For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for habitation of God through the Spirit.
~ Ephesians 2:14-22 ~
With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. … And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the Saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ …
~ Ephesians 4:2-6, 11-13 ~
A fresh perspective of Church health may be needed to encourage a renewed spirit and passion of ministry where there is fresh faith and power among every member. Have we forgotten that we are united with one eternal purpose and focus? Are we not all members of the same faith? United in our Heavenly Father’s will to minister, care for one another, and assist in our progression toward the rich blessings of immortality and eternal life? How do we foster spiritual health and well-being within our own families, wards, and communities? It is a question I have wrestled with over the years. A question that seemingly has gone unanswered. And as I reflected upon this deep question – my mind goes to those times where I have experienced a sense of deadness. A spirit of unwelcoming. Feeling I was more of an outsider, a foreigner than a member of a particular ward.
And I had discovered over the years that many people have tended to fell this way. Their own personal experiences, stories, and eventual falling away from the faith mirrored my own spiritual despondence and apostasy. Some have returned to the faith and found a sense of belonging and a renewed spirit. Others have remained lost, bitter, and resentful to whatever hurts and hang-ups that had pushed them out of the Church. Speaking for my own personal experience – it was difficult returning back to the faith I had grown up with.
It is also no wonder that when I come across the many times Paul calls attention to the different strife’s that went on in the various churches of the First Century, my mind wanders and reflects on the conflicts and strife’s that perpetuate in our own wards and stakes. Especially when we read in Acts 2:42-47 of how unified the early Christians were. Or how we read the call of being united in faith, charity, and ministry throughout the pages of the Book of Mormon.
I will be the first to admit that there is some romanticizing about a perfect healthy congregation where the ward is in perfect harmony. And we all hear fellow members compare wards. “My ward is the best ward I have ever been involved with” all the while tearing down and criticizing other wards (and yes, I am quite guilty of this myself). And there are many of us that probably have done this too – found ourselves in a ward that felt unhealthy, toxic, and maybe quite dysfunctional.
The harsh reality is this – there is no perfect healthy congregation – not until we pass on to the other side of the veil. In fact, what makes a truly healthy and vibrant congregation of believers? One that has individuals on their own spiritual journeys and growth. Mature members who are strong in the faith meeting with those who are new to the faith and are just starting out their own spiritual journey and growth. Investigators and visitors who are coming in to see how we worship and what we teach.
And it is the very reason I believe the Apostle Paul was relating to the Christians at Ephesus:
- Founded upon Apostles, Prophets, and Christ – who is the chief cornerstone
- Being built up together in unity of faith
- A Holy Temple unto God
- A habitation for His spirit
- For the perfecting of each individual
- For edifying each individual on their own spiritual journey and growth
- To minister one to another until we all come into the unity of faith with the knowledge of Christ and the Father
This harmony and unity are what we strive to accomplish because it is how we are joined and held together by Jesus Christ. How do we go about doing this? Especially if one is in a ward that appears to be dysfunctional and maybe exhibiting some toxic traits?
Accept the weakness and limitations
Reflecting back on one of my own personal experiences – I was part of a ward where I reached out numerous times to the Bishop and Elders Quorum. Not once or twice, on a daily basis with no response or communication. It was also during a season of struggling and I was new to the ward. There was not adequate public transportation for me to get to and from Church. Feeling isolated, ignored, and frustrated, I reached out to the Stake president. Again, no response. It was not until I actually wrote an angry letter to the First Presidency and shared my frustrations of feeling abandoned and ignored that I actually got a response back. It was probably the worse experience I have had in being part of a ward.
What I did not know was that our local Church leaders have their own challenges and struggles too. And while I had every right to feel ignored, frustrated, and angry – there was not any awareness of what was happening. I had to actually work on the nature of my own personal resentment and distressing emotions and realize the fundamental truth: people are dealing with their own issues. It doesn’t excuse the neglect I felt away – however, it does not excuse my own narrow mindedness and self-importance. And, as they say hindsight being 20/20 – I may have better success if I had a bit more grace and understanding instead of being demanding.
The point here is that each one of us have our own limitations and weaknesses. We all struggle and do the best we are capable of doing. This is where grace and compassion really help us come together and help one another. And while situations like mine can be quite disappointing – we fail to expand our perceptions and see what is really going on. We want to be part of a ward that is healthy, growing, on point with ministering, and active in missionary work. Unfortunately, we are sometimes bickering, murmuring, and complaining more about the problems we see. Our time and energy are spent on pointing out the weaknesses and how we feel they need to be addressed.
It is in these moments we have allowed ourselves to feel let down when there is so much, we feel that our congregation can do, be a part of, and yet are more of the problem than the actual solution. We allow ourselves to become disappointed because of our own unrealistic expectations of what we believe the Bishop, Elders Quorum, or Relief Society president ought to do.
Ultimately, we are blinded from seeing what limitations and weaknesses there are that may be barriers to accomplishing things that need to be addressed. Or we may very well be aware of those limitations and weaknesses and yet behave in a manner as to wondering how come there is no victory in overcoming such challenges.
Being of Service and Ministering from our Heavenly Father’s Perspective
When we shift our focus from the perspective of our own human nature and understanding and capture the vision of our Heavenly Father’s perspective, then we are able to see those weaknesses and limitations as opportunities to minister and serve. See them as opportunities to nurture love, develop a more enriching and authentic community and fellowship, focus on healthier ways to support missionary work and efforts?
To do this we need to break from for the illusion and romanticism of what we believe a healthy and vibrant congregation ought to be and accept and embrace the reality of what we all have to work with. We have to liberate ourselves from the impossible perfect Church image. Break free from the perfect bishopric illusion. Break the delusion of a perfect missionary program that sees numerous baptisms of new members. Even our own illusion of the perfect Elders Quorum, Relief Society, and Sunday School leaders and teachers.
Once we break free from these illusions – we are able to fully and honestly sustain those individuals called to serve. Meaning, we merely do not raise our right hand to the square and sustain them out of ritual and rote. We sustain them through our commitment in listening to their counsel, assist where needed, and even accept any extended calling and service work when called upon to do so. We are joined and held together by Christ when we commit ourselves over to the fellowship and care of one another.
Accepting the reality, we all have work to do in the Church
One of my favorite hymns growing up in the Church is Put your shoulder to the wheel and hearing the congregation sing this with such vibrance and energy always lifted my spirit. I have long come to really appreciate the depth and meaning of this hymn and what it truly means to be a member of the Restored Gospel. It really sums up the nature of our membership and covenants we have made – that we all have work to do in and outside of the Church.
According to the Tabernacle Blog this hymn is about our invitation to participate in the work of the Gospel:
The hymn is an invitation to move the work of the gospel along by “doing” instead of “idly looking on.” Not only does it invite us to do the work, it begs us to engage in this worthy cause with the phrase “Do your duty with a heart full of song.” “Let no one shirk” refers to those who were hoping to observe or perhaps shy away from their responsibility.
Furthermore, the proverbial phrase put your shoulder to the wheel is an idiom of 17th-century origin where one had to exert physical strength and energy to upright an overturn cart, or carriage, or help push a cart/carriage that was stuck in the mud. And there were many times in my own personal life where I have had to get out of a vehicle and put my shoulder against it to push with all my might and strength to get it out of the street (or to pop the clutch if it was a manual transmission).
We are called to minister in all aspects and affairs of the Gospel. Within our families, within our wards, and even within our school, workplaces, and community. The work is sometimes difficult, takes up time and energy, and yet we receive true blessings and rewards when we shoulder the weight of it and serve others.
This is what it means by us recognizing how liberating it is to free ourselves from the illusions and focus more on the work God has called us to engage in. We are equipped to minister and serve in whatever capacity needed while valuing the significance and importance of the value the Kingdom of God has for each one of us.
The Church is God’s Responsibility
As human beings, we tend to forget that the Church is restored in these last days. To bring about the restoration of Israel, to proclaim the day of the Lord and prepare us for the Kingdom of God that is to come. We tend to forget that God is responsible for his Church. And this is the reason the Apostle Paul says:
And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for habitation of God through the Spirit.
Our Heavenly Father is a God of order and not chaos for he organizes and calls men according to His purpose:
The Lord governs his people—and his people help one another—in an orderly way through an organization directed by the Lord himself. There is great peace in knowing that Jesus Christ governs his church. Under his direction, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles provide inspired leadership. What could be more comforting than knowing that a perfect, omnipotent God continually watches over his children in this way? President Brigham Young explained: “The Lord Almighty leads this Church, and he will never suffer you to be led astray if you are found doing your duty. You may go home and sleep as sweetly as a babe in its mother’s arms, as to any danger of your leaders leading you astray, for if they should try to do so the Lord would quickly sweep them from the earth” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young , 138).
We find this established in the most recent Come Follow Me Old Testament Study where Moses meets his father-in-law and it was suggested that Moses not take on the full weight of meeting people to resolve differences, conflicts, and such (Exodus 18:13-26). Based on his father-in-law’s suggestion – Moses called able men to oversee the affairs of the children of Israel and only dealt with the more difficult issues. Today, the military refers to such leadership as the chain-of-command. It is also evident in the business model of any given company and organization. It is also the manner of which Church administration operates.
Appreciating and understanding how our Heavenly Father has the ultimate responsibility over the Church gives each of us a peace of mind in knowing that we are in good hands. Knowing that we are receiving the right to divine counsel and revelation. Growing in faith accordingly.
Requires Faithfulness and Unconditional and Unlimited Love
Finally, we ought to break free from the illusions of a perfect congregation and ward and realize that we are to grow to love all those whom we come together and fellowship with. It requires us to being faithful, encouraging, and showing mercy and grace. Bounding in charity one toward another. After all this is what John records what Christ said regarding how people will know we are true disciples when we show our love – one toward another (John 13:35).
It is up to us to resist the temptation to idealize a perfect fellowship. And to resist this temptation, we come back to the fundamental truth: Love God with all that we have and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Because we have a love for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Have a love for our Heavenly Father – we need to also have love toward one another. Walking in forgiveness, carrying one another burdens, mourn with those who mourn, and serve one another.
It is only when we start seeing others as competitors in faith, a perceived threat, and become jealous and envious of one another that we lose the spirit and true fellowship. Pride gets in the way and egos become bruised. Suddenly, people take offense, strife rises up, and conflicts ensue because of incessant murmurings. We become sensitive and easily offended instead of growing in unity of faith – edifying one another.
Each one of us are invited to put our shoulder to the wheel and push along in the work of the Gospel. Humble ourselves and put aside all envy and strife (Romans 13:13-14). Come together in true unity and fellowship, growing as one in Christ in order to minister and come to the pure knowledge of the love and grace of our Heavenly Father.