Lee Tom Perry, Paul M. Bons, and Alan L. Wilkins, “Contemporary Organization,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed.John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 113–20.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that certain organizational principles, laws, and arrangements are divinely inspired. As evidence of this they point to callings and offices in the contemporary organization of the Church (e.g., prophet, apostle, the seventy, and evangelist or patriarch) that were also present in the early Christian church. Several early revelations, including the original articles of Church organization and government (D&C 20) and the revelation on priesthood (D&C 107), are seen by members of the Church as sources of a divinely inspired organizational pattern. All offices and callings are filled by lay leaders, as the Church has no professional clergy. Even full-time missionaries and General Authorities are drawn from the laity.
Principles of Organization
Six basic principles that can be inferred from the revelations have shaped the historical and contemporary organization of the Church.
First is the guiding principle that the Church functions in the context of God’s eternal plan. Latter-day Saints believe that God’s work and glory is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life” of mankind (Moses 1:39). To further this plan, the Church pursues a complex mission that can be described as threefold: (1) proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people; (2) perfecting the Saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and, by instruction and discipline, to gain exaltation; and, (3) redeeming the dead by performing vicarious ordinances in the temple for those who have lived on the earth (Kimball, p. 5). The structures, programs, and processes of the contemporary organization of the Church are designed to fulfill one or more dimensions of the Church mission.
The second principle establishes the priesthood of God as the organizing authority of the Church. Structurally, the Church follows a strict hierarchical form, and authority is exercised through priesthood keys, which determine who presides over the Church and who directs its affairs at each organizational level. The president of the church is the only person on earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys. But through his authority different keys are delegated to individuals when they are called and “set apart” to specific positions of priesthood leadership and responsibility.
Third is the principle of presidencies and councils. Presidents, because they hold priesthood keys and are entitled to the powers of presidency, possess the ultimate decision-making authority for their assigned stewardships. Nevertheless, all presidents are instructed to meet in presidencies and councils to hear various points of view. For example, it is the responsibility of counselors to presidents to give counsel; in Church disciplinary councils, council members may even be assigned to represent competing points of view. The same patterns are observed in the presidencies of the auxiliary organizations, even though no priesthood keys may be involved.
Fourth is the law of common consent. Church leaders are selected through revelation by those in authority. Before new leaders may serve, they must receive a formal sustaining vote from the members whom they will serve or over whom they will preside. When members of the Church sustain leaders, they commit themselves to support these leaders in fulfilling their various stewardships.
Fifth is the principle of orderly administration. The organization of the Church follows prescribed policies and procedures that in the contemporary Church are defined in the general handbook of instructions, the Melchizedek Priesthood Handbook, and other handbooks and manuals for specific programs. An order or pattern is indicated for such procedures as ordinations, ordinances, and blessings; conducting meetings; extending callings and releases to members in various callings in the Church; keeping records and reports; controlling finances; and exercising Church discipline.
Sixth, the contemporary organization of the Church continues to change in response to the demands of rapid international growth. New auxiliary organizations and new levels of geographic representation (e.g., region and area) have been added since the original revelations were received. Nevertheless, the influence of the first five organizing principles can still be seen at every organizational level, in both the ecclesiastical order and the administrative support system of the Church. In this respect, the contemporary organization of the Church is a product of both constancy and change.
Most people experience the organization of the LDS Church principally at the local level, where congregations are organized into wards. Although the local ward organization meets most of the religious needs of the members within its boundaries, many specialized services are provided at a higher level. In addition, ward officers are in continuing contact with a hierarchy of priesthood leaders linking them directly to the central authorities in Salt Lake City. Wards are organized into stakes, stakes into regions, and regions into areas, which constitute the major international divisions of the Church organization. The present article will describe the organization beginning with the most general level and ending with the local wards.
A body of priesthood leaders called the General Authorities heads the organization of the Church. They are full-time ecclesiastical leaders drawn from the laity, and they receive modest living allowances from returns on investments made by the Church, not from the tithes and offerings paid by members of the Church. The General Authorities consist of the First Presidency of the Church, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or Council of the Twelve, the quorums of the seventy, and the Presiding Bishopric.
These General Authorities preside over the entire ecclesiastical organization of the Church, from the central headquarters in Salt Lake City, and its area offices in major cities in different parts of the world. They also manage the departments of the central office, which are composed largely of full-time employees who serve the administrative needs of the Church from offices in Salt Lake City and other locations as needed. This administrative support system functions in cooperation with the normal ecclesiastical channels, maintaining clear and direct lines of authority and responsibility between local and general officers of the Church.
The First Presidency
The First Presidency is the highest council of the Church, and is composed of the President of the Church and usually two counselors. The First Presidency performs the central and authoritative role of receiving revelation and establishing policies and procedures for the Church. When the President dies, the senior apostle (i.e., the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with the longest tenure) becomes President of the Church, and he chooses his counselors usually from among the other apostles, without regard to seniority. A new apostle is then chosen to fill the complement of twelve.
Since the First Presidency is a policymaking body, relatively few organizations and departments of the Church administrative support system report directly to it. For example, the various units of the Church Educational System (CES), including institutes and seminaries, report through a Board of Education. Brigham Young University, BYU—Hawaii, Ricks College, the LDS Business College, and several small colleges and schools located outside the United States also report through their boards of trustees.
The Church Auditing Department, the Budget Office, and the Personnel Department report directly to the First Presidency or its committees, as do the advisers to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Mormon youth symphony and chorus. Although not a part of the Church administrative system, temple presidents likewise report directly to the First Presidency.
The Council of the Twelve
The Council, or Quorum, of the Twelve Apostles is a quorum “equal in authority and power” to the First Presidency, meaning that when the First Presidency is dissolved (which occurs upon the death of the President of the Church) the Council of the Twelve exercises all of the power and authority previously reserved to the First Presidency until a new First Presidency is organized (D&C 107:23–24). The Council of the Twelve is presently organized into four executive groups—the Correlation Executive Committee composed of the Council of the Twelve’s three most senior apostles; the Missionary Executive Council; the Priesthood Executive Council; and the Temple and Family History Executive Council.
The Correlation Executive Council reviews the work of the three other councils. It also directs the Correlation Department, which evaluates manuals and other materials disseminated to the membership of the Church and conducts research for the General Authorities. The Evaluation Division of the Correlation Department includes lay-member committees responsible for reviewing all Church materials, research, and the translation of materials.
The Missionary Executive Council directs the work of the Missionary Department of the Church, which provides support to a worldwide proselytizing effort. It is made up of several major sections, including the Proselyting Resource Division; several Missionary Training Centers; the Missionary Operations Division, for handling day-to-day missionary activities; and the Media Division.
The Priesthood Executive Council directs the Priesthood Department and the Curriculum Department of the Church. The Priesthood Department supervises the activities of the Melchizedek Priesthood and the auxiliaries of the Church. Among these auxiliary organizations are the primary (for young children), the young men and young women (for youth ages twelve to eighteen), the Relief Society (for adult women), and the Sunday school. The members of the general presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary are women who are called to serve on a part-time basis, while members of the general presidencies of the Young Men and Sunday School are members of the quorums of the Seventy. The principal role of the general presidencies of the auxiliaries is to train and serve the leaders and members of their respective organizations in the stakes and wards of the Church. The Curriculum Department is responsible for planning, developing, and producing printed, audio, and audiovisual materials for the Church. It includes the Curriculum Planning and Development Division, the Audiovisual Planning and Development Division, the Publications Coordination Division, the Scriptures Coordination Division, and the Church Magazines Division.
The Temple and Family History Executive Council directs the Temple Department, the Family History Department, and the Historical Department of the Church. The Temple Department supervises the operation of the Church’s temples throughout the world. The major divisions of the Temple Department are the Recording and Ordinance Procedures Division, the Ordinance Recording Systems Division, and the Audiovisual Services Division. The Family History Department manages the genealogical research done by members of the Church all over the world and assists members in researching their ancestors. It engages in the acquisition and storage of genealogical records, manages the worldwide system of genealogical libraries, and supervises the preparation of individual names for temple ordinance work. The Historical Department acquires, organizes, preserves, and oversees the use of materials of enduring value to the Church. The department includes the Archives Division, the Library Division (for historical research), and the Museum Division.
Members of the Missionary, Priesthood, and Temple and Family History executive councils also have “first contact” assignments in various areas of the Church. This means that these members of the Council of the Twelve work with specific area presidencies and are ultimately responsible for all the work of the Church in their assigned areas.
The Quorums of the Seventy
Members of the First Quorum of the Seventy are called to serve usually until they reach seventy years of age, while members of the Second Quorum of the Seventy are normally called to serve for five years. Members of the quorums of the Seventy serve under the direction of the Presidency of the Seventy. The seven presidents of the Seventy presently serve as Executive Directors of, respectively, the Correlation, Missionary, Priesthood (two Executive Directors assigned), Curriculum, Temple, and Family History departments of the Church. Members of the quorums of the Seventy are assigned to serve in area presidencies throughout the world. Area presidencies oversee both the local units and the missions of the Church. Each mission is presided over by a mission president, who oversees the proselytizing activities of approximately two hundred missionaries.
Those members of the quorums of the Seventy assigned to the areas of North America work at the general headquarters of the Church in Salt Lake City. They also receive assignments as assistant executive directors over the departments of the Church or as members of general presidencies of the Young Men and Sunday School organizations of the Church.
The Presiding Bishopric
The Presiding Bishopric is made up of three General Authorities—the Presiding Bishop and two counselors—responsible for many of the temporal affairs of the Church. They report directly to the First Presidency of the Church and oversee the Welfare Services, Physical Facilities, Materials Management, Information Systems, Finance and Records, Investments, LDS foundation, and Security departments of the Church. The members of the Presiding Bishopric also support directors for temporal affairs assigned to each of the areas of the Church, who oversee all the temporal affairs of the Church in their assigned areas.
The Welfare Services Department is charged with helping members of the Church to care for themselves and for the poor and needy. The department consists of the Employment Services Division, Deseret Industries (organized for the employment and rehabilitation of disadvantaged members of the Church), and the Production/
The Physical Facilities Department provides, maintains, and manages Church buildings and sites in the United States and Canada, and provides functional support for Church-owned physical facilities throughout the world. The department is divided into the Architecture and Engineering Division, the Headquarters Facilities Division, the Real Estate Division, and the Temple and Special Projects Division.
The Materials Management Department provides Church members and the local units of the Church with equipment, functional services, supplies, sacred clothing, and published materials. The divisions of this department include Printing Services, Beehive Clothing (a production facility for articles of sacred clothing), the Purchasing Division, the Translation Division, the Vehicle Fleet Division, and the Food Services Division.
The Information Systems Department provides information services to the administrative departments and the areas, regions, stakes, and wards of the Church. The department is composed of the Client Services Division, the Operations Services Division (Data Center), and the Applications Services Division.
The Finance and Records Department protects the assets and vital administrative records of the Church. It is organized into the Treasury Services, Controller, Tax Administration, Risk Management, and Membership and Statistical Records divisions.
The Investments Department is responsible to the Presiding Bishopric for investment securities and investment properties of the Church and is organized into separate divisions to perform these responsibilities.
The purpose of the LDS Foundation is to encourage and facilitate charitable giving to the Church and its programs. The LDS Foundation consists of the Donor Services, Donor Services Support, and Administrative Services divisions.
Finally, the Security Department is charged with providing security for properties at Church headquarters and other locations and personal protection as determined by the First Presidency. The department is organized into divisions responsible for each activity.
The Local Units of the Church
The General Authorities oversee the geographical areas of the Church and normally become involved in local Church affairs through regional representatives. Regional representatives, like stake and ward leaders, serve on a part-time basis. All are lay members, and receive no financial compensation from the Church for their services. Regional representatives perform an advisory and training role. Their principal responsibility is to train local Church leaders in their assigned regions, as directed by the Council of the Twelve through the area presidencies.
The local units of the Church are stakes and wards. Stakes are centers of Church activity. The size of a stake may range from 2,000 to 7,000 members, and each stake provides its members with the full range of programs and services of the Church. Each stake is presided over by a stake president and two counselors, assisted by a high council of twelve or more men. The stake presidency and high council form the Stake Priesthood Executive Committee, which directs all stake activities. The Stake Priesthood Executive Committee is usually divided into the Stake Melchizedek Priesthood Committee and the Stake Aaronic Priesthood Committee. The Stake Melchizedek Priesthood Committee, under the direction of the stake president (chairman) and a counselor in the stake presidency (vice-chairman), supervises Melchizedek Priesthood quorums and trains quorum and group leaders. The Stake Aaronic Priesthood Committee, chaired by the other counselor in the stake presidency, meets to correlate and supervise stake and multiward Aaronic Priesthood programs. Finally, the Stake Council, formed of the members of the Stake Priesthood Executive Committee and the presidents of the stake auxiliaries, meets regularly to coordinate the planning of stake programs and activities.
Wards are the basic ecclesiastical unit of the Church. They normally have between 200 and 800 members and are presided over by a bishop and two counselors. The operation of substantially all the programs of the Church takes place in wards. Moreover, all Aaronic Priesthood quorums are ward quorums, in contrast to Melchizedek Priesthood quorums, which are primarily supervised by stakes. The organization of wards resembles the organization of stakes, with the bishopric serving as the presidency of the ward and the Ward Priesthood Executive Committee and the ward council serving as the major councils. Ward members meet together frequently for spiritual and social purposes. According to President Harold B. Lee, “Perhaps the most important of all the work done in the Church is done in the wards.” In areas where there is a smaller Church membership, members are organized into local branches and districts under the direction of missions, until there is sufficient membership strength to organize them as self-operating wards and stakes.
The contemporary organization of the Church is unique in its complexity and its use of lay members, though experience indicates that many details of that organization are necessarily subject to change. It is the intent of the Church to provide multiple opportunities for its members to serve in formal organizational roles and to perform Christian service, such as visiting the sick, caring for the poor, and serving as missionaries. Accordingly, a ward of 400 members may involve as many as 250 of those members in a variety of ward and stake positions. Members view their positions in the Church as “callings.” Those who are in positions of Church authority seek inspiration from God in determining which member should receive a particular calling and then extend the call accordingly. Soon thereafter, the member is sustained by the body of membership that he or she serves, and is then set apart to the position by the presiding authority. Members of the Church expect to serve in a variety of positions throughout their lives. Although some positions are seen to carry greater status—roughly correlated with the ecclesiastical hierarchy—there is no prescribed sequence of Church positions. For example, a man might serve as a stake president and, upon his release, be called as a Sunday School teacher. Members accept such changes as inspired and as new opportunities to serve.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Instructions to Bishops.” Salt Lake City, Dec. 13, 1967.
Coleman, Neil K. “A Study of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an Administrative System, Its Structure and Maintenance.” Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1967.
Kimball, Spencer W. “A Report of My Stewardship.” Ensign 11 (May 1981): 5–7.