With the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and more than 2 million members within its boundaries, the Utah Area is a region providing both a quantity and multi-generational quality of benefits to the global Church.
But Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Utah Area — one of the Church’s 22 areas worldwide — said he and Latter-day Saints in the state also benefit from the experiences and perspectives of the international areas.
When he first started presiding over the Utah Area, Elder Christensen remembers looking at local problems and issues needing to be addressed. “In the last two or three years, we’ve just stood back and marveled at the level of faithfulness and dedications of the Saints, the leadership ability that’s here and the rising generation that’s coming after multiple generations of members of the Church. We look past some of the outlying issues and focus on the strength of the Church here in this great state.”
He points to Utah’s increasing diversity and an influx of residents who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ. “The future of the Church in Utah becomes even more important as we reach out and build relationships with community members, with those not of our faith. We have the ability to shape what’s great about Utah in a bigger way going forward than we have in the past.”
Extensive area leadership
In an interview with the Church News, Elder Christensen offered a brief overview of Church areas — what they are and how they are administered — as well as a specific look at the strengths and opportunities of the Utah Area.
Called as a General Authority Seventy in 2002, Elder Christensen’s extensive area leadership experience began when he served as president of the Mexico Area from 2003 to 2007, residing in Mexico City with his wife, Sister Debbie Christensen.
He has presided over the Utah Area for the past six years — the first three as a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, which at the time supervised the North America areas, and the last three years as the area president.
And in August, the Christensens will be moving to Buenos Aires, Argentina, as he begins his next assignment: president of the South America South Area. The area includes Chile, where he served as a young full-time missionary.
What is a Church area?
Church areas are geographic divisions allowing for locally based administration and decentralized management throughout the world. The United States and Canada are divided into six North America areas, with the rest of the globe assigned into one of 16 international areas.
An area presidency today is comprised of a president and two counselors, all three typically General Authority Seventies, although a local Area Seventy is included in both the Europe East and Middle East / Africa North area presidencies.
“The tenure of an area presidency member might be two or three or four years,” he said. “But once a year, we’re rotated and moved by assignment, almost like a missionary being transferred to serve in one specific role or another. The assignments come in April every year, and we have our transfers, if you will, in August, and that’s how area presidencies are formed.”
The North America areas are administrated from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City and are supported by the Church’s departments based there. However, international areas have offices and support staffs in major metropolitan areas across the globe.
An area presidency reports directly to a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, with the Quorum and the Presidency are joined by the Presiding Bishopric in annual reviews of each area and its operations.
A glance at the Utah Area
The Utah Area is the Church’s largest in terms of membership and activity, with more than 2 million Latter-day Saints participating in nearly 630 stakes. While that is only 13% of the Church’s 16.6 million membership worldwide, the Utah Area accounts for about a fourth of the Church’s active-attendance totals, Elder Christensen said.
Of the Church’s 168 dedicated temples worldwide, 16 are in the Utah Area, with another 10 temples either under construction or in planning and development stages.
Geographically, the Utah Area’s footprint covers most of the state, with a southeastern section — including Monticello and the Four Corners region — pertaining to the neighboring North America Southwest Area.
Similarly, the Utah Area extends into parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona, as North America areas are based more on population centers than state boundaries, unlike the international boundaries followed by the areas outside the U.S. and Canada.
The current Utah Area presidency is comprised by Elder Christensen and his counselors — Elder Evan A. Schmutz and Elder Walter F. González, both who have served previously in other area presidencies worldwide.
Principles during a pandemic period
The current COVID-19 pandemic has provided glimpses of how the Utah Area presidency has tried to share with local wards and stakes specific principles and directives, which come in conjunction with instruction and adjustments from senior Church leaders.
Having home-centered, Church-supported gospel learning established prior to the pandemic prepared the Utah Area and the Church worldwide to effectively transition to the necessary adjustments after the suspension of public meetings and temple worship.
“You teach principles, and then you hope that they’re able to implement those in a safe and a wonderful way,” said Elder Christensen said. “Quite frankly, it was executed perfectly. We learned to really trust local people, local leaders — they don’t have to be directed. They were looking for some principles. But once we set the stage, it started to move rather well.”
Acknowledging the one-on-one opportunities to serve during the pandemic, he singled out two large-scale events.
The Church asked Utah Area Relief Society sisters and to produce millions of medical-grade masks early in the pandemic. “We set a goal of 6 million,” he said. “We thought it would take several months; it took about two weeks.”
Another was last year’s windstorms in and around Salt Lake City, resulting in fallen wood scattered everywhere. Church-organized volunteers not only cleaned up the massive amounts of wood but also delivered it to the Navajo Nation, in desperate need of fuel.
“We were able to serve twice — to help clean up the city and help ship to people in need that would need the wood for their own survival.”
Learning from the global Church
Elder Christensen said he’s always looking to learn from the international Church, asking area presidencies worldwide questions like “What have you given up that you never want to bring back? What have you learned that we need to incorporate into the Church going forward from this period of time? What learnings have we actually come to?”
One example of applications in Utah from learnings gleaned elsewhere involves temple reopenings and phased operational progressions following last spring’s pandemic-forced closures.
The first temples to start the different phases weren’t in Utah, with its high-volume attendance, but elsewhere throughout the world. “If you’re going to try and come back in a cautious way, it makes sense to start where volume is lower, and you can address the issues,” Elder Christensen said.
Another example is the use of technology for organizational leadership meetings and trainings and the reduction of extra, less-necessary meetings. That has reduced travel requirements for members in international areas, whether they needed to travel great distances or to catch several buses or trains to get across a metro area to a meeting.
The streamlining and simplification have application in Utah, where Elder Christensen says the Church experience can become “complicated.”
“We’re trying to learn from international areas to see what’s the essence, what’s the simplicity, what would the Lord have us do and what really matters. And to me, we don’t want to lose that.”
The fear is, he added, that “all those old traditions” might come roaring back in the return to regular routines.
“We’ve been too isolated, if you will, too much member-centric,” Elder Christensen said of the Church experience in the Utah Area. “And I think opportunities are happening in Utah that are just blessing all of us. We’re all learning more and more.”