THIS MAY BE a worldwide church, but general conference still takes place in the United States of America, which means that newly called general authorities are subject to the American ritual of the televised news conference.
Watching Elder D. Todd Christofferson deal with the press was highly instructive. He was poised, pleasant, relaxed and yet careful.
He had enough experience as a general authority that he recognized the pits that were being dug before his feet and avoided stepping into any of them.
What struck me, as I watched the press conference on BYU TV via satellite, was how nervous the reporters were. Then it dawned on me: General authorities go before the cameras far more often than these Salt Lake-based reporters do.
Elder Christofferson was by no means facing the attack-pack crowd that politicians face at press conferences. Nor did he display any of the wariness of a politician who has felt the barbs of a twisted news story.
Yet he knew that he spoke now for the whole church, not just for himself. That's a heavy responsibility, and the Brethren learned decades ago that they cannot speak their minds freely. Their words to the media have to be weighed with this thought constantly in mind: How might my answer be twisted to embarrass the church?
So as a few of the reporters asked potentially embarrassing questions, Elder Christofferson fielded them easily and pleasantly. He seemed to understand that even in Salt Lake City, reporters have to ask hard or tricky questions, if only to keep their self-respect among their peers. It would be too embarrassing for a Utah reporter to ask softball questions that might make him look like a public relations flack for the church.
My favorite question was when a reporter asked him, in effect, why he, a Utah-born English-speaking white guy, had been called instead of somebody more reflective of the church's worldwide membership.
On the one hand, it's an absurd, even offensive, question. We believe that it's God, not men, who calls apostles. They have no constituency except Jesus Christ and the whole membership of the church, and the ethnicity, race or native language of an apostle should mean nothing.
And yet ... let's admit it, my fellow Saints, there are more than a few of us who felt a little thrill when Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf was called as the first apostle in the restored church whose native language was not English.
Now we have come to know him and value him for himself; but when he was first called, all we knew was that he spoke English with a German accent and he had been a commercial airline pilot.
His career, like Elder Russell M. Nelson's as a heart surgeon, proved once again that there is no particular worldly career that leads to service as a general authority.
We were thrilled because of what it meant or could be taken to mean: The church leadership was looking beyond the boundaries of the United States.
Of course we knew that the Brethren already included many Seventies from other countries that had been true since Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi and Elder F. Enzio Busche were called as general authorities back in October 1977.
But it is not absurd to expect that it will not be long before prayers and then talks in general conference are given, not in accented English, but in many different native languages.
Eventually, in a worldwide church, English will have no special precedence. Unlike Muslims, who will not translate the Quran because Arabic is the true language of the revelation, we Latter-day Saints eagerly translate the scriptures so that, ultimately, they can be read in every person's native language.
Non-English speakers listen to general conference through interpreters, teams of bilingual and polyglot Saints who have already translated the prepared remarks of the Brethren and then listen carefully for any variation so they can speak their words, as nearly as possible, into the ears of those who do not understand English.
There is no reason why Anglophone Latter-day Saints cannot also, occasionally, have the same experience. Someday we will be accustomed to having the occasional conference talk spoken in a language that some of us Americans learned only on our missions, and many Americans don't speak at all.
Someday, perhaps, most of the talks will be in languages not commonly spoken in America today. It will not change the ability of the Spirit of God to speak to our hearts through the words we hear. The Spirit speaks through and past all languages.
At the same time, it's good to remember that the Twelve are not called on the basis of demographics.
The Lord did not call "a German" when Elder Uchtdorf became an apostle and then second counselor in the First Presidency. The Lord called a man who had made choices in his life that made him useful to the Lord in those callings.
Let's try to look at the church the way the Lord does. As he surveys his children who have joined his church, there might well be dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of Saints who are worthy to be apostles and yet are not called.
The Lord takes into consideration, not just worthiness, but the needs of the Saints. Apostles bear a noble and yet heavy burden, but theirs is not the only important task to be done in the church.
In the Lord's eyes, it is important to have wonderful teachers for Primary children and for teenagers and for adults in every ward and branch in the church. It is important to have trustworthy stewards over the finances and records of the church throughout the world.
What we often see as a hierarchy, rising to the pinnacle of the church presidency, the Lord sees as a great number of his children, serving each other in varying degrees of righteousness and effectiveness. It is important to him that all of his children be well-served, well-taught and entrusted with whatever stewardships they can bear well.
How important is it to the Lord to satisfy the longing of some of his Saints to see the church leadership reflect our movement outward into the world?
Think of your own stake. In all likelihood, there are some wards replete with experienced, talented teachers and leaders, and other wards that struggle to fill all the callings.
So when the stake presidency considers whom to call to stake leadership positions, don't they do their best to make sure strong leaders in the struggling wards stay where they are most needed?
It does not denigrate those who hold stake callings to say that it is more important for each ward than for the stake to have a great Young Men's president.
The stake Young Men's president has the responsibility to help the ward leaders learn their callings and do them well; he is their servant, not their master; and it is in the ward that the Young Men's leaders have the most impact on each individual young man.
In a church in which there might be dozens, even hundreds or thousands, of Saints worthy to bear the responsibility of the apostleship, doesn't it make sense that the Lord will give first preference to the needs of the Saints in nations and cultures where the church is still new or its membership growing so rapidly that experienced leaders can barely keep up?
I remember when I was called to the high council in a stake in the American South, only five years after the revelation extending the blessings of the priesthood to Saints of African ancestry.
The stake president had spoken of the need to give callings to newly converted members of the church. Everyone in the room knew that many if not most of our convert baptisms were blacks, and so we understood what was meant when one of the high councilors said, "Maybe in two or three generations these new converts will be ready for leadership positions."
But someone else spoke up and said, "How many generations did it take before Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, Orson Hyde, John Taylor or Parley P. Pratt were ready for leadership positions?"
Many in the room were flustered, and someone blurted out, "But those were great apostles."
"And how do we know that there are not great apostles among these new converts?" came the reply.
It was a question that we were not prepared to answer that day. Instead, I have watched the answer in our stake as a once-white church learned how to accept black members, not as visitors, not as clients to be patronized, but as full and equal fellow Saints.
In the process, I have watched noble and great ones emerge from among these new converts, fulfilling assignments and serving all the Saints in the process. At the same time, I have seen how these emerging black leaders have a special bond with others who have shared their experiences of life. They serve where the Lord needs them to serve.
I have never seen one of these brothers or sisters called to a "higher" office as some sort of affirmative-action program. Instead, I have seen the black membership in our stake gradually grow a surplus of teachers and leaders, so that predominantly white wards have had black men and women lead various organizations, not because of their race, but because of their talents, their willingness, their testimonies.
Yet we also have to consider the weaknesses of the Saints as well. Will the Lord call a black bishop over a ward with a significant number of white members who cannot overcome their prejudices? He will when, in the Lord's own judgment, it is time to do so; but he will also give the members time to get used to the idea.
Did the Lord wait until 1978 to extend the priesthood to Africans because the Africans were not ready until then? Or because the white Saints were not yet ready?
Only 15 apostles are needed at any one time in the world. The number of teachers and clerks and leaders the church needs is growing far more rapidly. Even the number of Seventies does not grow that fast.
And yet, in nation after nation, we can see how quickly each new community of Saints grows a surplus of leaders, so that they can first supply their own needs, and then provide talented Saints who can be called on to lead anywhere and everywhere.
The apostleship is a noble calling, and one that serves vital functions for the church as a whole. More than once in my life, I have seen firsthand the great blessings that come when an apostle intervenes in a mission or a stake or a project or an individual life that needs his ministration. I have seen their great love and concern for individuals and I have seen how the Lord uses them to do great works in the world and in the church.
But I have also seen how men and women of great heart, great faith and great wisdom serve in the humblest callings of ward and branch and mission. The church is blessed, not harmed, when the Lord leaves many of the most talented in the congregations of the Saints instead of putting them all in airplanes and flying them to Salt Lake City.
It is also true that the First Presidency is likely to call to the apostleship someone they have actually met and come to know. That knowledge can come instantly, conveyed by the Spirit, and I suppose the Lord could give the president of the church a vision showing him that the next apostle should be someone whom he has never met or heard of.
But since the Lord is in charge of this church at every level, it is far more likely that anyone he wants to serve as an apostle will be given callings that will bring him to the attention of the Brethren.
It is no accident that Elder Christofferson had long since been prepared to deal with the press-conference aspect of the apostleship.
Meanwhile, others just as worthy, just as gifted, the Lord will assign to bless the lives of his children in other places and at other levels. The Lord is no respecter of persons: He does not love less the son or daughter whom he calls to serve him in "obscure" places and offices.
No calling, no nation, no congregation, no family is obscure to the Lord. He does not see apostles more clearly than he sees the youngest toy-wielding monster in the nursery who is just learning to be civilized. He knows us all, he loves us all, and he will give us the teachers and leaders he thinks we need, and not according to our schedules or preferences or wishes.
Count on this: The Lord will never call an apostle merely because the members think it would be really cool to have someone of his ethnicity in that office.
The world will determine what is "cool" according to its own standards you can find that schedule posted in the foyer of the Great and Spacious Building.But we should not expect the Lord to notice it.
Orson Scott Card is a writer of nonfiction and fiction, from LDS works to popular fiction. "In the Village" appears Thursdays in the Deseret Morning News. A longer version of this column is available in the Mormon Times section of deseretnews.com. Leave feedback for Card online at www.nauvoo.com/contact_desnews.html.