WHY our meetings are dull for some, and great for others

AdamFaccountability, LDS, sacrament meeting 33 Comments

Okay, so our meetings are dull. Complaining about it is dull. I’ve been wondering though, what about the wards that have better meetings? What makes them better? Whenever this topic arises, people want to toss around blame. Either the church or the individual members are responsible. After all, if the church is run by God, if the meeting is boring it must be YOUR fault.

I think there may be some truth to that.

But only a little.

Based on my own experience in church, as well as counseling outcome research (i.e. what factors contribute to success in mental health counseling–that’s where the percentages are coming from), I would like to propose the following mini-theory of the four main factors that contribute to the vibrance/dullness/spirituality of our meetings. The percentages aren’t that important as the actual factors though…

Factor #1: The Individual Members (40%)

This includes each individual member (including leaders) and what they bring to the table: their backgrounds, viewpoints, attitudes, individual preparation, chance events in their lives, etc. In a sense, if you don’t have a good experience at a church meeting, you (or just your life or circumstances) may be at least 40% responsible for that outcome. Seems reasonable to me. How prepared are you for the meetings? How prepared are you to receive spiritual promptings or experiences? How prepared are the speakers and teachers? A lot of us can improve on this.

Factor #2: Relationships (30%)

This includes the relationships between the leaders and regular members, and individual friendships in the ward. I know I tend to listen a lot more earnestly (and have better experiences) when a close friend is speaking or giving the lesson. Not that we all need to have close friendships with everyone in the ward, but I believe the better our relationships are, the better our meetings will be. We listen and participate more when we care more. Do we truly have empathy and respect for other people in the ward? Relationships also include a general agreement on the tasks and goals of our meetings.

Factor #3: Techniques (15%)

This is the area that I think gets debated the most, perhaps because it stands out the most: Simplified Gospel Principles manual? Do we have to stick to that? What hymns are we singing? How many? How many talks? What kinds of instruments are allowed? White or blue shirts? Snacks or no snacks in primary? PowerPoint in gospel doctrine? The point here is not that any one of these decisions is necessarily better than other, but to suggest that ultimately whether we decide to allow guitars or harmonicas, ban blue shirts from the sacrament table or ban visual aids from the pulpit, it will not have much influence on the overall outcome. Most techniques or teaching methods that are intended to be edifying will be, equally so.

Factor #4: Faith & Hope (15%)

How much do we really expect out of our meetings? Do we expect to receive spiritual guidance? Do we find hope there?

We get caught up in debates about who is to blame for our meetings. I personally believe that God has granted us the agency to have bad meetings, just as we can exercise our agency to make them great. Let’s be mindful of the various factors that may contribute to the outcomes of our meetings, and what our individual and collective roles are. Let’s make sure WE are prepared when we speak, give lessons, or participate in the music. Let’s work harder at building relationships in our wards, beyond the home-teaching assignment or the sometimes shallow greetings of the ward activity. Let’s put debates about specific techniques in their place–important, but not as much as other factors.

Using this mini-theory, it makes perfect sense why some people, non-members, ex-mormons, and even some active members alike would find the meetings to be boring: They may not be prepared themselves or be a type of person who would enjoy the meetings anyway, they may not have decent relationships with ward members (or may even have poor relationships there), and they may have little hope or expectation in the church. OF COURSE that is going to lead to a generally dull or even negative experience.

  • What do you think contributes to a successful and/or spiritual church meeting?
  • How much of it is on the individual and how much is on the speaker or teacher, or the institution of the church?
  • What do you think of the idea that we are all contributors to our collective experience?
  • Do we neglect the powerful influence that interpersonal relationships have on our meetings?

Comments 33

  1. I agree with a lot of what you said. I do find myself paying a bit more attention when a “friend” is speaking. I also have various states of mind that I bring to the table.

    Perhaps my biggest factor which isn’t really mentioned above is the assigned topic itself. Hearing about Christ always captures my attention. Hearing heartfelt stories with honesty keeps me engaged. Hearing about people’s struggles and ways they overcame adversity makes me closer to that person.

    Conversely, hearing a rehashed topic bores me to tears. Hearing about a “program” of the Church as opposed to a “truth” of the gospel also bored me to tears.

  2. Post

    Agreed – and I think part of what you said could be part of the relationship factor. When people are personal and open and honest, it draws others in. When they’re distant and hide behind rehashed topics, it is boring.

  3. That works both ways I’ve been pretty open and honest in my talks when asked to talk about family, I’ve talked about my experience growing up in foster care, to my problems with depression, not to gain sympathy but to hopefully help someone else who might be struggling find any bit of information that I might share helpful.

    In some instances, they have been well received, in others I’ve had my experiences thrown back in my face. It really makes it less likely that I will share myself like that anymore, because more and more it just seems as if people are being judgmental instead of taking it at face value. I’ve told many a member in my branch that if I can sit an listen to you tell your stories about your family history about coming across the plains of which I have no concept of, but listen to you with respect, than I deserve the same thing. I think that’s why people don’t open themselves up anymore at least that’s why I don’t. I give vague general doctrinal talks and I’m sure everyone is bored

  4. I must disagree. As an active gay LDS convert living the law of celibacy, I don’t see why I must inculcate myself into the straight, family fixated social structure of the ward in order to obtain spiritual nourishment in my Sunday meetings.

    Your theory supposes satisfaction from social interaction and friendship connections.

    The Restored Gospel does not have anything to do with being a ward social butterfly. Spiritual nourishment and worship should come from the service itself. When I previously attended mass I was not forced to socialize in order to feel nourished. I also don’t have to socialize in the Temple to feel closer to my Saviour.

    Our meetings are dull for some because they are, in reality, dull. Especially for those that seek worship and spiritual closeness. They are great for others because they gain social nourishment they seek.

  5. Michael – thanks for pointing that out. I didn’t include one’s relationship with God or the Savior, but that definitely fits into the relationship category.

    Also, you seem to somewhat contempuosly conflate having connection with others at church with being a “social butterfly.” that’s how it came across anyway. 🙂 Fine if we disagree though, to say that the meetings are, “in reality” dull is to say that those who find the meetings to be spiritual (which I don’t some of the time) must be deluded in some way. Meetings can certainly be dull, but I posit that there are many reasons for that, some of which has to do with connection with others, God included.

  6. diane – I hear you on that. It really is a lot safer to stick to talks and lessons like that. Sometimes risking opening oneself up really pays off, and sometimes it can really come back to hurt us.

  7. I really like this typology…but then again, you have research to back it up (even if it’s kinda shifted from one field to another).

    One thing that’s important about an LDS view of Zion, the gospel, etc., is that it is heavily about sociality. That’s why in D+C 130, it says:

    And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.

    Dunno if that exactly entails being a social butterfly, but many of the statements of church leaders (past and present) that really stick out to me emphasize the necessity of familial and other social relationships.

  8. I’m not an expert on this topic, but from my personal experience when my faith is strong, I feel the Spirit more intensely during the meetings. Right now my faith is somewhat weak because I have observed too many leaders excercising unrighteous dominion in the Church. That, coupled with our flawed polygamy history, has made me question the manner in which our Church seems to worship Joseph Smith instead of focusing on worshiping the Savior.

  9. I think part of the problem that I have right now is the fact that as a church we are big in confidence sharing. I don’t see this in any other church particularly those with a professional clergy. Also, in my opinion, a problem with this church. We share our experiences because we are taught that when we share our experience that we are in service of the Lord. Which again would be okay, if we all came from the same background. What I find offensive is that we are taught through the Atonement and our covenants at baptism we are all made equal. That is not what is practiced. Men have more authority than women. And people who don’t understand what your circumstance either is/are/was feel free to come up to you and say the nastiest stuff that anyone can think of to say and leadership refuses to say anything. THAT’s an issue

  10. From the viewpoint of an older person, there are always meetings that are more interesting than others; some are downright boring and others are so inspiring. It isn’t always the speakers either; sometimes it is just my own attitude, mood, or personal situation that day. Still, it always “feels” good to be there and to be grateful I am in a peaceful place when much of he world is in so much turmoil. An attitude of gratitude always trumps any negativity.

  11. Andrew S – yeah, it definitely is shifted, perhaps inappropriately so. 🙂 I do agree on the “sociality” bit. We don’t all need to be extroverts, or popular, or change our personalities, but like it or not, relationships play a factor in almost everything I think, even the denial of relationships. We all deal with it in some way or another.

    Chris – thanks for the comment.

    diane – Yeah, what and with whom we share is ultimately up to us but we may need to be careful. I tend to be pretty open but I have to watch myself to make sure I know who I’m talking to and how they might react.

    Annie – Agreed – depending on one’s attitude, outcomes can be very different.

  12. AdamF I think this is a great topic. I think the causes you lay out are on the right track.

    As far as the social aspect is concerned, it is important. The doesn’t mean that we need to have a bunch of (nonalcoholic) drinking buddies in the ward, but rather that we need to have relationships with others. Being Christian includes sharing faith, sharing testimonies, developing love and charity, mourning with and comforting as necessary, etc., and these are not hermit activities.

    For the “opening up” aspect, I dunno, It’s not that I’m opposed to sharing personal experiences, but there are some details which are best left out. At some point I remember being taught to not share past sins, not sure where or who or what, but I think it’s a solid rule to live by.

    I think there are lots of tools in the bishop’s toolbox to make sacrament meetings a bit more engaging. Choosing speakers and a good mix of speakers are important. I had one bishop who would ask folks to share their testimony impromptu, about three each week other than fast Sunday. He brought up that scripture in Moroni about running meetings as the spirit dictates. It would keep people perked up, first of all waiting to see if there name was called, and then paying attention to those chosen.

    Songs are good. I always appreciate a couple of hymns appropriate to the topics of the speakers. But a musical number between speakers – either by the congregation, the choir, or something special like a solo, duet, or an instrumental can make the time go by quickly.

    And then there’s reverence. Reverence brings in the spirit. I remember one bishop who emphasized reverence significantly. The prelude music started at quarter till, and at that time there was no loitering in the chapel, and nothing spoken above a whisper. If you were in the chapel you were expected to sit down. The meeting started on time, and nobody came in the chapel between the opening prayer and the end of the sacrament, if you were late you were asked to remain in the foyer. At the end of the meeting there was postlude music, and people exited quietly. In the foyer is when they did their usual chit chat and stuff. You know what happened? People started coming earlier, sitting down quietly, paying a bit more attention, being more reverent. And when that happened, for some reason, the meetings became a bit more interesting.

    Anyways, the point is that many wards can get in a routine and just kind of stay there without actively looking for ways to improve the meetings.

  13. AdamF, nice treatment of the subject. Thanks for a constructive view. My own experience is that most bishops would love to have super meetings (who wouldn’t?).

    I’m particularly intrigued by the relationship aspect of your OP. I’ve felt this as I’ve visited wards I did not know when I travelled. Without a personal connection to speakers it is harder for me to “connect” in the same way I do in my home ward where I have lived for years. I had not thought of that before.

  14. One of the reasons meetings are boring in our ward is that there is a “theme of the Month” and every talk is on that theme. On fast and testimony day the member of the bishopric conducting introduces the theme and gives a talk about it and then each Sunday after that we generally hear two or three youth speakers speaking about fasting, or temple attendance, or faith, or repentance (you get the idea) and then two or three adult speakers speaking on the same topic. This goes on all month. By the time the month is over we have heard maybe 18-24 talks (depending on the number of Sundays and if all the youth speakers showed up) on the same subject. There are a finite number of scriptures and Ensign/New Era vignettes on any given topic and by the end of a month we have heard them over and over and over. It’s like a month of deja vu.

  15. Arnster: “For the “opening up” aspect, I dunno, It’s not that I’m opposed to sharing personal experiences, but there are some details which are best left out.”

    I agree. I would add that a lot of the ‘opening up’ does NOT have to be talking about personal things. It can be more of a process issue of just opening up in terms of how you speak, or letting people see you as a person rather than you as a kind of a robot who reads quotes. For example, recently in my ward a great guy I know, with a great personality, and even a few graduate degrees, READ his talk. He started off great, looking out at the congregation, but as soon as the “talk” started he just read. He read it very well, but he “closed off” so to speak. This is also what I mean by opening up, and having a relationship. We can’t relate to those (at least not very well) who hide.

  16. Paul – thanks for the comment. I agree, most leaders DO really want great meetings. It’s also not always their fault. We all contribute, for sure.

    Mai Li – I think that’s a perfect example of not “opening up.” People hide behind their talk, or their “theme of the month” or their webster’s definition, etc. I DO NOT mind if people are nervous. I get nervous speaking. I don’t even mind if no personal experiences are shared. Just say what you’re going to say in a way that let’s me see you the person, and not like it could be anyone up there giving the same talk.

  17. We’re all puzzled when someone comments how uplifting a service was to them when we got nothing out of it. Is there a right or wrong to that situation? “It was just what I needed” probably won’t apply to everyone in the building.

    It’s always a plus when the selected hymns fit the theme, but that’s not required. Sometimes I have picked a hymn that is perfect for a visiting speaker’s talk. I like to think that it’s the work of the spirit.

  18. 17 MarkG — Your comment reminded me of something Elder Eyring said when he visited our stake a few years ago. He said sometimes after a talk someone will approach him and tell him how glad they were he spoke about “X” because that was just the message they needed. Sometimes, he said, he couldn’t remember saying a word about “X” in his talk, but he commented that he’s learned not to correct them. If they find comfort during his talk, that’s enough.

  19. There was a posting a few weeks ago about this “dull services” and I was reminded of it during our last fast/testimony meeting. I bore testimony that, while some say our services are dull because they don’t have this or do that, anyone there that morning, who watched our young Priests prepare the sacrament as we sang “How Great Thou Art” and heard the testimonies of members of all age groups, who could say that it was dull?

  20. Your theory resonates well with my experience. Generally, how I’m feeling that day and how well I know / like the speakers has the most profound impact on how I receive the message. When I was in the Relief Society presidency, and therefore was intimately acquainted with was going on in people’s lives and was making a concerted effort to be extra kind to everyone (as opposed to my usual somewhat bitchy/snarky self [hate to say it but it’s true]), I had GREAT experiences even with talks and lessons that made others snooze.

    Still, presentation could use some work! My suggestion? Let’s get some guitars in there and rock out with Jesus every once in a while!!

  21. Having recently visited another ward while on holiday (vacation to youse 🙂 ), I can agree with the point that some of the smaller wards can become stuck and stale.

    One of the problems is lack of imagination. Set phrases, cliches, you name it… Don’t just stick to the manual folks, make it live, make it lively.

  22. Yesterday was a typical dull day in our ward. There were small children crying, parents felt hassled, the High Council speakers had topics that were predisposed to boredom, and I kept looking at my watch to see when the meeting would be over. In other words, the Spirit was not there for me. At other times, the meeting is simply wonderful. If the speaker starts off with chiding the bishopric member for asking them to speak, or he/she goes on at length about a topic without any stories or personal experiences, the boredom begins. I agree that a person must bring some spirituality with them in order to keep the meeting on a high level, but the speakers and teachers must prepare long before Saturday night if they expect the congregation to pay attention. Rambling around in a topic is a symptom of being unprepared, which signals dullness.

  23. 22 – Karen — I agree on preparation! We had a stake meeting years ago and our stake RS president told bishoprics that they needed to give sisters, in particular, at least two weeks to prepare. (And she said brethren should take that long, too!) My best talks are two weeks or more in preparation.

  24. Yes! I agree that two weeks, at least, should be given to prepare a talk or a lesson adequately. One time the bishop gave my husband and me all of four weeks to prepare for an Easter talk. It was so nice to have the time to meditate and work on such an important topic. Preparation by the speaker/teacher may make everything change for the better.

  25. Mark 19 – Actually, my trainer on my mission HATED, HATED with a passion, that hymn. I like it though, haha.

    Re: preparation – I know they sometimes have those “teacher improvement” courses, but have any wards ever tried out “speaker improvement” courses? Even just one class? For example, they could assign all of the speakers a month in advance, and then have all 10 (or however many there were going to be, even just the adult speakers) attend just one special Sunday school class on how to do well in speaking in sacrament meeting. They could get help working on their delivery and etc. I think those 7.5 minutes or whatever amount of time you have to speak are important enough to have a 1 hour class on speaking.

  26. AdamF: Your idea for a speakers’ class is very good. I read an article in Meridian Magazine about the 10 sins of Sacrament Meeting talks. I sent copies to every member of the bishopric, and they ignored it for a time and then sent it to the ward newsletter editor. She put in excerpts from the article, but it looks like no one took the suggestions seriously. If we had better talks and lessons, the meetings wouldn’t be so dull.

  27. I love your discussion as I too have gone through many “waves” of spirituality where attending church was a pleasure, as well as many “ebbs” where attending was a struggle. What I have learned is that no matter what the personality type,or the life phase, we need to attend. Not just for ourselves, but for what we can give to those we “rub shoulders” with.

    With this in mind, it is important to remember that our church is not a “theologically trained” congregation where every lesson is a rich offering of deep meanings. There will be times when we must graciously accept that the speaker may not be speaking to us that day. We must graciously accept that we have more to give others (maybe in only a complement or a well-measured critique).

    The “living waters” of the church are the scriptures. They teach us to give and to receive. They teach us to mourn with others who mourn, to uplift one another, and to teach one another. If we do not attend sacrament meeting because it is boorish, then we miss out on opportunities for others to feel of our “spiritual gifts”. There are days when I have not said one word to another, but have gleaned great strength from the smiles that were given.

    I enjoyed your perspective on the (4) breakdowns and agree even more on the (5th). Our own personal relationship is why we attend. I believe the “I will” attitude is more important than the “IQ” attitude.

    Thanks for the post. It was very thought provoking.

  28. Individual Members at 40% sounds about right, and could even go higher. I absolutely love the comments in my current ward. The women in RS are very articulate, thoughtful, and provocative. Most of them are successful career women or travel a lot or are well-read. They are more exposed to outside views, and it shows. In a previous ward, despite wanting to get a lot out of it, every lesson was filled with unimaginative comments about whatever they thought the current party line was (comments that are made to demonstrate their compliance and obedience, not to increase understanding or explore ideas), and many sisters repeatedly talked about not feeling like they were “good enough.” The inferiority complex got trotted out so much that I wanted to stick a pen in my neck. It was excruciatingly repetitive. Yet it was the norm in that ward. I had to wonder if it was really true that all 30 women had an inferiority complex (when I am more prone to feeling superior all the time) or if they just thought it was more acceptable to say that.

  29. Adam 25- giving pointers on delivering a Sacrament talk is akin to being practiced on an upcoming solo. Have the temporal aspects solid so the spirit can endow you with the expression needed to edify.

    I know we’ve been instructed to not “write out” our talks, but I like to retain mine as part of my personal journal. They’re not word for word talks, just outlines and specific things I want to be sure to mention.

  30. Mark – I’m not sure I follow. You are saying that when it comes to delivery, preparation doesn’t help? I would certainly practice for a solo. My point of a class would be to go beyond giving pointers (and what you suggested is good, having the basic stuff you want to talk about, rather than reading), and have people practice actually implementing the pointers into their delivery. I teach a communication course, and learned early on that lecture or readings do almost nothing to help improve skills. One has to learn the skill, then practice it with feedback from others in order to really improve.

  31. I think prep work is an excellent point, especially for those who are afraid to speak in public, it helps to keep them focus. Also, give inexperienced speakers shorter timed topics so they don’t get overwhelmed

  32. Adam – Sorry I wasn’t clear. I was saying that preparation for a talk is just as essential as practicing for a solo. I’ve known church singers over the years who either believe that “all you need to do a good job is the spirit” (usually choir members who don’t like attending practice) or those who think they’re so well prepared they don’t invite the Holy Spirit to bless their efforts. The same could probably be said for some speakers.

  33. Oh no worries – thanks for the clarification. I totally agree. I really don’t understand the “all you need is the spirit.” Not to get into the grace/works issue, but I really think talks and lessons apply to that Nephi scripture – our talks or lessons will be the best when we’ve done “all we can do.” We have the agency to make our talks better, and don’t need to “sit on our thrones” and not make use of what God has provided for us, i.e. our brains. You’re right on.

    LINDA – thanks for the reading, I’m glad it has been thought-provoking!

    Hawk – “every lesson was filled with unimaginative comments about whatever they thought the current party line was (comments that are made to demonstrate their compliance and obedience, not to increase understanding or explore ideas), and many sisters repeatedly talked about not feeling like they were “good enough.””

    They probably dwell on the party line comments, demonstrating their compliance, etc. in order to deal with the issue of not feeling “good enough.” People that don’t feel safe or secure are not going to explore ideas, or explore anything, for that matter. It’s an issue throughout life, beginning in infancy. Toddlers explore their world when they feel safe with a caregiver.

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