Commentary: New Latter-day Saint policies meet the reality of a contracting church

(Courtesy photo of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A young Latter-day Saint boy passes the sacrament.

On Dec. 14, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints modified a policy that has been in place for over a century, opening priesthood ordination to boys as young as 11. Boys and girls will also be eligible at 11 to do baptisms for the dead in the temple, and participate in activities with the youth program for junior high and high school students.

Since 1908, boys have become eligible to hold the Aaronic priesthood only after their 12th birthday. In practice, that has meant that the Primary organization for Latter-day Saints ages 3 to 11 has slowly emptied of its oldest kids throughout the year, as one after another would reach their magic birthday and switch over to the youth program.

In my ward, I see this as an incredibly helpful and positive change. Our urban Primary is down to around a dozen kids (which is actually an improvement from just a few months ago, thanks to the relocation of a large and active member family from the suburbs).

What it looks like to have only a dozen kids in Primary is this: Just about everything is hard. Churchwide policies that are made to accommodate the thriving and large wards of, say, Utah County, often don’t make sense where I live.

This policy feels different, like it’s designed to improve the churchgoing experience for people who live in places where Mormonism is not well established.

I spoke to our Primary president about the change, and she’s excited. We have two 11-year-olds right now, and they will both leave Primary at the first of the year rather than at the times of their individual birthdays. The boy will likely get ordained in January, and the girl will begin attending the Young Women program. This saves them the frustration of being the LAST tweens left to endure rounds of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with the little Sunbeams (ages 3 and 4) during singing time, which our kids all have together.

It’s tough to find songs and activities that appeal to wriggly Sunbeams and jaded tweens who are sneaking glances at their text messages each time they think the teachers aren’t looking.

It’s even tougher to do that for nearly two hours, which has been the case from 1980 up to now. In “the three-hour block” of Latter-day Saint meetings, kids and teachers have spent the last two of those hours in Primary, after an all-ages sacrament meeting worship service.

Starting in January, Primary will be pared to just 50 minutes total, with about half that for singing and half for age-specific classes (which in our case is just two groups). Short and sweet.

The changes to Primary aren’t the only modifications that should give small, struggling congregations more breathing room:

  • The two-hour block means we can call fewer teachers for adult Sunday School, priesthood, and Relief Society, which is an advantage when wards are short of potential volunteers and don’t want to keep asking the STPs (“same ten people”) again and again. Where I live, the move to a two-hour block may prevent burnout and exhaustion, as a number of members have more than one calling.

  • Consolidating the priesthood quorums for men earlier this year had much the same effect. Merging the two reduced the number of necessary callings to staff both organizations.

  • Moving away from formal home and visiting teaching programs has the potential to reduce the number of items that faithful members have on their to-do checklists. (I say “potential” here because even though this has been in place since April, there are still a lot of questions about how it is supposed to work in practice. Actually, some folks seem reluctant to let go of the checklist.)

  • Emphasizing “at home” strategies for learning the gospel points the way toward greater flexibility in how people read, discuss and gather together. They can have family home evening on whatever night works for them, rather than everyone moving heaven and earth to make FHE happen on a busy Monday. And they can create small groups to study and pray together.

When Nelson announced the age change for priesthood ordination and Young Women on Facebook, church members’ responses were almost over the top in their enthusiasm — specifically, that the change reflected how the Lord’s church is advancing in the latter days. Some commenters talked about it as an example of modern revelation, which is not language that Nelson used himself, though he has characterized other handbook policy changes as “revelation” in the past.

My approach is more pragmatic: This new ordination policy reflects how the church is contracting in the latter days. And I’m grateful we’re addressing it. Whatever the origins of this change, it solves a problem for my ward community. And given the slow shrinkage of the church’s growth rate from year to year, we’re not alone in experiencing this. Around the world, Latter-day Saints had about a 1.5 percent growth rate in 2017; in the United States it was half that, barely outpacing population growth (0.75 percent Latter-day Saint growth versus 0.71 percent for the general population).

As policies go, there’s a lot to like about these recent ones, which acknowledge the realities of declining growth and the needs of smaller wards.

| Courtesy Jana Riess Jana Riess, Latter-day Saint writer and editor.