Sunday, November 28, 2010

Four Suggestions on Conducting Sacrament Meeting

One day I will write the definitive book on things I wished I had known at a younger age so I wouldn't have had to make all the mistakes myself to learn what would be considered "best practices."  Conducting sacrament meeting is in that long list -- how to do it and how not to do it.  I wish as a younger priesthood leader and new member of a bishopric I had focused more on the Savior as the centerpiece of the meeting.  I am not in an official training position in the Church now to do anything about giving counsel to those who do conduct that meeting each week, but I can offer some suggestions gleaned through observation.

Elder Russell M. Nelson
If I were conducting sacrament meeting today, I think I'd do things better than when I was actually in bishoprics and doing it then.  Like all topics in the "unwritten order of things" in the Church, this one also has a definitive and declarative Apostolic witness to which we can point.  Elder Russell M. Nelson offers it in an address given at a worldwide leadership training meeting on 21 June 2003.  It was reprinted in the August 2004 Ensign, (24-28), as an article titled "Worshiping at Sacrament Meeting."

In part, Elder Nelson said, "Bishoprics and branch presidencies have responsibility not only to plan these meetings, but to conduct them. They should do so reverently. Some in the congregation are praying for delicate promptings and communication from heaven. Establishing a spirit of reverence will help them receive those promptings. Remember: reverence invites revelation.

"Those conducting the meeting begin by extending a cordial greeting. Detailed announcements are more appropriately handled some other time. Because we invite all to come unto Christ, friends and neighbors are always welcome but not expected to take the sacrament. However, it is not forbidden. They choose for themselves. We hope that newcomers among us will always be made to feel wanted and comfortable. Little children, as sinless beneficiaries of the Lord’s Atonement, may partake of the sacrament as they prepare for covenants that they will make later in life.

"Our meetings are always to be conducted as directed by the Spirit (see D&C 46:2). Occasionally something unexpected may arise that a presiding officer may wish to clarify or correct, as prompted by the Spirit. Otherwise, no additional commentary is given after the final speaker has spoken."

In the spirit of that general instruction, let me underscore four particular points gleaned through participation in thousands of sacrament meetings over the years in many different wards and settings:

1.  Be on time.

It's always a good idea if you're in the bishopric to be in your seat at least five minutes before the meeting starts.  That way you can greet guest speakers, visiting authorities, and have a chance to make last minute adjustments under control.  As you sit reverently and listen to the prelude music, others in the audience will quietly take their seats too.  If you're not there, there is no sense by the attendees that things are getting close to getting started, so they will continue to visit and mingle and wander around the chapel.  The meeting actually begins the minute you take your seat on the stand and look into the faces of the ward members.  I found revelation flowing freely about certain ward members.  It's the reason presiding officers with priesthood keys sit facing their flock.  It's hard to explain until you have experienced it, but it is real.  Then start the meeting at the appointed hour.  That gives you a chance to assess the size of the crowd and make adjustments to the number of sacrament trays and emblems in place.  Anticipate early what might go wrong.  Don't react if you can be pro-active.  Be settled early, never introduce the spirit of not knowing what's going to happen next.  Planning is enhanced by punctuality.

2.  Don't try to be funny.

As the conducting officer, sacrament meeting is not the place to introduce humor.  Save your quips and the latest joke you've heard.  Set a reverential tone by the things you say in welcoming people and how you say them.  Sincerity is much more appealing than humor or sarcasm.  The world is full of self-appointed clowns and entertainers -- some are actually well-paid.  Appropriate humor is one of the charming attributes of prophets -- President Hinckley and President Monson are classic examples.  Their humor is always appropriate, self-deprecating and in good taste.  Many conducting officers thinking to imitate lose a lot in translation.  It's generally best to let the speakers introduce some humor if they choose, but the conducting officer should maintain the idea of setting the tone and the spirit of the meeting.  Elder LeGrand Richards and Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone were masters of humor.  Don't be tempted.  I've seen things escalate out of control from some unwise attempts to start the meeting, and raucous laughter has too often ensued, killing the spirit and the intent of worship for all in attendance.

3.  Never give announcements over the pulpit.

It takes a little more disciplined foresight and training, but with practice it can be done.  A written program is the proper place for all announcements.  Remember, sacrament meeting is a worship service and the only place on earth (except for a few notable exceptions) where we participate in revealed prayers on the emblems of the Lord's atoning sacrifice.  The texture of the meeting should be pointed toward the sacrament and anything we can do to focus our attention on that is desirable.  Resist the temptation to have someone who's a stakeholder in the Pinewood Derby take a minute announce all the rules and the date of the competition.  There should be no exceptions to that rule in my opinion.  Sacrament meeting is not a business meeting.  While there are ward business items to be accommodated, such as sustainings and releases, everything else should find its way into the written outline of the day's program or not brought up at all.

4.  Announce the whole program after the sacrament.

There is nothing more distracting than a conducting officer who is up and down during a meeting like a Jack-in-the-box.  Before or after the sacrament (local leaders may direct their preference), announce the balance of the program, including the closing hymn and the benediction, then sit down.  Your role is finished.  Don't ever announce most of the program then say, "And we'll go to that point in the program."  You have never heard a General Authority conduct a meeting that way.  Don't ever get up again at the end of the meeting unless the building is on fire or you have heard some egregious doctrine being taught that needs to be corrected.  Of course, the person conducting the meeting is always subject to the direction of the presiding authority, and the one who is senior always takes precedence.  Your final commentary about who said what and how they said it is not necessary.  Let the meeting play out and allow the Spirit to add the commentary, not you.

Just remember, I'm not king of the world here.  Take guidance from your local leaders on the hows and wherefores of conducting sacrament meeting. 

But if I were king of the world. . .

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