Mike Leavitt is moving from the halls of government and business to the acoustics-friendly halls of the Conference Center and Tabernacle in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah.

The former White House Cabinet member and three-term Utah governor will become the next president of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square on Aug. 26, according to an announcement made by Bishop Gérald Caussé, presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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Leavitt will be joined by his wife, Jacalyn, in fulfilling this new role, the church announced. He will replace Ron Jarrett, who served as choir president for nine years.

Leavitt said one of his goals will be to continue to expand the choir’s worldwide reach and audience.

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“The objective here needs to be to give a global church a global choir, and to provide a means by which the world can begin to feel the value of sacred music in a way that will give them peace and joy,” Leavitt said Friday morning during an interview in front of the gold-painted pipes of the choir’s organ in the Conference Center.

Mike Leavitt | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Jacalyn Leavitt | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“The choir provides what the world needs, what the world hungers for right now. I think that’s an important mission,” he said. “It’s what the choir has always done. I think our objective is to do it better every day, and to reach more people around the world.”

President Russell M. Nelson personally extended the church callings to the Leavitts.

The late Mac Christensen called serving as the choir president “one of the choicest calls in the entire church,” a statement Jarrett echoed in a prepared statement.

Leavitt, 70, brings vast state and national leadership experience to the role.

  • He was Utah’s governor from 1993 to 2003.
  • He resigned during his third term as governor to join the White House Cabinet of U.S. President George W. Bush as the 10th administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • He served in the cabinet again throughout Bush’s second term as 20th secretary of health and human services from 2005-09.

“Mike Leavitt will build on the legacy of the choir organization with his exceptional executive experience,” Bishop Caussé said. “We are looking forward to his leadership and a future of continued success. We thank Ronald Jarrett for his dedicated service and his vision expanding the choir’s influence to a worldwide audience through social media and other innovations.”

The choir has been on hiatus due to COVID-19. It has not performed at the church’s semiannual general conferences since October 2019, but it is preparing to return to rehearsals later this month and is planning to perform at the Oct. 2-3 general conference, health requirements permitting. The choir also plans to take up a twice-postponed tour through Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Scotland, South Wales and Wales from June 18 to July 6, 2022.

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As HHS secretary, Leavitt helped mobilize the nation’s pandemic preparedness and medical emergency plan. He is the founder and chair of the board of managers of Leavitt Partners, a consulting firm that advises clients in health care and food safety.

“I have spent much of my professional life over the course of the last decade dealing with matters of public health, and specifically with pandemics interestingly enough,” Leavitt said. “I’m thankful for that because we’ll obviously have, as we look at the performance at conference, performing on the Heritage Tour and in other ways, we’ll need to add that as a dimension, keeping the choir and all of those who attend to the choir safe and the audiences safe. I’m confident we can do that.”

Leavitt’s calling as choir president began with a phone call from President Nelson’s secretary, who asked if the Leavitts would meet with the church president.

“That was an automatic, and so we spent a little time waiting and worrying a bit, then had a delightful interview with him,” Mike Leavitt said, adding, “I was a bit surprised, but the surprise was quickly replaced by a sense of gratitude and optimism.”

Leavitt said President Nelson recounted the choir’s history, “and its importance as a messenger for Christ and for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and said that the job of the choir is to bring a sense of peace and joy to people’s hearts and minds and that it should be aligned with the mission of the church.”

For the first time, two counselors will be called to serve with the choir president. Together, they will oversee the administrative aspects of a choir with 700 volunteers, including:

  • About 400 choir members
  • 200 members of the Orchestra at Temple Square
  • 34 members of the Bells at Temple Square
  • Dozens of others who are in training or working as music librarians, stagehands, wardrobe personnel and more.

Leavitt said he definitely wasn’t called for his singing prowess but that his wife is a talented soprano with a lot of musical theater experience. Utah’s former first lady also is a former teacher and author.

Leavitt is a former member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. He recently published an article in Deseret Magazine.

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt talks about his new role as president of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News