Bearing a testimony refers to sharing one's testimony, which consists of beliefs and convictions regarding the truth of the Gospel. A synonymous term which is often used in the LDS Church is "bearing witness." As this term suggests, bearing testimony consists of standing as a witness for the truth. Church members can choose to mount the podium and bear testimony, under the inspiration of the Spirit and from personal experience, that God lives, and that Jesus is the Christ. Members may also witness of the truthfulness of the gospel, as it has been restored through prophets in these last days. More general information and resources on this practice available in the official LDS Gospel Library.
Here's a brief study in contrasts on how this works - and perhaps how it shouldn't work, as well. A person who had some previous doubts about her faith bore her testimony at a sacrament meeting and posted an account of it on The Exponent. Her simple testimony was as follows:
"That I love God, that I am grateful for the community of faith in the church, but I don’t understand everything and that is ok. That I doubt as much, if not more, than I believe and that that has made me a better person. That I am grateful for the ability to learn from my experiences and mistakes. That I am grateful for the friends and the community in this ward and elsewhere who have accepted me as I am and who have been patient with me as my faith continues to be reshaped since it collapsed last year".
Although her testimony wasn't quite in accordance with the flexible content and format guidelines recommended by the Church leadership, her bishop and stake president didn't nitpick her. Many thanked her after the meeting for having the nerve to get up and said that they appreciated her heart-filled testimony. Consequently, her testimony was useful in nurturing people's faith.
Unfortunately, this is offset by a much different and less favorable experience documented on the Waters Of Mormon. In this case, several people got up during a sacrament meeting and bore testimonies that the local bishop felt were deficient. After the meeting, the bishop then chose to call them into his office and nitpick them over their testimonies.
A young couple was brought into the bishop's office and told that their daughter should not bear her testimony unless she could say it without any help from parents. A single older man was told not to tell such long stories in his testimony. Those involved were hurt by the instruction. The older man declared that he would not bear any more testimonies - at least for a while. And the younger couple said they were not going to change their practice - but did not show up at all this week, which is very unusual for them.
So although this bishop may have been well-intentioned, his counsel actually drove people to do the opposite of what he intended - he scared them away from bearing their testimonies in the future. Such nitpicking is often cited by ex-Mormons as a reason they left the Church; on the anti-LDS Mormon Curtain blog, in a post entitled "Worthy At Last", a poster related always having the impression that nothing he/she ever did as a member was ever good enough, that there was always room for improvement. The poster wrote, "Although I regularly and honestly passed my worthiness interviews, I always had nagging guilt and wondered if I really was worthy. I would beat myself up for little things, sure that I was deficient in some way". Perhaps this is more personal angst on the person's part than anything else, but many ex-Mos who leave report similar feelings. If you wouldn't want a spouse who nitpicked you all the time, you would understandably be sensitive to a church you felt nitpicked you as well.
So how should the bishop in the second case have handled it? Rather than call the individuals in and nitpicking them over their testimonies, he should have grasped the collective teaching opportunity proffered and delivered a talk the following week to all ward members on bearing testimonies. He should have related the counsel given by General Authorities in the past on how to bear effective testimonies. Some of that counsel is documented on the BYU-I website. Most noteworthy are these guidelines put forth in the October 1993 New Era:
-- DO tell what you know about the gospel.
-- DO talk about the things you are striving to gain a testimony of.
-- DO pray for support and confirmation of your testimony before you bear it, even if it’s just a small prayer in your heart.
-- DO take bearing your testimony seriously and sincerely. Peer pressure shouldn’t influence you.
-- DO keep your testimony short and to the point.
-- DON’T tell long stories, whether they are about yourself or someone else. If you have a good story, it might be best to save it for the next time you are asked to give a talk.
-- DON’T describe the details of past sins and bad conduct.
-- DON’T take up too much time. Others may be waiting for their turn.
-- DON’T talk only about friends and family. Testimony bearing is a time to say what you know about the gospel.
-- DON’T be embarrassed if you get emotional.
-- DON’T be critical of others’ testimonies — we’re all learning. Plus, you won’t be able to feel the Spirit if you focus on the negative.
Note that there are just as many DOs as DON'Ts. This means we balance the carrot and the stick. The overzealous bishop probably needs to focus on that very last "DON'T" much more.
The BYU-I reference also contains more counsel given by General Authorities. Boyd K. Packer said that a testimony should not be merely an experience or an expression of gratitude, but should also be a declaration and a witness. In 2008, Dallin H. Oaks said that a testimony of the gospel is not a travelogue, a health log, or an expression of love for family members; it is not to be a sermon. He reminded us that President Kimball once taught that the moment we begin preaching to others, our testimony has ended. In 2004, M. Russell Ballard said that too many of our members’ testimonies linger on “I am thankful” and “I love,” and too few are able to say with humble but sincere clarity, “I know.” In 2000, Robert L. Millett cautioned us against confusing sentimentality with spirituality and tears with testimony.
But while this is all wise counsel, it must be delivered in a manner that makes the membership want to incorporate it, and not in such a haphazard, undiplomatic fashion that deters people from bearing their testimonies in the first place.