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Going big

By Shelah Miner

When we left the chapel on Thursday night, the Relief Society and Young Women filed out the south door, while I went out the north door with the other Primary leaders. As we walked toward the door, I heard the stake Primary president tell one of her friends how tired she was, since she was preparing for her second child to get married in as many months. She had a smile on her face and greeted us warmly by name, but she did look a little weary.

Immediately upon exiting the chapel, we picked up road maps and personalized driver’s licenses, got instructions from a road construction worker (in orange vest and hard hat) and walked around the whole building, filling out our maps. When we got to the Primary room, we met more “construction workers” (the stake Primary presidency), found our seats, and played a game where we had to move our paper-cut cards around the chalkboard, which had been decorated like a road. Each presenter had a visual component to her lesson. There were model cars all over the room, two handouts, a gift for each of the attendees, and a beautiful table decorated with hand-made road signs sticking out of the homemade cupcakes.

The message was uplifting and I felt like we might still have some important work to do in these last few months of our lame-duck Primary presidency. But when the meeting was over, I left feeling guilty. In addition to the president with her two weddings, I knew how busy every member of that presidency was. Earlier that day I’d seen one of the counselors, a mom of five and teacher at my kids’ school, with kids literally hanging off her. The other counselor has a big family and homeschools. The secretary also works and has kids and about a million volunteer projects.

I looked around the room and could see that hours of effort went into the food, the decorations, the activities, and the presentations. I’m talking LOTS of hours. And while the little road signs sticking out of the cupcakes were adorable, I would have been just as uplifted with just the old crocheted tablecloth and pot of fake daisies that have graced the front table in the Primary room ever since I moved in the ward.

I’m a minimalist, and I tend to judge with the eyes of a minimalist. I feel guilty when busy people make a fuss over me. But I also know people who love going big. My mom is one of them– why make one kind of cake when you can make three? Why use one tablecloth when two will add a little more dimension? But what I worry about is people who feel compelled to make a big fuss even though they don’t enjoy it.

Where do you fall? Are you a minimalist? Do you go big? If you do, how much is because you really love creating an experience and how much is classic Mormon guilt?

About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

37 thoughts on “Going big”

  1. I too am a minimalist as well. I think that those details are fun, but in my opinion are "fluff" and unnecessary. I sometimes think they detract from the meat of the gospel and the doctrine. I'm not trying to be trivial and I know some people love that kind of stuff, but when I take time away from my family I want to go and be uplifted and spiritually fed, I don't need the crafty/cutsie.

  2. I think that's exactly the problem with "going big"–then every successor feels compelled to match our outdo her predecessor. It can quickly spiral out of control. Years ago when I was the RS education counselor in a YSA ward, I vividly remember such a spiral initiated by a teacher who brought treats, followed by a teacher who brought homemade treats, followed by a teacher who brought three kinds of homemade treats. In a church context such extras quickly become a pernicious, energy-sucking distraction from what we're there for. But as a leader it's a very delicate matter to reign it in without hurting feelings. Just one reason I'm glad I'm not a leader anymore and hope never to be one again.

  3. I've recently learned that I'm a minimalist. While I like things to look nice/cute, I've decided that my time is more of a priority than making cute decorations for church functions. I feel really bad too when I see that my children's teachers go to all kinds of work for cute handouts and my kids (mostly boys) throw them away.

  4. I'm a minimalist when it comes to lessons. As the YW president I have to push myself a little to make New Beginnings and YW in Excellence be a bit more exciting. I do enjoy making it nice, but I am way more concerned about the message getting through.

    At our book group last night my friend had made a Star Wars themed table of treats. She went to a lot of work, but she enjoyed it so I appreciated it. But I won't go to as much trouble when it's my turn to host.

    I think I am the same that I don't always feel the overboard craftiness is needed. There shouldn't be pressure to measure up.

  5. I am a minimalist. I don't care at all about any of the elaborate themed deals people pull off, whether it is for a church activity or baby shower or back to school dinner or whatever. If they enjoy doing it, go for it and I'm happy for them. It has zero meaning for me and I don't enjoy it so I just don't do it. And I don't feel guilty either.

    I put on three years of monthly RS meetings with ne'r a centerpiece or themed decorations (except when one woman couldn't take it anymore because all of that is really important to her and went crazy all on her own and on her own dime and worked super hard and the room looked beautiful but still, at what cost?), but with effort into the activities and speakers, and our attendance was great.

    I was YW president and my counselor was beside herself because our YW In Excellence night was "hardly planned". I honestly didn't know what she was talking about. We had speakers planned and refreshments and YW were going to share projects they had worked on and spiritual experiences they had had, so it seemed planned to me. But we didn't have a "theme". Last time she had been involved they had a construction theme, and refreshments were served out of paint cans or whatever. Which, if they enjoy that, great. No way am I spending my time doing stuff like that. I strongly believe that feeling guilted into making cleverly decorated cupcakes or handouts that someone doesn't want to make is entirely a matter of choice.

  6. I am a fairly new stake RS president under a new stake president. He asked that we spend all our time in spiritual preparation – no handouts, no treats, no decor. I was relieved because I'm craft-and-cute-deficient, and so grateful that our meetings really focus on the essentials. I was cleaning out the closet and found a box of candy and actually felt a little rebellious for putting it out for people to take if interested.

  7. I stick with the essentials. I don't care about the fluff.
    The one thing though that is important to remember is that not everyone is an auditory learner. If your audience has to sit still and just listen it can be torturous for some. A handout might be thrown out by many, but for some it is nice to have something tangible to look at during the lesson. Visual and kinesthetic learners can have a hard time during sacrament meeting. What is nice about other meetings is you have the freedom to add activities, movement, interaction, visual stuff.
    My son has/had a learning difference and as a young child he simply didn't process all that verbal information and still today it is a struggle for him to process what he hears (both register the words and also process the meaning of those words). He can do it but it is harder and it takes him longer.
    I'm more familiar with thinking about kids' learning styles, but to be an effective teacher it helps to have some creativity.
    I absolutely never bake cupcakes with signs on them in order to teach them history, science, math, reading comprehension, vocabulary or gospel principles, so I wouldn't at church either. But I have tried to switch things up a little bit.

  8. I am generally a minimalist but sometimes I get a fun idea that I just want to follow through on. Those creative impulses are healthy outlets and as long as it doesn't take away from the efforts needed to make sure the essentials are there I have no trouble with it.

    I do have trouble with it if I'm pressured when I politely decline the cute take home gift. Sometimes those are things I want. Often I look at them and just think of the clutter battle I'm already losing at home.

  9. I am also craft and cute deficient. I never put energy into that type of thing if I can help it, because I'm not good enough at it to make it turn out well without a significant time investment.

    But. I have been to lovely events, put on by women who are gifted at creating beauty, and it's interesting to watch the faces of the women as they enter the room. They relax as a response to the beauty, to the planning, to the details. I can't pull them off myself, but when others do I am not going to forbid myself from enjoying them.

    What is hard for me is when there's an expectation that because I am a woman I ought to be good at craft/cute/creating that perfect atmosphere. I am not. I stink at it. Let me do well what I'm good at (you need a lesson taught with ten minutes' notice? I'm there.) and don't expect me to be good at what I am really not.

  10. I don't go big for much, but I *DO* try to make my family members birthdays feel special. And I enjoy doing on-on-one service at times with something that makes them feel special or appreciated (generally a nice cake/treat).

    I teach 14-15 yr old sunday school kids. My lessons are more about connecting with them and bringing the spirit to our discussion than wowing them with shockNawe over my elaborate decoration. Mainly because it's just too much, but also cause I'm a crummy decorator.

    One of my favorite things about church growing up was the unexpected treat that a random teacher would bring from time to time. YMMV, but in my childhood, treats were a rarity, and the bestowal of one lit me up inside like a firefly. So every now and then I surprise my kids with something unexpected. It could just be a fistful of LifeSavers or a fun-size candy bar…but they LOVE it when I bring something. Makes them feel special, too. Like I was thinking about them before. (which I usually am).

    We had New Beginnings this week and I was FLOORED by the deco…themed after the game CandyLand, there was a path from the entry of the church to the room, with all the details you can imagine from the game brought to life. It was elaborate, colorful, and the theme of "sweet" was certainly imprinted on our minds. Seriously impressive. But it was a whole team of amazing women who divided up the responsibilities. I appreciated their efforts, and it will certainly remain in my mind far longer than the same discussion without any visuals.

    I guess in the end, I too appreciate the effort when it makes the person doing it happy and they enjoy it. But I wouldn't ever think about comparing one person's style with another's if they don't go all Martha Stewart on me.

  11. I am a minimalist. Over the course of a year and a half as an RS teacher I set up table decorations exactly once. That time it was a pitcher of water and a loaf of homemade, braided bread. For that lesson I felt I needed strong visuals for the symbols of the Sacrament. Once upon a time I was on a RS "ambiance committee" and I did exactly nothing 🙂

    I'd make a terrible YW president because I have no interest in the fluff.

  12. I'm kind of in between. I think I tend to be a minimalist, but I've learned that a good presentation can be really meaningful and memorable.

    When I was first in our ward, I was put on the enrichment committee. There was tension between the enrichment leader and the counselor over her, because the counselor liked everything "big" and the leader liked the minimalist approach. I did find some of the counselor's desires over-the-top, like when our RS Christmas party was scheduled for December 23rd and she wanted everyone to undecorate their trees, bring them to the church, decorate them for the party, and then take them down and take them back home. (We did not end up doing that, BTW.) However, she made a comment once that has stuck with me. She said, "I want the sisters to feel like we cared enough to make an effort for them." I think there is truth to that statement. I think the key is balance.

    I was also on the stake Primary board for awhile and our stake Primary president likes to do things up nice… but not over-the-top. I think it is nice to come to a leadership training and see things decorated nicely with good food. It adds a dimension of specialness to the occasion. Our stake Primary president enjoys scrapbooking and generally handmakes all the invitations. It's her thing. I don't think everybody needs to do that, but she enjoys it, and it adds a nice touch.

    In general, I think each person who is in charge or contributing to something should be able to use their own talents and bring their creative outlets to the table. I think the problems arise when this turns into excessive expectations for everyone else. Leaders need to be sensitive to the time constraints of those who will be helping them with these endeavors.

  13. When I served in a RS presidency in a BYU ward, I actually took a lot of pride in the fact that we never used a single centerpiece. I think a well-prepared lesson and a thoughtful activity topic are much more important than coordinated themes and decorations; however, I won't pretend that I don't get excited when the RS teacher passes around a bowl of candy! I think there is a place for the more elaborately planned events, but they should be the exception, not the rule.

    I am one of those people that likes to plan parties and dinners where everything coordinates, but I have a policy to only do those parties if I'm doing the work and footing the bill myself. I think it's rude to ask for help and then tell people exactly what to do and how to do it

  14. I'm NOT a minimalist! I love cute stuff. I love pretty things. I love a theme. I LOVE to throw parties and decorate and pay attention to detail. It makes me happy and creatively fulfilled to do things like that. I don't feel any kind of Mormon guilt or obligation to do it, though–I do it because it makes the task more enjoyable for ME.

  15. When I was the primary president we went to our annual stake training meeting with the stake primary presidency and the theme was KISS "keep it sweet & simple". And do you know what they did? They were elaborate with decorations and red velvet cream cheese stuffed cupcakes and punch with heart sprinkles and wooden blocks with KISS vinyl overlays with lips painted on top. Oh. My. The message was convoluted, to put it plainly. Don't do as I do but do as I say? Huh?

    I'm a minimalist and don't use table decorations. I get making an activity fun (I've been a primary chorister, hello!! :-). But it's the extra fluff that gets to me.

    My fave SIL goes big. And I've seen it really tax her family. Do the least amount possible to make it special without taxing your family. Families need to be at home together as much as possible WITHOUT stress from callings.

  16. I am a total minimalist when it comes to doing things for myself, but when I do something for someone else then I go more creative and possibly even "big" depending on the task. I guess I look at it like this is what I would do if the other person were Jesus. But sisters are quick to say I seek my own accolades or try to impress others, which is not the case. It's a tough balancing act. When you want to give your best effort to show your appreciation and love for others, and to the Savior, it would be way cool if it could also be received in that spirit.

  17. Minimalist and happy to be so. I sometimes feel guilty when those I work with (also in primary) do so much more than I do, and yet some of what they do seems highly unnecessary. I like to streamline my calling and be efficient with what I do. What I most frequently feel guilty about is not taking time or taking it early enough to seek inspiration about my ideas, not knowing if there is something God would rather have me do, if only I would ask Him.

  18. I like beautiful — dignified, simple beautiful, not so much gaudy or cutsey or crafty. I am not a minimalist, if minimalism means no tablecloth and no (simple) centerpiece. When a program is supposed to be something more than routine, and I go into a room that has not the slightest visual cue of anything extra, anything nice, it feels the same as a Thanksgiving dinner served out of a styrofoam container because the hostess wanted social credit for being hostess but couldn't be bothered to cook a meal and set a table.

    I still feel bad about a funeral luncheon I helped prepare more than 20 years ago. I wanted to put the ward's glass glasses on the table; the other women refused to let me do that, even when I offered to wash and dry and put away all the glasses entirely by myself. To me, putting flimsy, nasty-tasting styrofoam water cups on a luncheon table meant we were telling the family that they didn't really mean all that much to us; we were doing the absolute minimum to meet an obligation and get them out the door so we could clean up and leave.

    And I feel the same way about "special" events put on without any evidence of "specialness." A set of talks is just a set of talks — they should always be the best we can do, even in the most routine of meetings. But let me put a bowl of flowers on the table at least, or something else that feels like a special occasion.

  19. Minimalist! I got a kick out of President Uchtdorf's "Forget Me Not" talk when he said, "Dedicating some of our time to studying the scriptures or preparing to teach a lesson is a good sacrifice. Spending many hours stitching the title of the lesson into homemade pot holders for each member of your class perhaps may not be."


  20. please,please don't give me one more thing to put on my fridge,cute saying to post, or goodie to eat, I need spiritual food, emotional support and meaningful discussion. clearly, I am a minimalist. President Uchtdorf is so right. It is irony that his very pointed talk has spawned a number of small blue flower take homes, center pieces, and decorations.

  21. Ardis, you said my opinion very well. :o)

    I hate elaborate decorations, etc. but I also have noticed a big difference in walking into a big, empty gym where chairs are set up around empty, stained tables as opposed to walking into the gym for an activity with some nice background music, tablecloths, and some sort of centerpiece. It says, "We're so glad you came! We want to offer you some peace and fellowship and we've prepared something worth your time."

  22. I would have loved to come to this meeting! I would never have prepared something as complicated as this, but I would certainly have enjoyed it! I remember meetings that verged on this years ago in Utah. But I have not seen anything like this in a long time since moving to the "mission field". I am not saying it is necessary, but I think it would have been a lot of fun!

  23. I feel like I can see both sides on this. For me personally, I'm a minimalist. I'm not very crafty. My home isn't really decorated. I don't think I even own any tablecloths and I would find it impossible to come up with any sort of coherent theme for an event, let alone execute it. Many times I worry that we confuse busyness with importance and I think we could often do without extra handouts and extra fuss.

    But, on the other hand, as some commenters have pointed out, it is nice to attend events where someone has taken the time to decorate nicely and to make it a little more special. At Christmas-time we had a holiday Relief Society dinner and the tableclothes, centerpieces, real tableware, low lighting, and music made it feel like a special occasion and not just another dinner in the gym. I like stuff like that. My 3-year-old recently had a birthday and I spent about two hours decorating a cake that I knew would be destroyed in a few minutes, but the reaction I got from her was worth 'going big' at that time.

  24. Ardis did a great job saying what I was thinking. We do not have to go over the top, but it is okay to do a little something to make a special occasion feel special. There are always beautiful plants/flowers around the pulpit for general conference. They aren't needed, we can hear the messages without them, but their beauty makes it just a little nicer.

  25. I got kicked off the Enrichment Committee for opposing crafts. I'm sorry, but Super Saturday (that's gone now, right?) does not need to consist of 20 different crafts.

    I do wish we still had Homemaking meetings like they did 20 years ago. A lesson, an optional craft and a refreshment sounds good to me. And I kind of want to make some of those glass grapes from the 60s.

  26. My thoughts exactly! I love it if the women creating it get joy and love doing it, but when it is one more huge task on their already tired shoulders… then no. Just say no! 🙂

  27. I am such a minimalist, but I adore the women around me (and my husband!) who have such visual gifts. I'm so grateful that they have the ability to make things lovely and special. I recognize the time it takes them, and I respect them for the sacrifice it took.

    On the other hand, I get totally overwhelmed at the thought of planning a big elaborate party. TOTALLY. I would have put my head under my pillow and cried if I had been responsible for the decorations at the stake meeting you described.

    My feeling is if someone has a gift for making things beautiful and wants to do it because it's her way of serving her fellow sisters, that's great. If someone like me gets guilted into trying to match that, that is another thing. It's nice that we all have gifts to give to the Savior. Martha gave the gift of love to the Savior by cooking and preparing and Mary gave the gift of love to the Savior by sitting by his feet and learning from him. He is glad for whatever gifts we give him (and each other) when we give them without judgment and with love.

  28. I'm currently the activities counselor and let me tell you, I am minimalist. I will help my board with whatever they feel is needed for ambience and making the night special, but if they want it then they own that project. I enjoy tablecloths and obsess over making sure the food table is set up to allow as much flow as possible and looks pleasant. Other than that, my board can do whatever as long as it's spiritually uplifting and within budget. Go team!

  29. Slowly I have become a minimalist because the doctrine and the spirit in the meetings are what matter. Serving in Africa, I try to put a little "pizazz" into presentations sometimes, but they won't be able to do it, so instead I try to show them creativity they can create, which is probably just a wordstrip. But the learning goes in very meaningful ways and I can spend time on things that are more important. Still a hard lesson to learn, because I love "presentation".

  30. I'm in the YW presidency and our last president threw fabulous parties, complete with themes and decorations that would blow everyone away. She and a friend enjoyed it, and they did it very well. Unfortunately for us, however, because YW did this last year, and for the last four years, it's now a YW activity (think Christmas party, any activity that may require decoration) and we fell really short of the expectation. We are just now, after almost a year, getting the ward to realize it wasn't the YW, it was ONE person, and we are decoration and cute deficient. I would love to have a little more ambience, finding middle ground between what the last presidency did and what we are capable of doing.
    I do agree with Emily M. Hand me a manual, give me a class and I'm good. Hand me a baby to wander the halls so you can teach or go to your meeting, because I've been fortunate to be able to go to mine for so long, and I'm fine. Ask me to put together a cute craft for the YW? I'm sunk.

  31. This is something that I have had to ask myself in different callings and different circumstances. I have gone big and I have been minimal and everywhere in-between.

    There was a time I was in a calling where all things considered "froofroo" were taken out of what we were doing. I was speaking to a friend, who also happened to be one of the leaders. She expressed that it was such a relief to not have that pressure and to just be "rid of all that". I then explained to her that, although that may be how she was feeling, for me it was very, very difficult, as I could not give my offering as per my gifts that I had been given. I then asked her how difficult it would be if she were asked to serve in her calling if she were told that she could not, under any circumstance, use music to fulfill that calling. She was taken aback and said "Well, that would never happen". I replied, "You're right, but for those of us who's offering does not come in the form of music or art or written word, it becomes very hard to fulfill, to the best of our abilities, when our abilities are frowned upon". Her reply was, "I have never thought of it that way."

    We all give our offerings in various ways. What may seem frivilous or silly to one, may be completely comfortable and perfectly natural to another. Of course things get over done and taken to the enth degree. But that can be said for any form of offering. But when comments are made about the frivilousness and wasted time, just think of how much time is spent on musical numbers or articles written and remember that not everyone is able to express and offer in that way. We can find good and appreciate offerings of all kinds, if we let ourselves.

  32. I am not over the top but I am not a minimalist either. I enjoy the planning and the chance to be creative (also a President Uchtdorf talk) every once in a while. I am a CPA with five kids. For a Sunday lesson, I probably wouldn't even think to bring a table cloth or a table decoration but sometimes planning New Beginnings or a kids'birthday with cute coordinating decorations is the only chance I get to do something creative.

  33. Love this discussion. There is a tension and I think the Spirit can guide. I like the notion of respecting others' gifts for creation (And what it can feel like to be on the receiving end of such gifts) but I also think there is wisdom in not creating undue pressure for people who come after in a calling, of not creating more work as a rule within the Church culture. And definitely of not comparing or criticizing when someone else's gifts or approaches may be different from ours.

    I even see a difference in how people interpret effort that goes into things…different languages of love as it were. I, for example, am the type who doesn't mind one bit to drink out of plastic or Styrofoam cups. So while I would be grateful for an effort like Ardis's, I wouldn't interpret not doing such a thing as feeling not important or not valued or not worth someone's time. I see it pretty practically. "Oh, they are keeping it simple for all involved. Cool."

    Anyway, great discussion. Thanks.

  34. p.s. I've been looking for this quote for a long time and finally stumbled on it last nite, so I thought I'd share because I think it is relevant to the discussion.

    "We human beings have a strange tendency to complicate simple things. We set up rules, laws, bylaws, processes, and subprocesses. Eventually, we pile up load after load until we end up under a huge weight of expectations that are so complicated it is difficult to keep track of them, let alone meet them.

    "This is one of the reasons Paul said, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

    "Too often, we complicate the beauty and simplicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ with endless lists of meticulous expectations. However, when we focus on the “why” of the gospel, much of the confusion fades away. Why are we here? Why are we asked to obey the commandments? Why is the Atonement of Jesus Christ of such value to us?

    "The proper “why” questions will lead us to the proper “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “how” decisions."

    Doing nice things shouldn't always be equated with complicating things, but I do like the notion of asking the 'why' of what we do in the Church and can invite us to look inward as to why we choose to do things as we do. I think it's one of those 'God looketh on the heart' kinds of things.

  35. I am minimalist all the way. When we used to present training as the SYW presidency, we did have flowers and tablecloths and a nice spread of food. One time we did little gold boxes with "treasures" inside of them — magnets with the points we presented. But we honestly never felt like we were going to great lengths for anything other than camps and conferences — the things we actually prepared for the youth themselves.

    If any bishop is ever so unfortunate that he calls me as RS president, it will be up to a counselor to worry about the decor in the room. I will be all about the content of the lessons, which wouldn't even be my purview!


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