Yesterday morning I attended the worldwide training broadcast announcing and distributing the new edition of the General Handbook of Instructions. Below are some notes and thoughts I had from the meeting. For those also in attendance, please add your own highlights in the comments. Everyone can watch an archive of the broadcast (I expect that will be a routine instruction to newly called presidencies for some time).
The introductory talks emphasized the need for strict adherence to the handbook.
- President Monson listed several unapproved innovations by “well-meaning leaders” he’d heard of, including: decorating the Sacrament table with lit candles, facing the blessee’s chair towards the temple during an ordination as opposed to facing the congregation, cutting Sunday School from the 3-hr block, changing the length of Sunday meetings, and doing all visiting teaching in one large group (some of these ideas sound pretty tempting to me!).
- President Monson also mentioned that the First Presidency too frequently is asked to intervene in situations gone seriously awry due to failure to follow the handbook. He mentioned in particular excommunications gone awry in some way (ex: excommunications of Elders at the ward level being procedurally incorrect–should be stake level).
- Elder Oaks said–write this one down, folks!!–“In order to accomplish these vital ecclesiastical responsibilities, these priesthood leaders will have to delegate extensively and may need to reduce some temporal service demands, such as helping members move.” …and there was much rejoicing in certain corners of the bloggernacle.
- The main purposes of the new handbook, according to Elder Oaks’ talk, are (1) to move the ward leadership further from worrying about activities and programs, and closer towards worrying about ministering, spiritual health, and individuals and families, and (2) to reduce the burden on bishops, and transfer it to the ward council as a group. Both worthy goals, to be sure, though in the meeting I found myself wondering if we’ll ever have non-super-busy bishops. Delegation is tough to pull off and entails so much work in itself. I do really like the idea of putting more emphasis on the ward council, not least because it includes women’s voices in decision-making. This benefit was also very much in the minds of leaders–more on that later.
- Elder Cook’s talk brought attendees into the text of the handbook, instructing us to turn to specified sections throughout the book and read. It was quite an odyssey, skipping around back and forth to nine different locations.
- More good news! “PEC meetings in most areas will probably be decreased in length of time” and “the welfare meeting will no longer be held.” –Elder Cook.
I thought the most interesting part was a (quite long) role-playing segment they did where a group of people modeled a well-functioning ward council.
- The Bishop spoke very little. He mostly just directed the meeting (“The next thing on our agenda is…”), and initiated discussion by asking a question. I liked how several times he offered some kind of initial framing by explaining the problem in terms of a specific goal, or asked a more specific or probing question than, “So, uh, what do you think?” For example, instead of saying, “Green family, what’s up with them?” he would say “How can we spiritually enrich the Green family?” (I’m making up that quotes since I didn’t write them down, but that was the pattern was to lead the meeting with questions he had clearly put thought into beforehand.)
- There was one exchange where it was suggested that the YM visit a new member’s car repair shop as a career night activity (and as a way to help the new member feel more integrated with the ward). The YW president interjected, “Don’t forget about the YW!” and expressed that they would want to come too, and could also benefit from knowing basics of car functioning and repair.
- There was a repeated, very explicit emphasis on keeping all the business of the Ward Council private and confidential, and it was noted that not all information about individuals was even appropriate to bring up at Ward Council (at the very end, for example, the RS President asks to speak with the Bishop after the meeting about some private matters regarding one family).
- Brother Reyes’ note-taking FTW! (The Ward Clerk’s job was mainly to say frequently throughout the meeting, “yep, I’m writing that down” and then flash a gigantic smile–it kind of became a running joke. He stole the show.)
Following the model Ward Council, a panel including Elder Ballard, Elder Holland, Elder Bednar, President Beck and Elder Gonzales (Presidency of the Seventy), who were tasked with giving a debriefing of what we’d just seen in the model Ward Council.
- I especially appreciated President Beck’s comments on the panel. She was assertive and insightful, and a main thing I took away from this segment was feeling very good about her representing women in important church
meetingsrevelatory experiences (more on that in a minute) that are, numbers-wise, dominated by men.
- Something that came up in the introductory talks was that, as the Ward Council body moves to the center of ward leadership and functioning, women’s voices being welcome and heeded is very important. Elder Ballard reiterated this in the panel. It was good to see President Beck on this panel giving an example of that.
- President Beck was upfront in addressing the elephant in the room–that the model Ward Council role-playing thing was a little “too perfect” and that many watching might be asking themselves if their councils could (or even should) ever really look exactly like that. This was a refreshingly real and honest thing to acknowledge, and then she went on to point to particular patterns that we should be taking from the example, if not every detail, and that we shouldn’t worry about not being perfect in the skill of “Counciling” right away–line upon line.
- President Beck brought everything back to Jesus Christ with a lovely concluding comment about how this new handbook, and the way of holding Ward Council that we’d just witnessed, are focused on “counting” things that the Lord would count. He isn’t concerned about numbers or programs or buildings or schedules, but loving, comforting, lifting and enriching people.
- Several people on the panel pointed out how a strength of the model Ward Council was that everyone was speaking freely, and that the Bishop wasn’t overbearing. Elder Bednar said that he’d been in Ward Councils where the Bishop would introduce a problem, say, “Here’s what I think…,” then ask, “What do you think?” This would result in silence from the group. Elder Bednar was blunt in saying that leaders should expect poor participation when they first impose their own opinion, instead of asking a question. (He might have said,
“Well, duh!”or something like that. Update: it was “Well, no kidding.”)
- Councils, and being on a council as a particular skill that needed to be developed, are important themes throughout. The principles demonstrated in the model Ward Council are also to be applied in presidency meetings (YM, YW, Primary, etc).
- President Packer gave a closing talk after the conclusion of the panel. He simultaneously emphasized the importance of strict compliance with the handbook, while also repeating (3 times!) a scripture saying that, “notwithstanding those things which are written, it always has been given to the elders of my church from the beginning, and ever shall be, to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit.” (D&C 46:2) I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, especially since it was emphasized several times earlier in the broadcast that compliance was the rule. One thing the new handbook does is give many suggestions for adaptations for units with special circumstances (small, geographically large). So, in that way, flexibility and adaptation are in keeping with themes of the day. However, other speakers noted that only those adaptations specifically suggested in the handbook should be considered, and it wasn’t open to arbitrary changes.
I was very interested in a potential radical change in our conception of revelation and stewardship that came up throughout the broadcast, but was stated most explicitly by Elder Bednar in the panel. He articulated a philosophy of revelation for the ward that can come from the bottom up, rather than just the top down. He suggested that we not call council meetings (including, say, Primary presidency meetings) “meetings” but instead call them “revelatory experiences.” He went on to say that revelation for the whole ward could be received by any member of the ward council, as long as the bishop acknowledges or signs off on it. The idea of any member of the ward council being able to speak freely on any topic–not just their own jurisdiction–came up several times in the introductory talks and was modeled extensively in the skit. So receiving revelation for the ward becomes a group experience where any council member can be the conduit, as long as the bishop gives an ok. A pattern where the bishop introduces a question, several council members give ideas (revelation?), then the bishop just comes in at the end to say “sounds good,” was repeated again and again in the skit.
As an educator by profession, I found the pedagogy of the broadcast to be fascinating, and very well done. The idea of having a role-playing model of proper ward council functioning was unconventional but I thought very effective. Since two major themes of the whole meeting were a decentralization of power from the bishop to the ward council, and how to function as an effective council, it was also interesting to see this not only modeled in the model skit, but in the subsequent analysis of the model skit by the panel instead of just one person. This included modeling the inclusion of women’s voices as equals in a council setting in that panel.