Monday, November 10, 2008

My Ways Are Not Your Ways

Many of the Savior’s most profound teachings are counter-intuitive to the natural man. For instance, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) is a counter-intuitive strategy that few experts on international relations, negotiation and arbitration would employ. The solutions that our natural minds are prone to develop are often very different from those that the Lord would have us pursue. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8 - 9)

The purpose of this essay is to suggest that when we as a church its leaders, seem “stuck” and cannot make progress against a critical challenge, the reason often is that our solutions are grounded in the wisdom of men – which is foolishness to God (I Cor. 3:19). In the following sections I will highlight five of the Savior’s teachings that seem counter-intuitive to the wisdom of men, but which might hold the key to our solving some of the problems that keep the church and its saints from growing stronger.

1. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s the same shall save it.” (Mark 8:35)

The Savior’s formula for how to convert our hearts to His cause is unambiguous – He instructs us to lose our lives in His service. When church leaders seek to give church callings to members whose commitment to the gospel is weak, they instinctively are following this advice. For example, when Hugh B. Brown was stake president in southern Alberta he called a less-active cigar-smoking man to be a bishop. The man waved his cigar and said, “Hell, with this?” President Brown countered, “Hell no, without it!” The man became an outstanding and committed bishop.[1] We all know stories like this. Less-active members don’t always accept the opportunities we offer them to lose their lives, but when they accept, the result almost invariably is that they find their spiritual direction.

We recently learned that about 12% of the male members of the church of missionary age in the Northeast actually serve missions – a smaller fraction than in any other area in North America. Mission presidents find that many of the young men who accept mission calls are not prepared for the rigors of the work or to teach the gospel with competence and conviction. We’re trying to “raise the bar” to ease the burden on mission presidents – but this doesn’t solve the underlying problem that we’re preparing only a small fraction of the young men on our membership rolls to become committed, capable, courageous missionaries. And the rigors of this work are likely to become harder, not easier, in the future.

Why are we doing so poorly in this crucial mission of preparing more of our young men to be better missionaries? One reason may be that the focus of many of our leaders is to help our youth “find” their lives. We define a strong youth program as one with a large “critical mass” of youth, with engaging, well-planned weekly activities and opportunities for LDS friendships. These are good things to have; I do not argue against them. But while we work so hard to provide enriching experiences for our youth, we often deny them of the most important opportunity of all – the chance to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.

Some church leaders have observed a statistical correlation: the larger the size of a ward (and its youth program), the larger the proportion of youth who serve missions and marry in the temple. I suspect that this is correlation and not causality, however: it may appear this way because large units have more strong families than small ones. In families where the parents are sacrificing to live the gospel and serve in the Kingdom, generally their children also receive ample opportunities to lose their own lives for the sake of the Savior, from their earliest years. I think that if we look closely, however, we will generally see that our “strong” wards don’t do much better than “weak” ones at transforming youth whose home environments don’t prioritize the gospel. That’s because our leaders typically employ fun, interesting activities as the primary means of attracting and strengthening these at-risk young people. They rarely devise ways to help these young people lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.

I recently asked a stake young women’s president who lives in a small branch in New York whether she had a hard time keeping her girls active, given the lack of a “critical mass” in some branches in her stake. I’ll paraphrase her response: “Whether they become strong in the Church has nothing to do with how many girls there are in the ward or branch. What matters is whether they grow up learning to love serving God. I grew up in a little branch in West Virginia. When I was 12 our branch organist moved, and though I could barely play the piano, I was called to be the branch pianist. I practiced those hymns and went to sacrament meeting because the branch needed me. I was called to teach primary when I was 15. I grew to love those kids. Do you think I’d have missed church or done something that would have been a bad example for them? Never. They needed me, and as I served, my testimony became strong.”

Children whose family life provides them many opportunities to lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel generally aren’t those at risk.[2] The youth whose lives we need to influence are those who do not live in environments where they systematically have opportunities to lose their lives for the sake of the Savior. A strong youth program isn’t one that coddles these at-risk youth. Rather, it will give them chances to sacrifice in the service of God, so that they feel needed in the Church and so that they feel the spirit as they serve.

I suspect that if we gathered the statistics, they would show that a large percentage of our young men and women who go to BYU or another college with an institute program when they finish high school stay active in the Church; whereas a large portion of those whose intent is to stay at or near home as young working adults fall away from the Church after high school. There is a treacherous crevasse in the local transition from the YM-YW programs into Elders Quorum and Relief Society. Why? I think that our approach of seeking to strengthen our youth by helping them find their lives as teen-agers might be part of the problem. If the reason for coming to church between ages 12 and 18 is fellowship and fun for these at-risk young people, then Relief Society and Elders Quorum are quite a shock: they aren’t very fun. The burden of adult discipleship looms heavy if they have never shouldered the Savior’s yoke before, and they opt out of the Church. The Savior’s message, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30), runs counter to the wisdom of man. I think we might be more effective at building the faith of at-risk young people, so that more of them will serve missions and become faithful adults, if our ward leaders are trained to spot the riskiness of their situation when they are aged 14 or so, and invite them to try the yoke on – not in once-a-year service projects, but weekly pulling side-by-side with other adults in callings where they will feel the spirit as they do the work of the Lord.

Our struggle to keep our young people strong is just one example of how adhering to the wisdom of man is blocking our progress in building the Kingdom of God. We need to apply God’s wisdom of inviting people to lose their lives for the sake of the Savior to other challenges as well – such as strengthening less-active members, bringing non-member spouses into the fold, and in doing member missionary work.

2. “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 - 13)

The Savior says here that the instinct of good shepherds is to go after the individual sheep who are lost. Yet we frequently count and focus upon the ninety and nine, leaving those who are lost to continue wandering from the Church. I’ll just focus on two instances of this proclivity.

In every sacrament meeting our clerks count the number of people who are there. This is a useful way to measure whether our efforts in the past to encourage members to faithfully attend their meetings have yielded fruit. But it provides no guidance about what our shepherds should do in the future. Much more useful information for the clerk to collect would be a list of the individual members who could have been in the fold on that Sunday, but didn’t come.

My friend Reed Wilcox, who served as mission president in the south of France, instituted a practice like this in each of the branches in the mission district that he oversaw. At the end of the Sunday meetings, the branch council and missionaries huddled briefly, assembling a list of members and investigators who could have been there but didn’t come. They each took an assignment to contact one of those individuals that same day with this message: “We sure missed you today. Are you ok? It’s just not the same for the rest of us when you can’t come. Is there anything I can do to help? Can we get together this week?” Within two years, sacrament meeting attendance in the district increased from 540 to 725 – and this was in the south of France, where baptisms are as rare as a drink of ice water in the desert. Listing the individuals who are not there, in addition to counting the number of sheep who are, would be a simple practice for every ward and branch to institute. Its effect could be extraordinary.

There was a Sunday in the life of each inactive member when he or she did not return to the fold, and the shepherds there didn’t notice. Principle #5 below asserts that great things proceed from little things. The kingdom of God is built one person at a time.[3]

There is another manifestation of our proclivity to count the ninety and nine, which I’ll illustrate with a story. In 1978 in the Cambridge First Ward we had a group of about 20 Spanish-speaking members who had their own Sunday School class. As ward leaders, we all hoped that the group could grow to the point that they could become a free-standing Spanish branch, but progress was slow. In one PEC after we had discussed for 45 minutes what we could do to help the Spanish group, Steve Wheelwright interjected, “I never remember our having discussions about strengthening the English-speaking members of the ward. We always consider them as individuals. Why are we trying to help these people as a monolithic group?” His comment changed our approach. We listed on the board the six individuals or couples who we felt might become the leaders of an independent Spanish branch. We then released our six best home and visiting teachers from their other assignments, and charged them with helping these individuals to become worthy, committed and capable enough to lead this branch effectively. The branch was organized less than a year later.

When we find ourselves using terms such as single sisters, we are doing the same thing – focusing on the monolith of the ninety and nine, not the individual. Perhaps one reason why married couples and families feel like they fit in the church is that as leaders we never have discussions about how to meet the needs of the married members. We discuss how to help them as individuals. Yet we often refer to those who are single as a group. In my last three stake conference visits I asked the stake Relief Society presidency to join my meeting with the stake presidency, bringing a listing of each unmarried adult woman in the stake. The lists were long – between 40 and 50% of the female adult members were single. I asked them to indicate whether each individual was fully active, attended occasionally, or not at all. I also asked them to list the calling that each of the single women held. Across the three stakes, only 17% of the single women were fully active, whereas 63% of the married women were active. Married women held 95% of the positions in ward and stake auxiliary presidencies. This is a horrible indictment of church leaders whom the Savior has repeatedly charged with caring for the widows and orphans.

I suspect that the greatest need of these single women is not for more and better singles conferences, but instead to feel that as individuals, their service, instruction and leadership is important to everyone in the ward.[4] As I note below, another of the Savior’s seemingly contradictory statements supports this view: “Out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (D&C 64:33). We are prone to think that the best way to help a large group of members, such as singles or inactives, is to create a big program to help them all at once. The small, person-by-person treatment of every member of the Church as an individual is what truly will yield great things.

3. “The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not … trust in the arm of flesh.” (D&C 1:19)

One of our greatest laments is that many of our wards and branches suffer from inadequate priesthood leadership. The reason for weak leadership, however, is that in most units, we rely on the most committed, capable, qualified people to fill the key positions in which personal growth can occur. When a branch is just emerging and there are no alternatives, leaders are forced to conscript the maimed, halt and blind; beg them to assume important responsibility; and give them the opportunity to grow. During such periods, the branch and the individuals within it grow in exciting ways. Almost always, however, there comes a point when a group of committed, qualified members and leaders has coalesced; and when there are capable people like these to rely upon to ensure that the programs of the Church run efficiently, we often stop drafting people from the periphery of capability into the positions of responsibility in which they can grow. Because these simple and weak people are manifestly not as capable as those in the experienced core, we leave them on the periphery. We might say that wards and branches in this situation suffer from the “STP Syndrome” (Same Ten People). They lack leadership bench strength because the coach only plays the starters; and ultimately the starters get tired.

The Lord has rarely used an STP strategy when He personally has directed the staffing of the Kingdom. His statement in D&C 1:19,23 that He would build the Kingdom on the backs of the simple and weak, was not a temporary stop-gap staffing plan to tide the Church over during its early years until enough experienced, committed, qualified leaders had arrived on the scene. He deliberately weakened Gideon’s army so that Israel wouldn’t get confused about whose power had led them to victory (Judges 6,7). None of His original Twelve had evidenced adequate experience or commitment when He called them. Enoch (Moses 6:26,27,31,32), Moses (Exodus 3:11,13; 4:1,10); Samuel (I Samuel 3:1-11); David (I Samuel 16); Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-6), Amos (Amos 7:14-15) and Joseph Smith were manifestly unqualified when the Lord put them to work. Later, as He did with Saul, God transformed them into capable, inspiring leaders (I Samuel 10:1, 6, 9). In teaching the Nephites, Christ did some of the teaching Himself, of course. But He chose to deliver the greatest and most marvelous truths by training the children; and then stepping back to let the children teach the parents (3 Ne. 26:13-14).

We will build much greater priesthood strength in our wards and branches when we stop relying on the strong – when the experienced and most talented of our leaders are called to stand aside, and assume roles of training and supporting those who need to become strong while they serve in positions into which they can grow.

4. “Ye must repent … and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.” (3 Nephi 11:38)

Few of the Savior’s statements are as counter-intuitive vs. the wisdom of man as this one – which invites us to abandon much of what we have learned about the possible and impossible, and to trust in God as innocently and naively as little children trust their parents. An important factor that restrains the Church’s progress is the failure of many of our best and busiest priesthood leaders to do this. Because they are so very busy in their assignments in bishoprics and stake presidencies, they have, de facto, exempted themselves from commandments such as member missionary and family history work that loom quite rationally as impossibly time-consuming. I’m afraid that when Moroni foresaw that many in the last days would believe that God had ceased to be a God of miracles (Mormon 9:15-20; Moroni 7:27-37), he might have had not just Catholics and Protestants in his view, but some of us as well.

Elder M. Russell Ballard once speculated to me in a personal conversation why his 1984 invitation that we select a date as part of a commitment to the Lord to speak about the Gospel to many people, has had so little effect on the pace of member missionary work in the Church. He asked me to imagine whether a bishop who had stopped paying his tithing would choose to stand before his ward members and preach a sermon on tithing. He wouldn’t. He would choose instead to speak on a topic that he could address without hypocrisy. He said that although the members of the First Presidency and the Twelve speak with urgency about the need to lengthen our member-missionary strides, the chain of follow-through breaks because most members of stake presidencies and bishoprics are not good member missionaries themselves. They have quite rationally exempted themselves from keeping this commandment because they are doing so much to serve in the Church that they just don’t have the time and bandwidth to be missionaries as well. When they have opportunities to speak to and counsel with their members, they therefore choose to emphasize other dimensions of the gospel. Our leadership ranks are filled with men and women who can administrate the mechanics of missionary meetings just fine. But because they cannot speak in present tense verbs and first-person pronouns about finding people for the missionaries to teach, they cannot lead this work effectively.

The busy-ness of our leaders is a cold and incontrovertible fact. In the face of this, the wisdom of men dictates that “something has to go” – and often it is missionary work because it looms as difficult and time-consuming.[5] The only way that ward and stake officers can become leaders is to fast and pray in faith that God will bless them regularly with miracles – that He will put people in their path who will accept their invitation to come into their homes to study with the missionaries. I have learned through repeated experience that this is true. When I have been tempted to excuse myself from missionary work because of my schedule, I am grateful that instead I have fasted and prayed for miracles. I testify that we all intersect regularly with people who will accept our invitations. As soon as God trusts that we will invite them to learn and accept His gospel, He will prompt them to come to our offices, stand next to us in lines, and sit in the next seat. When God can trust us, we can trust that He will bless us in miraculous ways to be exemplary leaders.

5. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) “Out of small things proceedeth that which is great.” (D&C 64:33)

This fifth contradiction is related to the second and third above. It tells us that the small things are the big things – and yet we often behave as if this were not true. For example, in our heads we know that there should be no hierarchy in church callings. Most members can quote J. Reuben Clark’s statement that it is not where we serve, but how. Nonetheless, there are many in the Church who feel inferior for never having served in presidencies or bishoprics; and others who repeatedly serve in leadership positions and feel confident in the value of their contributions because of it.

I have written and spoken elsewhere about a personal experience, when I was “passed over,” and an important leadership calling, which somehow I had felt in line to receive, was given to another man instead. In the crisis of self-confidence that ensued, I ultimately realized that the way God would measure my life was not by the numbers of people over whom I had presided, but by the individual people whose lives I had touched with my love and God’s love, and with the gospel of Jesus Christ. With this sense of my most important calling, I began to fast weekly and pray daily that God would give me opportunities to bless and help people who needed it. As I acted upon the promptings that I received, it was as if God spoke to me more and more often, because He knew I was listening. It proved to be the period in my life of the most extraordinary spiritual growth; and many people received the blessings of God as a result. There is a calling far higher than that of stake president, bishop or Relief Society president. It is to be a Christian.

I have subsequently come to know three wards whose cultures seem to inspire their members to seek to do many small things, especially for the least of their brethren and sisters – and where great things have resulted. While the wards surrounding them struggle to baptize a few people in a year, these three wards each baptize twenty to thirty – and most of these remain faithful. The only way I can explain it is that God seems to trust these wards. Whenever someone new walks into these three chapels, they feel instantly loved. When they accept baptism, they have friends, responsibilities, and nourishment in the good word of God. I don’t think that there are more “prepared” people living within the boundaries of these three wards than are living in neighboring wards. One ward is in Ireland; one in rural northern New England; and one in a comfortably affluent suburb of a major eastern city. I think the difference is that God trusts these three wards. He knows that when His children pray to Him for help and guidance, He can put them in the path of missionaries and members, or prompt them to go directly to the church, knowing that they will feel His love and His spirit when they arrive.

I think it quite possible that if we called more of the humble and weak to positions of responsibility, released many of our most experienced and committed leaders out of the STP group noted above, and “promoted” them to be full-time Christians whose job was to bring the love and blessings of God to those of His children who need them, great things would result.

[1] This is recounted in Firmage, Ed, An Abundant Life.

[2] A recent survey that Elder H. Bryan Richards discussed with me showed that 92% of the missionaries currently serving came from families where both parents are strong, committed members.

[3] … I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion (Jeremiah 3:14).

[4] Last year I also attended the conference of the Potsdam District – the collection of branches along the St. Lawrence Seaway in northern New York. Interestingly, in that environment where leaders were desperate for every individual member they could find to serve in their branches, there is no difference in the activity rates of single and married women – even though they don’t have singles conferences.

[5] As we have noted elsewhere, this isn’t the case. It looms this way when they follow false principles of member missionary work.

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