With 300 members, we spent a lot of our time doing the things that every bishopric does – lots of interviews, family home evenings, extending callings, attending ward activities, counseling, etc. But we recognized that these activities alone wouldn’t necessarily result in the ward achieving the objectives we had collectively set. So, little by little, we identified the factors that seemed to constrain our achieving these goals, as well as the factors that would drive their achievement – and correspondingly changed how we spent our time. The best of these actions, summarized below, supported the achievement all of the objectives:
After my first few hundred interviews it was obvious that those who studied the scriptures and prayed daily were much, much less likely to be having worthiness problems than were those who didn’t. The pattern I saw was that when we do these simple things daily we stay within the strong “gravitational pull” of the Holy Ghost. Conversely, when we move outside the strong draw of the Holy Ghost, we are likely to slide further away. To keep our members within the radius of the Holy Ghost’s influence every day we established a ward theme:
|Daily to:||Study the Book of Mormon;|
|Pray fervently on your knees at least twice;|
|Serve someone else in some way; and|
|Repent of the small things.|
Early in my assignment I read an article in the magazine, Fast Company, entitled Change or Die. It summarized a study first reported in the New England Journal of Medicine tracking the health habits of men who had successfully undergone cardiac bypass surgery. The control group of 350 male patients had each been told that if they didn’t change their lifestyle (change eating habits, exercise, quit smoking, etc.) that they would almost certainly have a second cardiac event; and that if they did they would very likely die. Even though these men had already faced death and the loss of their families, etc., and despite being warned that if they didn’t change they would face almost certain death, three years later, more than 90% were back to their old lifestyle. In the experimental group of 350 male patients who had undergone cardiac bypass surgery and had been warned to change their lifestyles), more than 70% changed their lifestyles and maintained the change for at least three years. What was the difference? A system of daily accountability to themselves where they kept a scoreboard of daily behaviors, with at least monthly reporting of their scoreboards to their doctors. It occurred to me that if death itself was not a powerful enough motivation to change for the control group, and if the accountability scoreboards could be of such help, that I might use this principle with those with whom I was working as bishop. I used these consistently thereafter, and saw the powerful effect it had on literally hundreds of individuals who were facing these challenges:
Those trying to change bad habits
We developed scorecards on which members trying to overcome bad habits would keep a daily record that included SPSR, and other defensive behaviors (i.e. don’t use the computer in my room alone, get daily exercise, etc.). By holding themselves accountable each day three things happened: (a) they drew closer to God, felt the Holy Ghost, and gained strength; (b) their self esteem improved, knowing that they could make and keep commitments to themselves and to Heavenly Father; (c) as their “winning streak” extended, they wanted to keep their progress going; and (d) rather than me asking them every week how they did, they were taking personal responsibility and they would put their scoreboard on my desk or in my hand and deliver their own report. This placed me in the position of congratulating them on all the things they did well, rather than focus on the days they missed.
Those preparing for marriage.
Couples would keep a daily SPSR scoreboard, and would also keep daily score of five behaviors in addition to SPSR that would keep them away from the “avalanche zone:” 1) Don’t be in a home or apartment alone, 2) Never be in a bedroom alone even if others are in the apartment, 3) Don’t lay down together (even to watch TV), 4) No passionate kissing, and 5) Keep a curfew. The progress that couples made, each week doing their homework and reporting on their behaviors was overwhelming. “Bishop, we did great this week, but one night when we were sitting on the couch, our roommates went out to a movie, leaving us alone, and we didn’t get up and leave. Nothing happened&emdash;we kept the other four rules&emdash;but next time we committed to leave the apartment ourselves if that happened.” A young man and young woman who had just moved into the ward came in to see me and reported that they had been living together for more than two years, but that they now wanted to change their lives and prepare to be married in the temple. After I counseled with the stake president, we established a targeted time for their marriage, and they began on the journey, doing homework and keeping scoreboards every week. After five months of perfection on both SPSR and the five behaviors, I got a call one evening from the girl, who was very distraught, asking if I could come to the church and meet with the two of them, because they had “blown it.” I was heartsick, and went immediately to the church. When I got there they said that the night before they had found themselves alone in her apartment, and that in a moment of weakness they had “passionately kissed” (nothing else happened). They were devastated at having broken their winning streak and having not met their commitment to the Lord and to me. I empathized with them, told them that rather than “starting over” they now had a winning streak of 130 of 131 days and that that was unbelievably good. They got back on track and a little less than a year later were married in the temple.
Early during our service one of the area seventies, Elder Clayton Christensen, shared his approach of assigning scripture study homework to investigators, and teaching them how to pray for and receive answers to their prayers about their homework – a method that had been pivotal in the conversion of a mutual friend of ours. It entails asking investigators to come to the first discussion with a list of questions about religion to which they have not yet been able to find satisfactory answers. Elder Christensen picks two or three of these; gives an assignment to read 2-3 chapters in the Book of Mormon; and to distill answers to these questions from the chapters they have read. He asks them to summarize their answers in a 2-paragraph essay, which they are to bring to their next meeting. He also teaches them how to pray to know whether the things they have written, and the things they have read, are true. In the first 20 minutes of the next meeting they ask the investigators to read their answers, and explain how they derived these insights from what they read. This is an example of a homework assignment he asked our mutual friend to follow. This was built around questions our friend brought to the first meeting with the missionaries:
Read: Mosiah 18:1-16 (pp. 180-182), and Moroni 8: all (pp. 525-527) Write: A 2-paragraph answer to each of these 3 questions:
- Why does it make God so angry when people baptize little children?
- What does baptism mean and why are we baptized?
- What is the process by which we come to be forgiven of our sins?
Bring these to our next meeting, where we’ll discuss what you’ve written.Process for doing this:
- Pray, on your knees, aloud, telling God that you got this homework assignment and that you will need his inspiration to answer these questions. Ask him to help you understand the chapters.
- Read the chapters.
- Write your answers, in draft form, to the 3 questions.
- Kneel again in verbal prayer. Summarize your answers to God. Tell him you’re going to read the chapters one more time, and ask him, as you read, please to help you understand even more deeply the answers to these questions.
- Read the chapters again.
- Revise your answers, based upon your deeper understanding. This is what you need to turn in at our next meeting.
- Kneel again and pray a third time. Ask God if the things that you have read, and the things that you have written, are true.
In offering this third prayer, Elder Christensen asked him to follow the process that is outlined in Moroni 10:3-5. They read it together so that he could explain some important details. He stopped in the middle of verse 3, and asked, “Why does God want you to take a few minutes before praying to think about how richly he has blessed you?” The answer, which most investigators can see readily, is that it will help them realize how much God loves them, and how much they should love him. Elder Christensen paused again toward the end of verse 4, and asked, “What does it mean to pray with real intent?” To pray with real intent means that our friend needed to tell God what he intended to do if God answered his prayer.” He then read verse 5, and discussed how to recognize answers that God gives to our questions through the power of the Holy Ghost. He then asked if our friend would do this homework assignment.
I followed this process with fidelity in my interviews, organizing the homework assignment around questions or misunderstandings that were barriers to their becoming faithful, committed disciples of Christ. The results were incredible. It helped people progress; it taught them to study and pray seriously to draw closer to God; and it provided a powerful reason for weekly meetings with members with whom I was working. Homework became an easy way of working with the less-active members or with others struggling with their testimonies. Those receiving homework assignments included:
The following story is typical of the miracles I witnessed as members of our ward developed confidence that they could find answers to their prayers and resolution to their problems by studying the scriptures, pondering their applicability, and praying to know the truth.
In May, 2006, I placed a phone call to a young man whose name was on our ward list, but who, to my knowledge, had never been to church in our ward. He answered his phone, and I told him that I was his bishop and that I apologized for not having gotten hold of him sooner, but wondered if he would be willing to come down to the church to meet with me sometime. He hesitantly said yes, explaining that he hadn’t been to church in quite awhile. I assured him that I just wanted to have the chance to meet him, and we scheduled a time.When we met, he said he was a philosophy major, and that he had come to doubt that there was a god. I asked him if he would be willing to do a homework assignment (reading a chapter from To Draw Closer to God by President Eyring), and then come back and talk with me the next week. As we met the next week, he gave a remarkable report on his homework assignment, showing that he had thought about it deeply, and said he had enjoyed it a lot and that he had felt something as he studied (which I affirmed was the influence of the Holy Ghost working on his spirit). He agreed to meet weekly, and to do a new homework assignment each week. Utilizing Elder Clayton Christensen’s homework methodology (an incredibly powerful, yet simple process, to help people learn to pray about specific things and to get answers), I taught him how to receive answers to his prayers about the homework assignments and about other questions he might have. He also agreed to keep a weekly “scoreboard” tracking the days on which he “SPSR’d” (read the Book of Mormon and his assignment, prayed fervently on his knees at least twice each day, did a simple act of service, and repented of “small things” (bad thoughts, too much pride, etc.). The next week he came back having done his homework assignment, having prayed and felt that what he had read and written was true, and having a near perfect scoreboard, and he attended priesthood and sacrament meeting. This weekly process continued for a month, and at the end of this month he expressed a desire to get his life right. He confessed some serious transgressions and bad habits. We discussed the blessing of the atonement, and that if he took the necessary steps he could become “holy without spot”&emdash;not just “beige” but “white.”
We agreed that he would continue to do his homework, and add some “defensive behaviors” to his daily scoreboard (some NOT to do’s). He also agreed to come to church every week, and accepted an assignment on our Activities Committee, where he would help the committee to plan each Friday evening’s activity night, as discussed below. He also accepted an assignment on our Priesthood Visiting Committee, where he would go on splits with the Elders Quorum Presidency each Tuesday night to visit quorum members. Over the next year he missed doing his homework just once. He maintained almost perfect scoreboards, and received a powerful testimony. Although 22 years old, he expressed a strong desire to serve a mission, and we set a goal to submit his papers within six months. During this time his homework assignments included going through Preach My Gospel. He was so dedicated that he decided to learn the discussions in English so that he would know them wherever he was assigned. He recorded himself teaching the discussions (by heart), and then listened to the recording in his car on the way to work to find ways of improving his teaching. When he presented the first discussion to me I was overwhelmed. During this time he became chairman of our Priesthood Service Committee (something akin to the Relief Society’s Compassionate Service) where he would organize to help people move, put on a pancake breakfast every Sunday morning (except fast Sunday) for the brethren, and visited quorum members who were struggling. Six months later he submitted his papers and is now serving a great mission in South America. As miraculous as his story was, it was only one of more than a hundred stories with a similar result as people turned their lives to God.
Tracking these scoreboards showed that it was weekend nights when these members stumbled. They were often with non-member roommates at these times and would end up in bad situations. This was when those without close friends in the ward would either sit alone or go places out of boredom that were not good. So we called a special committee to plan activities for every Friday night that people would want to attend, and to which they could bring less-active or non-member friends. These activities would just be fun get-togethers that would build camaraderie among ward members and provide people with something they confidently knew would be fun. Oftentimes the people they met on Friday nights would invite them to do something Saturday evening, and then they would be with them at FHE on Monday night. We averaged between 60 and 100 participants at these events, and for the major events more than 200. This provided: 1) A tremendous venue for helping people feel that they belonged to the ward; 2) An attractive alternative for those struggling to reduce the influence of old friends who reinforced old behaviors; and 3) An easy church-related activity to which to invite less-active members and non-members.
We published a multi-week activities schedule which we distributed with refrigerator magnets. Our committee co-chairs sent a mass text message every Friday reminding people about the activity and encouraging them to bring non-member and less-active friends.
We resolved that every member would have a calling that met two criteria: 1) It had to be meaningful, and 2) It must entail serving with others. We decided that no one would serve alone – meaning that they had to serve in presidencies or as members of councils or committees. Each presidency or committee met weekly. My counselors met monthly with each committee to review progress and ensure that all committee members were actively involved. Less-active members that were starting to come back were assigned to a committee whose chairpersons would work directly with them. When new investigators began the lessons I would ask them to take an assignment on a committee that did not require church membership. Giving meaningful callings to all is a challenge in every YSA ward. Rather than making up trivial responsibilities as a way to give callings to all members, however, we gave members shared responsibility for significant assignments.
We held monthly ward temple nights where endowed members would go through an endowment session, and those with limited use recommends could do baptisms. But we also instituted a “third Thursday” temple baptism morning that became a favorite institution in the ward. Between 35 and 50 members would meet at the temple at 6:00am on the third Thursday of each month. It was one of the sweetest and most memorable experiences in my time as bishop. I often performed the baptisms (since many of those who had either never had a recommend or who had just qualified for one wondered if I would be there to help them their first time). My counselors and other endowed brethren handled the confirmations. After the baptisms we took them to a breakfast buffet at a hotel restaurant. This became a great ward tradition that encouraged temple attendance, brought the ward together in the holiest of settings, and provided a setting for those who received a recommend to attend with members of the ward (instead of having to go on their own when they were not familiar with the process).
While a bishop has plenty to do, an early priority for us was missionary work. So, while my counselors coordinated with all other committees, I retained the responsibility for meeting weekly with our Ward Mission Leader, and monthly with the all ward missionaries and with the Welcoming Committee Co-Chairs. We established a ward mission plan with some key activities for the elders’ quorum and relief society, but also asked each of our many committees to establish specific missionary activities, or “building blocks” that comprised the ward mission plan. For example, the Activities Committee set a goal to have at least 10 non-members/less-actives at each activity, the Elder’s Quorum and Relief Society set a goal to visit at least 5 less-active members each week. They would go out on visiting splits on Tuesday nights accompanied by new members and less-actives who were making good progress, etc. Specific things that I did directly included:
I met with each new investigator each week, in addition to the sessions they had with the full-time missionaries and our ward mission leader. This created a connection with the investigator and allowed them to express concerns (such as family pressure, etc.) which they were uncomfortable sharing with the missionaries. It also ensured that they were at church each week. We also made a conscious effort to extend a service-oriented calling to each investigator during the time they were still taking the lessons so that they could feel what it is like to serve in the kingdom. We also made sure that all discussions were taught with members of the ward present. This created a bond with ward members, who always invited the investigators to the Friday night activities and other ward events. It also ensured that when the investigators came to church they had several ward members who would befriend them. When they got baptized we made sure that a majority of the ward attended the baptismal service. This was a wonderful way of welcoming new members into the ward, and of increasing the commitment of members both to fellowship the new member and to do more missionary work themselves.
I met with each new member onece each week for the first year following their baptism. This turned out to be very important in helping them deal with challenges with family members, etc. We invited them to the Thursday morning temple baptism sessions, and worked to prepare them to serve missions or otherwise become endowed.
Our quorums, the Relief Society, our ward missionaries, and our welcoming committee members visit each person who moved into the ward, bringing them brownies, giving them a Friday Night Activity schedule, inviting them to come to that week’s activity, and to Church. In addition to their visits, I called each less-active member letting them know that I was their bishop and inviting them to come in and see me. Remarkably, the vast majority of these great young people were willing to come in and talk. I tried to meet them where they were spiritually at that time, and not put any pressure on. But I would typically give them something to read as a preliminary homework assignment, and ask them if they would come back to see me in a couple of weeks to discuss what they thought about it (typically this was something from To Draw Closer to God). I would try to establish a weekly meeting schedule with them to review homework assignments, and these assignments and the weekly meetings were the critical key to helping them ultimately return to activity, repent, commit to change their lives, and become committed to the gospel and to receiving a temple recommend.
This summary of our service features a lot of one-on-one meetings. It certainly took time – but it did not feel burdensome to me. It energized and inspired me. The reason is that the heavy lifting was done by others. The SPSR system coupled with our use of scorecards enabled the members to keep track of their own progress and hold themselves accountable. The homework system taught members who were coming into the church or trying to extract themselves from inactivity and sin how to be nourished in the good word of God. They developed confidence that the scriptures had the answers they needed, and that they could find in them the answers and the Spirit they needed. The scriptures and the Holy Ghost lifted these wonderful members into full, worthy membership in the church. All I did was to teach them how. And by ensuring that all members had meaningful assignments in the ward and served with other members, the wonderful members of our ward lifted and supported each other. I am grateful beyond words for the deep privilege it was to lead these extraordinary young men and women closer to Jesus Christ. Many were blessed. But my family and I were blessed most of all.