How international leadership has increased in recent years and is impacting the Church today

For more than four decades, President M. Russell Ballard has witnessed the Church’s worldwide expansion. Called in 1976 to the First Quorum of the Seventy and now Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he has watched an increase of nations where the Church is established, proselytizing languages and international membership.

In February 1996, Church membership passed a historic mark. Of the Church’s 9.4 million members, more resided outside the United States than within. That global growth continues now, with 9.5 million of the 16.1 million members outside of the U.S. with publications of the Church appearing in 188 languages.

Accompanying those changes over the same period has been a dramatic increase in the number of international General Authorities — those born outside of the United States.

In 1978, only 10 of the Church’s 69 General Authorities that year hailed from outside the U.S. While the number of General Authorities serving today has nearly doubled to 116 total, the number of international General Authorities has risen to 46, a jump of more than fourfold.

In 1978, those born outside of the United States comprised 14 percent of the General Authorities serving; today, it’s 40 percent.

“The Lord raises up whom He needs from wherever,” President Ballard said. “It sends chills down my back to see who they are, what they’re doing and who they’ve become.”

More international General Authorities, in turn, help local members better understand the role of these leaders, said Elder Claudio R. M. Costa, a General Authority Seventy from Brazil who, along with Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was called to serve in 1994. Together, they are the longest currently serving international General Authorities.

“The Church is a worldwide church, and having international General Authorities shows it in a very visual way,” Elder Costa said. “It shows the Church has prepared leadership everywhere.”

A dramatic increase

The 10 international General Authorities in 1978 included a trio of Canadian natives in Elder William H. Bennett and Elder Ted E. Brewerton of the First Quorum of the Seventy and Presiding Bishop Victor L. Brown, and four General Authority Seventies from Europe in Elders F. Enzio Busche (of Germany), Derek A. Cuthbert (England), Jacob de Jager (Netherlands) and Charles A. Didier.

Also born outside of the United States were two more Seventies and a counselor in the First Presidency — President Marion G. Romney was born in Mexico and lived in the Mormon colonies until his mid-teens, Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi hailed from Japan, and Elder Adney Y. Komatsu was born in Honolulu in 1941, 18 years before the United States’ territory of Hawaii became the 50th state.

Fast forward 40 years — the Church’s 46 General Authorities born outside of the United States proper include 16 from South America, eight from Europe, five each from Mexico/Central America, Asia and Oceania/Pacific regions, three from Africa, three from U.S. territories and one from Canada (see accompanying graphics).

And the 46 are spread across the highest councils and quorums — two are members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, four are members of the Presidency of the Seventy, one is the Presiding Bishop and the remaining 39 are among the General Authority Seventies.

An inexact science

Admittedly, looking at birthplace locations doesn’t paint a complete picture of one’s full heritage and growing-up experiences. Despite the aforementioned example of his birth and youth in northern Mexico, the late President Romney wasn’t readily seen as one of the Church’s “Mexican” General Authorities.

And there are others. Elder Uchtdorf, who is of German heritage and has lived in that country much of his life prior to becoming a General Authority, was born in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, which at that time was part of the Nazi-occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia but now is in the Czech Republic. And Elder Hugo Montoya, a General Authority Seventy who spent most of his youth and adult life in Mexico, was born in the U.S., in Fresno, California.

Besides one’s birthplace and assumed growing up in that native land, there are additional factors that enhance a greater international feel to the Church’s current leadership. They include, but are not limited to, serving as full-time missionaries or mission presidents — or both — in non-native lands, residing in a foreign country due to educational or professional opportunities, and fulfilling the myriad of international assignments such as Area Presidencies once called as a General Authority.

Not a recent trend

Foreign-born Church leaders are nothing new, with the first coming from England and Europe, the site of early missionary work and conversions.

John Taylor, the Church’s third president, was born in Milnthorpe, England. A half-dozen First Presidency counselors prior to President Romney hailed from outside the United States, ranging from President George Q. Cannon (England) to President Anthon H. Lund (Denmark).

Previous international Apostles include Elders James E. Talmage (England), John A. Widtsoe (Norway) and Charles A. Callis (Ireland), with other non-U.S. leaders were among those in the First Council of Seventy and previous Presiding Bishoprics.

A historical perspective

For President Ballard, the increase of international General Authorities should be seen in a historical perspective — well beyond the recent 40-year period.

He points to the meridian of time and Jesus Christ’s charge to His Apostles, as the Savior directs that “the gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations” (Matthew 24:14). And he points to 1834, when the entire body of priesthood holders of the recently Restored Church fit into a 14-square-foot schoolhouse room in Kirtland, Ohio, where the men took turns testifying of the Church’s future.

The Prophet Joseph Smith responded: “Brethren, I have been very much edified and instructed in your testimonies here tonight, but I want to say to you before the Lord that you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and Kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap. You don’t comprehend it. It is only a little handful of Priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America — it will fill the world.”

Whatever the Lord gives us, we’re going to do.

One would be hard-pressed to fit today’s 46 international General Authorities into that same 14-square-foot schoolhouse room.

President Ballard also cites his grandfather, Elder Melvin J. Ballard, who as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles knelt in a grove of trees in Argentina on Dec. 25, 1925, to dedicate South America for the preaching of the gospel. When he left about 10 months later, he prophesied the work in Argentina and South America would not rise up like a sunflower only to wither away but instead grow as from an acorn into a mighty oak tree.

A little more than 90 years later, South America claims a total membership of more than 4 million members and 16 of today’s 46 international General Authorities, including Brazil’s Elder Ulissses Soares, called earlier this year as an Apostle.

To serve and to relocate

Elder Uchtdorf and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, had made their plans — he would retire from Germany’s Lufthansa as an airline captain and corporate executive at the age of 55, and they would maintain their Frankfurt home next door to their daughter’s and likely serve a couple of missions. He admits hoping to be a senior missionary working as a blacksmith and making commemorative horseshoes in historic Nauvoo, intrigued by a visit there years earlier.

“That was our plan — to stay in Germany and grow the Church there and to support our family, grandchildren, friends and everyone else there.”

But his call as a General Authority Seventy at age 53 — first an expected service of five to seven years but later extended to age 70 — altered those plans, although part of his early service was in the Europe Area Presidency and in offices next door to the chapel where he had presided as a stake president. Then came the 2004 call as an Apostle, a lifetime commitment, and the recent decade’s service as a First Presidency counselor.

“Whatever the Lord gives us, we’re going to do,” Elder Uchtdorf said.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, visit with members after the dedication of the Ft. Lauderdale Florida Temple on May 4, 2014.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, visit with members after the dedication of the Ft. Lauderdale Florida Temple on May 4, 2014. Credit: Gerry Avant

The call to the Apostleship required relocating permanently to Utah. “I hear people say, ‘Aren’t you happy to be in Salt Lake City?’ Yes, we are — but it’s a quite a ways from home.”

While a son and his family still reside in Switzerland, his daughter and her family have since moved to Utah — “otherwise we would have been orphans here for the rest of our lives,” he quipped.

Relocation as well the calling’s full-time commitment not only impact the individual leader but also his wife, children and extended family. President Ballard is quick to salute the sisters when speaking of Church leaders, acknowledging in particular the mothers and wives for their faith, support, nurturing and sacrifices.

Yet as Elder Uchtdorf sees it — as do his peers — the wife of a General Authority can have considerable influence with others as she speaks to, interacts with and encourages others while accompanying her husband-leader on his assignments.

Communicating and connecting

In his nearly quarter-century as a General Authority Seventy, Elder Costa has encouraged newly called peers — no matter their nationality — to learn the language and culture of the people wherever they are assigned, to seek for a pure love of Christ for the assigned area and its people, to never compare other countries with one’s own country, and to take international assignments as a great blessing in one’s life and the lives of one’s wife, children and extended family.

Sister Margareth Costa, Elder Costa’s wife, is an example of that, having learned the Spanish and English languages as well as her native Portuguese. “Members love listening to her speaking in their native tongue, even though she has her own accent,” he said. “Communication becomes very easy in any place that we are, and people become very curious about our country and our culture, too.”

Sister Costa has “her Brazilian way,” as Elder Costa calls it, to show love and respect with an embrace — an as Brazilians say — whether greeting others or looking to share solace or encouragement. “We really believe that a hug can comfort, help and give peace to others,” he said.

Moving forward

President Ballard said he sees the increase of international General Authorities continuing.

“It is one of the great evidences for anyone who wonders whether or not The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true — to see what has happened in the last 40 years,” he said.

“It is an example of the strength of these leaders — some of them converts to the Church — who have risen up in their priesthood authority and responsibility in magnificent ways to where they are now leading the great cause of carrying the gospel ‘to every nation, kindred, tongue and people.’ "