Leader’s resignation puts Community of Christ on unfamiliar ground

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. – The succession plan for the Community of Christ has always been simple: The church’s leader designated his successor, and the membership accepted that choice.

Now, the resignation of W. Grant McMurray without naming a new president has forced the church and its 250,000 members into unfamiliar territory. And so they wait for “discernment” – in other words, for God to show them who the new leader should be.

Still, officials of the largest of the Mormon offshoot denominations say the challenge of selecting a new president – who also carries the position of prophet – is a necessary step toward maturity as a faith.

“People have had to think a little more carefully about their role in the process,” said Steven M. Veazey, president of the church’s Council of Twelve Apostles. “I see that as having a positive effect, because more people are engaged in reflecting carefully and deeply on what a church president needs for the future.”

The Council of Twelve is now collecting names of possible successors – although only one member knows those names, Veazey said – and will begin a process of prayer and deliberation in late March. Anyone in the church may suggest a name.

Once the council and other church leaders reach a consensus, the person they select – who might not even know his or her name has been submitted, Veazey said – will be called as the next leader. If the designate accepts, delegates to a special world conference called for early June will be asked to confirm the selection.

McMurray stepped down Dec. 1, citing a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease – and “inappropriate choices” in his personal life. Neither he nor church officials would elaborate but said church finances were not involved.

The acknowledgment of fallibility shook some people, said Kenneth N. Robinson, one of two remaining members of the Council of First Presidents – the highest level of church leadership, of which McMurray had been the head.

But it served as a reminder, Robinson said, that church leaders are made of the same stuff as the people who fill the pews.

“There has been a sense of looking at a prophet and president as someone who might not be the same as the rest of us, not as human as the rest of us,” he said. “Yes, they have spiritual gifts, but they’re also very human. With this circumstance we’re in, people can respond, ‘Yes, we understand our leaders are human – and that’s OK.’”

Jan Shipps, an expert on Mormon faiths, said the designation of the church’s leader as its prophet added its own set of pressures.

“When ‘prophet’ is placed in front of a human being’s name, it sets them apart from ordinary folks,” said Shipps, a retired professor at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis and the president of the John Whitmer Historical Association. The group studies the history of groups who didn’t go west with the main body of Mormons in the mid-1800s.

“If you look at the history of Grant McMurray’s presidency, this is something he struggled with from the very beginning,” said Shipps, who is not Mormon. “In his earliest statements, he said he did not want to be called ‘the prophet’ so much as ‘the leader of a prophetic people.’”

McMurray, who had served since 1996, was the first church leader not descended from Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Community of Christ broke off from that group in the 1850s and did not go to Utah with the larger body of Mormons. Until 2001, it was known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

McMurray’s predecessor, Wallace B. Smith, was the first church leader not to serve until his death, choosing instead to retire and name McMurray as his successor. Smith is still living, but Robinson said he has told church leaders he does not want to return as first president.

There are other Smith descendants still living, several in the Kansas City suburb of Independence, although none share that last name. Church leaders, citing the secrecy provision until the discernment process begins, said they did not know whether any of those descendants were among those who would be considered.

The closest thing to a precedent occurred in the 1940s when leader Fred M. Smith died without formally designating his successor. But in that case, Robinson said, there were clear indications that he had intended to name his brother, Israel A. Smith.

McMurray, who has kept a low profile since his resignation, said the church was taking the right steps to select his successor – this time, at least.

“I don’t think the present situation necessarily establishes a precedent for the future at all,” he said. “Churches live in the moment, and at this moment the very best step for the churches is for a very good-sized group of leaders to reflect on the needs of church and to discern through prayer and reflection the best way to respond to that.”

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