Episode 50: Elder Brook P. Hales, secretary to the First Presidency, gives an inside look into the preparations for general conference


Less than 30 people attended the first general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on June 9, 1830 — just months after the organization of the Church. Now, with the upcoming 191st Semiannual General Conference in October 2021, millions of Church members and others around the world have the opportunity to learn from modern prophets and Church leaders. Church employees and volunteers work an estimated 91,000 hours to prepare for, host, broadcast and record the two-day, five-session general conference — an event translated into 98 languages.

This episode of the Church News podcast gives listeners a look at conference preparations as Elder Brook P. Hales, a General Authority Seventy and secretary to the First Presidency, shares insights into the production of the monumental event.

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Transcript

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question, “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast and this is what I know now.”

The Lord instructed the Prophet Joseph Smith, as recorded in Doctrine & Covenants 20, that “several elders composing this church of Christ are to meet in conference … from time to time.” About two months after the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that first conference was held on June 9, 1830; 27 people attended. Of the event, the Prophet Joseph said: “Much exhortation and instruction was given and the Holy Ghost was poured out upon us in a miraculous manner. Many of our numbers prophesied, while the heavens were open to others.” This episode of the Church News podcast features Elder Brook P. Hales, a General Authority Seventy and secretary to the First Presidency, to talk about general conference. Welcome, Elder Hales.

Elder Brook P. Hales: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, just as in 1830, general conference continues to provide much instruction, and the Holy Ghost continues to pour itself out on these sacred gatherings. Why is it important that the Church holds semiannual general conferences?

1:49  

Elder Brook P. Hales: As I think about that, I’m not sure there’s any other organization — religious or otherwise — that has such a gathering where there is a centralized opportunity for the leaders of the Church to reveal, as it were, to the members and to those who are listening, the mind and will of the Lord, as several presidents of the Church have said, for our instruction and guidance for the next six months. So, I think it’s a very unique gathering where we can come together as a body of Saints, and receive the Lord’s direction that he would give us for the next period of time.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, 27 people attended that first conference in 1830. Things are quite different today. What is the reach of conference and what does that look like?

2:42  

Elder Brook P. Hales: It’s really quite remarkable — from that first group of 27 to literally millions and millions of people who tune in or watch or read or partake of conference in a variety of ways, but it’s literally a reach of millions; and so compared to 27 back when it first started, it’s really quite a remarkable thing.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you are a General Authority Seventy, but your participation in general conference over the years has been largely because of your role as secretary to the First Presidency.

Elder Brook P. Hales: Correct.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Tell us what that looks like. What is your job, and what do you do when it comes to general conference?

3:19  

Elder Brook P. Hales: Well, back in 1997, I was working in the Church Finance and Records Department and saw a posting. I don’t remember what it said exactly, something to the effect of executive secretary, and I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” So, I applied for it, and come to find out it was to be the assistant secretary in the Office of the First Presidency, and I applied for it and got it. Since then, I have been involved in general conference to one extent or another. I think you indicated that this is your 52nd consecutive. It’ll be my 49th, so I’m a little behind you in that regard; but it’s really quite remarkable to think that for 49 general conferences, I’ve been there in person — starting in the Tabernacle, and now in the Conference Center. 

On a day-to-day basis, I am support to the First Presidency in terms of attending their meetings, taking notes, following up and then doing a variety of other tasks for them. I suppose, one could say that my duties would fall in line with something of a chief of staff. In other words, I’m their individual person whom they go to for help and support in whatever they are doing. 

With respect to general conference, I’ve tried to think of a term that would help others understand what my role is — and this is not meant to sound overly lofty — but for lack of a better term, I guess I’m the executive producer of general conference, or at least the chief coordinator; and so, a lot of the information and decisions and challenges and other things flow through our office. So, I get involved in a lot of different aspects of general conference. People say, “Oh, wasn’t that a wonderful general conference?” Sometimes, I say, “Well, I’m not really sure because I’m sitting there working during the thing,” as you are, and so my opportunity to listen to general conference really comes after the fact because — and we’ll get into this a little more later, I think — my duties at general conference do not allow me to sit back and relax and do as perhaps other members of the Church do, in terms of their participation in general conference.

Elder Brook P. Hales gives his address during the Saturday morning session of the 189th Annual General Conference on April 6, 2019.
Elder Brook P. Hales gives his address during the Saturday morning session of the 189th Annual General Conference on April 6, 2019.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and for 16.5 million Latter-day Saints across the globe, general conference starts when they turn it on.

Elder Brook P. Hales: Correct.

Sarah Jane Weaver: But, obviously, so much goes into it before that moment.

5:38 

Elder Brook P. Hales: Exactly. And what will happen — for example, after general conference concludes in a couple of weeks, we will start — we meaning the Office of the First Presidency — we will start probably within a week or two to formulate how the April conference is going to look. Our office is responsible for keeping track of who speaks, who prays, the music and that sort of thing with the help of a lot of other people; but we will actually start putting together the program for the April general conference in October, and it rolls that way. So, later in April of 2022, we’ll start the October process, so that’s how far in advance it goes. It’s actually a year-round process.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I started my job at Church News in 1995, so my first conference I covered, I went to the Tabernacle, I took notes. We weren’t sharing conference on the internet — in fact, it wasn’t until 1923 that wider access to general conference commenced with the first radio broadcast. Conference wasn’t on the television till 1949, and 1975 marked the first satellite transmission of conference, and then conference was shared on the internet in 1999. It was interesting to me — during the pandemic, we got pictures in from all over the world of people actually sitting in their homes with conference on their phones. How do people watch conference today?

7:05

Elder Brook P. Hales: Well, all of the above. Obviously, you have people who attend in the Conference Center. That’s an extremely small portion, frankly, of those who watch or view or somehow listen to conference. I know the internet audience has grown really very, very quickly and to a very high level. There are still commercial television stations who carry it, although I think that’s diminishing. We have people who will watch it on Facebook Live for the first time this time, and so, the opportunity of viewing conference and listening to or participating in conference is far different from what we thought it would. Now, there are still a certain number of people who, because they have to work or whatever reason, will watch it on a delayed basis through the various channels that are available through the Church and otherwise; and frankly, some are going to get their experience with conference through the Church magazines. I think a lot of people really enjoy reading the conference talks because they can take their time, they can stop and think and ponder and pray and mark their Church magazine or copy that they’ve printed off from the Church website. So watching it, listening to it live, is of course important, and millions of people do that; but I think those same millions and maybe more are reading the word, which is interesting, because the scriptures have been that way forever. And if general conference is a form of prophetic word, which it is, and the form of scripture, which it is — not saying that it’s canonized, or official standard works — but many people get, I think, a lot out of the written word that they can study and ponder in the privacy and quiet time of their home or office or wherever they’re doing it.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yes. Certainly, that’s how I end up consuming most of the conference materials, because, as you mentioned, it’s hard when you’re working. And now that so many priesthood and Relief Society lessons are based on general conference addresses, a lot of us get to take one additional look at some of the conference talks in that way as we counsel with the people in our wards and branches.

Elder Brook P. Hales: Correct. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: OK, the other thing that’s happened, since we’ve had all these new ways that technology can spread the word across the globe, is that conference has now become available to those who are not of our faith. As some of the Brethren prepare their talks, that has to be an interesting thing to them. They’re speaking to members of the faith, they’re talking about issues that are relevant to Latter-day Saints, but they know that a huge portion of the audience could be someone hearing about the Church for the first time.

9:44  

Elder Brook P. Hales: I think most speakers, if not all speakers, are mentioning some aspect, in some way, that relate to the Savior and His atoning sacrifice. And so, if you have someone who’s not a member of the Church, particularly if they’re a person of faith, and they hear something about the Savior Jesus Christ, that sparks within them, I believe, a desire, or something, to say: “Oh, what’s that about? I have faith in Jesus Christ, and so I want to hear more.” And so every speaker, I believe, is trying to develop some sort of theme on increasing faith in Jesus Christ. That’s the purpose of general conference: To increase our faith in Jesus Christ.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Great. And I’m gonna read — I have a quote here from Matthew Cowley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that he said in 1953 at a stake conference in Logan, Utah. He said: “One day, there will be channels under control of the Church, whereby they can direct this message, this witness, unto any nation they desire; and it can be carried through the channels of the air in the very language of the people to whom the message is addressed.” So, general conference is first translated into different languages in 1962. What’s the scope of the translation process today?

11:06

Elder Brook P. Hales: If you include English, we have 98 languages. You know, and I think about that, and I think, “I’m not sure how many languages I could list off the top of my head, but the fact that we do it in 98 languages is really quite remarkable. Now, some of that is live interpretation. As you go down the scale of the number of people who speak a given language, then it’s translated after the fact. Nonetheless, 98 different languages is a herculean task for any organization to undertake — particularly given the fact that it’s a live event, and that it’s 10 hours of people sharing faith and testimony. So, it’s a remarkable thing, and we’re always looking for more languages into which we can translate conference, because as the gospel spreads throughout the earth, we have more people who speak additional languages, and so we’re under obligation to make sure that they can hear the word of the Lord in their native tongue. You can imagine if you, as a native English speaker, were to sit in a some sort of meeting with some unknown language, you would get nothing out of it; and so what good would there be in terms of developing and strengthening your faith? It’d be very difficult for you. So it’s critical and imperative that we translate general conference messages into the languages that people can hear and understand.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I can’t even think of another organization of a government or a business that would even have a reason to try and undertake that kind of mammoth translation.

12:38

Elder Brook P. Hales: Maybe the United Nations. I don’t know. I don’t know the scope of their operations, but you’re right. If you think of any business entity or whatever, you can’t fathom what we go through. Now, President Lee, I think it was, made a statement one time that he thought it’d be very helpful if members could learn English, and many do, but obviously, most don’t — and I’m not sure we’re advocating that now — but anyway, we have to help people understand the gospel in their native tongue.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And there is a difference between translation and interpretation. You know, often when we try and do translations for Church News, we’re taking some content and trying to reflect exactly what it says. Certainly, live interpretation is something that takes place in real time. My understanding is that people get 50%-60% of what’s being said when that happens, because so much goes by so quickly. The Church works really hard to make sure that everyone gets an accurate translation of general conference.

Elder Russell M. Nelson , left, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland at the end of the final session of the 185th Annual General Conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Sunday, April 5, 2015, in Salt Lake City.
Elder Russell M. Nelson , left, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland at the end of the final session of the 185th Annual General Conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Sunday, April 5, 2015, in Salt Lake City. Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News

13:42

Elder Brook P. Hales: That’s correct. The translation people do a wonderful job, and one of the interesting aspects about our format of general conference is that we do require the speakers to submit their talks beforehand. That has several purposes. One of which is we do have an obligation to keep the broadcast within a reasonable amount of time, which we commit to, and so the speakers who make up the program are required to stay within the amount of time that they’re assigned. If they go over, then that’s not good, because then we go over our allotted time. If we go under, we’ve backfilled with some programming, but we’re really, really good. 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.

Sarah Jane Weaver: So, everyone who speaks is given a time. How do you determine how much time they get?

15:02

Elder Brook P. Hales: Well, that’s part of the process we’ll go through later on in October, is we know that we have one hour, 58 minutes and 56 seconds we are supposed to fill. 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. 

And it sounds complicated, and it is, but we have this wonderful computer program that helps us do that, and so we can kind of gauge, over time, how we have done in the past, and we know that, “OK, Saturday morning, we’ve got these elements, and we probably have this many speaking slots we need to fill,” and then we can juggle that — you know, this speaker gets 10, this speaker gets 12, this speaker gets 15. And that, frankly, is based on who’s speaking. For example, the First Presidency members get a little more time than the Quorum of the Twelve members, and they get a little more time than the rest of the speakers, which is appropriate and good. And so, we can plug those in where we need to. We know always that the First Presidency will always speak in every conference; we know always that the Quorum of the Twelve members will speak in every conference; and then the rest, very frankly, is on a rotating basis. And so when we plug in the First Presidency members and then the Twelve, then we backfill with the members of the Seventy, the Presiding Bishopric and the general presidencies, and so it works itself out very nicely. Sometimes, it takes a couple of iterations to get it down to where we need, or up to where we need to be, and then we know where we plug in the music. And what we’ll do there is we will calculate that we have 15 or 20 or whatever number of minutes for music based on where the speaker’s time came out. And then, once we get all of that, we give it to the First Presidency. They review it and make sure they’re comfortable with it, and then it goes to the temple meeting where the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve review it, put their stamp of approval on it. Then we send out the invitation letters. Our goal for April 2022 will be to have the assignment letters out in early November. 

From there, what we do is we communicate with the Church music people and Mack Wilberg of the Tabernacle Choir and say, “OK, for this particular session where the Tabernacle Choir’s singing, you’ve got 20 minutes of music and four slots, three slots, five slots,” whatever, and so then Mack goes through his inventory of music and picks out what he thinks are appropriate numbers that match those times. He sends it over to the Office of the First Presidency, we give it to the First Presidency, and they approve that or make other suggestions. 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, and once in a while make a change.

Sarah Jane Weaver: So, I have so many questions here. I’ve often envisioned that there was some sort of light or button on the pulpit when people went long, but it sounds like all of this is coordinated in advance so there’s no emergency: You’re speaking too long, or you didn’t go long enough.

18:28

Elder Brook P. Hales: All the speakers are asked — and as far as I know, all of them do it, including the First Presidency — will go to what we call the teleprompter rehearsal room, which is in the basement of the Church Administration Building; and there, 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, and they will actually rehearse their talks to make sure they’re within the amount of time they’re given. And that’s a good tool, 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.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Oh wow. And nerves, obviously, would play into that as well.

19:25

Elder Brook P. Hales: Yeah, but we don’t have any sort of, you know, light on the pulpit saying, “Please sit down.”

Sarah Jane Weaver: And if you are off time, is there a way, are people who pray given a designated amount of time, or do they just know, “Conference has to end at this time, so this is how long I can pray”?

19:45

Elder Brook P. Hales: Well, whenever we give an assignment for someone to pray, we tell them they have one minute. Most people go over that because it’s pretty hard to do a prayer in one minute; but, by and large, they know that prayers should be reasonably given. A prayer doesn’t need to be long, and so most people are really aware, cognizant that they should take perhaps less time than in another setting.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And we do know that the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square provides the music for most of the sessions. How are the guest choirs selected?

20:33

Elder Brook P. Hales: Traditionally, it’s been that the Saturday afternoon session and then the Saturday evening session have been guest choirs. This time, we will have a multicultural choir from people in northern Utah. They were supposed to sing a couple of conferences ago, but because of COVID we had to uninvite them. So they’re coming back now. Typically, that Saturday afternoon will be a session where we use Primary children or a young single adult choir from multiple stakes or an institute choir. This time, it’s BYU students, and I don’t know how BYU selects that. Sometimes, it’s their actual combined choirs; other times, they just open it up to whomever would like to participate. And then the evening session — typically, back when we had priesthood sessions and general women’s sessions, that would be a Relief Society choir, or a group of returned missionaries, or missionaries from the MTC, that sort of thing. So, the music people in the Church music department scout around and make suggestions and the First Presidency approves those.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And the music always sounds wonderful. Is there a quality control check on this, or…?

21:33

Elder Brook P. Hales: No, and that’s the amazing thing is that, again, with the Lord being the executive producer here, it just somehow works out really well; and when people have the opportunity to sing at general conference, I think they view that as a singular opportunity in their lives that they will have maybe one time. And so obviously, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, they’re wonderful and they always sing well. These other choirs, where they have a one-shot deal, are just giving their whole heart and soul to it and do their very best; and so, naturally, combining their desires and wanting to bring the Spirit in, combined with the fact that it’s general conference and the Spirit is there, results in a really wonderful situation both for the hearer and the singer. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and so much else has to go into the preparation of conference — there’s media that cover that, there’s flowers. Certainly, you have to think of internet bandwidth and social media and all of those extra components. Can you talk about other things that have to occur in the preparation of this worldwide event?

A family in Manila, Philippines, participates in a session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 191st Annual General Conference, broadcast on Saturday, April 3, and Sunday, April 4, 2021.
A family in Manila, Philippines, participates in a session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 191st Annual General Conference, broadcast on Saturday, April 3, and Sunday, April 4, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

22:42

Elder Brook P. Hales: I will. We have a whole cadre of people who are involved. Again, it goes way beyond coming in and unlocking the doors and turning on the lights. We have what we call the headquarters facilities department. They’re in charge of parking and cleaning and preparation and setting up. I asked them how many hours were involved, and they told me that there are 38,180 hours estimated. That’s employee hours or volunteer hours that are required to take care of general conference before, during and after. Then we have what we call the Publishing Services Department, which is what we’d normally think of as audio visual or publishing magazines. Anything that gets “published” is handled by Publishing Services, and they tell me that they have well over 53,000 hours. So you add 53,000 to 38,000 — that’s not counting the number of choir member hours that are spent, organists, conductors, people who are behind the scenes with the choirs — it’s really tens and tens of thousands of hours that go into general conference preparation. Translation — again, a huge portion of what goes on in general conference. So, you have all these dedicated, wonderful people who are volunteering, working, whatever, to bring conference to the one, and it’s a mammoth undertaking that almost brings you to tears when you think about how people are just so dedicated and consecrated to bring to pass this very important and scriptural event that blesses the lives of members and anyone else who cares to listen or read or view or whatever.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And then there would be volunteer hosts, and, obviously, people have to get tickets distributed and find their seat and find a parking space.

24:49

Elder Brook P. Hales: You have the grounds people who always make sure that Temple Square looks its very best. I read one time where the gardeners put a lot of work into trying to plan the plantings and the cultivating so that the weekends of general conference the flowers are at their peak. Now, we’re a little challenged, now, because of the construction around general conference, and so that’s problematic; and of course, we don’t have a full contingent of people coming this time. But in a normal conference, Temple Square looks wonderful. And the gardeners. Salt Lake Police Department helps out with traffic control. Church security — you know, if someone falls down the stairs at the Conference Center, Church security is helping them there to address that. There are just all kinds of people who are making this thing work.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And this has to have had a personal impact on you. You know, we mentioned earlier, I’ve covered more than 50 conferences; you’re not that far behind. What has this done for you personally, to be so involved in such a mammoth undertaking?

25:49

Elder Brook P. Hales: Well, I don’t know that these are in any particular order of importance for me, but one of the things — it just humbles me to my toes to think of these thousands, tens of thousands of people who are so dedicated to spreading the word that they are willing to give up their weekends. That’s plural on purpose, because it’s before, during and after that they’re doing this, and being willing to do what you do, in other words, work rather than sit in your living room or in the Conference Center and enjoy conference. These people are all working, they’re all dedicated, and that is so humbling to me that they are willing to do this for members of the Church. For me, personally, there have been times when I’ve heard a talk that really struck me and I sort of stopped doing what I’m doing in my work, and that’s always a great event, a great experience. And I think everybody goes through where a particular talk will speak to me or speak to you or speak to someone across the earth, and that’s the beauty of general conference, is the ability that it gives us to hear the word of the Lord in a wonderful, personal way. 

The other thing that I have learned — again, I mentioned it earlier — is this idea that the Lord is a wonderful executive producer. This is His event. He wants it to happen. He helps it to happen, and somehow, despite my human concerns of, you know, “Will a light fall down from the ceiling?” or “Will someone faint?” or, who knows what, which are all the things I worry about: Will the lights go off, the microphone go dead? It just all works because this is the Lord’s program, and He helps it to work, He causes it to work, and this is His event, and I should be able to sit back and relax — I’m not quite there yet — but this is His event, and He causes it to work. And so, the one thing I have learned is that the Lord is in charge. He can be trusted, and this is His message, and faith is built, and it’s just all a very wonderful situation.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And, you know, each of us have those conference moments that stand out to us. You know, I think of the dedication by President Gordon B. Hinckley of the Conference Center, I think of President Thomas S. Monson’s announcement of the missionary-age change. Oftentimes, there’s temple announcements that you can just feel the energy in the room. We have all had very personal moments with conference — both because we received an answer to prayer or because something very historic happened. Is there a conference moment that stands out to you?

28:28

Elder Brook P. Hales: Yes. There are two things that stand out in my mind. One was when President Monson was sustained as President of the Church — just prior to that conference, he had asked me to become the secretary to the First Presidency. The second one was when President Nelson was sustained as President of the Church; and in both situations, because of my staff position, I knew what was going to be said. You know, our office types the words for the sustaining. And so when I showed up, I thought: “Yeah, I know what’s going to happen here. We’re going to sustain President Monson, and then President Nelson.” And in both cases — and I feel impressed to tell you this — in both cases, I was sitting there, and even though I knew the words that were going to be spoken, I had a tangible impression that the mantle of Prophet had fallen on both of those men. It was really quite remarkable that I felt that. I knew what was going to happen. I knew the words, but to have that spiritual manifestation that these two men, each in their own time, had been called by the Lord and were being sustained by the membership of the Church to become President of the Church, was truly a remarkable experience that I did not expect. And so, for me, those two are real highlights for me of the general conferences that I’ve attended, truly remarkable, that I’ll never forget.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you know, the miracle of the Church is that I felt something similar from my computer where I was trying to just type that up, and I’m sure members across the globe felt that from wherever they were participating.

30:09

Elder Brook P. Hales: I think you’re exactly right — in fact, I know you’re right, because I’ve had other people tell me that same thing, that wherever they were — driving the car, or whatever it happened to be — they had that same manifestation.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you know, there are other moments. I remember a moment in October of 2007, when Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles locked his knees while giving his general conference address and grew increasingly weak. I think all of us were worried about him. That had to be a moment of great anxiety for you, Elder Hales; and then President Russell M. Nelson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, just stepped forward and steadied him, and that was such a beautiful thing. You had to be just worried as you saw that unfold.

During the Saturday afternoon session of the October 2007 general conference, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin is assisted by then-Elder Russell M. Nelson, both of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, so Elder Wirthlin can finish his address.
During the Saturday afternoon session of the October 2007 general conference, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin is assisted by then-Elder Russell M. Nelson, both of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, so Elder Wirthlin can finish his address. Credit: Screenshot ChurchofJesusChrist.org

30:55

Elder Brook P. Hales: Yes, wondering, “Is poor Elder Wirthlin going to fall down?” Because we all remember, at least many of us remember when Elder Howard W. Hunter fell down at the pulpit in the Tabernacle; and so, I thought: “Is that going to happen again? What do I do?” And the Church security men are looking at me, and I’m looking at them, and we’re all thinking, “What are we going to do?” And then, bless his heart, President Nelson got up and helped his fellow brother through that. They had a long history, of course, they — long before either was a general authority, they had served together, and so they had a real brotherhood. That was just very tender to see President Nelson help his fellow Apostle and friend and brother for many, many years, help him get through his talk.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah. And time is kind of coming to a close — I want to talk about what this next conference is going to look like. In April 2000, we held the first conference in the Conference Center. But for the past three general conferences now, those conferences have looked different, they felt different, because of the worldwide pandemic. What should we all expect of this general conference?

32:01

Elder Brook P. Hales: You know, as I think about that — as a child, for me, seeing general conference on TV and seeing that iconic view of the Tabernacle, you know, the majestic organ case and the pulpit, and all of that became, for me, the symbol of general conference. And then when we moved to the Conference Center, I thought, “Well, it’s never going to be the same.” And then it became the same — it became an iconic view of general conference, so people from all over the world who have tuned in to general conference for — I don’t know, how old is the Conference Center, 20 years old? They view that and they say, “This is general conference,” you know, the choir, the organ, the setup of the rostrum. “This is general conference to me.” And so it’s become something of a symbol of what general conference is. You look at it and think, “Oh, I feel comfortable now, because this is general conference.” So I think, at least for me — and I can only speak for me, of course — when we’ve had general conference outside of the main hall of the Conference Center, I thought to myself, “Where’s my favorite icon?” You know, and so now that we’re moving back into the Conference Center, it brings me personal comfort to say: “Ah, this is home. This is where general conference belongs and where it should be.” And I think — I don’t know, of course — but I think that many members of the Church feel that way. When they first look at — whatever hour they’re looking at general conference, depending on where they live in the world — they look at that scene, and they see the Conference Center front section and they think, “Ah, I’m at home; this is general conference.” And so, I think moving back in there is going to feel like coming home for many people, saying, “Ah, this is general conference.”

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you know, in October 2006 general conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve talked about hearing the Lord’s voice through His servants, and he said it was vital to our spiritual survival in dangerous times and in times of difficulty. Certainly, people are ill at ease at this time. There’s some political tensions, the pandemic continues. How can general conference be a message of peace to the world?

34:07 

Elder Brook P. Hales: Well, first of all, it’s scriptural. We are invited by the Lord to have general conferences, that was back in Joseph Smith’s day, as you referenced earlier. Let me answer that by saying it this way: I know of people who, before general conference, prepare; and I think that’s critical. I think that’s a critical process for all of us, to think: “OK, conference is coming up. What do I want to get out of it?” And I know people who will actually have specific questions that they’ll outline and make a note of and say, “I need to have some direction in my life as how to increase my faith, or how to be nicer to my neighbors,” or whatever — and I know of people personally who get those questions answered from general conference, and the Lord has a remarkable way of taking the messages and making them very personal to us. 

Excuse this personal reference, but when I was a stake president, I used to have people come up to me after stake conferences and say, “Oh, I really appreciate you saying this,” and I’d think to myself, “I didn’t say that, let alone think it,” but somehow, my message translated to the people in the stake of what they were looking for, and I think general conference is that way — the talks range from all kinds of topics about the gospel; and yet, if I’m looking for a particular question, general conference can be a tremendous forum — or source or whatever the proper word is — for me to get answers to my questions. And so when Elder Holland said that — it’s just so critical. We go to a great deal of work and effort to prepare for conference, which we mentioned by these tens of thousands of hours that are spent on conference. A lot of work preparing for producing it, publishing it after the fact, making sure as many people as possible can get a hold of it, and the reason for that is because it is our source, as I said earlier, our source, as quoted by many presidents of the Church, and others, that this is our walk in our talk for the next six months. And so, if I’m concerned about world conditions, or a personal situation, I have a firm and complete and total testimony that I can find answers to my questions and answers to my situations through general conference, if I will prepare myself, and then I’ll invest the time and effort to either watch it live or listen to it after the fact or study the conferences. It doesn’t matter, really, how we do that, as long as we somehow come to the table and feast on general conference in the way that is most convenient and best for us according to our own learning style, and the time and the opportunities we have.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And after so many years of being the “executive producer” of general conference, working with the First Presidency and the Lord on that, you also had an opportunity to be sustained as a General Authority Seventy and participate in conference in a different way — to actually step up to that podium and give a conference talk. What was that like?

37:08 

Elder Brook P. Hales: Well, in a strange sort of way, it was really quite exciting. Given my age and tenure, I likely won’t speak again, so it was sort of a one-shot deal; and it was a difficult process in terms of — first of all, you think, “Well, what am I going to speak about that would be interesting to millions of people?” Second of all, “How do I make it interesting?” And third, “How do I know” — and these aren’t in any particular order — “how do I know what the Lord wants me to say?” So it’s, having talked to others who have done it, there’s a great deal of fasting, prayer, writing, throwing away revising, retyping. I don’t know how many versions of my talk I wrote —20, 30, I don’t know — but finally, you get to a point where you feel like you’re getting close. 

I read a version or two to some of my family members, and after I read it, they had a blank look on their face and said, “What’s the point?” which was kind of disheartening, because I thought it was a real great talk, and, obviously, it wasn’t, but so you get feedback from others. And finally, I think you get to a point where you feel like, “OK, this is what the Lord wants me to say.” And I — you know, you take your hat off to the First Presidency and the Twelve, who are doing this every six months. It’s just a remarkable thing that they keep coming up with these great things; and I know that they, as soon as they get their assignments in the next six or eight weeks for the next conference, will start working on it and worrying about it and sweating over it and researching and all the things that go into having to talk for 10 or 12 or 15 minutes and hopefully say something that’s coherent and helpful.

Sarah Jane Weaver: So, your experience has been that everyone has to sort of wrestle a general conference message from heaven?

Elder Brook P. Hales: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, the beauty of it is general conference topics are rarely assigned, and so you’re on your own with heaven to figure out what is to be said.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow. Well, that makes what’s said even more meaningful to me.

39:07  

Elder Brook P. Hales: Absolutely, because it’s not a preprogrammed event. It’s truly heaven-directed. The Lord is the executive producer, and He knows what needs to be heard by Sarah Weaver and everyone else who’s tuning in; and so my simple faith is that a talk will be prepared and delivered that will help Sarah Weaver, and everybody else in this world, if they will listen and participate.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well on that note: We have a tradition at the Church News podcast, we always give our guests the last word and we always have them answer the same question, and that question is, “What do you know now?” And so, Elder Hales, after — what did you say, 48 general conferences? 

Elder Brook P. Hales: I think this will be the 49th.

Sarah Jane Weaver: So after nearly 50 general conferences, what do you know now about that sacred event?

39:55 

Elder Brook P. Hales: Well, a couple of things: First of all is I can trust God and the Savior completely and totally. I still, as a human being, worry about certain things; and yet, I don’t really need to worry because this is the Lord’s event, not anybody else’s, and so I can trust Him. This will be a great event. I’ve learned that we need to prepare for it as members. If we will do that, we will come away better people than we were, and this is the opportunity for the Lord to speak to His people, unique in every way possible. It’s His opportunity to speak to you and to me and everyone else who participates.

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on thechurchnews.com.