All ward bishops and stake presidents used to come to Salt Lake City for conference, but now the meetings are televised, via satellite, to thousands of dimmed chapels. The Internet makes the messages increasingly accessible on members' computers in their own homes. Listeners take notes on general themes and on specific instructions and Church policy. At one conference, for example, they were told that new leaders had been called, that temple recommends would be valid for two years instead of one, and that Family Home Evening was newly encouraged. President Hinckley challenged his listeners "to rise to the divinity within you."
The sessions are like large versions of ward sacrament meetings. But because members approve all the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency as "prophets, seers, and revelators," their talks carry greater weight than everyday sermons. The principle of continuing revelation means that the teachings of current leaders trump past teachings. The talks are not canonized as Scripture or included in the Doctrine and Covenants, but they stand above ordinary talks. Prepared in advance, vetted, and published in the Church magazine, they are frequently used as lesson material and as a source for Church members preparing sacrament-meeting talks. Leaders also speak at stake conferences, when they visit to reorganize local leadership, and at special multi-stake events. In a typical instance, 25,000 Church members from the small Utah town of American Fork gathered in Brigham Young University's basketball stadium in Provo in 2002 to hear President Hinckley speak. Traffic was snarled for miles; people were lined up for seats. Crowds bunched in doorways and under hall speakers. President Hinckley's familiar message urged his listeners to believe in the teachings of the Church. Members should be grateful to pay their 10 percent tithing. "I look at other churches, struggling, even asking us for contributions to help them with their work," he said. He told the men to keep their priesthood sacred and stay away from "Internet sleaze." He urged his hearers to "believe in the divinity of this church. It isn't a burden serving the church. Why would it be a burden? Where would we be without it? What a marvelous, wonderful thing it is, this church."
Similar meetings are held everywhere. In 2002, the Lartebiokoshi Stake of Ghana, held its tenth stake conference, extending this meeting style to Africa. The leaders, President Charles Sono-Koree and counselors Emmanuel F. Sackey and Isaac Andoh-Kesson, spoke on issues familiar in American Fork. Given the theme of "Have Ye Spiritually Been Born of God?" the speakers warned that the philosophies of men could not replace the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Listeners take conference messages seriously. Elder M. Russell Ballard's "Doctrine of Inclusion" encouraged Latter-day Saints to interact with people outside the Church, a theme increasingly heard in the last decade that acknowledges and tries to overcome the tendency toward clannishness. While loving each other, Church members are to be warm and friendly to strangers. The First Southern Baptist Church of Bountiful, Utah, benefitted from this attitude. The LDS neighbors pitched in to build a new chapel in 1999. The Relief Society brought lunch while the men framed, insulated, and roofed. Bill Cameron, chairman of the deacons for the Baptist group noted, "We were surprised to a certain extent to get LDS help. . . . [T]he neighbors have been very supportive, and we've really appreciated it." When a Baptist group purchased an old Mormon chapel in Oakland, California, they were invited to hold a fund-raiser in a larger Mormon building.
Friendliness is more problematic when it comes to excommunicated Mormons. Disaffected Salt Lake Mormons complain of negative experiences after leaving the Church. Suzy Colver became "the neighborhood pariah." Her Mormon friends vanished, and she was no longer invited to volunteer at her kids' school. Another person was not allowed to say grace at Thanksgiving dinner. Excommunicated members often feel shunned and ostracized. Church promotion of inclusiveness has not yet been accepted by grass-roots members. Theoretically as obligated to support former Mormons as anyone else, members feel awkward. Mormons look better in the aid offered to the poor. Church leaders showed no interest in President George W. Bush's offer to channel government funds through religious organizations. The Church already distributes millions of dollars' worth of goods and services worldwide and wants to avoid dependence on the government. This tradition of mutual help goes back to pioneer days. In 1936 during the Great Depression, the Church organized an official welfare plan to create service opportunities, donate charitable goods, and find work for the unemployed. They aimed to establish industry, thrift, and self-respect, to do away with "the curse of idleness" and the "evils of a dole," and "to help the people to help themselves." Elaborate systems of welfare aid helped impoverished members with rent, employment, clothing, and food. When families are doing all they can and are still short, they can ask the bishop for temporary help. The bishop determines the needs and calls for goods or financial assistance in return for work.
The welfare program is a natural extension of the Church's early cooperative ideal in a rural society. Farm-based production and volunteer labor underlie the system. In 1977, almost 150,000 acres of land were farmed. In 1985, the Church operated 199 farms, fifty-one canneries, about fifty grain storage facilities, and about eighty storehouses, large and small. Much of the manual labor is still assigned to wards and stakes whose leaders recruit volunteers to help with short-term tasks. By 1990, the Church was distributing commodities valued conservatively at $30 million a year. The system works because of the governing religious ideal. In 1986, Robert D. Hales, the presiding bishop of the Church, said, "The Welfare Plan builds a Zion people. . . . Zion is 'every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God'. . . . We need to understand that as much virtue can be gained in progressing toward Zion as in dwelling there. . . . The plan sanctifies both givers and receivers."