Does how you speak as a member of the LDS church matter?

Does how we speak influence the degree to which those not of our faith want to join our church? Does how we speak influence the degree to which members who infrequently attend church want to attend more frequently?

The answer to these questions is: “YES!”

But, I didn’t always believe that. In fact, it wasn’t until a recent experience that I came to fully appreciate the power of how we speak and the language we use.

A couple months ago, I came across a quote in my Five-Minute Journal that ‘spoke’ to me, and so I decided to share it on my different social media profiles. Here is the quote:

“Anyone who isn’t embarrassed by who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.” – Alain De Botton

At the time, this quote made me feel good because I can honestly say that I am embarrassed by who I used to be, and thus this quote helped me to recognize the progress that I had made, and it validated me.

But, the quote was criticized by one of my friends on Facebook (which I was fine with), but this friend wasn’t able to clearly articulate why they were so critical about it.

Then, the next day, I was at a business meeting with a successful CEO that I respect. As soon as he saw me, he pulled me aside, with a: “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

I was thinking he was going to give me a referral for my consulting business. But, boy, was I wrong.

He said something to the effect of, “I saw the quote you posted on LinkedIn, and I want to give you some feedback.” He went on to say that while he knew the quote was well-intended, he informed me that it was not inclusive.

At this point, I considered rolling my eyes, thinking, “inclusive—the buzzword of the day.”

He went on to suggest that while the quote had a good message, it is the type of quote that leads to some people feeling good and other people feeling bad (e.g., those people who had not grown or did not feel embarrassed about themselves). And, he said that through his years as a CEO and as a positive influence in Orange County, he has come to learn that inclusive language is essential to effective leadership and being able to have a positive influence.

He went on to give me an example saying:

“The other night I was at a Gala with hundreds of people. It involved people from almost every religion. While the Gala was not connected to a church or a religion, there were two speakers that had strong religious connections. The first was a Baptist preacher from Atlanta, and the second was the wife of mega-church pastor Rick Warren, Kay Warren. Being a spiritual, but not religious person, I really wasn’t looking forward to hearing from the Baptist preacher. But, I was completely shocked, he spoke about a topic that he had dealt with effectively in Atlanta, and a hot-topic here in Orange County: homelessness. It was a powerful speech and not once did he talk about religion. Because of that, everyone bought into his ideas. He was self-aware enough to know that bringing up religion to the crowd would likely exclude some of the audience. Then, right after, Kay Warren stood up and gave a really good speech…until the end. She closed by quoting a Bible verse in such a way that suggested that the Bible should have the ‘final say.’ By closing her talk in that way, she excluded a significant number of people in that room that do not believe in the Bible, and for those people, they no longer felt comfortable supporting the ideas she presented in her speech. The contrast between these two speakers was profound. One speaker captured everyone’s attention and impacted everybody. The other speaker captured some of the audience’s attention while excluding the rest.”

He then closed by saying, “Look, with anything we say, we can choose to say it inclusively or we can choose to say it exclusively. There is little value for choosing to say things in an exclusive way. I hope you will learn this lesson quicker than I did, and that is why I am giving you this direct feedback.”

Until that point, I had only thought that inclusive language was only about making sure minorities (e.g., people with disabilities, people within the LGBT community) feel included. But, what I learned is that inclusive language is so much more than that.

So what is inclusive language?

Jesus Christ suggested that we be a light to the world. If we truly want to be a light to others, we have got to shine in a way that attracts rather than repels. This is what inclusive language is all about, it is about communicating in such a way that we are a light to ALL people, and not just a light to some people while being a repelling or separating force to others.

Inclusive language is language that conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities. Inclusive language should leave all listeners feeling a sense of being valued, respected, and one of the team.

Exclusive language, on the other hand, is language that conveys respect to only certain people, is not sensitive to differences, and does not promote equal opportunities. Exclusive language leaves some listeners feeling under-valued, disrespected, and as an ‘outsider.’

Unfortunately, religion is a context in which exclusive language can be common.

There are overlapping reasons for this. First, religions often draw a hard line in the sand between acceptable and unacceptable thinking, behavior, morals, and practices, which largely unintentionally creates a divide between those on either side of the line. Second, sometimes members of religions place greater emphasis on proclaiming “truth” and beliefs over the needs and perspective of the audience.

If you are looking for examples of this, look no further than how the Pharisees and Sadducees are largely depicted in the Gospels. They are often seen professing certain standards. They are likely doing this with the belief that strongly professing those standards would inspire people to live up to them, but what it most frequently did is made those who did not live up to those standards feel unvalued and excluded. And their exclusive language is not unique to just their faiths, it is something that occurs in all faiths, as it can be easy to justify using such exclusive language. Such justification often sounds like, “It’s true. If they cannot handle the truth, then they are in the wrong.”

In reality, this balance between holding strong to what one believes is right and being fully inclusive can be rather difficult. For example, how does one profess that same-gender relationships are immoral while not excluding those that are involved in same-gender relationships? This, and others like it, are surely sensitive topics beyond the scope of this article.

But, it is important for members of religions to recognize that something can be right, correct, or true, yet not inclusive. And just because something is right, correct, or true, does not mean that we should profess it. That likely depends upon the audience.

As much as using the ‘right’ terms or saying ‘true’ things is something we should work towards, it is equally, if not more, important to foster a climate of open, effective communication, and demonstrate a willingness to learn. It is such a climate that will lead people through the doors of our church.

In fact, other religions are recognizing this. On a website for the Unitarian Universalist Association, it states:

Inclusiveness means uncovering our unconscious assumptions about what’s ‘normal’ and who is present in our community, and opening ourselves to the possibility of greater diversity….Using inclusive language does not just mean using welcoming and affirming statements, although that is certainly a good first step. Increasing the inclusiveness of our language means striving to understand the ways that language often unconsciously makes assumptions about people and unintentionally reinforces dominant norms around gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ability/disability, age, and other identities and experiences.”

The website then goes on to quote a church leader who said:

“As our language becomes more and more inclusive, and as the language in this our era ‘redeems’ more and more words which were once eschewed by many of us (God, Spirit, even Church and Religion) may our primary discipline be to love and include, not ‘to convert’ and lay down rules. The remaking of our language is not necessarily painless, but if we begin with our humanity … we can also remember how to bring some healing to that pain.”

Being More Inclusive in our Language

There are three areas where I have learned I can be more inclusive in the language that I use related to my faith.

Elitest Language

First, I have learned that I have a tendency to use elitest language, meaning that through my language I have a tendency to put myself and others like me on a pedestal above others. One common thing that I have said in this regard is that “Our church is the only true and living church upon the face of the earth.”

While this may be true, it excludes and undervalues those not of my faith. And, to those not of my faith, it makes me appear arrogant. While I have said this and things similar to this as “selling points” to promote my faith, I have learned that it generally has the opposite effect than intended.

It would be better for me to promote ideas about how my faith has personally blessed my life.

Common Testimony Language

One quiet element of our Church’s culture is that people are often praised and socially rewarded based upon the degree to which they can bear a strong and bold testimony. This is not altogether a bad thing, as we should encourage people to express their feelings and beliefs. But, this culture has a tendency to exclude those who may not be able to bear a strong and bold testimony. Kurt Francom has written a great article on this topic entitled, “Why Your ‘Without a Shadow of a Doubt’ Testimony is Hurting Your Leadership.”

I am not going to restate his main points. Rather, I want to try to answer this question: In what ways can we change how we bear our testimonies to make them more inclusive? Let me provide two suggestions.

First, behind “I would like to bear my testimony,” one of the most common things people say when bearing their testimonies is: “I know…” Two common ways that this phrase is used are “I know ____________ is true,” and “I know that if you ____________, you will be ____________.” For people who feel they cannot say “I know…,” this can create a distinction between the speaker and some people in the audience: knowers and non-knowers. This can make those that cannot say “I know…” feel excluded or less valued.

Now, I am not suggesting that we should not express our feelings and beliefs, but we can do that without using “I know.” Other phrases we could use that are less likely to create a distinction are:

  • Instead of “I know that God loves me,” we could say: “This experience has enhanced my belief (or trust) in God and his love for me.”
  • Instead of “I know the Book of Mormon to be true,” we can say: “My life has significantly improved as I have applied the principles of this book into my life. For example…”
  • Instead of “I know that Jesus Christ lives,” we can say: “As I have come to put greater trust in Christ, I have felt like he has reciprocated his trust in me. This leads me to believe that he really does live today.”

Second, another common word people say when bearing their testimonies is: “true.” Often, this is expressed in sayings such as: “I know that the Church is true,” or “I know the Book of Mormon to be true.” Like “I know,” “true” can create a distinction between the speaker and the people who are unable to say with certainty that something is “true:” those who are all-in and those who are not all in.  This can make those that cannot say “true” feel less connected to those that can say “true.”

Again, I am not suggesting that we should not express our feelings and beliefs, but the reality is that “true” is a lazy word that has little clarity. What exactly does “true” mean? It has a variety of definitions and means something different for every person. I believe our testimonies would be more powerful if we were to remove “true” from our vocabulary.

Use of the word “Priesthood”

This might be a hard habit to break.

Does the following sound familiar: “We would like to thank the priesthood for blessing and passing the sacrament?”

In President Oaks’ recent address during the General Priesthood Session of General Conference, he stated:

“We should always remember that men who hold the priesthood are not ‘the priesthood.’ It is not appropriate to refer to ‘the priesthood and the women.’ We should refer to ‘the holders of the priesthood and the women.”

A major reason why we need to be sensitive to this is that referring to men in the church as “the priesthood” is exclusionary of women’s ability to tap into the power of the priesthood in their responsibilities (e.g., think about the priesthood ordinances women perform in the temple). On this topic, President Oaks has stated: “Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.”

Furthering this idea is the following insightful comment by Nicole Polatis within the Leading Saints Helpers Facebook group:

“By making a distinction between the holders of the priesthood and the actual priesthood it helps many women understand their own role in relation to the priesthood power. I know several women who at church do not feel valued or treated as equals. I also know several women who have left the church over this issue or it has been the thing that starts their exit as they find other issues and doubts. Small changes in the culture of the church can help women better feel valued such as not saying a woman cannot be at the church without a priesthood holder, instead say women should not be at church without a man for their safety. Or on occasion changing up the order in sacrament meeting and having a woman speak last. Being aware of small things we do that express that women are not equal will help many women feel valued and cared about. This change of calling men holders of the priesthood made many women feel that the first presidency was aware of them. Also, the change to have women go earlier in the order at the solemn assembly was huge…You may see it as a small thing but as Elder Oaks talked in conference, small things can make all the difference.”

Truly our language matters.

Conclusion

If you would have asked me a month ago if I thought inclusive language was important to effective leadership and the positive influence we can have on others, I would have said, “somewhat.” But, now I believe that inclusive language is “very important” to be an effective leader and light to EVERYONE we encounter.

Regarding inclusive language, there are two things we need to recognize.

  1. In everything we say, we can state it in a way that makes everyone who hears it feel of value, or we can make it something that makes only some who hear it feel of value. So, why not phrase or rephrase what we say to make everyone feel of value?
  2. Inclusive language is a skill to develop. We won’t be perfect at it immediately, but we do need to be willing to learn.

I believe that if we can make greater effort to speak more inclusively, there will be more people willing and wanting to worship with us.  Thus, I invite you to join me in (1) changing what might be some deeply embedded habits, (2) considering the implications of some of the words and phrases we use in the church that have long gone unchallenged, and (3) being more empathetic by imagining the experiences of others that may not be our own.

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