Changes for Mormons: 12 takeaways from LDS General Conference

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Latter-day Saints participate in Saturday morning ‘s solemn assembly during general conference in the Conference Center, March 31, 2018. ©2018 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

The LDS General Conference that took place on March 31 and April 1 may well be remembered as a watershed moment in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as incoming leaders emphasized Mormonism’s international diversity, focused attention on improving lay ministry, and restructured its all-male priesthood.

Here are 12 main highlights.

  1. Two new apostles brought international and racial diversity to the Quorum of the Twelve. The religion got its first-ever apostle from the Southern hemisphere in Ulisses Soares, 59, of São Paulo, Brazil. California native Gerrit Gong, 64, became the first apostle of Asian descent. The Quorum of the Twelve previously had only one member who was not an American (Dieter Uchtdorf of Germany) and no one who was not white. (See full coverage here.
  2. New President Russell M. Nelson was sustained by solemn assembly, and women’s role in the ritual was slightly changed. Nelson, 93, effectively assumed the reins in January after he was set apart as president, but on Saturday he was officially “sustained” by the religion’s rank-and-file members in a ritual that dates to 1880, in which members stand as part of their respective groups and vote to support the new leader. This time, adult men who hold the Melchizedek priesthood sustained the prophet first, followed by adult women, Aaronic priesthood holders (who are typically teenage boys), and Young Women (teenage girls). In the recent past, women were only permitted to vote after teenage boys; before 1995, women did not vote at all except at the end with the entire congregation. (See here for an account of a solemn assembly in 1986, when women did not vote; in the two most recent solemn assemblies in 1995 and 2008, they voted after the Aaronic priesthood.)
  3. New Seventies were called, again with a strong international focus. The new leaders hail from Australia, Portugal, Chile, Japan, and Brazil as well as the United States. Dallin Oaks notes that there are now 116 general authorities of the Church, and almost 40% of them were born outside the United States. The conference’s strong international focus was also evident in which leaders spoke and gave each session’s opening and closing prayers. As President Nelson prepares to leaves next week for his tour of eight nations, it seems clear that one focus of his presidency is going to be the LDS Church’s reach in the world.
  4. A protestor disturbed the proceedings, shouting “Stop protecting sexual predators!” three times. This seems to have been related to the Church’s unfolding scandal concerning Joseph Bishop, a former president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo who is accused of sexual misconduct with at least one sister missionary in the 1980s. During the conference weekend, Salt Lake City television station KUTV ran a story suggesting the LDS Church’s attorney may have provided documentation that contained sensitive information about the female victim’s history to the accused man’s son Greg Bishop. No speakers overtly referenced the MTC controversy during the weekend, though one did speak out strongly against “nonconsensual immorality.”
  5. There was a focus on teen girls. Sister Bonnie Oscarson, the outgoing Young Women president, gave a heartfelt plea for the Young Women to have important responsibilities in church and to feel that their contributions are valued. “They want to be of service,” said Oscarson. “They need to know they are valued and essential in the work of salvation.” Her theme was picked up the next day by Relief Society President Jean Bingham when she described a strengthened role for Young Women in ministering to others in their wards (see #8). Neither president portrayed this expanded role for Young Women as a stepping stone to them being better wives and mothers in their adult lives; instead, the focus was on helping girls become better disciples of Christ right now, full stop.
  6. LDS growth has decelerated in recent years.

     

    The Church’s rate of growth has dipped below 1.5%. The LDS Church is still growing, but not with the robust speed it enjoyed in the 1970s through the 1990s, when growth rates often ranged between 4 and 8 percent. In 2012, the Church had a growth rate of 2.3%, and it has been steadily falling a bit each year to the 2017 numbers announced this weekend show it to now be 1.47%.

  7. Priesthood meetings will now be combined at the ward level. In a surprising announcement at the priesthood meeting Saturday evening, the Church revealed that elders quorum members and high priest group members will be meeting together from now on as a single elders quorum. At the local level this avoids duplication of callings, freeing up more available priesthood holders to serve in other ways. It also will allow priesthood holders “of all ages and backgrounds to benefit from the perspective and experience of one another and of those in different stages of life,” Elder Todd Christofferson said.
  8. Home and visiting teaching give way to “ministering.” Sunday was also a day for surprise announcements. While in recent months the LDS Church has rolled out changes to home and visiting teaching (see here), on Sunday President Nelson announced the program’s demise. “We have made the decision to retire home teaching and visiting teaching as we have known them,” he said. “Instead, we will implementing a newer, holier approach. . . . We will refer to these efforts simply as ‘ministering.’” Details of the new program are available at the Church’s website.
  9. Women spoke in three of four sessions. For most conference weekends in recent memory, only two women have addressed the faithful in mixed-gender general sessions. (This does not include the now-annual women’s meeting, which usually has several female speakers, or the now-annual men’s meeting, which has none.) And sometimes the ratio for general sessions is even worse than that. In the April 2017 conference, which featured thirty total speakers over four general sessions, only one woman—Primary president Joy Jones—spoke. (For an excellent brief summary of women’s up-and-down history of speaking in General Conference, see this Juvenile Instructor post.) One LDS viewer suggested on Twitter on Saturday that it would be great to hear from one woman during each general session, bringing the ratio of male to female speakers to something more like six or seven to one. For this modest entreaty she received significant hateful pushback from some on Twitter as well as support from others.
  10. Easter! Several speakers noted the coincidence that General Conference was taking place over Easter weekend and took the opportunity to testify about Mormon beliefs in Christ’s atonement and resurrection. Elder Uchtdorf looked at various historical events that have changed the world, but concluded that nothing can “compare to the importance of what happened on that first Easter morning.” (On a side note, Elder Uchtdorf should earn an award for most effective and natural use of hands while speaking. NO CONTEST.)
  11. There were very few mentions of the traditional family when compared to other recent conferences. Themes of the weekend included the importance of prophets, the vitality of personal revelation and cultivating an ability to discern the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and how to minister more effectively to others in the ward. With only a couple of exceptions, few speakers doubled down on the traditional family. There were pieces of advice for parents, and gratitude expressed to individual speakers’ spouses, but a relative dearth of references to the family being “under attack.” No one discussed LGBT issues or same-sex marriage.
  12. There will be 7 new temples. President Nelson pulled off a Steve Jobs “one more thing” moment near the end of the last meeting by announcing new temples to be constructed in Richmond, VA; Layton, UT; Salta, Argentina; Cagayan de Oro, Philippines; Managua, Nicaragua; Bengaluru, India (which was known as Bangalore until 2014); and “a major city yet to be determined” in Russia. These will be the first temples to be constructed in Nicaragua, India, and Russia. President Nelson urged Mormons around the world to attend the temple more frequently. “Identify those things that you can set aside so that you can spend more time in the temple,” he said.

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Update 4/3/18: An earlier version of this story said that a “heckler” had disturbed the Conference, which has been changed to “protestor.” The Oxford Dictionary defines a heckler as “A person who interrupts a performer or public speaker with derisive or aggressive comments or abuse.” That does not accurately describe the actions of the person who interrupted the conference, who was neither derisive nor abusive.