Twice a year, Mormons around the world tune in to “General Conference,” a series of meetings held in Salt Lake City, Utah and broadcast around the world via television, satellite feeds to individual chapels, radio, and the internet. In recent years, the Church has encouraged members to post their impressions of conference on social networking sites using the #LDSConf hashtag, which has promptly turned into a hot trend on sites like Twitter. (The Final Four might kick our tails this weekend, but we don’t have any broken bones on display at General Conference and nobody has money riding on what color tie President Monson wears). For non-Mormons, it is fair to wonder what all the fuss is about and why we are so obnoxiously drawing your attention to it.
To understand the importance of General Conference to Mormons, you have to understand a little about our doctrines and culture as well as about the nature of the Conference sessions themselves.
The LDS Church is led by a First Presidency, consisting of the President of the Church and two counselors. Under the First Presidency is a Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and then there are Quorums of the Seventy beneath them. We refer to these leaders as the General Authorities of the Church. We consider all of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve to be prophets and special witnesses of Christ. We recognize the President of the Church as “the” prophet and the Lord’s spokesman. He is, for lack of a better term, our Moses.
That said, our opportunities to hear from the General Authorities of the Church are limited. We do not have weekly Sunday services presided over by these leaders, and despite their considerable travel schedules, we see General Authorities locally very rarely. However, at General Conference these General Authorities are the primary speakers (along with the worldwide leaders of our women, youth, and children’s organizations). So the opportunity to spend some time listening to people that we hold in high regard and whom we believe to be the Lord’s representatives is a treat, although one that, ironically, too many of us skip out on to do other things.
Aside from that aspect of Conference, Mormons also know that if anything new or significant is going to happen in the Church, it typically will be announced at General Conference. For example, when the Church is going to build a new temple, it is announced at conference. When the minimum age for missionary service was changed last year, the announcement was made at conference. New General Authorities might be called or new policies or programs announced. All of these things make conference attractive for those who are anxious to hear something new and exciting. (I, for one, am waiting for the announcement that facial hair is now mandatory for men, and I don’t shave on conference weekend just in case).
Often, however, conference is more or less uneventful. We don’t seriously expect dramatic changes in doctrine or practices, and if we hear the name of a new General Authority, we’ll forget it about two minutes later. If a temple isn’t announced in our immediate locale, we react to those announcements with a shrug. (Except maybe for the announcement that we are building a temple in Rome, which had the slightest feel that we were picking a fight). Why, then, do we bother to tune in?
To me, the most important reason is that attending General Conference can be an importantly enriching spiritual experience, When a person approaches conference openly and prayerfully, he or she often will find a message that seems tailored particularly to them. It may come in the form of an answer to a nagging question, a voice of comfort in the face of a perplexing problem, or a doctrinal insight that deepens one’s understanding, faith and testimony. Like reading the scriptures, a person may experience a prompting from the Holy Ghost that is entirely unrelated to the topic of a talk, but which the atmosphere invited. In other words, it is a time perfectly suited to personal revelation, and such revelation is at the heart of what Mormons believe in, hope for, and rely upon.
General Conference also serves the important purpose of helping me to check my bearings a couple of times a year. The Church offers an intimidating buffet of obligations associated with membership, and trying to do everything is probably impossible. I once tried to draw up a checklist of all of the things that I am supposed to be doing daily, weekly or monthly in the Church, and it wasn’t very long before I understood why so many people opt for an hour a week with a televangelist. This discipleship stuff is hard. Attending General Conference helps me to set priorities about what things are most important for me for the next six months. Some topics will be stressed multiple times during conference, or certain messages will strike me in such a way that I know that this is something that I need to work on.
Despite all of that, attending Conference can be a challenge. There are two general sessions of two hours each on both Saturday and Sunday. There is another two-hour meeting on Saturday night for the men and young men of the Church (similar sessions are held for the women and and young women, but not on conference weekend). The time commitment alone can be daunting. On top of that, it is no secret that one does not have possess great oratorical skills to be a General Authority, and some of the talks make you wonder how they expect you to attend Conference and still observe the prohibition on coffee. Even so, I am often surprised to hear someone referring to a powerful or stirring talk, only to learn that the person is praising a talk that I found anesthetizing. All of us are different, and we can’t expect each of us to react the same way to every talk.
Without fail, however, during the course of Conference I will hear something that stirs my heart, increases my commitment, and bolsters my testimony in the Gospel and in the great and atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. When those moments come, I’m grateful for Conference weekend and I feel better prepared to take on the world for the next six months.
Even if they don’t officially endorse my mustache.