Axes of Church Government

Today’s guest post comes from Christian Kimball.

There is a certain amount of speculation about President Nelson. What will he do? What will he be like? How will things change with Russell M. Nelson as President of the Church?

I suggest that nobody knows, and anybody who thinks they know doesn’t. There’s a good argument that “nobody” extends to President Nelson himself. My personal experience is that being a president—being the person in charge—is different than any previous experience and changes people in unexpected ways. The record is clear that being president of the Church, even after decades of full-time Church leadership and responsibility, changes people in unexpected ways.[1] In addition, I firmly believe and have witnessed that the issues that come to the table are often more important than the attitudes and beliefs that come to the job. 

Therefore, I’m not going to speculate. Instead, I’m interested in questions. What will I be watching for? Here’s a short list:[2]

  1. Active Leader <—> Committee

To be clear, I would expect unanimity in all events (in the traditional “discuss and debate but come together in the end” style). But active leadership vs action by committee is different by agenda and by pace.

The Church has fully functioning quorum-based decision processes. But there’s little doubt that an active leader makes a difference. “Active” is a function of health and energy, and also style and ambition. An active leader sets the agenda. An active leader almost always moves things along faster than any committee can act on its own.

  1. North <—> South

Most of the leadership and money is sourced in the U.S. A majority of the members are outside the U.S. (Another interesting division is to divide North/South at the 28th North parallel, a line that separates California and Mexico, cuts across North Africa and through the Suez Canal, crosses Mt. Everest/Chomolungma so most of China is north and most of India is south, runs south of Japan and Korea, and north of most of the Pacific islands including Hawaii.)

Where is the growth? Where is the money being spent? Where are the missions? Where are the temples? Where are the general leaders from? Are centralized policies addressed to Utah? To the United States or North America? What kind of differentiation is there by region or culture? What languages are supported by scripture, lesson materials, secondary materials, web-based resources?

  1. Exclusive <—> Inclusive

There is a view that the Church’s business is about making saints. Call us to the highest order of service and obedience and understanding. In this view, we would probably measure success by the number of full tithe payers or active temple goers or home teaching statistics or the number of people ready to be presidents (of the several organizations).

There is a different view that the Church’s business is about carrying and providing saving ordinances and bringing together temporarily flawed people into a society where we learn and grow in community and service, “working out our salvation in fear and trembling.”

Depending on where you stand between these views, there will be differences in practices and policies. At the “making saints” end of the spectrum, the Church is likely to feel like a rigid border place. At the “community of flawed people” end of the spectrum, the Church is likely to feel like a big tent.

  1. Sexual Morality <—> Pastoral

The Church’s teachings and practices can be focused on sexual morality. Marriage. Chastity. Modesty. Birth control. Abortion. As well as other aspects of the Ten Commandments and the temple recommend interview.

Or the Church’s teachings and practices can be focused on lifting and succoring the tired and poor, the widowed and orphaned, the hungry and weak, the sinners and the doubters.

Most likely both. But there will usually be a bias. It’s just not possible to do everything all the time.

These are the questions I will be asking myself, as I watch the Presidency of Russell M. Nelson unfold.

* * *

[1] Personal experience. In preparing for General Conference April 1974, Spencer Kimball was heard to say “this is really hard; this time they will actually listen to me.” After 30 years of General Conferences as an apostle. Second hand experience: Edward Kimball reports of his father Spencer that until 1974 he was the best follower ever—would never have pushed to change the priesthood rules. But then he had a new job to do.

[2] I think of this as my own list. But I am aware of comments and questions from all over that inform my views. In particular, I’m aware of conversations within the Roman Catholic community that in many ways parallel these ranges and questions.


  1. On all four axes, it appears to me that the right side of each spectrum leans towards a politically liberal worldview. In spite of general suspicions of President Nelson in the bloggernacle, I predict that we will see considerable action on that right end of each spectrum.

  2. President Monson was very pastoral, and he’d have no problem promoting strong sexual morals.

    President Monson, when health permitted was very unity focused, but he’d equally be a strong decisive leader.

    He was very inclusive, but not at the expense of loving the Lord and (through) keeping his commandments.

    I think some of these are a false dichotomy that really are a reflection of worldly philosophies rather than weighing the total measure of the man and their (plus your) understanding of the Savior.

    The tension you spot is not much different than how the NY times portrayed President Monson from their perspective compared to how faithful members saw him.

    Equally the Savior is misunderstood by anyone on the left or right assuming exclusivity of their positions.

  3. I’m intrigued by Pres. Nelson’s focus on personal growth and study that he’s shared recently in talks, and by his connection with China. Will be interesting to watch history in the making!

  4. Re “false dichotomy” I’d argue:
    The poles define an axis, not binaries. It is likely that nobody stands at any extreme, it is possible that some stand right in the middle, and it is likely that most people move around.
    But it is not humanly possible to be all things at the same time. In that sense the poles are meant to describe extremes that cannot be held simultaneously, and that’s certainly a challengeable proposition.

    As for the omnipotence of deity encompassing all virtues simultaneously, probably yes (in my current imagination) but that’s pretty far afield.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    It will be fascinating to watch this all unfold.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Your personal notes are great, Christian. Thanks for the post.

    My sense is that even within administrations, things can shift. I’ve seen the pendulum on how to treat violations of the Law of Chastity swing pretty wildly (especially with prospective missionaries). Perhaps this is also a function of regional leadership as well, but there seems to have been several top-down initiatives in recent memories.

  7. Thanks for this post, Christian. I think this is an interesting and useful framework to think about a new church president’s administration.

  8. Kudos for not speculating. We have very little hard evidence about where these men fall on specific issues. I think we can assume that they’re generally conservative and orthodox, but when 15 men go behind a closed door and all come back with a decision, any tea leaves reading is going to be through several layers of “glass darkly”s. Everybody assumes that Uchtdorf is some closet liberal just because he has a European accent, a lot of people assumed that the Church was going to swing hard left when President Packer died, etc. At the most one can kind of draw some conclusions based on who emphasizes what in their GC talks, but those are some paltry straws to grasp at.

  9. Great post. I’ll be watching the axes over the next few years.

  10. I too am watching for his China connection. Will the Church expand its work there?

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