How COVID-19 has changed LDS General Conference traditions

“It was a bummer not to get together,” says one member, but another insists he’s found a way to improve the overall experience.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People listen during the Sunday morning session of the 189th twice-annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. Many conference traditions are shifting amid the pandemic.

General Conference usually involves lots of family members for Janica Jensen.

The Herriman resident said typically, during sessions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ biannual meetings, she joins grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to share meals and listen to church leaders’ sermons.

Last year, though, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, her family held off on watching conference together. Jensen had a newborn baby, she said, while her young cousin was going through cancer, and the risk to these immunocompromised family members was too great to gather.

“It was a bummer not to get together,” Jensen said, “but we’re hopefully ready to start cautiously meeting” for the October 2021 conference.

She’s not alone in having the coronavirus disrupt her conference plans.

In a recent query about General Conference traditions, The Salt Lake Tribune received dozens of responses from Latter-day Saints, some of whom detailed how their routines were modified or derailed due to the pandemic.

Others, however, said their conference customs have stayed the same.

Common pre-COVID conference traditions included attending sessions at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, special meals, certain activities, shopping excursions or assembling with family or friends to hear leaders speak.

Now, with the sessions shifting to an all-virtual format since April 2020 — it will do so again next month for the fourth straight time — and with health worries rising amid the delta variant, these traditions will look a little different for many Latter-day Saints.

Changing traditions

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Salt Lake City resident Laura Hamilton said in previous years, her family has enjoyed conference sessions together while taking weekend trips.

That didn’t happen last year, though she hopes to reinstate those journeys soon.

“The traditions make [conference weekend] special,” she said. “They help to set it apart from other weekends and other Sundays.”

(Jeri Stuart Mitchell) West Bountiful resident Jeri Stuart Mitchell said watching General Conference from home is a lonely experience since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Jeri Stuart Mitchell said her family has sometimes attended General Conference in person and met people from all over the world while waiting in line.

Even viewing the sessions at home brought excitement, the West Bountiful resident said, but “watching now is such a lonely feeling.”

Mitchell said she’s also struggled with viewing virtual church meetings at home. They just haven’t felt the same as in-person worship.

“The spirit is just not there,” she said. “Maybe I’ve lost something that I used to have or that I took for granted.”

Hamilton, though, has found the opposite, building “a much closer personal relationship to the Savior.”

“I find I am more prayerful,” she said, “and more likely to turn to the scriptures for solace and support.”

Staying the same

(Victoria Smith) The Harris family, from left to right: Matthew (15), Katrina (39), Brian (41), Kate (7) and Rachel (11). Brian Harris said his family's General Conference traditions haven't changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While some spoke of changes due to COVID-19, other Latter-day Saints said their conference traditions haven’t been impacted at all.

Murray resident Brian Harris said his family members didn’t have a lot of conference traditions to begin with and that they’re “low key” during sessions.

The father of three said the most important thing is that his family watches together.

“Aside from prerecorded music, [conference] is largely the same experience,” Harris said. “And in a world where it feels like everything is constantly being upended, it’s kind of nice to have something that feels familiar.”

Next month, even live music is poised to return, with The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square scheduled to perform at several sessions in the Conference Center, although to mostly empty seats during the all-virtual services.

Other members don’t plan to revive the old traditions after the pandemic.

Jeff Conn, who lives in Carmichael, Calif., said he sometimes attended General Conference in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square. He also sometimes watched livestreams of each session in a church meetinghouse with other members.

But after experiencing the pandemic, he said, he doesn’t see himself viewing sessions in either location ever again.

Conn added that he’s also changed the way he consumes conference. Rather than seeing each session live, which felt like “information overload” to him, he now watches several talks, then reads or watches the others online at his leisure.

“My new approach,” he said, “has improved my conference experience.”

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