The Tyranny of the Moment: Properly Handling Controversial Testimonies in Sacrament Meeting
Editor’s Note: The following does not necessarily reflect the views of This Week in Mormons.
Like many others this week, I happened upon a raw video clip of a fast and testimony meeting where a 12-year-old girl named Savannah stood and read a written testimony about her experience with same-sex attraction, using her moment at the pulpit to come out to the congregation. This has set off various opinions online about who was out of line, Savannah or the church leader? I generally avoid controversial topics on LeadingLDS but since this is important and we are within the thoughtful confines of TWiM, I’d like to highlight some possible leadership lessons that we can take away from this.
The reality is, in this fast and testimony meeting episode, nobody was completely the victim and nobody was completely the hero. My heart goes out to Savannah, and I can only imagine what she must be going through. From her point of view it sounds like she was striving to reach out to others that might be experiencing feelings of alienation or difference. This is a valiant effort and we should all strive to reach out to SSA members in our local wards and communities to make sure they feel they have a place in the pews of our church. But at some point her message got out of her control when it evolved from a simple testimony about inclusiveness and the love of God, to remarks centered on her and an opposing agenda. You won’t necessarily find that message by only reading her written words, but when you address a sensitive topic in a public church meeting without notifying those that are presiding, they will feel blindsided.
This doesn’t even mention the parent or friend that recorded the event and released it publicly. Before you know it, you have an insincere media that dog-piles on the event and paints the picture that Mormon priesthood leaders enjoy picking on a kind child, and are “who we thought they were” in regards to how Mormons show love to the LGBT community. This dismisses the fact that the majority of those actively attending LDS services want individuals like Savannah to feel welcome and loved at church. It also dilutes the incredible impact of efforts like mormonandgay.lds.org, not to mention the remarkable progress of organizations like NorthStarLDS.org.
Again, my heart goes out to Savannah and her process of discovering who she is and how she was made. I pray she has a forgiving heart and realizes she, her parents, and her friends also have plenty of reason to say, “I’m sorry.”
What about the presiding priesthood leader, said to be a member of the stake presidency? My heart goes out to him as well. He has a heavy responsibility on his shoulders to guide the meeting toward a focus on Jesus Christ and His Atonement. I’ve sat in the presiding chair countless times and when something like this happens you can feel every eye on you, wondering if you are going to intervene. Can I think of a long list of other responses that would have shown more love to Savannah and potentially avoided the awkwardness that lingered during the rest of the meeting? Yes. But this good leader didn’t have the luxury of weighing all the options and making a more measured decision. We are a lay ministry and we make mistakes. I have no doubt that this leader has run this scene through his mind countless times since it happened considering a better approach. Or maybe he feels increasingly confident in his actions, and that’s fine too. Either way, he now faces the reality that his choice of action, good or bad, may influence Savannah to feel unwelcome. Now, of course, he has no control over who is offended and how they respond, but these are still sleep-depriving thoughts local leaders wrestle with. Just as Savannah has to make difficult choices as she develops in mortality, leaders have tough calls to make as well, and no time to write out their statement. I’m not weighing them against each other or stating they are equal, but hard decision they are nonetheless.
The Leadership Lesson – The Tyranny of the Moment
When a lay leader is called, nobody can easily prepare them for these tyrannical moments; moments when there is not perfect decision to take nor a perfect outcome to achieve. Do I save the meeting or save Savannah? Do I show more love towards the agenda of the meeting or to this young girl? Do I offend those in attendance or do I offend her? Should I say something or ride it out? Am I not supposed to say something? How am I supposed to show love when anything I do will offend someone?
These moments are cruel! Every bishop called wants to be Bishop Smiley, the bishop that everyone loves, the bishop that everyone speaks so highly of and remembers for the rest of their life for being an influence for good. But when the moment of tyranny blindsides you, you quickly realize the road to Bishop Smiley is a difficult one.
My intent in writing this message is not to state who was right and who was wrong. My hope is that leaders reading this will realize you too will face moments of tyranny. These moments will take quick analysis, muscle memory, and ability to execute them effectively. Those in church leadership have been ordained and blessed with priesthood authority—and many times keys—to decide. It is our role to prepare ourselves so that our ability will match our authority.