Every public affairs council should consider the merits of building relationships with leaders of other faiths. Religious leaders are often influential in shaping community values and standards and can influence the opinions that others hold about our Church and its members.
Furthermore, religion and religious organizations in our day are under increasing pressure from myriad forces. These pressures are shaping public opinion and are threatening basic religious freedoms. A faith’s ability to practice its beliefs and take a moral position is being called more and more into question, which fosters unfair scrutiny and hostile criticism. In some cases such criticism can lead to intolerant acts.
By reaching out in friendship to other faiths, priesthood leaders and public affairs councils can help to increase understanding and promote religious tolerance and cooperation. However, care must be taken to ensure that such cooperation is both appropriate and built on a foundation of common values, interests, and objectives.
Objectives of Interfaith Outreach
The 11th Article of Faith states, “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” In keeping with this statement, objectives for engaging in interfaith outreach efforts may include:
- Promoting religious faith and basic religious freedoms for all people.
- Promoting harmony and fostering greater understanding between faiths.
- Engaging in joint initiatives and activities, such as humanitarian service, that bless the lives of those in need.
- Enabling the Church’s efforts to fulfill its mission through building friendships with key religious opinion leaders.
Before you can build meaningful friendships with members of the clergy, you need to understand something about their “world.”
Members of the clergy typically are honorable men and women who are sincerely dedicated to a life of service to God and their congregants. Many have a deep conviction of a divine calling that their congregations and other clergy accept as the authority to perform religious duties.
In most faiths it is the clergy who conduct most of the preaching, teaching, counseling, civic participation, and administrative duties. Many have heavy demands placed on them and their families and are open to appropriate help from others.
Some clergy members are interested in having better relations with members and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but hesitate due to misunderstandings and fears. Sometimes misrepresentations, defamatory literature, or previous negative contacts with Church members have led to unfavorable perceptions.
Conversely, leaders of other faiths sometimes believe Church members do not want to associate with them or their congregations, or are interested only in proselytizing them. Some may view our family emphasis and welfare programs favorably but think we are only concerned with caring for our own members rather than the entire community.
Guidelines for Developing Interfaith Relationships
The primary responsibility for interfaith relations lies with the local priesthood leader, assisted by the public affairs council. Personal contact between religious leaders usually is the most productive approach toward developing interfaith relations. Clergy usually prefer to develop relations with peers from other faith groups, rather than lay members. The priesthood leader often may be accompanied by the interfaith specialist on the public affairs council who manages the day-to-day organizational and follow-up work for the priesthood leader.
In dealing with the clergy of other faiths, be careful when using titles and forms of address such as pastor, father, or rabbi. The titles may indicate rank or seniority in a faith group and should be used correctly. Some titles are used in written correspondence but not verbal communication. If you are unsure of the form of address for a member of the clergy you are planning to approach, call his or her secretary or church office and ask.
Always take the time to learn the basic organization, belief, and theology of your interfaith contacts. If the clergy of other faiths inquire about our doctrines or beliefs, respond openly and frankly, at the same time showing respect for their beliefs. Use restraint and let the Spirit and their interest determine how much to say.
Other faith groups sometimes do not have the organizational and volunteer resources that we enjoy. They may need support to complete a project. In such cases, do all you can to be helpful without taking charge. Support their efforts and ideas.
Be modest about the accomplishments of the Church. Never act in a superior manner or boast about the success of the Church programs or growth. In clergy relations, attitude is important. Your personal concern, kindness, caring, and tolerance must be genuine.
Priesthood leaders and public affairs directors may join local interfaith councils or similar organizations, but should do so only after careful and prayerful consideration. Before joining, they should review the council’s bylaws and the minutes of previous meetings to make sure the causes supported by the councils are in harmony with Church policies. For example, the Church maintains a policy of strict political neutrality and does not favor any party or candidate. Be especially aware if the interfaith councils you associate with advocate partisan political positions or endorse specific candidates.
Caution should also be taken to understand the types of activities the group supports or the positions it takes on moral issues. If some of the activities or positions are questionable or do not align with Church positions or policies, wisdom should be used in determining whether or at what level to join such a group. If council membership is inappropriate, priesthood leaders can still make contacts with clergy in the council and participate in appropriate sponsored activities.
Only the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles make policy for the Church. No Church member, ward, or stake may make binding commitments for the Church. Be aware that statements made by someone representing the Church may be interpreted by others as statements of general Church policy or doctrine. Always clarify that you are speaking as an individual and not for the Church as a whole. Remember also that only priesthood leaders may commit Church member participation or Church resources in support of interfaith activities.
The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have instructed Church members to not participate in activities that could compromise Church doctrine or principles in any way. Local public affairs councils or Church units should not participate in joint worship services where Church theology or the structure of regular Church meetings and practices will be altered or compromised.
The Church’s name should generally not be placed on the letterhead of interfaith groups, especially when doing so would allow the group to declare a public position and give the appearance that the Church supports or endorses that position.
Developing Interfaith Relations
The Three-Step Process for Developing Opinion Leader Relationships is your best guide to understanding the basic principles of developing interfaith relationships. Other keys to success include the following:
- Identify the interfaith councils or comparable organizations in your community, utilize your existing network of relationships, or look in a telephone or Internet directory. Such organizations may be listed under “Interfaith Council,” “Council of Churches,” “Ministerial Association,” or “Ecumenical Ministries.” If your stake spans several cities, multiple interfaith councils may exist.
- Assess the current sentiment about the Church in your area by talking with approachable local clergy. Be open about your purpose in wanting to talk to them.
- Ensure that priesthood leaders always approve any efforts to develop interfaith relations. Stake public affairs councils should also consult with their multistake council, if any.
- Review regularly the religion or churches section of local newspapers to be aware of the activities of different faith groups and to help you identify activities in which the Church may participate. Use local news sources to also identify the clergy who are most involved in community affairs apart from their involvement in local ministerial associations. Consider calling or assigning an interfaith specialist on your public affairs council to follow important interfaith-related news.
- Be informed on official titles and ways of addressing clergy before making contact.
- When meeting with the clergy, try to arrange a meeting place that is comfortable for them, such as their own office, to set them at ease.
Examples of Successful Interfaith Relations
- A stake Relief Society made 120 quilts. The stake president then invited the Salvation Army, a major community relief organization, to a special lunch at the stake center where the Relief Society presented the quilts to the Salvation Army for distribution to the homeless. The event generated goodwill between the Church and the Salvation Army and contributed significantly to the community.
- In a major city, our Church provides volunteers regularly to help a relief agency of the Catholic Church to provide food for the homeless. Representatives of our Church meet regularly with members of the organizing and supervisory council to coordinate efforts.
- One interfaith coalition sponsors an activity four times a year to ease hunger among the needy. Churches donate and collect nonperishable food and fresh vegetables and fruits in season. The activity is publicized throughout the community within the churches and in the local media. Members of the participating churches canvass neighborhoods, solicit food, and collect and deliver it to the local food storehouse, where it is sorted, processed, and then given to the needy families and individuals.
- In Salt Lake City, the local Salt Lake City Public Affairs Council participates with the local Interfaith Roundtable and allows use of the Tabernacle on Temple Square for an annual Interfaith Music Tribute each February. Use of the Tabernacle is approved each year through priesthood channels. The event, which is free to the public, is put on by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable and includes worshipful music or dance numbers from a variety of faiths, including Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist, as well as a local LDS children’s choir and choirs or soloists from several other Christian denominations. It is not a joint worship service but is presented in more of a fireside format, with prayers being offered by representatives of the various faiths.
- Quarterly “appreciation lunches” are hosted by the local Salt Lake City Area Public Affairs Council where leaders of various community service organizations are invited to attend as a thank-you for all their organization does. There are no awards given, nor is this a fund-raising opportunity for the organizations being recognized. However, it is a chance to express appreciation to those who work hard to make the community a better place to live. A representative of each organization, usually the executive director or chairman, is given an opportunity to share a little about what the particular organization does and explain its purpose and goals. The public affairs council chair, or a Church leader, expresses gratitude on behalf of the Church for these organizations and their efforts.