In Defense of the “Checklist”

5/4/2010: To-Do ListI was twelve when I was first given a “checklist.” It wasn’t presented to me in that way by any particular person, but instead, it was a page in my Personal Progress book titled “The Standards of Personal Worthiness.” Under the title were listed tasks/concepts such as “I pray in private daily,” “I obey the Word of Wisdom” “I am morally clean,” and “I help make my family life better.” I was under the impression that these were the things the bishop would as me about at my birthday interviews and so I was responsible for this list. Some of the things I could mentally check off each night, but others were more vague and weren’t something that could be measurably demonstrated.

It was a long list (18 bullet points!), and it was overwhelming even then. And since then, it seems like the “List” has only gotten longer. The current Personal Progress book has three pages of “worthiness” discussion, with paragraphs! Mine was just a single page list of bullet points.

While not as popularly advertised, the young men in my ward were given a “checklist” too. Our ward required the young men to recite “The Purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood” after the young women recited the Young Woman Theme in combined fifth Sunday or mutual activities.

This is all to say that we Mormons do checklists and we start them early and they can be overwhelming and intimidating. They are long and we are accountable for them to a bishop or youth leader who gets to determine whether or not you are “worthy” for the next youth baptism trip, level of ordination, ecclesiastical endorsement for school, or temple recommend. That’s a lot of pressure.

From the title of this post, you will guess that I’m about to defend the church checklist, after so many blog posts have bemoaned its woes. And you guess correctly.

I believe that everyone has a spiritual language or two, maybe even more than that, through which they feel connected to God, or the Divine more so than any other way. Spiritual langues include, but are not limited to, ritual, song and hymn, art, dance, physical activity, communing with nature or people, service for others, prayer or meditation, reading and study, writing, and friendship. It can take a while to figure out your spiritual language, or it might come so naturally to you that there’s no question as to what it might be.

And this is where I believe the checklist comes in. I have learned to see the checklist, not as a to do list, but as a suggestion list. And I don’t believe it is complete. But I think it is a good starting place for children and youth and even adults, if they are trying to find a way to connect with God. It covers a large range of spiritual languages: daily prayer, journal writing, service to others. It leaves out things like music and communion with nature, so like I said, not complete, but it’s a start. And I think that it’s a good idea to present young people with a lot of options for getting in touch with the Spirit. I wish it was presented as a guideline, and not a rule.

Let the checklist be a starting point, not an ending one. There are plenty of stories in talks and Church magazines about how suddenly paying tithing or scripture reading brought a person peace and direction. Perhaps, there’s something to those stories and if you’re struggling, try the list. But I will say, that if you’ve given something a try but found it didn’t work, don’t beat yourself up about it. Go to the next item on the list, or find something else.

I recently gave a testimony in May about how I decided to stop reading my scriptures every day and how it’s been wonderful for me. Scripture reading was a chore, it isn’t my spiritual language, and there’s no shame or anything wrong with that. It may be that some day I’ll find it helpful again, but right now it’s not on my list. I love that my ward took my testimony in stride (especially considering the next RS and Priesthood lesson was on scripture study!) and I received great compliments afterwards, a card in the mail thanking me, and even two months later, last Sunday, an older man in my ward came up and said what a great testimony it was. That experience has given me power and strength to choose better how I interact with God so that it’s uplifting for me, instead of burdensome.

In place of scripture reading, I’ve found that I have much more of an aural spiritual language. I listen to somewhere near 50 knitting podcasts (bet you didn’t know even one existed!). Beyond knitting inspiration, hearing about these podcaster’s lives and families gives me new ideas for my own self and family. When I listen, I find my mind filled with ideas and thoughts come to me quickly, even non-knitting related. Oh, that woman in my ward… Oh, that would be an interesting professional direction to take and look into… Oh, that sounds like a good thing to try to improve that relationship…

Re-examining the checklist as a list of possible spiritual languages from which to experiment on has been so beneficial to me. Don’t give up on the checklist; it can be used for good and not guilt. It has made my spiritual life a journey instead of a chore. What will I find next to uplift me? Who knows? The list is long and life is full of surprises.


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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11 Responses

  1. CatherineWO says:

    I confess that when I saw the title of your post, I almost skipped it, because I am not a fan of “the checklist” as it is often used in Mormondom to support black and white thinking. However, I really like your take on it. I agree that we each have our own spiritual language, the personal way in which we each connect with the Divine. Finding that spiritual language is an important part of spiritual maturity. However, I still struggle with “the checklist” as a list of spiritual or rightiousness markers that seem to give us a right to judge each other.

  2. X2 Dora says:

    Tangential thought ~ Atul Gawande wrote about the importance of lists in his book, _Checklist Manifesto._ One of the things that he stressed is that checklists need to compress vital steps into clear, concise, and abbreviated points that can be easily and repeatedly reviewed. My concern with 3 pages of worthiness is that it becomes too bogged down in minutiae, and not broad enough to allow for individualism. I like how you use it as a list of suggestions, but I worry that young women will see it as a list of must’s.

    • Ziff says:

      I like how you use it as a list of suggestions, but I worry that young women will see it as a list of must’s.

      I agree, Dora. I think such checklists are typically presented in the Church as having the items connected by “and.” You need to read scriptures and pray and fast and do family history, etc., etc. TopHat, I like your reframing of these items as being suggestions, perhaps connected by “or.” It makes the list much less daunting.

  3. I’ve always liked making my own checklists, but I don’t like receiving lists made for me by others. Seeing these lists as suggestions rather than rules is a great idea. Thank you.

  4. Diane says:

    The last fast and testimony meeting I had, I spoke about how father Abraham, said it was okay to have doubt, as long as you did something about it, so,
    I’m surprised that the Bishop didn’t pull you aside after saying that it was okay not to read scripture everyday as part of your fast and testimony.

    I also didn’t know that young women’s program had three pages of worthiness in their personal progress, no wonder, they are leaving the church in droves.

    But, I do agree with you, I think we can find inspiration from other things, and I know some people think I’m a little nuts for saying this, but, I’ve learned so much more about gospel principles thru having my service dog, than any class, book, can ever really do. He’s a natural teacher

  5. DefyGravity says:

    “I believe that everyone has a spiritual language or two, maybe even more than that, through which they feel connected to God, or the Divine more so than any other way.”

    I love this and have found it to be true. And it is also true that for some the checklist is how they find God. That is not true for me at all, but I know some people who find great comfort in the checklist, in being able to check things, in knowing specifically what they should do and how to do it. There is peace in that for some, in feeling that they know what God wants them to do.

    The problem I have had is that many of us don’t allow for the differences in spiritual languages. I’ve been told that my love of theatre was taking me away from God because the person who said it did not find God in performance and the written word the way I do. And I’ve criticized the black and white checklists of people I know because my brain doesn’t work that way.

    Since we are all individuals, and in theory made that way intentionally, it makes sense to me that God would speak to each of us individually, in the way we understand.

    • Libby says:

      This makes sense to me too. And I have to agree that scripture reading just doesn’t do it for me. There are particular passages I love, but reading daily…?

      Now, music and prayer and meditation and even talking with friends about things that are close to my heart–those are very good ways for me to connect with God. (Just, please, not the endless warring in Alma, or the begat-begat-begat of the OT.)

  6. Megan says:

    “I believe that everyone has a spiritual language or two, maybe even more than that, through which they feel connected to God, or the Divine more so than any other way.”

    Interesting – I have never felt I have a spiritual language and I struggled enormously with feelings of brokenness and unworthiness when I was inside the believer’s paradigm. When I left, I felt such deep relief it was wonderful. These days I describe myself as a ‘natural atheist.’ It’s not a choice on my part to lack belief in a god – it’s how I’m made.

    Of course I experience joy and wonder and inspiration etc, I just don’t seem to have the internal switch that attributes those experiences to a supernatural or external being.

    Sorry – that was pretty tangential to the OP, but I thought it was worth pointing out that belief in God or gods is not an ‘everyone’ thing and that those of us who don’t feel connected to the divine are not inherently broken or wrong.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    TopHat, this is magnificent. Thank you.

  8. Jami says:

    At risk of sounding self-righteous, I have learned there is no substitute for scripture study. Nothing you replace it with can give you comparable power to call down the blessings of heaven. In my erratic spiritual journey, plagued with more obstacles than pleasant vistas, I have learned that there is always a way over, through, under, or around. Certainly, it is expected that each of us will have need of energy-recovering pauses. However, when you choose to take a less inconvenient path, easiness is its only reward. Attempting to convince yourself that the experiences you enjoy on that track are equal to those making steeper climbs will not make it so.

    For years, I preferred reading about the scriptures to understanding the words for myself. It seemed logical to me that comprehending the meaning of the verses was superior to the words themselves. That is a sophism. In substituting the impressions of others for my own foundationless ideas, I denied the power that can be accessed only by unlocking scriptural significance for myself. Ironically, I have found (through numerous experiments, failures, and frustrations) that I need to set aside at least an hour of my day to make scripture study gratifying. I know this isn’t possible for everyone and it wasn’t always imaginable in my life. But my children are now out of elementary school and I am no longer employed.

    I sharpen a red pencil before each study session (I have somewhat of a fetish for particular writing instruments) which usually happens on my unmade bed in my pajamas. I mark phrases of personal significance as I try to be deliberately aware of what each verse is saying. I have developed a system for marking (which probably seems daunting to most and mystifying to others) that involves underlining, light shading, dark shading, outlining, circling, arrows, stars and question marks. I utilize the footnotes frequently and, when I still don’t grasp the significance of a phrase, I turn to commentaries. I have many unanswered questions, but the joy of receiving personal inspiration from prophets who sacrificed in countless ways so I could have their teachings is a huge lift to my day.

    In relating this example, I don’t set it forth as something you should do. It is simply the strange yet marvelous way I have turned scripture study from an obstacle in my path to a challenge that I know makes me better. I am not a rock climber, and wonder why my husband prefers that equipment-intensive and muscle-exhausting method of reaching a high place. But he has adventures and sees panoramas that I can’t imagine on my less strenuous hike up a well-traveled trail. My ridicule of his methods cannot dampen the joy of his experiences.

    Discovering that spiritual learning is best for you audibly does not absolve you from scripture study. It presents a challenge for you to find the way that makes scripture study an integral — and enjoyable — part of your life.

    • Emma J says:

      Thank you, Jami, for putting into compassionate and not-judgemental words this insight. It seems to me sometimes it’s the effort we expend (as in childbirth) that lifts us enough from our ordinary rut to see the miracle. Choosing only what’s easy we’re going to miss a lot of the view.

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