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Mormons make history, tap Gerrit W. Gong and Ulisses Soares for top leadership

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Mormon church has made history and injected diversity into a top leadership panel by selecting the first-ever Latin American apostle and the first-ever apostle of Asian ancestry. The selections of Ulisses Soares of Brazil and Gerrit W. Gong, a Chinese-American, were announced Saturday morning at the start of a twice-annual conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They join a panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that before Saturday was made up entirely of white men from the U.S. with the exception of one German, Dieter Uchtdorf.

The two new apostles were chosen from the ranks of church authorities gathered in the LDS Conference Center and were already sitting on the stand, CBS affiliate KUTV reports.

The all-male panel sits below church President Russell M. Nelson and his two counselors and helps set church policy and oversees the faith's business interests.

The selections of Soares and Gong are likely to trigger applause from a contingent of Mormons who were anxious to see the faith's global footprint represented in leadership. Soares and Gong were serving in a lower-level leadership panel for the church.

More than half of the religion's 16 million members live outside the United States.

Here's a closer look at the leadership structure and how new members are chosen:


Who leads the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

A president and his two top counselors who form what is known as the "first presidency."

They come from a top governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, which sits below the first presidency and helps set church policy and oversees the faith's business interests.

These 15 people are all men, in accordance with the church's all-male priesthood.


How are Mormon presidents chosen?

The longest-tenured member the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles becomes the new president in a tradition established in 1889 to prevent lobbying and ensure a smooth transition.

The succession plan was created following nearly two years of debate and some politicking among the apostles after the death of the faith's third president, John Taylor, said Armand Mauss, a retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University.

Nelson became the 17th church president on Jan. 14 during a private meeting of the Quorum. Per protocol, his formal selection came a few days after a funeral for the previous president, Thomas S. Monson.

At the church conference in Salt Lake City, Nelson was given a ceremonial show of support from Mormons in attendance and watching around the world during a more than century-old custom called a "solemn assembly," when Latter-day Saints stood and raised their hands.


What does a Mormon president do?

He is considered a prophet, seer and revelator who leads the church - along with two top counselors and members of the Quorum - through divine revelation from God.

The president sets policy, rules and manages church programs. He also oversees the church's businesses, which include real estate, farms, publishing, life insurance, nonprofits, a Polynesian cultural center in Hawaii and an upscale outdoor mall in Salt Lake City.

The church doesn't disclose or discuss its finances, but Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn estimated in a book published last year that it brought in $33 billion in contributions and an additional $15 billion from its for-profit businesses in 2010. Much of that money is likely spent to operate church buildings, temples and programs, Quinn said.


How long do Mormon presidents serve?

Until they die, which is why the length of their tenures vary widely.

The longest was Brigham Young, who served nearly 30 years in the mid- to late 1800s. Other lengthy tenures include Heber J. Grant, with nearly 27 years from 1918 to 1945, and David O. McKay, with nearly 19 years from 1951 to 1970.

The shortest tenure was Howard H. Hunter, who served only nine months from 1994 to 1995.

The past two presidents, Monson and Gordon B. Hinckley, each had fairly lengthy terms. Monson served nearly 10 years, and Hinckley nearly 13.


How are the president's two counselors chosen?

A new president usually chooses them from the Quorum. Sometimes, they are the same men who served the previous president. If they're different, the previous counselors return to being members of the Quorum.

Nelson kept Henry B. Eyring as a counselor and chose Dallin H. Oaks as the second.

Being counselors doesn't put them ahead in line to become president, but Oaks happens to be next in line as the longest-tenured member. The 85-year-old is a former Utah Supreme Court justice who joined the Quorum in May 1984, one month after Nelson.


How are Quorum members chosen?

They can come from anywhere, but in modern history most were already serving in lower-tier leadership council.

The apostles tend to be older men who have achieved a measure of success in occupations outside the church. The last five chosen for the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, including three in October 2015 and two on Saturday, fit that description.

The 59-year-old Ulisses Soares of Brazil was an accountant and auditor for multinational corporations in Brazil before joining church leadership, according to a church biography.

The 64-year-old Gerrit W. Gong, a Chinese-American, worked for the U.S. State Department, the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and Mormon-owned Brigham Young University before being selected for the lower-tier church leadership panel, his church biography shows.

The selections of Soares and Gong marked church history as they became the first Latin American apostle and first-ever apostle of Asian ancestry. They joined a panel that before was made up entirely of white men from the U.S. with the exception of one German, Dieter Uchtdorf.

Soares and Gong filled openings by the deaths of Monson and Quorum member Robert D. Hales, who died in October at age 85.

The group is modeled after Jesus Christ's apostles. Members serve until they die or ascend to the presidency.


What about women?

The nine highest-ranking women in the church oversee three organizations that run programs for women and girls. These councils sit below several layers of leadership groups reserved for men.

The president and counselors who oversee the Relief Society, which runs activities for women, are considered the most important female leaders based on the organization's historical cachet.

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