“Faith with a Southern Accent,” Ensign, Apr. 1987, 18
Tennessee’s green, rolling hills are a “field white already to harvest.” Here, Southern hospitality has its spiritual counterpart. This zeal may not mean people will join the Church more readily in Tennessee than they might elsewhere, but the Hendersonville Ward does have an unusually high rate of activity.
In any ward or branch there are the tangible and the intangible. The numbers of people who attend, and of those who do not, the names of those who participate, how far they come and for what kinds of events—these are tangible and measurable aspects of a ward, its statistics. On the other hand, there are intangibles—those things that cannot be measured, like why these people come to church, how they feel about each other and about the Lord, what these feelings compel them to do, and what effect those doings have on them and on others. These dimensions, of course, vary with individual lives and wards throughout the Church. In Hendersonville, a town just north of Nashville, an important balance has been struck between the measurable and the immeasurable as they influence faith, devotion, and happiness.
Beyond the charm of the Southern drawl and the talk of the gospel in Hendersonville, there is something genuine about the way the Saints there are living and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. It goes beyond congeniality, but that’s what it resembles. In the South, people seem to find the time to stop and talk and share, rather than rushing past each other with a wave or a greeting. Maybe this is where the spirit of love that so permeates the Hendersonville Ward begins.
“People here can hardly wait until the next meeting,” says Eric Olsen, the elders quorum president. “We enjoy being together often,” he exclaims. Eric and his wife, Kerri, are relative newcomers, able to recognize the strong spirit of the area. Eric adds, “You get excited just looking forward to being together, seeing what the bishop has up his sleeve.”
Hendersonville’s bishop, James L. Taylor, is known for his sense of humor. The bishop explains, “It is easier to do your best if you are enjoying yourself while you’re doing it.” The thing he enjoys most is giving 100 percent to whatever he is doing.
Surely one influence on the congeniality in the Hendersonville Ward is the spirit of their priesthood meetings. Few meetings give a more accurate reading of a ward’s spiritual pulse than a gathering of the priesthood quorums. In most wards, priesthood begins with brief opening exercises, including a prayer, hymn, announcements, and sometimes a report from a quorum about some activity; then the quorums are dismissed to go to their various classes for instruction. On the average, opening exercises may take fifteen minutes.
In Hendersonville, the standard agenda is more flexible. Just when most priesthood meetings dismiss for classes, the brethren here remain for sharing priesthood experiences. Today, Bishop Taylor describes how he placed a copy of the Book of Mormon during the week with a young couple he had met. “The Spirit was there, brethren, I felt it witness to them that the Book of Mormon is true, and they seemed genuinely interested,” the bishop testifies. He tells how he challenged the couple to apply Moroni’s invitation to pray for a witness of their own.
Following the bishop, someone else reports about placing a Book of Mormon. Frank Hatfield is then invited to tell of his experience going to the temple in Atlanta, 260 miles away, for his endowment. Brother Hatfield tells of his conversion to the Church, which happened during the ward’s efforts to activate his wife and children. Family members had told the bishop and the home teachers not to bother with Frank: he would never come around. But as the brethren worked with Sister Hatfield and her daughters, that priesthood power touched Brother Hatfield’s heart and he began to listen to the message of the gospel. Now, with the priesthood and his endowment, he is becoming the kind of father he “always wanted to be.”
Activation has been important to Bishop Taylor. His first act upon becoming bishop two years ago was to become acquainted with every “faceless name” on his ward list. In ten days he visited sixty-eight members who had rarely, if ever, been inside an LDS chapel. Today, over half of those members are active and participating in the blessings of the gospel. Among those reactivated are some of the current leaders of the ward.
After various reports and testimonies of priesthood service and blessings, the quorums dismiss for class.
“Rather than become too bound to a schedule or agenda, we have tried to be flexible as the Spirit directs,” says Bishop Taylor. “Hearing what others are doing with their priesthood makes a powerful impression. So we let the Holy Spirit determine how much actual lesson time we will have each week.”
In addition to sharing priesthood experiences, the quorums each give reports during opening exercises. Jimmy Vincent, the high priests group leader, stands to announce the annual barbeque. This has become an effective missionary event every year, because so many in the community know of the “delicious fixins’ and entertainment.” There will be the usual muskrat, raccoon, and squirrel roasting over the coals and games and activities set up around the grounds. The barbeque draws a big crowd. The hillside behind the Hendersonville meetinghouse, a shady wood with a verdant canopy of dogwood, white pine, and hickory, is transformed into an old-time scene of merriment and celebration. Ward members point to this event as the social highlight of the year.
After Brother Vincent announces the annual barbeque, reminding the brethren to bring a neighbor, he describes the recent quorum trip to the Atlanta Temple. “We exceeded our own expectations, brethren,” Brother Vincent declares. “Twenty-four endowments were performed by our little group.”
Following the high priests, the ward mission leader reports that there will be a baptism this week and that the sign-up sheet for the missionary “splits” for the week will be passed around with the attendance rolls. He then tells of some rich experiences members had while working with the full-time elders this past week. He reminds the group about the Book of Mormon marking and placement program, how to buy more books if needed, and finally in whose home the marking will be done this coming week.
Eric Olsen then makes a similar report for the elders quorum. Eric spends an average of ten hours a week visiting members of his quorum in their homes. With his work schedule, this has been a challenge. Eric works afternoons and evenings, so he is unable to go out at night to visit. Still, he finds ways to accomplish what must be done.
This week the elders quorum helped a family move, Eric reports. He puts in his regular challenge to get home teaching done early in the month so there can be some quality follow-up. Echoing Bishop Taylor’s sentiments, Brother Olsen adds, “It’s easier to do this work and do it right if we are enjoying ourselves. So let’s visit our families with that attitude.”
Bishop Taylor is convinced that “100 percent is the least effort we ought to allow from ourselves in building the kingdom.” To do any less while asking the Lord for his blessings will not do, he teaches. From his attitude, one begins to sense what draws the ward together—simple things that any ward anyplace in the Church could employ.
He is convinced—and seems to have persuaded other leaders in his ward—that 100 percent is just the beginning. To Bishop Taylor, measurable obedience leads to immeasurable blessing. That is, as we comply with the Lord’s direction to do our home teaching, attend Church meetings, worship in the temples, have daily study and prayer, pay tithes and offerings—all of which can be measured—we perform acts that lead us beyond ourselves so that we can become strengthened and purified beyond measure. Just how they go about balancing the measurable and the immeasurable is revealing.
Nashville stake president Tom McKee identified four reasons Bishop Taylor is an effective leader. “He visits all the Saints in his ward, expressing his care for them. He is responsive to the Spirit and has a vision of his ward as his flock. And finally, his is an active discipleship to which he devotes himself every day of the week.”
A blend of playful humor and spiritual commitment influences the way things get done in Hendersonville. A good example is priesthood executive committee, the meeting of ward priesthood leaders.
In one meeting, Bishop Taylor pokes fun at himself and those who went on the river trip the day before with the youth of the ward. All twelve of their Scouts went on the canoe trip down the Buffalo River, accompanied by fourteen adults. (“That kind of support is what makes the gospel work in Hendersonville,” he says later.) Gary Milkwick, his first counselor, smiles and describes how the bishop gave repeated “priesthood assignments” yesterday to others to swamp or sink him in his canoe. The room fills with a mirthful spirit as Brother Milkwick insists that he got the better of the bishop in the canoe wars that continued for much of the day. Then the bishop comments on the suntan oil brought by Rick Taylor, his second counselor, which all had shared the whole day. Bishop Taylor labeled it axle grease, because of its color and texture. Everything and everyone gets a nickname from Bishop Taylor. “Pass me some o’ that axle grease,” he jests in replay of Saturday’s levity.
All of this is made even more colorful by the rich variations of Southern accents. For several minutes teasing is exchanged between members of the committee, and then the meeting is called to order. After a prayer, business is conducted by a very close and well-organized body of priesthood leaders. Each priesthood leader reports the progress of his group, and new assignments are made in an atmosphere of dispatch and purposefulness. Smiles and warmth are still evident, but it is clear that Bishop Taylor has shifted the tone to one of responsibility and accountability, and all are in harmony.
Once the business is conducted, Bishop Taylor reads and comments on several verses of scripture. The meeting closes with prayer, and the casual mood of friendly exchanges resumes.
Stake President McKee believes that the attitude of a ward is strongly influenced by a bishop: “When a bishop understands the Savior’s atonement, for instance, it becomes for him the very model of what leadership is. Jesus consecrated his all in our behalf, and it is this kind of consecration that Bishop Taylor understands. You can feel it. It is a genuine thing. His ward recognizes his devotion to the Savior and to them, and they are responding to it.” President McKee adds that any priesthood holder who understands the Atonement will be a more willing and devoted servant of his fellowmen.
Certainly not all the spiritual dimensions of a ward are measurable. But there are some important indicators that can be considered to measure faith and goodness.
In the last two years, the Hendersonville Ward has increased in nearly every statistical measure. Attendance at sacrament meeting went from 42 percent in 1984 to 73 percent in 1985, and in 1986 it rose to 85 percent. When asked what changed to increase attendance, Bishop Taylor responds, “We did nothing to change the meetings. It was the personal contact by quorum presidencies and the bishopric that brought more people to meetings. They felt that people here cared for them and wanted them to be here, so they came.”
Home teaching is at or near 100 percent for all the quorums. The ward performed three hundred endowments for the year, as it had planned. They reactivated thirty-three people last year, and a Temple Preparation Seminar is being held once a week. Primary attendance is over 80 percent, as is attendance at Young Men and Young Women meetings. There are no inactive Aaronic Priesthood youth. Nearly 70 percent of the sisters attend Relief Society. Full tithe payers comprise 80 percent of the ward. And 100 percent of the ward subscribes to the Ensign.
What makes this level of activity seem even more remarkable is that the ward is located right on what could be called the buckle of the Bible Belt, only thirty-five miles from the headquarters of the Southern Fundamentalist movement.
Eric Olsen describes how the ward has grown and increased in nearly all the statistical measures. He maintains that there is “something here that makes you want to come to the meetings. I can’t explain just what it is.” It may help to have a bishop who is almost as fun as he is spiritual, who gives his ward members affectionate nicknames as if they really were all one big family. Or it may help to have unifying traditions like the ward barbeque. And it helps to have a bishopric who takes the time to demonstrate their care for you by visiting you whenever you don’t make it to church. Brother Olsen, a reactivated member himself, emulates Bishop Taylor’s enthusiasm and commitment. Eric paraphrases the Apostle Peter, saying, “I have been converted, now I am trying to go out and strengthen my brethren.” (See Luke 22:32.)
The Hendersonville Ward takes pride in having a good many members who have appeared on the Grand Old Opry, Nashville’s claim to fame. On the wall just outside the bishop’s office, a poster announces the elders quorum dinner party this Friday and assures great country entertainment by a group from the ward.
“These events bring nonmembers out,” Eric Olsen remarks. “And quite a few baptisms have occurred as a result. The second counselor in the bishopric, Rick Taylor, was introduced to the Church by Charlie Walker, a star of the Opry.” Then he adds that this is Bible country, and people will talk religion here more than they will in many other places.
The Bible Belt is being loosened a few notches in the Hendersonville area to allow for Another Testament. The Book of Mormon is being spread here with Southern zeal. Members are vigorously placing copies of the Book of Mormon with their neighbors, consistently going out on “splits” with full-time missionaries several times during the week, and achieving an esprit d’corps that seems to affect the way they live both the letter and the spirit of the gospel, the measurable and the immeasurable.
Jim Taylor’s conversion is a good example. Jim has been a law enforcement investigator for sixteen years, first with the FBI and then the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, where he is now director of the Fraud Division. When he married his wife, Marilyn, she was a member of the Church. He was not. Yet he would drive her 130 miles round trip to church.
When they moved to Hendersonville, her home teacher, John Ball (now a member of the stake presidency), was very caring and patient, Bishop Taylor explains. “So was Marilyn. They never tried to shove the Church down my throat,” he remembers. “But John and I became friends, and one day he said to me, ‘Jim, you’re an investigator by profession: why don’t you investigate the Church and find out if there’s anything to it.’ So I read the Book of Mormon, got on my knees, and by the third discussion with the missionaries I knew this was the divine Church.”
Hendersonville is a ward without any special programs, merely leaders and members learning how to serve, learning how to bear one another’s burdens and lighten each other’s hearts. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the success in Hendersonville is that being congenial is not a uniquely Southern trait. A glad heart is one measure of our fulfillment: we are that we might have joy, and as we bring joy to our fellow beings we are bringing it to God also.