Before we get started here, let me get one thing cleared up: I like old guys. Case by case, they have charms and a kind of sagacity their experience has brought them, a usefulness and wisdom their years have bestowed upon them, often accompanied by varying shades of endearing (or not-so-endearing) get-off-my-lawn crustiness.
Time does offer its gifts. It also exacts its tolls. Aching backs, brittle knees, creaky joints, decreasing mental processes can change a person’s personality, a person’s perspective. It gentrifies some oldsters and, conversely, turns some of them into ornery cusses. And it leaves some, their acumen and attitudes, frozen in decades gone by, in the way things used to be, not the way things are now or the way things could or should be in the future. Age corrodes and eventually conquers all humans. It shouldn’t cancel these folks, but it can compromise them.
So here is a question for our modern day: Why is the double-barreled combination of top leadership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the nation so remarkably … old?
It hasn’t always been this way. Joseph Smith was 24 at the faith’s founding, and early apostles were far from aged. The median age of U.S. presidents when they first take office is 55. Teddy Roosevelt was 42; John Kennedy 43.
The U.S. Constitution requires an elected president to be at least 35 years old. If there’s a rule for how old a president can be, should there be a rule for how old a president can’t be?
What Latter-day Saint adherents and American citizens now have on their hands is a geriatric squad running their church and country — at least at 47 E. South Temple and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Joe Biden is 81. If he gets reelected, he’ll be 86 by the time his second term is done. Donald Trump is 77. If he got in again, he would be 82 when he left office. It should be noted here that some political leaders aren’t all that bright or capable or worthy of office regardless of age.
As for church leaders, Latter-day Saints aren’t alone in being led by aged kingpins. At 87, Pope Francis guides the globe’s largest Christian religion, the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church. A few years ago, the National Catholic Reporter calculated that the average age of the 200-plus members in the College of Cardinals was 78.
Eleven years ago, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in 600 years to step down. Donning emeritus status, the then-85-year-old pontiff made way for a leader who, at that time, had more energy and fresher ideas for a church that many felt needed both.
Would top Latter-day Saint leadership consider using emeritus status in the same way? It already does among lower-ranking church authorities. More on that in a minute.
The ages of Latter-day Saint apostles
The average age of apostles and prophets in the top 15 of the Latter-day Saint hierarchy is 77, according to a recent Salt Lake Tribune Mormon Land newsletter, with all three members of the governing First Presidency in their 90s, topped by President Russell Nelson at 99. Three more apostles are in their 80s.
The report included a quote from 71-year-old David Bednar in which the apostle said: “Some people have suggested younger, more vigorous leaders are needed in the church to address effectively the serious challenges of our modern world. … [But] these men have had a sustained season of tutoring by the Lord. … The limitations that are the natural consequence of advancing age can in fact become remarkable sources of spiritual learning and insight.”
It would be easier to see Bednar’s point if only a few of the leaders were more elderly, not most of them, and if all of the First Presidency were not nonagenarians.
These guys might be wise, but are they fully capable, as capable as they once might have been, to address the church’s contemporary issues? Is it blasphemous to ask or to wonder when the Lord’s so-called seasons of tutoring cross over from the remarkable to the stunted? Don’t want to burn in hell, but we, or somebody, should give at least a little fair thought to that.
That’s not to say old folks don’t have value or that they shouldn’t be utilized in ways that work best, but should they dominate, in terms of numbers, positions at the head of a worldwide church?
The idea that 80- and 90-year olds have lifetime status as apostles and prophets, with the power and seniority that go with those callings, despite their seasoning, could be rearranged. Since the church has always held that its restoration from the time of Joseph Smith until now and into a thousand tomorrows — through ongoing revelation — is a continual process, a few changes could be in order, timely changes.
One general authority, whose name I will leave out here, whispered to me not so long ago that fresh ideas and outlooks and ways of thinking would help the church move forward in tackling problems that it faces.
Younger mature minds sometimes are in closer touch with what the younger half of the church needs and thinks and thrives on and benefits from. Who knows? As the world and the people in it evolve, God might not mind a few innovative approaches and attitudes that differ from what has been presented and preached in the past. Older leaders may not always connect with younger believers and vice versa. If, on the whole, older leaders connect solely or mostly with older congregations, the younger crowd could thin and fade away.
He’s not a Latter-day Saint, but Amazon founder Jeff Bezos makes a strong point when he said: “If your customer base is aging with you, then eventually you are going to become obsolete or irrelevant. You need to be constantly figuring out ‘who are your new customers,’ and ‘what are you doing to stay forever young.’”
Works in business. It might work for an entire religion. We’re not talking about a revolution here, upending everything the church has pronounced as God’s will and stood by over long stretches, going back to the time of Jesus. We’re talking a gradual evolution inside the proper parameters of, if you’re a believer, an ever-advancing gospel restoration.
Why not emeritus apostles, too?
Old minds, some of them anyway, are hard to change. Slightly less-grooved minds might be lighter atop the more agile bodies and feet of younger leaders, leaders who interpret what God wants a tad differently. Already, despite the fact that consensus is regularly put forth to the church membership from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, personal differences do emerge among them. Some leaders are more conservative, some more progressive. Age isn’t the only factor, but it can be a factor.
Back to the idea of more widespread emeritus status. How about if that emeritus program were implemented at and around the top? It’s been done with other general authorities. Seventies are routinely retired at age 70 and aren’t even called to that leadership position if they are older than that.
Part of the problem, though, is inherent in the lifetime callings. Many of the oldest apostles were called as younger men. Nelson was 59 when he became an apostle. That was 40 years ago.
They who were once young and probably highly capable are now older and possibly somewhat diminished. These people are human, after all. The church has checks and balances in place to help compromised top leaders along their way. A few recent Latter-day Saint prophets struggled in their later years with cognitive processes, so other apostles stepped in.
Staunch believers will say prophets, seers, revelators come and go according to God’s wishes and whims. End of story. But with other church leaders hitting a retirement ceiling, having done mountains of church service and then been granted emeritus license to sail off into slightly smoother waters, namely, spending more time with grand- and great-grandchildren, in some cases, an honorable release would be in their and the church’s best interests.
I’m no prophet, no apostle, and I am getting older, but I don’t believe I’m wrong — and neither are you — to ask about it and to wonder.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.