What do you think about having ordinary Church members speak in General Conference?
In looking through General Conferences since 1971, I’ve found a number of times when ordinary members have given talks. By “ordinary members,” I mean members who do not hold a position at the general level of the Church–they’re not General Authorities or members of the General Relief Society Board or whatever.
Here, let me link to them all in case you’re curious. In the October 1978 Women’s Fireside (predecessor to the Relief Society Session, I guess), a woman named Ruth H. Funk gave a talk.
Then there were some ordinary member speakers in the Welfare Session a few years in a row. In October 1980, Douglas W. DeHaan (who was a stake president); in October 1981, JoAnn Randall and Nyle Randall (who I assume were a couple); and in October 1982, Dean Jarman (who was a stake president).
Then the Priesthood Session featured some ordinary member speakers. In October 1982, C. Frederick Pingel (a bishop) and Michael Nicholas (a young man from Bishop Pingel’s ward) spoke. In April 1983, Matthew S. Holland (son of Jeffrey R. Holland and a teen at the time) spoke with his father. (Elder Holland was also technically an ordinary member at the time, but considering that he was President of BYU and that he’s now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and BYU Presidents are now General Authorities, I find it hard to think of him even then as an ordinary member.)
The next trend was for celebrity Mormons to speak in Conference, but only in Priesthood Session. In April 1984, BYU basketball player Devin Durrant gave a talk. He was followed by BYU football coach LaVell Edwards in October 1984, gymnast Peter Vidmar in April 1985, and astronaut Don Lind in October 1985. I wonder if these talks weren’t President Kimball’s idea, because they were so regular and they ended when he died.
Finally, when Conference started to include the General Young Women’s Meeting, for a few years there were ordinary member speakers. In April 1995, these speakers were Melanie Eaton, Andrea Allen, Hilarie Cole (all young women), and Karen Maxwell (a stake Young Women’s leader). In April 1996, the following young women spoke: Anne Marie Rose, Kirstin Boyer, and Anne Prescott. In April 1997, the following young women spoke: Kristin Banner, Fono Lavatai, Alejandra Hernández.
All those talks took place in a 20-year period from 1978 to 1997. Now it’s been over a decade (as far as I can tell) since we’ve had an ordinary member speak in General Conference.
I haven’t read all of these talks, but I have a few ideas about the pluses and minuses of the approach in general. On the plus side, we members might find it easier to relate to one of our own than to someone who’s been in Church leadership much of their life. Having ordinary members speak might alleviate the problem of members feeling distanced from Church leaders when the leaders refer to their many Church connections (on this topic, see this excellent comment by Matt Evans at T&S last year). It’s also possible that we’re more likely to hear ways of expressing spiritual things that move us when we hear from a greater variety of people. A lot of General Authorities sound a lot a like, both in their content and in their delivery. (I think some of President Uchtdorf’s appeal is in that he breaks somewhat from the standard on this.) So hearing from people who do something as simple as talking differently might be helpful.
On the minus side, though, it seems likely that ordinary members chosen to speak in Conference are chosen precisely because they will not depart too much from the standard Mormon way of saying things. Again, I haven’t read all the talks I linked to, but I would guess that General Authorities would feel far more comfortable, in their role as leaders of the Church, to find new ways of expressing spiritual things (even if they’re a little bit weird) than will ordinary members asked to speak. If this is the case, then a second minus–the opportunity cost of hearing ordinary members is that we hear fewer General Authorities–really comes into play. If General Authorities are more likely to stir us out of our thoughtless stupor, perhaps we need to hear even more of them rather than less.
But that’s all just conjecture. What do you think? What are the pluses and minuses? Would you like to see more (or any) ordinary members speak in General Conference? Do you recall having any particular reaction, positive or negative, when you heard ordinary members speak in Conference? If ordinary members were asked to speak, would you prefer genuinely ordinary members or celebrity Mormons? (And if the latter, who? Stephanie Meyer? Mitt Romney?) Finally, what if you were asked to speak in Conference? Would you do it?