Back to Primary

When we moved to Jonesboro, I found myself called into the elder’s quorum presidency, which is the first time I’ve ever served in any kind of executive capacity in the church. (Being a district leader in the mission doesn’t count.) I served with two elder’s quorum presidents, and found myself seeing church service, and the economics and politics of running a ward, from what was for me an entirely new and somewhat fascinating angle. But all experiences must come to an end, and when our elder’s quorum president was called into the just-reconstituted bishopric, I was released. After floating free for about a month, I was returned to what is, surely, my natural habitat.


Since getting married and escaping the perpetual near-farce which is the essence of practically all single-adult/student wards, Melissa and I have routinely been labeled Primary people, and we’re happy for it. Over the last eleven years, I’ve served in the nursery and taught the Sunbeams, the eight-year-olds and the ten-year-olds; Melissa has played the piano for Primary, been in a Primary presidency, and taught the Sunbeams, as well as served in the nursery. Right now, she’s the Primary music conductor, and I’m taking over the eleven-year-olds. Between the two of us, less than four of our combined twenty-two years of church service as a married couple have been outside the Primary.

Why the Primary? Well, I can’t account for Melissa; it just may be that her particular style tends to attract the interest of other Primary people before it does that of the (in our experience usually somewhat more cliqueish) Relief Society or (especially) Young Women, and so they grab her first. As for me, it’s not hard to figure out. For starters, I’m a male who is good with children; I interact with them well, don’t lose my cool with screaming kids, volunteer for Primary activities and nursery duty during conferences. That leaves me a marked man. Moreover, while few people will admit it openly, it isn’t difficult to discern a subtle (and, I should note, not necessarily unreasonable) prejudice at work in how priesthood and Sunday School assignments are handed out in the typical ward (though obviously, there are exceptions). In order to successfully teach Gospel Doctrine, or take on executive responsibilities in one or another quorum, it is generally assumed that a certain level of education, professional attainment and church experience are required. If you randomly picked two perfectly active and orthodox males in the average American ward, and one of them turned out to be a doctor, businessman or banker, and wore clothes and carried themselves as one would expect such a person to do, and the other turned out to be, say, a janitor, garbage-collector, or volunteer clown at the nursing home, and dressed and acted as you might expect such a person to do, well, frankly, I could lay pretty good odds as to which one of them might be a high priest group leader and which one might be Scoutmaster, and so could you. As I commented parenthetically above, to the extent that this prejudice exists, it’s not necessarily an unreasonable one. By and large, we assume that certain callings are more “important”–or at least “high profile”–than others, and putting someone who has just a slightly greater chance of turning out to be a flake in such callings is something every bishop wants to avoid. Again, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule: I’m an inconsistent tie-wearer with a mediocre home-teaching record who teaches philosophy in a mostly blue-collar ward and who makes, when called upon, some occasionally irresponsible statements in elder’s quorum meeting; it’s probably a miracle that I was in the presidency as long as I was. But now I’m back in Primary, where everyone assumes I’m a good fit anyway.

And they’re right–I am. I like Primary, but not just because I like singing and playing games and kids. I like it also because I really believe it’s worth doing. As I’ve mentioned before, as vital as congregational association is, I’m not especially certain that any particular set of meetings, aside from the worship service when we take the sacrament, actually matters. But if any meetings do matter, then clearly, Primary is included on that (probably rather short) list. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come realize that my father was/is right about just about everything important (of course, I’ve also come to realize that there are relatively few things that are important), and one of the lessons he taught me had to do with Primary. He’s been a Bishop and served in a stake presidency, and he once told me he couldn’t understand why there seemed to be this presumption, or even competition, to get the best, most responsible, most orthodox, most accomplished, most experienced people called to teach or serve their fellow adults. “When you get right down to it, generally most of us don’t need those people,” was his comment (I’m paraphrasing him). “If your Relief Society instructors are all obsessive, irresponsible, uninformed, crazy women, well, most of the sisters in Relief Society will still do just fine anyway. And if not, it’s hard to say that having the prophet’s sister-in-law be their Compassionate Service instructor would make any difference. But the children, on the other hand, really need the best people. Convince them that church is worth taking seriously, and they’ll remember it when they get older and temptation and trials come. But allow them to believe that church consists of listening to a bunch of unprepared, weak-testimony people who can’t answer their questions, and they’ll never take it seriously.”

Yeah! Take that, Mr. Ward Mission Leader! I’m off to teach the Valiants.

33 comments for “Back to Primary

  1. Randy
    September 7, 2004 at 12:09 pm

    I could not agree with you more, Russell. I’m green with envy.

  2. Bryce I
    September 7, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    Nice post, Russell.

    Here are my random observations on the subject of Primary:

    I hang out in the Primary whenever I can. For a while I had the sweetest gig in the church: uncalled permanent substitute Primary pianist. None of the responsibility; all of the fun.

    I have also spent my fair share of time in the nursery with recalcitrant children (my son finally made it all the way through after 2 months — my oldest daughter took 6 months). I remarked to my wife last week that I’ve been around the Primary enough to feel completely comfortable in my abilities to entertain and instruct at the same time.

    In my opinion, the bulk of sharing/singing time should be spent singing, especially with the junior Primary. Music can be a powerful teacher.

    One of my bishops when I was a youngster was offered the opportunity to pick his calling upon his release. He chose to be the CTR teacher.

  3. September 7, 2004 at 1:03 pm

    Bryce, I agree with you, at least in ideal situations. Music is the most important element in Primary, and when you have good music people in place–people with enthusiasm and a sense of humor, as well as some talent–the kids can have a tremendous time. Unfortunately, as I alluded to in my post, frequently wards operate under the assumption that the “best” musical talents in the ward are needed in, oh, sacrament meeting or Relief Society or the ward choir, while the musical needs of the Primary can be served by a bunch of folks who are just winging it. Man, I hate that attitude. How often have I seen the Primary presidency or various Primary teachers just sitting there, staring into space or chatting away, during singing time because, well, after all, it’s just “Primary music” right? Just kid stuff? Makes me want to pick up an undersized chair and smash something. It’s “Give Said the Little Stream”! It’s a great song! So sing it! You can’t expect the kids to do so if you don’t.

    And don’t get me started on Primary programs.

  4. Kristine
    September 7, 2004 at 1:52 pm

    So, Russell, what do you think about Primary programs?

  5. cje
    September 7, 2004 at 1:54 pm

    go on….get started

    I beg you


  6. Kingsley
    September 7, 2004 at 2:01 pm

    Russell, 50 bucks for a photo of you smashing vapid Primary teachers right and left with an undersized chair. 50 more bucks if any of the teachers are stout, comfortable, elderly sisters in moo moos and silvergrey wigs. 50 more bucks if a wig comes off.

  7. September 7, 2004 at 2:04 pm

    I taught primary (the eight year olds) for about a year while living abroad and had to laugh, because one of the boys I taught reminded me of myself back when I was in primary. He was always chattering, couldn’t sit still and knew too much (both his parents were religious instructors, I think at BYU). I sometimes was frustrated but also caught myself thinking that it would be great if all the little boys knew the scriptures stories as well as he did.

    It was also obvious that the girls at that age (and perhaps any age?) are much more mature than the boys. The girls in the class were great at raising their hands, listening, sitting still … it was the boys that couldn’t stop squirming. But maybe one shouldn’t have to go to Primary to learn that lesson.

  8. Nathan Tolman
    September 7, 2004 at 2:06 pm

    On looks in the Church:

    Have anyone noticed Clerks are most often dopey looking guys with a belly (like myself)?

  9. September 7, 2004 at 2:06 pm

    Kingsley, you need to offer him more than that. He’ll need it to make bail. But I have to admit I love the imagery you’re all giving us here. When I saw Russell’s comment about picking up a chair and smashing things, I should have known that would be perfectly bait for you to riff about. Nice work! :)

  10. September 7, 2004 at 2:08 pm

    Ward Clerk is one job that really does seem to require some particular professional ability or background. Unless you’ve worked in finance or business or are known for your math skills, there’s no way you’re going to get that calling. Anyone seen otherwise?

  11. Nathan Tolman
    September 7, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    I am a cleark and I lack all of those skills. I am getting a PhD in History for goodness sake.

  12. September 7, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    Russell, That was great. Your Primary children are fortunate to have you. I have never been called to serve in Primary, and I take this as strong evidence of inspiration in the Church. I love the idea of teaching children, but the reality of it frustrates me.

  13. cje
    September 7, 2004 at 2:20 pm

    Ward Clerk is by far the best job in the church–you get to be in on all the ward politics (most of it)but have no responsibility for any of it-all you have to do is make sure all the records are up to date and if you have good assistants even that is no brainer.

    Knowing how the rediclously programmed MLS software works is kinda tricky–until you start thinking like a ward clerk from bountiful 4th ward.

    I have no background in finance or business and no real math skills–I work in advertising (TV).


  14. Kristine
    September 7, 2004 at 2:21 pm

    I’m also a spectacularly bad Primary teacher, though I’ve gotten a little better since I had kids.

    One summer when I was home from college, I was asked to teach the 7-year-olds. For the obligatory July 4th weekend lesson on how great America is, I thought I would try to convey to the children some of the things I most appreciate about our country. Of course, some of these things are best understood with some comparative background, so I tried to offer, in what I imagined to be 7-year-old terms, a brief history of political philosophy. The kids looked a little bored, but I persevered until about Machiavelli before one of them raised his hand to ask what in the world I was talking about. It just went downhill from there :)

  15. Bryce I
    September 7, 2004 at 2:25 pm

    Speaking of “Give Said the Little Stream” and smashing things:

    One of my college roommates (and occassional visitor to this board) has a hilarious rendition of this song recorded on his mission, in which the tune is replaced by “Stairway to Heaven”.

  16. September 7, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    Is the ward clerk the one who handles tithing? Maybe I’ve got these callings mixed up.

  17. Nathan Tolman
    September 7, 2004 at 2:30 pm

    Perhaps I should clarify that I am a Statistical clerk. Quite truthfully I feel like a cog in the machine when I do my calling. At least it was better than my running calling in the BYU wards I was in: Sunday School secretary (I was called to be one in three separate wards). I had to make up things to do in those callings because by rolls were never checked. On some level I envy Russel, at least he does something and helps people, even if it is frustrating at times, but I know I probably could not work as well with kids as he seems to do.

  18. Nathan Tolman
    September 7, 2004 at 2:31 pm

    Tithing goes to financial clerk after you give it to the Bishop.

  19. Bryce I
    September 7, 2004 at 2:38 pm

    All the membership clerks I know are tall, skinny guys. Still dopey looking, though :)

  20. September 7, 2004 at 2:50 pm

    cje–My father-in-law has been stake clerk for I don’t know how many years, and he’d be in complete agreement with you. He loves his calling, in that he knows every single thing going on in the stake, and isn’t accountable for any of it. He’s perfected the little knowing wink he gives everyone who pesters him with “Will the ward be split?”-type questions.

    Kristine–Yeah, Machiavelli would be a bit much. (Though I have entertained jr. high school-aged kids with lurid descriptions of Rousseau’s certain more, er, colorful habits.) Still, you never know. When I taught the ten-year-olds before, I had them all over to our apartment once for hot dogs and games, and one kid got into my cd collection. So we started discussing music. What did he decide to put on the cd player? The Beatles’ The White Album.

    Kingsley–I’d probably just hurl the chair through the window. Can I get ten bucks for that?

    As for Primary programs: for one thing, too often the songs just get rehearsed to death. I mean, the kids are only going to get so good at a song before it stops being fun, so why try to beat it into them. Running through the Primary program once, maybe twice tops, and let that be the end of it. Also, much too much standing up and sitting down. I suppose people are worried that kids will get bored and will start wandering around if they aren’t constantly engaged, but I think more complex programs (and I’ve seen some that run twelve-plus pages, with every line scripted) simply encourage greater irreverence. (A general point: if you’re not actually willing to make a kid sit down and be still, with all the energy and attention that will take, then don’t sit there and whisper meanly at them to sit down. It’s a basic rule of parenting: only insist upon what you’re actually willing to enforce. If a child rocking back and forth in their chair isn’t particularly disruptive, then don’t create a scene telling the kid to stop rocking his or her chair.) Plus, what’s this hostility to instruments? Find me a nine-year-old who wouldn’t rather be banging on a drum than reciting some lines whispered into their ears. Put together some instrumental numbers. (When Melissa was in the Primary presidency, she managed to convince the hierarchy to let the kids all ring triangles during the songs, and they actually enjoyed their rehearsals for that.)

    Also: dancing in Primary should be encouraged. A great many Primary songs, especially if you speed up the tempo a bit, can get this great, borderline-charismatic, cymbal-tapping thing going. The first time I heard “Follow the Prophet” I thought it sounded like some sort of fascist funeral dirge, but then a friend of mine pointed out that if you get a little swing in there, it lends itself to some Tevye-like footwork. (“Follow the prophet, don’t go astray, hey!”) Basically, mobility and hands-on stuff: good; sitting in chairs and listening to another heartfelt testimony about one’s mission: bad.

  21. Mark Bigelow
    September 7, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    Well Russell, since we first really met while sitting on the floor together in nursery (that is as nursery workers) I just can’t help commenting. I’m back in nursery again and really miss you. While my current co-workers are perfectly nice people, I just can’t seem to get a good substantial conversation going.

    My current favorite nursery activity is to get out the rope and take the kids for a walk. While noting the temple up the road and pointing out God’s creations, I’m also doing my church job while being outside the church building and getting a tan.

  22. September 7, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    Mark! You live!! Write more often, will you?

    Did I ever tell you about the summer of 2000 in the Alexandria ward, when I was in the nursery and one by one every other worker fell away? The “nursery leader” suffered a nervous breakdown of some sort, someone else left for a months-long vacation, and another went inactive. I was alone with 10-14 kids, depending on the week. The primary presidency would occasionally send someone over to help out, and then the woman handling music would come in for 5 minutes, but mostly it was just me, which bemused and worried the other parents in the ward; many would stick around waiting for someone “responsible” (i.e., female) to show up. But of course, as every nursery worker knows, the worst things parents can do is stick around, so I always shooed them out. I suppose I could have asked for volunteers, but after a few weeks I grew to kind of like the wild-eyed desperation of the whole thing.

  23. Mike
    September 7, 2004 at 6:39 pm

    Dr. Fox-
    First I hope that the title doesn’t bother you, I just feel strange calling a profesor I don’t know personally by their first name.

    Second- Give said the little stream?

    Third- a Bishop on my mission told me basically the same thing your father did- and I strongly agree, although I think the age range is a bit different. The Bishop was refering largely to the young men and young women’s programs- To me, the age range that seems really essential is about 5 or 6 to 17. Yes, it is important to have really good nursery leaders- but I think that a lot of the convincing that church is worth taking seriously takes place in the early teenage nd preteenage years. (which means valiant teacher is about as important as callings come)
    Those times when children really start forming their own oppinions are essential- and unfortunately it does seem as though often those callings are looked upon as much less important.

    OK, little time out for my view on stewardship and inspired callings.
    I think that callings at the ward level are largely inspired- but I also think that the Lord gives us a stewardship in our callings. If a calling makes sense for a particular person, the Bishop doesn’t need a specific revelation to know to put some one in that calling- however I think they should seek confirmation for their actions in general, and seek to know when the actions they have taken acording to their understanding are OK- if the Lord is opposed to a specific calling he can/will let the Bishop/Stake President/etc. know. But- I do think callings can almost all be said to be inspired because 1- the person extending the calling is in their own calling because of inspiration- the Lord knew what they would do and how they would choose. 2-Even when a calling is extended because it just seems common sense, generally those extending that calling are seeking the guidence of the spirit

    OK, why the time out. Well, because I think it is important to my understanding of why people should think more highly of the callings with the children and youth. If the Bishop allocates resources according to what makes sense- a focus on the youth and children may influence how resources are allocated.

    Ok- fourth. Last but not least I think that sometimes the reasons those that Russel described who are worldy succesfull have different types of callings than with he youth may actually not be because a priority isn’t placed on the youth. Often the people who Russell described that are financially successfull and look it and are extremely active often don’t work with the youth. But I think that sometimes it might be because they aren’t good at it, Or because the other people Russell described are very good at working with the youth. Maybe I haven’t been in enough family wards, but I always thought that although counselor in the Elders quorum or Relief Society or High Priest group seems prominent- the callings with the children and youth (primary, ym/yw, teaching seminary) are at least as important (or more important) and that most Bishoprics felt that way too. Plus, I always kind of assumed that the Lord set up his modern Church with the Bishop as the head of the Aaronic preisthood and an Aaronic priesthood made up of youth so that the Bishop would clearly understand the importance of the youth and the programs and callings related to them. (Of course there are probably other reasons entirely)

    ps- how the heck is Jonesboro? Who is the Bishop now? I assume the Meekers are still there, we used to camp on their land occasionally. Did thier son Gary move away or did he stay and work on the family farm?

  24. Bryce I
    September 7, 2004 at 7:18 pm

    For the record, danithew and I were in the same Primary classes growing up.

    Those were fun classes.

  25. marta
    September 7, 2004 at 7:21 pm

    Russell! Share the wealth. A couple of zaftig ladies, a couple of muumuus, a couple of silvery wigs, a small chair, a digital camera; go for it. You’re out a couple of minutes, the ladies had a good laugh and you’re all three ahead $50.

  26. Kaimi
    September 7, 2004 at 10:27 pm


    Action songs are the best. Of course, most of the songs can be turned into action songs. Try singing Our Primary Colors, and every kid wearing red, yellow, or blue stands up as the color is mentioned. Or standing up for “Beam” in Jesus Wants Me for a Sun-Beam.

    Mardell is the primary chorister — she has been most of our marriage, in different wards — and I’m the pianist (I’ve also been primary pianist most of our marriage). Last week we popped baloons in primary. If the kids sang loud enough, Amy Bobo (or was it Sister Maria? I don’t recall; I was busy playing the piano) inflated the balloon. When it got to a certain point, Mardell popped it. Lots of fun.

    Re: Primary programs, yes, they’re often disastrous. We’re getting ready for ours. I’m writing it, and I’m going to try for some sort of narrative. We’ll see how it goes.

  27. Jack
    September 7, 2004 at 11:04 pm

    “For a while I had the sweetest gig in the church: uncalled permanent substitute Primary pianist”

    I was called to be primary pianist a couple of months ago and should remain there a while as our ward is rich with adults far more capable and experienced in Church service than myself. So with an overt attempt to one up – mine is the sweetest gig in town.

    One of the things I like about this calling is that you can loosen the tunes up a bit. You can thicken the chords and even swing a little with out being irreverent. I also like following the motions of the children by adding dramatic elements here and there. Of course if you’re drawing attention to yourself then it’s likely that you are being irreverent.

    A side note: I love having Kingsley back!

  28. Kevin Barney
    September 8, 2004 at 1:25 pm

    I sometimes sneak into Primary and sit in the back, just because I can’t take the incessant boredom of Priesthood meetings. One time the chorister has a whole bunch of balloons, and kids got to pop them, and inside was a piece of paper with the title of the next song they would sing. Fun stuff.

    I’ve always wanted to teach a Primary class, but have only had the opportunity on a subsitute basis.

  29. kneight
    September 8, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    I was in charge of sharing time a couple of weeks ago, and had the chorister leada the kids in singing the 4th article of faith song as I finished setting up. I was amazed because none of the kids were singing. I come to find out that they have never been taught that song. Our program is this month, and I think we have only sang 5 songs all year, and we sing “I am a child of God” at least twice every Sunday. It’s driving me crazy. I never thought, after leaving primary 22 years ago, that I would ever want to hear “Pioneer Children” sang again. I’m in favor of getting rid of sharing time, and singing the whole time.

  30. Jack
    September 9, 2004 at 1:05 am

    Kneight: Perhaps another reason why the children were not singing is because those con-starn articles of faith (most of them anyway) are practically unsingable. I think the composer, Vanja k. Watkins does better with a more staight-forward lyric-like text. Her (I assume Vanja’s a she) “Families Can Be Together Forever” works much better (though it’s a little worn out). The one I like best is her “Press Forward Saints” no.81 in the hymn book.

  31. Lisa F.
    September 26, 2005 at 11:22 am

    Primary has been where I have spent most of my time as well. It has been, at times, a refuge. I have had some of my most beautiful church experiences there. I have longed believed that it is the most important work in the church. Just recently, I was asked to be YW pres. It was difficult to say yes, but has not been as bad as I thought. And, interestingly enough, there are six of my Primary girls in YW who don’t come to church anymore. Because we shared what we did on all those Sundays, I am hoping to be able to do something good for them.

  32. B
    September 26, 2005 at 11:26 am

    #22. Although I feel perfectly confident there was nothing to worry about with you personally being alone with nursery kids, Russell, I am shocked that approximately 28 parents were willing to drop their toddlers off in a room supervised by a lone man for two hours, and to continue doing so every week for a whole summer. Had the ward done a background check on you? Didn’t anyone care about the appearance of the opportunity for evil? Again, I’m glad it was you in charge and I’m sure nothing untoward ever happened, but there should be a blanket rule in place to protect against those whom no one would ever suspect.

  33. UKAnn
    September 27, 2005 at 3:40 am

    There’s something just so rewarding about working in Primary. It’s my favourite calling. I’m now entering my 5th year of working in YW and that’s fun too – but only because I’m getting my Primary girls into it, year by year. Previous to being YW Pres I was Primary Pres for about 5 years, so I call the YM ‘my primary boys’ even though they now tower a foot or so above me. I was a Blazer teacher when I moved into my present Ward some 36 years ago and it was a thrill to me when I went for my Temple recommend a few years ago to be interviewed by my Bishop and Stake President – they were both in that Blazer class of so many years ago – gave me a real kick! Don’t get me started about music in Primary – I love it! A much underused and underappreciated way of teaching he gospel. I had so much fun teaching the children the songs. (I’m in a very understaffed Ward – couldn’t get much help for Primary so most weeks I conducted, did sharing and singing time and usually taught a class as well – managed through sharing times and visits to kids homes to get them all to memorize the Arfticles of Faith and qualify for their Gospel in Action too – I loved it all). The best presentation was when I promised the kids they could cut up my husband’s tie if they sang well enough in the presentation. It worked. I had a large pair of scissors ready (husband was prepared wearing an ‘older’ tie), and the kids thought it was great that they all got to cut a piece off it while he was wearing it They still talk about it!

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