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The Ethics of Having Young Men Repeat Misread Sacrament Prayers

A few times a year in sacrament meeting, I experience what I suspect many of us experience. That tense, stressful moment when the young man saying the sacrament prayer makes a mistake and then at the sign from the bishopric, has to repeat. And then repeat again. And then if we’re very unlucky, repeat again. I don’t know about you, but I find those moments anxiety inducing. All I can think of is that young man – who is probably embarrassed to be alive, let alone publically reading something incorrectly – and how nervous and ashamed he must be to be told to do it over and over again. When this happens, my whole body tenses and I will the young man to get through it. I also will the bishopric to overlook whatever tiny mistake he is making.

My ethical approach to this situation is one of care ethics. When presented with a moral quandary – such as whether or not to have the young man repeat a sacrament prayer when he has inserted a tiny pronoun like “it” after “eat” or some such mistake – I ask the question, “What does this young man need right now?” “What decision will lead to the best outcome for him?” The answer to that question in my mind is to let a tiny mistake slide so that he will have a positive experience as he puts himself out there to serve his congregation. I want that kid to feel good about what he is doing. I want him to not feel ashamed. I want him to not go home and say that he never wants to do that prayer again. I want him to feel that his sincere efforts were acceptable to God and the church community.

I have no doubt that some bishoprics employ this ethical approach on occasion as they overlook a tiny mistake. I also know that sometimes they don’t. I suspect that the ones who don’t are employing a deontological ethical approach. With this approach, the question is not, “What does this child need?” The question instead is, “What is the rule?”[1] And the rule, according to the Church Handbook of Instructions, is that every word of the prayer must be said with no insertions. Now, I acknowledge that there are reasons for that rule. I imagine that the writers of the CHI wrote that because they wanted to convey to members just how sacred and important this prayer is.

Nevertheless, I’ll admit that I’m uncomfortable with that rule. Yes, we want our young men to make sincere efforts to pay attention and do the prayers as instructed. But sometimes, for whatever reasons, that’s just not going to happen. And especially when a mistake is so minor that the meaning of the prayer is not changed, and so minor that most people in the congregation don’t even notice, I suggest we employ an ethics of care approach, rather than have that young man go into the repeat cycle, stressing him and the listeners out in the process. Not only will that make the boy and the congregation have a better experience, but I also can’t help but believe that God finds that sincere effort acceptable. After all, isn’t this what our religion is all about? Flawed humans sincerely doing their best and trusting God and Jesus to make up the rest?

What is your ethical approach to the repeated sacrament prayers quandary?


[1] Another possible ethical approach here is utilitarianism, in which case the question is, “What is best for the greatest number of people?” A bishop might decide to have the boy repeat thinking that it was best for the congregation at large to have that perfect prayer said. On the other hand, a bishop might employ utilitarian thinking and end up with the opposite answer: the best thing for the congregation at large, the thing most likely to keep the spirit present and avoid discomfort of members, is to let a mistake slide.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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45 Responses

  1. Libby says:

    Our fifth-Sunday lesson was about the sacrament. I had one of those sudden-flash-of-insight moments: maybe the prayers are different from each other on purpose so that we will pay attention to the intent instead of the particular words. After all, if we’re already substituting water for wine, isn’t it the act of taking the sacrament the central part?

  2. Libby says:

    *that is. Aaaagh! Grammar.

  3. Diane says:

    This is bang on especially when we are dealing with wards/Branches where English is not their first Language. Or, when you are dealing with people(like me who have speech problems) sure, practice outside helps and maybe that’s the answer for some, but, when you have someone who through no fault of their own can’t speak clearly I think some common sense is called for, in this case I don’t believe it necessitates the person reading something again, and again.

    • Caroline says:

      Yes, I would be doubly upset if repetitions were asked for when the speaker had an impediment or was an English learner. .

      • Kirsten says:

        In the branch I grew up in, there was a man with a severe stuttering speech impediment. No one made fun of him– we all just knew that Bro. So and So spoke differently and had trouble with certain words/sounds. He would periodically say the sacrament prayers and I don’t recall him ever being asked to repeat them. It usually took him quite a bit longer to recite the prayer, but I remember that it caused me to listen closer. I like that they asked him to participate and not shy away for fear of a moment of awkwardness. That is probably the reason we all saw his impediment as just a part of who he was and not something strange to be avoided.

  4. jks says:

    There is no need for endless repeats, I agree. As I have thought about this with my son with speech issues I have wondered how I will feel.
    As a mother of children, I have to say that sometimes I do want to be compassionate with my children and let things slide. I cannot, however, emphasize enough that sometimes this is the WRONG thing to do. I push myself to be tougher on my kids, to push them to actually meet a standard, rather than letting them be lazy, be careless, be ignorant, and be incapable.
    I would rather my children be competant than feel like they are, but are actually not. I’d rather my child be a good employee than feel like they are the greatest thing on earth but unable to hold a job.
    So, when my son turns 16 I will have had a nice talk with him. I know his challenges, but I also know that if he speaks slowly and carefully he will be able to do it. And if he is calmly doing it, he will be able to recognize when he messes it up and be able to go back to the beginning of the phrase and repeat it properly.
    I have confidence that he will be able to do it because he does not have anxiety about speaking in public. And one of the reasons why he does not have anxiety about speaking in public was because first he couldn’t speak, then he could barely speak, then he could speak but needed constant practice, constant loving correction, constant work on his part.
    I am so proud of him for how hard he has worked.
    Maybe some teenage boy who thinks he ought to be able to speak without effort might be devastated at the public mistakes in a sacrament prayer, but my son knows that everyone occasionally says the wrong word, or mispeaks, he just does it more often than others. It is nothing to be ashamed of, but the ability to speak correctly and use language is a privelege and a skill worth working on and is something to be proud of.
    As a mom, I will have appreciate every correct prayer he says, and I will be triply proud of every repeated phrase, or repeated entire prayer he says in church and will be beaming with pride on each one he accomplishes perfectly, even if it is on the third try. (Although any bishop who makes him do it more than 3 times is mean).

    • Caroline says:

      JKS, I appreciate your perspective, particularly as you have a son who might struggle with this in the future. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Miss Rissa says:

    I have nI problem letting a slight error go without having to repeat the prayer, but I also understand the need for a re-do if large parts are jumbled or messed up (saying bread for water, etc.). I am sensitive to the young man who messed up (I would be nervous and embarrassed if it were me, for sure!) but I don’t think it is asking too much to try again. I think having a card there for the second time would be a good idea though- I know if I messed up I might be a bit thrown off and would rather just read it to avoid further mistakes. I also think sensitivity on the bishops part is important. He should be in tune with the boys and helping them memorize the prayer- the meaning and tone, not just the words. He should have a repore with them so that if he did ask them to repeat, he would know how they could handle it.

    • Caroline says:

      Good ideas, Miss Rissa. I agree that if it’s a huge mistake — like the person blessed the wrong thing — then it would be more called for to request a do-over.

    • PostScript says:

      Just to be clear, the Sacrament prayers are always read, not said from memory. In my ward’s building, there’s a small folding “tray” on the side of the table with a built-in microphone and the Sacrament prayers printed on the tray right next to the microphone! In other older buildings the Priests usually read from cards.

      p.s. I remember, when I was a child, that the prayers were supposed to be memorized, and I seem to remember hearing many more repeats than I hear today.

  6. BBB says:

    The first time I said a sacrament prayer as a new convert I stuttered all the way through it. I slaughtered it. Yet, probably the 3rd or 4th time, I got through it. Fast forward about 10 months and I was going to serve a mission. Almost from the moment I was set apart as a missionary, my stuttering virtually stopped overnight. I was able to learn the discussions in a foreign language, which required hours and hours of vocal recitation in the MTC. I still believe the gift of tongues was given to me as I not only learned a new language but also learned to be comfortable reading and speaking in public. That was about 30 years ago. I still have a slight hesitation, but once I start talking, it’s usually hard to shut me up. Please don’t mentally squirm in the pew or look up to see what’s going on. That’s exactly what we tell the Priests members are NOT doing! There’s no need to add to the anxiety and frustration of the young man saying the prayer. He doesn’t need to glance up and see half the congregation staring at him. As bishop, I have an approach where I expect the other priest or person assisting to step in and say the prayer if the other priest hasn’t been successful after 2 or 3 tries. It’s been pretty rare for a priest to say the prayer and not know he made a mistake, and correct it on the fly. About every 6 – 8 months we’ll have a discussion on how sacrament is being administered, any problems with the way prayers are said, how the bread and water are passed, etc. My philosophy is to address any potential problems on the front end as best we can. Sometimes a young man really has a struggle, and in the event a young man really has a speech impediment (like I did and still do somewhat) then I would have no problem working with him. Above all, I wouldn’t stigmatize him or otherwise try to embarass him. The prayers need to be said clearly and correctly within reason, but I, as Bishop, would exercise my judgment and let something go only if I thought the boy couldn’t get it right. Part of that judgment hinges on how well I know the priests in my quorum. It’s usually pretty easy to figure out who is comfortable reading out loud and who isn’t during priest quorum lessons.

    • Caroline says:

      Thanks for your insight on this, BBB. I appreciate you sharing your experience. I like knowing that you are working with your young men on this and proactively addressing concerns.

  7. Autumn says:

    I have often wondered why there is so much emphasis on getting every word of the sacrament prayer exactly right when the Church isn’t nearly that strict with some of the temple ordinances. I was a temple worker for several years, and I noticed that the attitude there (especially with Initiatories) was, “Just do your best, and if there are any mistakes, they will be sorted out in heaven.”

    My current bishop is a little more leniant than the average bishop when it comes to the sacrament prayers. I am grateful for that.

    • TopHat says:

      I’ve totally had to redo things at the veil. In fact, the first time I went through that happened to me and I was so embarrassed and self-conscious. By chance I happened to respond to the first question correctly without any prompting- so I had no idea there was a script I was supposed to follow. When I answered the next question they corrected me and it totally threw me off and made me really self-conscious and I was all butterflies in my stomach. Really gave my first experience a downturn.

      • Sarah says:

        Yes my first several times at the veil I misspoke a word or two and was actually sternly corrected. I remember thinking I doubt Christ would’ve been so rough when I was just doing my best to get through the process. The insistence on exactness is a sticking point for me.

    • Caroline says:

      Interesting point, Autumn. It sounds like people’s experience with exact wording at the temple varies by location. But since we know there are temples with lenient policies about exact language, that certainly does spark the question you ask: why is perfection necessary in SM but not the temple? I have no idea…

  8. Rachel says:

    Caroline, I feel anxiety in those moments too, especially if it is clear that the individual reciting the prayer is himself anxious. Then that goes up even higher for me if the individual is a convert.

    When it needs to be repeated I also find myself rooting for the individual and praying for his success. That almost makes me feel like there could be something good about the discomfort, because now there are many people in the congregation not only listening more intently to the otherwise very ordinary ordinance, but they are also feeling great care and compassion for one of their own, making the uncomfortable circumstance a fruitful one.

    You are right that not every young (or old) man will personally be benefitted by repetition, and I hope that bishops will exercise wisdom and love.

    • Caroline says:

      Rachel, that’s a neat perspective. I had never thought about it in terms of giving the audience a chance to mentally root for and embrace a young man who is struggling.

  9. Lyn says:

    I just sat through a similar experience – a nephew was bein ordained. His father was nervous about the correct wording and looked it up beforehand. The bishop disagreed with him while the ordination was in process and then have an impromptu “talk”/teaching moment afterwards. All of us (even my fairly orthodox in-laws) thought the whole experience was inappropriate. There was no reason to embarrass my already nervous BIL in front of his extended family. In this case if the bishop truly felt like the ordinance was void he could’ve taken them aside in private to redo it.

  10. mr.mraynes says:

    I think one way to take a bit of the pressure off is to remind officiators and congregations that only *uncorrected* errors necessitate a complete re-reading of the prayer. If one notices that they dropped or added a word, they need only re-state the errant phrase correctly and then continue on. I think many believe that as soon as they mess up––even slightly––they are compelled to go back to the beginning and begin anew.

    Going very slowly is always a safe route for everyone reading anything word-for-word in a public setting, too.

    But these ideas notwithstanding, I agree that there is room for some charitable leniency if need be. As usual, this is left to the “presiding authority” and its implementation is wildly uneven. Like everything in the Church.

    • Caroline says:

      Yes, one of the men I talked to about this issue brought up that point about correcting just the phrase. He was saying it’s the other YM’s job to squeeze the speaker’s arm when he messes up on a phrase. I like that safety net — too bad it doesn’t work all the time.

  11. Hattusili says:

    If he’s a generic young man (English as his first language and no speech impedements), then he needs to do it right. It’s a simple task, and he’s too old to be coddled (16+). Once I was extremely flustered, and I messed up a word twice having no clue. The bishop got up, came down and whispered in my ear what I did wrong, and with a kind smile got back up and sat in his chair. I then said the prayer right. I was a little embarrassed. I got over it.

    There was also a kid who had incredibly weak eyes. He took a very long time, it was a challenge for him, and he often made a minor mistake. The bishop let him slide when it was minor. I think he was a wise bishop for knowing the two of us well enough to make those calls.

  12. Glenn Thigpen says:

    As a youngster I stuttered badly. I was also petrified when faced with any type of public speaking. I never was able to muster the courage to bear my testimony until I was in my late twenties.

    When I was ordained to the office of priest and was asked to help bless the Sacrament, I assented, with misgivings. When I recited either of the prayers, I always stumbled, missed a word, or added a word. The bishop did not have to give me the sign to repeat it. I wanted to get it right. I would start over, on my own. Usually two or three times. But finally, I would prevail over my speech impediment and get it right. It gave me a feeling of triumph when I could finally look over to the bishop and he would give me a smiling nod of his head. I felt (and still feel) that those prayers are some of the most important and most sacred prayers that we can utter.

    Now, as a Melchizadek Priesthood, I still want to get it right. When I anoint someone with consecrated oil, I want to get it right. I have been taught that there are things that must be included for the anointing or sealing to be effective. I have been taught that the Sacrament Prayers and the baptismal ceremony have set procedures, words that must be uttered exactly and correctly. I have wondered, but never questioned those teachings.

    I sincerely believe that it is through simple methods such as the Sacrament Prayer that I have been able to almost totally overcome the stuttering problem that plagued me (and often left me red faced) through my youth and well into my professional career.


    • Caroline says:

      I’m glad to hear that the requirement for repeated sacrament prayers was overall a good thing for you in your life, Glenn. That’s nice to know.

  13. X2 Dora says:

    I love the theory of care ethics as you presented here. That it is the concern and love for the individual that drives leadership. This requires an involved and responsive leader, and seems far more difficult to achieve than cut and dried deontological procedures. It seems that the difference between error and perfection is … grace, something that I believe tends to get short shrift in the church. And yet, without it, none of us stands a chance.

    I also wonder if the strict adherence to procedure has something to do with being uncomfortable in one’s leadership position. If a new bishop felt pressure to be perfect in his calling, would that make him more or less likely to need to fulfill all the rules? Of course, this is conjecture, but something that runs through my head when I see instances of unbending-ness. Then again, maybe over-confidence in one’s personal righteousness would have the same effect?

    • Caroline says:

      I’m glad you like care ethics. I think it’s fascinating, myself. I probably wouldn’t lean towards care ethics in every situation (I am committed to principles like equality, and a principles approach is associated with deontological ethics), but I definitely lean that way on some things. Yes, I could definitely see lack of experience being a factor in a bishop insisting on the traditional exactness.

    • Ziff says:

      I really like your framing of this, Dora, as a question of grace. And as you said, grace hasn’t typically been a focus in the Church. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that there are so many rule-sticklers.

  14. DavidH says:

    I was instructed as a veil worker that, if a patron made a mistake, to say the right words once to the patron and that if the patron got them wrong the second time, to say nothing–i.e., the correct words had already been said. I was also told that the key was to help patrons feel comfortable and not anxious or embarrassed.

    When I was YM president, I had 4 young men with speech or reading impediments. Until they were completely confident and able to say the prayers, I would sit up at the sacrament stand with them, and stood by or knelt by them to help if they got caught on a word or phrase to help them through. A couple eventually had the confidence and ability to get through the prayers without prompting, but a couple were not. But that is okay. Because with help they were.

    The handbook says that if a mistake is made in a phrase, the phrase need only be said correctly, and there is no need to repeat the prayer.

    Our current bishop is not a stickler. It is rare for him to request a repeat, even if a word or two are mis-said.

    One of the reason I felt strongly about helping boys with difficulties with the prayers is because a few years before I served in YM, a young man (the only active member in his family) had to repeat the prayer 5 times, the bishop finally walked over to help him. That was the last time the young man set foot in church.

    It is said that President Monson would rather break a rule than a heart, that people are more important that policies.

    • Caroline says:

      Thank you for your great comment, DavidH. What a horrible story about the young man that had to repeat 5 times and never came back. That’s the kind of result I fear when I see that insistence on exactness.

      I had never heardd that about President Monson. I hope that is true! People over policies/programs. Amen.

  15. EveM says:

    I really love the principle that Brad Wilcox teaches using the illustration of Sacrament prayer repetition. I found a synopsis of it here: http://mysoulhungered.blogspot.com/2009/04/continuous-atonement-by-brad-wilcox.html?m=1 …but his cd “the continuous atonement” is a wonderful lecture on grace. I highly recommend it!

  16. GB says:

    When I was a priest (about 25 years ago), our bishopric was very particular that the prayers be said completely correctly. That is, if there was any mistake, we had to start over from the beginning. Repeated prayers were a common occurrence, but that didn’t make them any more comfortable, especially when it got to the third try.

    I was a bit more comfortable reading aloud than the other priests. When given a choice, the others always chose to bless the water because, first, the prayer is 12 words shorter, and, second, it was less nerve-racking to give the second prayer.

    One Sunday, a newly-ordained, adult-convert priest was asked to bless the sacrament. I assume it was a member of the bishopric who brought him over to the sacrament table, but I can’t remember. I’m sure new converts had blessed the sacrament in my ward before, but whenever they had, it went fine, and I never noticed.

    The other priest and I suggested that the convert say the prayer for the water—it was the easier one, after all—and I would say the prayer for the bread. We showed him how to pull out the microphone/card combination and pointed out the prayer he would read. I guess it didn’t occur to anyone to ask him if he was comfortable reading.

    It was very clear from the first few words that he wouldn’t be able to read the prayer correctly by himself. I wish I had knelt down to help him read it, but this kind of thing had never happened before: we always just let the priest struggle until he eventually got it right. After the third try, no closer than the first (“witness” was read as “wilderness” at least one time), the Bishop signaled for me to give the prayer. Maybe he wanted me just to help him say it, but these weren’t signals we had used before. So I knelt down and gave the prayer for the water for the fourth time, slowly and carefully. Except I said bread instead of water. I got it right on the fifth attempt.

    I didn’t even know what I had said wrong until I asked my mom later. I thought in the end, though, that it was no worse to have five prayers than to have four, and at least the new convert wasn’t the only one who had a problem saying the prayer that day. But I never saw him again.

    There were many things that could have made things a little better that day. Someone in the bishopric could have practiced reading through the prayers with him before sacrament meeting. Someone could have helped him read the prayer. I don’t know that I ever considered it before that day, but ever since then, I’ve felt that the exact words are not the most important thing.

    • Caroline says:

      That story is a heartbreaker, GB. Thanks for sharing it. It’s exactly that kind of result that I fear when we make exact words our number one priority.

    • Ziff says:

      Oh, ouch! To me, this story (and Alisa’s story) suggest that perhaps the “suck it up” approach might have more costs than benefits. If experiences like this are miserable enough to drive someone away, they had sure better have a lot of benefits attached to be worth it!

  17. Nate C. says:

    Messing up on the Sac prayers taught me two things:
    1. Messing up while speaking to a group is ok.
    2. Reading from a card/page to a group is more trouble than it is worth.

    After my first time having to repeat, I memorized both prayers so I wouldn’t face that painful situation again.

    However, there was a boy a few years older than me who had pretty severe disabilities. His mental abilities were enough to discern right from wrong, but not enough to consistently choose the right. In other words, he knew what he was supposed to do, but didn’t always have a choice when that time came.

    His first time giving the sacrament prayer he messed up in the first line, then whispered under his breath (but still directly into the mic), “damnit.”

    He started over and messed up in the same spot and cursed again.

    On the fourth attempt he got most of the way through and messed up, at which point he dropped an F-bomb right into the mic. It was sufficiently emotional and garbled so that only his friends and family caught what he had done.

    At that point my brother who was on the stand with him, whispered the prayer into his ear while he repeated it into the mic. I wish I could say that I was sympathetic and felt sorry for him, but honestly, most of the young men could barely contain our laughter which I am sure looked like we were making fun of the slow kid. When in reality, we were amazed that he had just gotten away with dropping the F-word in sacrament meeting.

    The bishop probably should have stepped in earlier on that one.

    • Caroline says:

      Holy cow! That meeting must have been the talk of the young men for months. Poor kid — was he ashamed or did he take it all in stride?

  18. Laura says:

    My sweet husband is severely dyslexic. As a priest, the sacrament prayers were difficult. In his ward at the time were a decent sized group of preists; however, many of them would either a)come late b) dress inappropriately purposely so they wouldn’t have to do the prayers. My husband said at least one of the prayers EVERY Sunday from the time he was 16 until he was an elder. One Sunday he had to repeat it 5 times. I know this was difficult for him. All that said, he learned so many things from the experience: humility, persistence, the importance of exactness in ordinances, the importance of “showing up” even when it’s difficult, compassion on the part of ward members who supported him when it was hard. For him, it built his testimony. Not that the same would apply to someone else and not that it wasn’t difficult at the time. But it was a powerful way for him in learning to honor his priesthood…..

  19. Alisa says:

    Coming late, but I’ll never forget when I was a teenager and a boy in my grade had to repeat the prayer more than 7 times. No one pointed out to him his mistake, and he kept making it over and over until he was crying while saying the prayer. It was a fast and testimony meeting, and many people wanted to show love to him and talked in their testimonies about how meaningful it was to hear the prayer so many times, but he was so embarrassed, he left immediately after sacrament meeting ended. It’s etched on my memory and will never be forgotton to me because it seemed that even though everyone was so supportive, it was the system that was cruel to him.

  20. Brett says:

    I’m really late to this party 🙂 🙂 🙂 While serving as a bishop, I followed the spirit and was very careful to ask the young men to repeat, never ever twice! I taught in the priest quorum, not on the stand! The young men came first! Thanks for the post! Great conversations!!!

  21. John says:

    Five years late! Of course the ideal is to say the prayer word-perfectly. And, actually, most times it is. But when it comes down to it, it’s really quite hard to invalidate an ordinance when performed by proper authority, truly and faithfully.

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