The Time was occupied this morning by the returned Salmon River Missionaries who all felt first rate. – Minutes of North Cottonwood Ward, 18 April 1858
Presidents Young and Smith occupied the time in the afternoon. – Deseret News, 24 March 1870
Attended the Ward meeting at 2 P.M. where we had a very enjoyable time. Bros Myres, Crosby, Steele & J.W. White occupied the time. – Volney King diary, 7 September 1879
At two o’clock attended the Tabernacle services, and was asked by Uncle Angus to occupy the time. – Abraham H. Cannon diary, 7 August 1892
At today’s services Prest. B.E. Rich and Elder John Neels Clawson occupied the time. – Letter from New York branch member to Deseret News, 1 March 1913
The Relief Society occupied the time on Saturday. – Minutes of Quorum of the Twelve meeting, 25 June 1914
Bro Joseph Holland of the High Counsel and Bro. Humphries were present as home Missionaries and occupied the time. – Minutes of Owendale Branch, Idaho, 9 December 1917
I shall call on somebody else to occupy the balance of the time. – Heber J. Grant, General Conference, April 1944
The bishopric will conduct the meeting and occupy the entire time of the joint assembly. – Instructions from PBO for Aaronic Priesthood programs, 1953
I have prayed for the blessings of heaven to be with me in these few moments that I occupy the pulpit here this afternoon. – Elder David B. Haight, General Conference, April 2001
The first discourse I ever delivered I occupied over an hour. – Elder Douglas L. Callister, General Conference, October 2007
“To occupy the time of a meeting” – meaning “to address a congregation” – was a familiar phrase to our 19th century brethren. The term was used often enough in the 20th century that hints of it still appear in the expressions of our older General Authorities in the 21st century. I’ve run across it so often in Mormon documents that it provokes a smile, a sense that I am among familiar friends whose language I understand intimately.
The affection ends, though, when “occupying the time” ceases to be a quaint phrase and becomes a too literal description of a speaker’s talk or a teacher’s lesson.
We’ve all been there, enduring the droning lecture from a teacher who never once invites a comment from the class, or the speaker who has nothing in particular to say but exceeds his assigned time in saying it. They occupy the time, and that’s about all they can be said to have done.
Recognizing that not all have the same gifts, we can all still be better speakers and teachers (and even testimony bearers) by knowing what we’re doing, beyond merely filling up the minutes. What follows is a concrete suggestion for doing that.
If you’re a teacher, determine a specific purpose for your lesson, and write it out. Finding the words to state that purpose means you have a specific end in mind, not a vague general notion.
Sometimes the manual will state a purpose, but usually in terms that are too vague to be useful – most lessons in the New Testament manual, for example, have as their purpose statement some variation of “to encourage class members to become more dedicated disciples of Jesus Christ” (that is in fact the purpose statement for Lesson 9). But it’s too broad. It won’t help you organize your lesson or help your class members identify changes they should consider in their lives. You can’t just tell somebody to “become a more dedicated disciple” any more than you say “become a better mother” or “become a successful chemist”; you have to teach them what that means, and help them find specific actions leading to that end. That’s true whether you’re teaching the gospel or secular knowledge.
You can develop a better purpose statement by deciding which of that lesson’s elements to emphasize:
1. Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21. Jesus teaches his disciples to do alms, pray, and fast in secret and to lay up treasures in heaven instead of on earth.
2. Matthew 6:7–13; 7:7–11. He shows his disciples how to pray and teaches that Heavenly Father will bless those who ask him for what they need.
3. Matthew 6:14–15; 7:1–6, 12. Jesus teaches his disciples to forgive others, to judge righteously, and to treat others as they would like to be treated.
4. Matthew 6:22–34; 7:13–29. He teaches his disciples that they will be blessed for serving Heavenly Father and doing his will.
and then identifying a purpose tailored to that element. If you choose the first or fourth, your purpose statement might be: “Class members routinely provide service in their families, church assignments, or otherwise. I will encourage them to recognize service as a deliberate choice to follow the Savior, and to find joy in increasing that service.” If you choose the third, your purpose statement might be: “To encourage class members to identify three situations in the coming week where, instead of reacting with anger or impatience, they could consider the situation from the other person’s point of view and act according to the Golden Rule.”
The direction your lesson takes with one purpose statement will be completely different from the direction it would take with another. Your purpose statement will determine which scriptures you read, what stories or case studies you present to the class, what questions you ask, and what you include in your wrap-up to the lesson. That purpose statement will keep you on track; you won’t ramble and wander aimlessly – you won’t merely occupy the time. Your ward members will leave class knowing what they talked about, and not just knowing that they talked.
Other manuals do not suggest a purpose at all – you’re entirely on your own. There is no purpose statement for the next lesson to be taught from the Gospel Principles manual, for instance.
That lesson is “The Lord’s Law of Health” – the Word of Wisdom, and more. Are you going to talk about health in general, jumping from listing the do’s and don’ts of the Word of Wisdom to statistics about premature death to that study you read about the benefits of exercise?
I hope not. And I hope that unless your class is stuffed with brand new converts you don’t occupy 40 minutes telling your long-term members nothing more than that they shouldn’t smoke or drink.
Instead, after considering your class and their needs, choose one or more specific areas to emphasize and write a definite purpose statement. “To discuss with class members the need for both adequate rest and adequate physical activity, and to identify practical ways of overcoming the barriers to rest and exercise.” “To review the eternal importance of these physical bodies that will be ours throughout eternity, and why it matters how we treat our bodies in mortality.” Or any other aspect of “the Lord’s law of health” that you are inspired to emphasize.
Then, teach to that point. Ignore elements from the manual that aren’t directly related to that goal. Choose scriptures, find stories, write questions, solicit prepared statements from class members – whatever teaching activities reinforce the point, omitting whatever distracts from that point. Again, this will keep you on track – you won’t merely occupy time, and your class members will know they have deepened their appreciation for the Lord’s advice on these bodies He created for us.
Ditto, with regard to talks: If the bishop assigns you to speak about “hope,” or about Elder Somebody’s talk from last Conference, don’t ramble from one aspect of hope to another; don’t do a book review on Elder Somebody’s talk. Identify a specific purpose for your talk – how hope is related to faith and charity, how you learned what hope really meant after your personal tragedy, how you gained a testimony of the principle Elder Somebody addressed in his talk. Then choose scriptures and excerpts, stories from your life, and a concluding testimony that illustrate your purpose; cut out the jokes and the extra scriptures and the dictionary definitions and the paragraphs you found from articles at lds.org, if they don’t have a direct bearing on your purpose. Focus!
Bearing testimony on Fast Sunday may be a little different, if you believe that you must speak without preparation and solely as the Holy Ghost directs. But even so, your purpose for bearing testimony is always to bear testimony, to tell the congregation what you know and how you know it. Your purpose is not to occupy the time because you would be ungrateful if you didn’t stand, or because your nephew was just blessed, or because there’s been a minute of silence, or because you’re in love with the sound of your own voice. Bear testimony, then sit down.
I guarantee the time will pass regardless of whether or not you occupy it. If you’re going to occupy it, give your class or your congregation what they came to church for: a meaningful worship experience.
Please: Let’s not compile a catalog of the worst talks and lessons we’ve endured. Instead, suggest additional ways to improve our speaking and teaching, and tell us of successes you have witnessed. Let’s make this helpful and not bitter.