Inside Church headquarters: 8 principles to help stake, ward and family councils be more effective

Editor’s note: The fourth part of the series on the essential role of councils in the Church explores how principles of counseling at the general level can be applied to stake, ward and family councils. Read more in part one, part two and part three.

While seeking the Lord’s will on a new program for children and youth a few years ago, Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon witnessed the power of inspiration and revelation that comes through counseling. 

“What I’ve learned is the Lord has a way of refining and molding as we move through the process,” she said. “The direction can completely change, but there is a spirit of unity as that happens because you realize that it is being guided and directed by the Spirit.” 

As the Young Women and Young Men general presidencies presented the proposal for a new program to various councils — including the Relief Society, Primary and Sunday School general presidencies, some of the General Authority Seventies and to the Priesthood and Family Executive Council — it was adjusted according to questions asked and insights given.

The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reviewed the proposal and asked different questions, offering a new vision and perspective, President Cordon said. The proposal was refined again and submitted to the First Presidency, who also provided input and ultimate approval.

The proposal became Children and Youth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a divinely inspired approach to strengthening the rising generation’s faith in Jesus Christ that began in January 2020.  

“This is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; it is a remarkable thing to remember that it is His Church,” President Cordon said. “As we seek to know His will, as men and women come together, listening to each other and listening to the Spirit, revelation flows.”

Church leaders have frequently emphasized that this divine pattern of counseling also guides stake, ward and family councils, as men and women work together to seek the Lord’s will through inspiration and revelation. 

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, said, “The principle of counseling is nowhere more important than in the relationship between a husband and a wife, and in their relationship as parents to their children, or anyone else who may in an extended family be living with them.”

Jeff Daly, second from left, and his wife, Kendyl Daly, right, hold a family council with their children in their Laguna Niguel, California home on July 18, 2021.
Jeff Daly, second from left, and his wife, Kendyl Daly, right, hold a family council with their children in their Laguna Niguel, California home on July 18, 2021. Credit: Alan Gibby, for the Church News

President Oaks and President Cordon — along with President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency; President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Elder David A. Bednar and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham and Primary General President Camille N. Johnson — recently spoke to the Church News about the essential role of councils in the Church, including stake, ward and family councils. 

They highlighted several key principles in making councils more effective at every level. 

1. Understand stewardship

Although the processes and principles in all councils are the same, President Oaks emphasized that not every council is a decision-making council. “The First Presidency is a decision-making council,” he said. “But some councils function as discussion councils on subjects where they have not been granted decision-making authority.”

President Oaks said the purpose of some councils is “to inform the group who preside,” like a bishopric in a ward council, so “they may be of one heart and mind.” The person presiding over the council may then announce a decision in the council or take the issue under advisement.  

“Revelation is the ultimate objective of the council, either revelation in the council, revelation to participants or revelation to presiding officers,” said President Oaks, quoting the statement “in the abundance of counsel, there is wisdom.”

The Lord has organized His Church in a particular way, giving rise to councils. Every act or ordinance performed in the Church is done under the direct or indirect authorization of one holding the keys for that function, taught President Oaks, speaking of “stewardship in revelation.”

“Only the president of the Church receives revelation to guide the entire Church,” he said. “Leaders receive revelation for their own stewardships. Individuals can receive revelation to guide their own lives.”

2. Know your purpose

In his 45 years as a general authority for the Church, President Ballard has participated in thousands of councils. Perhaps more than anyone, he has witnessed what works — and what doesn’t. 

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, meets with Elder Patrick Kearon of the Presidency of the Seventy, Suzanne Drysdale and Aaron Jenne at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, meets with Elder Patrick Kearon of the Presidency of the Seventy, Suzanne Drysdale and Aaron Jenne at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A council meeting is not telling everyone what to do, he said. A council meeting is not asking everyone to give a report. A council meeting is when a bishop says, for example: “We have a problem with reverence in the ward. Let’s talk about it. What can we do?”

Guided by the Spirit, the bishop seeks the input of each council member, and they counsel together about a solution. Once a decision is made that all feel comfortable with, they move forward and actively support it.

The primary mission of any Church or family council is “to bring souls unto Christ,” President Ballard said. “It is to help prepare them to receive the ordinances and covenants essential for eternal salvation.” 

3. Invite the Spirit by preparing

Spiritual preparation helps foster a “revelatory experience,” President Cordon said. Before she participates in a council meeting, she reviews the agenda and prayerfully ponders the items for discussion. 

“I hope that in our ward and stake councils, every member has an opportunity to see the agenda before the meeting. This simple step will facilitate preparation,” she said. 

Particularly in councils with large numbers, a focused agenda can help make the most of participants’ time, President Oaks said. “I’ve often thought that the effectiveness of the council is dependent, in large measure, by the chairman fixing the agenda in a reasonable way and sticking with it.”

Before discussing a specific topic, council members could review background information, Elder Cook recommended. “Put it in context,” he said. This could be historical or doctrinal context, or observations from personal experience. 

Good information can lead to good inspiration, said Elder Uchtdorf. “You have to collect information, and then you are in the position to receive revelation when you connect to the Spirit.”

4. Seek the Lord’s will, not your own

Elder Uchtdorf said the Savior should be the center of every council, “not our own ego, or our own thinking of organizational structures.” To keep the Savior as the focus, a council might ask: “What would He want us to do? How can we accomplish His purpose, His mission, His work, His glory?”

Bishop Paula F. Ika leads a ward council discussion in the Provo YSA 221st Ward (Tongan) on Sunday, June 13, 2021, in an Orem, Utah, meetinghouse.
Bishop Paula F. Ika leads a ward council discussion in the Provo YSA 221st Ward (Tongan) on Sunday, June 13, 2021, in an Orem, Utah, meetinghouse. Credit: Scott Taylor

President Johnson used the analogy of a triangle to describe how council members draw closer to each other as they draw closer to Christ. “At each of these council meetings, and hopefully in our ward councils and our family councils, we’re inviting Christ into that equation. …

“These are not board meetings, where directions are given to executives to fulfill certain responsibilities or directives. Not at all. It’s a revelatory experience to identify what the Savior has in mind for His Church,” she said. 

“This is more than just administration. This is ministering to the one. And the way we can know how to do that on a global basis is by inviting our Savior into that process and recognizing the Spirit.”

This process is not easy, President Eyring acknowledged, but the ideal is that the Savior directs every council. “It’s hard work to get the Lord’s will, and councils — if we go at it — is the best way we know of to get it done.”

5. Make sure every voice is heard

“Revelation is scattered among the various members of a council,” Elder Bednar explained. “As an issue comes forward for consideration, we need, invite and hear counsel from everyone.” 

Elder Cook recalled that while serving on the Missionary Executive Council with President Ballard some years ago, President Ballard often extended invitations for others to weigh in on a discussion item. 

“There’s a power in that,” Elder Cook said of seeking additional insights. “It may not be the direction it goes, but they are appreciated, and that builds unity. A council is a place to build unity.”

President Cordon said sometimes in the Young Women general advisory council meetings, she notices a sister who has been quiet. “I’ll invite her, ‘Do you have any thoughts?’ And sometimes she is exactly the missing piece that we were hoping to have.”

As a husband and wife work together to allow their children to have a voice in their family, she said, they may realize “sometimes revelation is brought through the voice of an 8-year-old.” 

Recognizing that holding family councils can be a challenge, President Eyring offered this advice to parents: “Try to have the spirit of a council as much as you can” and don’t worry about calling it a “meeting” or a “council.”

President Oaks added, “The best councils we ever had with my teenage children were around the dinner table.” 

6. Seek women’s perspectives

“The voice of women at every level, including the home, is critical,” President Ballard said. 

Progress is made when women and men are unified and work together, President Bingham said. To women questioning their value in a council, she said, “Your voice as a woman matters.”

As a stake president in Germany many years ago, Elder Uchtdorf said, the best counsel he received to help members in his area was to take time to listen to all the stake organization leaders during council meetings.

“Each organization is important, each person is important, each brother and sister serving in these organizations is important to the work,” he said. “We always cherish and appreciate the wisdom, experience and counsel of our sisters and brothers who serve as leaders in our ward and stake youth and priesthood organizations. Their examples of goodness and dedication are a blessing to the rising generation and to the Church as a whole.” 

Elder Uchtdorf said the general women leaders who serve with him on executive councils “are as wonderful and exceptional as the Brethren who serve in these councils. Each one is of the same great importance for the work.”

7. Listen to learn

While inviting every voice to contribute, council members should “listen to learn” rather than simply waiting for a turn to speak, said President Bingham. A wise council leader often waits to be the last person to share his or her thoughts to avoid unintentionally cutting off discussion.

President Cordon said she has learned a similar principle from Elder Cook and other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As they share their thoughts and ideas, “they say it in such a way that it continues to open suggestions, comments and insights from others. It doesn’t close down the conversation.”

By setting aside one’s own ideas and actively listening to learn — from others and from the Lord — “the Spirit increases our insights and understanding,” President Cordon said. 

“That’s true of the leader and every member of the council,” President Eyring said, “is to listen and be open to the possibility that through someone’s experience and point of view, the Lord might reveal His work more clearly to you.”

In the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, for example, no one tries to impose a particular point of view, Elder Bednar said. “Inspired conclusions are reached as we are modest, meek and guided by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

Elder David A. Bednar looks over items on the agenda as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gather for their weekly meeting at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.
Elder David A. Bednar looks over items on the agenda as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gather for their weekly meeting at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

8. Seek consensus through revelation, not compromise

President Bingham has observed that in a secular setting, many group discussions lead to compromise — an agreement reached by each side making concessions.    

“That’s not how a council in the Church works. We work through consensus,” she said. Honestly and openly sharing ideas, “we continue to work together, looking for the best solution that is confirmed through revelation by the Spirit.” 

Once a decision is made, all move forward to actively support the decision. “That’s when the work really happens — outside the council,” President Bingham said. 

Sometimes consensus is reached quickly, and other times it may take longer, President Johnson cautioned. “Be patient with the revelatory process. Just because you scheduled the meeting doesn’t mean that it’s all going to come together in that one one-hour session. It may take time.” 

President Ballard said those who learn to counsel effectively in their stakes, wards and families — following the divine pattern Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ demonstrated — will “always end up with a better result, always end up with a better answer, will always end up with a better spirit.”

President Bingham added, “When we really understand what councils can accomplish, we would run to embrace it.”

More about the Inside Church Headquarters series

Part one — July 8 online/July 10 print issue — President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring discuss what they have learned about revelation in councils and from President Russell M. Nelson’s leadership.

Part two — July 15 online/July 17 print issue — President M. Russell Ballard and other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explain why the Church is governed by councils and give examples about how “inviting, receiving and recognizing revelation” can happen in every council.

Part three — July 22 online/July 24 print issue — Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and general women leaders give insight into the purpose and functions of three of the Church’s executive councils: the Missionary Executive Council, the Temple and Family History Executive Council and the Priesthood and Family Executive Council. These executive councils make recommendations to the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Part four — July 29 online/July 31 print issue — Church leaders highlight principles of counseling practiced at the general level that can help stake, ward and family councils be more effective.

Coming — Photo gallery and overview of councils.