Large Ships and Small Helms: Reflections on Leadership and Discipleship in Turbulent Times

The longer I live, the more strongly I believe that a loving Father in Heaven gives us intentionally difficult and sensitive social questions (race, sexuality, wealth/poverty, immigration/emigration, to name a few) not just because he wants us to seek diligently and find truth about our humanity and divinity, but more importantly—and I believe this is the real test—because he wants to see how we will treat each other along way of coming to understand truth. He showed us how to take the two great commandments and apply them in daily practice, the very essence of gospel living: “As I have loved you, love one another.” (John 13:34)

Welcome to this century’s version of the “Roaring Twenties.” As Queen Esther of old, you and I have been prepared “for such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14) The title of these reflections is taken from the maritime principle that “a very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm, by being kept workways with the wind and the waves.” (D&C 123:16)

Consider our position for just a moment. We have information like no previous generation has ever known. We have wealth like no previous generation has ever had. And we are connected like no previous generation has ever been connected.

As unique as all of this is to our generation, we face the same timeless tests that so many generations before us have faced. These timeless tests apply to every generation. The names of the tests are the same that they have always been, even though the specific questions and circumstances feel a little different—tailored, no doubt, to our generation.

What are the names of these timeless tests? “Sacrifice or Selfishness,” “Serve Your Neighbor or Serve Yourself,” “Remember or Forget,” “God of Israel or the Golden Calf,” and so forth.

Talking Religion and Politics in Mixed Company

It’s hard to talk about things that really matter these days. There is such a heightened sensitivity to political and religious topics that, at least when we are mixed company, we tend to just smile and speak in whitewashed generalities, then retreat to our private echo chambers where we feel we can really discuss the “things of our souls.” (2 Nephi 4:15)

But that’s not what ancient prophets and disciples did. Sure, they wrote the “things of their souls” privately in journals “for the learning and the profit of their children,” and they taught in their homes “that their children might know to what source they may look…” (1 Nephi 25:26) But they also taught from towers, and walls, and hilltops, and in the courts of priests and kings.

We have far more in common than we have differences. But we are still “mixed company” with respect to some of the things of our soul. That has always been true. That is just human nature. It’s human conscience, and conscience is, as James Madison once wrote, “the most sacred of all property.” There’s beauty in our unity, and also beauty in our diversity.

But the old adage that we “don’t talk religion or politics in mixed company” needs some updating for the 21st Century. For starters, we’re so connected that to not talk about the things of our soul when we are together seems a little disingenuous. Given that we already have a sense for what others are thinking and feeling based upon their social media presence, to avoid discussing the things of our soul can sometimes feel superficial and even dismissive.

Maybe even more importantly, especially as it relates to the rising generation, if we don’t share our vision privately and publicly, our values—and with them our people—could perish. And so the real question isn’t “should we talk about religion and politics in mixed company?” Rather, it is “how should we talk about religion and politics in mixed company?”

So, with that admittedly long introduction, I would like to share with you some things of my soul that may touch upon religion and politics in a way that I hope will strengthen our discipleship for the difficult and sensitive work that we have ahead.

I will begin by painting a dark picture and conclude with a bright one, because the pattern of light shining in the darkness, as it did in the Sacred Grove, is as sure and as predictable as each morning sunrise follows every dark night.

The Dark Picture

First, the dark picture. The secularization of America. The rise of the “Nones” (the religiously unaffiliated) who range from atheist, to agnostic, to disaffected, disillusioned, or just distracted believers. A head-spinning, media-saturated (and especially social media saturated) environment. An unprecedented wealth gap that continues to widen, combined with increasing reliance by the poor and middle classes upon social welfare programs.

Headlines proclaiming the death of American exceptionalism and the inaccessibility of the American dream. A generation who grew up increasingly afraid of children who kill children in schools (229 school shootings since Columbine), and for whom teen suicide is all too common. That same generation, traumatized with displaced anxiety and anger, has begun openly carrying their own weapons—including weapons of words—some for self-defense and others for troubled offense, including, as we saw last week at our Nation’s Capitol.

The tragic ironies of that day are almost too many to count, among them a crowd who so vocally defended police in civil unrest only a few months ago now turning upon those same peace-keepers; and self-proclaimed, constitution-loving enthusiasts illegally breaking and entering the Capitol with the intention of intimidating their own democratically elected representatives.

Washington DC is a long way away, but the growing resistance to civil government and organized faith—a double-barreled “rise of the Nones”—can be seen and felt right here in Utah and even right here in Northern Utah County. Distrust in and disrespect for the rule of law is on display in our cities large and small. Too many of our youth become inactive after they graduate from high school and home, a trend that predates the pandemic and that is not unique to the Latter-day Saint faith.1 Since the pandemic began, seminary attendance and mission applications in some Northern Utah County school districts and stakes have declined significantly.

To be fair, the vast majority of those in our Utah communities are not guilty of participating in or supporting the kind of mob-fueled violence we saw playing out on camera in Washington DC. But they also aren’t immune to it. None of us are, especially if we aren’t being daily nourished by the Vine of Christ and his life-giving teachings (John 15:5), or learning carefully enough about the system of ordered liberty that our constitutional republic requires and protects.

And so the cracks in the foundation begin if we are not watchful. Small divisions with God and neighbor are permitted for seemingly rational reasons, and we and our children are “lulled away” until we become “stirred up to anger against that which is good.” (2 Nephi 28:20, 21)

We could spend hours talking about underlying causes for these demographic shifts. Some are tectonic and have been shifting for years. Others appear more recent and could be related to the pandemic, which may be the legitimate culprit for some of these problems, but it may also be the excuse for some of them.

The Pattern of Small and Simple Things

Pandemics, we have learned, are magnifiers. Like technology, they magnify impulses both good and evil, and they come about as a result of “small and simple things” that are magnified over time.

There are patterns to these small and simple things that we can identify if we have the “heart and willing mind” to do so. (D&C 64:33–34) Listen to Kim Clark, former Dean of the Harvard Business School, speaking to the rising generation on this very topic when he was serving as President of BYU Idaho in 2006:

In the scriptures there are two patterns of the principle that small things lead to great things. In the first pattern, the Lord’s work gets done in small miracles and simple acts of kindness, service, and obedience sustained over long periods of time. Alma taught this pattern and the principle to his son Helaman in the 37th chapter of Alma. Speaking of the brass plates, Alma said:

. . . behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.

And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes . . . (Alma 37:6-7).

This principle is at work all around us. We grow personally and the kingdom grows through small things sustained. There are many examples: an act of kindness, an invitation to church, a word of testimony, a family prayer, an inspired verse. Sustained over time, these become a source of great power and influence for righteousness and good.

It is also true, however, that this principle works in the other direction as well. Small acts of disobedience or meanness, sustained over time, lead to great evil and destruction. This we also know. Listen to Nephi’s description of Satan and his evil designs:

. . . and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

. . . until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance (2 Nephi 28:21-22).

The chains of hell do not come clanking down around us in one fell swoop. They come softly, quietly, in lulling whispers, and deadening flattery, a little wickedness at a time. But if sustained, small, wicked things lead to great evil.

There is a second pattern of small things leading to great things, less talked about, perhaps less well understood. And yet it, too, is in operation all around us. In this second pattern small things lead to great things quite suddenly, even dramatically.

The first diagram simulates the number of people who would die from a deadly, infectious disease in a population. The disease grows very slowly, but persistently. Then, when the number of infected people gets to a critical point, the number who die increases dramatically and we have a full-fledged epidemic.

The second diagram depicts the number of deaths in Kansas in October of 1918 during the worldwide flu epidemic. Here, in an actual epidemic, we see the same pattern—slow development when the disease first hits and then a dramatic increase once the disease gets to a critical point.

This dramatic effect on the population depicted here comes about because of small things—a little virus; a few people who transmit it; the few contact others, and they in turn contact a few more until many have been infected. It is also small things that can stop the disease: reduce the number of contacts people have; isolate those we know are infected; wash hands; don’t gather in large meetings in closed places, and so forth.

The epidemic pattern—small things producing large, dramatic effects—shows up in many other contexts. It is what lies behind fashion and fads in music and entertainment, dress and grooming, and other aspects of social behavior. I first ran into this personally in the mid-1950s in the form of the Hula Hoop. It seemed like almost overnight otherwise mature and sane people were buying plastic hoops and gyrating everywhere. Today, you can find this pattern all around you, if you look. Why, for example, would anyone who is not a catcher on a baseball team wear a baseball cap backwards? It probably started in some obscure place by someone now long forgotten. But that social behavior has swept across society, affecting millions of people.

This pattern of dramatic change produced by small things is a pattern we see over and over again in the Book of Mormon. Look at Alma chapter 4 verses 6–12. Here we find a description of a people descending into wickedness. It begins with small things, like the wearing of expensive clothes, and pride in “. . . all manner of precious things . . .” (verse 6), and gossip, and unkind words. Look at verse 8, “. . . the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another . . .” (President Clark’s emphasis added).2

Do we see these patterns in our own private and public lives? Do we see them in our homes, communities, and nation?

The Bright Picture

Enough of the dark picture. Let’s look at the bright picture and three recommendations about some steps that I feel we each could consider taking.

The Lord is revealing his arm through this turbulence every bit as much as he did when he led his people across every “great deep” in the history of mankind. (Ether 6:5–10) He is in the wind and the waves that blow us toward the Promised Land. (Ether 6:8) He is reaching his hand through the veil and touching the stones that will give us light. (Ether 3:6)

Virtually all of the ills that I described in the “bleak picture” above are like ash for the seedlings of spring. A virus has reminded a world that was already on a path of increasing physical isolation how much we love and need to be physically present with each other. The dramatic increase in wealth has produced philanthropy a kind the world has never seen. Technology has not only given us a vaccine to a deadly plague in a breathtaking matter of months, but it has also given us the ability to continue learning, working, and living comfortably, even amidst sweeping lockdowns. Technology has also accelerated and hastened missionary work around the world in some extraordinary ways, even in quarantine, and it has given us the ability to connect almost effortlessly with our ancestors.

And the windows of heaven are opening on other things that have been in the shadows, too. In December 2020 a major revision and update to the Church’s general handbook was released.

The Church’s new policy on prejudice (see 38.6.14) reflects recent teachings from President Russell M. Nelson and President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency about honoring the dignity and divinity of every soul.

“All people are children of God. All are brothers and sisters who are part of His divine family,” the handbook states. “Prejudice is not consistent with the revealed word of God. Favor or disfavor with God depends on devotion to Him and His commandments, not on the color of a person’s skin or other attributes. The Church calls on all people to abandon attitudes and actions of prejudice toward any group or individual.”

The Church’s new approach to councils reduces the number of previously all-male councils held at the stake level and increases the councils that include women. Examples include the now- monthly Stake Council meeting and the new Stake Adult Leadership Committee, which replaces the previous Melchizedek Priesthood Committee and includes the Stake Relief Society Presidency. “These recent changes in the handbook emphasize the importance of men and women serving in the Church together to accomplish this important work of salvation,” (Elder Vern P. Stanfill).

When Elder Holland came to speak to the youth in our region a few years ago, he said (and I’m relying on my notes here, not a transcript) that President Nelson is “opening all the windows in the house” and letting light stream in on places and people who have been in the shadows. He also said that we are “taking everything out of the freezer” and discarding some items that may have seemed good once upon a time but now have a little freezer burn and need to be discarded. He then promised us that the Lord is hastening His work and that we better “put our seatbelts on.”

Now Is a Time of Decision

So, here we are, with our seatbelts on, hurdling along in this hastened, more transparent, more exhilarating work. To return to the maritime metaphor again, we’re all in the same storm, but people are increasingly in different boats. Some are securing themselves in the “Good Ship Zion” and busily steadying her masts for the Promised Land. Others, anxious about the turbulence of the storm, are jumping ship in attempt to reach something they feel is safer.

The voyage is already underway. Our fathers and mothers carefully chose the vessel that they felt would carry us safely to the right destination. But we also have choice and agency, just as our forefathers did. We can decide for ourselves, and our choices will have consequences for our posterity.

Even if ship maintenance is necessary amidst the storm, let’s be careful not to puncture the hull of the ship that is currently carrying us. And if you want to change vessels (especially if you’re planning on jumping ship mid-voyage) you may want to verify that the vessel you’re jumping for is more seaworthy and better guided than the one currently carrying you. It’s just really hard to tell in a storm, and ships passing in a storm rarely see each other again. Now is a time of unavoidable decision and consequence. While you’re trying to decide, sitting on a deck chair scrolling your phone likely won’t help. Standing flatfooted doesn’t work, either. We either lean into the wind and the waves, or they will knock us over.

Is democracy the right ship? Churchill answered it this way: “If I had to sum up the immediate future of democratic politics in a single word I should say ‘insurance.’ That is the future— insurance against dangers from abroad, insurance against dangers scarcely less grave and much more near and constant which threaten us here at home in our own island.”3 And then 40 years later after much more experience, he said it again in this way: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time… .”4

Is the restored Gospel the right ship? Elder Callister answered it this way: “I can live with some human imperfections, even among prophets of God—that is to be expected in mortal beings. I can live with some alleged scientific findings contrary to the Book of Mormon; time will correct those. And I can live with some seeming historical anomalies; they are minor in the total landscape of truth. But I cannot live without the doctrinal truths and ordinances restored by Joseph Smith, I cannot live without the priesthood of God to bless my family, and I cannot live without knowing my wife and children are sealed to me for eternity. That is the choice we face—a few unanswered questions on one hand versus a host of doctrinal certainties and the power of God on the other.”5

What form of civil government do we seek if not the inspired, American form that protects so beautifully our “first freedoms” (religious liberty, freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition)? What form of faith do we seek if not the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed through His ancient and living prophets?

What Can We Do?

What, then, is required of us now if we hope to secure ourselves for this next stretch of the voyage, which will surely be filled not only with great wind and waves, but also stunning natural beauty, stars, and sunsets?

The answer is contained in D&C 64:33–34:

“Wherefore, be not weary in well doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great. Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind; and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days.”

So, the Lord requires our heart and our willing mind. But how does he require our heart and willing mind? Consider these three ways:

1. The Lord requires the heart. We must cleanse the inner vessel for the work that lies ahead.

Unimpeachable integrity is like the armor that protects the soul in times of danger. No personal commitment (and especially no commandment) is too small that it can be skirted, ignored, or broken. No matter how seemingly justifiable at first, the small indiscretion will inevitably become the strategic opening for the “fiery darts of the adversary.” Fix it. Heal it. Strengthen against it. This hard work of cleansing our own inner vessel unleashes the enabling power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ that fortifies our hearts and minds to accomplish His work.

Our world, our nation, our communities, and our personal relationships can become filled with misunderstanding. Real listening is an antidote to misunderstanding. Real listening only happens when the light of Christ is present, which “quickens our understanding” (D&C 88:11) and “enlarges the soul without hypocrisy and without guile.” (D&C 121:42). So, the specific kind of “clean inner vessel” that is required is a broken heart and a contrite spirit (3 Nephi 9:20, Ether 4:15, Moroni 6:2, D&C 21:9, D&C 59:8, Psalm 34:18). It starts with humble, personal reflection about areas where we can repent and do better in our personal lives before we take it upon ourselves to correct others.

It also requires apologizing. Sincerely apologizing to those whom we may have offended, and actively mending strained relationships, are essential Atonement practices in our lives. They make the vessel more seaworthy. Apologies can be made without placing blame on me or you. But the kind of apologies that spawn virtuous cycles are very personal ones. In the words of Professor Randy Pausch given in his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University before he passed away of Pancreatic Cancer in the young, prime of his career: “Great apologies have three parts: ‘I am sorry. It was my fault. What can I do to make it better?’” That third part, said Pausch, is so often missing in good apologies, and is a kind of litmus test for a truly sincere apology.

When we refuse to acknowledge that we have wronged someone, and especially when we speak and act as if we are not capable of doing wrong, then the people who feel wronged in our lives go on a mission to prove just how wrong we actually are.

How soon would better apologies—private and public—restore our relationships, communities, and nation to a place of unity and charity?

2. The Lord requires a willing mind. We must seek and share truth more humbly, courageously, and diligently than ever before, “by study and also by faith.”

Get educated. Know the story. Know your religion. Know your neighbor’s religion. Understand the battle lines and the friction points. Understand the other perspectives and contours of the conflict. This is not easy work, and it takes real, devoted, study. “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)

Education is not just an academic exercise that we finished when we received a high school or college diploma. Nor is it something we do only when we have a little spare time. It’s not enough to show up at church, Sunday school, and seminary anymore, important as those practices are. Diligent seeking “by study and also by faith” could mean the difference between keeping our families and losing them, quite literally, in a battle for mind-space that is drawing away at least one in three American young adults from organized religion, including from the Latter-day Saint faith, each year.

And it is not enough to seek and gain truth for ourselves. We must share it. We must speak up. “All that is required for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke). At some unknown point in the not-too-distant past, the moral majority of previous decades became a silent majority, content to focus on the peaceful life of scripture and local congregations. More and more Christians opted out of public life.

As one Christian lawyer and author put it: “They were disgusted with the raucousness, crudity, and often emotionally and spiritually upsetting struggles for worldly influence. In truth, they feared the combat and the casualties. And many of them feared falling in love with the glories and triumphs of the world, and losing touch with Christ as a result.”6

Understandably, it is easier to choose the quiet and peaceful life of keeping our religious convictions private, but it is not necessarily better. If we do not speak up for our convictions in public, others will undoubtedly do it for us, and they will often characterize our convictions as unenlightened and not worthy of voicing. Ultimately, we may find ourselves in a world we have only read about in history books or seen on TV—where we are permitted to think our conscience—so long as we do not practice it.

Which brings us to the third and most important thing that I believe the Lord requires:

3. “As I have loved you, love one another.”

The longer I live, the more strongly I believe that a loving Father in Heaven gives us intentionally difficult and sensitive social questions (race, sexuality, wealth/poverty, immigration/emigration, to name a few) not just because he wants us to seek diligently and find truth about our humanity and divinity, but more importantly—and I believe this is the real test—because he wants to see how we will treat each other along way of coming to understand truth. He showed us how to take the two great commandments and apply them in daily practice, the very essence of gospel living: “As I have loved you, love one another.” (John 13:34)

I’m not trying to say here that it doesn’t really matter what we conclude about complicated issues “so long as we are nice to each other.” No. Truth exists. It is very important that we seek it diligently our entire lives long. God is not indifferent about truth. As Lincoln so eloquently penned in his Meditation on Divine Will, “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.”

I’m simply trying to say that some truths matter more than others, and when we come to the end of our lives, if we have not learned (and taught our children) how to really love and serve a neighbor who seems so very different from us—different political view, skin color, sexual orientation, or who may even seem like an “enemy”—then, in the end, it may not matter how “right” we were about whatever issue it was that we so nobly and passionately disagreed with our neighbor about. We will have failed the most important test of loving and serving them along the way.

Not long after arriving in Russia as a young missionary I became frustrated with my companion. I’m not sure why. I guess I had a bad case of seasonal onset grumpiness. It was cold. It was dark. He was Russian. I was American. It not only seemed that we were speaking different languages, we were actually speaking different languages. I wanted to stick him in a snow drift and walk away. I decided to go into the bathroom and “work it off” by doing some vigorous cleaning. I seemed to be in a vicious cycle of becoming frustrated by everything.

As I knelt down to the clean the toilet, I was even complaining under my breath about why Russians couldn’t design a proper toilet. Then, as I was there on my knees, I saw in mind’s eye my sweet mother. I remembered so many times that she had done this very thing, on her knees cleaning a toilet, or showing us how to do it, for so many years. I wept. My heart was overwhelmed with gratitude for my angel mother and for the charity that she so patiently displayed to me. I knew in that holy instant that I must repent and serve my companion as my mother had served me. So, I did the next best thing I could think of that my mother so often had done for me: I made him lunch. It was a grilled cheese sandwich, and it was the start of a beautiful relationship.

Christ expects us to give him everything we can – little as that may be at first – and He will bring our heart to that sweet place called Charity. He knows we have limited bandwidth. He doesn’t expect us to serve everyone all at once. Some relationships are “first relationships” and must be strengthened before others. God first. Spouse and children a close second. With the limited time that we all have, we can make a greater impact on all relationships by nurturing first relationships.

Have a Little Fun on Every Voyage…

And lastly, be cheerful! “Cheer” is quite possibly the very name of the “small helm” that keeps our ship “workways with the wind and the waves in the time of a storm.” I once asked a seasoned bishop what advice he had for me about serving in a leadership position. We were sitting on lawn chairs at a youth camp. We had plenty of time and I expected some kind of lengthy, sage wisdom. All he said was “Well… nobody likes a grumpy bishop.”

At the time, this bit of wisdom seemed a little shallow; but it has proved to be some of the best advice anyone has ever given me. Cheer serves well in so many different situations in life. We need to decide sooner rather than later whether we are going to be a Tigger or an Eeyore.7 Nobody wants to work with a grumpy or defensive family member, coworker, teacher, or leader. And if I’m feeling too defensive to love and serve my neighbor well, it’s a tell-tale sign that something is wrong in my own heart—that the light of Christ may be waning a little—and it’s probably something I can fix. “Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of the God, and for his arm to be revealed.” (D&C 123:17)

A story is only as good as its ending. The good news about the human story is that for all its painful and devastating clamor, it is a happy story. Not only does it have a happy ending, but it has lots of happy chapters throughout. Thanks to Christ, we know the end of this story from the beginning: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)


1 Pew Research Center, 2015; rapidly-growing-religious-nones/

2 President Kim B. Clark, “Out of Small and Simple Things Proceedeth That Which is Great” Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional, January 10, 2006,

3 Winston Churchill, Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 23 May 1909.

4 Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 11 November 1947.

5 Tad R. Callister, Sunday School general president, “What Is the Blueprint of Christ’s Church?” (CES devotional, Jan. 12, 2014),

6 Hewitt, Hugh In But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition and the Desire to Influence the World, 2012, p. 27

7 Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture