2018 is proving to be a year of big change for the Mormon church. The passing of President Thomas S. Monson in January opened the way for Russell M. Nelson to become the 17th president of the church.
During this month’s General Conference, Nelson made significant changes to the church. He announced the first Latino apostle as well as the first Asian-American apostle, adding diversity to the church’s top leadership for the very first time. He also announced the elimination of the home teaching and visiting teaching programs, and the building of seven new temples.
One doesn’t have to look very deep to find some of the reasoning behind these changes.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported its slowest growth in over 80 years. Young people are leaving in droves. A recent survey reported that the No. 1 reason American millennials are leaving the church is the way that it treats its LGBTQ members, with tens of thousands of Mormons resigning from the church as a result.
An official church document posted a year ago by Ryan McKnight’s MormonLeaks shows that 55,000 millennials left in 2005 alone. That was 13 years ago, well before California’s Prop 8, when search engines on the internet were pretty new and before a decade of terrible PR for the church. How many church members are actually resigning or becoming inactive now?
The church has been closing many of its administrative units in Europe. Growth in Latin America is stagnant. The church recently announced it was closing its Missionary Training Centers in Spain and Chile along with visitors centers in England, New Zealand and right here in Park City.
The changing demographics of the church mean big trouble for another reason: money. American members and families, the church’s main source of tithing revenue, are leaving in droves. As U.S. growth declines, no number of foreign converts can make up for that.
Nelson is facing a crisis for Mormonism and, at 93, he knows he does not have a lot of time to leave a lasting impact and right the ship before it takes on more water.
After Monson passed away, his New York Times obituary strongly criticized his handling of human rights issues, especially on women and the LGBTQ community through all the church’s political activity under his leadership. The epidemic of suicides by Mormon teenagers continues to haunt the church and is reason enough to rescind its ugly November 2015 policy that bans LGBTQ Mormons and their families from the church.
And right now, the Mormon church is in the middle of another major crisis. Survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by high-ranking Mormon leaders are coming forward to tell their stories, beginning what many are calling the #MormonMeToo moment.
The case of McKenna Denson is getting more and more attention from national media. Her recording of her abuser’s confession has gone viral. Yet she is not the only one. Many other brave victims of sexual assault are telling their stories, as we saw recently in Martinsburg, W.Va., where nine former Mormon families sued the church for its cover-up of pedophile Michael Jensen.
This represents a pattern within the LDS Church, where victims are silenced instead of empowered and perpetrators are protected. These are the times that call for action and the change that many hope the Mormon church will undergo.
These are certainly challenges to the reputation and the credibility of the church, yet they also represent opportunities. Nelson can step up and work to right the wrongs made by the church and open it up to all. Real change won’t just benefit the church, but will help the state of Utah and the most vulnerable around the world.
The time for change is now. It’s up to Nelson to decide whether he will continue to lead a wave of change or whether he will fight the current and keep the church stuck in its old ways. We hope that he will be remembered as the “prophet of change” and bring the Mormon church into the 21st century.
Fred Karger is an LGBTQ activist and discovered the Mormon church’s active role in California’s Proposition 8. He is president of Rights Equal Rights and director of MormonTips.com