“Brethren, there is no meeting in the Church so unimportant that it cannot begin on time, and there is no meeting in the Church so important that it cannot end on time.”
— J. Reuben Clark III, a counselor in my BYU Stake Presidency, to the priesthood leadership of my BYU ward, circa 1976
Pres. Clark (a BYU classics professor and the son of J. Reuben Clark Jr.) uttered those words in our BYU ward PEC meeting being held as part of our ward conference back when I was a BYU undergrad. The PEC meeting had been late in starting for reasons I don’t fully recall, but I certainly recall Pres. Clark’s rebuke once we did get started. I cited his remarks in the comments to this posting over at By Common Consent after seeing that the winner of the “Mormon happiness is…” poll was “…when church finishes 10 minutes early” (42%).
In the same comments, I talked about Lou Hampton, who became branch president of the District of Columbia Branch while Sandra and I were living there (and later bishop when the DC Branch became the Chevy Chase Ward). This was Lou’s third time as a bishop, and one of the changes he immediately instituted was that all meetings begin on time and ended on time, if not sooner. In fact, one of his first acts was to go through the entire chapel and ensure that the clocks were all synchronized and set to the correct time.
At the time that Lou became branch president, our schedule started with Priesthood and Relief Society meetings, and both meetings were well known for starting 10 to 20 minutes late. Lou worked diligently with both organizations to get them to start on time; as he did so, members started showing up on time as well.
Correspondingly, our meeting schedule ended with Sacrament meeting. Lou always took a minute with the speakers before the meeting started letting them know how much time they had and when he expected them to be done. He would do this with all the speakers in order to avoid the problem of an earlier speaker using up so much time that the later speakers had little left.
Lou always started Sacrament meeting on time, regardless of who might still be milling around in the pews; again, the members quickly learned to watch the clock and to sit down promptly. During the meeting itself, Lou would put a note on the pulpit or, should that fail to work, tap the current speaker on the back to indicate that it was time to wrap up. He would even do this with High Council speakers; as he rightly pointed out, he was still the presiding authority at the meeting, not the High Council representative. He did, however, forebear from interrupting any member of the District (and later Stake) Presidency.
Likewise, Lou would bring Fast & Testimony meeting to a close right on time, even if there were people still on the stand. That bothered me some at first, but I came to realize that Lou’s concern was for the congregation as a whole. It also gave us all an incentive to bear our testimonies sooner in the meeting, rather than later, and to keep our testimonies brief and to the point, so as to allow time for others. (One other thing: Lou always had a large printed sheet laying on the pulpit during Fast & Testimony meeting that said, “Please state your name.” This was a great help, particularly as the branch — and then ward — grew by leaps and bounds.)
On those occasions when the (regular) Sacrament meeting speakers ended early, Lou did not feel the need to fill up the remaining time, either by speaking himself or by calling upon others to speak. Instead, we simply ended Sacrament meeting (and thus our entire block) early. The members quickly caught on, and so again kept their remarks short and to the point. As a result, we regularly ended anywhere from 5 to 15 (and sometimes even 20) minutes early.
Lou kept the same discipline in the various leadership meetings (bishopric, PEC, ward council, etc.). We started on time, we moved quickly through the agenda, and we dismissed as soon as all pertinent issues had been covered. None of this indicated a lack of concern on Lou’s part for the branch/ward or its members; on the contrary, Lou did this precisely so that he could spend as much time as he could in personal ministry to the members. When I became one of his counselors, I quickly discovered that he delegated literally everything that he could to us for that same reason.
It is interesting to see the example set by the general Church leadership in General Conference, particularly under Pres. Hinckley. Of course, General Conference meetings always begin on time, but for the last several years, most sessions have ended several minutes early, particularly when Pres. Hinckley himself was the closing speaker.
I appreciated Lou’s example precisely because it reflected what I have tried to follow since hearing Pres. Clark’s rebuke some 30+ years ago. I’ve done my best to keep meetings on-time and brief both in my Church responsibilities as well as my professional life. I must confess that I have chafed some since moving to Colorado; our ward here is wonderful, but for most of the past 2.5 years that we’ve lived here, Sacrament has been both late starting and often late getting out (cutting into my time as Gospel Doctrine and now Gospel Essentials teacher), and my High Priest Group meetings are usually late ending as well.
I have recently been released as the Gospel Doctrine teacher and called as the ward mission leader. I’ve let the full-time and ward missionaries know that our missionary correlation meeting will be held right after the end of the block, and that I do not expect it to last more than 15 minutes. That was greeted with some joy and relief, as apparently the previous missionary correlation meetings were being held on a weeknight and regularly lasted a hour or more. I’ve been a ward mission leader several times before, and I’m pretty confident that we can cover what we need to in those 15 minutes; any follow-up discussions can be done one-on-one over the phone or in person. Our time is best spent in actual service to others, not hashing out details ad infinitum. I believe that’s true for all our meetings. ..bruce..