...never in my personal or professional life have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. – Elder Holland

The widow wanted to share what was most important to her with the apostle who at age 84 had traveled 6,000 miles from Salt Lake City to visit her in the dead of winter near the world's coldest national capital.

The low sun of a clear, crisp morning in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, cast long shadows as she invited him into her humble "ger" — the traditional Mongolian nomad's rounded tent-like structure commonly known in the west as a yurt — and then pulled one of her most prized possessions off a little shelf.

The woman told Elder Russell M. Nelson that the framed certificate of her sealing to her husband in the LDS Church's Hong Kong China Temple was dear to her because like 15 million other Mormons she believes the sealing ordinance will allow her to be reunited with her husband someday as part of an eternal family.

That small gesture shared on a frigid February morning in 2009 was a reminder, said Elder Donald L. Hallstrom, who was with Elder Nelson that day, "that everything we do (as church leaders) is about individuals and families."

Latter-day Saints revere and honor their prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, his two counselors, Elder Nelson and the 11 other apostles who preside over the church, each of whom is expected to speak at the faith's semi-annual general conference this weekend, but on occasion critics contend the faith's highest authorities are too old and out of touch.

At least twice in the past six months, in major forums, apostles have responded to such criticisms, complaints that mystify church insiders like Elder Hallstrom who travel the world with the 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and sit with them in their meetings every week.

"The collective knowledge is just amazing," Elder Hallstrom said. "I'm certainly respectful of anyone's opinion, but in my opinion (the criticism) is uneducated. (Critics) simply don't know what's happening."

Continuing education

Like Elder Nelson, who turned 90 last month, most of the senior leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintain rigorous travel schedules, leaving Salt Lake City every weekend of the year but a few to minister to individual church members, lead church conferences and meet with government leaders throughout the United States and around the world.

They return to church headquarters each Monday to share information and lessons with each other. They regularly include tender moments like those experienced by Elder Nelson in a cold, humble Mongolian ger.

The quantity and breadth of their travels and the way information is gathered and shared are just two of the reasons another apostle has said that as a group, LDS Church leaders rival any think tank or brain trust for their grasp of current moral and societal issues and why leaders occasionally answer critics who contend the faith's highest authorities are too old and out of touch.

Insiders say that in addition to firsthand lessons learned through travel, senior church leaders work hard to educate themselves through reading, research and surveys. They also conduct regular video conferences with local leaders church leaders around the globe and apply experiences gained through long international ministry and longer life.

In a rare, 75-minute interview with the Deseret News, Elder Hallstrom provided an insider's view into the inner workings of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, revealing insight into their work schedules, weekly meetings, travel schedules and personal ministries they said illustrate that LDS leaders are thoroughly engaged and relevant.

Think tank

At the last LDS general conference in April, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who, like Elder Nelson, is a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, listed some of the criticisms that have been aimed at the 15 senior church leaders who Mormons consider contemporary prophets and apostles — "provincial, patriarchal, bigoted, unkind, narrow, outmoded and elderly."

Elder Holland had addressed those criticisms in a previous conference talk.

"Not often but over the years some sources have suggested that the Brethren are out of touch in their declarations, that they don’t know the issues, that some of their policies and practices are out-of-date, not relevant to our times," he began.

"...never in my personal or professional life have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. I testify that the grasp this body of men and women have of moral and societal issues exceeds that of any think tank or brain trust of comparable endeavor of which I know anywhere on the earth."

"I'm a witness to this," Elder Hallstrom said.

As one of the seven presidents of the church's Quorum of the Seventy, Elder Hallstrom travels with the apostles, including multiple trips this year with Elder Holland. The Quorum of the Twelve meets several times a week, and part of Elder Hallstrom's role is to join many of those meetings.

"We're with them every day," he said. "There is continual learning from throughout the world. In their meetings, experts from various fields come in and make presentations and have discussions with them, so they are continually learning about government and societal issues, culture and circumstances."

That learning includes a meeting of the Twelve each Thursday morning, which is followed by another meeting of the church's highest council in the Salt Lake Temple.

"Every major decision in the church is made on Thursday mornings in the temple by the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve," Elder Hallstrom said.

Every decision of the council must be unanimous, according to a scriptural mandate. That can take time.

"None of the Twelve are shrinking violets," one of them, Elder M. Russell Ballard, said in May. "We each have strong personalities. So when we are unified in a decision, you can rest assured that we have counseled together and come to that decision after much prayer and thoughtful discussion."

Massive outreach

Those prayers and discussions are informed by outreach efforts that are immense in their global scope.

"Travel is one of the ways to stay educated about what's happening in the world and among our people," Elder Hallstrom said. "They're just constantly out among not just the local leaders of the church around the world, but the people of the church."

The First Presidency has its own travel and plans that vary over the years due to personal circumstances, age and health.

Travel assignments for the Twelve are made by a committee chaired by two apostles, most recently led by the quorum's president, Boyd K. Packer. Most of the apostles make two international trips a year, befitting their charge in founding LDS scripture to be "twelve traveling councilors" and a "traveling presiding high council."

On any given Sunday, the majority of the Twelve are on assignment somewhere, leading conferences, meeting members and making public affairs visits with leaders of nations, regions and other faiths.

But the journeys of the Twelve and the church's senior think tank are augmented significantly by hundreds of others.

Founding LDS scripture calls for additional "traveling ministers" known as Seventies, because they are divided into quorums that may include up to 70 members. To handle the international growth of the church, there now are eight quorums of the Seventy and a total of about 325 Seventies.

The majority of the Seventies live outside the United States, and each weekend most of them are also on assignment visiting congregations and conferences. Similar travel is assigned to the nine women who lead the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary auxiliary organizations.

Some of that travel draws publicity, especially when an apostle or apostles go on extended international trips, such as one this summer during which Elder Ballard and Elder David A. Bednar visited seven European countries over nearly two weeks.

They conducted a review of the Europe Area and the church in its 39 nations by meeting with the Seventies assigned to lead it. They also visited with individual members, young single adult groups and missionaries, conducted special stake conferences and priesthood leadership conferences and held what the church characterized as a "historic" meeting of all the women in the Europe area via a televised broadcast originating in Frankfurt, Germany. More than 52,000 participated in the broadcast live or via Internet download.

In June, Elder Holland formed the second LDS branch in Cuba, which also drew some notice, but the vast majority of the travel happens outside the limelight.

Filling the tank

The information they gather quickly enters the information pipeline at church headquarters.

"The Quorum of the Twelve meets several times a week as a quorum," Elder Hallstrom said. "The presidency of the Seventy joins them on several of those occasions. They report on their trips and discuss matters, issues and concerns raised by what they've seen."

That's not all. Church leaders have divided the world into 15 areas, each with a presidency drawn from members of the quorums of the Seventy. Meetings of the Quorum of the Twelve regularly include video conference reports from area presidencies about their circumstances, successes and challenges.

"It's interactive," Elder Hallstrom said. "They are there real-time and there is discussion, questions and suggestions back and forth."

In addition, the First Presidency and the Twelve regularly commission surveys.

"There is a research division that assists the leadership of the church to gain information," Elder Hallstrom said. "That's not a secret. It's all part of not being in a bubble. Whether it be information about young single adults in the church, the workload of bishops, whatever the subject, they'll go out and gather the necessary information.

"Revelation is assisted by good information. In the process of gaining the revelation necessary to lead the Lord's church, all the things we've talked about helps leaders in councils to get the information to move forward."

Other views

The church's priesthood leadership is all male, which leads to complaints of narrowness. Church leadership committees include nine women who form the three general presidencies responsible for the church's women, young women and children.

"We sit in committees that have nothing to do with our auxiliaries," said the church's Young Women General President, Sister Bonnie Oscarson. "The Brethren are especially sensitive to listening to us."

She has been involved in committees working on temple preparation courses, missionary preparation and adult curriculum.

Sister Oscarson travels, too, to train Young Women leaders and priesthood leaders about the Young Women program, to visit with young women and women in throughout church and to report back to church councils. In April, she visited Japan and Korea with Sister Linda K. Burton, president of the Relief Society. Later this month, she will travel to Peru and Colombia.

Church headquarters also now has its first female department head, Sharon Eubank, director of LDS Charities, who in an August speech said, "This is a women's church."

Church leadership also has grown less provincial as the church has become more global. Today, 29 of the 60 men in the First Quorum of the Seventy were born outside the United States.

Experienced eyes

In a May devotional for young adults, Elder Ballard said he had heard some people think church leaders "live in a bubble."

"What they forget is that we are men and women of experience," he said, "and we have lived our lives in so many places and worked with many people from different backgrounds. Our current assignments literally take us around the globe, where we meet the political, religious, business and humanitarian leaders of the world. Although we have visited the White House in Washington, D.C., and leaders of nations throughout the world, we have also visited the most humble homes on earth, where we have met and ministered to the poor.

"When you thoughtfully consider our lives and ministry, you will most likely agree that we see and experience the world in ways few others do. You will realize that we live less in a 'bubble' than most people."

Elder Ballard said it was true he is 85 — he turns 86 on Wednesday — but it also is true that the 15 Brethren have a combined 467 years of experience as church general authorities.

"You look at the Twelve and the length of their ministries," Elder Hallstrom said, "and there's no place they haven't been, and they're there continually. The Twelve have individual assignments for parts of the world, but it's all brought back so there's a knowledge given to the whole council, the whole quorum, and then those assignments rotate over time, so over a period of time the institutional knowledge builds and builds and builds, and everyone's been there and seen that so there is no need for an education about an area and its circumstances when an issue comes up."

"There is something about the individual and combined wisdom of the Brethren that should provide some comfort," Elder Ballard said. "We have experienced it all, including the consequences of different public laws and policies, disappointments, tragedies and deaths in our own families. We are not out of touch with your lives."

Formidable base

Church leaders supplement their learning with their own reading and research, which often shows up in conference talks, devotionals they give at the four church universities and in their other speaking engagements and writings.

For example, a footnote to Elder Quentin L. Cook's address in April's general conference quoted new research about Millenials that found young people today place major emphasis on "living a meaningful life where they 'give to others, and orient themselves to a larger purpose.'" The footnote pointed to an article about the research in a recent edition of the New York Times Sunday Review.

Leaders also have diverse church experience. Some served missions as young men. Others have been mission presidents. When needs arose in 2002, unusual two-year assignments were given to Elder Holland to serve in Chile as the South America South Area president and Elder Dallin H. Oaks to serve as president of the Philippines Area. In 2004, Elder L. Tom Perry became one of the most senior Brethren to serve away from Salt Lake City in a yearlong assignment as the Europe Central Area president.

This summer, Michael Otterson, the managing director of LDS Public Affairs, wrote in an open letter that with all the information gleaned from assignments, travel, research, surveys, focus groups, one-on-one visits and work in councils, "a formidable knowledge base develops over time."

"There's such an effort to be educated in the world and what's happening in the world so leaders can focus on needs," Elder Hallstrom said. "The church is the Lord's institution to help individuals and families live the gospel. That's why the church exists. They never lose sight of the gospel plan and the gospel purpose and how to help people. Everything they do is meant to help people."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com