I furtively glanced at the clock on the wall of the chapel. The remaining meeting time was slipping away. Yet the first speaker gave no sign of concluding his talk. I quietly expressed gratitude that I was merely a congregant and not among the bishopric members that were seated on the stand and who were responsible for the meeting.
The speaker, a newly returned missionary, spoke with purity, reverence, love, and conviction. Despite the large congregation, most were reverently attentive to the speaker and seemed to be engaged in his message. There was a minimum of distracting noises or even white noise. I could tell that many present were feeling the Holy Spirit.
Still, I felt anxious for the two other speakers that were sitting on the stand awaiting their turn to speak. Moreover, I knew that a number of 11- and 12-year-old girls had worked hard to prepare a special musical number for the program. Would there be time for any of these items?
I frequently try to remind myself that the main purpose of sacrament meeting is for "members of the Church [to] renew their covenants by partaking of the sacrament" (Handbook 2, Section 18.2.2). Other purposes such as to "worship, provide gospel instruction, perform ordinances, conduct ward business, and strengthen faith and testimony" are icing on the cake, as it were. Each of these has value and is important, but each is also ancillary to the main feature of the ordinance of the sacrament where we covenant to make the Atonement of Christ the central component of our lives.
Our bishop is a wonderful man that seems to exude love. As a convert to the church he was not raised amid church protocol. He seems relatively willing to conduct meetings "after the manner of the working of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 6:9).
Still, church protocol exists for a reason. Bishoprics that plan sacrament meeting programs know that each meeting should last 70 minutes (Handbook 2, Section 18.1). Adhering closely to this schedule becomes more important when sacrament meeting occupies the first segment of the three meeting block or when another ward is waiting to enter the chapel for their own meeting.
When I served in a bishopric I quickly discovered that the meeting opening and the sacrament ordinance consumed roughly 25-30 minutes. It sometimes took longer if the number of visitors made for an unusually large congregation. The closing hymn and benediction usually took about five minutes. This left about 35-40 minutes (sometimes less) for the program.
Bishoprics are sometimes guilty of over scheduling—trying to cram too many program items into the allotted time. That's unfair to those that are asked to participate on the program. Musical numbers are generally limited in scope. But once a speaker steps to the microphone bishopric members have remarkably little control over how long that person will speak.
When I was responsible for issuing callings to speak I gave each a slip of paper that described the topic, where they were scheduled on the program, the time frame for their talk, and a list of people that would be willing to help them prepare. Most speakers stayed close to the time frame and topic. Some didn't.
I recall one brother (whom I dearly love) speaking with random aimlessness for about 25 minutes when he had been slated to max out at 12 minutes. The bishop twice very nearly got up to ask the man to sit down, but he restrained himself. The man's wife restrained herself too. Very rarely have I seen a speaker add anything of much value after exceeding his or her time limit.
Being the final speaker in a sacrament meeting can be challenging. You might end up with far more, or more likely, far less time than anticipated, requiring you to adjust your talk accordingly. I have also noted that with rare exception the congregation largely stops listening with about five minutes remaining in the meeting. At that point whatever you have to say just isn't important enough for people to listen.
Ending up with excess time at the end of sacrament meeting is an infrequent problem. But when I served in a bishopric our stake presidency asked us to stop referring to such events as "high five Sundays." (We had sacrament meeting last, so most congregants went home early under such conditions.) I note that nowadays any excess time is usually filled by a member of the bishopric or stake presidency. Another option is for the bishop to ask people to bear testimony.
In the meeting mentioned at the start of this post I could tell that the young man felt good about his talk as he concluded. But he did a double take when he glanced at the clock and realized that only five minutes of meeting time remained. He appeared a little nervous as he seated himself beside the other planned speakers. Our bishop got up and made a few kind remarks, noting that the Spirit had been present and that the other speakers would be asked to address the congregation on another occasion.
As congregants filed out of the chapel following the closing hymn and prayer, I noticed that the mother of one of the girls that was to have sung had one of the bishop's counselors cornered. She was explaining that a number of grandparents had braved snowy roads and had rearranged their schedules to see their granddaughters sing at the meeting. The uncomfortable counselor nervously said that he would discuss the matter with the bishop. I remember days like that. Bishopric members always seem to be in trouble with some members of the congregation.
Bishopric members have a lot to do and think about as they prepare for and execute sacrament meetings. After stumbling over a few seemingly simple announcements at the beginning of a sacrament meeting, one bishop remarked that conducting the meeting looks easy until you have to stand up and do it.
In my experience I have discovered that bishopric members can do much to help sacrament meetings go more smoothly. It's their job to help speakers understand their assignment, including how to stay on topic and within their allotted time frame. Too often bishopric members are so relieved to get someone to agree to speak that they drop the ball on the specifics of the assignment.
Church members that are asked to speak can also help. For starters, there is no need to get so uptight about speaking. It isn't really about you. Unless you do something incredibly memorable (which doesn't happen a lot), the memory that you even spoke will fade for most people after a few weeks. Just ask your family members who spoke in sacrament meeting two weeks ago.
Members of the congregation want you to succeed. Most are just trying to survive your talk. If you think about it, you will likely discover some things you can do to help them out. For starters, don't criticize the authority that asked you to speak and don't make it sound like a huge ordeal. That's prideful and selfish. Just dive in and do your assignment without making a big deal about it. I promise that you will feel a lot better about your talk.
If you are an active member of the LDS Church, you have likely attended many sacrament meetings and you will likely attend many more. At some point during your life you will likely have the opportunity (or many opportunities) of taking part in or affecting a sacrament meeting program. It goes with the territory.
Mistakes can be expected to happen in an all volunteer church. And that's OK. God will still love you even if you make some stupendous social faux pas. Nothing can really go very wrong in an eternal sense. Just follow the Spirit and try to enhance the worship experience. It will all work out. You will survive and so will the members of the congregation.