Saturday, October 4, 2014

God's Middle Managers: Why General Conference Is Boring And Why That's (Maybe) Okay

As I write this post LDS General Conference is underway. Those of you who are Mormon or who have Mormon friends are probably seeing social media flooded with uplifting memes, quotes, and invitations to listen to a prophet's voice. There's no denying that General Conference is an important Mormon ritual, in which millions of the faithful willingly sacrifice the better part of a perfectly good weekend to watch a succession of fairly dry, predominantly male speakers teach what we take to be revelation from God's prophets.

Lots and lots of this

I count myself as one of those Mormons (although I've missed a session or two for other activities in the past), but I have to confess: while I occasionally find General Conference inspirational, uplifting, and useful, sometimes it can be a little underwhelming. I remember talking up General Conference as a missionary. “Just watch ONE SESSION!” I would tell people. “You’ll be so hooked you’ll stay for the entire time! How long is that? Only 8-10 hours!” Once or twice people actually did watch. I remember asking one person how she liked a particular session. “It was nice,” she said. “A lot like what my pastor teaches.”

That’s not the most ringing endorsement of modern-day revelation, but I’d say it sums up my usual takeaway from Conference: "It was nice." Within a week I’ll likely have forgotten all but two or three moments, but nice. Of course, some of that is down to my own spiritual shortcomings, which I've documented elsewhere, but I don’t think my experience is that unusual either.

So, why is conference like this? Why can a meeting of prophets and apostles seem kind of... ordinary? Even, heaven help me, boring?

If I can dip my toe into the sociology of religion--with the warning that I'm not deeply familiar with the field and am probably glossing over a lot of important definitions--part of the problem seems to lie in the distinction between prophesy vs. priesthood. My thinking here is inspired by this post, as well as by bits and pieces of Max Weber I've read. The gist is that in sociological terms the functions of prophesy and priesthood are different, sometimes at odds. Priests are concerned with religious tradition, organization, orthodoxy, behavior, and ordinances. Their goal is to protect and propagate religious systems and organizations. Priests, in short, are managers.

Prophets are more like eccentric religious entrepreneurs. They tend to challenge and undermine the existing religious order, not uphold it. The prophetic m.o. is change and reform. Prophets rarely come from the priestly caste, but when they do they tend to explicitly reject their sacerdotal background and minister as explicit outsiders. Think John the Baptist in the wilderness or Abinadi and Samuel the Lamanite operating outside the official channels of the church. Prophets tend to draw followers through their personal charisma and the power of their teaching, which can leave their movements fragile and ephemeral if the prophet dies or moves on. Often prophetic doctrine must be systematized and maintained by priests who join the movement later.

When it comes to church leadership Mormonism tends to collapse the distinction between prophets and priests. Our revelators are also ecclesiastical leaders. In a sense this goes back to Mormonism’s foundations: Joseph Smith was a charismatic prophet in the sociological sense but he also established priestly structures that helped preserve the church after his martyrdom. Joseph’s successors largely abandoned his constant doctrinal innovation (with a few exceptions), but maintained and expanded the church's organizational structures, especially after the end of polygamy.

Today we call church leaders prophets but they behave almost exclusively as priests. I don’t mean that as an insult: priests are necessary to preserve any organization as large and diverse as the Church. Prophetic leadership, as anyone who's studied early Mormon history and its cycles of growth and apostasy knows, can be messy and divisive. For the same reason entrepreneurs tend to make poor managers, prophets are often ill-suited to leadership. There is a reason that prophets in the Old Testament never led anything analogous to a modern church. The prophetic model is in tension and sometimes incompatible with religious organization.

Which leads us back to General Conference. I suspect that most Mormons might be uncomfortable with my asserting that our prophets aren't so prophetic, but I think it bears out in how we expect conference to function. I think conference essentially serves three purposes:

1. Pastoral inspiration. Where this fits in the prophet/priest paradigm is for another post, but there's no doubt that the generally positive, uplifting messages of conference can be very beneficial in their own right.
2. Reinforcing doctrinal and behavioral norms. Conference is a time when church leaders can reaffirm what Mormons ought to believe and how they should behave. Even if there's nothing particularly innovative about the commandments being taught, there's value in drawing boundaries around religious communities (of course those boundaries can sometimes be painful and exclusionary to people on the margins of the community).
3. Fostering personal revelation. In many ways personal revelation fills the spiritual gap left by the absence of prophesy in modern Mormonism. We often watch General Conference not necessarily for talks themselves, but as a conduit for inviting the spirit to teach us something more personal. We don't expect the prophet to stand up and boldly reveal a new mystery of heaven, but we might learn whether we're supposed to take that job in Denver.

None of these purposes particularly demands a prophetic mode of teaching. So where does that leave us? If you love General Conference, great! If you're looking for something more prophetic--at least, as I've been describing it--with thundering denunciations and bold new declarations then you might be disappointed. And if you, like me, find General Conference something of a mixed bag, maybe it helps to remember that Mormonism is, and has long been, largely a priestly religion. Mormon leaders are God's middle managers, so try to approach General Conference like a corporate team-building seminar: a little boring, a little too male-dominated, probably too long, but maybe, at times, genuinely inspirational.

But I won't blame you if you fall asleep.


  1. Thank you for saying in a nonaggressive way what many of have felt for years: conference is unbelievably boring (except when Pres. Uchtdorf is speaking). It didn't used to be this way, but watching mostly older men read off a teleprompter these days is like watching paint dry. I much prefer to read the conference talks in the Ensign.

  2. LDS religion is not like others. If you are coming to be entertained in a passive religion there are many that are more suitable. Some have talented musicians and exciting preachers who can whip a crowd into an emotional excitement. The LDS faith is one lead by lay ministry where members come not to be entertained but to be challenged. We come to have the prophets and apostles invite us to renew covenants to challenge us to do more and inspire us to change. If you were hoping to sit through a few sermons in a passive manner then yes there are many venues with more engaging speakers and you have missed the purpose of General Conference. If you come away from conference with a list of things about yourself you hope to improve then it was a success. If you did not, then I think you should ask yourself why not. Perhaps you need to review the talks again and not see them as nice feel good stories but authorative instructions from prophets of God. This conference was a great success for me and I can point to specific things I will change to comply with the instruction. I did not expect the prophet of God to entertain me like a vaudeville comedian or circus clown. I expected him to call me to repent and improve and he did.

    1. Good to know you at least read as far as the title of the post :)

  3. I'm late reading this, but it's actually a really great post. And it's actually more true than most Mormons want to believe.

    Richard Poll once described in his "A Liahona Latter-day Saint"talk that history teaches us that leading the church is more of a priestly function rather than a prophetic one. So, yeah, my expectations for our prophets, and for the church, have been greatly diminished as I've made the same observations.

  4. Religions don't begin without prophets, but they don't survive without priests, continuing the sociological distinction.

    I think one of the main problems with conference is the setting. Imagine you have 10-15 minutes to develop a doctrinal topic that goes to an incredibly broad audience and will be endlessly parsed. Are you going to do much more than reiterate general principals? Unlikely.

    1. Personally, given those confines, I'd like to see fewer topical treatments and more exegesis. Let's borrow a few tricks from the Christian ministers on A.M. radio. A 15 minute deep-dive into 10 verses in the book of mormon? Yes please!

      (of course then I'd still probably complain when the scriptural interpretation seems flagrantly wrong, but at least it'd be complaining about something different!)