Mormon church shortens General Conference, elevates visibility of women’s session

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) LDS leaders Henry B. Eyring and Dieter F. Uchtdorf shake hands with leaders at the General Women's Session of the 187th Semiannual General Conference of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Salt Lake City, Saturday September 23, 2017.

The LDS Church’s general women’s session no longer will have to share the General Conference spotlight twice a year with the all-male priesthood gathering.

Instead, each of those sessions will take place annually, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Friday.

This major change puts the men’s and women’s meetings on a more equal footing and shortens the semiannual conferences from six sessions to five.

The women’s meeting, which officially became part of conference in 2015, no longer will be held on the Saturday before the other sessions.

Rather, starting next spring, the priesthood meeting will occur during the April conference with the female session taking the stage in October.

“These meetings will originate from the Conference Center [in downtown Salt Lake City] on Saturday evening following the morning and afternoon sessions of the conference,” the faith’s governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote in a letter that will be read to Mormon congregations throughout the world.

Consolidating the conference sessions into one weekend, the letter added, will further efforts “of reducing and simplifying the work of the church and the demands made upon leaders and members.”

Salt Lake City Mormon Crystal Young-Otterstrom welcomed the reduced conference load, but wondered whether more LDS women’s leaders — or fewer — will speak during the sessions.

“It’s definitely a positive thing for a church that is family-centric, so we can spend more time with our families,” she said. “But, as a woman, I lament the [potential] loss of time at the pulpit for women to speak.”

Perhaps, she said, female LDS leaders will address the conference crowds more often at the sessions that are open to all — and telecast or streamed across the globe. “It would be nice to hear from women as often as we do from men, because women do commune with God, even if we don’t hold the priesthood.”

In the most recent conference, for instance, three Mormon women’s leaders, as usual, gave sermons during the female meeting, but only two spoke during the general sessions.

By comparison, male LDS authorities — from First Presidency members and apostles to Seventies and a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric — delivered 31 sermons during the six sessions.

Steve Evans, a Salt Lake City attorney and founder of the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent, also worried about the gender balance of speakers in future conferences.

“It’s a surprising change. It probably simplifies conference greatly. I wonder what the genesis was for [it],” he wrote in an email. “At the same time, I’m curious about whether the overall mix of speakers will be adjusted. ... It would be great to hear more from women in general sessions.”

At the same time, many Latter-day Saints greeted inclusion of the women’s session in the main conference weekend as a significant step, elevating the profile of that gathering.

“General Conference is an important cultural definer for Mormons,” Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project, explained in an email. “It sets the tone for how we structure and manage our local experiences.”

McBaine, author of the 2014 “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact” and occasional opinion pieces for The Salt Lake Tribune, has written extensively about the role of women in Mormonism and how the faith could be more gender-inclusive without altering its doctrines.

“For this reason, I’m thrilled that the egregious imbalance that has existed around the women’s session — having it be separate from the ‘main’ conference proceedings — has been addressed,” she said. “The new schedule indicates equivalent focus, resources and importance for both men’s and women’s sessions, and, by extension, the audiences those meetings embrace.”

West Valley City resident Sarah Balhorn, likewise, said she had felt “a bit of a disconnect” when women and girls met on a separate weekend.

“I always wondered why the men met during the two actual General Conference days and the women met the week before,” Rebecca Ferrin Billings of Payson wrote on Facebook. “It didn’t really bother me much, but I wonder if now maybe the entire First Presidency will speak in general women’s session (like they do, generally, in priesthood session) instead of taking turns speaking every six months.”

Even an official with Ordain Women, a group that has been pushing for female ordination to Mormonism’s all-male priesthood, applauded the move.

“[It] gives the appearance of more parity between the women’s session and the priesthood session,” Bryndis Roberts, chairwoman of OW’s executive board and a Mormon convert in Atlanta, wrote in an email. “It is a step in the right direction.”

Still, Roberts added, “until women are ordained ... we will never have equal status in the LDS Church. So, we will continue to ask our leaders to take the issue of women’s ordination to our Heavenly Parents in prayer.”

Mormons believe not only in a Heavenly Father but also a Heavenly Mother — and that humans are their spirit children.

Mike Winder, a state lawmaker and Latter-day Saint who lives in West Valley City, noted another opportunity with the new conference lineup.

“The women always get one male speaker in their session of conference,” he said. “It would be great if someday we could hear from one of the women’s leaders in the priesthood session. … Some of the best advice on being better husbands, fathers and men comes from women.”

Of course, the change could have an effect on Salt Lake City shops and restaurants, too, by siphoning 20,000 or so people away from downtown on two Saturday nights a year.