President Nelson announces major church changes in first General Conference

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President Russell M. Nelson waves to the crowd as he and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson leave the Saturday Morning Session of the April 2018 General Conference. (Savannah Hopkinson)

President Russell M. Nelson was sustained as the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the Saturday morning session of General Conference.

That was just the start of a historic weekend at the Conference Center.

After the sustaining of President Dallin H. Oaks as his first counselor and President Henry B. Eyring as his second counselor, President Nelson wasted no time announcing major changes with two new apostles, seven new temples and the restructuring of several church organizations.

The new apostles are Elder Gerrit W. Gong and Elder Ulisses Soares. They fill the vacancies left by the deaths of President Thomas S. Monson and Elder Robert D. Hales.

Elder Gong is the first Asian-American member of the Twelve, and Elder Soares is the first Brazilian member of the Twelve.

In his remarks that morning, Elder Neil L. Andersen welcomed Elder Gong and Elder Soares to the “unparalleled brotherhood” of the Twelve.

During Saturday’s Priesthood Session, President Nelson announced that the elders and high priests quorums will now be combined.

This change followed President Nelson’s themes of unity and service.

“We see faithful men who live up to their privileges as bearers of the priesthood,” President Nelson said. “They bless, guide, protect and strengthen others by the power of the priesthood they hold.”

The surprises continued Sunday afternoon when President Nelson announced the church will be “retiring” the home and visiting teaching programs, which will now be replaced by a new ministering initiative.

President Nelson said the decision came as a result of fervent fasting and prayer after contemplating a way to better care for the spiritual and temporal needs of church members.

“A new name, new flexibility, fewer reports will not make one ounce of difference in our service unless we see this as an invitation to care for one another in a bold new holier way,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in his remarks following the announcement.

The ministering initiative is meant to be more flexible and more personal than the former home and visiting teaching programs. Young men and women will also have more involvement in the ministering initiative, and reporting for ministering efforts will take place in a quarterly interview.

President Nelson wrapped up the 188th Annual General Conference with the announcement of seven new temples — an announcement that shocked the audience.

The temples will be built in Salta, Argentina; Bengaluru, India; Managua, Nicaragua; Cagayan de Oro, Philippines; Layton, Utah; Richmond, Virginia; and a “major city yet to be determined in Russia.”

“My dear brothers and sisters, construction of these temples may not change your life, but your time in the temple surely will,” Nelson said.  “In that spirit, I bless you to identify those things you can set aside so you can spend more time in the temple.”

Getting to know President Nelson

Russell M. Nelson was named the 17th president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Jan. 16, 2018.

After receiving his call, President Nelson spoke to members of the church in a live telecast from the annex of the Salt Lake Temple and shared his feelings about his new calling.

“Words are inadequate to tell you what it felt like to have my brethren — brethren who hold all of the priesthood keys restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith in this dispensation — place their hands upon my head to ordain and set me apart as president of the church,” President Nelson said. “It was a sacred and humbling experience.”

Prior to his call as president of the LDS Church, he served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve for 34 years.

But President Nelson’s influence reaches far beyond his leadership calling in the church.

After graduating from the University of Utah with a medical degree in 1947, President Nelson went on to a medical residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and then received his doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota in 1954.

President Nelson is known as a world class surgeon. He served as chairman of the Council on Cardiovascular Surgery for the American Heart Association and president of the Utah State Medical Association.

In a 2003 General Conference talk, President Nelson shared a story highlighting his exceptional medical talent and his unwavering faith.

President Nelson said he was approached by a man with a heart condition involving two faulty valves. President Nelson didn’t believe one of the valves could be repaired.

After hours of fervent, heartfelt prayer President Nelson went forward with the operation. He repaired the first valve, then turned his attention to the second, more complex valve.

“While examining this valve, a message was distinctly impressed upon my mind: ‘Reduce the circumference of the ring,’” Nelson said. “The repair was completed as diagrammed in my mind. We tested the valve and found the leak to be reduced remarkably. My assistant said, ‘It’s a miracle.’”

To President Nelson, however, it was clear the successful repair was an answer to prayer and not simply a medical miracle.

Despite a busy work life and demanding callings in the church, President Nelson has always made his family a priority.

He and his first wife, Dantzel White, have 10 children. White died in 2005. A year later, President Nelson married Wendy L. Watson.

President Nelson’s granddaughter Stephanie Williams said she is always in awe of her grandfather’s ability to put family first.

“In everything he does, he has made his family his priority,” Williams said. “I think that’s a pretty incredible thing to have such a large family and such a busy calling in the church and such a busy work life and to still have your family feel like they’re the most special and most important thing.”

Williams said she enjoys skiing and regular family parties with her grandfather. She said she loves any chance she gets to spend time with him.

Williams said she was excited for everyone to get to know her grandfather better as he serves as the leader of the church. She gave special attention to Nelson’s wonderful sense of humor.

“You get little tidbits of it in General Conference and talks, but he really is a very clever man and he’s always laughing or smiling and bringing smiles to other people’s faces,” Williams said.

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