On Tuesday the Church Newsroom announced a “Plan for Worldwide Initiative for Children and Youth”. On the associated FAQ page it says that, among others, the “Personal Progress” program “may be affected by this change” beginning in 2020. In a preliminary effort to better understand the context for these potential changes, I looked at what has been said about Personal Progress in General Conference (or, at least, has been published in the Conference Report editions of the Ensign).
The Personal Progress program seems to have been formally introduced in 1977 or 1978 and was significantly modified in 1985. It succeeded a long history of formal personal-development activities and recognition for young Mormon women. My methodology was to search for ‘personal progress’ and for ‘young womanhood recognition’ in the LDS Scripture Citation Index (Version 3.5.0, by Stephen W. Liddle and Richard C. Galbraith) and looked for general patterns.
There were 66 hits for ‘personal progress’ and 6 for ‘young womanhood recognition’, with 5 talks referencing both, for a total of 67. Of these, 12 referred to generic ‘personal progress’ without obvious connection to a formal program, yielding 55 talks with explicit reference to the program called Personal Progress.
The first three explicit General Conference references to the Personal Progress program illustrate the general pattern of General Conference discourse about the program. The earliest mention comes in 1980 from M Russell Ballard, then of the Seventy, who illustrated how Jesus “could touch others’ lives through you and me” with the story of a teacher who helped a blind student translate “her personal progress book into braille.”
The second comes from Ezra T Benson, then President, in his “To the Young Women of the Church” sermon (1986), which was later distributed as a pamphlet:
“Young women, take full advantage of the Church programs. Set your goals to attain excellence in the achievement programs of the Church.
“The Personal Progress Program for young women is an excellent goal-oriented program. Its purpose is to help you develop the qualities and virtues of exemplary Latter-day Saint young women. Earn the Young Womanhood Recognition Award and proudly wear the gold medallion. Do not settle for mediocrity in this great incentive program for the young women of the Church.”
The third comes from Russell M Nelson (1989), then of the Twelve, when he quoted from the Personal Progress manual without oral attribution. That is, he identified the source in the footnote of the printed talk but did not do so when he gave the talk:
“Each faithful young woman in the Church proclaims that individual worth is one of her most cherished values. She declares, “I am of infinite worth with my own divine mission which I will strive to fulfill.” (Personal Progress, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989, p. 7.)”
Most of the mentions of Personal Progress in General Conference are like one of these three: a story connected to young (or older) women working on or around the program, exhortations to participate fully in the program in order to experience specified growth, or silent citation of the program manual.
The first woman to address the topic, Young Women General President Ardeth G Kapp in 1990, gave an exhortation:
“I encourage you to participate in experiences that are outlined in your Personal Progress book. They are not just to keep you busy, but to build you spiritually. They are not tasks to try your patience or your obedience; they are experiences that will help build your spirituality and your testimony.”
I did not count, but my impression is that exhortations and promises by members of the Young Women’s General Presidency addressed to Young Women during a Women’s session of conference are the most common form of discourse about Personal Progress in General Conference.
Of the 55 talks, 20 were given in a general session, 32 in a women’s session, and 3 in a men’s session. Of the 20 talks in the general sessions, 9 were given by a female and 11 by a male. Of the 32 in a women’s session, 4 of the mentions came in talks by males and 28 in talks by females. The frequency of any mention went from three in the 80s to averaging just under 1 (~0.85) per conference from the mid 90s to the mid 00s to averaging about 1.5 per conference from the mid 00s to the mid 10s. The peak was in 2010 with 7 mentions.
In 2000 James E Faust told Young Women a little about former programs (“Without help or advice care for and harness a team at least five times [and] drive 50 miles during one season…,” “Clear sage-brush, etc., off of one-half acre of land.”) and looked to the future: “We wonder what the Young Women requirements for Personal Progress awards will be like in the year 2016.”
I was surprised to find three mentions in men’s sessions. Two were in response to changes in youth programs in 2001. Robert D Hales quoted a First Presidency letter announcing the changes. Cecil O Samuelson noted the changed programs and quoted the Personal Progress manual without oral attribution: “As you young men of the Aaronic Priesthood strive to achieve the Duty to God Award even as the Young Women work on their Personal Progress efforts, you will join with them in standing as witnesses of God as well.” This past conference, Brian K Taylor also silently cited the manual in telling of a young woman who experienced a trauma: “Jen, who just days before stood and recited, ‘We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us,’ now questioned, ‘How could He love me?’”
I have not performed a detailed analysis, but my impression is that general tenor of the comments about Personal Progress has been fairly consistent from President Benson’s 1986 statement to the present. For example: “Personal Progress provides a wonderful way for you to nourish your testimony step by step. Value experiences and projects are small steps that will nourish your testimony of Jesus Christ as you learn His teachings and regularly apply them in your life. This constant nourishment will keep you safely on the path.” (First Counselor in the Young Women General Presidency, Mary N Cook, 2010).
I am curious how different Presidencies have addressed the programming (President Dalton, for example, seemed to emphasize it quite a bit). I am also struck by how carefully the Conference rhetoric has been in emphasizing the purposes and aims of the program and not the details of the program itself. I will be interested to see how the Personal Progress program changes in the coming years and how discourse around it—and, by extension, formal church programs—also change.