A man from a bishopric described reasons for inactivity. "In our ward we have 482 members and an average attendance of 165. Periodically I'm assigned to go find certain individuals. We ask the person, 'Tell me what happened. Why did you stop coming to church?' I run into: 'I couldn't be a perfect Mormon, so I didn't feel as if I belonged there. I couldn't pay my tithing every month. I didn't feel as if I could take the sacrament every Sunday. I didn't agree with that gospel doctrine teacher. At times I didn't feel that I had the spirit of the Holy Ghost with me. I didn't feel I was in tune with what the home teachers were saying when they came and presented a program. When somebody called me to do something, I didn't respond with the degree of perfection that was expected. I can't walk on water for you people and I don't hear trumpets every morning. My husband and I fight like cats and dogs.'"
Most ward religious activities take place in the three-hour time block on Sundays with additional meetings as required. The number of meetings has dwindled since the 1980s. Earlier, Mormons gathered on Sunday morning and again later in the afternoon, necessitating two trips to Church each day. Additional meetings took place during the week. The meetings plus socials and fund-raising projects meant that Mormons were in isolationist mode and lived much of their lives at church. Worthiness was measured by faithful attendance. In 1980, to save energy during gasoline crises, but also to allow more family time, the schedule was consolidated to its present abbreviated form. Three hours of meeting on Sunday is still a lot, and Mormons frequently spend additional time at Church, but the previous pressure has been relieved. Now the Church is primarily a place for worship and religious instruction. Time commitments, such as financial ones, have decreased over the past few decades.
The Church "auxiliaries" include the Sunday School, the Relief Society (or women's organization), the Young Men and Young Women (for teenagers), and the Primary (for children). These all have individual presidencies of three plus a group of teachers. Each auxiliary holds its own meetings, teaches its own classes, plans its own social events, and keeps its own records.
These organizations are auxiliaries to the priesthood, the spiritual and administrative power conferred on males. The priesthood is divided between the lower or Aaronic Priesthood for those twelve to eighteen and the upper or Melchizedek Priesthood for men nineteen and up. The Aaronic Priesthood is divided into Deacons, Teachers, and Priests; the Melchizedek Priesthood consists of Elders and High Priests. The intermediate level of Seventy was phased out at the local level some years ago. Each priesthood group, or "quorum," has its own presidency and teachers. Other organizations also exist, including the Institute, a religious, educational, and social program for LDS young adults ages eighteen to thirty. Institutes, managed by the Church Education System or CES, grow quickly worldwide, providing centers for young adults to make friends. Young adults constitute 60 percent of baptisms in the Church, and converts are more likely to remain active if affiliated with Institute.
Teenagers have a similar program called "seminary." Many rise at 5 A.M. for an hour-long class at 6 A.M. These fourteen to eighteen-year-olds meet weekday mornings with a teacher at a home or chapel to discuss and memorize scriptures. The four-year curriculum follows the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the history of the Church. Families encourage their children to attend seminary, but some go faithfully without any family support.
One high school junior, an unknown transfer student who was elected student body president, talked about how Church identity brought him success. Older Mormon students came to him and said he had to run for the school office, the Mormon tradition. This young man was not on any teams, not in clubs, and he didn't know anyone. But he took the idea of duty seriously. "I went home and prayed about it. I thought, 'Well, I will do it for the honor of God.'" He had no campaign manager, no posters. He knew that everything depended on giving a funny talk, and he 'd had experience talking in church. He thought about the talk and looked for jokes. "My talk was pretty funny with a nice little twist at the end. The other guys had not prepared. I got a majority in the first round because the freshmen and sophomores voted for me." The experience changed his life.
Living in an LDS ward is often described as living in a large family. People frequently say how much they love everyone in the ward, even the people they don't know at all. "The Sugarhouse Ward is to me like my extended family. I cry with them, I laugh with them. We are all together for good things and bad things." Or, "When I got here the first time I felt welcomed, and I felt like I already knew the people from a long time, like they were relatives I was visiting after a long time spent far away." Another said, "this ward is in essence, my family. [They] made me feel I belong, that I'm one of 'theirs.'"
When a young Pasadena, California, bishop was struck with a terminal blood cancer, his flock rallied to his aid. People gave blood in shifts. They filled the refrigerator with food. Such an energetic group came to paint, repair, prune, dig, and plant, that a neighbor thought the family would be on a television home show. One friend made daily lunches for the young daughter. The choir director, sitting one night with the nearly unconscious bishop, began to sing, bringing him briefly back to his former jocular self. His eventual funeral was a celebration of his life attended by hundreds of ward "family" members. His wife said she knew the measure of true friendship and love.
A group of wards is a "stake," which may include four to a dozen wards. A corps of stake leaders, led by the stake president, his two counselors, and a twelve member High Council, supervise programs and activities for the larger group. A group of stakes is an "area." The Church is governed by a First Presidency and Twelve Apostles. The members of this fifteen-man group were called in their maturity to serve as apostles for life. They rise by seniority. President Gordon B. Hinckley, born in 1910, became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve in 1961 at the age of fifty-one. He was eighty-five when he became the Church's fifteenth president in 1995. Because of infirm predecessors, he had already been the operating head for years, dedicating twenty-two temples before he became president. He remains remarkably effective in his mid-nineties. At his first meeting with the press, he declared himself a steady leader rather than an innovative one with a theme of "Carry on the great work of those who have gone before." He called for "an increased spirit of civility" among different American faiths. Yet his legacy as a builder was soon clear. On his watch thousands of new chapels have risen, and more dramatically, the number of temples has risen from forty-seven to well over 100.
When Mike Wallace interviewed President Hinckley on Sixty Minutes, he broached the idea that the Church was a gerontocracy, a church run by old men. Hinckley, without missing a beat, replied, "Isn't it wonderful? To have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment, who isn't blown about by every wind of doctrine?" Such exchanges show Hinckley as a skilled public relations man and humorist. A small man, with a croaking voice, he projects a warm and informal presence even when speaking to huge crowds. He has spoken to the Press Club, to the World Affairs Counsel, and on television. He has written books on ethical topics, which sell well in the national market. But Hinckley, the entertaining speaker, has also been the wilderness prophet. When Larry King asked him to outline his role, Hinckley replied, "My role is to declare doctrine. My role is to stand as an example before the people. My role is to be a voice in defense of the truth. My role is to stand as a conservator of those values which are important in our civilization and our society. My role is to lead people."