By D. Jeff Burton
In this column I share some edited communications I had with a fellow Borderlander, “Ron,” (names and details changed) who lives in northern Utah and works in education.
Ron: I count myself mostly still in the Borderlands, attending and participating only when I feel the need, but I miss some of the perks of being a full-fledged member of Group 1. The problem is, I can’t go back unless there are changes—in either me or the Church. What do you think would make it easier—or possible—for people like you and me to move back into Group 1 status?
Jeff: What changes you could make in yourself in order to reenter Group 1 is very complex and personal question. But as for changes at church, I once compiled a list of “revelations” I would give to the prophet if I were God—changes that would make the Church look more inviting to people like me.1 Here are a few of them.
1. Living according to Christian principles is at least as important as going to church and attending the temple. This message should be communicated to Church members regularly.
2. Expand temple covenants to include personal commitments to others. Focus especially on love, kindness, patience, thoughtfulness, sharing, caring, humility, and honesty.
3. Open temple marriage ceremonies to immediate family members, whether they are temple recommend holders or not.
4. Provide complete statistical information to members on such things as how tithing money and other donations are spent, activity rates, etc.
5. Open all levels of church business meetings to visitors. Fully explain the background of policy decisions, e.g., why, how, and by whom the decisions were made.
6. Make the email addresses of all leaders available to Church members.
7. Empower ward and stake members to assist in selecting their leaders, e.g., through nominations, personal suggestions, etc.
8. Emphasize service over proselyting in youth missions.
9. Allow members to partially designate the destination of their tithing donations.
10. Secrecy should be used only to protect the personal privacy of individual members. Otherwise, all information should be open.
11. Present “all sides of the issue” in Church magazines, essays, and online content for adults. Apologetic approaches are not sufficient.
12. When they are available, invite non-members who are expert in some religious topic to speak at church meetings.
13. Encourage teachers to use any factual sources of information that shed valid light on any topic covered in any class.
14. Encourage Church members to join useful study and action groups outside the Church proper.
(And now for a bit of wishful thinking.)
15. Worthy girls twelve years of age and up can be ordained deaconesses, as in ancient times. (Aaron’s wife was named Elisheba, so the girls will be ordained to the Elishebic Priesthood.)
16. Adult women can be ordained to the Sarahic priesthood (named after one of Melchizedek’s wives.)
17. Every other Sunday, the bishopric and high councilmen will sit with their children in the audience while their wives sit on the stand.
(And now I get a little tongue-in-cheek.)
18. Encourage parents to provide a variety of quiet, healthy snacks (instead of Cheerios) to their children during sacrament meetings (and also to those sitting nearby).
19. When appropriate, the bishop should stand and announce, “Because today’s meeting looks so boring, we will cancel it and have a ward picnic instead.”
Ron: The ideas you propose in your “revelations” would be nice; but I suppose it’s a long shot to think that the Brethren would adopt them on their own. Is there any way we could encourage such changes without waiting for an act of God?
Jeff: I often suggest that people write kind, calm letters to our leaders with information, questions, and suggestions.2 Many years ago, I wrote letters to several general authorities talking about the temple ceremony and how it might be made more loving and kind, and over the past two decades, I’ve seen temple ceremonies change along some of the lines I had suggested. Of course, there’s no way of knowing if these changes had any root in my letters—and there were doubtless many other people who wrote to Church leaders about the same subject—but I figure that making our thoughts, feelings, needs, and suggestions known can’t do any harm.
But enough about my ideas! What kind of “changes in the Church” do you think would help you?
Ron: My desires are pretty similar to yours, but I’m more interested in changes closer to the ground. For example, I would like to be able to get up in testimony meeting and simply say how great it is to be part of the ward and thank all the people who have befriended me without having to state a belief in the veracity of the Joseph Smith story or some other religious proposition.
I would also like to be completely frank with my wife, kids, and parents about my beliefs without fearing that I might hurt or offend them. I’m always on my guard about what I say and do. It would greatly improve my relationships if Church leaders simply told its members that it is okay to hold diverse beliefs and that people who do so can be as valid, worthy, and acceptable as any true believer.
The truth is, I think I would do well in a leadership calling—like being a member of the bishopric—even though I don’t have a firm testimony. I wish the criteria for leadership were more of a matter of being willing to serve rather than being “worthy” to serve. As a school administrator, I could certainly serve honorably in our Sunday School presidency if they would accept me as I am.
It would be a real pleasure to give my time and money to the cause of housing, feeding, and clothing the poor. To me that is the essence of Christian principles, not just serving ourselves in our wards and stakes. If Group 1 took that kind of thing on as a focal part of our religion, I would have every incentive to join them.
Jeff: Those are all very worthwhile desires, Ron. It occurs to me that you could get some of those changes started, for yourself and for others.
I know that we’re discouraged from “aspiring to positions” in the church, but I imagine that your bishop might actually find it useful for you to specify which callings you’d be especially effective at. You might go so far as to ask, “What would I need to do to be eligible to be called as a member of the Sunday School presidency?” You could even make up a few callings of your own!
On the testimony meeting issue, it might actually be refreshing to your ward members to hear your particular brand of testimony. Perhaps you could offer thoughtful and thankful comments to various ward members privately, and then again later in testimony meeting. Hearing it that second time publicly would not surprise them. Indeed, it would likely please them.
Your final thought about serving the less fortunate is one that I think can be integrated into your ward’s routine, even if it has to be done so informally to begin with. I have been serving as a volunteer at an assisted living facility where I meet individually with residents of the facility three times a week just to offer support, listen, and to be a friend during trying times. Some members of my ward are also there, officially called to provide Sunday meetings, the sacrament, and so forth. They and a few others in the ward know that I go there outside of a church calling to do volunteer service, and a few have expressed an interest joining with me. It might be fun to start something on your own and then invite other ward members to join you. (“I’m helping serve lunch every Saturday at the homeless shelter and I’m really enjoying it. You want to come down and join me sometime? … Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at 11 next Saturday.”) Before long the word might get around, more could join with you, and it could become an unofficial ward project.
One thing I have learned during my years as a Borderlander is that change for the better comes only when we are ready for it, and often only when we are involved in creating that change.
1. In the last few years, Church leaders such as President Uchtdorf and Elder Holland have suggested that the official Church welcomes those with doubts, questions, and different ways of thinking about their Mormonism. This attitude is slowly filtering down into the pews of our local wards and stakes, making it easier for Borderlanders to be accepted as fellow Mormons.
2. Over the years I have had good experiences exchanging letters with various general authorities such as Elder Holland.