Building Blocks

This post will cover the two week period from March 6th – March 19th. It was within these two weeks that we held our 16th set of zone conferences. We don’t really have a theme for each conference, only a series of instructions that we feel are what the missionaries need to hear. Since we did this 5 times over the two week period, we will start with the format and some of the doctrines taught and discussed. In this round of conferences, we started with Tamale on Wednesday, March 8th, and then moved to Sunyani/Techiman on March 10th, Dichemso/Suame on March 14th, University/Konongo on March 15th, and Bantama/Bibiani/Obuasi on March 16th. Here are the group pictures from each conference in the order that the conference was held.

For this round of zone conferences, we asked the couples to each take 30 minutes at their respective conference and teach the missionaries about “Temptations” and how to thwart them in our lives. The Moomey’s presented at the University/Konongo Conference and the Garrison’s did both the Dichemso/Suame Conference and the Bantama/Bibiani/Obuasi Conference. Across the mission, these presentations were highlights. They were done so well and the missionaries learned so much from each of them.

From the Steinmetz’s: To combat temptation we need a strategy. Here are three: Avoid it, Ignore it, Conquer it. They referenced 1 Corinthians 10:13. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” and Doctrine and Covenants 6:16, “Yea, I tell thee, that thou mayest know that there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and the intents of thy heart.” They then shared Mosiah 4:30 “But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not.”

The Thompson’s taught from James 1:2-3, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.” They then shared this important statement, “When your values are clear, your decisions are easy.” This is a statement credited to Roy E. Disney, brother of famed creator Walt Disney. They did an object lesson that was powerful. They showed that the greater distance we stay from temptation, the harder it is for the temptation to “grab us”. They showed this by using tape on the floor and showing that the missionary portraying temptation (Elder Kapalala) could not reach the missionary portraying the tempted (Elder Barton).

They then made a list of things we an do to avoid temptation all together. It is a good list, so I will repeat it here.

  • Practicing self-awareness
  • Moving the line (away from the temptation) This was the point of the blue tape. The further away the line from the temptation, the better.
  • Use a forcing function (e.g., schedule an appointment so you have to be out of the apartment at a specific time)
  • Exercising imagination (to move away from the temptation altogether)
  • Praying for help / fasting
  • Reaching out to the Mission President for help
  • Focusing on the right thing to do
  • Fining relatable scripture stories
  • Obeying first, asking why second
  • Repenting daily

In the Garrison’s presentation, they brought two videos that were really helpful. The first is called “spiritual crocodiles”. It is a video that Elder Packer used in his 1976 General Conference talk. It is worth watching, so I have included it below:

Spiritual Crocodiles – Boyd K Packer April 1976 General Conference

The second is one I have not seen before. It is based on a talk by Elder Ulisses Soares titled “Seek Christ in every Thought” that he gave at the October 2020 General Conference. It is less than 3 minutes long and also worth watching.

Seek Christ in Every Thought – Elder Ulisses Soares – October 2020

They also showed an object lesson with a missionary and her two fingers. While one strand of thread around two fingers is easily broken, layer after layer of a thin thread becomes a binding force not easily broken, just like a bad habit. They used scissors in the object lesson to represent repentance to indicate this is the only way to be freed from the bondage. Powerful. They also shared this quote from Samuel Johnson, “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken”

Elder and Sister Garrison with Sister Ita
The Moomey’s whiteboard

For the Moomey’s instruction on temptation, they referenced 1 Nephi 15:24 “And I said unto them that it was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction.” They also made a list of ways to combat temptation similar to that of the Thompson’s. They added 5 different items: 1) Scripture Study, 2) Move closer to the Savior 3) Repentance 4) Delete Facebook, 5) Focus on what is right. All four of our senior couples did such an outstanding job on these instructions. We are grateful for each one of them. While I failed to take a picture of them doing the instruction, I did get a copy of the their whiteboard where they wrote the notes of the discussion.

After the instruction on “Temptations” at each conference, I spent a few minutes building on what was taught. I drew a timeline on the board from birth until 85, and then marking where we as their mission leaders are on that line (we often added the senior couples in attendance). We would then point out where they were as young missionaries. The point we were trying to make is we have been on this covenant path longer. We have experienced things they have not experienced. We can help them know the path and avoid many of the pitfalls of mortality. After the Garrison’s instruction, we talked about the spiritual crocodiles that line the covenant path on both sides. We wanted them to understand that we know where those crocodiles are and if they will hearken to our counsel, we can help them avoid them altogether.

Wayne Gretzky and a mockup of one of his hockey puck drawings

Prior to the Kumasi Conferences this past week (March 14,15,16), LaDawn had shared with me the story of Wayne Gretzky skating to where the puck would be rather than where it had been. This became a powerful object lesson on our own desires and goals. Do we even know where we want our puck to go? When Wayne was a young boy, his dad would have him draw the route of the puck in the hockey games they attended. Over time this gave Gretzky the instinct to anticipate where the puck was going. It is no wonder that he is the greatest of all time when it comes to hockey. I even incorporated this into my weekly letter this last week which can be found here.

After the Wayne Gretzky story and timeline discussion, I did a vision refresh, this time focused on Planting the Word of God. I selected a few key scriptures on the topic of how important the scriptures are to us and then came up with some questions that I would ask the missionaries. I absolutely loved hearing their insights and responses. This has become one of my favorite parts of Zone Conference, selecting a scripture and then exploring it together with the missionaries. Here is the slide I showed and the scriptures I selected, although we never had enough time to go through all of them. Here are some of the questions we discussed.

  • What does it mean that our souls delight in the scriptures?
  • What is it that makes our souls delight in the scriptures?
  • How do the scriptures admonish us according to our sins?
  • What does it mean that the Savior expounded all the scriptures in one?
  • How are the scriptures profitable for doctrine? What does this even mean?

I also read this quote from Elder Holland that I really love. He is speaking to new Mission Leaders in 2021. “Presidents and companions, my plea to you today is to make a love for the word of God absolutely central to your mission culture, to make familiarity with the revelations and regular use of the standard works one of the chief characteristics of your missionaries for the rest of their lives.” This definitely something we are working hard at doing.

Following the vision refresh, we had the zone leaders of each zone, move to a separate room (except in Tamale since there is only one zone) with the companionships they lead. The zone leaders then spent 30 minutes presenting the topic of their choice to zone members. Every single one of them were excellent. Here is a list of the topics covered across the 10 zones as well as pictures of all the zone leaders during their instruction.

  • Perfect Trust in the Lord
  • Teaching the Doctrine of Christ
  • Seek and Expect Miracles
  • Preparing and Baptizing the Elect
  • Humility
  • The Power of Listening
  • Focusing on the 4 loves of a mission
  • Aligned with the will of the Lord
  • Thoughts
  • What Lack I yet?

LaDawn was up next, teaching about Being Prepared for the Second Coming of the Lord and basing her instruction on the Parable of the 10 Virgins. She also showed a video of the parable that I don’t remember ever seeing before. It is excellent and can be found at this link. The discussion was powerful and many missionaries later mentioned in their interviews with me how this really helped them gain perspective on their own spiritual preparation. Below is the whiteboard of her instruction.

Following LaDawn’s instruction, the Assistants presented some slides on “The Nature of God and Man”. This instruction originated with Elder Simpson and Elder Mba down in Sefwi Waiwso. Helping those we teach understand who they REALLY are makes a big difference in the way they keep commitments and show an increased desire to learn. In Preach My Gospel, there are 8 concepts in the principle titled, “God Is Our Loving Heavenly Father”. Here they are:

  • God is our Heavenly Father
  • He loves us
  • He has a body of flesh and bone
  • He understands and feels our sorrows and joys
  • We show our love by our obedience
  • To return to God, we must be clean and pure through obedience
  • Disobedience moves us away from Him
  • Through Christ’s atonement we an be freed from the burden of our sins

We have come to understand that most missionaries gloss over this principle. They essentially mention the first three bullets and then move on. Most people we teach get hung up on “God has a body of flesh and bone”. The missionaries then read scriptures to “prove this point” and the rest of nature of God is lost. With the experiences and suggestions of Elder Simpson and Elder Mba, we have provided a bit more information to help teach this principle. While it may not be for every mission, we find that spending more time on this principle is making a difference. Here is a summary of what we hope the missionaries will teach, as guided by the Spirit of the Lord. The feedback so far has been excellent.

Sister Amie Aruna from Sierra Leone practices a one minute drill during zone conference in Sunyani

Depending on the time when we finished with the discussion on the Nature of God and Man, we began our one minute drills either before or after lunch. In the first week of conferences we practiced: Faith in Jesus Christ, The Great Apostasy, and Our Life on Earth. During the second week of conferences we practiced The Atonement of Jesus Christ, The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and Repentance through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. As a mission we are asking the missionaries to create their own outline of the concepts in these principles and then practice them in companionship study. At district council each week, we work as districts to share our ability to know and recite these concepts in a coherent manner. We are definitely getting better but still have a long way to go.

Following the one minute drills, we moved into role-plays. We are still working on extending inspired invitations. We do this by having missionaries extend an invitation to read 3 Nephi 11. We start with by having them read the chapter heading and then issuing an invitation to read the rest of the chapter and then give them an inspired promise. We have been working on this for two zone conferences now and the missionaries are getting very good at doing this in a way that inspires the person we are teaching to read those 41 verses either right after the missionaries leave or the next day before they return. After role-playing with one set of missionaries and discussing how it went, we group the missionaries into threes and then have them repeat the role-play, extending the same invitation. These role-plays are really helping us.

After the role-plays, the Assistants presented instruction titled “Accessing the Atonement of Jesus Christ”. They asked inspired questions such as “Why is the Atonement of Jesus Christ necessary for our success and salvation as missionaries?” “How can you show gratitude for the gift of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in your desires, thoughts, words, and deeds as a missionary?” “How can we as missionaries actually get access to the power that comes from Jesus Christ through His Atonement?” Using scriptures to help answer each of these questions, we had amazing discussions at each conference. At the end of their presentation, they asked this question: “What are the things that the Spirit has impressed upon you that you will change in your life right now, to claim, receive, and accept the power of Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice?” The missionaries were then given a few minutes to jot down their thoughts and the Assistants then collected some of these thoughts on the whiteboard. At this point, I came up and asked the missionaries to explain to me what they would do to make this happen in their own lives. For example, “greater humility” or something similar was a common answer. As the missionaries explained how they might gain this attribute, without exception the majority of the answers were things THEY were going to do by themselves. What was missed was the role that the power of Jesus Christ plays in our repentance and change process. I think this is a common problem throughout the Church. We think we have to do it all, and yet, the power available to us through Jesus Christ is actually the only power great enough to help us create lasting change.

The items in black marker are what the missionaries want to do to claim, receive and accept the power of Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The items in red at the top left are their responses when we drilled down on “what will you do to gain greater humility?” Of the 12 comments, only three of them accessed this amazing power from Jesus Christ to enact the change.

To close out the conferences, I shared three slides from our meeting with Elder Christopherson on February 27th. I mentioned much of this in our last post, but I thought it would be worthwhile to include the actual slides here. I think reading through them you will find the information easy to understand. In fact, I love the simplicity of Elder Christopherson’s teaching. The one takeaway that is not on the slides is that there is no power in the Atonement as an event. The power is in Jesus Christ Himself and because He fulfilled the Father’s will by suffering for the sins of all mankind and then giving up His life on the cross, the power to redeem became His. That is essentially the power by which the arrow on the first slide is able to take a man from misery and move him to happiness. The last slide is the definition Elder Christopher used to explain what is meant by the Word of God.

That is a rundown on our recent zone conferences. We love being with the missionaries and feeling the spirit that they bring to these conferences. I am grateful for capable and worthy Assistants who shouldered much more of the load on this round. The handling of the role-plays and the one-minute drills as well as the instructions they presented was exceptional. In the three conferences in Kumasi, during the one minute drills and role-plays, I had conversations with 6 missionaries who have been struggling with keeping to the 17 points of consecrated obedience. I had either spoken directly to or communicated through email with their stake presidents prior to our meeting, or we called him on the phone for a three way conversation. We are grateful for these priesthood leaders back home who have high expectations of their missionaries. In one case, these discussions led to a companionship being sent home. I counted over 10 points of obedience that they were ignoring. When I called Elder Klebingat to discuss the problems with him, he asked me to convince him that they should stay. I simply could not find enough reasons to do that. And so within a few days, a general authority in the missionary department authorized their return home to hopefully repent and then return to full time service. When a missionary has come on a mission for the wrong reason, it is immediately apparent in the way they treat their companion, their district, zone, and sister training leaders, and the complete lack of success in their areas. The hardest thing we do as mission leaders is to recommend that someone be sent home for disobedience. And yet, it is our hope that in doing so, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they come to understand accountability. A big part of the culture here is that if you do something wrong you say “I’m sorry” and everything is forgiven. The real effort associated with repentance is not well understood and we work tirelessly to change the perceptions.

After finishing the last conference on Thursday and completing 6 interviews afterwards, on Friday morning, we drove over to the Mission Office at 7 am to interview the remaining 8 elders who serve in the Bibiani Zone. They are from Sefwi Bekwai and Sefwi Waiwso. Because of the distance (3+ hours), they stayed the night after their zone conference and left Friday morning. This is a great group of young men. By interviewing them before they left to go back to their areas, we saved a day of travel down and back. As they left around 10 am, they caught a Tro Tro to the wrong “Bekwai” and ended up spending the entire day just getting back home. This is one of the problems here. There are towns with the same name so when you say Bekwai, if you do not there is both an Asanti Bekwai and a Sefwi Bekwai, you might end up in the wrong place. Live and learn!

Back: Elder Mba, Elder Williams, Elder Kennedy, Elder Gilbert, Elder Courissaka, Elder Miller. Front: Elder Ison, Elder Paleilei

After a very busy week of conferences, interviews, difficult conversations, and consequences being played out, we traveled to Obuasi early Saturday morning for their district conference. Elder Solomon Aliche, an area authority Seventy presided at the conference. It was a wonderful weekend and the spirit flowed freely. LaDawn and I did some training on Missionary and Temple and Family History Coordination Meetings and then we both spoke in the other two conference sessions. LaDawn spoke about building our own testimonies on Saturday and the importance of keeping our meetinghouses clean on Sunday. I spoke about the Nature of God and Man (not well understood even among the members) on Saturday and on Sunday I spoke about keeping the Sabbath Day holy. There is a complete misunderstanding that the Sabbath starts at midnight on Saturday and ends at midnight on Sunday. Also on Sunday, President Tabi gave a masterful talk about 3 guys who shot at a bird (I heard “bear”). The first two guys missed because when they were asked what they saw, they described much of the landscape, and mentioned the bird as an afterthought. When they both shot, they missed. The third man said he only saw the bird. When he shot, he hit the bird and killed it. The moral of the story is if we are distracted by everything around us, we may never see the kingdom of God with the focus required to attain it. Elder Aliche also gave the Moomey’s and Garrison’s a few minutes to bear their testimonies since they will be leaving next month and have spent nearly all of the Sunday’s working with the branches in the district. They did a great job! We had just over 400 people in attendance on Sunday, an improvement over the last conference, but still not where we need to be. Elder Aliche was wonderful with his insights, counsels, and instruction over both days. He spoke about repentance, ministering, and various components of the Area Plan. Overall, a powerful weekend! After both days of conference, I interviewed 4 missionaries each day to make the load a little lighter for the next week when we will drive to Obuasi and meet with the remaining 10. We made it home about 3:30 pm on Sunday.

And I cannot end the blog without a picture from our basketball game on Monday, March 13th. Such great exercise, fellowship, and fun. Grateful for these good missionaries who let us old guys play with them. (Tom Rogers has become a regular)

Tom Rogers, Elder Mutoliki, Elder Ngwenya, Elder Amoah, Elder Anderson, Elder Njirayafa, Elder Harnois

Back to the title of this blog post, “Building Blocks. The picture is a very common scene here in Ghana. Buildings under construction, or buildings that are partially constructed and never finished. We don’t fully understand all of the reasons, but primarily it is about running out of money during the building process. It is not unusual to see piles of sand, broken blocks, and half-finished buildings. These pictures were taken on a run one morning while in Sunyani 2 weeks ago. Across the street from first picture was a stack of cement blocks. These blocks were built on site using a wooden or steel form. Another common scene here. As I have reflected on this last round of zone conferences and key doctrines, practices, and methods we are teaching the missionaries, these blocks came to mind. Much like the first picture, the Church here is work in progress. We have some broken blocks and some unused sand in many of our branches, but like the second picture of these good blocks, we know there are many people here who are waiting for the missionaries to find them. Just like the doctrines, practices, and methods are building blocks for finding the elect and bringing them to the covenant path, the elect that we do find and baptize are the building blocks of the future of the Church. We are grateful to be here, engaged in this great work of gathering Israel one last time, Together in Ghana!

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