LDS General Conferences tend to be somewhat predictable, even staid. Two days of sermons. New temples in wide-ranging places. An occasional policy tweak.
But the number and pace of changes revealed in the just-completed conference — the first under new church President Russell M. Nelson — seemed breathless, even endless.
On Sunday, Nelson announced that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was discontinuing its monthly “home teaching” and “visiting teaching” programs and replacing them with a “ministering” effort to serve members of Mormon congregations.
Then, just before the conference concluded, the former heart surgeon announced plans to build seven more LDS temples, including a 19th in Utah, in Layton, and the faith’s first ones in Russia, India and Nicaragua.
That was hardly all. On Saturday, crowds in the LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City or watching in their homes across the world had a chance to participate in a rare “solemn assembly,” in which they raised their hands to show their support for Nelson as the church’s 17th president.
The 93-year-old Nelson then took off symbolically running, picking two new apostles who reflect the growing global diversity in the U.S.-born faith and launching a seismic shift in how the adult male priesthood operates in every Mormon congregation across the globe.
Sunday’s biggest move was the revamp to the church’s person-to-person outreach to its own.
LDS authorities had been “seeking a better way to minister to the spiritual and temporal needs of our people in the savior’s way,” Nelson said. “... Effective ministering efforts are enabled by the innate gifts of the sisters and by the incomparable power of the priesthood.”
It then fell to Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham and apostle Jeffrey R. Holland to spell out how the new “ministering” program will work.
In the past, members of the faith’s lay all-male priesthood were assigned to visit households in their congregation every month to attend to the spiritual and physical needs of families and individuals. That’s the “home” part of the “home teaching” phrase. These priesthood holders — who went out two by two, Mormon missionary-style — often shared a brief religious message as well during their visits.
LDS women did much the same for the female adults in their wards with their visiting teaching.
Under the new system, Bingham said, “Rather than leaders just handing out slips of paper [with names of members to visit],” ministering will entail “counseling about the individuals and families in person.”
Such ministering can take the form of going for a walk, meeting for a game night, offering service or serving together. It can be accomplished with in-person visits, phone calls, chatting online or texting, sending birthday cards or “cheering at a soccer game.”
Ministering can be “sharing a scripture or quote from a conference talk that would be meaningful to the individual … or discussing a gospel question.” Bingham said. “It looks like becoming part of someone’s life and caring about him or her. … It looks like the ward council organizing to respond to a larger need.”
This change provides Mormons with “a heaven-sent opportunity to demonstrate pure religion undefiled before God,” Holland said, “to minister to the widows and the fatherless, the married and the single, the strong and the distraught, the downtrodden and the robust, the happy and the sad.”
In short, Holland said, “all of us ... need to feel the warm hand of friendship and hear a firm declaration of faith.”
Changing the name, adding flexibility and reducing reports of home teaching and visiting teaching to lay leaders, the apostle said, “won’t make an ounce of difference in our service unless we see this as an invitation to care for one another in a bold, new, holier way.”
Under the new system, the men could be referred to as “ministering brothers” and the women as “ministering sisters,” according to the church’s online description. Generally, though, both simply can be called by their names.
Ross Trewhella, who has been a Mormon bishop in Cornwall, England, for more than nine years, cheered the new approach.
His ward is small in numbers and covers a large geographic area, said Trewhella, who was in Utah for the conference. “These changes will give us greater flexibility and freedom to achieve our aims.”
The new system provides a “better focus on how we can best help the members with whatever their needs are,” he said, “without the burden of reporting if someone has been to their house to share a message they’ve probably already read.”
Trewhella said the new undertaking will enable Latter-day Saints to be “a more Christian organization by properly helping those in need.”
The “ministering” plan is “the way many of us have been responding to our callings as visiting or home teachers for a long time,” said Utahn Melody Newey Johnson. “It feels good to have the church formally adopt this model.”
New Yorker Steve Rotterdam praised the move and is eager to see how it plays out. “A lot of folks, particularly men, find security in being able to have a list, check off the boxes on a regular basis and have a tangible message.”
All told, the dizzying tempo this weekend of Nelson’s restructurings left members and even senior LDS leaders overwhelmed.
“To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most memorable moments in life are those in which we feel the rush of revelation,” Holland joked. “President Nelson, I don’t know how many more rushes we can handle this weekend.”