Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

“Morning-After” Conference Ambivalence

lds_general_conference.jpgI admit that I have a love-hate relationship with General Conference. I dislike the passive format of it all, the stark and depressing maleness of all those dark suits, the conspicuous absence of women from public leadership. The conference often feels too long. I’m probably too bothered by the small things, like that this weekend, a couple of GAs trotted out the wonderful “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” quote, but attributed it to Harold B. Lee without mentioning its original source: Reinhold Niebuhr.

I’m just being honest here. I prefer my Mormonism at the grassroots level; large institutions frighten me even when I believe they are inspired. Conference can be difficult. I question how much of what comes out of a prophet’s mouth is timebound, culturally conditioned, and fallible — and how much might possibly be divine.


Apparently I’m not alone, judging from Peggy Fletcher Stack’s excellent Salt Lake Tribune article on the Mormon tendency toward apotheosis of general authorities. Readers of this blog already know that I find it deeply troubling that some Mormons seem to unquestioningly regard everything that emerges from leaders’ mouths as timeless gospel truth. I’m reminded of the old joke of someone who had converted to Mormonism from Catholicism and reported, “You know, the Catholics officially believe in papal infallibility, but no Catholics act as if they believe it. We Mormons are expressly told that the prophet is not infallible, but no Mormons act as if they believe it.”


So Conference can be hard for me, and apparently I’m not the only one with this unease: over at Exponent II today, a poll is being taken about this very issue.

Do you believe the prophet is always acting as a prophet, seer, and revelator when he speaks to the church?

As of this morning, the poll was running about 60% “no” with the other two responses getting about 20% apiece.


So, Conference can be a mixed experience. But the music of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is always beautiful, and every once in a while a talk stirs my soul so deeply that it makes any ambivalence that Conference conjures almost disappear. When a church leader speaks authentically to the power of faith, or shares a personal story that is relevant to my own troubles or anxieties, it feels incredibly affirming.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Carolyn

    I feel that not every talk will “speak” to me. Some will be just what I needed to hear and some just won’t really apply to me. I’ve never listened/watched all the talks during conference weekend. The thought of listening to hours and hours of spiritual talks sounds awfully boring to me. Traditionally I watch the first session on Sunday and that’s pretty much it. Then I catch up with the other talks when they come out in the Ensign. Dan likes to read one conference talk a week. I don’t think it’s entirely necessary to watch all the conference talks in real time, especially if doing so leads one to feel bored and anxious for it to be over. That sort of kills the spirit of it right there. Maybe that’s why I do enjoy conference. I can watch one, two hour session in the comfort of my home (In my pajamas if I want!) and that small chunk of talks I usually find uplifting. I’ll catch up with the other ones later. :-)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Since I live in Washington State, and haven’t attended conference in person since it moved into the 21,000 seat Conference Center, I see the speakers as individuals on my TV screen over BYU-TV. I don’t experience it as a large scale gathering, but as an almost intimate encounter with the apostles and other General Authorities. Being intimidated is the farthest thing from my own perceptions.

    I don’t see in the GA talks the kind of self-congratulatory false modesty that we get in political speeches. Most of the humor makes the speaker the butt of the joke. I don’t see the speakers being mean-spirited or making personal attacks on individuals or groups. There are personal experiences aplenty about how God has worked in the lives of the speakers and of the people they have known. The addresses are not meant to impress the audience with the speaker’s intellect or personal righteousness.

    One of the reasons we hear so much from the First Presidency, and from each of the apostles, is to inspire confidence in the leadership of those (dare I say it?) men. We know who they are. We could recognize them on the street. We could share a joke with them if we encounter them in an elevator, in an airport, shopping in a store, or waiting for a table at a restaurant, or run into them as they are leaving a hospital or nursing home (as I, my family and friends have done, especially those who worked in hospitals and nursing homes). We get to know them, in all their ordinariness. If you are a Mormon long enough, somebody you know–and even more, who knows you–is going to be a GA (I think I am up to 3 or 4 now), and our chains of acquaintance are even more encompassing. We all know people who could someday serve in that capacity. We know they are not translated beings. We know they have personalities and are not “mediums” whose voices are inhabited by God.

    For me, seeing and hearing those sustained as our leaders affirms that they are NOT divine (they tell too many stories of their own fallability for that to be realistically possible), but that they are nonetheless good and wise, and worthy of their callings, and of our respect. I served 20 years in the Air Force. I didn’t have any illusions that my commanders were the smartest guys around, though I could learn something substantial from all of them, but respecting their roles as leaders and taking their direction seriously had an essential function in getting anything done. As I rose in rank myself, I was asked to advise them, but I also respected their decisions even if they did not follow my recommendation. The German convert and early Mormon educator Karl Maeser is said to have made the same point: Like tall poles that poke up to show a path through deep snow, the GAs are “common sticks” but the position they are in gives us steady guides for our own journey through life.

    The GA talks are not examples of unforgettable rhetoric. They are not entertaining at the level of a comic monologue or a dramatic reading. If they touch our emotions, it is because of the messages they contain, not any technique in which it is packaged.

    Like reading the scriptures, some of the impact of viewing General Conference comes from the total experience, where recurring themes can be perceived in a kind of overall pattern of inspiration that Elder Jeff Holland suggested, in his own recent talk, is a manifestation of the common inspirational source of the messages, which are prepared independently, and with prayer and reflection. When we can, drinking deeply from the testimonies borne can have a cumulative effect that is greater than the simple sum of the parts. I think that is one of the things that Elder Holland was arguing for, that we should be feasting and delighting in the experience. If we purposely limit our experience, we are missing the opportunity to perceive that meta-message.

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