For Gail Mengel and Linda Booth, the multiple generations of church members who preceded them helped lay the foundation for a faith that will now find expression in a new and historic way.
The pair were ordained this week as the first two female members of the Council of the Twelve of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As children of fourth- and fifth-generation believers, both women were "born and raised" in the church, based in Independence, Mo., which split off from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1844 after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith.While the churches have a common historical heritage, and still retain some similarities in scripture and organization, they have grown worlds apart in doctrine and practice over the past 150-plus years. This week's ordination of Mengel and Booth is the latest in a series of actions by RLDS church hierarchy that highlight the differences between the two denominations.
Women in the RLDS Church were given the priesthood in 1984, when conference delegates approved a resolution put forward by then-President Wallace B. Smith calling for such a move.
Donald Brown, pastor of the RLDS Church in Ogden, is a delegate to this year's World Conference in Independence. He represents the church's Intermountain District, which consists of 542 members in five congregations - in Orem, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Pocatello, Idaho, and Green River, Wyo.
"I'm excited and thrilled to witness the first ordination of women to the Council of Twelve apostles in our church. I support it wholehearteldly. Both of these women have visited us in Utah previously and I know them personally. I feel that the reaction of the entire conference thus far has been unanimous support for their ordinations."
Brown said though he wasn't living in Utah when RLDS women were first given the priesthood back in 1984, "I've been told that the church in Utah wholeheartedly supported that move." Utah, in fact, was "one of the first districts in the church in which women were called to the priest-hood. As an RLDS pastor, I have six women in my congregation who are ordained ministers. They are ordained to a specific office of the priesthood - either in the Aaronic or Melchizedek offices."
The new apostles each had different experiences in their new calls to minister.
Mengel, 54, said her call was "a wonderful surprise." While she had no inkling such a move was being considered, she said she has received a spiritual "affirmation during the last five weeks as I have learned to live with it." Mengel has served since 1990 as the church's Women's Ministries Coordinator. "I think because of my unique job of working with so many men and women, I was always looking to the affirmation of others instead of searching out something that I would do next. I was so busy doing what I was doing that I had just not taken time in a reflective way to consider that I should move into the general officer role. But I am delighted to do that."
RLDS President W. Grant McMurray proposed the ordination of the women after being directed to do so by God, Mengel said. Because the church has a form of democratic decision-making on such major decisions, a majority of delegates to the World Conference must approve such proposals for them to be adopted by the church.
"It's a wonderful experience when you affirm that one has considered the spiritual council and taken it and accepted it as the president of the church - then asks another human being to serve as a special witness of the Lord Jesus."
While her priesthood office has changed, "in many ways I will not see a major difference in my responsibilities," she said. "It's similar to the task as Director of Women's Ministries. Members of the Council of the Twelve are responsible to provide spiritual guidance as well as administrative function to areas of the church. We're thinking of its theology so we're representing it well to the saints that we're working with in all of the field jurisdictions. And we'll be helping pastors develop programs in working out a way to spread the life and message of Jesus Christ."
Ordained an elder in 1986 and a high priest in 1995, Mengel served as Kirtland Stake Women's Commissioner for 12 years and was an associate pastor for three years for an Ohio congregation. She is a member of the advisory council for the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence and the White House Women's Conference Circle.
Booth, now 49, said the experience with her new call began back in 1994, during the church's World Conference. "That was when they had just dedicated the temple in Independence. It had been a wonderful week. I had served as a counselor to the president of the high priest quorum and presided at some of those meetings. I felt very linked to the spirit - it truly was a week of joy.
"Following the Melchizedek prayer service and just before the temple dedication service, I was walking in a very busy corridor here in the Auditorium. There was a lot of loud noise and people talking back and forth. But I stopped and just had that message that you get in your heart and mind sometimes. It just said `prepare to serve as my apostle.' I was so shook up by the emotions that followed that I turned around and left the building. I drove home crying, and told God that I couldn't do it."
During the year that followed, Booth fought her feelings. But "every time I would come up with a reason I couldn't, God would dispel it and give me a look at how it could happen. Finally three years ago, I just gave up and began to prepare."
Rather than keeping the emotions bottled up, "I told my husband two days after the experience. I also told my children, the president of High Priests' quorum and a few trusted friends. The reaction was very supportive, though my husband was concerned in the beginning about implications for our life together. He likes having me around."
When called to President McMurray's office, Booth said he "expressed to us his prayerful consideration of filling quorum vacancies - how he went to God over an extended amount of time seeking divine guidance, and how he had come to a sense of peace that Gail and myself were the two women he wanted to serve in those positions."
While Booth has had time to reflect on the change, she and her family are "all still in awe of this, that God calls just ordinary people to service."
Booth says the strengths she brings to her new position are centered around communication. She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and communication from the University of Kansas and has extensive volunteer experience in her community with the United Way, educational and business organizations. She was founding editor for Kansas City Parents Magazine and editor of Olathe Life Newspaper. For four years she was pastor of a branch of the church.
In addition to the ordination, several other business matters were brought before the church's World Conference, which ends Sunday. They include a resolution condemning "gambling in any form by its members and especially its priesthood," and another calling for an international ban on land mines.
A recurring proposal to adopt a shortened name - "The World Church of Jesus Christ" - was defeated, despite what Brown said is continuous confusion among people in many parts of the world between his church and the LDS Church.