Sacrament Meeting Talks: A More Excellent Way

Some sacrament meeting talks are more meaningful, insightful, and applicable than others. Certainly natural ability comes into play, but one of the biggest problems, from my experience, is that most speakers follow a “same old” generic pattern. There is nothing inspired or authoritative for this pattern, and in fact in many cases it can dull or deaden what could otherwise be enriching and inspiring sacrament meetings.

I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s efforts, faith, or testimony. Rather, I bring good news. It’s not hard, if one is willing, to raise the standard of sacrament meeting talks. It requires (a) recognizing the “same old” pattern as simply one way of giving a talk (and probably not the best way) and (b) being willing to try something new. I think you’ll like it.

So, I will first describe the “same old” pattern and then describe what is, in my opinion, “a more excellent way” of giving sacrament meeting talks. I hope that some of my tips can be worthwhile for all Latter-day Saints, however refined their talk-giving abilities may be.

THE “SAME OLD” PATTERN

When people use the “same old” pattern for talking, they probably don’t think, “Hey, I think I’ll use that ‘same old’ pattern that everyone else uses.” Rather, it is probably commonly thought that this pattern is simply THE way of giving a talk.

These “same old” talks often begin with an unnecessarily elaborate introduction. Such introductions might involve (a) discussing how and when the bishop  asked you to give the talk, (b) giving some kind of joke, often unrelated to the topic, (c) providing a disclaimer about how you don’t really want to give a talk, or at least not a very long one, or (d) some or all of the above.

These introductions are not simply unnecessary because they waste time. Time filling is a very minor problem here. The major problem, from my estimation, is that these kinds of introductions set the talk up to be mundane or trivial, as well as perpetuate the myth that this is the way sacrament meeting talks must or ought to be. In this way, the “same old” speaker gives a silent disclaimer:

Don’t expect anything great from this talk. In fact, because this talk is mediocre, I’m going to attract undue attention to myself and to a bland pattern of talk giving. By doing so, I will perpetuate the myth that sacrament meeting talks are simply something that we have to do and that have little practical value, at least beyond the things that I might have learned in preparing and giving the talk. You laugh or smile at these efforts not because they are funny or enlightening, but rather because you sympathize with me in my tedious chore of talk giving.

Once a person has given this necessary disclaimer, she can proceed to introduce the topic. This is usually done in a very generic way (e.g., “my talk is on faith”). In this way, one can send the message to the congregation that one is giving a standard repetitive talk.

If a person wants to accentuate this generic message, this can be done by providing a dictionary definition. The speaker knows that the congregation does not need this definition, and he’s not planning on drawing on it in any particular way, but none of this matters for the “same old” pattern. All that matters is to not introduce the topic in a meaningful, applicable, or inspiring way.

From this point, the “same old” pattern might take a variety of turns, some of which are better than others, but in general adheres to at least one of the following guidelines:

1. An excessive amount of long general authority quotes.

2. Use of published inspirational stories (often without much attribution) or, alternatively, an unnecessarily long description of a personal story.

3. Simple recipes for acquiring blessings (do x, get y), often in conjunction with worn-out non-scriptural platitudes that either have no explicit relationship to the Savior  (“say your prayers, read your scriptures, go to church”) or imply that He is an instrumental blessing machine (“take advantage of the Atonement”).

4. The use of various scriptural passages, but without context, exploration, or elaboration. Such passages are often used for the purpose of supporting a blessing recipe or generic platitude (#3).

5. Subtle political commentary.

6. A brief standard testimony, of various levels of sincerity and always reserved for the end, followed by a possible violation of the third commandment (see my future post).

Now, please understand that I’m giving a caricature here. I’ve heard many wonderful sacrament meeting talks and even in talks that are perhaps not so wonderful I’ve been uplifted and inspired. Still, I think that far too many of us do some of these things simply because we’ve learned some mediocre habits about what giving a talk should be. I’m sensitive also to the fact that giving sacrament meeting talks is not easy for many people. That’s why this post brings such good news — the “more excellent” talk is actually often easier to prepare, and much more satisfying.

A MORE EXCELLENT WAY

In contrast to the “same old” pattern talks, excellent sacrament meeting talks have a purpose of strengthening, enlightening, and inspiring the congregation. Speakers don’t have to be especially talented or experienced — they have a variety of experiences, public speaking skill, and experience in the church. But what they have in common is that they know their audience somewhat well and they speak sincerely from their hearts. There’s no need for gimmicks (jokes, apologies) or formalizations (definitions) — although there’s nothing inherently wrong with perhaps telling a joke or giving a definition.

These speakers also recognize that they are not simply giving a talk “on faith” (whatever topic they were assigned). Rather, they are talking about faith in a personal and inspiring way, and in a way that might be most relevant for the congregation right here and right now. There’s no formula for this kind of talk, but here are a few things I’ve noticed, in contrast with “same old” talks:

1. These speakers stick closely to the standard works and use the scriptures well. This doesn’t mean they have to be a scriptorian, it simply means they’re willing to turn to the stories and lessons of the scriptures first and foremost, and see general authority quotes as supplementary. When general authority quotes are used, they are more likely to be recent ones (perhaps from the last General Conference).

2. These speakers almost always avoid published inspirational stories. If stories are told, they are almost always their stories (either about them or people close to them). In this way, they portray the gospel in the real world, not the canned sensational one. However, these speakers also recognize the need to avoid lengthy travelogues. They tell the part of the story that is relevant and then move on.

3. They are sensitive to the struggles and needs of others, and for this reason avoid making the gospel too formulaic. They think twice before saying things like “Being happy is a simple choice” or “If you pay your tithing, the Lord will bless you financially.” If they do want to say things along these lines, they might instead portray their own story — how they chose to be happy in the midst of affliction, rather than offering canned platitudes that perhaps hurt as many people as they help.

4. Along the lines of #3, these speakers recognize that living the gospel is more complicated than “reading your scriptures, saying your prayers, and going to church.” Rather, the gospel is about coming to Christ — and He plays a central role in these talks (whether explicit or implicit).These speakers wisely recognize that people come to church not to learn a few facts or be reminded of some vague platitudes, rather they come to church to worship Christ and to seek healing through Him.

5. These speakers recognize that the gospel is not synonymous with a particular political platform or to American democracy, and they are also aware of sensitive familial, gender, racial, international and other circumstances.

6. Finally, these speakers bear their testimony whenever prompted by the Holy Ghost — whether this is planned or extemporaneous. Testimonies are not simply saved for the end. Indeed, the line between “talk” and “testimony” is blurred in many of the best talks.

Well, I hope these suggestions might be helpful for a few people. Please recognize that this post is simply my opinion. I also understand that we need to be concerned about how we receive the talks of others. Here I’m simply focusing on the giving of talks. I would love to hear what others have to say.

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15 Responses

  1. Are you willing to hand out more specific advice? How would you approach a talk on genealogy? I need a little imagination to get more than a couple scriptures about it. What about scripture stories? Any suggestions?
    As for personal experience, I have about 3 weeks worth of genealogy experience to draw on. Is it too specific to drone on about some dead people in my line?
    I think I am naturally sensitive to others, so I think I won’t offend anyone. I also am not interested in published inspirational stories of unknown origin.
    I have a couple ideas about directions to go in but it does not center around the scriptures, scripture stories, Christ specifically, all of which I would love to include. Please feel free to suggest something.

  2. Amen brother!

    I recently saw an interesting article on giving a talk in my BYU alumni magazine. It addresses the specific mechanics of an effective talk:

    http://magazine.byu.edu/?act=view&a=2409

  3. Thanks Dennis. I’ve sounded off on this topic to anyone within earshot a number of times over the past couple of years, but never as coherently as it is presented here. A couple of suggestions that I would add to “the more excellent way”:

    1) If you are using a short or well-known quotation from either the scriptures or a general authority, take a few minutes and memorize it. If you are making the congregation wait 30 seconds while you look up John 3:16, you’ve probably lost them. Also with quoted material, put some feeling into it.

    2) In my ideal world, the speaker would have more of a say with regards to the topic he or she presents. I am fully aware of the problems this would cause with program continuity, etc., but I think the trade off would be well worth it. The trade off would be speakers who have a passion for the topic they present and meetings that take advantage (in a good way) of the unique talents, interests, and life experiences of those in the ward. @genealogytalk’s situation is a perfect example. I’m sure he or she has something unique that they could present to the ward, but my guess is that 3 weeks worth of genealogical work isn’t that thing.

  4. Any chance you could do an article like this for fast & testimony meeting? I usually wind up feeling very spiritually deficient after F&T, since listening to people blubber their way through their life stories and *maybe* tacking on a sentence or two having to do with the Gospel just doesn’t do much for me. I’ve been a member for fifteen years, and have experienced very few F&T meetings (in different parts of California) that have not fit the “blubber out autobiography, then stick on a pseudo-spiritual afterthought” pattern.

  5. #1 – I’d likely start out a talk on genealogy using Genesis 5 to emphasize that a purpose of the ancient scripture was a genealogical record and a showing how the Lord selects his covenant people and blesses the righteous and perhaps use Matthew 1 to emphasize how the righteousness of many leads to the blessings of many. Trail into Malachi for both the hearts of the children to the fathers and also emphasis on how the fathers are also turned to the children. How our ancestors are benefited. How our children are benefited. Perhaps a few personal stories to explain those thoughts. Depending on the promptings of the spirit, I’d expect the talk to then lead towards either temple work, the plan of salvation, or family unity – there’d be more scriptures and maybe a quote to bridge the links, but I’d actually have to work on writing the talk to figure those parts out.

  6. You’ve gained another fan Dennis. Great post.

  7. genealogytalk,

    Well, I could give lots of suggestions about how to give a talk on genealogy. In fact, I gave a talk on family history and temple work not too long ago.

    Here’s some thoughts. First, think of what you’d like your specific talk to be about. Rather than simply “genealogy” think of a thesis. “By doing family history and temple work, we … ”

    Second, expand your horizons as to what might constitute experiences relevant to your talk. You probably have lots of experiences related to family, for example, that would be relevant to a talk on family history. When I gave my family history talk, I opened with an experience about when I worked in a prison. It was near Christmas time and I was working with the prisoners making some crafts. A song came on the radio: “I’ll be home for Christmas / You can plan on me. / Please have snow and mistletoe / And presents on the tree. / Christmas Eve will find me / Where the lovelight gleams. / I’ll be home for Christmas / If only in my dreams.” It was a somber moment, and one of the prisoners said, “This is a sad song.” And I told the congregation, “It really is a sad song, isn’t it?” And then I spoke of each person’s longing for home, and I connected this to those who have died without knowledge of the gospel and who are in prison, so to speak, longing for home. I spoke for a while about our need to do this work for them (putting the focus on them rather than on us). I talked about how family history is a humble work and a selfless work. And I closed by saying something like, “Perhaps your own efforts at family history can enable some of your ancestors to be home for Christmas, so to speak, not only in their dreams but in reality” (the talk was given in November I think).

    Anyway, probably nothing I’ve just said is directly helpful to you because it’s not your story. But maybe it gives you a flavor of the kind of connections you might be able to make in your life and with the scriptures that are meaningful to you. Here’s a freebie, as far as the scriptures are concerned: the story of Lehi and Nephi in the prison. If you’re creative, you can see dozens of connections in that story to family history and temple work.

    Concerning talking about your ancestors, I think that can be OK. Within reason. It probably should be brief and you should focus more on what is meaningful to you than getting lost in a biography.

    Anyway, I hope these suggestions are helpful.

  8. rk,

    Thanks for the link. I remember reading that a while ago. I like most of what Bott is saying, although I don’t see that there is an essential “four-fold” structure to a talk. Talks don’t have to be this way. I also think there’s too much emphasis on talks being easy. They shouldn’t be THAT easy, nor should we want them to be. But other than that, they are good suggestions in my opinion.

    Seanette,

    Yes, I probably could do a post on testimonies. Sounds like a good idea.

  9. In one of the wards I was in I served in the Bishopric for a time. When we assigned someone to speak, we gave them a copy of one of the conference talks, but didn’t given much of a specified topic. Our hope was that doing this would provide our members with relevant, current source material to work from, but in a way that provided them with the freedom to follow whatever the Spirit directed. I like to believe that it worked well, because I remember for the most part that our speakers did well and feedback was always positive, although that may not be reliable since we like to make everyone feel good in the church.:)

    We also handed out a sheet that offered some suggestions in planning the talks – we mentioned the importance of using personal experience, testifying, posing questions that lead to pondering/discovery in our own consideration of the gospel, challenging the members to change for the better as directed by the Spirit, and using the scriptures. I’d like to think the direction we gave is in harmony with the Spirit. It’s a fine line as a church leader to make sure you’re not leading by the hand, not following unnecessary cultural traditions in the church, and allowing people to follow the spirit as prompted, while not making assignments too loosey goosey. I hope it’s clear that I mention my service as a leader not to shine a light on our Bishoric, but just to help explain some of the thought processes and promptings or inspiration that may be occurring behind the scenes, as I tend to suspect the readership of this blog doesn’t consist of a bunch of tenured High Priests:). Having a calling in a Bishopric was a great learning experience for me, and I hope when I share things from the leadership perspective it’s taken in the helpful light I hope for.

    That said, having seen how well our Bishop planned, I think the quality of talks comes down in large part to how carefully the leaders treat speaking assignments and fast and testimony meetings. As a general rule, we were expected to have speakers selected well in advance of the assignment, and have the assignment given no later than one week before the member would speak. It’s unnecessary when the member begins the talk by saying “When Brother Such and Such called me on Friday and asked me to speak…,” but it’s also unnecessary that Brother Such and Such waited until Friday to make preparations for the sacrament meeting. Good Sunday School lessons are often best when the teacher allows the material to mush around in their head for a while – it’s the same with speaking.

    I think part of the issue here is also that we mostly learn how to speak in church by observation. I would fully endorse a manual on speaking similar to the teaching manual “No Greater Call” with maybe a short term Sunday School class centered around the topic. I suspect we don’t because the Church believes that our members have more to gain from that time through Gospel learning, and it’s hard to argue that. Still, it would be helpful and I think would do a lot to edify members down the road.

    As is often the case when I comment on this blog, my thoughts are rambling. Good post, really good comments. I hope this thread has some longevity.

  10. rutkowski:

    I like your comment. I’ve thought before that a big difference could be made in sacrament meeting talks based on how seriously the bishopric takes them as well as specific things they might do to prep the speakers. This has been purely hypothetical for me, though, not based on experience.

    I’m not a bishop, and I certainly wouldn’t want to think too much on these lines about particular individuals, but it seems to me that priesthood leaders ought to occasionally ask, “How effective (i.e., spiritual, uplifting, faithful, etc.) is the speaking and teaching in our ward, stake, etc.?” And if the answer is “not so good,” then it seems like something should be done about.

    To add one thing (not in direct response to your comment): One thing I worry about is that church leaders (rightfully) focus on the receiving of talks and lessons, but this shouldn’t be used as an excuse for glossing over poor speakers and teachers. (And certainly we all can help in this regard, not just priesthood leaders.) There will ALWAYS be mediocre teaching and speaking in the church (in other words, we don’t need to worry about a lack of opportunities to be charitable and patient), but this doesn’t mean we should try to have less so. Hopefully our meetings become more about the reception of well prepared and extremely thoughtful teachers and speakers, rather than “have a good attitude while I strain to listen to this talk.” Surely the youth in our church, to say the least, will be helped more by the former than the latter.

  11. Good post, Dennis.

    This reminds me of a comment made by one of the Brethren, I’m not sure who, at a regional conference of mine some time ago. He said that we need good music in the Church, and more of it, and we need good speaking in the Church, and less of it.

    I apologize, but I tend to remember the content of the message far better than the messenger.

    On a more directly related point, while I appreciate the care and reverence of the approach rutkowski describes, my own experience in assigning and receiving talk assignments has been quite varied. I’ve never been in a bishopric, but I’ve been to many PEC or Ward Council meetings at which the topics of Sacrament Meeting talks were discussed and speakers selected from the ward specifically because those speakers and those topics could appropriately address the needs of the ward at the time.

    My current bishopric is very careful, I know, to prayerfully plan the topics for meetings and to select the speakers as wisely as they know how. While their assignments are not so strict that they disallow individual interpretation or revelation, they often give guidance on the direction they’d like the talk to take.

    But they also use more than one approach. I was surprised once by a bishopric member assigning me a speaking topic, then asking me to choose topics for the other speakers in the meeting. I imagine that this is unusual, but it may be explained by the fact that I was Ward Mission Leader at the time, and the other speakers were the full-time Elders. I prayed about it and only had one topic that I felt strongly about. So I asked the Elder who had been in our ward the longest what he wanted to speak on, thinking that if it was different from the topic I had in mind, I’d assign mine to the other companion, which is what I ended up doing.

    So I don’t think there’s one right way of assigning topics any more than there’s one right way of giving a talk – not that anyone was implying that.

    One other observation, there’s a temptation/tendency among the most dynamic speakers, in my experience, to want to do something revolutionary with their talks. This might mean teaching some principle in a hitherto unheard-of way, (hopefully it’s not a hitherto unheard-of principle!) or it might mean using a technique that has never been seen before. There’s a temptation to want to prove what a good speaker you are.

    Even among less experienced speakers, I think how well you do in your Sacrament talk can be a point of not only pride, but self-valuation. At times I’ve fought against an expectation that some elderly and respected member of the ward would come to me after the meeting and declare the excellence of my talk in such a way as to make me feel successful. This is not an appropriate motivation or expectation, however, and the flipside of the desire for better speaking may be caution against focusing too much on the art and not enough on its end.

  12. Adam,

    I agree that there is a temptation for dynamic speakers to go over the top, but I’m not sure how much of a tendency it is. I haven’t heard many talks that I would consider to be “revolutionary.” But that may depend on where you are.

    Still, I agree that there can be a temptation to teach “some new thing,” and in so doing lose the spirit and focus more on yourself. I think the key is to realize that it’s really not about what you say in your talk (a talk lasts a few minutes and then it’s over), it’s about the difference that your talk might make in the lives of others. Maybe there can be a righteous “pride” in hoping that others will say to themselves, “that talk really helped me to do realize this… or led me to do this… etc.” In such cases, we can humbly “boast” in God, to use Ammon’s words. But surely a sign of success is not someone coming up and saying, “You give really good talks” (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though). The less attention that is placed on you and your talk giving, the better. Perhaps we should think in our hearts, like John the Baptist, “He [Christ] must increase, and I must decrease.”

    One other thought I have, pertaining to your comment about the need for less speaking. I think that many of the best talks end a little on the short side. I’ve heard many talks that were actually quite good but then the speaker begins to drone on and on.

  13. One last thing, concerning my last comment.

    I’ve written talks in the past that I thought were really “thoughtful,” but I’ve felt something nagging at me that I shouldn’t give that talk. At least a couple times I have written a new talk that is much less “thoughtful” but far, far more powerful. Perhaps something to keep in mind.

    Perhaps the best speakers are the ones who are willing to prepare and work hard, but also willing to scrap it all for something much better.

  14. A Case In Point:

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