On Sunday our stake participated in a televised live regional conference with 120+ stakes in the eastern US (because apparently Ohio is “back east” for those who make these decisions in Utah).
As I listened I was examining quiet book dinosaurs and sharks with a chatty toddler, so I’m sure I missed quite a bit of what was said. I haven't seen anything posted yet on the Church's website, so I'm just going by my memory in writing this.
What I remember of Elder Oaks’s talk, however, has been in my mind ever since.
Two of the things he said were a breath of fresh air to me. The first was a frank assessment of what is obvious to most: the LDS Church is losing a lot of its young people. Too many.
Elder Oaks urged members to look around us and think of all the kids who used to be in our Primary classes but are now MIA from our youth programs.
That awareness certainly hit home. Our ward has a number of those children and teens. So while the "breath of fresh air" was not how I felt about young people leaving the fold, it's very accurate for how I felt about hearing it candidly addressed. We need to talk about this in church, instead of pretending (as we so often do) that everything is fine.
The second thing was what to do about it. But before I discuss what he said, let me give a little background to the way other LDS leaders have dealt with this from the pulpit in the past.
It has become fashionable to employ the word rescue when referring to the need that LDS people feel to reactivate our “lost” brothers and sisters who have either left the Church or become less active in it.
In the 2016 General Conference talk “To the Rescue: We Can Do It,” Elder Marvyn B. Arnold of the Seventy identified four principles to assist church members with such efforts, including mandates not to delay or give up in saving our less-active loved ones.
What is missing from such counsel, however well-intentioned, is a directive to listen. In the dramatic stories of rescue told in Elder Arnold’s address and many others, drifting LDS Church members are portrayed as objects to be saved, not as thoughtful individuals to be heard first and foremost.
Frankly, these aggressive efforts at rescue seem less aimed at responding to the questions and needs of former Mormons than they are at forging them into the people that active Mormons think they should be—a people remade in current members’ own images.
In doing so such Latter-day Saints appear to be returning to the early (and regrettable) etymological history of the word “rescue,” which once meant to forcibly shake—or even to drive out or remove.
Forceful tactics, if not preceded by deep and empathic listening, risk driving away many of the very people the Church is intent on ushering back into the fold.
Which brings me to Elder Oaks’s comments yesterday, which also used the word “rescue.” Like Elder Arnold, he identified four things members should do when people they care about are having a faith transition (what is it about LDS general authorities and the number four?).
But unlike Elder Arnold's talk, the magic word “listen” was in there. And it was a fairly prominent theme.
Love and listen, Elder Oaks said. As I recall, he didn’t bring up the usual LDS plan of action – "let’s swoop in and make it all better!" – until the very end. That certainly wasn’t what he led with. He led with listening and love, which was refreshing to hear.
I hope this message settles with members. As a people, Mormons just don’t listen terribly well, I’m afraid.
If you want folks to quickly mobilize to save your crops from a fire or provide delicious nightly meals after your extended hospitalization, we are totally your people. We will be there for you! If you want folks just to sit a spell and try to see your POV without trying to change you or shame you because you disagree, well . . . let’s just say we have a lot to learn about listening. Perhaps this is a start.
P.S. For a free guide to NVC (non-violent communication), a useful technique for empathic listening, download the PDF here. (Mormons will like it—it has four steps.)