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Sarah Jane Weaver: What I have learned from observing senior Church leaders — serving in their 10th decade

Church News editor rarely watches senior leaders and their active service without awe. It’s not what they are doing well into their 10th decade that stills her — it is why.

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President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints poses in his office at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News


On Feb. 11, 1975, Belle Smith Spafford spoke to a group of Brigham Young University students. Delighted that she was introduced as a “young woman,” Sister Spafford, then 80, recalled receiving a call from the National Council of Women. She was asked to accept an appointment as a delegate to an international meeting in Paris.

“I thought, ‘Before I accept this, I should refer it to one of the members of the First Presidency,’” she recalled. “So I called President [N. Eldon] Tanner and said, ‘I have an invitation to serve as a delegate, and I don’t think I should accept it because and because and because.’ I had a number of very good reasons, I thought.”

President Tanner listened attentively and then responded: “You know, I should think you’d take advantage of your opportunities while you’re still young.”

Sister Spafford died seven years later at age 87.

Serving as Relief Society general president from 1945 to 1974, she oversaw, among many responsibilities, construction of the Relief Society Building at Church headquarters and the translation of the Relief Society Magazine into Spanish. During her service, Relief Society grew ninefold — from 100,000 members to 900,000.

Like so many in the Church, she consecrated every living breath to the Lord.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, leader of the Church until his death at age 97, was asked about the age of senior Church leaders during an interview that aired April 7, 1996, with Mike Wallace of CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

“There are those who say: ‘This is a gerontocracy. This is a Church run by old men,’” Wallace said.

“Isn’t it wonderful to have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment who isn’t blown about by every wind of doctrine?” said President Hinckley.

“Absolutely, as long as he’s not dotty,” Wallace said.

“Thank you for the compliment,” President Hinckley quipped.

On Thursday, April 14, 2022, President Russell M. Nelson surpassed President Hinckley as the oldest President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

President Nelson took a brief moment to pose for a photograph in his office one day earlier. The photograph itself is extraordinary, because President Nelson has made all of us think his service well into his 10th decade is ordinary.

In his four and a half years as President of the Church, President Nelson has traveled 115,000 miles to 35 nations on six continents — meeting with government and religious leaders and Latter-day Saints in large and small settings — and has led the Church through the COVID-19 pandemic, ministering instead through videoconferences and online broadcasts. Asking Latter-day Saints to gather Israel on both sides of the veil, President Nelson has announced 100 new templesincluding 17 at the recent April 2022 general conference. And in December 2020 he became a great-great-grandfather.

He will celebrate his 98th birthday on Sept. 9. 

This month, President Dallin H. Oaks also celebrates an important milestone. The first counselor in the First Presidency will turn 90 on Aug. 12.

Two days later, President Nelson, President Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring will all participate in the rededication of the Washington D.C. Temple.

Then in May 2023, President Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, will celebrate 90 years.

In addition, President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, will turn 94 on Oct. 8.

I rarely watch our leaders and their active service without awe. It’s not what they are doing well into their 10th decade that stills me — it is why.

During a 2019 celebration marking President Nelson’s 95th birthday, he shared his testimony of Jesus Christ and His restored Church.

“If I have learned anything certain in [my life], it’s that Jesus the Christ is the Son of God,” he said. “His Church has been restored in these latter days to prepare the world for His Second Coming. He is the light and life of the world. Only through Him can we reach our divine destiny and eventual exaltation.”

Last month, President Oaks and his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, traveled to Rome, Italy, to address the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit. He offered a keynote address and participated in other sessions of the conference. When conference attendees visited the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, President and Sister Oaks went too — walking a considerable distance. They returned from Rome and immediately drove to a family reunion.

I suspect President Oaks talked to President Nelson before accepting the invitation to travel to Italy to speak about religious liberty.

Just as President Tanner once advised Sister Spafford, President Nelson probably listened attentively and then responded with a familiar sentiment.

“You know,” he might have said, “I should think you’d take advantage of your opportunities while you’re still young.”

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