Originally from Idaho Falls, Idaho, Cory served a mission in Santa Maria, Brazil, graduated with a degree in accounting from Idaho State University, and lived in Boise, Idaho before settling in Pocatello, Idaho working as the CFO of a local credit union. The father of four, Cory has served as Elders Quorum counselor and President, Young Men’s counselor and President, Ward Executive Secretary, Primary Instructor, Ward Mission Leader, and currently serves as the Bishop of his ward.
Over my years of experience, I have found most people who have served on the ward council can recount the standard meeting cadence and flow. Each organization president takes their turn providing an update on activities and other calendar items, disseminating information, and offering some updates on select members periodically. Often, I felt council members represented needs and information in the silo of their own organization and opportunities to work cooperatively were missed. It’s a pattern that I have experienced in multiple wards and stakes. It’s a pattern I found myself following as the Bishop. That all changed one Sunday almost two years ago.
A Revelatory Experience not a Recounting Experience
As I sat listening to the round-robin of updates that Sunday I found in my head I was giving the update for each organization before they spoke and seeing how close I came on my own. It felt repetitious and without spirit. I suddenly realized that I was gazing at the door wondering if anyone would notice, or care, if I walked out. I felt trapped at the thought that I could look forward to this pattern for a few more years. That’s how my attention was drawn to the fact that we needed to change.
I spent the rest of that Sunday wondering how to alter our ward council. If I wanted to bolt, what were our ward leaders feeling? I regularly tell them they are always excused from any of our meetings if they feel there is something of greater merit, including if they feel our meetings are simply a waste of time. Clearly, they had more respect for our meeting than to send me that message. I felt it was vital for our ward members and our leaders to have a ward council meeting that was a revelatory experience, rather than a recounting experience. Our current method was not wrong from the sense of meeting the letter of the law as found in the handbook, but were we missing the spirit of those instructions?
Later that week I was reading “The Melchizedek Priesthood” by Dale G. Renlund and Ruth Lybbert Renlund. The section I was reading stated priesthood holders work effectively in councils. It then gave several principles of effective councils. The piece that jumped off the page to me and came as a bolt of inspiration was the statement that, “The emphasis of the meeting is problem solving through discussion, often focusing on a one-item agenda.” (emphasis added) I thought if a man who has sat in councils at nearly every level of the church would write that, I should give it serious consideration.
Armed with this inspiration I presented the idea to our bishopric and asked for their support in introducing the concept to the ward council. We all agreed. In the next ward council, I brought up my concerns with our meetings and the outcomes they were driving. As a council we decided to try a one-item agenda going forward. Here is how it has worked for us.
The One-Item Agenda
As a bishopric we solicited items for the agenda noting we would select one and send it out in advance of the ward council meeting so all could study it and be prepared for discussion. A few suggestions were made, all surrounding doctrinal topics that could benefit various members. We selected one as a bishopric. The agenda for the meeting was put together and sent out several days in advance. The agenda contained our usual meeting opening components: a song, a prayer, spiritual thought, and handbook training. Our old agenda would then show the upcoming calendar items and then have space for each organization. The new agenda moved the calendar to the bottom after the closing prayer as an informational item, and in place of the organizations it simply noted the one item for discussion.
The Sunday of our ward council I was excited to try this new format. I felt confident it would be a resounding success. We moved through the opening components as usual. Before I introduced the topic of discussion, I pointed out that the calendar was noted and allowed a few minutes to correct dates should they be incorrect. All other calendar planning was to take place outside the meeting and coordinated as needed among the organizations. This took maybe one minute. I checked the time and noted we had nearly 45 minutes for our discussion. I introduced the topic and asked for the thoughts and input of the council, confident they would jump in as they had been able to prepare for several days for this discussion.
The first minute of silence caught me a little off guard, but I assumed everyone was just adjusting to this new format. The second minute felt like an eternity. Somewhere in the third minute of silence I began to despair and wonder if this experiment were going to fail and we would be doomed to using our old format. Finally, one brave ward leader shared a thought. After a few moments of reflection another added to the first thought. Then another expanded it a little more. I was feeling energized and excited. Then the group fell silent again. We had never spent more time on any one topic before. It felt like we had scratched the surface and reached the level we were used to. We didn’t know what to do next. After another period of silence more thoughts were offered that developed the discussion deeper. Questions were then raised about what had already been shared and the breadth of the topic began to come into view. Almost without noticing, the time flew by in sincere and edifying discussion. With about 10 minutes left in the meeting I called a time out. We reviewed the doctrine we had reviewed and the discussion on application that had come with it. I asked each member of the council to take a few minutes to ponder the discussion and make some notes about things they felt they should do related to the discussion. Finally, I asked any that were willing, to share what they had noted as actions they should take. I expected to hear comments about helping the Brown family with such and such, or meeting with a struggling home teaching companionship to help inspire them. Instead I heard a lot of actions related to personal improvement and improvement within their own families. I felt confused and worried that our leaders were thinking only of themselves and not of their calling, but I felt a small whisper encourage me to let it go and watch the process.
Having the Spirit Coordinate our Efforts
Over the next several ward council meetings we followed the same pattern, adding in a few moments to share the outcome of actions taken before our discussion topic was approached. I noticed as time went by that the inspiration our leaders felt and noted began to move out of their own life and home and into their organization and into ways to connect with individual members. One of the greatest blessings was to hear presidents of the Primary, Young Women, Young Men, Relief Society, and Elders Quorum share impressions to reach out to specific individuals, that all happened to be from the same family. Each had specific plans revealed to them to connect with a member of the family they had primary ministry for, but when shared together their plan was completely coherent and whole for the entire family. I am still amazed to see this happen and recognize how much better the Spirit can coordinate us in the Lord’s work than we could ever do on our own.
One thing I have learned in this process is to remind our ward council that the impressions we feel are inspiration from the Lord and we have an obligation to act on those impressions if we want to keep receiving inspiration. This pattern of working as a council to receive revelation and encouraging our best efforts in acting has led to a deep growth in confidence among our organization presidents. I have watched as they have become comfortable and confident in ministering to their organizations and individuals. They know how to get answers.
Now, after making this sound like a miracle solution, and it was for our ward, I also want to share that not every meeting is a spiritual feast. Like anything, this one-item agenda can become familiar and take on the trappings of just checking the boxes. We have adjusted our format a little. Recognizing the need to follow up, we take a few minutes before our discussion to follow up on assignments from prior meetings. There still must be some sharing of information and coordinating of schedules, but we take care to keep this very limited. Even adding that in, we regularly have around 30 minutes for our one item. We don’t always take specific time at the end of the meeting to make notes. Often, I see our leaders making notes during the discussion and they regularly volunteer the actions they feel inspired to take as our discussion progresses.
When our meetings were suspended due to COVID-19 I worried how the members would be cared for. With our meetings paused, our ward council struggled to gather for our meetings as regularly as they also were dealing with major upheaval in their own lives. We have met less frequently, and our one item has been broadly based around what needs exist and how are we finding and meeting those needs. I felt maybe everything we had worked for was falling apart. Then our leaders showed the strength and learning they had developed. Never have I felt impressed to reach out to a person or ask about someone’s welfare that I have not found that one of our ward council members has already had an impression and is already acting to help resolve a need. For me that is the most miraculous change this new format has brought us.
Revelatory Experiences That Empower our Councils
This change to our ward council meetings has reinvigorated my excitement for our council. I look forward to the discussion. I love seeing the growth in our leaders as they wrestle with topics deeply and broadly. It helps them understand the perspectives of our members. They are better prepared to minister to the individual needs in the ward, and they are better able to mentor others in their callings and help them develop as leaders. We are learning to seek the mind and will of God, we are improving our ability to act on promptings, and we are learning how effectively the Lord through the Spirit can coordinate our efforts. I feel the Spirit more strongly and more often in our meetings. The revelatory experiences we share help us fulfill our roles in Heavenly Father’s work of bringing to pass the eternal life of His children through helping our ward family receive the blessings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.