now.  So next time they ask why, I'll answer:

I don't want my friends to join the LDS Church.

Okay, that deserves a qualifier.  I don't want my friends to join today's LDS Church.

The people I spend most of my time with are Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Jewish, Lutheran, Unitarian, Atheist, and Agnostic. Essentially, they are anything but Mormon. They are also, for the most part, active participants in their congregations and/or communities (which is one of the reasons I enjoy spending time with them). Most of them are personally conservative and politically liberal. There are a few issues on which we disagree (the morality of homosexual relationships), but we embrace and support each other as people trying to follow God's will.

To be perfectly honest, I would be thrilled if any of these friends converted to Mormonism.  I would like this for both theological and social reasons.  But I'm not about to make any attempts at converting them because I have zero confidence that they would be fully accepted in the Church as the people they are now.  These are people that I esteem highly -- people I consider to be exceptional role models of righteous living.  They are my friends, and they are my mentors.  Yet, I suspect they would be considered incomplete converts so long as they held to some of their political beliefs.

In general, I haven't been impressed with the ability of Mormons to welcome newcomers into the fold. When we do get that occasional convert, we seem to lose perspective while hoping for a sudden, miraculous, and total lifestyle change. I sat in a leadership meeting once where an item of discussion was figuring out who should talk to the 19 year old convert of two weeks about how she really needed to stop wearing the stud in her nose. We were gracious enough to ignore her tattoos since those aren't easily removed.

I am also troubled when I hear the Mormon dialog when a recent convert resumes a smoking habit.  A common rule of thumb for a person to be baptised is that they must be tobacco free for two weeks before their baptism.  Then we are entirely caught off guard when they pick up smoking again two months later.  It's almost as if we have this thought process that if they 'break their covenant by going back to smoking,' then they must not have been truly converted.  I've never heard a Mormon suggest that maybe they were having a particularly stressful week; that perhaps we should congratulate them on having quit for two months and encourage them to start again.

So there it is: as long as I feel like our new members' conversion is being measured against their conformity to Mormon culturalism, I won't be asking my friends to consider us.  Before you can expect me to bring my friends to the Church, you need to make the Church a place that we want to be.

1 Each year, the ward leaders are asked to develop a list of families they feel are on the edge of spiritual crisis or inactivity so that they can "rescue" them before they fall away. The concept is noble and valuable, but it is sometimes poorly executed.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Reforming the Missionary Program (in Cleveland)

Whenever we have the missionaries over to our house, they always ask if they can help me with whatever project I happen to be doing.  I'm putting in new garden beds, or painting rooms, or rotating my tires.  "Can we help?" they ask.  "We're always looking for opportunities to serve!"

I never know whether to chuckle or groan.  

It's great that they want to help.  I commend them for their willingness.  But let's face it -- I'm a healthy, capable adult male whose major difficulty in doing these projects is that I'm too lazy to do them.  Making use of the missionaries' eagerness would not be providing them with service opportunities; it would be taking advantage of free labor.  Service is more than doing something for someone so that they won't have to.  

The ability to provide meaningful service may be the source of more untapped potential than anything else in the LDS missionary program.  Based on the recommended schedules for when I was a missionary, the usual week consisted of 53 hours of 'proselyting' time1 and 4 hours devoted to 'service.'  So somewhere around 6% of the missionaries' time is intended to be devoted to service. The rest of the time, they are expected to be meeting with members, investigators, or contacting people randomly on the street or door-to-door. If you've never tried to sell your religion door-to-door, let me just tell you that it isn't easy.

This leads me to ask this question: Why do we do this to ourselves?  Couldn't we do something more?  Accomplish something greater?

Switch gears with me for a second.  This is going to seem entirely unrelated, but it will tie back in.  Take a look at the map below.  This map shows the median income in the Cleveland area by ZIP code.  The lighter colors are lower income, and the darker colors are higher income.  The dots show the placement of LDS meetinghouses.  There's no scale on the map, but the distance from the western most meetinghouse to the eastern most meetinghouse is about 40 miles on the interstate.

If you're not from the area, you won't know all the details, so it might look like this is a pretty good distribution of meetinghouses.  It covers 11 units between two stakes (not all of the units in each stake are shown).  What you can't tell from this map is the size of each building.  The one in the center of the map is the smallest building.  It is also the only building that is on a major public transportation line.  But a large portion of the lower income families that live around that building are assigned to the outlying buildings.

Believe it or not, this does affect missionary work.  I live in one of the ZIP codes that shows a median income of $45,000 - $60,000 per year, and I live just over six miles from my assigned meetinghouse.  I can't tell you the number of times I've heard the missionaries ask that someone give an investigator a ride because a) they don't have a car and public transportation doesn't run to the meetinghouse on Sunday, or b) the person has a car but can't afford the gas to drive the six miles to Church (yes, that's a real problem).2

So here's an idea --  it comes is two steps.

First, why don't be build more chapels in the poorer areas?  Also, let's build bigger chapels in poorer areas.  Let's get them as close to major public transportation lines as possible, and let's make it as easy as possible for people to come worship as we can3.

Step two: let's use these buildings.  I mean, really use them.  Not just for Sunday worship, once a week for youth activities, and then maybe four or five other days a month.  Let's use them daily.

"But, I don't want to go to church every day!" you say?  Neither do I.  And we shouldn't need to.  Picture a large building in a lower income area, perhaps not far from a school, that offers free after school programs and tutoring for students.  A senior missionary couple could be called to run it, or - gasp - LDS Philanthropies could hire someone to run it.  Missionaries could be trained to tutor students in various subjects and supervise any number community driven activities.

You could even take this a step further.  We could apply for grants and obtain funding to build community gardens.  This could even extend to helping people install gardens on their own property.  Missionaries could then work directly with people to teach them how to plant, care for, and harvest these gardens.  The savings of a small garden may not be huge, but for some of these families, it's a fair amount of relief.

How successful could a program like this be4?  I guess that depends on your definition of success.  If you're interested in convert baptisms, this probably isn't something that will raise your metric (I don't think it would hurt though).  Are you in interested in improving the lives of individuals and providing meaningful and lasting service?  This could do it.  We probably wouldn't see a huge effect in the short term, but I suspect the impact over generations would be incalculable.

I for one would feel a whole lot better if I knew our missionaries were doing this kind of work instead of trying to count painting my walls as service.  They might also be a little less bored too.

1 This calculation assumes 6 proselyting days from 10 AM - 8 PM, a preparation day where proselyting occurs from 6 PM - 8 PM, with 3 hours deducted for church, 4 hours deducted for service, and 2 hours deducted for other meetings. Depending on the local area, this might vary by a few hours.

2 There may be buses that run, but because worship services happen on the weekend, they run less often. You could realistically spend twice as much time en route on public transport than you would spend at the meetinghouse. That would make for a 9 hour day just to go to Church.

3 It also wouldn't hurt to get people our of our wealthier areas to come in and see how the other half of society lives.

4 If you're interested in a local model on which this could be built, visit the Open Doors program.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

We're Increasing the Number of Missionaries! (Aw, crap)

In February of 1999, Gordon B Hinckley -- then President of the Church -- spoke about the Church's missionary efforts.  He noted that in the previous year there were almost 300,000 convert baptisms into the Church.  He then went on to say, "I am not being unrealistic when I say that with concerted effort, with recognition of the duty which falls upon each of us as members of the Church, and with sincere prayer to the Lord for help, we could double that number1."

We have yet to see the realization of that dream.  The following figures are an illustration of convert baptisms and number of missionaries reported during the Annual General Conference each April.  The first of these shows that since that statement, the number of convert baptisms declined for several years.  There has been a slight increase, but still well short of what was happening around the time of President Hinckley's challenge.

Of course, this doesn't tell the entire story.  As we see below, there has been a significant drop in the number of missionaries serving.  Could this be a contributing factor for the reduction of convert baptisms?

To answer that question, we'll break a few statistical rules.  Just note that the images I'm about to portray are intended to be descriptive in nature.  The first thing we'll look at is the trend of number of converts relative to the number of missionaries.  It appears that there is a relationship between the number of missionaries and the number of converts2.

So, theoretically, an increase in the missionary force should translate to an increase in convert baptisms.  In raw numbers, this is true.  But it turns out to be a rather inefficient way to increase baptisms.  Let's take a look at the number of baptisms per missionary.

Wait a minute!  Increasing the number of missionaries increases convert baptisms, but it reduces baptisms per missionary?  How can that be!?  The reason for this is that the graph "Convert Baptisms as a Function of Number of Missionaries" is a misrepresentation of the data.  A better representation appears next.  The change in new converts per new missionary is steeper on the left part of the graph than the change in coverts per new missionary on the right side of the graph3.

One way to interpret these results is to say that, for the past decade, our missionary force has been most efficient when it has consisted of about 54,000 missionaries.  Fewer missionaries means our missionary force can't reach all of the people who are interested, and more missionaries means that there aren't enough people interested in Mormonism to keep the missionaries busy.

This is where things get really interesting.  The LDS missionary force consists of about 55,000 men and women.  Due to the recent reduction in age of eligibility for missionary service, it is projected that the missionary force will grow to almost 90,000 men and women4.  That is a 64% increase in the missionary force!  (To all my non-mormon friends: you will probably see missionaries on your door step more frequently for the next couple of years.  Sorry about that)

Looking at these numbers brings to mind a very interesting question.  What exactly are all these new missionaries going to be doing?  I have a few ideas, and it terrifies me.  My biggest concern is that there will be a lot of emphasis on "working smarter, not harder."  On that principle, the Church will double down on the rhetoric that "every member is a missionary" and that we should all be actively preparing our friends and neighbors to receive the missionaries.

So let me point out right now that this approach is not working smarter.  It's working harder.  We've been approaching missionary work this way for several decades.  "Member referrals yield more baptisms" may as well be the slogan of the LDS missionary effort.  We have very little to show for it in the past ten years; and this approach certainly hasn't brought us anywhere near the doubling of convert baptisms President Hinckley envisioned.

The natural response to this point is that members aren't pulling their weight.  They aren't referring enough people to the missionaries (and this is almost certainly true).  I get this impression every time the missionaries come to visit.  Every time, they stress how important it is for me to refer my friends5.  Now, with even more missionaries working in even smaller areas, those reminders are sure to increase.

Without question, if the members did a better job of preparing their friends and neighbors to be open to the missionaries, we would have an increase in convert baptisms.  But merely increasing the referrals is not the equivalent of preparing them.  If we simply referred more people, we'd see the same pattern of diminishing return on referrals as we see in the increase of missionaries--less bang for the buck.

So while increasing member referrals should certainly be a part of the future of the missionary program, it isn't enough.  There need to be new and innovative ways to reach out to individuals and share with them the benefits of the Gospel of Christ and participation in His Church.  If we send this missionary force out to work on the same proselyting model (doing things the same way we've always done them) we've been using for the past 150 years, we're going to have very little to show for this remarkable increase.

(That's kind of a down note to end on, but this will provide the framework a few more posts about the missionary program.  Consider it a cliff hanger.)

1 "Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep," Ensign, April 1999.
2 For those of you who are interested, this is based on a simple linear regression. The p-value for the coefficient was 0.071.
3 Modeled with a restricted cubic spline.  (See my R code)
4 Projections were cited at a leadership meeting my father attended a few weeks ago.
5 We'll get to the reasons I don't refer my friends in a later post.....maybe.....if I can figure out a way to write it clearly....without thoroughly offending the sensibilities of my fellow saints.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

They Want Me to Succeed in My Faith

Local Boy Scout leaders meet once a month at roundtable meetings to share ideas, ask questions, and find solutions to the problems and concerns they are facing in their units. These meetings are a good way to use the collective experience of multiple programs to gain insight and understanding of how to build better programs.

Given the current excitement over the proposed change in membership policy, it was felt that roundtable would be a good venue to discuss how we felt about the membership policy, proposed change, and try to understand the differing viewpoints within our group.  After reviewing some norms and guidelines to maintain respect, we opened the discussion be reviewing a couple of questions from the current "Voice of the Scout" survey.  We then established that, ultimately, there are three possible outcomes for this policy.

  1. The policy remains as it is, in which homosexuals are barred from membership
  2. The policy is amended to allow chartering organizations to choose their own membership policies with respect to homosexuality (The middle-of-the-road policy).
  3. The policy is reversed and requires all units to accept homosexual applicants (The all-inclusive policy).

The meat of our discussion began when we circled back to the following question:
If the Boy Scouts of America makes a decision on this policy that disagrees with your own view, will you continue to participate in the Boy Scouts, or will you leave the organization?
One scoutmaster stated that yes, he could participate in Boy Scouts, but he would continue to feel like a hypocrite.  He described the discomfort he felt when considering whether to sign his boys up, as he really didn't like the current membership policy.  Ultimately, he decided that he wanted his sons to have the benefits of scouting--since there was no program that could match Scouting, he signed up even though it made him feel like a hypocrite to do so.

Most of the other people in the room agreed that they hoped for a policy change, but would not give up on Scouting if  no change was made.  At this point I pointed out that I am a Mormon, and although I support homosexual membership, the all-inclusive policy would very much go against my religious beliefs.  If the BSA were to implement the all-inclusive policy, I probably would not quit Scouting, but it would give me pause and make me wonder if the BSA respected my religious beliefs.

At this point, I think it's important to point out that, as far as I know, most people in that room do not believe that homosexuality is immoral.  I'm pretty sure that my statement of faith that it is against God's commandments was a minority opinion, and rather unpopular in this group.  What do you think happened next?  The gentleman to my left said, "And that is why I support the middle-of-the-road policy."  There was no judgement or criticism.  I'm pretty sure he disagreed with me, but he understood that my religious beliefs were deeply and honestly felt and he was willing to respect that as I was willing to respect his belief.

Later in the meeting, another person asked the question, "Why is it wrong?  I don't understand why some people believe homosexuality is wrong."  I got the impression that this was a question that troubled this man, and he couldn't relate to the notion.  In what was perhaps a dodge of the question, I answered that understanding why someone believes homosexuality is wrong requires a much broader discussion.  The short answer is that he couldn't possibly evaluate the validity of my belief in the immorality of homosexuality without first understanding the assumption my faith makes of family and marriage; just as I could not evalute the validity of his beliefs concerning homosexuality without first understanding the assumptions of his faith.  He seemed to think that was a fair answer and replied, "So again, that would indicate we need the middle-of-the-road policy, wouldn't it?"

When I started writing this, I didn't really have a point I was trying to make, but now I think I do.  I went into a room of people knowing that most of them would disagree with some of the foundational views of my faith on this topic.  In an open discussion, those views were presented, examined, and openly respected.  Even the people in the room who deep inside themselves wanted an all-inclusive policy voiced support for a middle-of-the-road policy.  I felt no criticism or judgement   Quite the contrary, I felt the support and encouragement of a group of men and women who want me to succeed in my faith and who knew that I wanted them to succeed in theirs.

The world needs more these conversations.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Disappointing Response to an Important Question

My father told me a couple weeks ago that he was invited to a meeting of bishops, branch presidents, and stake presidents that would be attended by Elders L. Tom Perry, Quentin L. Cook (both of the Quorum of the Twelve), and Craig C. Christensen (of the Presidency of the Seventy).  Part of the meeting was to be a questions answer session, and my father asked if I had any ideas on questions that would be good questions to ask.  I recommended he ask the following question.

Our Young Men program has the benefit of the scouting program that includes leadership training for youth and adults through basic leadership training, National Youth Leadership Training, Woodbadge, and other resources.  Our young women and young women leaders have no comparable program to teach them these kinds of skills.  What would you recommend we do to provide this kind of training to the young women and their adult leaders?
On Monday evening, when I spoke to my father again, I was very excited to hear that he had the opportunity to ask the question.   I was extremely disappointed by the response1.  The question was deferred to Elder Christensen--as dad described it, the Apostles didn't want to touch this question.  Perhaps also tainting the response, it seemed like the answer assumed that the question was seeking for a program like Girl Scouts to supplement the Personal Progress program.

The answer given was that the young women don't need any other programs because the young women will face very different challenges in life than the young men will.  Young women don't know if they will be married, have a career, be full time mothers, become single mothers, etc.  Therefore, the Church's goal is to "transform the women from the inside out" using the Personal Progress Program.  Also, because of the unique problems young women will face, they won't need programs like what we offer our young men.

My dad admitted to me that this didn't actually answer the question, but he didn't press the issue in the meeting.  We instantly agreed, however, that the statement that women won't know if they will be married or not, or if they will be come single mothers, career women, etc is more of a reason to teach them leadership skills, not less.

I'm also confused about why we aren't concerned about transforming the young men from the inside out.  (To be fair, I think we are.  But using that phraseology to delineate between the different needs of young men and young women troubles me).

What frightens me the most is that we are expecting women to organize and run the Young Women program, the Relief Society program, and the Primary program, but we have absolutely no program in place to teach them how to be effective and inspiring leaders.  Based on the answer given, I feel like the Church is assuming that if young women just have strong testimonies, then they'll naturally become great leaders.  If you want the more cynical interpretation, denying women leadership training makes them dependent on the men who have had training to effectively run their organizations (nevermind that our male leaders are terribly under-trained).

While I like the Personal Progress program--it is a great tool for the growth and development of young women, their leaders, and their parents--I believe it is, as a stand-alone program, inadequate to prepare young women for the challenges and opportunities they will face in their lives.  At the moment, I can't tell you if our family will use some other program to supplement Personal Progress, or if we will use Personal Progress to supplement some other program.  I can tell you that we will be involving another program.  I won't be expecting the Church to take an interest in developing leadership skills in my daughters or their leaders.

I am focusing on one response to one question in this post. The two-hour question and answer session was, per my dad's description, uplifting and informative (although I will say that some of the proceedings spoke to the dearth of leadership training in our local leaders). Overall, the meeting was a net positive. I discuss my feelings on this one question because it is one that is important to me, and one that I think needs a better answer.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Brilliant Idea for Settings Apart (and it wasn't mine)

I was so impressed and excited by this idea that I had to share it.

My ward offers some unique challenges in that nearly 50% of the members are under the age of 12 (and nearly half of those are under the age of 3). Currently, we have 51 people listed as teachers and other volunteers in our children's program (Primary).

As you might expect, keeping the program staffed requires managing a revolving door of people coming in and people coming out. After the hard part of getting people to accept the position, each person is supposed to be set apart to serve in that role. The setting apart is, essentially, an opportunity for the individual to receive counsel and encouragement about how to serve.

I have my doubts about how necessary settings apart are; but whether they are necessary or not, I do think that, when performed by a spiritually in tune leader, they are a great source of inspiration for most people. Unfortunately, we often have difficulty making sure everyone gets set apart-especially the teachers in Primary. These teachers are always in their classes when it would be most convenient to do the setting apart, and after the worship services are over, they are usually ready to go home and their kids are wound up by freedom from a three hour session of not behaving like normal kids. Too often, these settings apart just weren't being done.

That changed recently. Our bishop has decided to set apart Primary teachers in their classes and in front of the class. This is brilliant in a few ways. First, the settings apart are getting done, and they are being done promptly.

Second, the children will get to see settings apart more often, and will get to hear an explanation of why we do it more often. I think that more opportunities to see local leadership giving inspired blessings can only help children develop an appreciation for the power of a strong community-based leadership.

Third, doing the settings apart in class puts the ward leaders in the room with children and their teachers. They get to see who each person is teaching and they get to engage the children in a smaller group. Given the value of knowing your congregation (more than just names), this is no small thing.

So I tip my hat to my bishopric for figuring out how to do so many great things with such a simple act.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Love Affair with the Middle Initial

This post is (mostly) tongue-in-cheek.

If you take a look at the list of current General Authorities you might notice a lot of middle initials.  I loaded these names from March 4, 2013 into a spreadsheet and summarized it below.

Almost 80% of General Authorities use a middle initial.  That's the clear preference for naming convention.  You have a few odd balls that like to use the first initial and middle name (L. Tom Perry, for example).  It appears the true renegades are those that use their full name.

Out of 99 General Authorities, only 9 of them don't make use of a middle name.  Some of these men are not American and may not have the same naming conventions or customs with respect to middle names, thus, that number might be a little inflated.

I'm not sure where this custom originates or why it has become so popular.  At times, it seems scarily close to official practice.  Each year, during ward conference, the ward clerk is asked to prepare the list of names and sustainings.  During the three years I was the clerk, each year the stake would send us a list of instructions.  One item on the list was to prepare this list with the appropriate names, "formatted as first name, middle initial, and last name."  I'm not really sure why it was so important that the names be in this format.  And I thought it was kind of stupid to mandate the format every name should be read.  So I never followed it.  Instead, I took the time to ask everyone whose name appeared on the list how they preferred to have their name read.  (That didn't stop one bishopric member from telling me that if the stake presidency designated a format for the name, we should sustain our leaders by following the you can imagine, I ignored him too).

Despite the instructions from the stake, whatever list I gave to the stake presidency they were happy to read.  And I was always happy to allow people to choose how they were presented to the ward for sustaining.

But I'll always enjoy the words of another bishopric counselor I worked with when I asked him how he'd like his name read.  He told me to use his first and last name because he wanted "to go against the Church's love affair with the middle initial."

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Thought Experiment on Informed Inspiration--How Would You React?

In the previous two posts I explored some of the pitfalls of uniformed inspiration and ways to pursue more informed inspiration.  Both of these posts dealt with inspiration in the context of recruiting volunteers in our congregations.  My main point, especially in the previous post, is that we could do things differently and, in doing so, do them better.  In that vein, I propose a thought experiment.  After reading the scenario below, I hope you'll take some time to answer a couple questions about it.  If you're comfortable, please share your answers, and pose new questions.  This is one of those areas where I think I have great ideas, but I'm not sure how others would react to them.

For the purposes of this thought experiment, I will use the example of a bishop calling a Relief Society president.  The principles apply to any of the organizations in the congregation, however, and you may substitute a position that is suitable to your interests and gender.

The Thought Experiment: A Novel Approach to Filling a Calling
Bishop Smith welcomes Sister Doe into his office. After a brief chat, Bishop Smith proceeds to say the following. (Ideally this would happen as a conversation, but I wrote it one-sided for fear of over fictionalizing the content).

Sister Doe, I've asked you to meet with me today because I've feel like the time has come to make some changes in the ward leadership.  I will explain more shortly, but I first want to say that I am not calling you to anything today.
As I've thought about the needs of the ward and the women in particular, I have felt that it is time to call a new Relief Society president.  I have prayed and sought guidance about who to call, but I have not yet felt any inspiration that would lead me to a decision.  What I have done so far is made a list of four women that I think have the skills and maturity necessary for this role.  You are one of those women.
While I believe that all four of you will, at some point in your lives, serve in significant leadership positions in the Church, I can only call one of you right now.  I want you to know that, if you are not called, it is not a reflection on your personal worthiness or preparation.  It would mean, at most, that the Lord desires someone else for this moment in time.
I have prepared of list of questions I want you to take home with you and think about.  You are free to discuss these with your husband, family, and friends.  I'd like to meet again next week and talk about your answers.  I am having these conversations with the other three women as well.  My hope is that with the help of your responses and feedback, the Lord will help me identify the right person for this calling at this time, whether it be one of the four of you or someone else you help me identify.
Again, I'm not sure who the Lord will guide me to yet.  Whether it is you or someone else, I do want you to know that I consider you a leader in the ward and value the influence you have.  Whether or not you are called, I know that you will be a positive force in the lives of those around you, and that is recognized and appreciated by the Lord.

The list of questions
What do you think the goals and priorities of the Relief Society should be?
What are the needs of the women in Relief Society?
What challenges would you expect to face?
What resources would you need?
What vision and goals do you have for the ward?
What are the needs of the members of the ward?
Who would you recommend be the Relief Society president? (Be honest.  You may name yourself if you feel that's the right recommendation, or you may name others)

Questions to Consider

  • If you had this meeting with your bishop, how would you react?  Would it bother you?
  • Do you think people would be unduly hurt if they weren't called?
  • Who would you talk to about the questions given?
  • If you reaction to this idea is negative, how much of that reaction do you think is related to a cultural norm of callings being discussed in total confidentiality? (I ask with a genuine desire to determine if there is something inherently wrong with an idea like this, or if cultural norms are influencing the reaction)