For many Latter-day Saints, general conference is a time to sit back, relax, and listen to the speakers and the music. But for Elder Brook P. Hales, General Authority Seventy and secretary to the First Presidency, general conference is something entirely different.
In a role that he says could be described as executive producer or chief coordinator of general conference, Elder Hales knows all the ins and outs of how the event takes place. During a recent episode on the Church News podcast, Elder Hales discussed with Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News, how conference is organized and what work goes into it.
Conference only takes place two weekends a year for most church members. But for Elder Hales and others, it is a year-round process. His office, which keeps track of conference details like the music, who prays, and who speaks for each session, starts planning the program for the next conference six months in advance.
“We know that we have one hour, 58 minutes and 56 seconds we are supposed to fill,” he says of a session. “That came from the old days when we largely did conference through the commercial television stations, because they would cut off at that time period, and if we were done, great; if we weren’t, well, too bad. So, we fill that in, we look for that one hour and 58 minutes. And so, we need to accommodate conducting notes, sustaining if there is sustaining in that session, songs, hymns, prelude, prayers and talks.”
Juggling the number of available speaker slots and allotting a certain length for each one, Elder Hales says that the First Presidency speaks for the longest amount of time, followed by the Quorum of the Twelve. Other speakers are selected on a rotating basis. Both the First Presidency and the Quourm of the Twelve review who is selected to talk for each conference. For April 2022 general conference, Elder Hales says, the goal is to send out assignments in early November.
Similarly, music is planned down to the minute, and Mack Wilberg, music director for The Tabernacle Choir, selects numbers that he feels are appropriate and that fit the Choir’s time slots. The First Presidency also approves those selections.
“Once in a while, President Nelson will have a theme that he’d like to speak to, and so he’ll ask for a particular hymn to be sung; but by and large, it’s the Tabernacle Choir, and the Church music people for the guest choirs, who will come up with the musical selections, and then the First Presidency approves them,” says Elder Hales.
Prior to conference, each speaker practices his or her talk in the basement of the Church Administration Building.
“We try to replicate what it’s like to speak in the Conference Center, in terms of echo and sound and that sort of thing,” Elder Hales says. “But frankly, when people get into the Conference Center, it’s a different ballgame; and unless you’ve had a lot of experience speaking in the Conference Center, people tend to slow down. So, most speakers will prepare their remarks to be a little less than what their assigned time is because it’s just human nature that when you get in there and you see the audience and you hear the feedback, which you have to experience to truly understand, you’re probably going to slow down.”
Another “Herculean task” at conference, Elder Hales explains, is that the sessions are now available in 98 languages. Some of these languages are interpreted live while others are translated afterward. There are also tens of thousands of volunteer hours that go into bringing conference to the one. Between parking, cleaning, preparation, audio, visual, magazines, music, and more behind the scenes, there are many moving pieces that make conference happen, but in Elder Hales’s experience, it always works out in the end.
“I have learned over the years that the Lord is an excellent executive producer of conference, and sometimes as I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, wow, we’re going to go over,’ or ‘Oh, wow, we’re going to go under,’ somehow, it just always works. It just always works. And I’ve finally, finally figured out that it’s because the Lord’s in charge. I’m not, thank goodness, but the Lord’s in charge, and He does a wonderful job of keeping us right where we need to be, and it always works out.”
Listen to the full episode at Church News.