|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.
|BEHOLD, IF YE WOULD PAY YOUR TITHING THAT WOULD BE GREAT|
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.