Community of Christ poised to break the gender barrier

Mormon offshoot denomination may be led by a woman

? For the first time in its 147-year history, the head of the Community of Christ has called a woman to serve in the First Presidency – the highest level of leadership in the largest Mormon offshoot denomination.

The recommendation of Becky L. Savage is one of several to be voted on by delegates to the Community of Christ World Conference, scheduled for March 24-31 at the church’s international headquarters in the Kansas City suburb of Independence.

In his letter of counsel, released Thursday, President Stephen M. Veazey also called two new members to the church’s Council of Twelve Apostles and recommended a new Presiding Evangelist and Presiding Bishop.

As a member of the First Presidency, Savage would serve with the other member, David D. Schall, as counselors to Veazey. Savage is currently the church’s director for leadership development.

“This is not something I expected, that’s for sure, but I’m excited to be working with the First Presidency,” she said Friday.

Veazey, who as the church’s president is also considered its prophet, said Savage’s background in leadership training and her work to integrate women into leadership roles made her the right choice to succeed the retiring Kenneth N. Robinson.

“As I began to think about what the needs are in the presidency of the church,” Veazey said, “I began to understand: No. 1, how important leadership development is for the church; and No. 2, she has a background in leadership development, both in the corporate world and in the church.”

With its fastest growth in developing countries, Savage said, the church must balance needs of leaders in those areas with those in its North American base.

Also, she said, “It will be my responsibility to help bring a voice to some gender and cultural biases we have: one, to recognize them; and two, how can we help people to love others in a better way, following the model of Jesus Christ?”

The church must also find ways to give its younger members opportunities to serve, Veazey and Savage said, because a generation wired for interactivity often finds worship more meaningful outside a traditional setting.

“Young adults are very spiritually oriented,” Savage said. “It’s in the way they find meaning that we have to do better as a church. There seems to be a greater meaning for young adults when there is an action tied to ministry. Building a Habitat for Humanity home has more meaning than sitting in a traditional service with hymns and preaching – although that is important, too.”

Veazey said Robinson, a native of Perth, Australia, has been a driving force behind the church’s expansion outside North America.

“Ken has been one of those voices who keeps pushing us to get beyond our Midwest American viewpoints and understand that we are a worldwide church,” Veazey said. “That will be a tremendous legacy.”

Veazey also called David R. Brock, now a member of the Council of Twelve Apostles, to serve as Presiding Evangelist to succeed the retired Danny A. Belrose. That position focuses on evangelism and counseling.

Stephen R. Jones was selected to replace the retiring Larry R. Norris as Presiding Bishop. Jones has been a member of the Presiding Bishopric, the church’s highest financial council, since 1998.

One of the council’s goals, Jones said, is to make sure church properties, and not only members’ financial contributions, are being used effectively for missions work.

The second vacancy on the Council of Twelve Apostles will be created by the retirement of John P. Kirkpatrick. Veazey recommended the spots be filled by missionary Carlos Enrique Mejia and by J. Andrew Bolton, the church’s coordinator of Peace and Justice Ministries.

The Community of Christ, headquartered in Independence since 1920, split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1860 and was known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints until 2001. It has about 250,000 members worldwide.

Community of Christ doctrines, focusing on peace and social change, are closer to mainstream Protestant Christianity than those of the Utah church. But members consider the Book of Mormon scripture and believe in ongoing revelation, which is collected in the Doctrine and Covenants.