In a move to shepherd the growth and future of the LDS Church in the Philippines and Chile, Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Jeffrey R. Holland — both apostles — have been assigned to those nations, respectively, to serve as area presidents for one year beginning in August.
Announcement of new assignments for the two, each a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve and a former president of Brigham Young University, came during a training meeting Tuesday for general authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The decision marks the "first time such senior leaders have lived and presided in an international area of the church for nearly half a century," according to a press release.
"The move is aimed at meeting the challenges that the church has faced for years in many developing areas: rapid church growth and the need to train leadership and to help new members assimilate into the church and attend the temple. The assignments will enable members of the Quorum of the Twelve to gain additional experience in meeting and resolving these challenges," the press release said.
The church declined additional comment on the appointments.
Geraldine Cloward, a Salt Lake resident who was born and raised on Cebu Island in the Philippines and served an LDS mission in Manila, was overjoyed at the news that Elder Oaks has been assigned to live in her nation.
After hearing the news, "I got up so early this morning, I've been trying to get a hold of my family to tell them," she said.
Assignment of apostles to live abroad had not been an LDS Church practice for several decades.
Presidents Ezra Taft Benson and David O. McKay, both of whom would later lead the church, served in such assignments, the former in Europe, the latter over the British Mission in the 1920s. Elders N. Eldon Tanner and Mark E. Petersen, both apostles, also headed the British mission in the 1960s.
President Gordon B. Hinckley, who leads the LDS Church today, has emphasized throughout his administration that "growth has been our greatest problem, and a wonderful problem it is."
Retaining members has been one of the church's biggest challenges in fast-growing nations, and LDS leaders have offered several general conference sermons in recent years focusing on not only the need for every member to have a friend and a responsibility, but for members to be diligent in the assignments they are given.
Growth projections by sociologist Rodney Stark at the University of Washington estimate the church could grow to membership of some 250 million within the next century.
In the Philippines, where modern missionary work began in 1961, LDS membership has grown from 76,000 in 1984 to 496,000 today. Missionary efforts began in Chile in 1851, and today the LDS Church has more than 520,000 members there.
To help deal with the skyrocketing membership challenges, President Hinckley announced formation of the Perpetual Education Fund last April, aimed at providing student loans for LDS members — mostly returned missionaries — in rapidly growing nations where many have no other means of obtaining an education. By providing a way for such members to obtain loans, he said, those in poor nations will find a way to rise out of poverty, which will allow them the time and means to raise families and become leaders in the church, whose lay ministry depends on the voluntary time and effort of its members.
During last weekend's General Conference, President Hinckley announced that more than 2,400 members have already received loans from the fund, which is now available to members in several nations, including the Philippines and Chile.
Mark Davies, associate professor of Spanish linguistics at Illinois State University, has tracked statistical growth information on the church for several years in a variety of countries. He said while the church is still growing rapidly in Chile, the percentage of membership increase there has decreased markedly from where it was from 1980-1992.
"Whereas the annual increase was about 12 to 25 percent each year during that time, for the past eight years or so it's decreased to about 3 percent a year. (That's) still quite a bit better than the U.S. and Canada," but lags behind most of Latin America, he said.
In the Philippines, there has also been a "marked decrease in annual growth in membership during the past 20 years," Davies said. "While it was increasing 20 to 30 per year from 1980 to 1992, it is now down to about 3 percent a year."
Though both nations have seen explosive growth in numbers, the pattern of huge growth followed by a leveling off becomes evident when examining the numbers from several nations at a time, he said.
"By looking at the charts for the different countries, it becomes apparent that in many countries, there is a regular S-shaped growth in membership. There is an initial period of little growth as the church is getting settled in the country. Once things are 'in place' for the big push, there is then a big increase for a while as those who are most easily attracted to the church are baptized.
"After this, things slow down appreciably," as has happened in Chile, the Philippines and other countries, "because there is already 'market saturation' in terms of new members, in spite of the best efforts of existing members" to share their faith, he said.
Davies said the pattern is similar to what occurred a few decades ago in the United States and Canada, and why church growth is now "relatively stagnant in most parts of North America."
Cloward looks forward to the impact such an assignment of two LDS leaders will have on her family and friends.
"This will be such a great advantage to them, to see an apostle of God face to face and be able to interact with him personally." She and several of her siblings have served as missionaries in the Philippines, and she said the announcement will no doubt cause a lot of excitement in their native land.
"While the church has been there for quite a while, it's still really in an infant stage," Cloward said. "They really need church leaders to be very well trained, and having an apostle of God go there to help with that and encourage the members to become more responsible in their duties" will be a great help.
Norma Collett, media relations director for athletics at BYU, is a native of Chile and joined the LDS Church with her parents there in 1967.
She, too, applauded the move, saying that it should provide a morale boost and lend some structure to what is a cultural attitude that is "very relaxed and kicked back. Most people who join the church, the majority have been Catholic but in name only. They go to church only at Easter, Christmas, weddings, so they're not regular active members" as Latter-day Saint culture prescribes.
Joining the LDS Church is therefore "a huge adjustment to go from being pretty inactive to being asked to be active every Sunday and attend meetings and learn. You're not around that kind of stuff. It's fine at first, (to) meet all these new people and get excited. Then all that wears off, and people sit back and get comfortable with their regular lifestyle."
President Hinckley has visited both Chile and the Philippines in recent years, and in April 1999 he presided over a meeting of some 57,000 members in Santiago, the largest gathering of members ever in South America.
The church leader's temple-building program has doubled the number of temples around the world since 1997, reflecting his expressed desire to provide "the blessings of temple attendance" to members who are ready to receive them.
Despite each nation's huge membership population, there is only one temple in each country, which some speculate may signal church leaders' concern about whether members are actively preparing to take part in ordinances there. In order to enter a temple, members must pay a full 10 percent of their income in tithes to the church, attend meetings regularly and participate by volunteering service to their congregations.