Leading the Church by the Book
Berta from Mexico City, Mexico, writes:
I have a real testimony of the Church-published handbooks. Going "by the book" is always smoother—because it's the way our inspired leaders have directed. (And who do we think inspired them?) How do you follow what our leaders have said, when you live in a ward that has long-standing traditions that are contrary to what we are directed to do?
Berta, this is a question that many readers have encountered. I have heard from friends throughout the world that church materials, inspired and valuable as they are, often have to be adapted to be useful to individuals.
Here’s a humorous example: My friend’s husband was bishop of their ward in a country I won’t name, to protect the identities of ward members. The Young Women President received a training video filmed in Salt Lake City. The video portrayed a service project, and showed the girls pouring out of several large, expensive sports utility vehicles. My friend had to laugh and shake her head at that image. She was the only member of her ward who owned a car, and it was certainly not a Suburban. The Beehive and Laurel instructors decided not to use the video.
But obviously, the concept of teaching Young Women the value of service was important and pure. They skipped the video, but instead invited an occupational therapist to teach them to care for an invalid in the ward. The girls signed up for shifts, and each was paired with a partner from the Relief Society. The girls and women took excellent care of the immobile teen for a summer. As you can well imagine, this was an impactful project for everyone who participated.
There will always be challenges, even for Salt Lake City wards. The dress code is always under fire, and the “rules” for Youth Dances can cause turmoil that sometimes seems to rival the persecution of the Saints in Illinois. Censoring inappropriate music in Sacrament Meeting can become a cat-fight of cinematic proportions. These examples are simply cultural clashes, even in the heart of the original LDS tradition. We have to smile when we are not caught in the conflict, but when it is we, ourselves, who have to toe the line in order to comply with the handbook, it can be a rigorous character and testimony builder. The manner in which our leaders present the requirement can be significant, but even if this doesn’t go well, the testimony and humility of the person who is asked to make the change will be the deciding factor.
Have you read the joke about the Elder’s Quorum President and High Priest Group Leader who come to the bishop to solve a squabble?
EQP: “Bishop, every time we discuss ward dinners, we have the same difficulty deciding whether to invite children. If children are excluded, most of our quorum can’t come. There aren’t enough baby sitters in the ward. If we have a nursery on site, the chaos is so impossible we end up with the kids in the cultural hall anyway, plus the ravenous teenagers who were supposed to be babysitting.
“What is the tradition?”
HPGL: “If the children are included, most of our quorum won’t come, because the kids make them nervous tearing around the cultural hall, and eat all the desert before those of us with canes and walkers can make it through the line.
“What is the tradition?”
Bishop: “What happened when you tried to resolve this problem?”
EQP and HPGL: “We got into a fight and everybody’s feelings are hurt.”
Bishop: “That is the tradition.”
Charitable conflict resolution is one of the important virtues we learn as members trying to bear one another’s burdens. I hope the outcome of these challenges will result in more perfect compliance with Doctrine and Covenants, Section 38, verse 27: "If ye are not one ye are not mine." I have seen this spirit permeating our world-wide gospel, as members from every country where temples are being constructed come together rejoicing. There is no conflict. No sense of cultures clashing. No “spirit of digression.” Where the handbook requires a behavior that is directly contrary to traditions in the ward, I would hope all members, including the leaders, would think of the spirit that is felt at temple dedications. We can seek ways to celebrate and preserve the local culture within the divine boundaries set by our Father in Heaven, who loves every soul on earth equally.
Oh, Berta, I'm your kindred spirit and your soul sister. It makes me crazy when people think they can ignore instructions from our general leaders because, apparently, they "know better." Sorry, but doing so reminds me a bit of a teenager who ignores his parents because "they just don't understand."
Truth is, there are a bunch of things that have been explicitly dictated to us. These we should follow explicitly—unless we have been given explicit permission by someone in the appropriate "chain of command" to do otherwise. Still, there are tons of things left to our discretion in every auxiliary. We have plenty of room to flex our personalization muscles without disregarding counsel.
First, however, let's take a step back. Before we condemn those who create unrecognizable programs to burn in the fiery furnace for eternity (we can save that for later), we need to look carefully at what we are calling for.
As often as I've seen members disregard counsel, I've seen others who expect leaders to follow policy that doesn't exist—or policy that once existed, but no longer does. So before taking any action, determine if what you think should happen, is actually something that is supposed to happen. In other words, if the thing you're driving for is not a matter of doctrine or policy, then your only business speaking up about it would be (1) if you have a stewardship over the issue or (2) if you'd care to make a gentle suggestion to someone who does. Otherwise, you're just whining.
Below I'll throw out a couple of examples on both sides.
There was a time in the olden days when women were not allowed to pray in sacrament meetings. That changed when I was an itty bitty little thing. I don't know exactly the metamorphosis of the policy, but I do know that by the mid-1990's the handbook simply said that both women and men could pray in meetings.
Somehow, some leaders scattered about the earth have interpreted that to say, "Men give all opening prayers and women give only closing prayers." Not just as a matter of (odd) preference (whatever happened to "ladies first"?), they have declared it a matter of policy and requirement. I've even heard it said (repeatedly) that "only a priesthood holder can invite the Spirit into a meeting." Holy cow, we'd better get the men in to pray at Relief Society and Young Women! All these years we've just been fooling ourselves!
Our stake in Florida was a prime example. A friend of mine was asked to give a Sacrament Meeting prayer. She accepted, but asked if she could give the opening prayer because she knew she'd likely be out in the foyer with a noisy child before the meeting was adjourned. The secretary wrote down her name in the opening slot. Immediately, one of the bishop's counselors jumped to "correct" the situation. "No, women can't say opening prayers!"
As predicted, later that morning my friend made her way to the foyer with a wiggling tot in tow. Then her jaw hit the floor. She couldn't believe what she'd heard from this counselor. She'd never heard such a claim in her life. And she's no nutty, know-nothing newcomer. Her mother was serving as the General Primary President of the church at the time.
"The prayer situation" went so far that Elder Monte J. Brough explicitly directed our stake to allow women to give both prayers. But even after that information was disseminated, some leaders still would not allow it. In my ward, the same member of the bishopric simply could not tolerate the "change." Whenever he conducted, coincidentally, only men offered the opening prayer.
When we moved to Orem, Utah, for a short time, the stake president specifically directed all wards to only allow men to open with prayer, insisting it was policy.
When we moved to Eagle Mountain, we attended church for over three years before we saw a woman open Sacrament Meeting. And that only happened because the couple assigned to give both prayers, happened to have the same first name! The program didn't specify which "Kim" was supposed to pray and so the woman got up first. Some murmuring and whispering ensued. As she walked to the pulpit, the man sitting in the pew directly in front of me nearly had a coronary and began to stand to stop her. I'm not sure why he sat back down. He was probably surprised that the building didn't collapse around us.
To be clear, there is no prohibition against men opening with prayer. But declaring that women cannot do so is inappropriate—and it's not policy.
For the record, in the following year we did have one other woman open with prayer. But since it was the bishop's wife, I figured she had a special dispensation. Or maybe she was channeling her husband.
A few years ago I had a discussion with a woman who had her knickers in an absolute strangle-hold of her lower extremities. The brouhaha was due to the fact that some folks in her ward were "not properly observing the sacrament" because they were using their left hand to take and/or pass it.
As a child, I was carefully taught that respect dictated that I used only my right hand to partake of the sacrament, as well as to pass the sacrament tray. Why was this? I don't exactly know, except to point to historical traditions that saw the left hand as dirty (literally as the hand that wiped after bathrooming) and evil and the right as the clean and pure hand.
Forget for just a minute the absolute insanity of trying to hold the tray with the right hand, simultaneously partaking of the sacrament with the right hand, concurrently distributing thereof to three preschoolers with the right hand, whilst always gently gripping the toddler who wants "more samwich" with the left. (Apparently only "dirty hands" are suitable for holding two-year-olds.) Oh, did I mention Daddy is peacefully on the stand with the rest of the bishopric? Nevermind…that's another column…
Anyway, as I said, forget the logistics of motherhood and of amputees. This is what I was taught and this is what I tried to do…even as those on the row behind me (read that: "those who would be offered the same tray after we had defiled it") gasped and moaned at the foreign objects and bodily fluids that managed to land in the trays during the contortions on the Smith row.
When I heard this woman's complaint, it occurred to me that it had been some time since I had heard any public or official mention of a "sacrament hand," so I did some research. As it turns out, the handbook does not dictate right hand usage. The missionary discussions do not mention it. The Gospel Principles class does not teach it. In fact, as far as I could tell there is no current publication that describes this as being current policy.
Upon hearing this report, the complainant rejected it as irrelevant. But, I wondered aloud, if it's imperative for salvation, how are new members supposed to hear about it? Through the ward rumor mill?
I never heard a letter read over the pulpit that declared a "sacrament hand free-for-all." I didn't hear the moratorium touted in General Conference. I do not claim to know why all references to this former policy were removed from any current teaching materials. I just know that they were. And, personally, I don't think it was some huge oversight on the part of Intellectual Reserve.
In other words, I believe that our leaders—for some undisclosed reason—decided to stop teaching this as policy. And if they don't see a need to call others to do it, neither should I.
Can I now make my official plea to provide every single member of the church—upon baptism—with their own copy of the Handbook of Instructions? We'd have so much less to debate over, if we all read through it once in a while!
To be honest, what I'd want to say would be to say something like, "Well, 'Robert.' if you want to do it your way, instead of the Lord's way—there's a building for rent down the street. Why don't you meet down there and start your own church. You can call it 'The First Church of Bob.'" But doggonit, we can't really say stuff like that, can we? Phooey.
I think all you can really do is make the suggestion to the auxiliary president and/or the bishop. Tell them your thoughts, your reasons, etc., and hope they see your point.
As a reminder though, some things are flexible, and some are not. I've heard some horror stories about "odd" things going on in some wards. A friend moved to a small ward where a few sisters had decided that they should start praying to Heavenly Mother. Another friend moved to a ward where they'd decided their chapel needed to install those fold-down kneeling benches like Catholic churches have, so that people could kneel during the sacrament. The hope was that it would create a more reverent atmosphere. And truthfully, it probably would, but that's not the point. Soon after the word got out, the benches were removed.
But sometimes, things that we think are "church policy" are not. They're just a sort of "Mormon tradition."
So it's possible, depending on what your specific concern is (you didn't give any details), that you think someone is doing something by tradition instead of "by the book," when in reality, it isn't in the book to begin with, and you may actually be the one that's following a "tradition." (Did that make any sense?) It's also possible, that what they're doing isn't against church counsel or policy, as the various auxiliary handbooks will sometimes say things like "adapt as necessary" or "as the spirit dictates," etc. On the other hand, you may very well be absolutely right. They might be doing something the church does not want them to do. If you're completely sure, and you've actually checked 'the books," and have consulted with auxiliary leadership and the bishop, you may want to consider consulting with someone in a stake position.
Sandie W. writes:
In my ward women give opening prayers all the time. That's really weird.
Cherie R. from California, writes:
I've only been a member since 1999, but I have never heard about being commanded to use a particular hand to take the sacrament. I hope it's not true, or maybe everyone has been thinking that I'm not very respectful at church!
How can we find out about all these things? It seems like every week I learn something new that I was supposed to know…but no one told me!
I too had been taught to use my right hand to take the sacrament and had taught my children to do likewise. When the classroom got a little tense over the subject, I told the teacher that I'd do a little research to determine whether or not it was a matter of tradition or policy. Frankly, I was interested to know.
During my research, I discovered that it apparently was taught in the early church, and was mentioned in General Conference. And though I didn't find a reference in any of of our current curriculum (which is curious), I discovered references from Doctrines of Salvation, the Ensign, and the Friend.
It appears that it isn't a "policy, so therefore you must" kind of thing, but it's more like "instruction" with symbolic reason and to show reverence. Personally, I'm confidant that taking the Sacrament with the left hand doesn't negate it's power. I think it's probably more like saying prayers without using the formal "thee, thou" language. We've been instructed to do so, but Heavenly Father still hears and answers the prayers of those who don't. Some people of other faiths don't necessarily close their prayers in the name of the Savior, but go immediately to "Amen". But does anyone really think that our Father closes His ears to the sincere and righteous prayers of His children because of that? To think such would blaspheme the mercy of God.
The Lord has indicated the importance of the sacrament in another way.... Our people have been taught to take the sacrament with the right hand: we believe that is appropriate , and proper, and acceptable to our Father. The sacrament should not be accepted with a gloved hand; nobody should receive it in that irreverent manner. We should partake of it in humility, with preparation of clean hands and pure hearts, and with a desire to be acceptable to our Father: then we will receive it worthily, and rejoice in the blessing that comes to us by reason of it.
George Albert Smith, Conference Report, April 1908, p. 36
Then we have:
Question: "We have been taught in the Church that we should partake of the sacrament with the right hand. Why is this necessary? In our discussions we do not seem to be able to find anything telling us why his is so. Why is it wrong to partake of the sacrament with the left hand?"
Answer: Questions of this nature are occasionally received. In one case we are informed that some brethren were advocating the partaking of the sacrament with either hand…Therefore it is expedient that something be said about the use of the right hand in performing ordinations and partaking of the sacrament.
The performing of ordinances with the right hand in preference to the left is a well-established custom universally and is not confined to the Church. In various governments where oaths are administered, the candidate for office is asked to raise his right hand. There are occasions when he is sworn to give truthful testimony by placing his right hand on a copy of the Bible. This custom has come down from the beginning, and from many scriptural passages we gather that it has always received divine sanction…
[Here, he quotes a million scriptural references…]
…It is a well-established practice in the Church to partake of the sacrament with the right hand and also to anoint with the right hand, according to the custom which scriptures indicate is, and always was, approved by divine injunction. We take the sacrament with the right hand. We sustain the authorities with the right hand. We make acknowledgment with the right hand raised.
Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, VOL. 1, p. 154-159
Another source says:
Is it necessary to take the sacrament with one’s right hand? Does it really make any difference which hand is used?
…That the right hand suggests symbolic favor is suggested again in the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus said: “…And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Matthew 25:32–34
Numerous other scriptural references to the right hand are listed on page 433 of the Topical Guide appended to the new LDS edition of the Bible. These accounts give some background and insight into the symbolic significance of the right hand—a symbolism that appears in the language and other cultural features of the Jewish and Christian world. In Latin, for example, dexter (right) and sinister (left) not only indicated right and left but became the roots for adjectives carrying favorable and unfavorable connotations. The use of the right hand as a symbolic gesture was in time extended to the administration of governmental oaths, and to the courtroom, as witnesses were called to testify under oath.
With this background, we may now focus on the question of which hand to use when partaking of the sacrament.
The word sacrament comes from two Latin stems: sacr meaning “sacred,” and ment meaning “mind.” It implies sacred thoughts of the mind. Even more compelling is the Latin word sacramentum, which literally means “oath or solemn obligation.” Partaking of the sacrament might therefore be thought of as a renewal by oath of the covenant previously made in the waters of baptism. It is a sacred mental moment, including (1) a silent oath manifested by the use of one’s hand, symbolic of the individual’s covenant, and (2) the use of bread and water, symbolic of the great atoning sacrifice of the Savior of the world.
The hand used in partaking of the sacrament would logically be the same hand used in making any other sacred oath. For most of us, that would be the right hand. However, sacramental covenants—and other eternal covenants as well—can be and are made by those who have lost the use of the right hand, or who have no hands at all. Much more important than concern over which hand is used in partaking of the sacrament is that the sacrament be partaken with a deep realization of the atoning sacrifice that the sacrament represents.
Parents are sometimes concerned about which hand their children use to partake of the sacrament. As a means of education, preparation, and training, unbaptized children in the Church are offered the sacrament “to prefigure the covenant they will take upon themselves when they arrive at the years of accountability.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine , 2nd ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 660.) Therefore, it is very important that they develop a good feeling and a sacred mental attitude about the symbolism and significance of the sacrament. Parents who wish to teach the importance of this sacred experience might make the topic a part of family home evening instruction. Then, if a reminder becomes necessary in a meeting, it may be given quietly, in patience and love.
Partaking of the sacrament is a sacred mental process, and as such it becomes a very personal one for me. I think of the covenants being made between me and Deity as the prayers are pronounced. I think of God offering his Only Begotten Son. I think of the atoning sacrifice of my Savior, Jesus Christ. The sacrament was instituted by him. For all mankind, even me, he offered his flesh and blood and designated the bread and the water as symbolic emblems. Because I have a right hand, I offer it in partaking of the sacrament as an oath, that I will always remember his atoning sacrifice, take his name upon me and remember him, and keep the commandments of God. This is a sacred privilege for all faithful Saints each Sabbath day.
Russell M. Nelson, I Have a Question, Ensign, Mar. 1983, 67
We also have references for children. First:
We use our right hands in different ways as we make promises. In court we raise our right hands to promise to tell the truth. We pledge, or promise, allegiance to the flag by placing our right hands over our hearts. And we use our right hands to take the sacrament and renew our promises made at baptism. The right hand can be a reminder to do right things and to keep our promises.
Pat Graham, Sharing Time: "I Promise…," Friend, Feb. 1987, 12
Then there is this:
Determine to be reverent in sacrament meeting by never speaking out loud. Speak in a whisper and then only when it is absolutely necessary. Sing the hymns with your parents. Children have beautiful voices and it adds much to the meeting when they sing. It is appropriate to take the sacrament with your right hand. And during the administration and passing of the sacrament, we should try to think of the Savior.
Vaughn J. Featherstone, Friend to Friend: Reverence, Friend, Sept. 1976, 8
Good research! Thank you!
Without actual source documentation—such as an old copy of the handbook—it's hard to tell whether something was official policy or just practice. From these quotes, it appears to me that it was official policy. That's the way I understood it as a child, as it was stressed me by my parents and pretty much everyone other adult in the church at the time. And, obviously, it was addressed fairly frequently at the general level.
But policies change all the time (in truth, practice probably changes more slowly). The interesting thing about this policy is that it seemed to have simply been dropped without fanfare, at least as far as explicit teaching goes.
I still follow this and have (tried) to teach it to my children. But since the church doesn't teach it in any fashion, I am happy to let others partake how they choose.
Susan Curtis writes:
I found your article about the "by the book" stuff very interesting and enlightening. I remember having it drilled into me as a youth that one never wore pants in the chapel. For years as an adult, if there was a young women's meeting moved to the chapel or I was casually dressed and ended up in the chapel, I was very uncomfortable. Yes, I don't know if that was "official" policy. Certainly I never wore pants for Sunday worship, but it was very strongly enforced in my youth not to wear pants in the chapel. I'm sure it was a respect thing and well-intentioned, but it does not seem to be enforced now the way it was then. I remember one brother closely inspecting a lady who was wearing a full-bodied split skirt and telling her it was not appropriate for her to go into the chapel because it had a crotch. To me, that was far more inappropriate. Who are these people who appoint themselves the keeper of the rules anyway? Is the sister who is carefully monitoring everyone's Sacrament-taking hand usage meditating and reviewing her own life as she should be during that time?
While we should be obedient to the things that are officially in the handbook, that can be taken overboard as well. I once had a bishop tell my husband that he could not take my son home teaching with him because deacons were only allowed to go home-teaching with their fathers, and since he was a stepfather and not the natural father, he should not take my son with him. I was grateful my son had a "father" who would teach him how to be a good home teacher, but guess what? He was deprived of that opportunity by a bishop I felt had his nose too much "in the handbook." I'm sure an adopted child can go home teaching with his father, even without the biological link. What the bishop did not know was that that was the last straw that pushed my husband, formerly in the bishopric, into six months of inactivity. His ex-wife had just informed him that his children wanted to change their last name to the name of their stepfather (which turned out not to be true) and a bunch of other unprintable stuff, basically that he was a poor excuse for a father, and then almost immediately came the call from the bishop, further pounding him into the ground. It took me awhile to stop being angry about that one.
One of my brothers told me that in his mission President Hinckley, then an apostle, answered a question about a specific policy by saying that the older he got the more he read the scriptures and the less he read the handbook. On the other hand, there are some rules that we just obey because they are the rules. Much like a red stoplight we sit at at 1:00 a.m. with no other traffic on the road, we obey the rules because they are the rules. It is somewhat ludicrous for the missionary elders not to be able to dine at an elderly widow's home because she is "single" and could pose a moral temptation somehow. The rules, though, have to be written to take in some situations like that in order to cover the times when it could be problematic. Otherwise, we would have rules like, "If the sister is within ten years of your age, and/or extremely young looking and attractive, you may not dine at her home. If, however, the sister is either really old or really unattractive, dining is allowed." I was somewhat frustrated when, as a single sister with a teen-ager, I was told I could not feed the elders, something I was doing weekly in order to give my son that association and example. For about a year I had to stop feeding them until my son was 16. While I found that rule counter-productive, I knew of a case where a sister and a missionary got involved, so I understood that there are reasons those rules are in place. The rules aren't always going to be "one size fits all" but hopefully we will get points for our obedience, even when the rules don't quite make sense or fit our situations. At those times when something is a "guideline" rather than a rule, though, you should be able to go to your leaders and make a case for why a little flexibility would be helpful. The handbook without the spirit is pretty useless, and in the best of all worlds, the two are combined.
Thank you so much for your comments, Susan! You made some great points, and your examples of erroneous use of "going by the book" proved how absurd things can be if people don't also listen to the Spirit.