In Utah, it is general conference weekend, with more than 100,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints flocking to the church's massive Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City to attend five conference sessions Saturday and Sunday, while millions more participate via television, radio, satellite and Internet broadcasts.
Meanwhile, just a few blocks away from the Conference Center, another worldwide religious conference — the General Convention of The Episcopal Church — is being planned by an excited group of Utah Episcopalians headed by the Rt. Rev. Scott B. Hayashi, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.
"This is really a tremendous thing, both for the Episcopal Church in Utah, and for Salt Lake City," Bishop Hayashi said of the church's decision to hold its 2015 General Convention in Utah. "We could potentially have as many as 20,000 people come to Salt Lake from all around the Episcopal Church."
And throughout Utah, congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses are preparing for their annual district convention, scheduled for June 29-July 1 (the Spanish language convention will be June 22-24) at the Dee Events Center in Ogden. The Utah convention is one of more than 380 district conventions held in nearly 100 cities throughout the United States. This year's international convention theme is "Safeguard Your Heart."
"Gather yourselves together," said the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah. "Seek ye the Lord … seek righteousness, seek meekness …" (Zephaniah 2: 1, 3). That admonition found a faithful response this week as tens of thousands of Cuban Catholics gathered to see and listen to and worship with Pope Benedict XVI. And it finds a similar response every year at different times and in different ways wherever people of faith gather in conferences and conventions intended to fortify the community of faith and strengthen individual believers.
Although the principle of gathering takes place at all of these conferences and conventions, the application of the principle is a little different in each one — in some cases, MORE than a little different.
For example, LDS general conference is held twice each year; Jehovah's Witness district convention is held annually; the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is held once every three years; the General Conference of the United Methodist Church meets every four years; and the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference Session is held every five years.
These conferences and conventions are different functionally, as well. LDS general conferences and Jehovah's Witness district conventions are two- and three-day gatherings, respectively, with sessions largely consisting of scripturally based sermons and talks aimed at motivating and inspiring the faithful.
"We have come here to be instructed and inspired," said LDS President Thomas S. Monson as he opened the April conference of the church in 2010, adding that "many messages, covering a variety of gospel topics, will be given during the next two days. Those men and women who will speak to you have sought heaven's help concerning the messages they will give."
Similarly, the Jehovah's Witness district convention is "a series of talks focusing on the convention theme," said Jeff Tucket, an elder in one of the 50-plus congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses in the district that encompasses northern Utah, southern Idaho and western Wyoming. "Speakers are all appointed elders from local congregations whose goal is that we come together for information, reinforcement, encouragement and inspiration."
By way of contrast, the 2015 Episcopal General Convention that Bishop Hayashi and his associates are planning usually lasts about 10 days (it will likely take place in July 2015, although the exact dates have yet to be determined). According to Bishop Hayashi, the general convention is an actual functioning legislative body that meets to consider and vote upon as many as 400 pieces of legislation affecting church policy, practice and doctrine. It is a bicameral legislature, with one house consisting of approximately 240 bishops and the other house consisting of about 900 lay and clergy delegates, including eight delegates from each of the church's 109 diocese.
"The two houses function independently, but ultimately they have to work together to get legislation passed — just like in Congress," said the Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler, executive officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. "We keep a respectful attitude toward each other during this process. Even if the vote doesn't turn out as you wish, you're still part of this church."
The United Methodist Church will hold its general conference April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla. According to church spokeswoman Diane Degnan, "the general conference is the top policy-making body of The United Methodist Church. It meets once every four years to consider revision to church law, as well as adopt resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues. It also approves plans and budgets for church wide programs for the next four years."
Degnan said the general conference consists of 1,000 delegates elected during local conference meetings. Half of the delegates are lay members of the church, the other half are members of the clergy. Bishops attend the general conference but are not allowed to vote.
"It is at general conference where delegates wrestle with today's issues in light of scriptural teachings and the church's understanding of that teaching," Degnan said. "This is where official stands and church policies are made regarding such issues as human sexuality, abortion, war and peace, as well as determination of ministries and funding."
When the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists meets every five years in a general conference session, it is to elect church officers and vote on proposed changes to the church's constitution. Delegates — at least 50 percent of whom are required to be laypersons or pastors representing both genders and a range of age groups and nationalities — also hear reports from each of the 13 administrative regions of the church.
"A general conference session is a unique occasion," said Jan Paulsen, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists from 1999-2010. "There is no moment in the life of the church which demonstrates so vividly — so tangibly — the extraordinary way God's Spirit is moving among us.
"Through these gatherings," he continued, "we powerfully affirm that we are one people, united in faith, and bound by our shared desire to be instruments of God's purpose in the world."
That desire to gather and affirm to the world "that we are one people, united in faith" is common to all faith groups who gather for conferences and conventions. Even when their function is largely legislative, the agenda always includes time for prayer, scripture study and worship. The schedule for the upcoming Methodist general conference, for example, shows daily time allocations for prayer, worship, communion, preaching, "holy conversation" and "theological grounding."
"We try to maintain a very worshipful atmosphere," Rev. Nestler said of the Episcopal general convention. "We spend a lot of time each day in prayer and Bible study — that is always very moving, very thoughtful."
"As we pray together, plan together, share with each other, the Holy Spirit will surely be with us, too," Pastor Paulsen said in words that apply to other religious conferences and conventions as well as they do to his own general conference sessions. "Individually, and as a community, this will be a moment to rededicate ourselves to the Lord and to the task of proclaiming his grace to the world."