Originally from West Valley City, UT, Mike Brady currently resides in Chubbuck, ID, adjacent to where his amazing wife Chelsie grew up. Together they have five children and have heard every “Brady Bunch” joke in the book. Among other callings, Mike served as a full-time missionary (Japan Tokyo South), early morning seminary teacher, elders quorum president, ward mission leader, and in multiple bishoprics despite his large, young family. His BA in International Studies doesn’t do much in the IT industry where he works as a software product manager for Salt Lake City-based Samaritan Technologies. His passions include dating his wife, playing with those five aforementioned children, NBA basketball, and writing long emails to his bishop.
Whether you are new at running a ward council, or new at running a ward council where ministering is the focus, here are some great insights that may make it easier to navigate a successful ward council with a common vision for the ward.
The most common problems faced in creating a cohesive and inspired ward council may include:
- Council members are siloed, i.e., concerned only about their own organization, and not the ward as a whole.
- Ward council meetings that seem aimless.
- The bishop’s voice dominates the meeting because he is typically the only person who contributes to the agenda.
- Unity? Yes, a novel idea, this “unity.”
Replace This Dysfunctional Picture with a New Vision
I was blessed to work with an extremely inspired bishop who, over the course of time, successfully transformed the ward council from one that looked like the problematic picture painted above into a highly-functioning, vision-driven, and unified ward council. Here are my observations of how this bishop achieved so much:
- He helped council members shift their focus to the general ward welfare, rather than tuning out when another council member addressed organization-specific items.
- He established a clear, simple vision, from which all activities fed into and moved the ward closer to realizing that vision.
- He created an environment where council members felt like peers and that their voices were not only important, but imperative to the revelatory process.
- He helped ward council members be ONE.
How the Bishop Laid the Groundwork
- He Fasted and Prayed — I observed that my bishop’s ascent to the mountaintop started well below sea level, meaning he had a steep learning curve despite his years of experience as a bishop’s counselor. No one could show him the way, or help him with the burden, other than the Lord. There is no other option of “where” to start than there. He worked harder than any of us to purify himself and seek revelation.
- He Counseled with His Bishopric Council — If he wanted an amazing and engaged ward council, he’d learn how to do it first at the bishopric council level. We would practice the art of running councils first in bishopric meeting. As we would test and determine which practices had a positive effect on our bishopric meetings, we’d introduce them to the ward council. Furthermore, improving ward council was a frequent topic in bishopric meeting. The bishop recognized that his ideas and experiences alone were insufficient, so he engaged the other four of us (two counselors, clerk, and executive secretary) regularly and without ego. Councils are led by the voice of the Spirit through each member of the body — not by the bishop exerting his will. As we discussed various topics, the Spirit would guide our conversation as to what we should do, why, and how we should proceed.
Improving Ward Council
1. Receive a Ward Vision from the Lord
Meetings, callings, the church itself: are all pointless unless there is a vision. The oft-used Cheshire Cat quotation comes to mind:
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
More succinctly, Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “it is direction first, then velocity!”
Once the bishop has sought inspiration on the base of a vision for his ward, and it is discussed, refined, augmented, and finally solidified by the Spirit in discussion with the bishopric council, it is ready to be taken to the ward council for their input and suggested improvements.
When the vision is set by the key holder, then discussed and molded by the council, each contributing member of that council feels a sense of ownership, and their downstream activities will stem from the vision they helped create.
2. Work with Council Members “One-by-One”
Each member of the council can improve in some way. The bishop should meet individually with those who need the most attention, helping them catch the vision and see how their behaviors and attitudes might be in conflict with the goals of the ward council meeting. Over time, participation and behavior should gradually improve. The up-front cost in time and effort is outweighed by the long-term benefit of well-trained leaders who are on board and all-in.
3. Assemble the Council
We learn in the temple that the Spirit can be restrained in its effectiveness if the “unified body” isn’t truly unified.
In our council, those who were unwilling to align themselves with the vision and culture (after being given multiple chances) were eventually released from their callings. This is a last-case action but provides for the key holder to train new council member in the rules of engagement, helping them learn to participate and operate in the desired ward council paradigm.
This is not a step to take if a member simply expresses a dissenting idea! We valued both diversity and unity, but releasing a member should never be done in a spirit of spite or “punishment.” True leaders will continue to work with that member, but when it is clear that unity cannot be achieved so that the council might act as a single revelatory body, the bishop would be wise to weigh the needs of the ward and consider replacing that individual.
4. Restructure the Agenda Format
“Priesthood and auxiliary leaders attend ward council meetings in two capacities: (1) as ward council members who help the bishop address needs and concerns in the ward and find solutions, and (2) as representatives of their organizations. Handbook 2:4.6.1
Below is an outline of how our council was inspired to restructure the agenda — your council could use this as a template or a starting place. Since each council member was focused on their particular organization, we were not a cohesive unit at first. To help stress the principle taught in 2:4.6.1¶1 (see quoted paragraph above), the agenda structure removed all references to separate organizations and instead listed the missions of the Church:
- Proclaim the Gospel
- Perfect the Saints
- Redeem the Dead
- Service (renamed from “Care for the Poor and Needy” in case a printed copy was discovered by a member whose name was listed there). We also created a Google Sheet version of the New and Returning Member Progress form and referred to it throughout nearly every council meeting. All assignments were noted in the minutes, immediately emailed to all council members, then reviewed in the next council meeting.
5. Begin Councils with an Interactive Devotional
Beginning each meeting with a spiritual thought — typically out of the scriptures or a general conference talk — followed by a very brief discussion (2-3 comments tops) invites the Spirit, sets the tone, and starts the council thinking with a spiritual mindset. This was patterned from bishopric training given by our stake presidency at the time.
6. Keep Agenda Items Relevant to the Entire Council
This forces council members to communicate midweek as much as possible over email, text, etc. In our case, too many items were being discussed that did not apply to the entire council or were seeking input where an email or text would have done the trick.
7. Deprioritize the Calendar
Calendaring items are mentioned, but otherwise hardly discussed. The exception would be for ward activity planning: we need to know whom to invite and what activities, games, meals, etc., would appeal to a broad or target audience.
8. Institute a Ward Blitz
Once a month, all ward council members and their counselors and secretaries gathered at the church. Participants paired (or tripled) up and the ward clerk handed out names of two to four individuals/families in the ward. Each companionship was asked to extend an invitation or challenge to those visited and be prepared to report at the next ward council.
Sometimes the invitation can be decided by the ward council, but all should be encouraged to follow the Spirit with regard to what invitation or challenge to present.
We only did this for 12 or so months, but this was the year our ward saw 20 baptisms and was strengthened by a dozen returning members. Yet in some ways, this idea wasn’t the success the bishop had hoped for. Organizations had not been doing regular visits, despite repeated requests, invitations, etc., so he decided to own it at the ward council level while believing that it should have been owned by each organization.
After we experienced a great deal of success in baptisms and returning members, it was decided to move this activity back to the organization level, where it sputtered and died. Thus, once it is returned to the organization, efforts need to be made at the council level to keep the visits going. Not all wards need to do this, but if a ward needs to do blitzes, it should do blitzes.
9. Delegate Conducting Duties
The bishop always presided but shifted conducting duties to his counselors, who led all discussion and training. It was awkward at first but our bishop’s counselors quickly found their legs. The effect was that we learned that while the bishop has the final say in decisions, we stopped looking for him to do all of the talking and thinking for us. He didn’t just tell us what to do but stressed a council mentality and discussion. Removing his voice as the main (dominant) voice of the meeting had the additional effect of people listening more to one another and to the Spirit. It had the ancillary outcome of training his counselors and giving them the experience that he wished he’d gotten.
10. Train, Train, Train
Training is best found in the following resources:
- The scriptures: teach correct doctrine!
- Church handbooks 1 and 2, as appropriate. (Helping council members truly understand the objectives and purposes of the ward council is imperative.)
- The temple.
- Other books, talks, articles, experiences, etc.
Training sessions were not lectures, but discussions conducted by the counselors. God is nothing if not a heuristic teacher, and nothing invites the Spirit like causing members to think and consider and wonder.
11. Poll Council Members for Feedback
In time, the Bishop asked his counselors to have one-on-one discussions with ward council members to receive their candid feedback on the ward council meeting, specifically:
- How can we do better?
- How would you like to spend council time?
- What are the most important things we can discuss?
One hundred percent of the responses were right in line with what he had hoped for: by this time, council members really wanted to spend meeting time discussing the progress of individuals and families. They had caught the vision! The training, discussions, visits, and experiences with the Spirit led each council member to individually conclude that our most important work is helping ward members — our brothers and sisters — achieve a more satisfying relationship with their Savior and their Father. Thus, polling your council members can confirm and refine your efforts.
12. Constantly Seek Improvement
After each council meeting, the bishopric would convene for a few minutes to discuss how things went, what went well, and what could be improved. If a meeting lacked the Spirit, we all knew it, and it helped the one conducting learn where he could improve where applicable.
From the time this bishop was called to the time we hit our stride was about three-and-a-half years.
Other Items To Consider
- Metrics (quarterly reports and key indicators) were touched on — perhaps we could have done more of that.
- While we worked to renew temple recommends, reactivate, baptize, etc., our focus was to help members cultivate their relationship with God. When that relationship is there and improved, the recommends, baptisms, etc., will come organically.
- The primary work of the ward council takes place in living rooms where tears are shared and dried, and testimony is borne. It comes when a youth leader has a candid conversation with a young man who trusts him. It comes via one-by-one ministry.
- Fighting against tradition and helping members open their minds may have been the most difficult step. But once a person is teachable, a Spirit-inspired teacher can do wonders in the mind and in the heart. At times, moving mountains is easier than moving mindsets.
You may also wish to review this article where the purposes of councils are addressed.