Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “… Sacrament meeting is the most sacred and important meeting in the Church.” Not all bishoprics truly appreciate how important providing an appropriate sacrament meeting is to a ward family.
The following post is not meant to compete with the guidelines to bishoprics found in the Handbook of Instructions. What follows are only suggestions compiled through the years by previous bishops to help improve the mechanics involved in providing a quality worship service.
Improving Sacrament Meetings-
1. 250 man hours. Where else can a bishopric more efficiently strengthen the spiritual welfare of his ward members than having a captive congregation of 200 + members for 70 minutes every single week? This opportunity is huge but so is the responsibility.
2. The health and personality of a ward is evident in the quality of its sacrament meetings. The attendance, whether it starts and ends on time, the reverence, where people choose to sit, the wording of prayers, the participation of hymn singing, the manner the sacrament is administered, the preparation and decorum of the brother conducting, the size of the choir, the number of speakers and topics assigned let alone what is actually spoken over the pulpit can all reveal volumes about a ward.
3. Each meeting develops a personality of its own. And more often than not, the personality of a meeting is determined by the brother conducting it.
4. Sacrament meetings can be one of our greatest missionary tools. That begs the question, how often do we think of this and plan accordingly? I have always taught youth the importance of example by asking, “ If everything your friends ever knew about the church was what they see in you, would they know the church as Christ intended?" The same question is appropriate here. If all our neighbors knew about the church was what they see attending one sacrament meeting, would they know the church as Christ intended? We cannot afford an “off week”. Are we providing a quality worship service every single week?
With the importance of sacrament meeting evident, allow me to share a list of suggestions that may assist those bishoprics who are determined to make this the most effective 70 minutes of their ministry.
1. Topics- The bishopric should prayerfully consider both topics and speakers for sacrament meeting. When we realize the power of the meeting, we make both the speakers and the topics a matter of discussion in bishopric meetings rather than a delegated task to the executive secretary. The bishop has his finger on the pulse of the ward. Topics should be chosen subject to the immediate needs of the ward. The most effective way to increase the quality of the sacrament meeting is to forget the rotating topic list of service, scripture study, fellowship, etc. in favor of scripture based topics that the members need right now.
For example, as we all know, our critics get a lot of “air time” questioning our Christianity. While serving as bishop some years ago during a media storm of such criticism, I thought to myself, if one of our critics had attended our sacrament meeting last week, would they have seen enough to change their minds? I took solace in the fact that every single week the focus of our meeting is the partaking of the sacrament which is drenched in Christ. So yes, but could it have been better? Was Jesus Christ quoted in any of the talks? Was He even mentioned? Did the hymns and musical numbers refer to our belief in Christ?
Frankly, thinking this way gave me reason to wonder. So a change was in order, a new purpose and emphasis. We decided to insure that in our sacrament meetings we would “talk of Christ…rejoice in Christ…preach of Christ (and) prophesy of Christ…that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:23, 26).
To help us focus, we decided to assign topics from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We actually referred to the chapters and accompanying scriptures as organized in Talmage's 'Jesus the Christ'. We went so far as to split the weekly topic and assigned 3 separate sub topics, one to each speaker to avoid any chance the speakers would prepare similar remarks as often happens with one worded topics like faith, prayer, etc.
Our sacrament meetings took a huge leap forward. Yes we still covered the topics of service, scripture study and fellowship but they were taught with examples directly from Christ’s life and teachings. Stake visitors and visitors not of our faith noticed and made frequent comments about how Christ centered our meetings had become.
When topics where chosen to address an immediate need we were careful not to assign all talks this same subject. Sacrament meetings don't need to have a "theme". The brethren's pattern is a great example. General Conference talks are not assigned around a theme. Although having a theme can be effective we need to be careful to make sure it doesn't get in the way of other priorities.
For example, mumbling through unfamiliar hymns just because they go along with " the topic" defeats the opportunity to praise God effectively through music. Another example is although assigning talks on the subject of tithing before or during the weeks of thithing settlement is encouraged and expected, wouldn't wisdom dictate that we should insure there is a Christ centered talk assigned the same Sunday to insure that non member visitors don't leave our meeting thinking all we talk about is money and donations? Although themed sacrament meeting topics may be easier to plan they are seldom missionary friendly nor are they the most effective way to provide a meaningful worship service to a diverse congregation.
a. Three speakers plus a youth speaker tends to be perfect. I am happy we do not have paid professional preachers in the restored church of Christ. However, because of that, not all of our members can effectively hold a congregations interest for more than 10-15 minutes. Blame our modern age of immediate access with computers, video, etc. but we all seem to have shorter and shorter attention spans. If meetings are started on time and the focus is on worship rather than announcements and business, there is plenty time for three 10 minute talks, a 5 minute youth talk and a 5 minute musical number. If members are reminded that the Spirit can work within the time allotted, they will forgo the fluff, the long introductions and the “hit and miss” attempts at humor and focus on teaching, exhorting and testifying.
b. Missionaries- Invite departing missionaries to be the first speaker insuring they have enough time. Remember, the brethren have asked specifically not to have parents speak at this meeting. Returning missionaries should also speak first but this is where we favor a 2 speaker limit. After serving faithfully for 18 to 24 months these modern day disciples deserve and have earned a bit more time. We like assigning them 15-20 minutes.
c. For wards that encourage “missionary updates” from parents, let's do so carefully. Be clear on the time allotted when requesting their participation and remind them that nonmembers may be present and they should look at this as a missionary opportunity. I have often cringed at some of the experiences and letter quotes shared by parents that were not positive and sometimes even inappropriate.
d. Be careful not to start a testimony meeting by giving a talk. This is the bishoprics opportunity to lead by example. Bear a brief & proper testimony. You may wish to refer to this great Ensign magazine article regarding proper testimony bearing here:
The congregation will follow your good example. Remember, it is OK to assign yourselves as bishopric members opportunities to speak now and then in sacrament meetings. You are great men and good examples and your ward family needs to hear from you. So, go ahead and share your message by assigning yourselves to talk on another Sunday and reserve testimony meetings for sharing your testimony.
e. Sacrament Meeting Speaking Assignment Acknowledgement- Some wards have found this to be a great tool to remind members of their upcoming assignments. Print one here;
a. Musical Numbers- Please refer to the Music portion of the General Handbook for important guidelines. Music is powerful. In referring to this power, I once heard Elder Boyd K Packer explain that he never found it difficult to get a meeting back on track after an inappropriate speaker but often found it difficult to do the same after an inappropriate musical number. A well chosen and performed musical number (no need to refer to them as “special” musical numbers) can bring an incredibly strong Spirit to a sacrament meeting that intermediate congregational hymns simply don’t. You have heard the often quoted “ What the church needs is better talks and less of them and better singing and more of it!”
b. Hymns- If you really want your sacrament meetings to be effective missionary tools, encourage your ward music people to choose familiar hymns centered on Christ and the restoration. Not all of them are. We are to worship, praise and pray through song and our investigators should hear conviction in our voices. We don’t sound too convincing if we struggle and mumble our way through unfamiliar hymns. Sacrament meeting is not the place to practice, it is a place to worship.
4. Chapel Preparation- Have a bishopric member or clerk assigned to inspect the chapel well before sacrament meeting each week. Things to do may include;
a. Adjust temperature. Remember men wear suit coats, women and children do not. Men need to be more sensitive that women will be colder than we are.
b. Is there anything out of place? Stand at the back and look toward the pulpit. Are their doors that need to be closed, folding chairs that need to be hidden or dying flowers that need to be discarded? Is the flag displayed correctly? Are their available tissues on the stand (preferably with a cover that looks better than the colored boxes they come in)?
c. Walk through the chapel and clean up papers, trash, etc. Some wards keep a dust buster in the clerk’s office for quick cheerios pick-ups.
d. Turn on speakers to avoid the bishopric from beginning the meeting without them.
e. Sacrament preparation- This same brother can also be the first adult to realize if bread is missing. He can also give the Aaronic priesthood advanced warning if a larger congregation is expected because of a baby blessing, missionary speaker or holiday so they can prepare more sacrament trays. Always error on having too many trays rather than facing the needless distraction and delays later in the meeting to bless additional emblems.
f. If your ward doesn't need to use the overflow, don’t. Meetings are more reverent without it. Also, most members are more engaged and less distracted the closer they sit to the stand. To break the habit, make sure the folding doors are closed and place a small sign on the doors inside the overflow inviting members to “Please join us in the chapel.” Another big help is using trained ushers that actually direct people to open seats. Late arrivals will often avoid walking to an empty seat up front but they have no problems following an usher who invites them to follow him to those same seats. Bishoprics should not be afraid to announce that to improve reverence we are encouraging everyone to sit in the chapel and to move away from the isles where possible to make room for all attending.
Access and print the Sacrament Meeting Script & Agenda here- http://www.docstoc.com/docs/80643092/SacramentMeetingScript
1. Conduct sacrament meetings with the respect and decorum. Every week, little miracles are happening as members come with heavy hearts and actively participate in the cleansing power of renewing baptismal covenants while partaking of the sacrament. We have all been blessed to hear testimonies of talks that changed lives during our weekly worship service. Our bishopric members need to remember this and treat their time at the pulpit conducting a meeting appropriately.
I have spent most my adult life serving with the youth. I often remind our Aaronic priesthood young men that one of the main reasons Elder Oaks and Elder Holland give for encouraging those who administer the sacrament to wear white shirts and ties is to insure our young men’s manner of dress does not distract from the Holy ordinance. Similarly we need to be careful not to do or say anything that would prove a distraction while conducting at the pulpit.
2. Start and end on time. The brethren have asked the bishoprics to be in their seats on the stand five minutes before the sacrament meeting is to start. This does wonders in setting the mood and reverence for the meeting. Starting late can actually be a disservice to the speakers who have prayerfully prepared their messages. It is unfair for a final speaker to have to edit and shorten his talk “on the fly” because the bishopric allowed the meeting to start late. Every minute you start late, you are taking from the final speaker.
3. Smile, be attentive and do not sleep on the stand. I had an experience in the mission field that cured me of ever falling asleep on the stand before I was ever in a position to. Our investigator leaned over to me and asked why the bishopric all had their eyes closed. She asked, “ Are they sleeping or meditating?” I know we ask a lot of our bishoprics and they often meet early on Sundays. However, we must set the example, if not for our members who often sympathize with our workload, we must stay attentive for our investigators. Our snoozing may be interpreted as disinterest or even apathy. Some might think it is down right rude. Here are some helpful hints from experienced bishops.
a. Go to bed earlier on Saturday nights. Boring, I know.
b. Lift your feet off the floor. It takes effort and can keep you awake.
c. Enjoy the opportunity to watch the members sitting in the congregation. Many bishops receive impressions on how to assist individuals in need while watching them in sacrament meeting .
On a lighter note, watching your congregation can be entertaining. Here I dare share a true story. My mother is a saint. She is a lady in every sense of the word. I think I remember her vacuuming with a dress and pearls. However, she was stuck raising five sons and no daughters. Because my dad spent most Sundays on the stand at our ward or others in the stake, my poor mom sat alone with us boys. I vividly remember one Sunday after a long and busy week, my mother fell asleep in church. What’s worse, she did so with her head cocked back a bit and her mouth open. I remain embarrassed to this day but it was just too tempting. My brothers and I started wadding up pieces of the program, gum wrappers, anything we could get our hands on and began filling her open mouth with trash.
After one particularly impressive placement of a large paper ball in her mouth, I looked up at the stand and noticed a bishopric member looking straight at me. Busted! However, I then noticed he was holding a hymn book up to his face covering his mouth. It was then that I clearly saw a tear rolling down his cheek as he fought to keep from bursting into laughter.
d. Assign the most spry bishopric member to be the official “poker”. I served as a counselor to four bishops all of whom were older than myself. I was the assigned poker and I can’t lie, having to keep them awake also kept me awake. I had one move down where I could nudge the bishop hard enough that he would bump the other counselor sitting on the other side. I called it an “and –one”.
e. Take notes- This is clearly the best and most appropriate way to stay awake. I remember one of President Kimball’s talks when I was a young man regarding our personal responsibility to make sure we left each sacrament meeting spiritually improved. He taught “If the sacrament meeting is a failure to you, you are the one that has failed”. He reminded us that the main purpose for sacrament meeting was to worship the Father in the name of Christ through renewing our baptismal covenants while partaking the sacrament. I believe that whole heartedly.
Nonetheless, sometimes we “rank and file members” are not trained preachers with the most stirring delivery. So early in my tenure in the bishopric I took it upon myself to write thank you notes to those who participated in our sacrament meetings through words and music. To help express my gratitude, I took notes during each talk so I could mention something particular that was shared that impressed my mind and soul. This simple act proved to be a “three for one”. First, it helped me appreciate and internalize the great messages shared over the pulpit. Second, it helped make my notes of appreciation more meaningful. And thirdly, it kept me awake and alert.
4. Follow the brethren's pattern- I recently heard the matron of the Seattle Temple, Sister Pugh share the experience of their call to be temple presidents. Although they had many years of church leadership experience including recently serving as mission presidents in Pennsylvania, they admitted to President Uchtdorf in the interview that they were humbled because they had never been temple workers. His response was, “Great, that is how we like it. That insures you will do things the way we want you to rather than the way you think they should be done.”
The brethren do set a pattern. It is part of the “Unwritten Order of Things” that Elder Packer has spoken of. Access his talk here:
By now we should all be familiar with it but many bishopric members continue to miss the pattern. The brethren remind us every six months during general conference. I invite you to watch a session on line, don’t wait till the next one. Watch for the pattern and take some notes of how they conduct a meeting.
5. Don’t wing it!- The first presidency, with all of their decades of experience conducting meetings never, ever wing it. Preparing an agenda and reading it word for word immediately brings respect to the task and eliminates excessive chatter and awkward mistakes. Why do so many of us set ourselves up for mistakes that can be so easily avoidable?
6. Read all ward business verbatim. If we don’t follow a script, the tendency is to say way too much. And what’s funny, the more words we use, the less likely we are to get things right. The verbiage in the Sacrament Meeting Script listed above on #1 is based on the pattern the first presidency uses. Example;
“It is proposed that we sustain the following to positions in the ward and ask that they stand. (read names and positions) All those in favor manifest it. Those opposed may manifest it.”
The simplicity and efficiency is perfect! (No “uplifted right hands”, no problems mistakenly asking the membership to “sustain the bishopric” in their decisions, no mistakes in asking only for “support”. Sustaining is a principle that means much more than just “supporting”.) However, unless we read it, we always get lost in our own words. It can be so much more simple than we make it. Let's read it not wing it.
7. No need to be funny- Attempts at humor over the pulpit can be likened to the best baseball hitters. They are successful only 30% of the time. I have seen my share of successes while a bishopric member exercised some self-deprecating humor to shrug off a mistake, but those would have not been needed in the first place if they had followed the agenda word for word. Other than that, attempts to be funny more often than not prove awkward and sometimes even inappropriate.
8. Turn up the volume. It is better to have the speaker system too loud than too soft. The bishopric member in charge of the pulpit should aggressively change the volume, the height of the pulpit and even move the microphone to insure that the speakers can be heard. However, do it early, as soon as the speaker begins so as not to interrupt or bother them.
9. Limit the times you go to the pulpit. After the sacrament, announce the meting through its conclusion. Notice that the first presidency doesn't get up after the closing talk at general conference.
Elder Robert E Wells of the first quorum of seventy taught me this important lesson at a funeral service I was conducting. I served as a bishop in Salt Lake City where we often received unannounced visits from General Authorities. It kept us on our toes! Or better said, it kept me polishing my shoes. Anyway, we were trained that whenever a general authority was in attendance, we were to introduce ourselves and offer a quick rundown on the planned proceedings. We then asked permission to continue as outlined or did they suggest any alterations. Next we asked if they wanted to address the congregation.
At this particular funeral, Elder Wells said he was sent by assignment to represent the brethren. He approved of our agenda and said that the only reason he would want to speak at the end of the service is if the three purposes of a church funeral were not appropriately addressed. With 40 widows in our ward, we knew exactly what those were. (They are found on the 'Funderal Preparation Action List' post under the 'Beloved Bishops' section of this blog.) So, before the closing hymn, I looked to Elder Wells and he nodded his head indicating that he was satisfied with the service and would not be speaking.
So unless you feel something said by a speaker was off and needed correction, there is no reason to get up again before the closing hymn and benediction.I love the feeling that comes from allowing the Spirit that accompanies the final speaker to have the last word. The agenda attached is set up this way. I have even seen wards successfully do this during fast and testimony meetings. As a bishop, I simply nodded to the organist when it was time to begin the closing hymn to avoid me having to get up again. Of course our organist knew it was her responsibility to watch for my indication.
10. No surprises- Ultimately the bishop has the stewardship for what happens in sacrament meeting. He must earn the respect through example and service to be in a position to take action to avoid any surprises. In my own experience as a bishop, I was the one who stood and put my arm around a speaker who was going over time and invited her to finish. I walked down the isle and sat next to an elderly sister and invited her to adjust her hearing aid so the high-pitched squealing would stop. I was the one that should have denied a speakers request from the pulpit to change the closing hymn. (Our talented music people are not jukeboxes, prepared to play anything anytime. Some have to practice for weeks to play the specific chosen hymns.) No surprises.
11. Never “turn the meeting over to someone else” unless they are presiding. The handbook is clear on this. We don’t turn it over to a musical program, we don’t turn it over to the seminary or institute, and we don’t even turn it over to the Primary or the Young Women. No, we are to retain stewardship and responsibility even when these auxiliaries and groups participate. In fact, I was taught by a general authority that the bishopric should never leave the stand during such meetings. The stake president quickly informed our stake primary presidency of this directive so the ward primary presidents would not have heartburn over the new procedure.
12. Speak with investigators and visitors in mind. Try to avoid “Mormon lingo” that leave visitors wondering “What?”. Try not to use abbreviations like D&C, PPI, BYC, PEC, etc. Take time to mention if referring to the Relief Society that it is our women’s service organization or that Primary is what we call our Sunday school for children etc. There are some words that are better than others to use in our conducting.
Replace "Program' with "Worship Service"
Replace "Audience" with "Congregation "
Replace "Opening prayer" with " Invocation"
Replace "Closing prayer' with "Benediction"
Replace "Song" with "Hymn"
Replace "Page #" with "Hymn #"( It's the hymns that are numbered, not the pages )
Replace "Support" with "Sustain"
Replace "Books of Mormon" and "Book of Mormons" with "Copies of the Book of Mormon"
(If you look closely at the other two options, they cannot be correct. "Books of Mormon" would refer to other books that Mormon wrote. "Book of Mormons" would refer to a book written or compiled by more than one Mormon)
PS- This reminds me to mention a little about the proper pronunciation of the word Ensign. For years the church attempted to teach us the correct pronunciation in the magazine itself. On the title page of each months magazine in the section that lists the editors, contact information, etc. it always included;
" The Ensign ( pronounced "N-sine" NOT "N-sun") is published monthly by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints..."
I noticed later they substituted the correction in a more gentle way by printing " (preferred pronunciation is N-sine)".
They went so far as to explain it again in another issue by including a letter to the editor questioning the correct pronunciation.
"It is pronounced En’ sine. Some dictionaries (and common usage) seem to reserve en’ sun for the military rank and en’ sine for the banner or emblem. “And she (Zion) shall be an ensign unto the people, and there shall come unto her out of every nation under heaven” (D&C 64:42)"
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