"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
November 19, 2015
New Rules in a Stake Conference Talk
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

Last week at stake conference, one of the speakers said that she and her husband had decided not to attend a company Christmas party this year because there would be alcohol served, and they thought the environment would detract from the spirit they want to feel all the time.

I didn’t agree with the speaker, but I didn’t think much of it until we had dinner that night with some friends who are new members. Our friends were worried and upset because, in their words, they didn’t know they weren’t supposed to be places where alcohol was being served.

They were actually distressed because they had recently attended a dinner where other people drank wine, and they are now worried about skipping their employers’ holiday parties.

There is no commandment against attending events where alcohol is served. There just isn’t! But I didn’t know how to explain that to our friends without contradicting what they heard over the pulpit at stake conference. I didn’t want to confuse them by saying you can’t believe everything you hear at church. And I didn’t want to trash the speaker.

How could I have explained this better?

Answer:

It is by design that the talks we hear in sacrament meeting and stake conference are not just rote statements of doctrine or verbatim, commentary-less readings of scripture. Good talks teach not just doctrine, but how that doctrine applies to a person’s daily life and behavior.

Scripture stories, for example, can provide effective examples of living the gospel. And the most memorable talks describe the speaker’s personal experiences with whatever doctrine is being taught.

Personal stories make church talks concrete and specific, as well as interesting. But they also introduce the problem you have described, where a new member mistook a speaker’s personal experience for a rule that all members are expected to follow.

If you explain to your friends this difference, you will not destroy their confidence in what they hear from the pulpit; rather, you will increase their ability to learn from speakers.

Speakers, for their part, should consider how their talks and experiences will sound to investigators and new members. They should not hedge on doctrine, but neither should they expand it or suggest that “real” or “devout” members will follow special, stricter rules.

Phrases like, “in our family we decided to,” or “something I do” indicate that what follows is a person’s own experience, and not a church-wide prescription.

In your case, your friends interpreted a speaker’s story as a rule instead of a personal experience. You might have responded, matter-of-factly, “Oh, that’s not a rule. I think the speaker was just giving an example of how she was trying to have the spirit in her life.” You would then have reassured them that there is no blanket prohibition on attending an event where alcohol is being served, and answered any questions they might have had.

You might also have described how you and your husband decide whether social and professional events are appropriate or not. A standard holiday party where alcohol is served is one thing, but what if a work party with important clients were scheduled at Miss Sparkle’s Emporium of Earthly Delights?

Presumably, that is not a place you would go, and you might describe to your friends how you navigated that intersection of professional and moral duty, as well as your decision making process. The goal is not to tell them what is or is not appropriate, but to show them how you decide.

Even now, you could still have this conversation with your friends. “Hey,” you might begin. “Remember at stake conference when the speaker said she and her husband decided to skip the company Christmas party? Well, I know you were concerned about that, and I wanted to make sure you know that’s not an actual rule.”

You would explain that the speaker was sharing her experience; then, you would share your own experience.

Knowing that not every experience they hear from the pulpit is an actual rule or requirement might spark other questions from your friends. Keep your tone open, thoughtful and reflective, and listen to them carefully. If they were taught incorrectly, you can correct the mistakes and, hopefully, relieve some of the pressure they may feel.

There is no need to criticize whoever mistaught them, but it is more important to tell them what is true than to preserve someone else’s aura of infallibility. So if the missionaries taught them that Pepsi is against the word of wisdom, or if a ward member solemnly and privately explained to them that “devout Mormons” don’t use birth control, you should set the record straight immediately.

At the same time, it may be appropriate to explain that some practices, although not doctrinal, are nonetheless common and widely accepted. It may help your friends to feel more comfortable at the ward game night if they bring Uno instead of playing cards, for example.

Of course, if you don’t know the answers to their questions, you should not make something up or say what you think might be true. Instead, freely admit your ignorance and show them how and where to look up answers in official church publications. You can thus show your friends that even long-time, active members don’t know everything, and the importance of using reliable sources to find out what you do not know.

Finally, on a different note, it is good to distinguish between having your ears pricked by not-quite-right doctrine, and having your conscience pricked by your own not-quite-right behavior. So if a personal story shared in a talk seems to set forth a stricter standard of behavior than you believe is actually required, it is worth considering whether you are wrong, and the speaker is right.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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