I have a dear friend who just lives two doors up from us. I am not going to go into all that this dear sister has done for us, but suffice it to say that my kids call her "Grandma Goody." Grandma Goody did another favor for me last conference Sunday, and while I was at her house, she told me about a dinner that the stake Relief Society had been asked to put on.
But what a dinner.
Apparently they were asked to make a sit down dinner for a stake president training which our stake was hosting. Stake presidents from Medford to Seattle were invited and both general and area authorities were present (one from Alaska). Grandma Goody isn't in the Stake RS, but the president and first counselor are in our ward and recruited heavily from within our ranks to get the help needed to put on the dinner--centerpieces, china, crystal, silver, three courses, all homemade food--the works. This event came on the heels of a few other major activities Grandma Goody was involved in and I could see that she was very overwhelmed. I volunteered to help with dishes on Saturday night.
I have to say, I didn't volunteer for the leadership, my thoughts were all on my friend. In fact, I went into the service with the attitude that the whole sit-down, fancy dinner thing seemed more than a bit over the top. After all, General Authorities are just men, and are probably the first to say that no special treatment is in order. When I arrived at the church, there seemed to be no shortage of help: Besides the RS presidency and a committee, there were several spouses and half a dozen young single adults who volunteered to do the serving. My attitude didn't improve when I found out the meeting was running nearly an hour behind, and the dishwashing that was supposed to start at seven was actually still dinner being served.
Grumble. Grumble. Grumble.
The funny part about the whole thing is that for the first hour I really did little more than get in the way of a very well-oiled machine of getting hot food out to the tables, and yet several different sisters said really sweet things to me like, "Are you the one who volunteered to do dishes?" The whole time I'm thinking, "Aren't you ALL volunteers? And haven't most of you been here all day? And if you knew how much I just wanted to be home in bed, you wouldn't think I was nice. AT. ALL." I smiled very sweetly instead.
Because the group was being served in the RS Room right next to the kitchen, no dishes were to be done DURING the meeting portion of the night, which started after eight.
The grumbling at this point sounded more like murmuring.
Then, perhaps recognizing that we would just be outside waiting for the meeting to finish, they invited us to come inside and join them. They waited while we arranged chairs around the edge of the room, and I was feeling exceptionally glad that I'd dressed up. The man conducting the meeting was Elder Whitney Clayton, a member of the presidency of the seventy. He talked briefly about the purpose of such meetings, and how it allows him to get around to eventually meet all of the stake presidents in the 230 + stakes for which he is responsible. He told us that if you ever get an opportunity to see a member of the Quorum of the Twelve at a Stake Conference, you must take advantage of it because it will be 29 more years before it happens again. Assuming, of course, that no new stakes are added in that same time.
Then, without any more formal remarks, he opened up the floor to spontaneous questions. I've never been in a church meeting quite like that. It was interesting that so many of the questions involved specific administration questions, but that the answers were often spiritual in nature, with Elder Clayton and other members of the leadership sharing both scriptures and personal experiences. The Spirit was strong and I felt blessed above all measure to be there. And certainly blessed above the rotten attitude I'd walked into the room with. I suddenly saw the dinner as a chance for a group of very over-worked and underpaid (or UNpaid) men to be treated to the best we had to offer. What a difference the spirit can make!
There were three things especially that stood out to me from this singular event:
1) One particular brother asked about how to make the receipt of the Priesthood a more sacred and understood thing for someone recently converted to the church. Elder Clayton asked four others to respond before he did and they all said the same thing: if a man is worthy for baptism, he is likewise worthy to be ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood. That it is important to remember that the Aaronic Priesthood, by definition, is a preparatory state. To require too much preparation ahead of time can be very intimidating for a new convert, just as it would be for a twelve year-old boy who had been raised in the church.
When Elder Clayton's turn came for the question, he turned to Alma 27. (Well, first he turned to his iPhone but after a moment said, "I'm so unused to this, does anybody actually have any scriptures?) He read about how the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, fearful of their life in the Lamanite lands, agreed to follow Ammon and his brethren up to the land of the Zarahemla and put themselves at the mercy of the Nephites, even to be their slaves just so that they could save their lives. Ammon contradicts the king saying, "It is against the law of our brethren, which was established by my father, that there should be any slaves among them; therefore let us go down and rely upon the mercies of our brethren."
Elder Clayton used these verses to point out that when people join the LDS Church, they are essentially doing as the Ammonites did here--they are leaving the traditions of their fathers behind along with the only life they've ever known. Sometimes they leave family and friends behind. They need our love and kindness above all else, and yet, we make it so hard for them to fully integrate. Elder Clayton accused church members generally of not allowing new members into their cliques, using specialized vocabulary that makes no sense to anyone outside our culture and in short, putting these tender converts through some kind of gauntlet to see if they are tough enough to make it. He basically issued a cease and desist order on all such conduct and challenged each in the room to shepherd new converts from baptism to temple and beyond.
2) When asked about easing burdens on those in leadership positions time-wise, particularly bishops, Elder Clayton said, "The gospel is simple, and Church administration can be simple." A better explanation of the second half of that statement is in my third point, but what I liked about this basic statement was the clear distinction between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the temporal running of the church. It reminds me that all we do in the church is to help bring people closer to Christ, and that the Church is not about the administration of programs but about ministering to individuals. When our programs cease to facilitate personal growth and increase spirituality they have failed.
3) Elder Clayton clarified what he meant about the potential for Church administration to be simple. Speaking specifically to the stake presidents in the room he told them that there was NO WAY they could ever hold enough meetings or counsel often enough with individuals or even delegate enough to ever solve all the problems in their stake. But, he said, "The Lord can." To this end, the main advice he gave to stake presidents was this:
1--Read and study the scriptures every day.
2--Set aside time for meaningful prayer.
3--Do all you can to keep perfect harmony with your spouse.
Why? Because these three things will keep signals from the Spirit crystal clear. He said that if our meetings and counsels were filled with the quiet whisperings of revelation then they could be shorter, more productive and truly helpful to individuals. He obliquely referenced the story of Mary and Martha reminding us that we had to be careful in getting too caught up in the work of the kingdom that we didn't take time to seek the higher things of true religion. I think this three-fold advice is going to be helpful to me in the months to come. Is it anything new? No, not really, particularly the first two, but when Elder Clayton connected such preparation to more effectively channeling what the Lord would have us do, it was a mini-revelation for me.
And a final note on revelation. Elder Clayton bore powerful testimony as he closed the meeting about his knowledge of living prophets and apostles, and particularly ongoing revelation. "Is this a Church of revelation? As surely as I stand here. Evey day, every hour, the good men and women of this Church receive revelation for how to keep it moving forward. Do good and be good, and all will work out in the end."
Wow. The gospel is simple.