“Let Them Govern Themselves” by Boyd K. Packer

Jul 3, 2013
9 min read

I’m a fan of Boyd K. Packer. Behind that gravely-sounding voice is a fascinating mind that has provided some powerful insights and refreshing commentary on the latter-day work and Church. Currently, I’m serving as an elders quorum president in my ward and one of the biggest challenges I have been facing is how to bless the lives of families without burdening them with well-intentioned programs and what not.

I’m not a fan of programs and meetings. Although I believe that they can be necessary at times, I also believe that we create monsters that do the opposite of help. I see a similarity between how a country drifts into tyranny because of a bunch of well-intentioned politicians who try to solve every problem with new programs and tons of money and well-intentioned church leaders who dream up bloated programs that burden families and almost never work.

So I really appreciated this rather frank and sensible talk from Elder Packer that was given at a Regional Representatives Seminar Friday, March 30, 1990 (original source). What I did was pull out some of the highlights that I found most interesting and included them below. If you serve in any leadership capacity in the church, this address is an important read, so here it is…

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Let Them Govern Themselves

The Lord said, “Behold, I will hasten my work in its time. And I give unto you, who are the first laborers in this last kingdom, a commandment that you. . . organize yourselves, and prepare yourselves, and sanctify yourselves; yea, purify your hearts, and cleanse your hands and your feet before me, that I may make you clean.” (D&C 88:73-74)

Quoting Thomas S. Monson:

  • Priesthood leaders should reduce and simplify activities wherever possible.
  • Let me repeat: Priesthood leaders should reduce and simplify activities wherever possible.
  • Activities should be planned at little or no cost, should build testimonies and provide meaningful service to others.

In recent years we might be compared to a team of doctors issuing prescriptions to cure or to immunize our members against spiritual diseases. Each time some moral or spiritual ailment was diagnosed, we have rushed to the pharmacy to concoct another remedy, encapsulate it as a program and send it out with pages of directions for use.

While we all seem to agree that over medication, over-programming, is a critically serious problem, we have failed to reduce the treatments. It has been virtually impossible to affect any reduction in programs.

Each time we try, advocates cry to high heaven that we are putting the spiritual lives of our youth at risk. If symptoms reappear, we program even heavier doses of interviews, activities, meetings, and assessments.

The best answer, perhaps is to withdraw all prescriptions and start over. The whole correlation effort, which took about twenty years, followed that course and much was accomplished. The habits for moral and spiritual health were defined. The scriptures were prescribed as the basic nourishment. The curriculum, loaded with spiritual nutrients, was developed but we did not allow time for it to work and we failed to close the pharmacy or even effectively control it.

We now have ourselves in a corner. For instance, we have reason to be seriously concerned about the lack of reverence in the Church. Perhaps this one thing, general across the world, is as much an interference with and a short-circuiting of inspiration as anything that could be pointed to. However, I dare not press for the corrections of that issue because we do not seem to be able to solve a problem without designing a program with pages of instruction and sending it out again.

It is time now for you who head the auxiliaries and the departments and those of us who advise them, after all the repetitive cautions from the First Presidency, to change our mind-set and realize that a reduction of and a secession from that constant programming must be accomplished.

The hardest ailment to treat is a virtue carried to the extreme. We cannot seem to learn that too much, even of a good thing, or too many good things, like vitamins taken in overdose, can be harmful.

In recent years I have felt, and I think I am not alone, that we were losing the ability to correct the course of the Church. You cannot appreciate how deeply I feel about the importance of this present opportunity unless you know the regard, the reverence, I have for the Book of Mormon and how seriously I have taken the warnings of the prophets, particularly Alma and Helaman.

Both Alma and Helaman told of the church in their day. They warned about fast growth, the desire to be accepted by the world, to be popular, and particularly they warned about prosperity. Each time those conditions existed in combination, the Church drifted off course. All of those conditions are present in the Church today.

Helaman repeatedly warned, I think four times he used these words, that the fatal drift of the church could occur “in the space of not many years.” In one instance it took only six years. (See Helaman 6:32, 7:6, 11:26)

The revelations tell us that there are limits to what mankind will be allowed to do. When those limits are reached, then comes destruction. And, the patience of the Lord with all of us who are in leadership positions, is not without limits.


The most dangerous side effect of all we have prescribed in the way of programming and instructions and all is the over regimentation of the Church. This over regimentation is a direct result of too many programmed instructions. If we would compare the handbooks of today with those of a generation ago you would quickly see what I mean. And Brother Hanks mentioned that the Melchizedek Priesthood Handbook is an amalgamation of several handbooks and a reduction of them all with, I think, nothing lost; much gained.

“Teach them correct principles,” the prophet said, “and then let,” let–a big word, “them govern themselves.” (See messages of the Firsts Presidency, p. 54.) Our members should not, according to the scriptures, need to be commanded in all things. (See D&C 58:26)

Local leaders have been effectively conditioned to hold back until programmed as to what to do, how, to whom, when, and for how long. Can

you see that when we overemphasize programs at the expense of principles, we are in danger of losing the inspiration, the resourcefulness, that which should characterize Latter-day Saints. Then the very principle of individual revelation is in jeopardy and we drift from a fundamental gospel principle! “Adam fell that men might be: and men are, that they might have joy.” That much-quoted verse in the book of Mormon is followed by this one:

“And the Messiah cometh in the fullness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon.” (2 Nephi 2:25:26)

My feeling about our present opportunity with this change in funding is based on doctrine. For generations we have taught that the temporal salivation of the Saints depends upon independence, industry, thrift, and self-reliance. We would never stray from that in teaching about temporal things.

On the other hand, it is possible that we are doing the very thing spiritually that we have been resolutely resisting temporally; fostering dependence rather than independence, extravagance rather than thrift, indulgence rather than self-reliance.

We send two diverging signals and the Lord has told us: “if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).

It is not that any one thing we have been doing is wrong, for we have acted with the best of intentions. Some of us remember when President Kimball saw the outlay of curriculum and the vast display of printed material. He said he was frightened, “We have done it all with the best intentions.” It is just that we can do far too much of good things. One or two reports of inactivity or extreme behavior and we rush to make corrections across the whole Church with more programs, more interviews, more assessments.

Moral Agency

The agency the Lord has given us is not a “free” agency. The term “free” agency is not found in the revelations. It is a moral agency. The Lord has given us freedom of choice:

“That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” (D&C 101:78)

There is no agency without choice; there is no choice without freedom; there is no freedom without risk; nor true freedom without responsibility.

This change in budgeting will have the effect of returning much of the responsibility for teaching and counseling and activities to the family where it belongs. There will be fewer intrusions into the family schedules and into the family purses.

I repeat, perhaps for one time only we have the opportunity to adjust that balance so that Church activities sustain parents and families rather than the other way around.

Now, there will be smaller budgets and fewer activities, fewer programs. That will leave a vacuum. Nothing likes a vacuum.

We must resist, absolutely resist, the temptation to program that vacuum. That space belongs to families. When we cut down on Sundays to the block plan that consolidated our meetings and left some time open, you know what happened. Now brethren, it is their time. Let them use it as they feel to do — for better or for worse. That is the risk. If we fail to teach them correct principles, teach them the doctrine, they will not know how to govern themselves.

If we do, then that vacuum will be filled with prayer and work and study, study for school, for instance, study the gospel. It will be filled with faith and reverence. It will be filled with the intimate love between husband and wife, with the tender love of parents to children. There will come a safe and virtuous dependency. Latter-day Saints will come to depend upon the Lord instead of upon the headquarters of the Church.

We are in mortality to receive a mortal body, to be tested, to prepare for Godhood. There is no testing without choice. Please, for this one time, honor the agency of the members, the families.

The Family

There are some things which cannot be counted and should not be programmed. Matters with deepest doctrinal significance must be left to married couples and to parents to decide for themselves. We have referred them to gospel principles and left them to exercise their moral agency. Serious problems often come voluntarily to their bishop. That is the best way.

We cannot program individual and family prayer, indeed all of the basic human relationships, the emotional and the feelings, the bonds that bind man to woman and parents to children, all of the quiet influences, the sacred things that are centered in family life. The family is apart from and above the other organizations and under the sealing authority, more enduring than them all.

While the family may suffer both neglect and intrusion because of our penchant to program everything, nevertheless, at the same time, the family has been protected. Therein lies a testimony of the genius of Church organization.

1 Comment

  1. excellent talk, Steve. thanks for posting! It seems the Brethren have been saying this for at least a couple of decades now. If I recall right, the mantra of reducing programs was repeated frequently during Worldwide Leadership Conferences during the past decade…

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