“This is not the Church of close to a million members that I was born into,” said President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of the Church.
“This is a Church 17 times larger, and within the lifetime of those we are teaching, it will be many times larger than that.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, President Oaks said, enabled the Church to find new ways to foster that growth.
Over the past two years, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have ministered in unprecedented ways to friends, neighbors and people they will never meet. For senior leaders of the Church, their ministering took on a new feel, as well. As one example, videoconferencing with the use of technology took the place of most in-person visits when travel was restricted starting in 2020.
Recently, the Church’s leaders began traveling again, ministering around the world and testifying of the Savior and His Church. Those visits are far from uniform. Each matches the needs of those who are visited.
In the past few months, for example:
- President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke at an event near Topsfield, Massachusetts.
- Elder Jeffrey R. Holland dedicated a new chapel at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.
- Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf visited with refugees and displaced individuals in Poland; he also visited Church members in Germany.
- Elder David A. Bednar dedicated a new temple in Yigo, Guam.
- Elder Quentin L. Cook met with other religious leaders in New York City.
- Elder D. Todd Christofferson ministered in the Republic of The Gambia, Bolivia and Peru.
- Elder Neil L. Andersen traveled to Japan and Korea.
- Elder Ronald A. Rasband visited Singapore and Africa.
- Elder Gary E. Stevenson dedicated the new temple in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
- Elder Dale G. Renlund spoke in Mexico.
- Elder Gerrit W. Gong led a young single adult devotional in the Philippines.
- And Elder Ulisses Soares ministered in the Brazil and Pacific areas of the Church.
They met Church members and leaders, civic and other community leaders, and leaders from other religions. They visited temples and temple sites. Most important, they shared their testimonies as special witnesses of Jesus Christ and invited all who would listen to follow His commandments. They promised blessings that come from obedience to those commandments.
Regardless of the locations or the means of sharing testimonies of the Savior, the message to come unto Christ is the same for everyone. Whatever the challenges, wherever each person is on the covenant path, the apostolic message is the same — follow Him, follow the Savior, find peace and rest in Him.
The reality of Church worship during this most recent pandemic was that members of the Church experienced the gospel in new — and sometimes painfully different — ways than they were accustomed.
But President Oaks looked at those situations and searched for spiritual learning.
“I never felt restrained by COVID-related restrictions,” he said. “I have looked on them as a way that the Lord is teaching us a new way to perform our basic scriptural duties.”
President Oaks clarified those basic duties as he paraphrased a verse of scripture repeated multiple times across the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants.
“The revelations say we should meet together oft,” President Oaks said.
The Savior and His prophets have taught about that throughout time.
In both the New Testament and Doctrine and Covenants, the Savior instructs apostles to “go ye into all the world.”
A traveling ministry
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, during a Church News interview, that the ministry of the Apostles also comes by commandment.
“By definition, an Apostle is ‘one sent.’ So, by heavenly edict, by divine revelatory commandment, this work will always be a work of travel and ministry going forth to the four corners of the earth,” he said. “It has been that way since the beginning, and it will be that way until it is finished.”
The form that traveling ministry will take moving beyond this pandemic is less clear, but it is being scrutinized by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, President Oaks said.
“We have things to learn by traveling out to other areas of the world — things we can do with our members and our leaders and with the leaders of nations and people of other faiths that require a physical presence. Those are the kind of things we have been learning.”
President Oaks was unsure exactly which parts of the ministry must continue to take place in person.
“Some of the teaching and some of our influence needs to be in person, and we need to identify what that is,” he said. “So that when we go out from this place, we are doing the things that cannot be done by technology, and that is not obvious.”
Elder Holland said the commission to bear witness of the Savior is an overwhelming role for an Apostle to fulfill.
“It is staggering in its implication to know we are to take the message of salvation to every nation, kindred, tongue and people,” Elder Holland said.
Roles in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
President Oaks explained some of the delineation of duties among counselors to the President of the Church and the Twelve Apostles.
“It is in the nature of the First Presidency that we do not travel as much as the other Apostles, and it is in the nature of the counselors in the First Presidency that we stay home to mind the store, so to speak, so that the President of the Church can travel,” President Oaks said. “The impact of the President of the Church, the Lord’s Prophet upon the earth, goes far beyond any of the others who hold the office of an Apostle.”
And when Apostles travel, they don’t keep what they learn and observe to themselves, he said.
“The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve meet together at least once a week in the temple,” President Oaks said. An important part of these meetings is for the 15 members of these two councils to share information that can help each other understand what is happening in different parts of the world, he said.
“The President of the Church asks the Twelve to report on what they have done in the preceding weeks since they were with us, and we learn a great deal from what the Twelve report they have done. And they report in considerable detail.”
Of his recent assignments, just as with his earliest ones, Elder Holland said he comes away learning more than he teaches.
“I have always gained more from an assignment than I have been able to give,” he said.
He said he continues to learn from members’ messages, music and prayers.
“I have always come away feeling I was the beneficiary rather than one giving something to them,” Elder Holland said.
When reporting back to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, each member of the council shares more than a single meeting or encounter, President Oaks said.
“We get a cross section of what the Apostles are doing out in the Church. They are not reporting on what they did in Salt Lake. They are reporting, sometimes after they have been gone for two weeks, on what they did in South America or some other part of the world.”
As a member of the Twelve who has traveled to be with members over the last three decades, President Oaks could be in a position to teach other Apostles what to do in their ministering visits. He, however, sees it differently than that.
“I’m in the process of learning, and I try to learn before I teach; and I try to limit my teaching, to what I perceive is not understood,” he said.
So, he rejoices that his fellow leaders go and learn from the Spirit and the members. And he eagerly awaits their return to learn from their experiences and impressions, he said.
Ongoing role of new technology
As travel, both within neighborhoods and to faraway countries, opens back up for Church leaders, what will the new role of technology be?
President Oaks said he does not know exactly what it will look like, but he knows one thing it will not be.
“The main delivery of the message of the Church is not to expand technology as if we had everybody in a giant stadium every Sabbath Day,” he said. “The Lord said, ‘Meet together oft,’ and He is addressing congregations. So, we need to support the congregations, the family home evenings and parental training that the Lord has prescribed, and do so more effectively.”
Elder Holland said general conference is one example of the blessings of technology in reaching a worldwide audience.
“We have been broadcasting conference for years. We have already got a long track record of using technology to reach people across the globe,” he said.
So, technology will have its place in the Church — both for meetings, and for training and learning. General leaders of the Church will not, however, be broadcasting sacrament meeting talks or Sunday School lessons to the world.
President Oaks said, “We cannot become a secluded group of Church leaders that perform our whole ministry in front of a camera and a microphone at Church headquarters.”
Technology pushes Church curriculum adjustments
The learning curve posed some challenges for wards and branches who held sacrament meetings and quorum or class meetings via Zoom and other means.
“As I have observed from what we have learned in the process, it has been a painful but valuable addition to our learning of how we take the gospel to all the world,” President Oaks said of the technologies used by Church members during the pandemic.
Elder Holland said those learnings will help dictate how technology’s advancements are used in the future.
“We will be aware of developments and will use technology whenever we need it to continue our communication with the Church,” he said.
One example from President Oaks is the ongoing expansion of the Church’s “Come, Follow Me” curriculum.
“That is revolutionizing the study of the gospel in the home,” he said of the barely 4-year-old curriculum.
“I have high praise for that, and it has drawn us together to study the scriptures.”
He said he expects adjustments to come based on some of what has been learned about technology use in the last two years.
“We are going to have additional helps along that way that are less, ‘Read the scriptures,’ but more, ‘Here is what they say and what they mean and how we can teach them more effectively.’”
It is not that technology would make one person a central teacher, but that technology will enable the multiple teachers to become better teachers, he said.
Joys of meeting in person
“It would have been terrible to go the better part of two years and not be able to communicate at all or to have any kind of worship service together,” Elder Holland said. “The substitute experience was a lifesaver.”
Attending Church services via Zoom might not have been ideal, but it did provide a temporary stopgap.
“It has been wonderful that we have been able to use technology in our effort to reach our people,” Elder Holland said. “But there is nothing like being present, being face to face and heart to heart with a congregation.”
President Oaks doesn’t travel on assignment much now because of his role as a counselor in the First Presidency, but that doesn’t keep him from meeting with a new congregation each week.
“It is an energizing experience to testify of the Lord — which I find a way to do every Sunday, outside my comfort zone,” he said.
When in attendance at a ward of his choosing, President Oaks said he typically asks if he can share a brief, five-minute testimony of the Savior. No matter where he is, he said he loves to see God’s children.
“I do not see a country, when I am before an audience. I see children of God. I cannot tell the citizenship by looking at them, so I can get the same energizing in Africa, Asia, South America or Europe, and I don’t see it in terms of countries.”
Elder Holland echoed President Oaks’ sentiment that being with members is energizing.
“There really is nothing like being physically present with those we call our brothers and sisters,” he said. “There’s no substitute for it, and I’m glad we are back in a day when we can do that.”
Elder Holland said he enjoys being out with the people because of the unique spiritual feeling that can be present.
“When we talk about having the Spirit present, we mean that literally. Sometimes you feel that these experiences are going to take you clear off the surface of the earth,” he said. “In those meetings you are floating above all the mundane things of life.”