Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are mourning the death of their president, Gordon B. Hinckley, while their top leadership begins to assemble to name his successor—which will almost certainly be Thomas S. Monson, 80. Hinckley was the 15th president in the 177-year history of the church; he had served as its president since March 12, 1995. He oversaw a major global expansion of his church, and was the best traveled of its leaders.
The official title for the leader of the Mormon church is President but he is regarded as a "Prophet, Seer and Revelator." But he (and it's always a "he") is most often referred to as "prophet" or "president." Mormons believe that a prophet is God's representative on earth, and he is entitled to receive revelation on behalf of the church, much like the ancient prophets, such as Moses or Elijah. "That's the purpose of a prophet," Hinckley told NEWSWEEK in 2005. "To answer the questions of the times … The purpose of a prophet is to lead these people through the contemporary thicket through which they walk." Monson will inherit a church that is vibrant and wealthy, but that faces challenges created in part by its own success. As the presidential candidacy of LDS member Mitt Romney has shown, some Americans remain uneasy with Mormon theology and such practices as baptism for the dead and the possibility of future godhood for faithful church members. Meanwhile, the church's rapid growth abroad is creating a disparity between the makeup of its membership (almost 13 million worldwide) and its highest tier of leaders.
Compared with the process of picking a pope, choosing a new Mormon prophet is fairly routine. The top leadership of the church consists of a prophet and two counselors—called the First Presidency—and a quorum of 12 apostles. (The two counselors are usually chosen from the quorum, so technically there could be 14 apostles.) Prophets and apostles serve for life. When a prophet dies, the First Presidency is dissolved and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles collectively becomes the church's ruling body until a new prophet is "sustained." The new prophet has always been the most senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (determined by length of service as an apostle, not date of birth). Brigham Young was the most senior of the 12 apostles when he succeeded church founder Joseph Smith Jr. Monson is currently the most senior member. This process is not prescribed in any text and it's theoretically possible that the Quorum could pick another leader.
After President Hinckley's funeral, the 14 apostles will meet on the fourth floor of the Salt Lake temple in the room where they regularly conduct church business. The vote to make Monson the next prophet has to be unanimous (as it has been in every case since the church was founded). Then President Monson will sit in a chair and the remaining 13 apostles will stand in a circle and put their hands on his head. Boyd K. Packer, the next most senior leader, will say a prayer "setting him apart" and blessing him in his new role. There's no set script; the words are supposed to come by inspiration from God. At that point Monson would officially become the new president and prophet and would name his new counselors; traditionally they have been chosen from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. And since there will then be a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve, the new prophet will choose a new apostle in the next couple of months—a choice that may make an important statement about the church's future.
The transition to the new prophet is likely to be smooth. Monson has served for the last 43 years in the top tiers of church leadership and is deeply respected. (LDS prophets don't operate unilaterally: the entire First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve work together.) In Monson's years as an apostle and counselor, he has served in roles that span the breadth of church life, including missionary work, welfare services, genealogy, education and leadership training. He is likely to continue many of the same themes of Hinckley's presidency: reaching out to members of other faiths, welcoming new converts, urging church members to reject the temptations of secular culture.
Monson was born in Salt Lake City in 1927, the second of six children. He was quickly given leadership roles within the church, often being among the youngest to have served in various positions. He became a bishop at 22, a counselor in a "stake presidency" (supervising several congregations) at 27, a mission president at 31, an apostle at 36 (the youngest in 53 years) and a counselor in the First Presidency at 58. As a bishop he presided over a congregation of nearly 1,000, which included some 85 widows and had the largest welfare load in the church. Every year at Christmastime he took a week of vacation from his job as a sales manager for the Deseret News to visit each widow and bring a present—often a hen that he had raised himself. Even after he left the office of bishop he continued to visit the widows at Christmas. He spoke at every one of their funerals. In his addresses to the church he frequently implores members to pay special attention to the lonely and the poor.
With all the church's power and reach, there are difficulties ahead. In the past 50 years church membership has mushroomed from 1 million members in 1950 to nearly 13 million members today. But LDS growth seems to be slowing. In the late 1980s annual growth rates were more than 5 percent each year, but between 2000 and 2005 the rate dropped to less than 3 percent. The slowdown may be in part because in 2002 the church raised the standards for young men and women who want to serve full-time missions, including toughened screening for "moral worthiness." The number of full-time missionaries dropped from a high of 62,000 in 2002 to some 53,000 in December 2006, the last time figures were released. In 1989 the average LDS missionary baptized eight people (and six to six and a half annually throughout the 1990s). From 2000 to 2004 this number had fallen to four and a half—and is only now spiking back up to the 1990 levels.
In 2000 the church reached the important milestone of having more members outside the United States than within it, with members in more than 176 nations. It's now often described as a "global church," but in truth it's really more a hemispheric one: 84 percent of church members live in North and South America. Church policy has been to go only where missionaries are welcome, but President Monson could make worldwide church expansion part of his mandate. As an apostle he spent nearly two decades in Eastern Europe on diplomatic assignments, trying to persuade governments to allow LDS missionaries to proselytize. He helped establish the first "stake" in Eastern Europe in 1982 and oversaw the building of a temple in Freiberg, Germany, in 1985.
Creating converts isn't the same as keeping them, though—an issue in all religions that proselytize. Sociologist Armand Mauss estimates that 50 percent of LDS converts within the United States stop attending within a year of conversion, and 75 percent of foreign converts fail to attend after a year. The church disputes these numbers, but leaders do acknowledge that retention has been a problem, particularly in Latin America. The Mormon church consists almost entirely of volunteer leaders, from nursery school teachers to bishops. This practice has benefits: new members are immediately given a "calling," or a job to perform within the church, which gives them an incentive to stay. But in some areas leaders are presiding over entire congregations of new members. How does a bishop counsel a member who is struggling with his new faith when the bishop himself has been a member for only a year?
The global growth is likely, at some point, to make diversity an issue. At current growth rates, Spanish will one day surpass English as the most common language spoken by Latter-day Saints. There are more than a million members in Mexico alone. The church is growing more diverse within the United States, too, as it makes a conscious effort to expand its presence in cities like Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, Houston and Detroit. Within the United States there are more than 800 congregations that conduct services in foreign languages, from Spanish to Navajo, Samoan to Haitian Creole. But church leadership—at least at the very top—remains homogeneous. There has never been a nonwhite apostle or prophet. Until 1978 blacks were not permitted to hold the priesthood, a requirement for most leadership positions. (Women still cannot be ordained.) In 2004, after two apostles died within weeks of each other—creating two openings—some Mormons hoped a non-Caucasian would be chosen; a white American and a German man were named. With a new vacancy now in the Quorum of the 12, might a Hispanic or a black apostle finally be ordained? Or will there continue to be two spheres: a leadership that is very much tied to the Rocky Mountain West and a broader membership that is increasingly international? "I hope some day to see a Hispanic or a black African called to the Quorum of the Twelve," says Marcus Martins, who converted to Mormonism in 1972 and became the first black full-time LDS missionary. "But I don't expect, even if the next apostle is out of Ghana or Nigeria, that there will be any significant changes in church policy or administration. Our belief is that the role of those men is to testify of Jesus Christ to the people. They're not set up to be a representative body."
For their part, church leaders would rather focus on what ties church members together rather than what sets them apart, citing a scripture in Ephesians about fellow citizens with the Saints. The new prophet's job will be to see his fellow Saints onto a safe path through their broadening world.