Distracted by Non-distraction?

by: Hedgehog

October 24, 2013

Just recently, and in conjunction with my new calling as Ward Music Chairman, I attended a Stake training meeting. The first topic covered was something described as ‘The Principle of Non-distraction’. Because music in meetings is such a distraction? I was puzzled, and later some quick online research highlighted this T&S post dating back to 2006. It was music that was getting it in the neck, primarily.

More authoritative statements on the subject appear to be limited to Aaronic Priesthood practice, in particular with regard to the passing of the sacrament:

“The principle I suggest to govern those officiating in the sacrament—whether preparing, administering, or passing—is that they should not do anything that would distract any member from his or her worship and renewal of covenants. This principle of non-distraction suggests some companion principles.

Deacons, teachers, and priests should always be clean in appearance and reverent in the manner in which they perform their solemn and sacred responsibilities. Teachers’ special assignments in preparing the sacrament are the least visible but should still be done with dignity, quietly and reverently. Teachers should always remember that the emblems they are preparing represent the body and blood of our Lord.

To avoid distracting from the sacred occasion, priests should speak the sacrament prayers clearly and distinctly. Prayers that are rattled off swiftly or mumbled inaudibly will not do. All present should be helped to understand an ordinance and covenants so important that the Lord prescribed the exact words to be uttered. All should be helped to focus on those sacred words as they renew their covenants by partaking…

… All who officiate in the sacrament—in preparing, administering, or passing—should be well groomed and modestly dressed, with nothing about their personal appearance that calls special attention to themselves. In appearance as well as actions, they should avoid distracting anyone present from full attention to the worship and covenant making that is the purpose of this sacred ordinance.

This principle of non-distraction applies to things unseen as well as seen. If someone officiating in this sacred ordinance is unworthy to participate, and this is known to anyone present, their participation is a serious distraction to that person. Young men, if any of you is unworthy, talk to your bishop without delay. Obtain his direction on what you should do to qualify yourself to participate in your priesthood duties worthily and appropriately.

I have a final suggestion. With the single exception of those priests occupied breaking the bread, all who hold the Aaronic Priesthood should join in singing the sacrament hymn by which we worship and prepare to partake. No one needs that spiritual preparation more than the priesthood holders who will officiate in it. My young brethren, it is important that you sing the sacrament hymn. Please do so.” (Dallin H Oaks, 1998)


“Every deacon is expected to be appropriately attired as he performs his duty. When passing the sacrament he should be dressed conservatively with a dress shirt and tie. Loud or gaudy patterns of dress attract the attention of the Saints and take their minds off the sacred sacramental service. No young man would deliberately violate his priesthood ordination by causing this distraction. His hair length should be such that it does not give a feminine appearance or distract members’ concentration…

… A deacon must conduct himself properly in all things. This is, however, especially true in his conduct at the sacrament table. We have all seen immature deacons who play, make faces, laugh, push other deacons, and in general are very light-minded about this sacred ordinance. Such a young man should be taught that he is violating the sacred trust that the Lord has given him to assist in the ordinance. A deacon should conduct himself following a single standard.” (Vaughan J Featherstone, 1974)

Now, I can totally get on board with appropriate behaviour required of the Aaronic Priesthood youth as they administer the sacrament. Not quite so sure that I’d be as rigid in dress requirements, though I’d certainly put a shout out for hygiene, since they’re going to be handling items I need to put in my mouth. Dress doesn’t really distract me. The most distracting episode I have encountered during the sacrament in my years of attendance has been the week the taps hadn’t been run before using the water. It had been sitting in the pipes all week, and looked distinctly yellow in the white plastic cups as it came round. The only mention of music in these statements is the instruction to the Aaronic Priesthood to participate in the singing of the sacrament hymn.

Somehow, somewhere, this principle of non-distraction has taken on a life of its own, and more often than not appears to be have been expanded in its breadth and application. Applied primarily to the music side of things in a sacrament meeting, perhaps music is the point at which there is more likely to be disagreement. Nowhere in Handbook 2, in either the music section or the section pertaining to sacrament meeting, have I found anything about a principle of non-distraction, not even the word distraction, though there are plenty of injunctions about there being a dignified, harmonious and worshipful atmosphere.

Generally, I fear that as a church community we set ourselves up to be distracted. When we have such rigid expectations with regard to dress codes, the expectation that men will wear a white shirt and tie, for instance, means that someone wearing a shirt of a different colour is far more likely to stand out, than they otherwise would. And really, how does the colour of a shirt harm anyone? Do we really need this expectation? Furthermore, distraction is very subjective. What distracts one person, may well not distract another. It is so subjective, I sometimes get the impression a leader can simply decide to label a personal dislike as a distraction, or use the principle as an after-the-fact excuse for why they don’t want things to happen. I have experienced leaders so focused on avoiding distractions in meetings, they lose sight of the humanity of those in their care. When we even begin to talk about things in terms of distraction, we then have to decide whose distractions do we privilege: those who find it distracting to stand to sing, or those for whom the discomfort of sitting so long becomes a distraction, for instance. We can always find distractions when we are intent on looking for them. It puts our focus in the wrong place.

Nevertheless, when told my arranged musical items couldn’t happen as planned, intended and (I believed) agreed, because of possible distraction*, being aware of this ‘principle’ (in combination with knowledge of the handbook) has meant that I have been able to use it in arguing my case, for the privileging of ‘my identified distractions’, for the placement and other details regarding musical items in our sacrament meetings. I’m not sure that was what the training intended.

  • What do you think of non-distraction as a principle? Should it be a principle?
  • Is it something you have ever had to grapple with in carrying out your callings?
  • Have you seen the principle of non-distraction become a distraction?



*This had nothing to do with the choice of music. When called, I was asked to stick to the hymns and primary songs, and concurred.

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21 Responses to Distracted by Non-distraction?

  1. Jack Hughes on October 24, 2013 at 3:27 PM

    People complain about “losing the spirit” because of the color of someone’s shirt, yet no one questions the idea of having infants and small children in Sacrament meeting.

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  2. Nate on October 24, 2013 at 5:36 PM

    I’ve always been grateful for distractions that break up the tedium of Sacrament Meeting. Most welcome of all, is the distraction of an unexpectedly inspired talk or prayer.

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  3. craig on October 24, 2013 at 9:43 PM

    uhhhhh…..I can’t figure out what we want more: diversity (we say we want), but then say “and you better not be different”. Dang. Give me the distraction any day of the week. I’m starting to have this fear of the celestial kingdom not being very interesting, if its filled with all those mormons wearing the same uniform. Will they have the internet? That may keep me distracted.

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  4. Geoff - A on October 24, 2013 at 11:52 PM

    The biggest distraction from the Gospel we have is the culture that comes with the church.

    We have talks like Elder Oaks that are totally culture, and farcical, as he thought he was giving a talk about not having concepts be more important than God, and all his examples showed that his culture was more important to him than the Gospel.

    I expect we will get more repeats following his example.

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  5. Hedgehog on October 25, 2013 at 2:39 AM

    Jack #1, I know. Crazy.
    I’ve experienced members who became aggravated by children speaking, though that was rare thankfully. My son had a hard time learning to whisper, and always had plenty of questions about what was happening, or what things meant, though he did understand he had to be quiet during the sacrament itself. Our daughter on the other hand I was hauling out of the meeting until she was nearly 8 because she refused to accept she needed to remain silent then. And she’d most often decide that was when she needed to ask something. She wouldn’t wait. We were consistent. But not replying, or a finger to our lips simply resulted in the question being repeated at ever increasing volume. She isn’t one to back down.
    But the alternative would be to call some adults to care for the children, and I can’t think that anyone would be willing to do that. I do recall the before the consolidated schedule there was a brief sacrament service as part of the Junior Sunday School. I’m not sure if that meant children didn’t need to attend sacrament meeting then. We always attended, but I’d be interested to hear what happened elsewhere.

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  6. Hedgehog on October 25, 2013 at 2:48 AM

    Nate #2, Agreed absolutely. It is so refreshing when that happens, and sadly doesn’t happen often enough.

    craig #3, Diversity has my vote.

    Geoff #4, I can agree that culture has become much too embedded in church discourse and practice.

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  7. ji on October 25, 2013 at 4:30 AM

    Individual persons develop individual personalities. Organizations, like individual wards and individual stakes, also develop individual personalities. While you bear patiently with other fellow Saints in your present unit, you will be happy to know that other Saints are in units with differing personalities. I’m happy that, for the time being, I’m in a unit that is a little more musically expressive than yours. You might be able to influence a change in your unit’s culture.

    I like the irony in the graphic image!

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  8. seth on October 25, 2013 at 9:43 AM

    If you can choose to be offended, I think it’s just as legitimate to say that you choose to be distracted.

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  9. Howard on October 25, 2013 at 11:11 AM

    I appreciate reverence and quiet while the sacrament is blessed and passed and it is generally well done in my ward. But I think this article points to the growing pharisaical nature of the church where a few laudable principals are reduced to a lot of bright line sometimes nit picky rules that in their zeal miss the spirit of the principal that beget them!

    We insure uniformity by operating our wards like a McDonald’s manufactured food outlet but it comes at the expense of the varied gastronomical delights of the gospel that are squeezed and pressed out in the making.

    The church has become the victim of an attempted hijacking by the more orthodox lately calling themselves the faithful (arrogantly implying that others are not) demanding uniform belief and compliance to arbitrarily narrow standards and often illogical beliefs never required by Christ or Joseph during their lives on earth in an act of self flagellation which they seek to require of other members least they be expelled from their exclusive club.

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  10. Will on October 25, 2013 at 11:33 AM


    “We have talks like Elder Oaks that are totally culture…”

    Did I hear a different talk? I thought that was one of the clear, crisp and easily understandable talks of conference. It was about having no other Gods before me, was it not?

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  11. hawkgrrrl on October 25, 2013 at 1:42 PM

    Will – the talk referenced is I believe the one in the OP, a talk from 1998, one that I frankly don’t remember specifically, although yes. E. Oaks has been known to ride the white shirt hobby horse frequently.

    “His hair length should be such that it does not give a feminine appearance.” WTH?? By what standard should this be administered? BYU’s standards and mission standards are nearly military length, far more strict than necessary to prevent someone from mistaking a person’s gender. Are we actually worried that someone will mistake one of the boys passing or blessing the sacrament for a woman? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Are we really trying to target the “Pats” of the world (those whose gender is not readily apparent? Because that seems like adding insult to injury. There are many hairstyles that are unisex.

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  12. Hedgehog on October 25, 2013 at 3:23 PM

    The hair comments were from 1974, Vaughan Featherstone, not Elder Oaks, but yes. Why would hair length be a distraction? I haven’t heard hair specifically mentioned recently. Sadly however I was once in a ward where a new member with a young family was sustained to be ordained as a priest. He didn’t want to cut his long hair. The Bishop wouldn’t let the ordination go ahead unless he did. We never saw the family again. About a decade ago.

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  13. Hedgehog on October 26, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    #7, Thanks, ji. Nice comment. I live in hope. Feels like pushing water uphill though sometimes.
    I couldn’t resist the image when I spotted it.

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  14. Hedgehog on October 26, 2013 at 4:14 AM

    Seth #8, so true!

    Howard #9. I do wonder how things come to pass that way. One of my brothers provided this link which I found illuminating: http://thedailywtf.com/Articles/Coding-Practices-MUST-Be-Followed.aspx
    Inevitable perhaps, but to be guarded against.

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  15. Nona on October 26, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    #12–how sad!
    I remember when my husband and I were in high school (in Utah.) He came from a very inactive family, but had a great love for the gospel which he’d developed in seminary. But he had long hair. And a girlfriend (me.) They asked him to be on the seminary council, but stipulated that he had to cut his hair and break up with me to do so. In retrospect it seems like such manipulation.
    He turned down the calling, but did stay very active.

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  16. meggle on October 28, 2013 at 1:44 AM

    My 19 year old son has chosen to no longer distract the members of ANY ward after being told repeatedly that his below-the-ears-but-well-above-his- chin length hair was a distraction. He has since cut it. He was also made to frequently repeat the sacrament prayers because he often slurred the words “that they” together. The young man who currently says it often drops the word “that” completely without being asked to repeat. But his hair and clothes are sharp. My son was also told that “the lord would like him to serve as the first assistant in the priest’s quorum- if he would cut his hair and sit up straighter.”
    Lest you think I am bitter, or looking to be offended (okay, I’m a little bitter…), I realize that my child’s choices are his own, and I’m not looking to make excuses for why he no longer participates in church- he’s just not that interested. It’s just that he’s not much of an actor, and has a low tolerance for people he finds superficial. I can’t help but wonder if he might’ve been a bit more interested had he not been repeatedly badgered over superficial things. A kid can only take being told he doesn’t fit so many times, despite the fact that he was, in fact, worthy to participate in all ways. “Nice to see you at this activity, Kenny” ceases to sound sincere when it’s followed by “would you mind taking off that (non-flashy, non-distracting) hat?”

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  17. Hedgehog on October 28, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    Nona, meggle, yes, I do dislike that kind of manipulative behaviour that some adult leaders seem to employ with youth.

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  18. hawkgrrrl on October 28, 2013 at 9:23 AM

    meggle, as a mother of a son who was also badgered about his hair, I can relate. Kids are not always into church anyway, with the pull of their friends in so many directions. Belaboring these “distraction” arguments puts someone near the edge right over time and time again.

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  19. Jeff Spector on October 29, 2013 at 9:03 AM

    Distractions are clearly in the eye of the beholder and can be found anywhere and everywhere, not just at Church. But, I was thinking about how distracting it can be in the Temple when you are looking around at the murals on the walls of some Temples to see what’s there instead of paying attention to the ceremony. Or how, with the new film, you can be looking at the productions values of the film itself, if you are interested in that, instead of listen and watching what is being presented. So, it is no surprise that some might find hair or clothing distracting simply because it doesn’t match their own view of the world.

    That has to change because we are supposed to be a Church that has appeal to everyone in the world because not everyone is the same. if this new push for missionary work that is happening all over in every meeting we now attend is going to be successful, tolerance for people who are different better go up appreciably. And, be discussed more.

    Or, we may as well all move to Utah and eat dinner at the Chuck-o-Rama and say “oh, my Heck” all the time.

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  20. Hedgehog on October 29, 2013 at 9:55 AM

    Agreed Jeff.
    I’ve no wish to move to Utah, dine at Chuck-o… etc.

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  21. […] concept initially applied specifically to the passing of the sacrament (see my post here). It would appear that this may first have suggested in a  in this Dialogue article (2001, which I […]

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