Avoiding Holier-Than-Thou Ministering

In a recent episode of Mormon Land, historian (and BCC blogger) Matt Bowman talked about the brand new changes to the home teaching/visiting teaching and looked at the history of the program. Matt explained that the home teaching program, under Harold B. Lee’s correlation, used to be more of a guardianship priesthood thing, with each home teaching companionship tasked with making sure the family to whom they were assigned, were completing the various church programs and ordinances, and came to their visits ready with a list of questions to complete their watchcare. Here’s a good Ensign article from 1973 that captures the old program’s aims.

Bowman, in comparing this to the new program and in explaining that in the intervening years we’ve moved farther and farther away from a list-based approach, noted that perhaps the new ministering program will allow for needed flexibility so that people can cater the ministration as the Spirit dictates.

Unfortunately, no less than ten days after the announcement of the Ministering program, Elder Neil L. Anderson gave a BYU Devotional titled “A Holier Approach to Ministering” where he laid out a list of what roommates, in ministering capacities, should do:

Here’s the transcript (about 11 minutes into the talk):

“You are surrounded by believers who are in various stages of belief and testimony. I challenge you to strengthen your efforts to spiritually minister to one another. To minister spiritually can begin with baking cookies or playing a basketball game, but eventually this holier way of ministering requires opening your heart and your faith, taking courage in encouraging the positive growth you are seeing in a friend or in expressing concern about things you see and feel that are not consistent with discipleship. Let us not be self-righteous but let us be spiritually courageous in ministering in a holier way, specifically strengthening the faith of others. To stir your thinking, consider these possible situations:

– You notice that a roommate plays an inordinate amount of time playing games on an iPhone, but rarely engages in conversations regarding to gospel topics.

– You have a sense that a friend might have a problem with pornography

– You are in a conversation with friends and notice that the language being used is edgy and inappropriate

– You smell alcohol or marijuana in a friend’s car

– You see prescription drugs that you know are not being used properly

– Your friends are spending enormous time taking pictures of themselves that move to the edge of immodesty

– You notice that someone who once loved to talk about the Book of Mormon now never mentions it

– You notice that a friend who once seemed to love to go to the temple now is not going

– You notice a friend who once spoke with faith about the prophets’ counsel now speaks critically

– You have a returned missionary roommate who has become very casual in wearing clothing that reflects temple covenants

– You notice a friend who finds reasons to go places on Sunday other than your ward

– You have a sense that a friend has started to be dishonest in small things

– You have a classmate who began a semester very engaged in your religion class but now seems disinterested and disengaged

– You know someone who had a light in his or her eyes returning from a mission, but now that light seems to have faded

– You have a friend who jokes about sacred things

– You have a friend who came to BYU with the expectation of finding an eternal companion and hasn’t; the discouragement with dating has moved to God doesn’t love me

– You see a friend’s faith being affected by compromised worthiness and his need to repent

Can you envision these situations or others like them? Have specific names come into your mind?”

First off, whenever an General Authority brings up judging another’s modesty, the rape culture in Mormonism meter inches higher.

But more apropos for the post, is this how general authorities want the ministering program to be run? Since the program is brand new, I hope that these sorts of inclinations toward ministering as “keeping an eye on” in the positioning one’s self to call another to repentance sort will be quashed and instead be more defined as “keeping an eye on” in the being there for those to whom one ministers. Because ministering as Christ-like friendship needs to have no strings attached for this program to spiritually succeed.

In other words, it’s as President Bingham said so eloquently: “Ministering … looks like going for a walk, getting together for a game night, offering service, or even serving together. It looks like visiting in person or talking on the phone or chatting online or texting. It looks like delivering a birthday card and cheering at a soccer game. It looks like sharing a scripture or quote from a conference talk that would be meaningful to that individual. It looks like discussing a gospel question and sharing testimony to bring clarity and peace. It looks like becoming part of someone’s life and caring about him or her. It also looks like a ministering interview in which needs and strengths are discussed sensitively and appropriately. It looks like the ward council organizing to respond to a larger need.”

Or like President Nelson said, it’s ministering with a “holier approach.”

Not a holier-than thou approach.

For more resources on the new Ministering Program, click here.


  1. Nathan Tolman says:

    Being aware of what is going on with the people you minister to is important, but the list is a bit . . . creepy.

    Honestly, when I was in college checked the box for more than one of those questions, but I was fine.

  2. Yes, that’s a valid concern. The summary of Elder Anderson’s talk posted at LDS.org did not repeat The List (see link below). It did, however, quote several comments encouraging Mormons to sort of look over their neighbor’s shoulder and offer righteous counsel. He recommended “ministering in a holier way and warned of becoming self-righteous.” While I agree his talk might have been titled “Beam? What Beam? Seek the Mote in Your Brother’s Eye,” I also doubt that the average Mormon in the pews is really going to change their behavior much, if at all. I’m guessing 80% of men will just ask, “So where is my new list of names to visit?”


  3. Many of the items on the list seem to be directed at ensuring others aren’t having questions about doctrine, church leaders or the Book of Mormon. Perhaps it would be better to call them spies than ministers.

  4. Rexicorn says:

    As far as I can tell, the holier-than-thou approach grows thusly:

    – I should help other people be happy
    – Helping someone follow the gospel is a way of helping them be happy
    – Advice, scriptural messages, reminders about commandments, and intervention from leaders are all things that help someone follow the gospel
    – If I keep track of the ways in which someone is NOT following the gospel, I’ll know exactly where that help should be targeted
    – “That thing you’re doing is a sin! You need to repent! I’m calling the bishop.”

    It starts with a good idea (people helping other people) and then goes all wacky along its way to execution. I’m not sure exactly what the right solution is, but maybe if we stop casting “calling to repentance” as a viable form of service, that would help?

  5. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Porter: My wife was a Temple Square tour guide in the mid-’90s. Once, she was leading a delegation from a former Communist country. Entering the Church Office Building, a member of the delegation looked at the pictures of the First Presidency and the Twelve on the wall, turned to one of his compatriots, and said (in their lanugage): “This looks like the old Politburo. We can live with these people.”

    General rule: DON’T BE LIKE COMMUNISTS.

  6. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Rexicorn: It almost goes without saying that the people most likely to engage in this approach are the ones mostly likely to have serious problems in their own lives.

    I genuinely don’t know what Andersen was thinking. Do BYU Devotionals go through the correlation process?

  7. I see the problem the author sees. We don’t want to build our relationships in the church around the goal of catching people in sins, which is a very easy trap to fall into. However, Section 20, which forms a substantial part of the doctrinal basis home teaching/ministering, includes an instruction that priesthood holders “see that there is no iniquity in the church.” It’s uncomfortable and easy to abuse, but this is a responsibility of church members.

  8. There’s a major stewardship issue that Elder Andersen’s list overlooks. The teaching responsibilities referred to in Section 20 are part of a package of stewardship lines — not policing your neighbor’s “righteousness” (as you define it) at random.

  9. john f.

    Yes. I’ve also already heard of local leaders purporting that ministering brothers and sisters will be able to receive revelation for those to whom they minister.That’s too far. Pray for them, yes, but revelation receiving and repentance calling? That’s not ministering and we need to have quick counsel telling the members so.

  10. Jack Hughes says:

    Home teaching : Ministering :: Gestapo: Stasi

  11. Elizabeth says:

    I have noticed there is a certain evolution in the church of how various issues are viewed. I will use the more-than-one-pair-of-earrings issue as an example. Pres. Hinkley gently admonished us to wear but one pair of pierced earrings. But each person, apostle, 70, high councilman etc. who felt called upon to address the matter, had to elaborate on it, to make the gentle admonishment somehow stronger. Until one, who had yet to remove the offending 1 mm stud, felt to be a vile, wicked sinner, an apostate, rebelling against the Lord’s very anointed. One was also old enough to realized that was sheer poppycock. I suspect Elder Anderson is just the first to elaborate on the new ministering policy. I can see how if carried out as Sis. Bingham suggested it could be a wonderful program. Unfortunately, there are those who will grab onto Elder Anderson’s list and use it to justify making all kinds of judgements. The rest of us will continue on in our regular, absentminded, haphazard manner of VT, oops I mean ministering.

  12. Jack Hughes says:

    To be fair, this devotional, like any BYU devotional, was likely intended for only a limited target audience (captive BYU students) so I’m more inclined to dismiss it as another ridiculous BYU thing that doesn’t apply to anyone outside of Provo. The school also has a long and storied tradition of encouraging students to superficially judge and inform on each other, and old traditions die hard.

  13. Rexicorn says:

    Elizabeth, we definitely have a longstanding problem of not allowing plain and simple things to *stay* plain and simple.

  14. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Jack: like the female friend of mine who nearly got kicked out because I, not knowing about the Honor Code, slept the night on a bare mattress in her apartment after an epic drive from Denver to Provo that included a lengthy avalanche-engendered detour up the back side of the Rockies to Steamboat Springs?

  15. Jack Hughes says:

    Yes; as every BYU student knows, the richest blessings come from unwavering obedience to arbitrary made-up rules, and making sure others behave likewise, common sense be damned.

  16. Well said, Rexicorn.

  17. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Jack: it’s a good thing I had an extra blanket and that the Walmart was open so I could buy a pillow, because otherwise I would have had to borrow bedding from one of the female occupants of the apartment in question, and sharing bedding is really only a couple of degrees away from HOT, STEAMY SEX.

  18. Oh, for crying out loud. Where do you people come up with your paranoid twisting of everything Mormon? I want to stay far away from your Kool-Aid.

  19. Just do you’re thing to minister and try not to moan about others and what we’re saying and we’ll be ok.

    Aren’t you guys adults or what? Does every talk need the qualifier, “if you don’t understand it, don’t feel it applies to you, it even if you disagree with it, feel free to go about your business doing good and being a disciple, but equally don’t spend your time complaining and debating”.

    You’re not exactly going to change the leadership of the church with your gripes, but certainly this type of post will create a culture of being at variance with one another and not keeping the commandments (d&c101:50).

    And yes this comment could easily apply to me with regard to this post. It would be nice if we were all on the same page though and I can’t imagine the best way for that to happen is for me to say, “Yay, what was that apostle thinking, you’ve got it exactly right BCC blogger.”

    Remember that post about don’t just do something, stand there? How about, don’t just say something, stand there?

    Or do we like to hear ourselves wisely demonstrate how critically thinking we are that we have to parse a plea to not be holier than thou, into being holier than thou, thus in the parsing proving we are really the holier ones?

    Ya… When it comes to publishing disagreement with general authorities, don’t just say something, stand there.

  20. Nunya Bidniss says:

    Where do you people come up with your paranoid twisting of everything Mormon?

    From the hand-wringing OP to the the hyperbolic comments, the paranoid twisting is, and always has been, *integral* to the fabric of BCC. You’ve been around here long enough to see that, right?

  21. nobody, really says:

    For the next BYU devotional, they should be sure to elaborate how any of these perceived issues of unrighteousness should next be reported to the Bishop, the Relief Society President, and the Honor Code Office. Because if anyone doesn’t follow the rules with the exactness I do, they are an apostate.

    I was unfortunate enough to live in BYU off-campus housing for a few months, even though I wasn’t attending BYU. Roommates threatened to turn me into the Honor Code Office for having Diet Mountain Dew in my possession. I hate to think what would have happened had these same people felt like they had “ministerial authority” over me.

    Oh, and there are FOUR lights. We have always been at war with Eurasia. Chocolate rations are being cut to 15 grams….

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    I immediately thought ministering was a positive advance over HT/VTing, because in my mind’s eye it looked like the way President Bingham describes it, basically as an actual friendship without artificial requirements. If in contrast it’s supposed to be monitoring in ways such as that list describes, I’m just not going to do it.

  23. I’m not expressing an opinion on Elder Anderson’s talk. Instead I have two true BYU stories:

    1. Around the time I met my wife, the bishop asked to meet with her out of the blue. He dove right in and asked her some frank questions about her sexual behavior (of which there was none). It turned out that a do-gooder in the apartment building had been in her bathroom and saw her birth control pills, which she took to treat a medical condition. We actually both really liked the bishop, so no resentment there, but almost two decades later she’s still a little bitter about being tattled on (even with the best of intentions).

    2. Around the same time as my last story, my roommate and I were assigned as the home teachers to my (not yet) wife and her roommate. The four of us went on a weekend road trip. Not long later, my home teaching assignment was changed. The EQP explained that he made the change because he didn’t think it was appropriate to go on a road trip with a female I was home teaching. Frankly, I was glad for the change. But I was also thinking, “You know this is a singles ward, right?”

    Calibrate your ministering appropriately.

  24. J. Golden says:

    I suppose that one way to avoid holier-than ministering is to avoid being holier-than-thou. The other option would be to avoid ministering altogether. Like the OP and most of the comments, you can just engage in holier-than-thou bitching and the problem is avoided.

  25. Dog Spirit says:

    Yeah, it’s mostly a lame list. But really, the only kind of person likely to implement it probably already approaches their relationships this way, and ain’t nothing going to stop them.

  26. I’m inclined to read Elder Anderson’s list charitably as things that might suggest that a person may need more ministering efforts, but not suggesting that you ought to call the person out on these things.

    Like, to take one example, I might notice that someone I minister to used to talk about the Book of Mormon a lot, but lately has seemed less interested in spiritual things, and that might be a sign that the person is going through something and could use a friend to stand by them. I don’t think it means I should call them out and say “I’m concerned that you’re not talking about the Book of Mormon very much.” In most cases, I could imagine that being more harmful than helpful.

    That’s how I would apply it anyway. I can see that the list could be easily taken the wrong way, but that’s not how I choose to apply it.

  27. It doesn’t even require a charitable reading of Elder Andersen’s talk to reach JKC’s conclusion. Just a fair reading of the plain text.

    What did Elder Andersen say: “this holier way of ministering requires opening your heart and your faith, taking courage in encouraging the positive growth you are seeing in a friend or in expressing concern about things you see and feel that are not consistent with discipleship. Let us not be self-righteous but let us be spiritually courageous in ministering in a holier way, specifically strengthening the faith of others.”

    “[E]ncouraging the positive growth,” “expressing concern,” “not be[ing] self-righteous,” “be[ing] spiritually courageous,” “strengthening the faith of others.” In her rush to make Elder Andersen an offender for his words, Ms. Jensen seems to have completely overlooked these lines, and in doing so has completely missed his point.

  28. So often I love the posts at BCC. But other times I can’t help wondering why the site’s subtitle isn’t either “The Learned Who Think They Are Wise” or “An Offender For A Word.” This is not a fair reading of Elder Andersen’s talk.

  29. Two ways to take this talk, I guess. Some will no doubt take the Big Brother approach, trying to correct the “double-plus-ungood” behavior of others. I prefer the more charitable reading that seems in harmony with President Kimball’s encouragement to “strengthen the hands that hang down.”

  30. nobody, really says:

    You know, this talk might have been fine at a stake conference or in any other setting. At BYU, where the motto seems to be “Every Member a Mission President” or “Narc Thy Neighbor”, where the police shares information with the “Honor Code” office, where your Bishop can effectively expel you from the university – this turns into a list of Potential Offenses.

    It takes a group of Mormon Jesuits and gives them the impetus to start the Spanish Inquisition. And just as not having a Christmas ham hanging from the post in front of the house signals that the occupants are keeping Kosher, this devotional gives a list of ways to “save a neighbor’s pitiful soul from the fires of Hell”.

  31. I’ve been tempted to wade into the holier-than-thou fray going on here, but haven’t found a good way to do so without facilitating a reasonable (but I think and hope incorrect) inference that I might think I’m holier-than-all-y’all (i.e., at least those on both sides of the fray). I’m out. Maybe I’ll go do some “ministering” or something.

  32. Guys, be charitable to the OP as well. EmJen thoughtfully pointed out that it’s easy to take the list the wrong way, and that doing so can cause all kinds of problems. She’s right about that.

  33. stephenchardy says:

    I would be more comfortable applying Elder Anderson’s carefully thought-out list to myself. But not to others. I don’t mind examining myself. If I have friends who spend more time on their phones than I do, or if they bring up the BoM less often than I do, or if they dress differently than I do, or if they engage in behaviors that might seem vain, it is very hard for me to want to change them. Rather I usually learn from them. They likely have other behaviors that are far superior to mine. This is what friendship is about. We learn about ourselves and others by engaging, discussing, observing. I would apply Elder Anderson’s list to myself and myself only.

  34. Thanks for pointing this out, EmJen. I think you’re spot on that a list like this seems to be only an encouragement to the busybodies among us to try to police everyone around them even more aggressively. I hope that the new ministering program goes a more helpful and less intrusive way.

  35. Paul Ritchey says:

    The only thing really objectionable that Elder Anderson says is his proposed solution when you have to check a box: to “express concern.” Replace that with “pray about,” “pray for,” “serve,” or “become better friends with,” and I think he’s on to something. If the things on the list, if actually occurring, are good indicators of spiritual risk (and they are), we should be eager to address their occurrence with increased service, understanding, prayer, and sincere fellowship. But not merely, or primarily, by “express[ing] concern.” Conversely, simply to ignore the things on the list is neither good ministering nor good friendship.

  36. I’m going to need some help with the “rape culture” angle. The only reference to “modesty” I see is “Your friends are spending enormous time taking pictures of themselves that move to the edge of immodesty.” Isn’t this a reference to behavior (behaving immodestly by taking a lot of photos of themselves). Or am I reading that wrong? The only other question with reference to appearance seems to be to notice if your endowed friend doesn’t appear to be wearing their garments anymore, where the emphasis seems more on ministering because of the temple covenant stuff, not so much the showing shoulders stuff.

  37. The Jesuits did not “start” the Inquisitions. The Spanish Inquisition was begun by Isabella 1 and her spouse and co-regnant Fernando. The most frequently involved order were the Dominicans.

  38. mikerharris says:

    To sit back and let “you do you” run amuck only requires indifference. Corrective feedback is a spiritual gift and best administered with skill and genuine friendship. Even still, some chose to be offended or disgusted while others chose to be inspired by the needed counsel.

  39. As we try to be good ministers, there are times for preaching and testifying, and there are times for just being a friend. The older I get, the more I realize that preaching and testifying is quite a small piece of what ministers should do. It’s important, it’s essential, but it’s useless without loyalty and friendship. Mostly the time for preaching and testifying is on Sunday in church; the times when it’s called for in our one-on-one interactions do not come very often.

    I’ve watched Elder Andersen’s talk, and it’s an interesting one. There’s a lot of value in it. The places in his talk that don’t sit quite right with me have to do with the balance between testifying and just being a friend. Elder Andersen wants to encourage his audience to look for chances to preach and testify. That strikes me as good advice, but I don’t think he puts enough emphasis on the friendship part of ministry. He risks falling into the Mormon missionary mistake of thinking that the purpose of friendship is to give us a chance to testify. He doesn’t sufficiently teach the message that friendship is not the means, it is the end. In fact, friendship is the beginning, the middle, the end, and the entire purpose of our lives. Preaching and testifying is something we do occasionally along the way when the Spirit tells us to. Real ministry is about friendship.

  40. I tend to agree with Loursat that the emphasis on friendship is more important than on “holier.” There are a lot of problems in BYU culture with tattling that make friendship difficult, and this kind of encouragement that will be ignored by the sensible 80% will of course make the fanatical ones feel justified in all sorts of not-minding-their-own-beeswax.

    This one from the list gave me pause: “You know someone who had a light in his or her eyes returning from a mission, but now that light seems to have faded.” Yikes. How is someone really going to 1) assess that, and 2) address it without being offensive. I can imagine it now, and it’s not good. Let’s be honest–there are few weirder times in life than right after a mission, trying hard to re-integrate into “normal” life. Your clothes are out of style, your body is completely different than when you went out, nothing seems like it matters like it did when you had a purpose every day, you feel weird about dating, you might be unsure of your major with this new life experience, you’ve been isolated from physical contact beyond a handshake for a long time.

    Basically if your RM sheen doesn’t wear off in the first few weeks, you’re probably not re-integrating very well. Let’s not add social pressure to remain on the “mission high” or be approached with concern by your fellow students. It reminds me of when someone says I look tired, and I know they just mean I look old.

  41. Quite a few things on that list could easily reflect a growing awareness that the Mormon church simply isn’t true. Which in the age of the rock in the hat, Helen Mar Kimball, the Book of Abraham disaster, and the angel with a flaming sword is not uncommon at BYU and among return missionaries. It was pretty clear at General Conference that at least one focus of the new “ministering” program was to attend to Mormons with real and informed questions and doubts. It’s equally true that the church doesn’t really have much to offer those people and address that “problem” beyond the “Gospel Topics Essays.” Which, it turns out, have become part of the problem.

  42. I read this post after Robert Kirby referred to it in his column today. Then I listened to the actual talk by Elder Andersen, waiting for his suggestions to call people to repentance, judge them, lecture them, report them to the bishop, etc. Wouldn’t you know, there was none of that. Instead, he simply encouraged BYU students to love, listen to, pray for, and encourage those who might be struggling spiritually – and, yes, to “express concern” in a loving way when guided by the Spirit.

    I don’t believe that talks given by general authorities are beyond criticism. But this is just silly.

    Perhaps someone might write a post called “Avoiding Holier-Than-Thou Blogging.”

  43. mikerharris says:

    Accusing Elder Anderson of promoting “the rape culture”…really?

  44. Lindsay J says:

    ‘Catch someone doing something right’! Neil A Andersen pretends that half of ministering is seeing the positive and encouraging it, but instead he details 11 examples of chastising and guilt shaming those he deems less than perfect. No way in hell will we let ministering Nazis into our home whose duty it is to report us to gestapo EQ and RS Presidencies!!

  45. Lindsay J says:

    Rivkah: Seriously? You must have fallen asleep during Neil’s talk because he gave 11 detailed ministering examples and NONE of THEM were encouraging positive behavior. NOT ONE!! Live in denial, cover it up, but don’t proclaim it. Negative behavior is ALL that Andersen focused on!

  46. Lindsay J says:

    Watch the ministering videos on ldg.org. They depict hilarious awkward poorly acted sales models from the 70s. Seriously?! Saints shouldn’t need to be taught how to care. How to spy?? Maybe!! And Gossip?! No, that comes naturally.

  47. Rivkah says:

    “You must have fallen asleep during Neil’s talk because he gave 11 detailed ministering examples and NONE of THEM were encouraging positive behavior. NOT ONE!!”

    Lindsay, you appear to be the one who was snoozing. Here’s the very first example he shared, written by a BYU student:

    “I was going through a really rough time. One day I was really struggling and on the verge of tears. I pleaded and prayed silently for strength to continue. In that exact moment, my roommate sent me a text expressing her love for me. She shared a scripture and bore a testimony. It brought me so much strength and comfort and hope in that moment of despair.”

    Elder Andersen also said this: “Let us pray, listen, record our thoughts, and take action regarding those to whom we can minister. Pray for opportunities to build faith in others. Not all of those you help will be people you know. When Jesus ministered to the widow of Nain, He was on His way to somewhere else. However, while on His way, Christ saw her and had compassion for her, and it changed her life.”

    I could go on, but you clearly have a very different idea of what constitutes encouraging positive behavior.

%d bloggers like this: