Growing Pains: Sacrificing the personal for the greater good?
It’s my own fault. Unknowingly, I scheduled myself to work the Saturday of Stake Conference. And if I hadn’t rear-ended someone a week previously, I might have been able to drive to the stake center and make the last hour. As it was, given the unreliability of LA metro, and the not-so-safe area where the stake center is, I took the bus home instead. So I missed the evening session of stake conference. And with the (first ever in our stake) satellite broadcast of stake conference showing at multiple locations, I wasn’t even in the same building as the new stake president, let alone have an opportunity to hear him speak to issues that specifically concern our stake. And if one of my roommates hadn’t taken notes like the gem she is, the only image I would carry in my immediately retrievable organic flashcard would be of President Monson wiggling his ears.
The church is growing. Almost a quarter of a million converts in 2004, about 12.3 million members world wide, and 2,665 stakes (figures presented at April 2005 GC). That’s a lot of places for the general authorities to visit once a year. However, thanks to technology and the new 18,000 square foot broadcasting area in the Conference Center, they don’t have to anymore. As I understand it, from now on, all Stake Conferences will be conducted via satellite unless a new stake presidency is being called, which happens about once every decade.
So, the day after I miss the evening session, I walk over to the ward building with some friends to catch the satellite portion of Stake Conference. After years of the pomp and circumstance of General Conference broadcasts, the setting was a bit plain … no flowers, large choir, dramatic lighting or velvet seats. And while I suspect this is intentional, to make it feel more like a regular stake center, it just doesn’t resonate with me. We hear from Elder Rasband, Sister Rasband, Sister Wirthlin, Elder Wirthlin and President Monson. This is surprising in itself, as I’ve never heard more than one female speaker at any broadcast, and here are women representing 40%! As Elder Rasband speaks, I am bewildered by his Richard-G-Scott-esque turning of the head to address particular portions of the “audience.” I wonder if there IS an audience there … maybe just empty chairs, or invited friends, or paper faces taped to a wall? Various topics are covered … temples, marriage, compassionate service, the old testament, true happiness … but I must admit that President Monson is the runaway hit of the morning.
President Monson … so affable, grandfatherly and loving. On a weekend of disconcerting changes, his personableness saves the day. He relates stories of being in California, of serving in the military, of reaching out to members and non-members alike, of personal strivings for worthiness, of learning in both spiritual and secular matters … in short, he talks about issues that are particularly relevant to his audience. And this is not to say that General Conference doesn’t do the same, but a recognition that I come to stake conference expecting a more specific and personal approach, and that he answers my need.
And so my response to the growth of the church is sorrowful joy, or joyful sorrow. On the one hand, I am inspired and exultant by the spreading of the gospel, and the lives that are changed for the better. On the other hand, I feel a sense of loss at the distance I perceive between the leaders of the church and ordinary members. On reading biographies of past presidents of the church (most notably Joseph Smith and David O. McKay), I am delighted at how accessible they were to those who sought their help. However, nowadays we are discouraged from approaching the leaders of the church, with correspondence often being rerouted through local leaders. And while I understand the rationale, I oft times feel like the first Presidency is impossibly distant.
I wonder if this is akin to how members felt when the endowment sessions went on the big screen … grateful that the church was expanding so rapidly to so many lands and peoples, but also feeling a strange disconnectedness. I’ve been to one live session at the SLC temple, and while I was charmed at the idea of temple workers acting out the endowment before me, I was happy in the knowledge that the LA temple had smoothly running sessions where I could hear and understand every word. Now, I wonder if the temple workers during the transition from live to recorded sessions felt a queer sense of loss at being removed from the immediacy of performing the endowment. It also makes me wonder if we as a church won’t just become accustomed to viewing our church leaders as talking heads. Or will it bind us into tighter regional groups? Or make no difference at all? I don’t know. However, I am looking forward to attending General Conference in SLC in April. Much as I appreciate the convenience of watching GC on tivo, I am excited at the possibility of actually being in the Supernacle. In a world where so much is virtual, I guess I’m just searching for a hands on, down home, real world experience.