Just a few short months into his presidency, President Russell M. Nelson is making historic changes to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During the recent General Conference, the church enacted two substantive changes, one disbanding the longstanding priesthood organization at the local level, and the second scrapping and reforming the hallmark program of home teaching.
Dr. Richard L. Saunders, Dean of Library Services at Southern Utah University and scholar on Mormon-related studies, points out that through its 188-year history the LDS church has never been a static organization. The organization has changed over the decades responding to changing realities.
“The LDS church has never been entirely monolithic. The Latter-day Saints really do believe in what Neal Maxwell once called ‘practical revelation,’ by which he meant adopting practices that work.”
For nearly a century, the lay priesthood of local congregations has been divided by office. This change disbands the high priest group and integrates its members into the elders’ quorum. Elders’ quorums tended to be populated by younger men. High priests groups tended to involve older men. Both organizations are now unified into a single elders’ quorum.
Dr. Saunders observed that he was “impressed that the priesthood structure now mirrors the women’s auxiliary organization. That step unifies experience and energy into a single group, lessening divisions between congregational members based on either age or experience.”
As for the church’s action to discard its signature “home teaching” and “visiting teaching” programs in favor of a unified “ministering,” Dr. Saunders notes that neither program ever worked as intended.
“Restructuring well-established practices can be difficult; often scrapping tradition entirely makes a clean break with the past and makes real improvement easier. The church’s ‘home teaching’ program, created in the 1960s, worked marvelously well--when it worked well.”
The past few decades revealed that the church practice of recording visits to households and delivering a specific monthly message generally worked against providing assistance or support where it was needed.
“All that was recorded was the number of visits made to families, not whether the needs of their circumstances were met. It unintentionally fostered one-time solutions to ongoing challenges.”
He points out that changing the focus to encouraging discussion and more frequent informal contact will likely help local congregations meet the complexities of modern life faced by its members.
“This seems to be a people-based solution. Worldwide, most church members are widely scattered, and technology-based communication is simply the way most people interact. The equation has changed. The goal of helping people cope and grow has not changed, but no longer is the currency mere numbers; it is information about how people are doing in whatever circumstance they face.”
Dr. Saunders regards both changes positively. Both changes should mitigate realities of distances and comparatively small numbers faced by most congregations outside of the Mormon corridor.
“Unifying its priesthood outside of ward and branch leadership simplifies the organization. That should create a better structure to muster strength and to meet the needs of people in the congregation. This is one more sign that the church is a genuinely world-wide organization, not a Utah denomination.”