“Learning How the Church Works and Finding Your Place in It,” Ensign, Oct. 2006, 28–32
The first time Lori Solomon attended a Latter-day Saint ward, she noticed something significant. Not only were the people she met there extremely friendly and kind, but they also had their own copies of the scriptures. During the meetings, they were reading from, talking about, and trying to apply the scriptures to their lives. This impressed Lori because she had never been able to understand the Torah when it was read in Hebrew in her Reform Jewish congregation.
When Lori went to church the second time, a powerful feeling propelled her to the microphone in fast and testimony meeting. Standing before a roomful of strangers, she tried to put into words the feeling that was already growing into a conviction. “I’m home,” she said. Lori was baptized in Chicago, Illinois, in 2001.
The Apostle Paul compared the experience of conversion to finding our spiritual home: “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh. … Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:13, 19).
But, as Lori soon discovered, knowing the Church is true is not the same as understanding how the Church works. Like most new members, Lori found herself unfamiliar with the procedures, protocol, and specialized vocabulary that long-term members take for granted. For example, she didn’t know that Church members don’t make comments in sacrament meeting. And the first time she heard someone refer to “home, family, and personal enrichment meeting,” she thought she needed to bring her family with her. It takes time to learn these and other unwritten “rules.”
For each of us, conversion is at least a two-part process. One part is the very individual process of learning and accepting restored truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ and becoming spiritually changed or converted by our new faith. It is a lifelong process that includes repenting, making and keeping covenants with the Lord, and striving to do His will. Because all of us need support in these central endeavors, we also engage in a second process—fellowshipping with other Latter-day Saints. This includes becoming part of a new community, attending meetings, taking part in activities, serving, and being served. And each aspect of the Church organization can give us vital aid in our spiritual conversion.
Having grown up as a practicing Catholic in Maryland, Jean Gardner always thought of bishops as full-time professional clergymen. So when she moved to Utah, she was naturally surprised to learn that her neighbor across the street was not only a truck driver but also the bishop of a local Latter-day Saint ward. Baptized in 2005, Sister Gardner now appreciates belonging to a church with a lay ministry (people who serve part-time and without pay).
Serving in Church callings has been the key to learning to understand the organization of the Church for Madhu Menon. Born in India and coming from a Hindu background, Brother Menon joined the Church in 1984. “As I respond to callings and become actively involved in helping others, I receive help from my leaders to understand the organization of the Church and the responsibilities of the offices in which I serve. Whether it is as a home teacher or on a welfare assignment, with each calling or opportunity to serve, I have learned something more about the organization of the Church,” says Brother Menon. Today he serves on a stake high council, where his understanding of the Church continues to deepen and expand.
Joining a church where members teach and speak and pray publicly can be intimidating to those for whom church membership was once a more passive experience. Today Aileen Figuerres serves on the Relief Society general board, where she teaches Relief Society leaders throughout the Church. She joined the Church in Hawaii at age 21, and she still remembers how worried she was the first time she was asked to pray in a meeting and teach a lesson as part of a teacher improvement class. In the Buddhist church she grew up attending, she recalls, “The minister did everything, and we sat and listened.” Having come from a non-Christian background, she also found the scriptures difficult to understand at first. She confided her feelings to a friend, and the friend offered to study the scriptures with her. Friends also taught her how to pray.
Sister Figuerres now emphasizes how important it is for new members to reach out to make connections with other Church members. She says it’s important to be brave enough to let others know what you need so they can help.
In retrospect, Sister Figuerres also realizes that as a new member she need not have been so concerned about the “form” as opposed to the “substance” of her service. To keep new challenges from feeling burdensome and overwhelming, Sister Figuerres recommends that new members try to approach challenges with a sense of joy in the learning process. “Because I had sufficient experiences of feeling the Spirit and God’s love, I could proceed in my own conversion process in spite of feelings of inadequacy and fear,” she recalls.
Like all new members, Jana Riess has found learning about the Church to be a “line upon line” experience (see Isaiah 28:10). She was preparing to become a Presbyterian minister in 1991 when she began listening to the missionary lessons. To express her appreciation, one Sunday she invited the sister missionaries to join her for lunch at a restaurant. They kindly explained that they would prefer not to eat out on the Sabbath. Fifteen years and many Church callings later, Sister Riess still sees her own conversion as ongoing. “Discipleship is a lifelong process that doesn’t end when someone rises from the waters of baptism,” she says. “I’m still ‘converting.’”
Looking back, Sister Riess counts among her greatest blessings as a new Church member those who reached out to her and took an interest in her spiritual development. Today she prizes the blessing of being able to help other converts along the path of discipleship by talking to them about their concerns, praying for and with them, and passing along helpful materials to read. She knows that the transition is often more painful and costly than many people realize. So, while her current official Church calling is Primary chorister, she also considers it a personal calling to reach out to other converts and help them become more committed disciples of Christ through the Church’s teachings and programs.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has said to those who are learning about the Church, “Bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.”1 While the restored gospel adds to new converts’ understanding, new converts add to the strength of the restored Church.
“I like helping converts realize just how much they add to the Church’s richness and beauty with their different experiences, backgrounds, and talents,” says Sister Riess. “New members contribute to the overall spiritual vitality of the Church through the freshness and strength of their testimonies, which are often born out of great heartache. The reality is that we are all converts. Even those who have been taught the gospel all their lives come to a moment when they must decide to make it their own.”
After his own conversion, the Apostle Paul used a metaphor that describes equally well the life of each Church member and the organization of the Church itself: “[Ye] 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” (Ephesians 2:20–21). The organization and programs of the Church are wonderful gifts. Through them, all of us—new and longtime members alike—can enjoy the fellowship of shared faith as we strive to build sustaining testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ and progress along the path of discipleship.
Within the Church, every member belongs to a group where he or she can serve and be served.
In the Aaronic Priesthood, under the direction of the bishop or branch president, deacons gather fast offerings and pass the sacrament, teachers prepare the sacrament and visit members as home teachers, and priests offer the sacrament prayers, perform baptisms, and ordain other priests, teachers, and deacons. Teachers can be assigned the duties of deacons, and priests can be assigned the duties of deacons and teachers.
In the Melchizedek Priesthood, elders (who are at least 18 years old) can carry out the responsibilities of deacons, teachers, and priests. In addition, they can confer the gift of the Holy Ghost and bless the sick. High priests have these and additional responsibilities to serve as members of bishoprics, high councils, and stake presidencies.
Young men between the ages of 12 and 17 also belong to the Young Men organization, where they take part in gospel learning and wholesome activities.
Women—Every young woman in the Church between the ages of 12 and 17 belongs to the Young Women organization. In this organization young women learn gospel principles, participate in wholesome activities, and practice service and leadership skills. Each adult woman age 18 and older belongs to the Relief Society, which enables women to grow spiritually and serve those in need.
Children—Between the ages of 3 and 11, children belong to the Primary organization, where they learn gospel principles and enjoy activities with other children. Children ages 18 months through 2 years may be enrolled in a nursery class.
Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. He extends His governing authority through priesthood quorums, each with specific responsibilities. The men in the following positions hold the Melchizedek Priesthood and are called General Authorities (except for members of the Third through the Eighth Quorums of the Seventy, who are called Area Seventies).
The First Presidency is a quorum consisting of the President of the Church and his counselors, who preside over the whole Church.
The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles directs ecclesiastical work of the Church throughout the world, overseeing missionary work and the administration of Church programs. The Apostles are “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world” (D&C 107:23).
The Presiding Bishopric serves as the presidency of the Aaronic Priesthood and oversees temporal matters such as building construction, tithing collection, and welfare services.
Here are a few key terms relating to Church organization (see also page 33).
Ward: A local congregation made up of Church members living in a certain geographical area.
Branch: Like a ward, but with fewer members and a smaller range of programs.
Bishopric or branch presidency: A bishop or branch president and his two counselors, who preside over ward or branch members and programs.
Stake: An administrative unit containing several wards.
District: An administrative unit containing several branches.
Stake or district presidency: A stake or district president and his two counselors, who preside over stake or district members and programs.
Stake center: The building that houses the stake presidency offices and one or more wards.
Stake high council: A group of 12 men who help the stake presidency oversee the Lord’s work in their stake.