Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

A progressive Mormon’s top 10 highlights of this weekend’s LDS General Conference

President Russell M. Nelson, center, greets Sister Bonnie H. Cordon, Young Women general president, as they enter the Conference Center to begin the Women’s Session of the 189th Semiannual General Conference on Oct. 5, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Photo © 2019 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

(RNS) — For me, there were far more ups than downs this weekend at the 189th General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I feel like the Church is making a full-throttle effort to update many of its programs, and particularly to help stem the tide of youth attrition.

My take:

  1. There was a strong focus on Jesus Christ from beginning to end. That’s not to say there weren’t some difficult moments, especially from President Oaks. I’ll describe those in a column later this week, after I’ve had a chance to revisit his talks and think about them more carefully. But for the most part this Conference was a breath of fresh air from the moment Elder Jeffrey Holland explained the purpose of the sessions in his opening talk. “In spite of everything else this Conference tradition may offer us, it will mean little or nothing unless we find Jesus at the center of it all,” he said. To grasp that meaning, “We must cut through the commotion, joyful as it is, and fix our attention on him.” I felt like most of the talks did that, and certainly the music did.
  2. Changes to the youth program came fast and furious during Saturday’s sessions of General Conference. To me, these look quite promising, especially that ward budgets for youth activities will now be “divided equitably between the young men and young women according to the number of youth in each organization.” The previous structural inequality in which the boys’ scouting activities could receive several times the funding allocated to the girls has long been a sticking point.
  3. The new Young Women theme features a shift from being daughters of “Heavenly Father” to “heavenly parents.” Since the theme has long been recited each week and often memorized, and the Church did not mention any change to that tradition, this means that girls the world over will now be regularly reciting language that normalizes the Latter-day Saint belief in Heavenly Mother.
  4. Speaking of the symbolic importance of language, I’m glad to see the discontinuation of the word “auxiliary” to describe every organization outside the priesthood. It’s hard to claim on the one hand that the Relief Society is a truly equal partner to the priesthood when the very word “auxiliary” suggests it is merely supplemental or ancillary, not essential.
  5. Aaaaaaaaaand the traditional names for the three Young Women classes (Beehive, Mia Maid and Laurel) are finally going away. Let us thank the heavenly parents that this particular awkwardness is being retired. In fact, many of the small changes to the structure of the youth program look promising. Because I live in an area where the Church is not numerically strong, the shift to using the stake level as the main administrative center for youth activities seems helpful. There will be greater strength in numbers. Also, the various age groups can be combined at the ward level in different ways as needed by individual wards and branches. I like the modular flexibility this will offer to small units like mine.
  6. “The Hobbit” and Harry Potter both got a shout out from Elder Dieter Uchtdorf. After opening his Sunday talk with an explicit Tolkien metaphor about adventures in the spiritual life, he also snuck in a quotation from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” (What Elder Uchtdorf said: “If you hesitate in this adventure because you doubt your ability, remember that discipleship is not about doing things perfectly; it is about doing things intentionally. It is your choices that show what you truly are, far more than your abilities.” What J. K. Rowling wrote: “‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’”) We should have known that Elder Uchtdorf was Dumbledore. So many signs were there. We probably missed it because he had to shave the beard for his church calling.
  7. Relief Society leaders are going to be able to take a greater role in counseling adult church members. This was mentioned briefly on Saturday in Elder Cook’s talk, though no details were given at that time. One thrust of Elder Cook’s talk was to isolate certain tasks the bishop cannot delegate (such as taking care of the youth and overseeing the ward budget) from other tasks that it seems can and will be delegated to members of the ward, including women.
  8. President Nelson announced eight new temples around the world, and he chose the women’s session of the General Conference to make the announcement. That was an interesting and welcome decision. He also took the time to clarify several points pertaining to women and the priesthood, affirming that when women are set apart for their callings in the Church, they are exercising priesthood authority even though they do not hold the priesthood. Women also have the priesthood in their homes if they have received their endowments in the temple, “from which priesthood power flows.” I’m sure we will be parsing the language of this talk for years to come.
  9. Related to temples, the recommend interview is changing a bit. The full name “Jesus Christ” has been liberally sprinkled throughout the interview questions, in keeping with the Christ-centered focus of President Nelson’s administration, and the language of some questions has been subtly altered. For example, the question on apostate groups has changed from “Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” to “Do you support or promote any teachings, practices, or doctrine contrary to those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” Historically, this question arose in response to some 20th-century members’ involvement with polygamous groups. In practice, though, this ambiguous question has led to all manner of Bishop Roulette Syndrome. One local leader I am aware of even refused a temple recommend to a member because he could see from her Facebook friends that she was “affiliating with” LGBT allies. The standard of “support or promote” may provide greater clarity and specificity, though it still seems vague to me.
  10. General Conference is not going to be “business as usual” six months from now. In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the date the Church has officially settled upon for Joseph Smith’s First Vision, next April’s General Conference will be … what, exactly? We’re not quite sure. I’m hoping it won’t just be a change in venue. I can easily see the Church returning to its geographic roots for this historic celebration by holding the Conference in, say, upstate New York. But General Conference is in need of a refreshment in many other ways, including the diversity of its speakers. This weekend was a welcome step in the right direction on that front, with five female speakers total (including the women’s session), greater international diversity that better reflects the Church’s global ministry, and the first General Conference talk by an African American general authority, Elder Peter M. Johnson, who was called to the Seventy in April. But I would like us to explore the whole format of Conference and whether ten hours of passive listening to sermons remains as powerful a way to reach members and non-members as it did in the 19th century.

As Dumbledore/Uchtdorf would say, this is all more than enough to be going on with. So many changes. But if there is a theme to this quiet revolution, it’s that of centering Christ instead of systems. Elder Holland again: “We will miss the real reason for these revelatory adjustments if we see them as disparate, unrelated elements rather than an interrelated effort to help us build firmly on the rock of our salvation.”

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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