I am a convert of the Church for more than 18 years now. After marrying my wife, who is a convert as well, I made the leap into baptism at the age of 24. I remember I wanted to convert to the Church because I had my own testimony, not to please my wife, so before I set my baptism date, I had the discussions with three sets of missionaries. All experiences were different yet impactful on my life, for various reasons. But this article isn’t about my baptism or conversion story. This article is about the struggles I have relating to members of the Church overall.
I have lived in four different states and have been a part of about 14 different wards over my 18 plus years of being a member, but in every place, I have had a difficult time relating to fellow Church members. A perfect example of this came during a recent elders quorum meeting. We were discussing a talk from the April 2018 general conference regarding the three areas that families need to focus on while teaching children at home: family prayer, family scripture study, and family home evening. All three principles, I believe, are key foundational pieces of teaching our children in the home.
Here is where I have trouble relating. The elders quorum in my ward is made up of brethren from the age of 18 up to those in their elder years, so there is a vast array of age differences and experiences, but most of the brothers come from a point of view nothing like mine. All the discussions were centered on pioneer examples or personal experiences of growing up in active families who practiced all three things in their home quite often. I’m not talking about being perfect in these three areas, but their experiences were of memories involving family prayer, family scripture study, and family home evening. Hardly anyone spoke up with a different experience and I wonder why that is.
I didn’t grow up with these things. I didn’t grow up with much religion or structure at all. My experiences growing up are much like other converts of the Church, worldly experiences. I grew up with a single mother who worked most of the day. I went to school, had friends, and played sports. I spent my time doing worldly things not in accordance with the gospel. I went to crazy rock concerts and spoke just as the world speaks, with vulgar language. I did this because this is all I knew. My experiences were nothing like what I was hearing. Where was my voice? Why weren’t there experiences that I could relate to? Why was I uncomfortable giving my opinion and my experiences?
As I sat in elders quorum that Sunday, I felt the same way I had before: sad, ashamed, an outcast, and not worthy. As I reflected more, I became more depressed and discouraged because I continue to fall short in these areas. Instead of teaching how we can improve in these areas, much of the discussion was about how well the elders already practice these principles.
I wondered to myself, are there others in these rooms that feel the same way, or is it just me? Does everyone seem perfect or are they afraid to discuss their imperfections? Why can’t I open my mouth to share my story? Is it because I’m too embarrassed or is it because I feel like no one will relate to my story or experiences?
I went home that Sunday feeling worse about myself and my situation than I had before I went to church.
The next day I told my wife how I was feeling and she understood. She also told me that the gospel is true and perfect, but that the people aren’t. She told me I had a voice and that my voice needed to be heard because she believes there are many in the Church who feel the same way. She made a great comment that I will never forget. She said, “Your experience needs to be shared and there need to be more people willing to share their not-so-perfect experiences to help the meeting feel inclusive and not exclusive.”
I think that sometimes instead of teaching with the Spirit, people teach from their own experience. If this experience is narrow then only one voice is heard. Those who grow up with different experiences tend to feel judged and chastised instead of instructed on the principles being taught. While using personal experiences in a lesson helps to personalize the lesson, the lesson should be taught in a way that includes the vast diversity of the Church’s members. Experiences are important in a discussion, but the importance of a lesson is to teach and instruct on how to grow as a member of the gospel.
There are ways that we might be able to achieve this. I find that reaching out to those who I know come from different experiences before a lesson can give me different perspectives to ponder during preparation. Also, treating a lesson as more of a guide to facilitate a group discussion allows those in the room to teach each other. The lesson then acts as a way to keep on topic while the group bounces experiences and ideas off of each other. Most importantly, a lesson should be prepared with a prayerful heart. We should teach with the intent that Heavenly Father has a lesson to share and we are his mouthpiece. With a prayer in our hearts and Heavenly Father in mind, His message will be taught so that all will hear and feel understood.
Whether you have been a member all your life or you are a convert, whether you are less active or perfect in your church activity, please speak up in church about your imperfections and your weaknesses, about your frailties, and about your truth. There are people that need to hear from you. There are people that need to find someone to relate to. If we only talk about our successes and our perfection then how can anyone live up to the perfect image in the room? This could make the difference between someone choosing to come to church and someone choosing not to.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated in a fireside that “the Church is not a monastery for the isolation of perfect people. It is more like a hospital provided for those who wish to get well.” If we always talk about experiences in the gospel with rose-colored glasses on, do we really share the truth of our experience or do we share what we want others to hear?
Lead image from churchofjesuschrist.org
Jimmy Birman lives in Hyde Park, Utah, with his wife and four children. He and his wife have been married for 20 years. He works as an executive director in higher education.