Teachings of Presidents
Chapter 19: Priesthood Leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ

“Chapter 19: Priesthood Leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley (2016)

“Chapter 19,” Teachings: Gordon B. Hinckley

Chapter 19

Priesthood Leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ

“The Lord is watching over this work. This is His kingdom. We are not as sheep without a shepherd. We are not as an army without a leader.”

From the Life of Gordon B. Hinckley

President Gordon B. Hinckley recalled: “My first responsibility in the Church, the first office I ever held, was counselor to the boy who presided over our deacons quorum. Our good bishop called me in and talked with me about this calling. I was tremendously impressed. I was worried and concerned. I was by nature, believe it or not, a rather shy and backward boy, and I think this call to serve as a counselor in a deacons quorum was of as much concern to me, in terms of my age and experience, as is my present responsibility in terms of my age and experience.”1

President Hinckley had similar feelings in 1961, when he was called to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In his first general conference talk as an Apostle, he said:

“I think I feel some sense of the burden of this responsibility to stand as a witness of the Lord Jesus Christ before a world that is reluctant to accept him. ‘I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me.’ I am subdued by the confidence of the Lord’s Prophet in me, and by the expressed love of these, my brethren. … I pray for strength; I pray for help; and I pray for the faith and the will to be obedient.”2

On April 1, 1995, President Hinckley spoke in the priesthood session of general conference after Church members had sustained him for the first time as their prophet and President. For the previous 14 years, he had served as a counselor to three other Presidents of the Church. He had repeatedly testified of their divine callings and urged the Latter-day Saints to follow their counsel. Now, finding himself in that position, his feelings of dependence on the Lord were not diminished from the time he was a deacon or a newly called Apostle. Rather, he had become even more aware of his need for the Lord’s sustaining strength. He said:

“Your uplifted hands in the solemn assembly this morning became an expression of your willingness and desire to uphold us, your brethren and your servants, with your confidence, faith, and prayer. I am deeply grateful for that expression. I thank you, each of you. I assure you, as you already know, that in the processes of the Lord, there is no aspiring for office. As the Lord said to His disciples, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you’ (John 15:16). This office is not one to be sought after. The right to select rests with the Lord. He is the master of life and death. His is the power to call. His is the power to take away. His is the power to retain. It is all in His hands.

“I do not know why in His grand scheme one such as I would find a place. But having this mantle come upon me, I now rededicate whatever I have of strength or time or talent or life to the work of my Master in the service of my brethren and sisters. Again, I thank you … for your actions this day. The burden of my prayer is that I will be worthy. I hope that I may be remembered in your prayers.”3

First Presidency

The First Presidency, 1995. President Gordon B. Hinckley (center); President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor (left); and President James E. Faust, Second Counselor (right).

Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley


The Lord calls each President of the Church after testing, refining, and polishing him.

I have worked with the Presidents of the Church from President Heber J. Grant onward. … I have known the counselors of all of these men, and I have known the Council of the Twelve during the years of the administrations of these Presidents. All of these men have been human. They have had human traits and perhaps some human weaknesses. But over and above all of that, there has been in the life of every one of them an overpowering manifestation of the inspiration of God. Those who have been Presidents have been prophets in a very real way. I have intimately witnessed the spirit of revelation upon them. Each man came to the Presidency after many years of experience as a member of the Council of the Twelve and in other capacities. The Lord refined and polished each one, let him know discouragement and failure, let him experience illness and in some cases deep sorrow. All of this became part of a great refining process, and the effect of that process became beautifully evident in their lives.

My dear friends in the gospel, this is God’s work. This is his Church and the Church of his Beloved Son whose name it carries. God will never permit an imposter to stand at its head. He will name his prophets, and he will inspire and direct them.4

Some express concern that the President of the Church is likely always to be a rather elderly man, to which my response is, “What a blessing!” … He does not need to be youthful. He has and will continue to have younger men to travel over the earth in the work of the ministry. He is the presiding high priest, the repository of all of the keys of the holy priesthood, and the voice of revelation from God to his people. …

To my mind there is something tremendously reassuring in knowing that … we shall have a President who has been disciplined and schooled, tried and tested, whose fidelity to the work and whose integrity in the cause have been tempered in the forge of service, whose faith has matured, and whose nearness to God has been cultivated over a period of many years.5

I speak … in gratitude for a prophet to guide us in these latter days. I plead for loyalty to him whom the Lord has called and anointed. I plead for steadfastness in upholding him and giving attention to his teachings. I have said … that if we have a prophet, we have everything. If we do not have a prophet, we have nothing. We do have a prophet. We have had prophets since the founding of this Church. We shall never be without a prophet if we live worthy of a prophet.

The Lord is watching over this work. This is His kingdom. We are not as sheep without a shepherd. We are not as an army without a leader.6


When a President of the Church dies, the senior Apostle becomes the next President.

Transition of authority [to a new President of the Church], in which I have participated a number of times, is beautiful in its simplicity. It is indicative of the way the Lord does things. Under His procedure a man is selected by the prophet to become a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. He does not choose this as a career. He is called, as were the Apostles in Jesus’ time, to whom the Lord said, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you.” (John 15:16.) The years pass. He is schooled and disciplined in the duties of his office. He travels over the earth in fulfilling his apostolic calling. It is a long course of preparation, in which he comes to know the Latter-day Saints wherever they may be, and they come to know him. The Lord tests his heart and his substance. In the natural course of events, vacancies occur in that council and new appointments are made. Under this process a particular man becomes the senior Apostle. Residing latent in him, and in his associate Brethren, given to each at the time of ordination, are all of the keys of the priesthood. But authority to exercise those keys is restricted to the President of the Church. At [the prophet’s] passing, that authority becomes operative in the senior Apostle, who is then named, set apart, and ordained a prophet and President by his associates of the Council of the Twelve.

There is no electioneering. There is no campaigning. There is only the quiet and simple operation of a divine plan which provides inspired and tested leadership.

I have been a witness, a personal witness, to this wondrous process. I give you my testimony that it is the Lord who [selects the prophet].7

With President [Howard W.] Hunter’s passing, the First Presidency was dissolved. Brother Monson and I, who had served as his counselors, took our places in the Quorum of the Twelve, which became the presiding authority of the Church.

… All of the living ordained Apostles gathered in a spirit of fasting and prayer in the upper room of the temple. Here we sang a sacred hymn and prayed together. We partook of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, renewing in that sacred, symbolic testament our covenants and our relationship with Him who is our divine Redeemer.

The presidency was then reorganized, following a precedent well established through generations of the past.

There was no campaigning, no contest, no ambition for office. It was quiet, peaceful, simple, and sacred. It was done after the pattern which the Lord Himself had put in place.8


The Lord has provided principles and procedures for governing His Church if the President is not able to function fully.

President Hinckley made the following statement in 1992, when he was serving as First Counselor in the First Presidency: The head of the Church is the Lord Jesus Christ. It is His Church. But the earthly head is our prophet. Prophets are men who are endowed with a divine calling. Notwithstanding the divinity of that calling, they are human. They are subject to the problems of mortality.

We love and respect and honor and look to the prophet of this day, President Ezra Taft Benson. He has been a great and gifted leader, a man whose voice has rung out in testimony of this work across the world. He holds all the keys of the priesthood on the earth in this day. But he has reached an age where he cannot do many of the things he once did. This does not detract from his calling as a prophet. But it places limitations upon his physical activities.9

President Hinckley made the following statement in 1994, when he was serving as First Counselor in the First Presidency: People throughout the Church are naturally anxious to know of the President’s condition. President Benson is now in his ninety-fifth year. … He suffers seriously from the effects of age and illness and has been unable to fulfill important duties of his sacred office. This is not a situation without precedent. Other Presidents of the Church have also been ill or unable to function fully in the closing months or years of their lives. It is possible that this will happen again in the future.

The principles and procedures which the Lord has put in place for the governance of His church make provision for any such circumstance. It is important … that there be no doubts or concerns about the governance of the Church and the exercise of the prophetic gifts, including the right to inspiration and revelation in administering the affairs and programs of the Church, when the President may be ill or is not able to function fully.

The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles, called and ordained to hold the keys of the priesthood, have the authority and responsibility to govern the Church, to administer its ordinances, to expound its doctrine, and to establish and maintain its practices. Each man who is ordained an Apostle and sustained a member of the Council of the Twelve is sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. Like those before him, President Benson was the senior Apostle at the time he was called as President of the Church. His Counselors were drawn from the Council of the Twelve. Therefore, all incumbent members of the Quorum of the First Presidency and of the Council of the Twelve have been the recipients of the keys, rights, and authority pertaining to the holy apostleship.

I quote from the Doctrine and Covenants:

“Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church” (D&C 107:22).

When the President is ill or not able to function fully in all of the duties of his office, his two Counselors together comprise a Quorum of the First Presidency. They carry on with the day-to-day work of the Presidency. In exceptional circumstances, when only one may be able to function, he may act in the authority of the office of the Presidency as set forth in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 102, verses 10–11. …

… The Counselors in the First Presidency carry on with the regular work of this office. But any major questions of policy, procedures, programs, or doctrine are considered deliberately and prayerfully by the First Presidency and the Twelve together. These two quorums, the Quorum of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, meeting together, with every man having total freedom to express himself, consider every major question.

And now I quote again from the word of the Lord: “And every decision made by either of these quorums must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other” (D&C 107:27). …

… Let it be understood by all that Jesus Christ stands at the head of this church which bears His sacred name. He is watching over it. He is guiding it. Standing at the right hand of His Father, He directs this work. His is the prerogative, the power, the option to call men in His way to high and sacred offices and to release them according to His will by calling them home. He is the Master of life and death. I do not worry about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I accept these circumstances as an expression of His will. I likewise accept the responsibility, acting with my Brethren, to do all we can to move forward this holy work in a spirit of consecration, love, humility, duty, and loyalty.10


Apostles are special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world.

After [being] ordained to the holy apostleship and … set apart as members of the Council of the Twelve, [Apostles are] expected to devote themselves primarily to the work of the ministry. They … place first in their lives, above all other considerations, the responsibility to stand as special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world. …

As with all of us, they are men who are human. They have their strengths and their weaknesses. But henceforth, for the remainder of their lives, as long as they remain faithful, their one chief concern must be the advancement of the work of God on the earth. They must be concerned with the welfare of our Father’s children, both those within the Church and those out of the Church. They must do all that they can to give comfort to those who mourn, to give strength to those who are weak, to give encouragement to those who falter, to befriend the friendless, to nurture the destitute, to bless the sick, to bear witness, not out of belief but out of a certain knowledge of the Son of God, their Friend and Master, whose servants they are. …

… I give witness to their brotherhood, to their devotion, their faith, their industry, and their tremendous service in advancing the kingdom of God.11

Quorum of Twelve Apostles

The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 1965. Seated left to right: Ezra Taft Benson, Mark E. Petersen (on arm of chair), Joseph Fielding Smith (quorum president), and LeGrand Richards. Standing left to right: Gordon B. Hinckley, Delbert L. Stapley, Thomas S. Monson, Spencer W. Kimball, Harold B. Lee, Marion G. Romney, Richard L. Evans, and Howard W. Hunter.


The First Presidency and the Twelve seek revelation and total harmony before they reach decisions.

No decision emanates from the deliberations of the First Presidency and the Twelve without total unanimity among all concerned. At the outset in considering matters, there may be differences of opinion. These are to be expected. These men come from different backgrounds. They are men who think for themselves. But before a final decision is reached, there comes a unanimity of mind and voice.

This is to be expected if the revealed word of the Lord is followed [see D&C 107:27, 30–31]. …

… [When] I served as a member of the Council of the Twelve and [when] I have served in the First Presidency, there has never been a major action taken where this was not observed. … Out of this very process of men speaking their minds has come a sifting and winnowing of ideas and concepts. But I have never observed serious discord or personal enmity among my Brethren. I have, rather, observed a beautiful and remarkable thing—the coming together, under the directing influence of the Holy Spirit and under the power of revelation, of divergent views until there is total harmony and full agreement. …

I know of no other governing body of any kind of which this might be said.12


A stake president is called by inspiration to serve as an adviser to bishops and a leader for the people.

The president of the stake is the officer called under revelation to stand between the bishops of wards and the General Authorities of the Church. It is a most important responsibility. He is trained by the General Authorities, and in turn he trains the bishops. …

The stake president serves as an adviser to the bishops. Every bishop knows that when he has to deal with a difficult problem there is one readily available to whom he may go to share his burden and receive counsel.

He provides a secondary measure of safety in determining those worthy to go to the house of the Lord. … The president likewise becomes a second screen in determining the worthiness of those who go out to represent the Church in the mission field. He too interviews the candidate, and only when he is satisfied of his or her worthiness does he endorse the recommendation. He likewise has been given authority to set apart those called on missions and to extend releases when they have completed their service.

Most importantly, he is the principal disciplinary officer of the stake. … He carries the very heavy responsibility of seeing that the doctrine taught in the stake is kept pure and unsullied. It is his duty to see that there is no false doctrine that is taught nor false practice that occurs. If there be any Melchizedek Priesthood holder out of line, or any other person for that matter, under some circumstances, he is to counsel with them, and if the individual persists in his or her practice, then the president is obliged to take action. He will summon the offender to appear before a disciplinary council, where action may be taken to assign a probationary period or to disfellowship or excommunicate him or her from the Church.

This is a most onerous and unwelcome task, but the president must face up to it without fear or favor. All of this is done in harmony with the direction of the Spirit and as set forth in section 102 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Then subsequently he must do all he can to labor with and bring back in due time the one who was disciplined.

All of this and much more comprise his responsibilities. It follows, therefore, that his own life must be exemplary before his people. …

… Because we have such confidence in [stake presidents], we urge local members that they not seek out General Authorities to counsel with and bless them. Their stake presidents have been called under the same inspiration under which the General Authorities were called.13


Bishops are shepherds of the flock.

The [Church] can grow and multiply in numbers, as it surely will. This gospel must be carried to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. There can never be in the foreseeable future a standing still or a failure to reach out, to move forward, to build, to enlarge Zion across the world. But with all of this there must continue to be an intimate pastoral relationship of every member with a wise and caring bishop or branch president. These are the shepherds of the flock whose responsibility it is to look after the people in relatively small numbers so that none is forgotten, overlooked, or neglected. Jesus was the true shepherd who reached out to those in distress, one at a time, bestowing an individual blessing upon them.14

The bishops of the Church … are in a very real sense the shepherds of Israel. Everyone [in the Church] is accountable to a bishop or a branch president. Tremendous are the burdens which they carry, and I invite every member of the Church to do all that he or she can to lift the burden under which our bishops and branch presidents labor.

We must pray for them. They need help as they carry their heavy loads. We can be more supportive and less dependent upon them. We can assist them in every way possible. We can thank them for all that they do for us. We are wearing them out in a short time by the burdens which we impose upon them.

… Every [bishop] is a man who has been called by the spirit of prophecy and revelation and set apart and ordained by the laying on of hands. Every one of them holds the keys of the presidency of his ward. Each is a high priest, the presiding high priest of his ward. Each carries tremendous responsibilities of stewardship. Each stands as a father to his people.

None receives money for his service. No ward bishop is compensated by the Church for his work as a bishop.

The requirements of a bishop today are as they were in the days of Paul, who wrote to Timothy [see 1 Timothy 3:2–6]. …

In his letter to Titus, Paul adds that “a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; …

“Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:7, 9).

Those words aptly describe a bishop today in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.15

I urge the people of the Church, wherever you may be, when you are faced with problems, first to try to solve those problems yourselves. Think about them, study alternatives available to you, pray about them, and look to the Lord for direction. If you are unable to settle them yourselves, then talk with your bishop or branch president. He is a man of God, called under the authority of the holy priesthood as the shepherd of the flock.16

Suggestions for Study and Teaching


  • Why do we need living prophets? What impresses you about the Lord’s “refining process” for preparing and calling a President of the Church? (See section 1.)

  • What are your impressions as you review President Hinckley’s description of the way a new President of the Church is chosen? (See section 2.) Why is it important to know that the President is chosen according to “a divine plan which provides inspired and tested leadership”?

  • What principles and procedures has the Lord established for governing the Church if the President is not able to function fully in all his duties? (See section 3.)

  • How do latter-day Apostles show concern for all of God’s children, “both those within the Church and those out of the Church”? (See section 4.) How do recent conference addresses reflect this concern? How have you benefited from the teachings of living prophets and apostles?

  • Study President Hinckley’s teachings about how the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve reach decisions (see section 5). What can we learn from the way they reach decisions? How can we apply these principles in our families and in the Church?

  • As you review sections 6 and 7, what do you learn about the callings of stake president and bishop? How can we better sustain our Church leaders?

Related Scriptures

Ephesians 2:19–20; 4:11–14; D&C 1:38; 21:1–6; Abraham 3:22–23; Articles of Faith 1:5–6

Teaching Help

“Testify whenever the Spirit prompts you to do so, not just at the end of each lesson. Provide opportunities for those you teach to bear their testimonies” (Teaching, No Greater Call [1999], 45).


  1. “In … Counsellors There Is Safety,” Ensign, Nov. 1990, 49.

  2. In Conference Report, Oct. 1961, 115–16; quoting “I Stand All Amazed,” Hymns, no. 193.

  3. “This Work Is Concerned with People,” Ensign, May 1995, 51.

  4. “Strengthening Each Other,” Ensign, Feb. 1985, 5.

  5. “He Slumbers Not, nor Sleeps,” Ensign, May 1983, 6–7.

  6. “Believe His Prophets,” Ensign, May 1992, 53.

  7. “Come and Partake,” Ensign, May 1986, 46–47.

  8. “This Is the Work of the Master,” Ensign, May 1995, 69.

  9. “The Church Is on Course,” Ensign, Nov. 1992, 53–54.

  10. “God Is at the Helm,” Ensign, May 1994, 54, 59.

  11. “Special Witnesses for Christ,” Ensign, May 1984, 49–51.

  12. “God Is at the Helm,” 54, 59.

  13. “The Stake President,” Ensign, May 2000, 50–51.

  14. “This Work Is Concerned with People,” 52–53.

  15. “The Shepherds of Israel,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2003, 60.

  16. “Live the Gospel,” Ensign, Nov. 1984, 86.