A few years ago, I realized that I had begun to anticipate General Conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with anxiety rather than hope. The following changes in how I listened, read and learned helped me find new inspiration in the biannual global gatherings.
Turn off social media. Listen directly to the words spoken at conference before reading commentaries by others. As Latter-day Saints, we believe the Holy Ghost can bring the thoughts and feelings to our minds that we need to hear.
It is difficult, however, to be in touch with the Spirit and the inspiration it holds specifically for you when the words spoken at General Conference are mediated through the collective reaction of the internet. Since attempting to hear conference for myself before reading any other reactions, I have been struck by how differently I often understand certain talks than even commentators I deeply respect. We deserve to let the Spirit tell us what we need to hear — not what our friends need to hear.
Approach problematic talks with compassion. Occasionally, a conference sermon will make me cringe. Whereas I used to feel entrapped and threatened by speeches that did not seem to comport with my values and identity, I have found it helpful to reflect on how such talks might speak to others. I consider the findings of scholars like Caroline Kline who have noted, for example, that many international Latter-day Saints and women of color do not share the feminist paradigm that is often prioritized among educated, white Americans. The patriarchal family that I find limiting is something another member might desperately desire to achieve the economic and familial security I take for granted. I have also lived long enough to see that the church will often revise its cultural practices and policies, or that I will change my perspective regarding topics that once bothered me.
Act according to the inspiration you receive. Rather than fretting over the talks I find troublesome, I now focus on acting upon the inspiration that I do receive. While conference includes many messages, a few themes usually resonate with my life. I work on what I am sure God wants me to do rather than on what does not currently feel right.
Listen with the Spirit. By inclination and professional training, I listen carefully to specific words and assume that they convey particular meanings. Not everyone, however, uses precise language or sees language as the primary source of meaning. While I might be concerned about words such as “preside” that imply a hierarchy in marriage, others might look at cultural contexts to argue that “preside” no longer means a hierarchy in practice. While I believe that we should strive toward inclusive and precise language, I risk missing the full picture when I let my bias about terms get in the way of meaning.
It is important that we draw upon the examples of people like church founder Joseph Smith who ultimately used the Spirit to translate meaning rather than rely merely upon the various academic disciplines that teach us how to read.
Do not force yourself to watch every session over the weekend. As a parent of young children, I cannot feel the Spirit while herding my family to each conference session. Instead, my family watches the Sunday morning session together, and then I watch one talk a day from the other sessions while I exercise. This practice allows me to give my full attention to what is spoken and extends my connection to conference throughout the season.
May you find the inspiration you seek as you listen to this conference.
Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not reflect those of the church or her employer.