The Challenges of Administering a Worldwide Church
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“The Challenges of Administering a Worldwide Church,” Ensign, July 1974, 18

The Challenges of Administering a Worldwide Church

We live in a period of the earth’s history when the work of the Lord is probably being carried forward on a greater scale among a wider cross section of the people of the world than ever before. It is an exciting and challenging time for members of the Church. It is a time of fulfillment and growth; a time requiring a broad vision on the part of leadership. The kingdom of God has truly begun to fill the earth as Daniel predicted in his interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.

To Abraham in ancient times the Lord made this promise: “… and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood), and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood) … and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal.” (Abr. 2:11.) In all of the gospel dispensations the Lord has acted through an agent or “chosen” people to establish his gospel and his kingdom among the “families of the earth.” It has been his design from the beginning to provide all of his children with the opportunity to learn life’s true purpose and to apply the principles of eternal life.

Meridian of Time

As the Master concluded his earthly ministry among the Jews in the meridian of time, he charged his disciples, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matt. 28:19. Italics added.) We do not have a complete record of the missionary efforts of Christ’s disciples, but Christian tradition suggests that many nations did indeed hear their testimonies. We have a somewhat detailed account of one segment of this great missionary work in the chronicle of Paul’s life as recorded by Luke in Acts, and as supplemented by Paul’s own epistles. From these records we draw sufficient information to know that their sizable congregations throughout the Mediterranean area did receive the gospel and, for a time, were organized into a system of “churches.” (See Acts 13:14–52; Acts 14:1–28.)

One who follows Paul through his proselyting journeys and his continuous efforts to “confirm the churches” that grew out of his missionary successes receives some insight into the mammoth challenge faced by these early leaders to convert, organize, and stabilize a rapidly growing membership. Transportation and communication were restricted, so visits by the general officers of the church to the various areas of church growth were obviously infrequent. It is little wonder that Paul’s letters to his dearly beloved saints are often touched by expressions of concern over unity, understanding, and charity among the members. This was typically true in his first epistle to the saints in Corinth, where he pleaded, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1 Cor. 1:10.)

To the Roman members Paul wrote, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” (Rom. 16:17.)

There is evidence, also, of the special challenges raised by the cultural and national differences among the saints of Paul’s day. Recurring references are made to the difficulty experienced by Jewish church members in trying to accept and fellowship gentile converts. This problem led to a tense incident in Antioch involving Paul and Peter. (See Gal. 2:1–14.)

It was not an easy thing for Roman slave owners who joined the Church to accept converted slaves on a basis of full fellowship. Paul composed an epistle to Philemon, one of his converts in Asia Minor. Philemon had apparently lost a slave, Onesimus, whom Paul taught and baptized in Rome. Paul’s appeal to Philemon was that he receive Onesimus, following his conversion, “Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, especially to me. …” (Philem. 1:16.) This must have represented a very special challenge for the aristocratic Philemon.

These glimpses into the circumstances inherent to the growth of the church in the meridian of time give us some idea of the administrative challenges faced in that time by church leaders. There is a note of soberness in the fact that when Paul wrote his final epistle to Timothy, in a period when the church was being severely threatened by persecution and inner strife, he notes the absence of loyalty and support for him as he stands trial for his life in Rome. “At my first answer,” Paul reported, “no man stood with me, but all men forsook me. …” (2 Tim. 4:16.) There were some challenges in that period that were not successfully overcome.

Dispensation of the Fulness of Times

At the opening of the dispensation of the fulness of times, the Lord proclaimed once again, this time through his prophet, Joseph Smith, “… Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together.

“For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape. …” (D&C 1:1–2. Italics added.)

He said further, “And the voice of warning shall be unto all people, by the mouths of my disciples, whom I have chosen in these last days.” (D&C 1:4.)

To Joseph Smith he said, “The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name. …” (D&C 122:1.)

We have seen at least a partial fulfillment of the Lord’s promise. Units of the Church have been established on every continent of the earth, and the Lord’s kingdom has become worldwide in scope. The international, intercultural, multilingual nature of the Church membership has become emphatically more pronounced as the years have passed.

Members of the Church are now residing in more than 90 countries, and they speak at least 40 languages and dialects. The Church receives contributions and makes disbursements in 54 denominations of currency. Titles to Church property must be taken within scores of differing legal structures, and the Church organization obtains official recognition in a multitude of political systems.

A complicated procedure for procuring and perpetuating visas for a worldwide missionary force has become necessary, because 69 missions of the Church are currently organized outside the United States.

Curriculum materials must not only be translated into at least 16 different languages, but they must also be adapted to suit a wide range of cultural backgrounds and customs. Providing for the effective global distribution of these materials is in itself an enterprise of mammoth proportions.

An efficient system of communication with the most isolated of Church units must be maintained. General Authorities of the Church visit each of the more than 640 stakes at least twice each year, and the Regional Representatives of the Twelve make hundreds of additional visits annually to regions scattered over the entire face of the earth.

Modern advancements in transportation and travel have greatly facilitated the contacts that general officers of the Church make with the stakes and missions throughout the world. Almost every weekend the General Authorities fan out across the globe to attend stake conferences and to visit with mission leaders. On a typical weekend a tally was made of the cumulative miles traveled by the General Authorities to attend stake conferences. The combined distance traveled by all of the assigned Brethren on this single weekend amounted to more than 57,000 miles and included visits to four continents. As a result of the speed of air travel, almost all of these Brethren were able to invest a full week of work in their offices at Salt Lake City in addition to fulfilling their conference assignments.

Perhaps the greatest single challenge is to establish and maintain a system of Church government that is universal. It must be administered by local Church leaders who are called to serve without material compensation, and who come from an almost infinite variety of circumstances. Many are virtually without experience in administrative affairs. Most outside the stakes close to Church headquarters have only a limited tenure of experience in Church membership and service. Every level of education is represented among these local leaders, yet they are expected to learn and to administer a code of inspired principles, procedures, and policies that are determined by the General Authorities of the Church.

This system of Church government must avoid conflict with all of the man-made political systems found throughout the world. It must enable its members to be obedient to “kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates,” and encourage them “in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (A of F 1:12) as the law pertains to the governments of men. Members who have no formal or practical training are expected to become qualified teachers, counselors, and administrators, all in accordance with a central core of guiding principles and doctrines that are received by revelation and that are given universal application.

It is virtually impossible for those at Church headquarters who draft handbooks of policies and procedures to make provisions for every possible contingency that may arise in localized situations, where customs and personal relationships are so varied. When correct principles are understood by local leaders, however, it is often possible for them to resolve their problems in a way uniquely suited to their special needs without violating the spirit of unity and common purpose that prevails throughout the Church.

For example, a group of bishops and branch presidents in Santiago, Chile, were recently discussing the proper procedure for making assignments of Church positions to members of their wards and branches. One of the questions that drew the close attention of this group concerned the procedure for obtaining the permission of a husband before extending a call to his wife. In the midst of the discussion, one of the bishops asked, “And what about obtaining the approval of the abuelo (grandfather)?”

For the sake of the visiting North American Regional Representative, the Chilean leaders explained that it is not uncommon in Chile for a son or daughter to marry and then to continue sharing the same household with his or her parents. In this circumstance, the grandfather continues to carry a patriarchal role of considerable significance to the extended family. Such is the custom of this land and its people. No special instruction could be found in the published handbooks for showing deference to this important relationship; and yet it was obviously a matter of deep concern for the priesthood leaders.

After a careful discussion, it was determined that, in addition to obtaining the approval of a woman’s husband before giving her an assignment, it would also be proper to inform the grandfather, both as a matter of courtesy and in recognition of his special status. This resolution was perfectly satisfying to the group of ward and branch leaders. It is an interesting illustration of how local leaders can govern themselves correctly in a variety of situations when they understand and apply correct principles.

A worldwide membership has created the need for establishing a number of school systems to serve members in areas where adequate schools may not otherwise be available. Church schools are presently administered in New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Mexico.

Members of the Church in every land must have facilities to accommodate their meetings and activities. Literally thousands of buildings designed to meet local needs are being financed, constructed, and maintained in every quarter of the earth. Offices to supervise the Church building program are maintained in 14 countries, and real estate divisions have been established in 11 nations outside the United States.

Centers for the translation, adaptation, and distribution of instructional materials are operated at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah; Seoul, Korea; Tokyo, Japan; Auckland, New Zealand; Mexico City, Mexico; Frankfurt, Germany; Copenhagen, Denmark; São Paulo, Brazil; Hong Kong; Manchester, England; Taipei, Taiwan; Naku’alofa, Tonga; and Apia, Western Samoa.

Even with a vast international coverage of general conference by radio and television, many Saints in lands distant from Church headquarters have lacked the opportunity for direct contact with Church leaders. Under the administration of President Joseph Fielding Smith, the Church initiated area conferences at key world centers. The first of these conferences was held in Manchester, England, in August 1971 for all members of the Church in the British Isles. A second conference was conducted in Mexico City, in August 1972 for Church members in Mexico and Central America. In August 1973, Munich, Germany, was the location of a conference for members from continental Europe, except four northern nations. Next month the fourth area conference is being held in Stockholm, Sweden, for members of the Church in the Scandinavian countries and Finland.

Members of the First Presidency, along with many other General Authorities of the Church, have attended all of these area conferences. More of these conferences will undoubtedly be held in other parts of the world, bringing the president of the Church and other presiding Brethren closer to the people.

The Lord declared to Joseph Smith in March 1833, “For it shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language. …” (D&C 90:11.) To a remarkable degree this promise is being fulfilled, for in each of these area conferences, through a system of simultaneous translation, every participant is able to hear the spoken word in his native tongue.

The challenges of a worldwide Church reach beyond the administrative level. As in the time of the Apostle Paul, the members of the Church are faced with the need to develop a spirit of international brotherhood and sisterhood. The members of a ward lodged comfortably in a commodious chapel cannot be content so long as some of their fellow saints are meeting in condemned and inadequate buildings. Those who have easy access to the modern facilities of a Church university or its other institutions of higher learning cannot forget that there are still members of the Church in many parts of the world who cannot receive even a rudimentary education. Latter-day Saints who draw the finest teaching materials each week from the well-stocked shelves of meetinghouse libraries must remember that they have counterparts in other sectors of the world for whom the price of a Sunday School manual represents a week’s wages.

There is no room in today’s far-flung Church membership for narrow local interests and provincialism. Racial and cultural differences must give way to an overriding view of the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. The segmenting biases that worked such a destructive influence in the church of Paul’s day cannot be allowed to take root in this dispensation.

Paul, whose entire early life had been directed toward confining him within the binding and narrow traditions of the Pharisees, expressed his awakening to the needs of all men in these terms: “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; … To them that are without law, as without law, … that I might gain them that are without law. … To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake. …” (1 Cor. 9:20–23.)

It would be well if all Latter-day Saints could rise above interests of nationality, culture, tradition, and politics to a higher view of their joint membership in God’s eternal kingdom. This will be an ever-present challenge in a worldwide Church. To be “fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19) should be regarded as a privilege and blessing that supersedes all others.

There is a unifying force in the gospel of Jesus Christ that impels its adherents toward the establishment of powerful common bonds. Heart warming evidences of this can be observed among Latter-day Saints from all parts of the world. It is the only power and influence among men today that can bring an end to strife and establish lasting peace.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides an eternal haven for the honest in heart among all nations. With Christ at its head, it is truly a worldwide kingdom. The challenges of leadership and faithful membership within this kingdom are being met, and the Master will have a people to claim as his own when he comes again.

  • Dean L. Larsen serves as a Regional Representative of the Council of the Twelve. He is director of instructional materials for the Church.