Zelophehad’s Daughters

Ordinary members speaking in General Conference

Posted by Ziff

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?

25 Responses to “Ordinary members speaking in General Conference”

  1. 1.

    The ones I actually remember were the Mormon sports figures.

    I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right, that was an occasional practice that seems to have died.

    If I were asked to speak in conference, sure I’d do it. Maybe I could try speaking in tongues or something just to jazz the proceedings up a bit.

  2. 2.

    Ziff,

    Ahem.

  3. 3.

    I vaguely remember some “regular” people speaking in YW meetings of my youth. I didn’t think anything of it, because those sessions were substantially different from GC–they didn’t have the same feel, just the same location. They are much more GC now.

    I assume that these “regular” members were actually regular people who were also local and somewhat connected–they were not chosen at random–someone knew them and forwarded their names along.

    I would not be at all interested to hear from Mormon celebrities. Sorry, celebrities: I have no reason to believe your celebrity gives you better access to the spirit or writing and speaking skills.

    I would be somewhat interested in hearing from regular members. Maybe we could have some sort of speaking tournament and the winner, the person with the best talk, speaks at GC. I know who I would nominate from my ward!

  4. 4.

    I may well be in a minority in this opinion, but I for one am glad that “regular” members of the Church don’t speak in General Conference.

    Good heavens, I get enough of those every freaking week in my own ward.

    Bring on the Apostles, says I.

  5. 5.

    I am not for having regular members speak. I get that every Sunday. Why have a General Conference if it is not to hear the leaders who we don’t get to hear each week?

    It might make sense in a rare situation.

  6. 6.

    Ruth Hardy Funk was the General President of the YW from 1972-1978, which ought to qualify her as extra-ordinary. :)

  7. 7.

    Oops, thanks for catching that Kristine! I guess if I had read her talk I would have found this statement:

    How blessed I have been to be called to serve in various general capacities these past thirty-one years

    I was fooled by the fact that she wasn’t listed with a title at the top–just her name.

  8. 8.

    I like the talk tournament idea. Any way of getting a higher density of interesting/insightful/different talks in GC is fine by me!

  9. 9.

    I am very much of two minds about this. At this point in President Monson’s service, he’s recycling stories all over. Serving for most of his life, I’m amazed he isn’t just getting up and reading old talks verbatim. A new perspective could be really nice, and since I like public speaking, I’d be glad for more opportunities to do it.

    However, how would they find these people? A random member is statistically (based on my meetings anyway) going to suck, and anyone else would be so entrenched in the GA circles that the benefits of a non-GA speaker would most likely be lost.

    Beats me. Maybe President Monson will just wake up with a start some morning and say, “I’ve had a dream. Find me this Reese Dixon person!”

  10. 10.

    Awesome. We could have a bunch of 12-year-olds read Monson’s stories from the Ensign and close with “nameofjesuschristamen.”

    No.

  11. 11.

    The only way I could stomach S.Meyer speaking in conference is if she spoke in Priesthood and gave us the secret for ridding our wards of Twilight fans.

  12. 12.

    Bring on Harry Reid.

  13. 13.

    My first thought is that we hear from regular members all year in our wards.
    We only hear from the GAs twice a year (although it does seem much more frequent than that).

    As far as celebrity Mormons are concerned, I’d like to hear from Stephanie and Christian Nielson (if they can be considered celebrities). I think their stories would be valuable from a church-wide perspective.

    More than regular or celebrity members, I’d like a change in presentation. I heard a joke recently about talking white men in suits (Twmis?) and it reminded me of GC. I’m sure the GAs are aware of studies describing ideal learning environments and staring at a talking head for 8-10 hours in one weekend does NOT lend itself to good learning or retention.

    This is why we are having a Teaching No Greater Call class in my ward, to make us better teachers. I would guess that what happens over GC weekend is not the best kind of teaching for 80% of members.

  14. 14.

    Oh yes, Harry Reid. LOVE IT!

  15. 15.

    I’m for cutting the number of sessions in half, regardless of who speaks.

    There could be a church-wide essay contest (like the international art competition), with the winners reading their essays at GC. This way the content could be screened, but depending on judging criteria, there could still be a diversity of voices.

  16. 16.

    I’d be wary simply because most of the lessons I hear at church from “ordinary members” are boring/wrong/uninspired/etc. I suppose holding a GA calling etc doesn’t prevent all that from happening either though, because there have been plenty of conference talks that are boring. However, I like to believe they are at least inspired.

  17. 17.

    I’d go all giddy to hear any message that doesn’t include….

    “growing up on a small farm in Idaho”

    “my ancestors, who walked across the plains,”

    “we pulled beets on a welfare farm”

    or

    “my mother gave away the dinner roast”

    I would, however, love to hear about the Saviour.

  18. 18.

    Karen Maxwell is the daughter-in-law of Neal A. and daughter of former BYU music dept. Merill Bradshaw.

  19. 19.

    Oh no! First Ruth Funk, now Karen Maxwell! So given enough time (and enough digging) you’ll tell me that none of these people were actually ordinary members! I should have guessed it! :)

  20. 20.

    I hear enough from ordinary members in weekly sacrament meeting, and I hear enough from Harry Reid and Mitt Romney in the news. (I realize they’re not in the news as much these days, but to me that is a good thing. I’d like it to continue.)

    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

    I hadn’t thought of this initially, but I think you’re right. That is a pretty big deal. I vote ixnay on the ordinary embersmay.

  21. 21.

    Ziff, thanks for the idea. Donny Osmond was on the list but he was too busy dancing with the stars!

  22. 22.

    President Eyring said something in his talk in the Priesthood Session this evening about how lots of young men would give talks in their wards that were every bit as inspiring as those that were actually given in Conference. Now I know it’s unlikely, but I’m going to take that as his approval for the idea of having ordinary members talk. :)

    Okay, more seriously, I like the point many of you have made that it’s not like we don’t get to hear ordinary members talk every other week of the year. So maybe Conference should be different. I guess I’d like to hear ordinary members talk if I could be assured that they would be good, and would be different enough from General Authorities to make them interesting. Of course, it would in practice be very difficult to assure that. The speaking competition idea might work, although I would guess that competitive speaking on spiritual topics would turn many of us off. Depending on who their judges are, competitors might simply resort to telling ever more tear-inducing stories. This might result in even worse speakers than randomly chosen ones!

  23. 23.

    Bring on Harry Reid. (Jacob J.)

    Ugh, no! I was at the forum in which Reid stated (and showed), “my faith and political beliefs are deeply intertwined.” I find it hard to believe he would be able to refrain from political opination at that pulpit. Not because he is a leftist—the same goes for, say, Glenn Beck. Doctrine, not politics, is—and should be—the focus of a conference of the general membership of the church. Sure, sometimes doctrine is political, but political opinion is commonly the doctrine of men. This highlights the reason I think we don’t see “ordinary” members of the church speak anymore: the risk of preaching doctrines of men and false traditions.

    Reid also said after that forum:

    In the past years we’ve had some very prominent members of the church, like Ezra Taft Benson, who are really right-wing people. Members of the church are obedient and followers in the true sense of the word, but these people have taken members of the church down the path that is the wrong path.

    I would find it very hard to believe that anyone who publicly criticizes church leaders (in the above case or respecting usage of money on Prop 8) would be anywhere near a list of candidates to speak if the church decided to invite an “ordinary” member.

    And eww, no Stephenie Meyer, either. Nothing against her, but I cringe every time someone defines Mormonism by her or her books. I’d say no to the celebrities—I can definitely see some good examples out there, but it seems the whole point of inviting an “ordinary” member to speak is being able to relate to them. I’d rather not have the distraction of worldly honors.

    Of course I’d do it if I were asked. I’d just have to clear everything from my schedule for 6 months and make sure I have a good anti-anxiety medication regimen set up. Oh, I’d also get a life insurance policy that covers death by embarrassment. You know, just in case.

  24. 24.

    A coworker sent this link to me, as they saw my name on here. I realize this is a very old post, but I thought you might find it interesting how speaking in YW conference came about.

    Our YW leader had each girl in my class send in a letter about something we learned in conference, as the prophet had asked. From that letter, I was selected to join in a group discussion about gospel principles. They had 3 different groups I could choose from, comprising of about 15 girls each. At the time, I wasn’t aware that it was anything other than what it appeared to be—a group of girls talking about the gospel and what it meant in their lives. A few weeks later, I received a telephone call asking if I’d be interested in speaking in YW Conference. So, they didn’t leave such an opportunity to random selection. However, I don’t feel like my talk added anything special to the conference….

  25. 25.

    Kirstin, thanks so much for coming by to give the back story of your talk! Kudos to you for taking the chance when they asked. I can’t imagine doing that as a teenager. Heck, I can’t imagine doing it now! I’d probably faint.

    Sorry you didn’t feel like your talk added much. I guess that was one thing I was kind of trying to get at with the post is that it’s only the FP and Q of 12 who can really say anything truly new; everyone else likely feels pretty constrained to stick to saying extremely conventional things.

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