The 1976 annual regional meetings, held for the first time last month in all stakes of the Church throughout the world, were brought about by the Church’s number one problem, growth—a “problem” once described by President Harold B. Lee as “a very delightful one to grapple with.”
The extent of this growth is dramatically illustrated by statistics. For example, it took 117 years, from 1830 to 1947, for the Church to reach a total membership of one million. The second million was reached in 1963, just sixteen years later. Then in 1971, after the short space of only eight years, Church membership topped the three million figure.
One cannot contemplate the astonishing acceleration of this growth rate without thinking of the great prophecy of Daniel concerning the “latter days,” in which he spoke of the great stone, representing the kingdom of God, which would roll forth and fill the whole earth, and thereafter endure forever. (See Dan. 2:28, 35, 44.)
Perhaps the single most distinguishing feature of the latter-day organization referred to, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the fact that it is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” (Eph. 2:20.) This means that the Lord guides the Church through his appointed servants, who in turn give instruction to the Church’s various units. The Church cannot function in all its units without this vital guidance and training.
In the early days of the Church, when the total membership was small and largely localized, this needed instruction was given regularly by the Brethren at general conferences and through frequent personal contacts in the few stakes that had been established.
However, as the Church became firmly established in the Mountain West, population increased and stakes became much more numerous. Not only that, but the number of programs operating within the stakes increased as well. The Relief Society had already been organized in 1842, but to this was added the Sunday School in 1866, the forerunner of the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association in 1869, the Young Men’s MIA in 1875, and the Primary Association in 1878.
In any organization, growth and growing complexity bring with them special demands upon the administrative structure; likewise in the Church, it became inevitable that the means for getting information and instructions to the priesthood and auxiliary leaders in the wards and stakes should expand to meet the growing need.
In response to this need, a program of auxiliary conferences held in connection with the April and October general conferences of the Church was begun. The first Relief Society conference was held on April 6, 1889, and the other Church auxiliaries soon followed suit.
In these conferences, local leaders would travel to the headquarters of the Church in Salt Lake City to receive instructions, get their new materials, and learn about new programs. They would then return to their stakes to convey the information, inspiration, and motivation obtained at the conferences.
This system served the Church very well as long as travel distances to and from general conference were not too great.
But in 1958 a significant thing happened. On May 18 of that year, the first stake in the South Pacific was organized in Auckland, New Zealand.
Already stakes dotted the entire United States and had also been formed in Hawaii and in the neighboring countries of Canada and Mexico. Already temples had been built in foreign lands and genealogical, educational, athletic, and other programs established. And already travel had become difficult and costly for many general conference visitors, with some stakes carrying out projects to finance sending just one or two leaders. But the creation of a new stake on the opposite side of the world from the headquarters of the Church truly signaled a new era of international activity, and it became apparent that it would soon be impractical to continue to concentrate the Church’s major leadership training activities in Salt Lake City. Although the number of stake leaders attending the auxiliary conferences increased each year, the actual percentage of stake leaders able to attend began to decline. Therefore, a new plan for training local priesthood and auxiliary leaders was set in motion.
In 1967 the new administrative position of Regional Representative of the Twelve was established and sixty-nine brethren called. They were assigned the task of assisting the members of the Council of the Twelve in training and encouraging stake leaders in their various duties, and for this purpose they began to visit the stakes frequently. This method of leadership training was further implemented by the Regional Representatives in the twice-yearly regional training sessions held for designated stake and ward officers.
While the regional training concept continued to develop, the auxiliary conferences went on as usual. However, on June 27, 1975, President Spencer W. Kimball announced the discontinuance of all the auxiliary conferences—this for the purpose of reducing travel and making it possible for more people to receive instruction in the programs of the Church than had ever before been possible.
Subsequently, the announcement was made that in lieu of these conferences and the twice-yearly regional meetings, one major training session would be held in June each year in each of the regions of the Church, involving all priesthood and auxiliary leaders of the stakes. Corresponding officers in the missions were also invited to attend, where convenient. Thus the changeover from the auxiliary conference program to the regional meeting method of training was complete, the acknowledgement having been made that a program established before the turn of the century when there were approximately 200,000 members of the Church in fifty stakes and thirty missions would no longer be adequate in an age when there are in excess of 3 1/2 million members in more than 750 stakes (100 of them in overseas lands) and 145 missions, although that program served the Church very well while it was operative.
The June regional meetings held in all the stakes of the Church throughout the world last month therefore mark an important milestone in the development of the Lord’s work in this dispensation. They represent yet another step forward—and outward—in the increasingly complex administration of the affairs of His kingdom.
The specific purpose of the June regional meeting is to train leaders and present annual guidelines that will be used during the subsequent Church curriculum year, which begins in September and continues through the following August. From June to September, stake leaders have sufficient time to introduce and to train other stake and ward leaders in their responsibilities in the program and in the emphases encouraged for that year.
A significant feature of the first annual June regional meetings held this past month was the fact that for the first time all stake priesthood and auxiliary leaders met together for their major yearly training session under the direction of the priesthood. Invited to the meetings from each stake were: stake presidency, high councilors, stake executive secretary, and stake clerk; Melchizedek Priesthood quorum presidencies, group leaders, and assistants; bishoprics, ward executive secretaries, and ward clerk from each ward; stake Relief Society presidency and secretary; stake young adult, young special interest, and special interest council representatives (both male and female); stake Young Women director, advisers, and secretary; stake Sunday School presidency, Junior Sunday School coordinator, and secretary.
The training began with an opening session under the direction of the Regional Representative of the Twelve. In addition to items of concern to local leaders, the annual regional meeting concept was discussed and the use of the annual guidelines for each organization was explained.
After the opening session, five separate departmental sessions were held, one for the combined priesthood leadership and others for Relief Society, Primary, Sunday School, and Young Women leaders.
In the combined priesthood session, three major topics were presented: (1) Melchizedek Priesthood curriculum and gospel study, (2) the functions of the ward priesthood executive committee meeting, and (3) instructions for fellowshipping and baptizing nonmembers.
1. In the priesthood curriculum presentation, the priesthood leaders were once again reminded that the course of study for the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums is the standard works of the Church. The total eight-year gospel study program was shown, with the indication that the Sunday School has the assignment of presenting the scriptures in their chronological and historical context, while the Melchizedek Priesthood has the assignment of considering the doctrines and priesthood duties contained in the standard works. (See Fig. 1.)
Other vital points stressed in relation to the gospel study program were: (1) The fact that it is the desire of the Lord and the instructions of the First Presidency that all priesthood holders study the scriptures regularly. (2) The fact that the standard works are the lesson manuals, the Personal Study Guide having been prepared simply to lead the priesthood holder in using the standard works on a personal study basis. (3) The fact that the quorum presidency is responsible for quorum instruction, working with the instructor. While the Personal Study Guide may serve as a guide for quorum lessons, other learning activities such as workshops, testimony meetings, planning meetings, etc., should be considered as the Spirit directs.
The priesthood leaders were next given instructions regarding the priesthood executive committee meeting—a vital meeting in which the genealogy, missionary, and home teaching work of the ward are correlated. Especially useful information was given as to what the meeting is and what the meeting is not, who does and who does not attend, and how the meeting is related to the ward welfare services committee meeting and the ward correlation council meeting.
Finally, the priesthood leaders discussed the need for every member of the Church to be involved in missionary work. A special filmstrip presentation outlined the steps each family or individual can take in sharing the gospel—from the first contact to friendshipping to arrangements for missionaries to baptism. Also, the roles of those leaders who assist families in this great responsibility—stake presidents, seventies presidents, ward mission leaders, quorum leaders, home teachers, and bishops—were carefully defined. In each case, particular attention was given to specific personal commitments and goals for the coming year, so that all the Church may begin to move forward with greater energy than ever before in this most important assignment given by the Lord in our time.
2. In the Relief Society departmental session, stake Relief Society leaders and young adult, young special interest, and special interest female representatives were presented with the challenge for 1976: “Is Every Woman in Relief Society?” The point was made that all sisters should be participating in at least one of the weekly Relief Society sessions available, whether it be the regular daytime session, the evening session, the young adult session, or a special session organized to meet special needs. Suggestions for involving every woman in the Church were explored.
In addition, the new Relief Society Handbook was presented, and a substantial amount of time was spent in discussing each leader’s particular duties as outlined in the new handbook.
3. Similarly, the Primary departmental session concentrated on the activity of each child, with the challenge “A Primary for Every Child and Every Child in Primary” introduced. A special presentation illustrating this challenge pointed out the responsibility of parents, teachers, priesthood leaders, Primary officers, and friends to see that every child is invited to attend Primary, feels welcome at Primary, and is spiritually blessed through his attendance.
Additional attention was given to special ward programs, to the conduct of preparation meetings, and to the individual stewardships of ward and stake leaders.
4. The Sunday School departmental presentation centered around the 1976–77 Sunday School curriculum; however, a great deal of time was also spent in discussion groups where all Sunday School officers assessed their effectiveness as leaders and their understanding of their roles. High councilors assigned to Sunday School joined in this “How Do I Measure Up?” portion of the meeting.
5. In the Young Women departmental session, the mission of the LDS Young Women organization was discussed and the goals for the 1976–77 year were presented. These goals are:
a. Increase Church activity of young women. It was stressed in this regard that in order to “reach the one,” leaders will have to focus on individual needs of each girl.
b. Focus on service to others, learning experiences, and fun activities.
c. Provide opportunities for young women to have wholesome relationships with other young women and with young men.
d. Develop the spirituality of young women by helping them to learn and live the gospel and share its blessings. In this area, particular emphasis was given to seminary enrollment and to attendance at Sunday School and sacrament meetings as well as activity night.
6. Following the morning departmental sessions came lunch and a series of noon cultural presentations, including such things as art displays, homemaking skills demonstrations, crafts displays, performances by musical and dramatic groups, and many other events.
In some regions, emphasis was placed on these cultural arts presentations, and many stakes were tremendously successful in their efforts. One stake conducted musical presentations, art and photography exhibits (including a special young artists display), historical exhibits, sculpture and pottery displays. They received more than four hundred entries from their own stake.
In areas where it was convenient to do so, stakes held Friday evening cultural presentations for the regional membership. Some of these presentations featured music, dance, or drama festivals, roadshows, variety and talent shows, speech festivals, etc.
The importance of the cultural arts events has been indicated by Elder Marion D. Hanks. Quoting Pundit Nehru’s last public speech, he said at the October 1975 Regional Representatives Seminar: “People have become more brutal in thought, speech, and action. The process of coarsening is going on apace all over the world. We are becoming coarsened and vulgarized because of many things.” Pointing out the necessity of bringing all that is virtuous in the cultural arts into the Church, Elder Hanks continued: “We need to give young people the kind of memories … and the kind of involvement that everybody in the Church would prosper from.”
7. After the noontime activities, the Relief Society, Primary, Sunday School, and Young Women departmental sessions continued. The priesthood leaders who had all met together in the morning at this time divided up into separate afternoon departmental sessions for bishoprics, high priests, seventies, elders, executive secretaries, and clerks. Separate sessions were also formed for young adult and special interest council representatives and also for stake athletic directors.
8. In the bishopric departmental session, a number of very important items were taken up.
First of all, the work of the Aaronic Priesthood quorums was discussed, and the three great challenges for the Aaronic Priesthood in 1976–77 were presented. These challenges are:
a. To improve the program for young men so that it and other ward programs provide a balance of service, cultural, spiritual, social, and physical activities that result in testimony-building and character-strengthening experiences.
b. To activate young men who are not now active so they can be blessed by receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood.
c. To prepare young men to be missionaries.
In meeting these challenges, the importance of properly trained Aaronic Priesthood quorum presidencies was stressed.
Also reemphasized were the goals of the Young Women previously mentioned. Specific objectives for fathers, bishoprics, and stake presidents were presented for each of these goals.
The 1976–77 Welfare Services emphasis was introduced as an extremely important part of the bishopric session.
It was pointed out that there are many temporal problems that can seriously hinder spiritual growth. Among these are disease, malnutrition, poverty, unemployment, emotional problems, illiteracy, and debt. Bishops were then instructed as to how they and other ward leaders can help the Saints prepare for and deal with such problems. In particular, the role of the ward welfare services committee in dealing with these problems was discussed.
The levels of responsibility were also outlined:
a. The first responsibility for a person’s well-being lies with himself.
b. The next responsibility lies with his family (relatives).
c. When the individual and his family cannot provide for his needs, then the Church must be ready to help.
Because these responsibilities are so important, the focus of welfare services was discussed under two categories: family preparedness and ward preparedness.
Under family preparedness, it was emphasized that each family should try to become prepared in the following six areas: (a) literacy and education, (b) career development, (c) financial management, (d) home production and storage, (e) physical health, and (f) social/emotional strength. (See Fig. 2.)
Ward preparedness was discussed particularly in terms of the employment system available through Personal Welfare Services, which is designed to assist ward leaders in their efforts to help members find gainful employment, and also in terms of ward production projects. It was stressed that each ward should be involved in a production project, either on a ward level or on a stake, region, or area level.
9. In the high priests’ afternoon departmental session, high priests group leaders were instructed on their responsibilities as priesthood leaders and their relationships with high councilors, other quorum presidents, and bishops. Their leadership role in genealogy and temple matters was emphasized.
10. Seventies group leaders reviewed the annual guidelines relating to missionary work in the stakes. Each stake in the regions of the Church established baptismal goals for 1976–77 in this departmental session and also discussed a variety of proselyting tools to help members approach nonmembers.
11. The departmental session for elders quorum presidents began with a presentation of useful training aids and other necessary materials, including the new Melchizedek Priesthood Handbook. Instruction was then given on the purpose of quorum meetings and the president’s responsibility for effective quorum instruction.
Particular attention was given to the organization of quorum committees, the difference between standing and special committees being emphasized. It was pointed out that special committees could be formed for any number of purposes, except to replace or duplicate the work of home teachers. (See Fig. 3.)
Perhaps the greatest amount of time in the elders’ session was devoted to the problem of effective reactivation and fellowshipping of prospective elders. Specific ways to identify and teach and fellowship prospective elders were presented and discussed, including the quorum reactivation committee and the activation seminar.
12. In the session for executive secretaries, a broad overview of the responsibilities of the executive secretary was given, followed by specific suggestions on how he can serve priesthood leaders and priesthood executive committees more effectively. Extremely useful information was provided on how to develop effective agendas and follow-up procedures for priesthood executive committee meetings, and also on ways to keep the bishop or stake president informed on priesthood home teaching and family home evening matters.
13. In a most interesting presentation, ward clerks were introduced to the “record-keeping team” concept. Record keeping requires a team effort as well as an individual effort in the stakes and wards of the Church, a complete team consisting of as many as a hundred or more clerks, assistant clerks, and various secretaries throughout a stake.
Workshops for clerks in the financial, statistical, membership, and historical areas provided valuable instruction in the workings of this complex team effort.
Further, it was emphasized that record keeping should not be regarded as a strictly temporal calling. It is a spiritual calling as well, a fact attested to by the scriptures. Each clerk was assured that he can expect to receive inspiration as necessary to accomplish his calling of keeping the sacred records of the Church.
14. In the Melchizedek Priesthood MIA departmental session, a much-needed review of the organization and relationship of programs to meet the needs of single adults was carried out. The role of the elders quorum counselor and the Relief Society counselor in training and assisting ward young adult and special interest representatives was especially noted.
The desirability of meeting the needs of single adults “close to home” was underscored. This suggests an increased importance placed on activities at the ward level. It does not suggest that activity at the stake, region, or area level is unnecessary or undesirable, but that generally the needs of more persons are more effectively served on the level nearest the individual.
Of particular significance in the Melchizedek Priesthood MIA session was the presentation of a chart indicating accountability for single adults at all levels of the organization.
15. In the session for stake athletic directors, the number one concern in the Church athletic program was given top priority: sportsmanship.
Sportsmanship was defined as Christlike behavior in a player, a coach, or a spectator, and suggestions were presented and discussed as to how sportsmanship can be improved with the combined cooperation of priesthood leaders, athletic directors, coaches, players, officials, and spectators.
Also noteworthy in the athletic directors’ departmental session was the encouragement given to stake leaders to consider ways to expand the athletic program to meet the needs of all individuals and families in the wards. These leaders were encouraged to formulate plans for (a) involving the entire ward family in wholesome activities; (b) getting members of individual families to participate with other families; (c) providing meaningful activities for single people, the divorced, widows, and widowers; and (d) joining the active with the less than active to bring rich social, physical, and spiritual benefits to those involved.
16. Finally, in a closing session with all in attendance, the Regional Representative of the Twelve spoke concerning goals and commitments for the region.
Looking back, one cannot help but be impressed with the potential of the June regional meeting as a training device. The priesthood and auxiliary leaders in attendance are now busy training and instructing other local leaders in preparation for the Church year beginning in September.
These annual regional meetings thus become the great tool by which the instructions from the Brethren are placed into the hands of all the leaders of the Church wherever it is established—uniform and consistent instructions, received throughout all the world at the same time. And thus the link is completed from the individual member of the Church to its chief cornerstone, the Savior. With the added emphasis of the cultural arts presentations, these meetings become, in essence, hundreds of June Conferences and the other auxiliary general conferences as they were presented through the years, with all the unique elements of those conferences—instruction, entertainment, beauty, testimony, inspiration, and direction.