A group of worshippers leaves the Ensign Fourth Ward at 589 N, 18th Ave. just after noon on a Sunday in March. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the
A group of worshippers leaves the Ensign Fourth Ward at 589 N, 18th Ave. just after noon on a Sunday in March. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the LDS Church changing to a "block" schedule, consolidating its meetings into a three-hour time frame on Sundays. (Scott Sommerdorf / The Salt Lake Tribune)

Think Mormons love their meetings? They used to love them even more.

Thirty years ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned a meeting schedule that left little time for loosening ties or shedding stockings on the Sabbath.

Instead of cluttering the day with meetings that started at sunrise and ended near sundown, the church announced in March 1980 that it would clump its services together into a single "three-hour block" that has become a mainstay worldwide for the Utah-based religion. While the three-hour block seemed long and uncomfortable to some at first - "I don't want to go to church," Michigan Mormon Sue Carlson remembers her toddler crying each Sunday after the change - it spared Latter-day Saints from spending even more time in separate meetings.

"Church leaders were concerned that members were spending so much time going to meetings on the Sabbath," explained Richard O. Cowan, professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, "that there was not enough time for families to be together." Instead, the saints spent their Sundays shuttling between a trio of stand-alone meetings. There was a 90-minute priesthood session for men and older boys and, for all members, a 90-minute Sunday school in the morning and a 90-minute worship service later in the day. Then there were several more meetings during the week for women (Relief Society), children (Primary) and youths (Mutual).

Most of those meetings were merged into a three-hour block in early May 1980. Youth activities continued during the week.

"The consolidated meeting schedule was implemented largely in order to provide several more Sabbath hours for families," then-LDS President Spencer W. Kimball told the faithful. "Take time to be together as families to converse with one another; to study the scriptures; to visit friends, relatives, and the sick and lonely."

There were practical elements to the change as well. The United States was emerging from a historic energy crisis that included gasoline rationing and cries for conservation.

The consolidated meeting schedule allowed chapels to cut energy costs by switching off the lights or turning down the heat earlier in the day. It also saved members frequent trips - sometimes at great distances - back and forth between meetings.

Many members welcomed the additional hours at home, but some - particularly parents with young children - wrestled with the three hours straight at church.

Carlson, a Michigan mother of six, found the schedule almost unbearable for her youngest kids. She had enjoyed the split schedule - the afternoon gap between meetings was perfect for inviting guests over for lunch - but the single block bored her 3-year-old. Carlson mentioned more than once the tears that accompanied the family's half-hour drive to a chapel in Grand Blanc.

Thirty years later, Carlson hasn't grown much fonder of the schedule. She doesn't have to deal with restless children anymore. But she has to worry about her diabetes, which forces her to slip out between meetings to grab a snack.

South Jordan resident Tracie Cayford Cudworth felt the three-hour shock, too. She was a Brigham Young University student at the time of the change and described the meetings as sometimes "grueling" in length.

But Cudworth believes the compact schedule has made meetings more productive. A Sunday school lesson, for instance, can dig a little deeper into a sacrament meeting sermon.

"It was truly visionary to bring the meetings together," she said, "not only for the efficiency and time savings, but also for allowing the exchange of ideas between the meetings."

The change in schedule also brought a change in culture to the LDS Church, according to Jan Shipps, a longtime Mormonism scholar and an emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.

For one thing, Latter-day Saints now spend less time on the road.

"Before the move to the three-hour block," Shipps said, "the definition of a Mormon was a person planning for a meeting, going to a meeting, in a meeting or coming home from a meeting."

Away from Utah and its seemingly ubiquitous LDS chapels, some members used to devote virtually their entire Sundays to the church. In places where saints had to drive long distances - sometimes several hours - they even brought food and dined together between meetings.

What these members lost in time, they gained in fellowship.

Today's fused schedule offers church members more uncommitted time - both on Sundays and during the week. On the plus side, they can spend more time with their families at home. Or, Shipps added, they can devote more time during the week to community causes by serving on school boards or city councils that their ecclesiastical service might have precluded in the past.

On the down side, the shorter Sunday schedule makes it easier for youths to stray from Sabbath observance, a concern Shipps has heard LDS parents raise time and time again.

"Kids became much more aware," Shipps said, "of what was going on in the rest of the world."

Still, the schedule change seemed to have an immediate positive effect overall on church attendance. According to Cowan, the church found that foot traffic increased in 25 LDS stakes that served as pilot congregations for the three-hour block.

Sacrament meeting attendance shot up 9 percent (47 percent to 56 percent), according to a 1980 Church News report. And Relief Society saw its activity surge 11 percent (33 percent to 44 percent).

So is another change in sight? Maybe a two-hour block? Probably not. A church spokesman said the faith has no plans to shorten or otherwise change the three-hour schedule. After all, that neighborhood chapel still is called a meetinghouse.

jstettler@sltrib.com

How the Mormon Sunday changed

Before the change (all meetings spaced throughout day):

» 90-minute sacrament service.

» 90-minute Sunday school.

» 90-minute priesthood meeting for men, older boys.

After the change (all meetings back to back):

» 70-minute sacrament service.

» 40-minute Sunday school (with Primary for children)

» 50-minute priesthood for men and older boys (with Relief Society for women, Primary for children and meetings for older girls).