Elder M. Russell Ballard has been an energetic advocate of the council system in the Church stretching at least as far back as October 1993, when he talked on that subject in general conference for the first time.
“It’s a great system; it’s the Lord’s system,” declared Elder Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in an interview with the Church News in preparation for the content in this week’s special issue pertaining to councils in the Church.
In that 1993 conference talk, Elder Ballard put the subject in a divine context when he said: “God called a grand council in the pre-mortal world to present His glorious plan for our eternal welfare. The Lord’s church is organized with councils at every level, beginning with the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and extending to stake, ward, quorum, auxiliary, and family councils.”
Elder Ballard would return to that subject in the very next general conference in April 1994. On that occasion, he drew upon his experience in the automobile business and his appreciation for a car with a well-tuned engine.
“Unfortunately,” he said on that occasion, “some wards in the Church are hitting on only a few cylinders, including some that are trying to make do with just one. The one-cylinder ward is the ward where the bishop handles all of the problems, makes all of the decisions, and follows through on all of the assignments. Then, like an overworked cylinder in a car engine, he is soon burned out.”
He said that in training sessions during the previous six months, he would meet with a ward council and invite the members to take up a theoretical problem about a less-active family and to develop a plan to reactivate the family.
In each instance, the bishop in the council took charge, telling the members what he wanted them to do. In every case, Elder Ballard invited the council to try again, this time with the bishop soliciting ideas and recommendations from the council members.
“The effect was like opening the floodgates of heaven,” he said. “A reservoir of insight and inspiration suddenly began to flow between council members as they planned for fellowshipping the less-active family.”
That April 1994 general conference sermon, titled “Counseling with Our Councils,” was expanded into a book of the same title published in 1997. That book by Elder Ballard has been helpful in Church administration, as councils are so pervasive in the Church, indeed in the government of God.
In the preface to a 2010 revision of his book, Elder Ballard wrote: “There are now tens of thousands of new priesthood and auxiliary leaders in every stake, district, ward and branch of the Church. In fact, many of those who are currently serving in leadership positions were not even members of the Church in 1997. That is also true for hundreds of thousands of parents who are either new members of the Church or new to the wonderful world of parenting during the past decade and a half.”
Thus it was that in April of this year, Elder Ballard again spoke on councils but this time with families being the primary focus.
“Until now,” he said, “I have never talked in general conference about the most basic and fundamental — and perhaps the most important — of all councils: the family council.
“A family council, when conducted with love and with Christlike attributes, will counter the impact of modern technology that often distracts us from spending quality time with each other and also tends to bring evil right into our homes.”
In that talk, he delineated four kinds of family councils: the entire family, father and mother alone, a limited council with parents and one child, and one-on-one with one parent and a child.
In the Church News interview, he said, “One of the keys is that a leader — parent, bishop, stake president, Relief Society or Primary or Young Women president — needs to think through the needs of the organization, decide what needs to be fixed.”
The leader must then avoid the temptation to say, “This is what I want you to do,” Elder Ballard explained. “That eliminates the possibility of a council.” Instead, the leader — such as the bishop, for example — will take one issue at a time and say to the council, “Here’s what I’m concerned about; let’s talk about it. How can we improve it?”
“Ultimately, a conclusion is reached as to how to improve, that everybody agrees with,” Elder Ballard said. “There’s the synergism of everyone not feeling that this is what the bishop wants but what the council agreed to do. Then, it gets fixed, because the council members can go back into their own councils, not just taking back strict instruction from the bishop, but returning with a unified decision that the entire council arrived at.”
He added, “This principle in the Church is exactly the same principle that works in a family, in business or in any organization.”
It is the same principle, he said, that one sees in the accounts in the books of Genesis and Abraham of a council of Gods participating in the creation of the earth.
Elder Ballard said that he has maintained all his adult life, stemming from his background in business, that “if you want to improve something, you’ve got to counsel about it.”
As a young bishop, he used the principle.
“We were really concerned that our boys would go on missions,” he said. “As we pondered and counseled with each other, we determined that if we want to be sure they go on missions, let’s be sure we have them right where they ought to be when they’re deacons, teachers and priests.”
Later, as a General Authority and ultimately as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Ballard continued to implement the council principle.
One example was the Church’s worldwide Pioneer Sesquicentennial of 1996-97, the centerpiece of which was a wagon train and handcart trek from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, ending up at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, the point where President Brigham Young and the 1847 Mormon Pioneers gazed at and descended into the Salt Lake Valley.
That commemorative event, widely viewed at the time as helping, in scriptural terms, to bring the Church “out of obscurity” was the result of diligent work by a council that Elder Ballard chaired.
“They did not come from me,” Elder Ballard said regarding the events of the sesquicentennial. “They came from the invitation to the council members to think and to pray and to come forth with suggestions.”
One idea was to create a slogan that would reflect the spirit of the celebration, and to make it the basis for a hymn or an anthem. What emerged from council discussions was the slogan “Faith in Every Footstep.”
K. Newell Dayley, a professor of music at Brigham Young University and a member of the committee, promptly created a hymn by that title, which is still sung in the Church today.
“It’s beautiful, powerful, meaningful as it relates to the pioneer movement,” Elder Ballard said of the hymn.
Among events that emerged from committee plans was a gala celebration to welcome the commemorative wagon and handcart train at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. Some 50,000 people were on hand for it, Elder Ballard remembered.
“They came down the canyon with their wagons and handcarts,” he said, “and the minute they saw it, the whole audience stood up and cheered them all the way in.”
For two nights, a festival of music and dance was held in the stadium at Brigham Young University. In the finale, about 2,000 missionaries from the Provo Missionary Training Center entered the stadium, each bearing the flag of the country where he or she would be serving.
“They all came in singing, ‘Called to Serve,’ after the Tabernacle Choir had finished singing ‘Faith in Every Footstep,’ ” Elder Ballard said. “President Gordon B. Hinckley and others had tears of emotion.”
A television documentary, “Trail of Hope,” was commissioned for the celebration. This and the other events of the sesquicentennial grew out of the work of a council.
Elder Ballard said he doesn’t believe anyone is ever independent of a council relationship.
Even an individual living alone can counsel in a council meeting with the Lord in prayer, he said. “It’s a great time, not to tell Him what to do and how to do it, but a time to express love and appreciation and ask for inspiration and guidance while listening for the prompting of the Spirit.”
What if a council seems unable to arrive at a consensus?
Elder Ballard said, “I’m 88 now, and I’ve held a lot of council meetings in the Church, business and in other settings. Rarely does someone want to dominate the conversation. Success is in the way you set it up. Joseph Smith made a wonderful statement to the effect that if you start right, you’ll end right.”
Speaking from 35 years of experience as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and nearly 41 years as a General Authority, Elder Ballard said he has never been in a council meeting involving the Brethren that did not follow this pattern: A matter has been discussed, perhaps postponed for a period of further study, evaluation and prayer, then ultimately a united decision is reached “where all hands went up enthusiastically.”
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