Bryan Hughes currently resides in the Hingham Stake outside of Boston, MA, where he resides with his wife and four children. He was a self-reliance manager in the mid-west United States who worked with 20 stakes in rolling out the self-reliance initiative in his area and has served in various ward and stake leadership positions.
It was late September in 2017 as I drove away from a stake center in Southwestern Kansas, the final stake, in my twenty-stake stewardship, had just completed rolling out the self-reliance initiative. In the few months that followed, this twenty-stake cluster of over 80,000 members with units across eight Midwest states, would produce nearly 4,000 individuals who began their self-reliance journey. From this, thousands of individuals gained or improved their employment, many hundreds started their own business or began an educational program, and countless were blessed directly or indirectly by better learning to work with the Lord in their challenges.
This ability, which an individual can work directly with the Lord in their respective needs, is the key and often hidden principle found in the self-reliance initiative. When an individual can work directly with the Lord, rather than relying solely upon a bishop, relief society president, or elders quorum president, they are able to utilize the enabling power of the Atonement. Too often we focus on the redemptive nature of the Atonement without as much regard to the enabling power it provides.
My commentary must be tempered with this reality, the self-reliance initiative is administered locally under the keys of the stake president. By delegation, some pass this to the bishops to administer at the ward level. While I may highlight results, examples, and what I believe to be best practices, this initiative is of the Lord and, therefore, must be conducted through proper keys. I would boldly state that the success found in the stakes I served was entirely due to stake presidents actively using their keys to seek the Lords will, and to implement it in this respect. It should also be noted that I do not speak for the Church or the self-reliance services/PEF department. I was a self-reliance manager, employed by the Church to conduct this work, but vacated this position in early 2018 to pursue another opportunity. This said, my passion and enthusiasm for this effort has not wavered.
Much of the public conversation around the self-reliance initiative is focused on the poor and the needy. This should be a focus; however, I would suggest that it is so much more and could serve a much larger population when implemented as such. As an example, the stake presidents from my stewardship all viewed this effort as a spiritual initiative with a practical or temporal application, rather than the other way around. I’m afraid that many who see this as “just another church program” are missing on the application of a higher good. This is no Church employment 2.0, or a beefed-up version of the “All is Safely Gather In” brochure given for 30 minutes on a 5th Sunday while a couple argues in the back if an auto loan is an acceptable type of debt. As stake presidents and bishops exercise their keys, they have many programs to consider that are good and beneficial to the members and the community. However, perhaps, there is a better or best option.
Returning to an earlier point, the self-reliance process teaches two key principals that are often foreign to the culture (not doctrine) of the Church.
1 – Learn to seek for, receive and act on revelation
Participants learn a practical pattern and skill set associated with seeking for, receiving personal revelation, and acting on that revelation. This provides the framework in which the individual can counsel with the Lord, ponder upon solutions, and have the courage to act. 2 Nephi, Chapter 2 provides Lehi’s counsel that our Heavenly Father has created things to act, and things to be acted upon. Elder Bednar and others have instructed us that we are to be agents rather than objects. Rather than life butting us around as an object, we are to act for ourselves and to be accountable for the results. This, in conjunction with learning to seek after, understand and act on what the Lord would have us do, allows the Lord and the enabling power of the atonement to multiply our efforts. We then find greater satisfaction in the results. This should not suggest that everything will go as we desire, or that anything will be easy. Rather, the Lord can guide us if we are at least moving in the right direction. God can’t steer a parked car.
2. Learn how to truly counsel together
Many of the councils in our Church (by way of culture) do not function or resemble the councils that the Brethren teach us to hold. Consider if the members of your stake/ward/branch/quorum have learned how to truly counsel; to hear others, to listen for understanding, to appropriately share experiences, and to uplift others.
Further, the pattern of accountability is taught and reinforced where individuals have accountability partners that they communicate and follow-up with throughout the week. They further give a public accounting of the previous week’s efforts to the group. Imagine if the first Sunday of the month quorum meeting had a public accounting where each individual stood to indicated which families they had ministered to and which were left alone. The self-reliance accountability provides an opportunity to “return and report” as taught in the mission field and in the temple, but not elsewhere exemplified.
Let’s put these into context: What would happen if a bishop had a 20% reduction in appointments because a portion of the individuals counseled with the Lord rather than asking the bishop to design a plan for them or to give direction? What would the bishop do with that time? Could they complete the youth interviews, stewardship meeting with auxiliary leaders, or even spend time with their family? What if priesthood and relief society leaders more fully understood financial management? Could we finally see a time where no one made it to the bishop’s office for a financial need without having first completed a needs analysis and budget plan with a leader?
This isn’t unreasonable and I witnessed this in my area. In the stakes I served, the stake presidents made significant effort to encourage all members to attend. Many set the example themselves by participating, as did many bishops and ward/stake leaders. While the self-reliance department has moved away from tracking the statistics associated with the initiative in order to ensure our focus on “the one”, I will use some numbers to illustrate my point.
Roughly 34% of all participants in my stakes during my tenure were a member of a ward or stake council. This group of stakes represents a solid cross-section of the LDS community across North America. We had areas where stakes were only a few miles apart, and other areas where a single stake may cover 65,000 square miles or more. We had areas where stakes shared buildings with others and combined groups for more options, and other stakes where leaders may choose to fly to the city where the stake Center is located. All economic and ethnic demographics were similarly served. Thus, it’s fair to conclude that this inspired initiative is for all Father’s children.
The focused messaging and training effort by the stake presidency led to strong attendance at the self-reliance devotionals to kick-off each 12-week session. Strong testimonies of both leaders and those benefited by the initiative were shared which helped the Spirit to encourage individuals to act. Devotionals with 200+ attendees would lead to 18 or more weekly groups, leading to dozens and dozens of graduates. More important, and illustrative why the statistics are no longer emphasized, is the impact on the individual. Even those who did not formally graduate learned and grew spiritually and temporally.
A story was shared where a ward council counseled together to consider those who they might invite to participate in the initiative. They felt inspired that they should also identify less active families that might be invited to participate. They invited ten families, three agreed, and two stuck with it. I heard this story from a peer who attended this ward, and was greeted by a bishop in tears. The bishop recounted this story and said that he just finished the temple recommend interview with one of these couples; a recommend that had not been renewed in over ten years.
A stake president shared with me how he finished a recommend interview with a sister he had worked with as a bishop. She tried but ultimately had needed financial assistance two or three times per year. She was invited and came to the devotional expecting to attend the financial group. The Spirit instead directed her to the small business group where she ultimately learned the traits necessary to monetize the seamstress skills she had been taught by her mother. This resulted in her making up the income deficit; ensured tithing was paid, and ultimately led to a temple recommend.
Another stake president shared with me that he had a stewardship interview with an elder’s quorum president who attended the group. His comment to the stake president was that after learning how to counsel and seeing it applied in the group that he “finally understood what a quorum meeting is supposed to feel like”.
Many inspiring and motivational stories could be shared from stake presidents and bishops starting their own businesses to gain back professional time, stake presidents that have connected with other religious groups to offer the group courses to their members and the public to greater serve the community, etc. I watched a stake president postpone some of the other efforts and programs in the stake to ensure that the members could participate in this effort. His belief was that if they personally implemented the principals of this initiative, they would have the necessary time and resources to more fully participate in the other programs of the Church. The result in this was a number of individuals and couples who were considered to be successful by the scale of the world attend, and gain, a testimony of how the Lord would have them conduct their temporal lives. These individuals were then better able to serve in their callings and communities and were more financially able to give to others.
3. Wards fast offerings begin to cover welfare needs of the stake
I watched several wards and one entire stake move from being net-takers in fast-offerings to become net-givers. This came from not only the education of the individual but also the leaders to support them. First, a culture developed around personal accountability where (most) individuals were expected to have a plan and to be acting for their own support before financial support would be provided. Ultimately the number of checks did not decrease, but those that needed the support were often only needful temporarily and those contributing to fast offering funds were greater in quantity and abundance.
While each stake or ward leader should implement this based upon inspiration they receive based upon the keys that they hold, here are some considerations that I have seen stakes implement with strong results:
- The stake often sets the tempo. If the stake presidency and high council are speaking about the initiative in meetings, then it is more likely to gain credibility.
- Remember that this is a tool to be applied to challenges in the stake. It isn’t a program to be layered on top of the others. When looking at family struggles, disengagement, financial or employment strains, etc., consider how personal self-reliance could better support the individual and family.
- Involve everyone! Don’t refer to this as a program for the poor and the needy. Instead, promote that this effort is for every member to better learn how the Lord would have them conduct their temporal lives.
- Don’t skip the steps. I’ve seen units choose to forgo the kick-off devotional after the first round or skip steps in the weekly meetings (or truncate the meetings to fewer than twelve). Consider the pattern as a complex set of steps. Without following the pattern as prescribed, it is no better than the employment workshops or previous finance efforts.
- Do not be discouraged by “numbers”. It isn’t a competition and I’ve seen an individual go through the same course three times and not graduate. He learned and applied a bit more each time. Isn’t that what we all do to some degree?
- When training ward councils, consider training the extended ward councils (presidency and secretary) simultaneously. This ensures a more holistic view of the effort and provides additional perspectives, but also prepares the future ward leaders for their role.
- While the (extended) ward council is together in training, have them take fifteen minutes to identify the names of those that will be invited to participate. I witnessed this in my own ward as we took only 13 minutes to identify 50 individuals to invite. As we went around the room, the Spirit was clearly providing revelation as many of us were considering the same individuals. This process was edifying and inspiring.
- Consider the facilitators. They may be great teachers, but that isn’t what is needed. Review the material on a facilitator, and consider if they can follow the script and provide a great example of counseling. It does not begin and end with the facilitator. They are a participant and one to help the conversation flow, but not to dominate or lecture.
One final point is an illustration of the spiritual growth of the participants in ways not directly associated with temporal matters. Early on, we surveyed graduates and asked roughly ten questions. Among these were questions associated with worthiness for a temple recommend. We had roughly 75% of those surveyed indicate they were worthy of a Temple recommend at the start of the groups. This same group had a 10% increase in temple recommend preparedness at the end. Sacrament attendance also had the same baseline and 10% increase (what bishop wouldn’t want a 10% sacrament attendance increase?). This, along with the previously made point that a third of participants were members of a ward or stake council suggests that these were active and solid members.
However, one of the questions asked how many studied the scriptures and prayed daily. Another question asked how many regularly felt the promptings of the Spirit. The baseline number for each of these was only 14%. Extending this math out suggests that perhaps at least one member of every auxiliary presidency isn’t spiritually engaged to the extent that they can actively find and feel the promptings associated with their responsibilities, let alone the same application in their home. Thus, a side benefit could be considering this initiative as a method by which existing and emerging leaders can be equipped to engage spiritually as well as temporally. This may serve to break up stagnation and a sense of duty some act by, rather than the joy we would hope comes from serving in the gospel.
It is my belief and personal testimony that the self-reliance initiative is the best-kept secret in the Church. I have witnessed a large number of individuals utilize the enabling power of the atonement to uplift themselves and their families. With this, I have seen stakes and wards/branches stabilize and grow. Some are nearing a need to split. Simply following the program will help, but a local understanding that this is a spiritual initiative with temporal benefits will unlock its true power.
(For additional information regarding this initiative, visit the Self-Reliance Resource Page on LDS.org)