Anxiety in Speaking in Sacrament Meeting

Years ago, in preparing for a Young Women “Values” themed sacrament meeting, I mentioned to a member of the Young Women presidency that I was not sure what to speak about. “It doesn’t really matter,” she assured me. You know what the value is that you’ve been assigned to present, so just tell us a story about it. You’ll do great anyway. We start children giving talks in primary, so by the time you are a (14 year old) Mia Maid, you’ve been speaking in public for a decade! This is why Mormons are great public speakers. You’ll do fine!”

 

At the time, her words did calm me. I thought, “I can do this! I’ve been giving talks for 10 years!” I had not been afraid of giving speeches on the debate team or in English class, and as a rule, wasn’t nervous but for that last burst of excited anticipwoman-podiumation that strikes me just before the words came out. But church talks were and are different. To be clear, I could do them. But they made me more nervous than addressing almost every other kind of audience.

 

As the years passed, and even to this day, when I speak in public- (the thing that is listed as the greatest fear, even over death)  I remind myself that I can do this because “I learned to not be afraid of speaking when I was in primary.” I’ve presented at conferences and meetings and even been disappointed at the smallness of the audience upon occasion; I am a good public speaker and I know it. But. When church speaking assignments came…. the butterflies and anxiety started. I became cranky and argue with my family. I fret and fast and pray for calm. No matter the topic, no matter how well I know it or how many hours I spent in preparation, I became anxiety-ridden. So why is that?

 

As a Young Woman, I felt confident and good in that “Values” sacrament meeting and the handful of other Sacrament Meetings where I was asked to speak. I did the research and prayed. I felt good about my topic and how it applied to those in the meeting. I knew I was ready to speak and I did it well. I was confident enough that I even spoke without telling my parents that I was among the sacrament meeting speakers. But that started to melt away when I was a YSA. But as the years passed, things seemed to change….I can recall small words of gentle correction from a bishop when I went slightly under time in a sacrament meeting talk. I recall another YSA sister who said that a talk I gave was so filled with the spirit for her, and another who asked for a copy of my talk because it meant so much to her, but my male leaders said nothing. I supposed it was just their personality, but was hurt when I was later laughingly told that a consolation for any talk is that the bishop “always thanks everyone” after they speak… everyone, it seemed, but me.

 

But then there was the meeting that I started in Spanish. I am not a Spanish speaker, but had a friend from Spain staying with me. Because we had a number of Spanish speaking YSAs in the ward, my friend taught me, and I began the meeting by welcoming everyone and introducing my topic in Spanish. The native Spanish speakers thanked me with grins as wide far and wide as the horizon on a clear and sunny day. But a week afterwards, I was privately, but sternly corrected b y a member of the bishopric for this horrific faux pas.

 

As a newlywed in a new country and a new ward, I gave a talk that I felt good about. Two women thanked me afterward and I felt happy. But my husband felt inspired to remind me of an analogy I had made that he didn’t think was very good: in this, I felt highly critiqued and hurt. I gave another talk a while later, and a woman said that it made a great discussion in her home with her husband, thanking me for the talk. But again, my husband pointed out what he felt were mistakes.

 

I gave another talk years later, one that inspired a visiting member of the Stake Relief Society to give the same talk again in a Stake Relief Society meeting. Interestingly, neither my husband nor my bishop critiqued. Surprised by this, I asked, and my husband mused that the bishop probably zoned out. At the later Stake Relief Society meeting, a member of the stake presidency asked for a copy of my talk so he could verify sources my resources. I immediately acquiesced, as a grad school habit of including references in all speaking assignments resides with me. But heard nothing from him again. A dozen other women asked for copies of the talk, which I also sent to them, and they thanked me profusely.

 

public-speaker-1-iclipAs the years have gone on, my anxiety of speaking in public has remained the same, but my anxiety about speaking in church has increased exponentially. In time, it seemed like my husband felt directed to increase his critiquing of my church speeches, partnered with the idea that random male members of the church would occasionally feel inspired to also critique me and my talks…the critiques were small and digging, but increased. Finally, a few years ago, after one particular talk that my husband hated, I decided to never speak in church again. He “corrected” me about something he thought I implied, but to me my speech was absent of the implication he had such an issue with. His correction was quick and felt spiteful, and was loud enough that the Relief Society president contacted me after to see if I was okay. I wasn’t. That dig and the thousand others after church talks– the nips and glaring teeth that greeted me after speaking at church– a place where I was trying to do my very best and what the spirit directed — well, that last experience triggered suicidal thoughts. I called a helpline, and in the end, decided to never speak at church again in order to avoid the triggering experience. I had had enough.

 

It’s been a few years since that time now, and I am still sacrament-talk free. University lectures? No worries, I can give ‘um with panache. Do a radio interview? Sure! Exciting! Speak in a community meeting or in front of all the parents, students and teachers at my child’s school? No worries. But church? I feel a little nauseous even as I type because the idea is so very repulsive. Just thinking about speaking at church in front of my husband, a branch president or bishop, or any male church member…. and my eyes blur from spinning anxiety (not tears), and I become almost uncontrollably frightened.  It is ironic that quite possibly the organization that led me to become a good public speaker is also the place where I have felt most attacked, and therefore, am most terrified of speaking.

 

Am I alone? Because I am not sure the men I know can see that in my experience, they “correct” me and other women so much more than they do male speakers. I cannot imagine most of these men cornering superiors or co-workers after board meetings, union speeches staff meetings and critiquing them in the workplace. I also have grown to believe that male speakers are tolerated no matter how odd the doctrine whereas female speakers are cornered and “corrected” sometimes even in minuscule detail. My husband has mused that because I appear confident in speaking, my manner might make Mormon men feel compelled to knock me down privately in ways that hurt. Compared to the women who stumble nervously through their talks, and are treated with kindness and patience. But when I point to him that he has been the source of some of my anxiety, he says I am being too sensitive. He says I “can take it,” that the “nervous Nellies” can’t, and besides, that’s “just the way” he is.

 

I don’t know. And I don’t know why I detest and fear speaking at church so much more than any other speaking assignment I am given. All I do know is that speaking in public does not come with the personal criticism or back-alley digs that church speaking does for me. So for now, for me, church speaking is off limits.

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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14 Responses

  1. Jenny says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience Spunky. I haven’t experienced this, but then I have a natural primary voice (not my favorite feature about myself, but not something I can control either), so men in the church tend to view me differently. Your anxiety is completely understandable. It’s interesting to me that the women loved your talks while the men criticized them. I think men in the church are not used to hearing spiritual things expressed from the lense of a female perspective, while women, whether they know it or not, are craving that expression of female spirituality.

  2. Em says:

    I have felt very affirmed after my talks and testimonies by ward members, male and female, but I’ve had digs too. One talk went long because I couldn’t see the clock well at the far end of the chapel. I got digs on three separate Sundays, twice from the pulpit about this. I’ve been told my talk was too “confessional” — I admitted to weakness or faults or doubts or something? Fortunately I feel I’ve also gotten sincerely kind feedback which helps counteract the others. But its funny how criticism stings for a long time, particularly when I feel I’ve been vulnerable or shared something deeply personal or heartfelt.

  3. Alexis says:

    Sounds like you’re husband is kind of a jerk. He should be your biggest supporter and not bring you down. I’m sorry that he has treated the way he has. The other men at church are easire to ignore, but having your husband make comments is hard. I refused to speak in church ever. I did in primary and once or twice as a teenager and never as an adult.

  4. CS Eric says:

    I don’t always comment to speakers about their talks, but when I do I always try to be encouraging. I know how hard it is to give talks in church, and how people generally seem more sensitive to comments about church talks than they do in other settings. The way I see it, most people are doing their best, and if that is good enough for the Lord, that is good enough for me.

  5. Cherisa says:

    So interesting… I love public speaking in all forums. I love it so much that I majored in it in school. (I literally got a Bachelor’s degree in talking!) I’ve had some interesting discussions after giving a talk or lesson at church, but I have never been corrected or challenged because of a talk/lesson.

    The varying experiences of women throughout the church fascinates me! I have been very blessed to always feel heard and valued and have never felt impotent as a woman in the LDS church. It’s so sad that so many of my LDS sisters have had the opposite experience.

  6. CatherineWO says:

    I have had very similar experiences in the Church, Spunky. I have been corrected over the years by men (though not by my husband) and some have challenged me openly in a public setting. I also have had many opportunities to speak in non-church settings and conduct workshops, activities I have enjoyed and which have been well received. The last time I spoke in an LDS Sacrament Meeting was about eight years ago, and it was not a good experience, so I vowed that I would never do it again, and I told the current bishop of my decision. About two years after that experience, a member of the (new) bishopric, unaware of my past experience, asked both my husband and me to speak. My reply was, “I don’t do that any more.”

  7. Libby says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever been corrected by a man after giving a talk in church (though I’ve had some criticism from other women). Since I’ve said some rather noncomformist things over the pulpit, I can only guess that the men involved found me intimidating…which is something I *have* heard before.

  8. Jessica says:

    I think I’m with Alexis on this. The problem is with your intimate antagonist, not with speaking in church. If he were on your side, you wouldn’t care (much) about what other people (men or women) at church were saying.

  9. Oregon Mum says:

    I’m really sorry to hear that (from this tiny glimpse you’ve given us) your husband was not supportive of you. In fact it makes me feel defensive on your behalf and I wish I could say something to him! I don’t know what I would do without the kind encouragement my husband gives me. I’ve only spoken a few times in church (our ward has a high turnover rate because of the housing and university in our area) but I’ve had nice feedback from male and female members, and no feedback at all from the bishopric. Though that doesn’t bother me because I know they have much on their plates.

  10. Kalliope says:

    Thank you for your post, Spunky. I have experienced similar corrections from men in the church and will also no longer speak (or pray) in church. As a child, I was once called out by the branch president from the stand in sacrament meeting for declining an invitation to speak. He humiliated me publicly because I was willing to say no. In a branch I attended as a teenager, a member of the presidency corrected me after a ward talent show. I had performed a pretty mild comedy routine and make a bad breath joke or something, and so I was corrected because ladies shouldn’t speak of such things in church. Never mind that one of the boys performed an inappropriate rap song; he wasn’t corrected.
    As a young YSA, I was locked in a battle of wills with yet another branch president. I was in a very small YSA ward; if more than 20 people attended, it was a good day. I have anxiety and prefer to sit to one side and near a door, but this BP insisted week after week that I sit in the middle pew. He sent his secretary, both counsellors, and eventually called me out from the pulpit, even after I’d explained my anxieties to him (which I don’t think I should have had to do). ::sigh::
    At this point, the very thought of attending church is triggering. My experience is basically that men in the church treat me like an errant child, and I’m pretty tired of “helpful corrections.”

  11. TopHat says:

    When I was a kid I was so nervous to speak in church, but I was also determined to get over it, so I spent about 3 years (ages 9-12) in a row going up and bearing my testimony every Fast Sunday. I discovered that by the end of the 3 years, I realized that I was just as nervous as I always had been and it wasn’t helping so I stopped.

    I had one talk when I was a teenager that I loved and worked really hard for. Multiple people, including the mission president told me they liked it. When I got down from the pulpit and to my family, my dad immediately said, “False doctrine.” That was all he said. The next two talks I gave were terrible (one wasn’t even in the same ward as my dad) because of my lost confidence.

    • Rachel says:

      That last story is heart breaking (as are many of Spunky’s above). I’m sorry that that phrase was spoken to you, and grateful for the Mission President, and others. Words really do have so much power, including the ones that we speak (in public settings like church), and the ones spoken to us after those facts.

  12. Rachel says:

    I’m sorry that you’ve had the experiences you’ve had, and grateful for the words you gave that touched the souls of so many sisters. I wonder if any men were being corrected as well, but privately. I was just about to write, that in wards I’ve been in, it seems as if no one is corrected much, and people are just free to speak as they please, but then remembered my favorite Sunday School teacher was corrected after sharing doubts. It felt very sad to me, because his words were so helpful and so needed.

    Thank you for being willing to speak to us. I am thankful for your voice and wisdom.

  13. Ziff says:

    Wow, Spunky. This is such a sad story. I’m sorry that men around you have done so much to discourage you from speaking in church, especially since it seems like you’re clearly a good speaker (if you’re happy giving lectures and appearing on radio shows). It seems particularly frustrating, like several others have said, that your husband hasn’t been more supportive. We talk a lot on the feminist blogs about women being silenced in church, and that’s often a metaphor, but here you are literally being silenced by all the negative responses from men. This is very depressing, and I’m sorry it has happened.

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