When Mitt Romney was not chosen to be the president of the United States, many reporters began wondering if he would now be offered the job of President of the Mormons in order to capitalize on his fame.
Those who understand how Mormon leadership works realized that would not be possible, at least not immediately. Let’s take a look at how the process works.
At most levels of the church, all work is done by unpaid volunteers. The work is part-time and done at a local level. People are invited to take on specific responsibilities, called callings, and these callings are changed regularly. This gives Mormons the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills. Since Mormons aren’t promoted, it is possible to be the bishop (lay pastor) one year and the assistant toddler nursery teacher the next without feeling demoted. It’s just the next calling.
At the highest levels, positions are full-time but still without a salary. If a leader cannot afford to stop his or her paid employment for the role in a General (international) presidency or an apostle, he or she receives a modest stipend that does not come from tithes. The money comes from the small number of for-profit businesses the church owns and pays taxes on.
General Authorities, the priesthood holders who serve at the highest levels, can come from anywhere in the church. They hold the positions of apostle, Seventies, and Presiding Bishops. Apostles most often come from the lower levels of General Authorities, although that is not a requirement. The president of the Church selects the new apostles through prayer and study.
The apostles have seniority based on when they were called. There are fifteen men. Three serve in the first presidency, which consists of the president of the Church, who is also the prophet, and his two counselors. The counselors can be any apostle, not necessarily the highest ranking. The remaining twelve serve as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The senior apostle—the one who has served the longest—is the president of the Quorum. If that person is in the First Presidency, the next highest ranking apostle who is not in the First Presidency is the Acting President.
That sets the foundation for leadership. Now, when the prophet dies, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the real president, not the acting one) becomes the new prophet. This means it goes automatically to the longest serving leader and that means Mitt Romney can’t be the next prophet. The current prophet, Thomas S. Monson, will serve as long as he lives. When he dies, Boyd K. Packer will replace him if Elder Packer is still alive.
Each time an apostle dies, the remaining apostles below him in seniority move up one step in the seniority process. The prophet then prays to select a new apostle.
There is clearly great wisdom in God’s decision to operate this way, as there is in all of God’s perfect plan. The choice of prophet is entirely in God’s hand. The current prophet prays and seeks God’s guidance in choosing an apostle, but after that, it is fully under God’s control, since he controls life and death. There is no campaigning, no politicking, and no suspense.
When the first Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, died, this plan had not been made known to the general membership. As a result, people campaigned for the job and some left the church because they didn’t get chosen or because their favorite candidate didn’t get chosen. It created chaos and conflict at a critical moment in the church. It was a test of faith, to be certain, and helped to weed out those who did not pray for personal confirmation that God’s will had been done. While Brigham Young spoke to the people about the plan of succession, many reported in their journals that he was transfigured and they saw and heard Joseph Smith’s voice and likeness in him, serving as a confirmation of God’s choice. Even with this, however, Mormons are expected to pray for a personal testimony of the prophet and so, whether or not a person saw the transfiguration, he would still be able to find out what God wanted.
Today, with the plan clearly outlined, there is no drama in the selection of the new prophet. We are not distracted from the real work of the church—teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, Mitt Romney could not be the next prophet, since there are many other people who would be ahead of him. It is possible, of course, that he could become a General Authority, but they are not chosen because they are famous. They are chosen through inspiration because God wants them in that position. This means no one can predict who will be the next General Authority—except, of course, for God.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.