Church-Hacker #12: Freedom of Speeches

This week’s church-hack comes to us from Connie Chung:

When my old singles ward started letting speakers choose their own topic, the quality of talks went up. Sacrament meetings became an opportunity for ward members to speak about something they felt strongly about and could knowledgeably share.

When people couldn’t think of what to speak on, the executive secretary offered a topic or asked “What do you like about being a Mormon?” to get the juices flowing.

It’s also great because with the knowledge that you will inevitably be speaking, you can start working on a talk whenever inspiration strikes.

I can see this working in my ward, with only a couple exceptions (I’m one of them). How about in your ward? And what topic have you been waiting your whole life to give a talk about in Sacrament Meeting?


Got your own Church-Hacker idea? Submit it! (The church-hacking guidelines are here.) See all entries in this series here.


  1. From a talk my dad gave last year:
    “When members of the Bishopric know that some one in their Ward needs to repent, they do not need to speak to them directly about it; they assign them to give a talk in sacrament meeting on the relevant subject. If they really want to trigger some serious soul-searching, they ask instead that you give a talk on the subject of your choosing … and then let feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and remorse do their perfect work! It is in such circumstances that I speak to you today.”

  2. StillConfused says:

    I got a card in the mail assigning me a talk topic but not saying when the talk would be. I guess that is how they do it here. I personally prefer the no assigned topic talks because then the person is talking about something that is important to them.

  3. I’d really love to give a talk about music in worship someday. Then again, if I can’t articulate my thoughts by way of the ward choir, maybe I don’t really have anything important to say.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I seem to recall when I was young that you were just asked to speak with no topic assigned. I may be misremembering that. But I would favor that approach. It’s got to be better than regurgitated conference talks.

  5. I knew Steve Martin is a member, but I didn’t realize Connie Chung is, as well.

    The things you learn at BCC . . .

    I like the suggestion for lots of members, with a letter asking the speaker to focus whatever they decide to address on worship. I don’t like it for other members. The last thing I want to hear in Sacrament Meeting is a talk about food storage from the canning Nazi or Home Teaching from the retired man who can visit 37 famlies every month and can’t understand why everyone can’t do that. (After all, it’s just a matter of having enough faith, right?)

  6. Kevin,
    If you could you give a sermon on a topic of your choosing, what would it be?

  7. observer fka eric s. says:

    I really like this idea. It would also draw out more individual character I think. One of the aspects I like most about testimony meeting is when a person gets up and “deviates” from the standard essential points. I like hearing about the lost-keys prayer, the vacation, the grandmother proud of her missionary grandson, the service thank yous, and other random outpourings of thought. When its open topic, people wear a little more flare.

    I’m curious: has anyone ever mentioned BCC by name in a talk?

  8. I don’t understand why people worry so much about staying on the assigned topic. Have you ever seen a bishop interrupt an otherwise acceptable talk because it strayed too far from the assigned talk? I haven’t. What would the sanction be if the bishop asked me to speak on tithing, and I gave it a name-check in my first 30 seconds, and then spent 10 minutes on the atonement? Church discipline?

  9. eric, I mentioned BCC by name in a talk once – when I quoted from Brad’s masterful post, “Thoughts on the Meaning of the Birth of Jesus” ( I’ve referenced other posts here and elsewhere in the Bloggernacle quite often, but that is the only time I mentioned a blog by name.

  10. In the branch I was at prior to getting married (that being the most recent experience), when you were asked to speak you were also asked if there was something you wanted to talk about. If not, then one was assigned. The date given of speaking (after you give a topic or are assigned one) is based on how the subject correlates with the other talks. It worked in a branch as there was only a handful of people to choose from to speak so if a suggestion didn’t work well with this coming Sunday, you’d be asked to speak the following. In a large ward it might be impractical unless the guy in charge of asking wants things planned out for six months in advance.

    From an administrative perspective, not having a way to field topics to ensure talks fall under a “topic of the day” format would be incredibly hard if people just randomly decided what to speak about the day of. Like hearing a “homosexuality is bad” talk prior to a “God loves everyone” one. Or anything that has to do with politics than religion as elections get closer.

  11. Our bishopric doesn’t seem to trust the ward to speak, so they give most of the talks. Here is the rotation:

    1st Sunday: Fast & Testimony Meeting
    2nd Sunday: Member of Bishopric
    3rd Sunday: High Council
    4th Sunday: New members moving in.
    5th Sunday, when we have them, the High Priests Group Leader speaks, but only because he used to be in the bishopric.

    That’s it. The only time there is a break in the rotation is if the Stake assigns a meeting, like Seminary and Institute, the Pioneer Trek, or Friends of Scouting. I hate Sacrament Meeting in our ward. I even get up and leave the chapel on the 5th Sunday HPGL meetings. He ran out of things to say long before he was released from the bishopric, and I have long ago run out of my ability to listen to him speak.

  12. Cheers: Asking ward members who love and specialize in certain gospel topics to speak on their passions (genealogy to temples, Latter-day youth to missionary work, music, etc.).

    Jeers: 1) Asking people to speak for 20 minutes on a conference talk that only took three minutes to deliver and which we have all heard and read. 2) Asking people to speak on overly assigned topics such as ‘The blessings of —XYZ—‘ instead of letting it come out organically, by assigning the topic ‘XYZ’.

    Cheers: Saying you aren’t comfortable with a certain topic up front and asking for another or bowing out for a later time.

    Jeers: Hijacking the meeting by just switching topics (by careful and defiant premeditation, not by inspiration).

  13. Ooohh, a few more:

    Jeers: Not keeping a detailed log of speakers and asking the S.T.O.P. (same ten old people or families) to talk week after week after week.

    Cheers: Offering the opportunity (not forced- offered) to recent converts, less actives, non traditionals, back-seat’ers, etc.

    Cheers: Using inspiration and calling people who don’t necessarily sit in ward or stake council to speak on holidays (Christmas, Easter, Pioneer Day, Thanksgiving, etc.)

  14. Kristine: Anyone who’s listened to a choir you’ve been in/directed, knows that you can worship through music.

    Kristine/anyone else: I’ve had the line, “fall… on you knees, and hear the angel’s voices” stuck in my head, though it is August. Any ideas on where to get a recording of that magnificent hymn?

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Scott B., it would depend on what I had been reading and thinking about at the time of the assignment.

  16. I had a ward where the most frequently assigned topic was ‘Your favorite story from Christ’s life.’ Not coincidentally, that ward had some of the best and most Christ-centered Sacrament Meetings of any I’ve ever attended. It’s a broad enough topic that people could take it in all sorts of directions so I think very few people realized that it was being recycled over and over.

    Kristine: last year I got to give the worship through music talk. It was a new ward and we were working on a recruitment push for choir. I asked the bishopric if they would mind devoting a Sacrament Meeting to inviting the spirit into our lives through music. They agreed and I got the speaking assignment in return.

  17. I’ve always thought it would be interesting if members were given the following speaking assignment: “Pick your favorite two hymns and talk about them. Feel free to approach this however you want–whether it be about the doctrines the hymns teach, moments in your life when they impacted you, or even just why you like them.”

    I’ve always thought that if the bishopric gave that assignment to a number of people over a period of time, it would be really, really interesting to hear the range of favorites and experiences.

  18. For years my ward assigned talks from the most recent general conference as topics for talks. This resulted in a long string of terrible talks which mostly consisted of poorly quoting from a talk we’d all just heard delivered much better. It also made Teachings for our Times lessons intolerable as we were recycling material even more than usual.

    Since then they’ve gone to finding some appropriate list of churchy themes (YW values, topics covered in Preach My Gospel) and going through those topics one by one, which has made an improvement.

  19. In my current ward the people called to talk are given a General Conference talk as their topic. Unfortunately, this often results in most of the talks become more like a book report than sermon.

  20. Am I the only one who can talk on any topic so long as it’s assigned in a somewhat narrow way? The open topic talks always floor me and I never know what to do.

  21. I like getting assignments; it challenges me. If they let me choose the topic, I’d probably recycle a talk. :)

  22. clark,

    I also prefer a narrow assignment. I know of a bishop in Boston that would assign a fragment of a single verse of scripture as a topic.

  23. I like that idea, arJ

  24. Sam (14), what a kind thing to say–thank you.
    As it happens, O Holy Night is not a favorite of mine, so I don’t have a recording I’m wild to recommend, but this one is not bad:

  25. I’m with gst on this. The assigned topic need not be slavishly adhered to in any talk. Let it take you where you want to go. Any politician or lawyer knows that you can turn any assigned topic into an opportunity to speak about what you really want to speak about. The real challenge is making your talk in some way inspiring/relevant/entertaining. I’ve never heard anyone complain that a talk didn’t stick close enough to the assigned topic.

  26. Kristine, your father’s intro is awesome. I beg the right to quote it smeday.

  27. StillConfused says:

    Assigned topics don’t work well with my speaking style. I prefer to speak in “parables” taking a recent event and then at the very end referencing a Christian principal to go with it.

  28. MCQ–the whole talk is brilliant, and will appear in the Winter issue of Dialogue, so quote away :) (After you read it, you’ll know why I grew up thinking I’d never amount to much).

  29. I like most talks except the ones that start: “Many years ago in a small farm in Utah/Idaho…”

  30. Our ward does this really well IMO. First, they assign organizing sacrament meeting including developing and assigning topics to two women in the ward and are very hands off about it. The bishopric often don’t know what the topics are going to be before people speak. They also support interesting non-traditional prompts, sometimes very narrow, sometimes very open. They also don’t shy away from difficult topics – things like reconciling faith with science etc. It is nice to feel that we members are trusted to speak on these, not just the leaders. In the end it is the variation that is nice. I guess me advice would be decentralize the topic assigning process and trust the members. Works for us.

  31. Friends of scouting sacrament? Kill me now! I thought the conference talk assignment was some churchwide directive?? If not, can we squash it now?

  32. I wonder if the most difficult part about this would be to not repeat yourself over and over each time you get up to speak. Or, as a collective ward, hit the same topics over and over again. Perhaps a solution would be to give a “recent list” of previous topics to the speakers.
    Kyle M., I’m assuming this is not a problem for your ward?

  33. Kristine (24): Oddly enough, it’s just the music at those few lines that I love. Otherwise, I think it’s very easy to be done poorly. Ah well.

  34. Josh B, I only speak every couple years, so I wouldn’t be too worried about repeating myself, especially on a topic I feel strongly about. But a recent list might be helpful. The expectation is that repetition decreases as personalization increases.

  35. Stan Beale says:

    Many years ago on a small farm in California, I grew up knowing I wanted to become a teacher Oops! Sorry Suzie,

    One of the classes I most enjoyed teaching was Critical Thinking and much of the reason was that I was able to use a Mormon’s version of Values Clarification. The basic idea was to give a prompt and have students respond to it. By choosing a statement that was an “emotional grabber” as well as a moral quandry you would get student interest. By following that with a set of questions to help direct their thought, the essays that they produced were often fantastic because they were involved and committed.

    I believe that too often people are asked to talk on topics presented to them in the most boring way possible. Take “tithing” How many people have a deep emotional reacation to the word?. How many talks have you heard on tithing? How many of them sound almost the same? You can easily see the numbing quality of being asked to speak on a conference talk knowing someone said it much better than you and the congregation has tuned you out because they just heard it. Topics should be presented in a way that get to and involve the speaker.

    let me give you two simple examples of the Values Clarification model (with a sacrament talk spin):

    Preface: A copy of Jean Mizers “Cipher in the Snow” (if you have never read it, do so. It is available on the net at It is a very moving one page short story)
    Questions: Did you ever know a Cliff Evans? Have tiu ever treated someone like him? What should we do?

    Preface: A list of chemicals in the human body and their worth in dollars and cents.
    Questions: Is that what we are worth? What would Christ say? Do we treat people like they are worth $4,50? What things should we do that we commonly not do?

    When I have tought this in teacher development programs, this approach affected teenagers as well as adults. It is marvelous to watch. It would be fantastic if the Church or a like group prepare a list of topics like this. I’m sure the quality of talks would improve

  36. BethSmash says:

    The best, and I really do mean the best, sacrament I ever attended I was the youth speaker (and no, that’s not why it’s the best :D) but the two adult speakers called in sick with the flu that morning – so after my talk the Bishop said we were going to have a musical sacrament and invited people to come up to the stand tell us their favorite hymn and why if they wanted to and then we’d sing it. BEST SACRAMENT MEETING EVER. All music – we all got to participate, sometimes people shared their testimony of a hymn – we sang some unexpected ones that people didn’t know well, we sang well loved ones, AND since my talk was only … like… 5 minutes AND because there were hardly any announcements we sang for a good 50 minutes. PLUS there was never any awkward waiting time like in testimony meeting, because when he first announced it like 5 people came up to the stand while the Bishop told us his favorite hymn and why and more people just came on up after that. The Bishop DID have to stand up and say, these two people left on the stand will be the last two because people he could tell more people wanted to get up.

    Wow, sorry that took so much room, I just really loved it.

    I kind of wish they’d give you a choice, a la, would you like us to assign you a topic? or would you like an open ended one? Because I also never know what to do with the – give a talk on whatever – thing, but can see why it might be so interesting

  37. This is a great idea, but I do have one reservation. Most people are quite busy and, from my experience, the gospel is not present in their thoughts like it might be for many of the people who read the bloggernacle. As such I suspect that people will derive their talks from online materials rather than thinking seriously about a topic they feel passionately about. With that said, I think it should be the norm for HC speaking assignments and also for Stake meetings. Admittedly I may be underestimating the people in my ward…

  38. Janelle – our bishopric has also gotten into the habit of giving General Conf talks as topics. Between that and only using “correlated” materials, you end up hearing the same thing three times.

    gst – I have seen a bishop give someone the hook twice, but only after one speaker got way too political and one was broadcasting too many half-truths. There was one other speaker that I think should have been interrupted for politics, but instead we had a 5th Sunday RS/Priesthood lesson right after that about appropriate sacrament meeting topics.

    I wish they would pull people when they have gone way over the assigned time, forcing other people to cut their talks on the fly to stay even remotely on time.

  39. There was a high priestin my old ward that started off his Sacrament Meeting talk with “I was asked to talk about X, but instead I feel inspired to talk about Y”. And talk about Y he did. He also mentioned that because of the switch it may be the last time he is asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting again. That got good laughs from the congregation but he just may be right.

  40. I think this is an interesting idea that could work really well, depending on the ward. I can see the risk of having 3 weeks on the same topic (or similar topics) though. I also tend to prefer a morrow narrow assignment, but I know others like to pick their own, or “big picture” ideas. Hopefully the Bishopric knows his ward well enough to experiment with the different styles, to get the best talks.

    I also love the idea of “musical” sacrament meetings. I’ve been to two and they have been the most spiritual I’ve ever attended. I wish my Branch here had one every once in a while.

  41. #8: I don’t understand why people worry so much about staying on the assigned topic. …

    The problem I see is not that people will get in trouble for straying from the assigned topic — it’s the people who are conscientious about staying ON the assigned topic. And if the assigned topic is a Conference talk, the resulting sacrament meeting talk is often more abstract or general than the original talk.

    The other thing that bugs me is when the first sentence of someone’s talk is “I’ve been asked to talk about the conference talk given by Elder xxxxx”. (1)

    The reason this bugs me is that it violates the principles of effective public speaking, as I understand them. Maybe this is customary in oral book reports or business conferences, but it’s not the best way to engage the attention of a large and diverse group of people. Don’t tell me what the talk is about at the outset. Instead, start off with a story, or a scripture, or a personal experience. (People pay attention to stories – especially new stories they don’t know.) Then, after the story, you can reveal – in one sentence – the topic of your talk.

    If your goal, when giving your talk, is to teach a gospel principle, the end result will be different than if your goal is to talk about someone else’s talk.

    (1) Often this is the first sentence after the customary short [or not-so-short] personal introduction – “Hi, I’m so-and-so, etc., etc., {if recently married, insert story of how you met your spouse, why you moved here, etc.} …”.

  42. When I was bishop several years ago, the bishopric would plan Sacrament speakers one quarter at a time. We would have also planned out for the year which of the bishopric would be conducting each Sunday. My counsler would keep track of who had spoken in the past and who was due (so the S.T.O.P. method was not used) I think we did pretty good. We would then, as a bishopric or individually, meet with and invite the people we’d decided on to speak and let them know the date, Once everyone was scheduled, we’d decide on topics and have a quick meeting right after church to hand out the topics. We really put a lot of prayer and effort into choosing the topics, which would range from Conf talks, articles from church magazines, general gospel topics, A o F, scriptures (sometimes a verse, several times we choose a chapter from the BOM and it worked out great, once we selected the book of Micah from the OT and the person [who we knew could do it] carried it off wonderfully.

  43. Bob Loblaw says:

    Our current bishopric assigns one councilor to map out topics for the upcoming calendar quarter. The topics include scripture verses, Preach My Gospel material [we spent a year studying each Christlike attribute], scripture mastery scriptures, parables from Christ, and the general topic spoken about by a general authority in the previous general conference. They are encouraged [by letter] to use the talk as a reference, but kindly asked not to quote large amounts of text or to regive the talk. All topics are inter-connected for each sacrament meeting. When individuals are asked to speak, the are assigned the topic, or whatever the spirit may dictate. They are given at least 2 weeks but up to 1 month to prepare their topic and encouraged to pray for personal experiences to share. This month is our trial run implementing this method. Hopefully all goes well.

  44. Bro. Jones says:

    #36: You in the North Shore ward in suburban Chicago? There was a meeting like what you describe when I lived there several years ago. I can safely say it was the single best Sacrament Meeting I’ve ever attended. Best singing I’ve ever heard, too. (Yikes, I’m getting teary-eyed remembering it. And I’m not the soppy type.)

    Every ward needs to do a “singing testimony meeting” at least once every couple of years. It’s truly amazing.

  45. I have a hard time paying attention when the assigned topics for the speakers are too similar, or when they are all given the same topic. Blek. Too much repetition. So, I guess I like the idea of letting people choose. In my idealistic mind I imagine myself engaged every week as I listen to my fellow ward members speak with passion and authority. Maybe then my husband and I would each be eagerly volunteering to stay in the meeting while the other had to leave with the fussy baby. It could happen, right?

  46. #36 and #44 I remember within the last several years as a bishop receving counsel from the Stake Pres., which I recall came from SLC, that we shouldn’t have the “singing testimiony” type meeting.
    Also, more than once when we asked new people in the ward to speak in 2 months (while planning out the quarter), they would relate stories of in previous wards being asked to speak the following Sunday on a Thursday, etc.

  47. #46. “I remember within the last several years as a bishop receving counsel from the Stake Pres., which I recall came from SLC, that we shouldn’t have the “singing testimiony” type meeting.”

    Why? I’ve heard many people mention those meetings as one of the best experiences they’ve ever had in Sac. Mtg.

  48. Actually my husband and I just moved into a new ward and were asked to speak this week- and asked to select our own topics. We didn’t go crazy since we only have a week to prepare. As of right now we have decided to speak on sinners and saints.
    My husband is leading in talking about how we are all sinners, and all in need of the atonement with a lead in talking about Ash Wednesday, not hiding our sinful state, but recognizing it openly.
    I am then talking about what it is to be a real saint or Christian. I heard an non-LDS sermon on the radio about practical atheism and it really struck me- that are we living as though Christ really came to earth, taught us how to live, love one another, and return to Him or do we just go through the motions, but live practically as atheists- not really accepting, loving and serving one another.
    I wonder if this is the norm for this ward, or just a chance to feel us out…. I will wait and see.

  49. BethSmash says:

    #44 – nope, I was in a Salt Lake ward. And I agree – it was VERY spiritual. And it was fun to see that both kids and adults had favorite hymns.

    #46 – I agree with #47 on this. Why not? I mean, not all the time, but why not occasionally and at least somewhat regularly. Like maybe 3 or 4 times a year. And then when you add in other typically heavy music sacraments – like Easter or Christmas and the Primary program – that’s only 7 or 8 sundays out of 52. I don’t see why it would be such a big problem. Some of feel the spirit the best through music and not through talks… So I would like to know why not?

  50. #47 and #49, I assume it’s because a GA voiced a personal opinion that was then morphed into law. Given the possible contexts in which such is expressed, it’s likely the guy was simply asked “Do you want us to do a musical sacrament while you’re here?” in which the response was “No, I don’t care for them.” Which as we all know is code for revelation among some folks.

  51. My husband is in the branch presidency, and he never assigns a topic for the speakers he asks. Some people have commented that the month that he is conducting, we always seem to have really good talks. Sometimes assigning topics works, but in my experience, the topic has to be broad enough for personal adaptation. In other words, NO CONFERENCE TALKS!

  52. Sharee Hughes says:

    We have had several music Sacrament Meetings in our ward, where some ward members were pre-assigned to select their favorite hym, and just take a minute or two to say why, then we sang the hymn. Those have been wonderful Sacramet Meetigs with the Spirit strongly present. Perhaps the author of #46 could explain why we should not do this? Was the directive perhaps just from the Stake Presidency and not from the Brethren?

    Topics are generally assigned for speakers in our ward, but never conference talks. We usually have very good talks, even if both speakers are assignd the same topic. Everyone has a different spin on a topic.

  53. Our ward almost never assigns topics, except in the case of newer members or reluctant speakers who want the guidance, or if we have a themed meeting. We have excellent sacrament meetings.

  54. In our branch, we have just one topic: “Preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.” It has worked wonderfully.

  55. I like it, Mark B!

  56. ClaudiaHen says:

    My ward is trying something new. We have a whole month on one topic. One month was on the atonement of Christ–my favorite month of sacrament meetings ever. When you know that you are going to be one of six or so talks on the atonement, you know you have to number one, pay attention to all the other talks so you don’t repeat too much, and number two, you have to dig deeply into the topic and relate a lot of personal experiences and originality. It’s been wonderful and not an approach I’ve ever seen another ward take.

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