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Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News assistant editor
“This is the Lord’s Church, and our major challenge is to be sure we are in tune with how He would want us to carry out His kingdom here on earth.” —President M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
Editor’s note: Following is the first of a six-part series on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles resulting from interviews with every member of the Quorum. In the upcoming series, the leaders address the spiritual mandate of the Twelve to testify of the Savior around the globe, the special connection they share with missionaries, and the importance to teach and train. They speak of being a “prophet, seer, and revelator,” the call to minister, and the importance of sustaining local and general leaders. They also address misconceptions members have of those serving in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This firstarticle focuses on the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, President M. Russell Ballard.
President M. Russell Ballard admits he’s never entirely alone in his office at Church headquarters.
The sculpted busts of three venerable Latter-day Saint leaders—Joseph Smith, Joseph F. Smith, and Hyrum Smith—rest prominently atop a credenza near his office window.
The Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shares ecclesiastical and blood ties to all three men. The Smiths are fellow Latter-day Saint leaders. They are also beloved kin.
The Prophet Joseph Smith is President Ballard’s great-great-uncle and Hyrum is his great-great-grandfather. The Church’s sixth President, Joseph F. Smith, is his great-grandfather.
“They’re looking at me all the time, and sometimes I think I hear them say: ‘Get with it, boy, don’t just sit there. Get something done,’” said President Ballard, smiling wryly.
President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with the busts in his office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 13, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.
To be sure, the 89-year-old has done plenty.
He’s the Church’s longest tenured General Authority—sustained to the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1976—and has served in the Twelve for more than a third of a century.
Meanwhile, his apostolic duties have taken him to dozens of countries, allowing him to minister face to face to legions of members and missionaries. Millions more have tuned in to hear his general conference and devotional talks—each well seasoned with common sense and the wisdom of a trusted family member.
“I would like you to picture me as your grandfather who believes in you and who is cheering for you,” he told a congregation of BYU students last year. “I love you and constantly pray for you.”
He’s also the second-oldest General Authority, four years junior to his friend and fellow Russell, President Russell M. Nelson. “I love being mistaken for Russell Nelson—it’s the best compliment you can give me.”
For almost three years, President Ballard watched his predecessor fulfill the leadership calling in the Twelve that he now holds. “President Nelson is a natural-born leader,” he said. “He has a brilliant mind and a spirit of love and compassion. He is a gentle man. He is a kind man. And as prophet, he feels an urgency to get things done.”
The Church’s 17th President, he said, “will have a tremendous impact on the Church.”
“We’ve got a First Presidency comprised of great men,” said President Ballard. “I’ll have to hurry to keep up with them.”
The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 2018.
President Ballard’s associates in the Twelve hold their quorum leader in similar regard. Elder Gary E. Stevenson calls his friend and apostolic mentor “a practical man” who understands and empathizes with the people he serves.
“From the pulpit, President Ballard speaks about practical challenges,” he said. “He talks about issues such as mental illness and suicide and the challenges of families in today’s world.”
The Savior taught that the two great commandments were to first, love God, and second, to love one’s neighbor. “President Ballard teaches us how to do that,” said Elder Stevenson. He promotes inclusion, declaring that everyone has a role to play in the gospel. But he also champions obedience and the blessings available to all who live the commandments.
“It is wonderful to be in the presence of this tutor,” he added. “President Ballard will be 90 soon, and I can hardly keep up with him.”
President Russell M. Nelson, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, left, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles smile during the grand opening of the Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. The new facility is dedicated to the study of genetically traced cancers known to afflict children. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.
Elder Ulisses Soares has been an Apostle for just over two months. But his veteran quorum leader made him feel immediately welcome.
“The Quorum of the Twelve is a fraternity and a brotherhood—everybody supports each other,” said Elder Soares. “President Ballard considers my opinions as if we had the same level of experience, insight, and feelings. He is very thoughtful and he wants to hear what I have to say.
“It is beautiful to see the process.”
President Ballard is in his fourth decade of service in the Twelve. But the call never becomes commonplace. And he’s never lost the humility he felt when called to the quorum in 1985.
“I sometimes ask myself, ‘How in the world am I here with these great men?’”
But he’s quick to add that his apostolic call comes from God. “Heaven has everything to do with it.”
In the 188 years since the Restoration, more than 100 men have been called as Apostles. Much has changed since the Church’s humble founding—but the fundamental duties of the Twelve remain the same.
When asked to describe the Apostles’ sacred, ancient charge, President Ballard cites Doctrine and Covenants 107, which defines the Twelve as “special witnesses” of the Savior, holding keys to “open the door by the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”
The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has a “responsibility to shepherd the Church under the direction of the First Presidency,” said President Ballard.
President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, greets President Russell M. Nelson as he arrives with his counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency, and President Henry B. Eyring, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, at the start of the Saturday afternoon session of the 188th Annual General Conference of the Church at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on March 31, 2018. Photo by Spenser Heaps, Deseret News.
Humility defines the apostleship, added Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Their callings make them recognizable almost anywhere they travel, “but we know it’s not about us—it’s about Him. We are representing Him. … It’s about His greatness.”
As Apostles, President Ballard and his associates enjoy a sacred kinship with tens of thousands of missionaries sharing the gospel across the globe.
“We have to stay close to the missionary efforts, the mission leaders, and the missionaries themselves,” he said. “Whenever we can, we meet with the missionaries. We let them ask questions. We try to help them find, teach, baptize, and retain our Heavenly Father’s children.”
Like a flowing river, the Church is ever-changing. It is a dynamic organization that requires boots-on-the-ground leadership and direction.
President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, works in his office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 13, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.
Christ directed the ancient Apostles to “go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). As today’s Church continues to take maiden steps in, say, Africa and Asia, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles remain full-fledged agents of growth, filling their passport pages with stamps from around the world.
“It means a lot to the members, particularly the youth, to see and shake hands with one of the Quorum of the Twelve,” said President Ballard. “But it’s not only about what we can give to the people—it’s about what the people give back to us to help us better understand how we need to be spending our time.”
Elder M. Russell Ballard, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, greets a family during his visit to Edmonton, Canada, June 10-11, 2017. Photo by Linda J. Purnell.
Longtime fellow Apostle Elder Jeffrey R. Holland agrees.
“There are a lot of [member] meetings where I learn a lot more than I teach, or at least I learn different things than I teach,” he said. “If I’m teaching, if I’m talking, then I’m probably not learning very much. But if I’m listening, then I can bring back what I’m learning to our quorums and our councils.”
Vast challenges face today’s Apostles. They minister to a worldwide congregation being tested by often relentless social media pressures, political unrest, pornography, and economic uncertainties. It is essential that the Apostles listen closely to God’s guiding voice.
“This is the Lord’s Church, and our major challenge is to be sure we are in tune with how He would want us to carry out His kingdom here on earth,” President Ballard said.
He rejoices in the paradox defining his apostolic call. Yes, he has a global responsibility. But the Holy Ghost allows him to connect with and bless individuals. It’s the Savior’s way, he said.
“I sometimes get a letter from someone saying, ‘I was in a meeting and you said something that changed my life.’
“That’s the power of the Holy Ghost. The Lord micromanages His Church.”
President Russell M. Nelson, left, and Elder M. Russell Ballard, both of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, greet each other at the start of the Saturday afternoon session of the Church’s 187th Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City on Saturday, September 30, 2017. Photo by Spenser Heaps, Deseret News.