By BRADY McCOMBS
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Mormon church appointed a 93-year-old former heart surgeon Tuesday as its new president, following a longstanding succession plan that aims to keep the faith on course with a minimum of upheaval.
Russell M. Nelson’s remarks about LGBT issues and the role of women in the faith to reporters after he was officially chosen to become the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reaffirmed an expectation that he will make few changes as he upholds traditional church teachings. Speaking about his approach to LGBT issues, Nelson said he understands there are “challenges with the commandments of God, challenges to be worthy.”
“God loves his children and we love them and there’s a place for everyone,” Nelson said. “Regardless of his challenges.” The church at times has expressed empathy and told members to be welcoming to LGBT people while also strictly defending opposition to same-sex marriage and all homosexual relationships.
Dallin H. Oaks, one of two men Nelson chose to be his counselors, added that leaders have the responsibility to teach love but also God’s commandments. “We’ve got the love of the Lord and the law of the Lord,” said Oaks, a member of church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles leadership body. Nelson called doing so a “balance.”
Nelson succeeds Thomas S. Monson, who died Jan. 2 after leading the religion for nearly a decade. Church presidents serve until they die. Nelson is now considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” by Mormons. He is second-oldest man to assume leadership of the 16-million member LDS church. He will share responsibility for the faith’s religious and business interests with his two top counselors and members of the Quorum.
The church faces some pressure to diversify leadership to add women, non-whites and people from countries outside the United States. All the Quorum members are white and were born in the U.S., except for Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who was born in Czechoslovakia and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Nelson said the “Lord is in charge” of picking top church leaders and acknowledged that its highest leadership councils are not a “representative assembly.”
“We’ll live to see the day when there will be other flavors in the mix, but we respond because we’ve been called by the lord,” Nelson said. Nelson did not mention changing any roles for women, but said that “we need their voices, we need their input and we love their participation.”
That echoed sentiments he made during a October 2015 speech that came during a period of intense discussion about the role of women. Tuesday’s announcement came two days after Nelson was anointed during a private meeting of the in the Salt Lake City temple, per church tradition that makes the longest-tenured member of the Quorum the new president.
Nelson’s selection of Oaks, 85, and Henry B. Eyring, 84, as his counselors means Uchtdorf, 77, goes back to the being a regular member of the Quorum after he served as one of Monson’s counselors. Eyring was also a counselor for Monson, while this marks the first time Oaks will serve as a counselor to a church president. Oaks is the next-longest tenured member of the Quorum, making him next-in-line to become the next president.
Nelson fits the common profile of his generation of church leaders as someone who was successful in the private sector before leaving behind his career to help guide the faith. Born in Salt Lake City in 1924, Nelson converted to Mormonism at the age of 16. He was a doctor by 22. He served a two-year Army medical tour of duty during the Korean War before resuming a medical career that included being director of thoracic surgery residency at the University of Utah.
Nelson takes the top position amid increased scrutiny of church teaching in the internet age, which has made more information on doctrine available. Under Monson, leaders released a series of essays explaining some controversial areas of Mormon history, including early polygamous practices and a past ban on black men in the lay clergy.
Another challenge Nelson will face is adapting to the increasingly global nature of the church, which was founded in 1830 in the United States and now has nearly six in 10 members living in other countries. Still, the rate of growth overall in membership has slowed in the past few decades, despite efforts to spread the faith including the lowering of the minimum age for those serving as missionaries.
Nelson called on Mormons to stay true to their faith and declared there’s room for everyone in the religion even if they have strayed from the faith. “Whatever your concerns, whatever your challenges, there’s a place for you in this, the Lord’s church,” said Nelson