In my “What’s the Point . . .” series, this one seemed particularly timely given that our semi-annual General Conference is right around the corner. Without further ado, let’s talk about what the point of General Conference could be. As with most topics, there are many ways each of these aims could be achieved, and it’s also possible that all of these are aims of General Conference.
Clarifying doctrine. By contrast, consider some other churches in which there is a local pastor determining how to interpret scripture and the gospel, providing that clarity to his or her own flock. Not all churches have the same hierarchy that ours does in which doctrinal deference is given to the higher ranking person regardless of qualifications or background (in many churches theological degrees are required for the ministry). General Conference gives our leaders the ability to opine on their own interpretations of doctrine: Uchtdorf speaks about grace and avoiding hypocrisy, Oaks speaks about religious freedom and white shirts, Eyring speaks about forgiveness and duty, Nelson speaks about conditional love and obedience; these are just some of the themes each of these have chosen to speak on. A church leader looks across his stewardship and determines that a course correction is needed or a bit more emphasis or clarification of misunderstood doctrine from his perspective, and that instruction is given during General Conference and quoted thereafter as authoritative.
Sustaining distant church leaders. Because of this top down approach, General Conference fills the role of encouraging and enabling fealty to distant church leaders as the sole authorities to define doctrine, receive church-wide revelation, and set church doctrine. This is a way to make Mormons more uniform world-wide by bringing everyone together and having us sustain those leaders as a group. This creates unity among members and reinforces the hierarchy that keeps us all in line with one vision.
Revelation for the church. There’s always a bit of excitement prior to General Conference, an anticipation of changes being announced. At times General Conference has been used as the vehicle to announce Church-wide changes that have been revealed to our inspired leaders. While some changes are announced in local wards via a letter from the First Presidency (or, ya know, “leaked” accidentally to 32,000 bishops and stake presidents with no warning or explanation until after the fact), others have been held and announced to the membership in General Conference to ensure the message is given sufficient importance and focus.
Addressing a worldwide audience. Growing up, the fact that General Conference was broadcast to the world at large was something that really struck me, and unlike other broadcasts, it was picked up by the local network station (I think NBC) in my native Pennsylvania. Given that Mormons were less than 2% of the population in my home state, this felt like a big deal to me, evidence that our tiny religion was speaking to the world at large, people who were potential future Mormons, people who needed to hear from our inspired leaders. I was often disappointed when so many of the speakers came across as very Utah-centric, speaking to insiders only. General Conference is still called a Worldwide conference, but it appears to have mostly given up pretensions to being targeted to the world at large rather than just Church members, although the messages are still curated and shared with investigators in some areas of the Church’s online presence.
Providing lesson materials for the next 6 months. This is a newly emerging trend, but it is solidly in place at present; recent conference talks have replaced the manuals for both Relief Society and Priesthood, and they are often the assigned topics for sacrament meeting talks. This is an offshoot of the “Clarifying Doctrine” point, but it’s also killing two birds with one stone. It further reinforces centralized control of doctrine and also saves time and investment in a curriculum department. It makes the Church more nimble as changes in doctrine or direction are introduced. New jargon like “covenant path” can quickly saturate the culture in a way that couldn’t happen when curriculum was a death-by-committee process requiring months and years of planning and vetting. No such restrictions apply when messages are straight from the horse’s mouth in farm-to-table fashion like they are now.
Auditioning future leaders. I’m only being slightly tongue in cheek here. There does seem to be an element of succession planning at play in the selection of speakers and those who give prayers; otherwise, conference would be much shorter and only include members of the Quorum of the Twelve, or even shorter and only include members of the First Presidency. Instead, time is given to members of the Presiding Bishopric or the Seventy in the form of assigned talks and prayers. I have often noted the effluence of some of these prayers that are often as long as a youth speaker’s talk in our local ward; if we aren’t intentionally auditioning the B Level leaders for future positions, some of them certainly seem to think they are being auditioned! This is one of the aspects of General Conference that seems fairly unique to this specific forum. Succession planning can occur in a less public way when apostles take more junior leaders with them on trips to various areas of the world, but this is the one place that their ability to address the Church at large can be assessed.
To provide individual members with inspiration and personal revelation. Messages delivered in General Conference are varied in content, tone, and style. They are delivered by a variety of speakers who chose their own topics (topics are not assigned) through their own personal inspiration. Often as Church members, some talks really speak to us while others are forgettable or just don’t resonate for us. In some cases, some speakers or messages rub us the wrong way. In other cases, the messages just don’t land. But in nearly every conference, there are 2-3 messages that seem personally crafted just for us, something we needed to hear or that improves our outlook or understanding or that gives us hope or changes our thinking. Those are the diamonds in the dung heap (that’s a paraphrase of Thomas Jefferson who cut up his Bible to only retain the things he thought were actually inspired)–not that we necessarily think of any of it as “dung,” just that the contrast between a dull dung heap and a diamond is so stark that those messages leap out at us! That’s what inspiration feels like.
Those are the reasons I’ve got, but you might be able to think of different ones, and you’ll get your chance in the comments. For now, let’s take a vote. Which of these reasons do you think is the primary reason we currently have a semi-annual General Conference?
Back to your own experience, as you think through the past years, what messages felt specifically crafted to you? Were there some that leaped out to you? What messages missed you completely that you know were meaningful for others?