Challenges Await New Mormon President

80-Year-Old Leader Confronts Slowdown in Church's Worldwide Growth

Washington Post/February 5, 2008

The new leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thomas S. Monson, is taking the reins of the church at a time of unprecedented scrutiny and significant challenges.

The selection of the tall, affable 80-year-old Monson as president of the 13 million-member Mormon church was announced yesterday. He replaces Gordon B. Hinckley, 97, who died last week after serving 12 years as president.

The globe-trotting Hinckley left behind a denomination that is better known than it used to be - partly because of the presidential candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney - but also one whose growth rate has slowed and whose dropout rate troubles its leaders.

Worldwide Mormon church membership grew as fast as 8 percent a year in the late 1980s, but the growth rate has decreased since 2000 to less than 3 percent. The Seventh-day Adventist Church and some Pentecostal churches are among the denominations now growing faster.

Analysts cite several reasons for the cooling off, including the declining birth rate among U.S. Mormons; a drop in the number of missionaries since 2002 as a result of tighter recruiting standards; and Mormons' reluctance to embrace local cultural practices to advance their missionary work, a reluctance that complicates the effort to make overseas converts.

Other faiths "are willing to express the local culture in many ways that the LDS has been slow to do," said Richard N. Ostling, co-author of "Mormon America," a book about the faith. "Should missionaries have to wear white shirts and ties [worldwide]? Do all of the hymns have to be approved in Salt Lake City? Do appointments have to be as centralized as they are?"

More worrisome to church leaders has been the dropout rate. David Stewart, a Mormon who analyzes church growth, said barely one in three Mormon converts becomes an active participant in the church, which cuts active membership to 4 million to 4.5 million.

Part of the reason, Stewart and others say, is that Mormon missionaries tend to baptize converts quickly, in some countries after they have gone to services only a few times.

"When people have attended a meeting one time or even two times, to expect that . . . they're going to keep coming forever is something that is not reasonable or logical," Stewart said.

In recent years, church leaders have taken steps to remedy the situation, requiring missionaries to spend more time with new converts and requiring potential members to attend more services before baptism.

Asked at a news conference yesterday about the attrition rate, Monson said his message to those who are wavering is: "Don't give up. We need you."

"My purpose is to provide ways that we, as active members, can put our arms around those who are less active and bring them back into the fold," he said.

The ascension of Monson - the church's 16th president since its founding in 1830 - came as little surprise to the Mormon faithful. He has served in the top tiers of the leadership since 1963 and, by tradition, the longest-serving member of the leadership becomes head of the church upon the death of its president.

Monson was unanimously selected Sunday by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the top governing bodies of the church. Yesterday, he promised "no abrupt change" from Hinckley's leadership, although "practices and programs will be adjusted from time to time."

The position of president, who serves for life, is revered in the faith. According to Mormon doctrine, the church's leader is a "prophet, seer and revelator" who is able to receive divine revelations.

"This is not just the head of the Lutheran Church or a Methodist bishop," said Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar of the church. "It's something different. He is a prophet. He can speak for God."

Monson became a bishop - the Mormon equivalent of an unpaid parish priest - at 22. In 1963, at 36, he became a Quorum member. When Hinckley rose to the presidency of the church in 1995, Monson became his closest adviser.

Hinckley, by all accounts, is a hard act to follow. He made an enormous mark, pioneering a now-extensive public relations arm, overseeing a worldwide membership expansion and a building boom that doubled the number of temples worldwide, and moving the faith toward the religious mainstream without compromising its strict doctrine. More than 50 percent of Mormons now live outside the United States.

How Monson will lead the faith is something of an unknown, outside experts say. Unlike Hinckley, who was a high-profile leader well before he was elevated to the top job, Monson has operated more behind the scenes, focusing on the church's extensive business operations.

In public appearances, he is known for his kindly, grandfatherly demeanor and for urging Mormons to help the country's needy.

"We know he's a sweet, nice man who cares a lot about charity," Shipps said. "What we don't know is what kind of a leader he will be."

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