Airing the Rhetorical Laundry: Breaking through the Administrative Rhetoric

I’m teaching the Elders’ quorum this Sunday coming and the phrase I keep returning to in my pondering is “watch over, be with, and strengthen” (ref). In context, of course, this phrase refers to the teacher’s duty, as an ordained member of the Aaronic Priesthood, to build and sustain the Church, to help hold the body of Christ together, by keeping the senses trained on its members and by reminding the Saints, in word and deed, to do their communal duty. While this may seem a heady chore to heap onto a fourteen- to fifteen-year old boy, this principle’s use as the foundation for the home and visiting teaching programs extends its reach beyond the Aaronic Priesthood holder’s ken into a supporting fixture of full and vigilant fellowship with the Saints.

It’s that reach, and the administrative rhetoric derived from and meant to support it (i.e. the language used by teachers and leaders—however [in]effectively—to motivate those they lead), that I’m primarily concerned with at the moment.

In the past couple of months, the EQ presidency in my ward has turned up the heat as regards the quorum’s pretty poor home teaching record (which, I think, is quite standard throughout the Church) and the tune of “Get your butts out the door and visit your families, people” has been sung in most of our meetings lately, though in a softer, more dancing-through-the-daisies tone. The presidency (of which I am a secretarial part) seems honestly concerned more about the people than the numbers (although I don’t know what pressure, if any, is coming from the higher-ups), so their honesty comes through somewhat in the constant reminders to “get out and get it done, brethren” and in the recent need they’ve felt to implement home teaching interviews for each companionship.

As a relative newcomer in the quorum and as an acute observer of and in the presidency, I’ve watched this movement with some interest and my line of thinking in this motivational regard has started to take a different shape, directed, I think, by my rhetorical focus lately. More specifically, this teaching opportunity (which comes around once every quarter or so) has me pondering how I might best facilitate changes in my own—and even the presidency’s and quorum instructors’—administrative rhetoric such that those on the receiving end are led toward sustainable change in their lives.

In other words, I’m wondering how I can begin to best facilitate the deeper work of conversion I lamented for in yesterday’s post in my fellow laborers, how I can use the fruits of my language to care for and to be with and strengthen them in their continued efforts to know God such that they’re inspired (beyond bribery, manipulation, and the need for constant reminding and admonition—some of the fruits, I think, of administrative rhetoric) to help others know Him, too.

What say you rhetorician Saints of the radical middle? I’m interested in your thoughts as I gather mine in preparation in teach the elders this Sunday.

20 thoughts on “Airing the Rhetorical Laundry: Breaking through the Administrative Rhetoric”

  1. That is an challenging question. My own EQ has been going through this same sort of challenge, with the EQ Pres standing up on what seems an almost weekly basis to preach, exhort, and cajole the guys in our quorum to get out and BE with the members of the ward.

    What I have observed, however, in the rhetoric of those who teach in our quorum is that they do not very often employ language that draws the Spirit into the meeting in a powerful way. They spend so much time offering opinions, discussing details, and chatting about things that the most important Teacher is often left out of the discussion. I have begun to count the number of times that the scriptures are used, the number of times that the words of the prophets are read aloud, the number of times that the songs of zion are used, and the number of times that Testimony is born. Sadly, it troubles me that these most important tools for drawing in the spirit are hardly ever employed in the rhetorical structure of our lessons (most especially music, one of the most powerful tools of all. Why does the priesthood rarely ever use it).

    As you know, the Spirit is the most important and powerful teacher, and if you don’t structure your rhetoric around the language that the Spirit most responds to, a witness will not be born to the souls of those in the room, and the “sustainable change” you are seeking will not begin to take place in the hearts and minds of your audience.

    And the only way to make this happen in the most powerful and affecting way is to THOROUGHLY plan and THOROUGHLY structure the spiritual rhetoric in such a way as to maximize its use in the lesson. It is always painfully obvious to me that our teachers in EQ do not plan their lessons well.

    It is obvious that the teacher has picked up the Joseph Smith manual or the conference talks issue of the Ensign an hour or two before the lesson is to begin, and have only sketched out a few things to read and talk about, followed up by a weak testimony at the end. They never reach out into the deep deep riches of the scriptures and gospel writing to support their points. As a consquence, the lessons are weak in structure, weak in spiritual power, and do not provide that transformative experience we seek.

    Somewhere in all that is my advice. Plan carefully and employ in your rhetoric all of those tools that will promote the strongest spiritual experience. “And of tenets that shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.”

  2. Some good points (Bradly) to a good post (Trevor).

    Imagine if almost every member (or at least 50%) of the Quorum showed up to EQ meeting having spent 10-20 minutes during the week with the lesson.

    I generally have read the lesson, but that’s mainly because my commute facilitates reading. I’m sure that if I no longer had the bus commute, I’d find it much more difficult to get around to reading it.

    In terms of administrative rhetoric: sometimes the problem is that even if one breaks through it, the members of the Quorum still need to take those promptings and put them in to action.

    If I ran the world, sacrament meeting would be one hour exactly 2 four minute talks, 2 eight minute talks and 1 musical number. Sunday school would start promptly at 10 after the hour and go for 30 minutes (lessons would cover less ground — there’d be no attempt to make it through one of the standard works in a year), then 10 minutes of passing time, 10 minutes of opening exercises and 30 minutes of quorum/class lesson. Then after the classes were over, there’d be 20-30 minutes of socializing/making needed plans (home/visiting teaching etc. etc.) once a month that’d also include refreshments and would focus on getting to know new members/investigators. The idea is to take the spirit one feels in church and extend it to the personal connections/stewardships we have with each other.

  3. Excellent point about the socialization. One of my former bishops actually devoted a few minutes of opening exercises in priesthood every week to encouraging socialization and getting to know one’s “neighbors.” It meant less time for the lessons, but it did actually help build relationships between the members of the priesthood. I wish I had remembered to bring this point up in my post.

  4. I think that’s a good idea. And really my blabbering above isn’t because I’m sold on the idea, rather it’s to think about a pragmatic solution to this recurring problem:

    No matter how spiritual the meeting, life tends to suck you up shortly thereafter. Hopefully you make some attempts to change personal and family habits before things completely fade, but it’s often hard to do so. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet (other than repetition and a lifetime of discipleship), but I do think that creating space for the planning that needs to happen for the week/month on an informal basis as well as overall getting to know the people you serve better. Many members engage in this anyway between meetings and after church, but it always has a bit of a harried quality to it because the expectation is that you are on your way elsewhere.


    Regarding the administrative rhetoric: I think that laying a bit off of the “get ‘er done” approach is a good idea. On the other hand home teaching interviews is a great thing if it happens in a way that’s outside the normal reporting and if it is a casual quick-after-church thing that doesn’t require both companions to be there if that’s not easily possible. This is the way it’s done in my ward.

    I’m still expected to report my home teaching visits through standard channels, but I have a standing one Sunday after church a month appointment with a member of the EQ presidency where the conversation is a quick: how are your families doing? How are you doing?

    Making the focus not on visits and numbers means that I take it much more seriously and motivates me to do what I can to connect with the families (even if a visit doesn’t happen). It makes me feel that I have some real stewardship over them.

  5. Excellent conversation, Bradly and William. (And for you lurkers: by no means is my comment an attempt to round things off, to close the thread. Feel free to interject.) I knew there was some reason I needed to air this here. So far you’ve both fed my thoughts and given me some things that I feel inspired to carry with me in my future interactions with the presidency and the quorum, starting this Sunday. So thanks for jumping in.

  6. Bradly:

    Ever since I started teaching in the Church, I’ve been a great proponent of not simply preparing a lesson but of preparing oneself to teach. I think often of the Lord’s counsel to Joseph Smith on teaching and speaking the right words as given in Doctrine and Covenants 84, that great revelation on the priesthood: “Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (vs. 85). Unfortunately, some teachers (especially in EQ) never get past the first clause—“neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say”—thinking that the Spirit will give them the words at the last minute as they gaze into the classroom abyss even though they haven’t put in the time to prepare themselves spiritually, to treasure up the words of eternal life by poring over the material, especially the scriptures, and asking for direction and discernment so they might be able to meet the class’s particular needs. Your thoughts in this regard were a good reminder of that.

    I was especially struck by one phrase you offer: “structure your rhetoric around the language that the Spirit most responds to.” It stuck with me last night after I first read your comment and it inspired my scripture study this morning as I awoke considering what kind of language this might be. It led me here first and the word “persuasion” in vs. 41 took me here, where I spend some time with the five references in First and Second Nephi that detail Nephi’s attempts to preserve others’ agency yet to bring them to God by using language to persuade, not to cajole or manipulate or coerce. Such, I think, is a central feature of the language the Spirit and our spirits respond to: it must preserve our agency, allowing us the freedom to choose even as it compels us to consider all the options. And these considerations gave me a new respect for Nephi, someone I’ve been kind of down on in the past.

    I also like the ideas you and Wm. have been throwing around about socialization. In my ward, so much time is spent in opening exercises (and again at the beginning of EQ) giving announcements (10-15 minutes in each forum, each week, leaving only 20-25 minutes for quorum instruction) that I think we could spare some of the announcing for a few minutes of real priesthood fellowship.

  7. William:

    Trevor, huh? Am I really that forgettable?

    Imagine if almost every member (or at least 50%) of the Quorum showed up to EQ meeting having spent 10-20 minutes during the week with the lesson.

    That would be lovely! Most of the elders in my quorum don’t even have manuals, which makes preparing as learners something of a chore.

    The idea is to take the spirit one feels in church and extend it to the personal connections/stewardships we have with each other.

    As I mention above, I like this idea of socialization and fellowship and feel like it sometimes gets put on the back burner, at least where I’m at, for more administrative matters (i.e. announcements, updates, etc.). Because our ward seems to do so little with this, my wife and I and a few other couples in the ward who we’ve become good friends with have been trying to extend the reach of our fellowship by having unofficial get-togethers outside of church. It remains to be seen how far we’re willing to take it, but I know I really enjoy getting to know other ward members in civilian clothes.

    I also really like the idea of more informal home teaching interviews. Our presidency’s first go-around with interviews was last week and I don’t know how they all went; but judging by how much of a chore it seemed trying to get the word out and to come back to the chapel in the middle of Sunday afternoon to meet with my HT advisor, I think I’m going to mention your straight-after-the-block approach as a way to cut down on the time-away-from-family strain.

  8. Sorry about that Tyler. I’ve been a bit scattered of late.

    And yeah 4 minutes: how are your families doing? how are you doing? what can I do to help/what info should I pass on to the EQ president?

    Also: there’s no reason that more can’t happen over the phone and via e-mail. One of the things that annoys me is the stuff that a quick e-mail could accomplish gets a phone call and stuff that a phone call or even better a conference call could handle gets a meeting instead.

  9. I understand, Wm. I know all about being scattered.

    I completely agree about the phone/email thing and I’ve been trying to get my presidency more technologically-minded lately. As secretary, I’ve used email to pass on documents the president’s asked me to create for him and have been putting together a contact list of quorum member emails so we can send out updates and announcements, possibly a newsletter, that way. I also think that many of the things we hash and re-hash in presidency meetings (6:30-7:30 AM every Sunday morning—something else I’m trying to get them cut back on: replacing administrative time with ministration time) could be done via phone or email. That would cut back on the necessity for such extended meetings dramatically, I think.

    To bring this back into something of a cultural/rhetorical focus, I wonder if our meetings/administration-driven culture may keep us from embracing these technological tools as time-saving administrative—even minor ministerial—means. In other words, why is it that many stick to the traditional long-winded business-type meetings (that’s what Sunday morning inevitably turns into for me), even as they lament time away from home and family, when there’s a way to cut back on these meetings and to be just as, if not more, effective in our efforts to watch over, be with, and strengthen the Saints?

  10. .

    In my ward, the RS functions beautifully through email; the EQ is playing catchup and we’re doing okay, but we’ve got a ways to go.

    I’m teaching this Sunday in EQ myself and while I should have had my lesson long since done, I don’t. And so this gives me a bit of thinking to spin around. Whatever I come up with will probably be my svithe this week…..

  11. Some thoughts – things I *think* might help, although I don’t have much clear evidence that they actually do…

    There’s a sharp limit to how much can be accomplished through the rhetoric of guilt and duty. If it’s been tried and not worked, then some other method ought to be tried: something ideally that appeals to the positive side of quorum members’ emotions. Personal experiences about the positive benefits of home teaching could be helpful. Maybe invite quorum members to talk about the best home teachers they’ve had. Talk about what makes a good home teacher, from their experience. Talk about what they like about home teaching – and possibly what they find challenging about it. Turn the discussion into an opportunity for bonding.

    From my experience, making home visits as a presidency – visits to the homes of quorum members, especially – made a bigger difference than anything else we did in my own perception of what my calling was when I was serving in an elder’s quorum presidency. It made the whole thing a lot more real than the statistics-shuffling, ward-move-coordinating, Sunday-meeting-organizing side that often seems to get more of the attention. Not as a substitute for home teaching, but just as a way to get to know the quorum members outside of Sunday meetings. We never did as well with this as I would have liked (and it was largely my fault), but it made a big difference when we *did* do it. I think if we had done it more, it would have helped us to more effectively get the other quorum members excited about doing their visits as well.

    My last thought: The PPI, whatever forum it takes, should provide an opportunity for the home teacher to talk about the family and report on how they’re doing. It should be less a report on home teaching, and more an opportunity for the home teacher to “brief” his PH leader about the families he teaches.

  12. .

    Curiously, even though I wasn’t impressed by how mine went, people have been talking to me about how they’re planning to adapt it. So maybe it wasn’t so terrible.

  13. I like to think people are generally on the lookout for things that make them think, that challenge them out of their comfort zones and into new ways of seeing the world, including the gospel. That becomes difficult in terms of gospel instruction, I think, because we’re presented with the same material over and over again and it sometimes becomes hard to see it in new ways and to present it to others in ways that encourage them to deeper engagement with LDS theology. I’m sure the way you approached your quorum did that for them, even if it was nothing really new for you.

  14. I like to think people are generally on the lookout for things that make them think, that challenge them out of their comfort zones and into new ways of seeing the world, including the gospel.

    I’d have to respectfully (although strongly) disagree here. I think that’s exactly opposite of *most* people.

  15. Well, Mojo, I like to think it, so obviously it’s gotta be true, doesn’t it? Don’t be pushing me out of my comfort zone here.

    But seriously, rereading what I wrote, I have to agree with you. Most people likely don’t look for things that make them think outside of themselves because, let’s face it, that can be painful, difficult work. I’ll have to think about how I’d word that differently to express my faith that, deep down, people like or at least need to be challenged…

  16. Tyler, for shame. You have co-opted my cheekiness.

    I would agree with the use of the word NEED versus the use of the word WANT.

    I think people who are more or less OPEN to being challenged, and probably are most open when they most NEED to be.

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