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I am seeking a complete and authoritative explanation of this issue.

Who presides at Sacrament meeting (common Sunday services) when the bishop of a ward (pastor of a local congregation) is unavailable? There are several circumstances that should be considered when answering this question. The best answer will cite both the handbook of instructions and scripture to justify the explanation. Linking back to Church resources is appreciated.

  • When any higher authority is easily accessible and...

    • When the Bishop (perhaps due to illness) is suddenly unavailable.
    • When the entire bishopric is unavailable, but the absence was expected.
    • When the entire bishopric is unavailable, but the absence was unexpected.
  • When all higher authorities are also unavailable and...

    • When the Bishop (perhaps due to illness) is suddenly unavailable.
    • When the entire bishopric is unavailable, but the absence was expected.
    • When the entire bishopric is unavailable, but the absence was unexpected.

A bonus would be an explanation of what priesthood keys (or priesthood authority) is NOT available when any or all of these circumstances take place. As an example (and as a hint), if the bishop and all higher authorities are unavailable, non-priesthood disciplinary councils cannot be convened.

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    I think there are two separate questions here: 1) Who should preside at sacrament meeting, and 2) What meetings or activities require the bishop to be present. Presiding at sacrament meeting (or any meeting, like a Relief Society meeting, or Sunday School presidency meeting) does not require priesthood keys; but authorizing the sacrament to be administered does. The sacrament can be administered without anyone presiding, if authorized by someone who holds keys. – Samuel Bradshaw Jun 16 '18 at 22:30
  • I agree with @SamuelBradshaw. The bonus should be a separate question if the OP really wants a comprehensive answer (rather than just for the ordinance of the sacrament), as is suggested by his example of disciplinary councils. – NeutronStar Jun 17 '18 at 15:08
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The policy for who presides at sacrament meeting is found in Handbook 2, 18.2*:

The bishop oversees ward meetings. He presides at these meetings unless a member of the stake presidency, an Area Seventy, or a General Authority attends. His counselors may conduct ward meetings and may preside if he is absent. Presiding authorities and visiting high councilors should be invited to sit on the stand. High councilors do not preside when attending ward meetings.

If the bishop and his counselors are all absent, the stake president designates who presides at sacrament meeting. Normally he designates the elders quorum president, but he could authorize another priesthood holder instead.

So, if the bishop is absent, his counselors preside. In practice, this usually means the first counselor, and if he is absent, it is the second counselor. If neither the bishopric nor his counselors are present, whoever the stake president designates will preside.

If the entire bishopric is unexpectedly gone and the stake presidency is unreachable to designate who will preside, then circumstances are extraordinary and chances are that a normal sacrament meeting would not be held.

The sacrament can only be administered with authorization from the bishop (who holds priesthood keys for ordinances like baptism and the sacrament within his ward boundaries), or the stake president, who holds similar keys within his stake. The bishop may authorize a priesthood holder to administer the sacrament in his ward boundaries, outside of a formal sacrament meeting. Nobody presides per se at these informal sacrament services, but the person who the bishop designates conducts (see 18.2.2 in the Handbook chapter linked above).


*Prior to April 2019, when this answer was originally written, the quote from Handbook 2 referenced the "high priests group leader" instead of the elders quorum president. The high priests group leader position no longer exists as of April 2018, so the quote has been updated to reflect the newer wording in Handbook 2.

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    Those verses don't talk about presiding, only conducting. When an elder is called upon [by the presiding authority] to conduct a meeting, this is how they should do it ("as they are led by the Holy Ghost, according to the commandments and revelations of God"). Many of the things mentioned in these verses (baptize, ordain to priesthood offices, administer the sacrament, and confirm new members), despite them being responsibilities of the office, are things the elder only does when called upon or authorized by the bishop. – Samuel Bradshaw Jun 17 '18 at 2:30
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    Asking it in a separate question might yield better results. This is a great answer to the question also read it (ignoring the bonus). – BLT Jun 17 '18 at 13:50
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    For clarity, the Bishop does not authorize priesthood holders to administer the sacrament, the authority is a part of the mantle of the priesthood that priests hold. The bishop is responsible for directing the administration of the sacrament. We had a bishop recently correct us on this verbiage during a lesson. – ShemSeger Jun 18 '18 at 5:59
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    "Authorize" is the word used in Handbook 2 (18.2.2) when talking about administering the sacrament outside of sacrament meeting. See also "How to Perform Ordinances" here, which also uses the term "authorize" for the bishop: lds.org/manual/… – Samuel Bradshaw Jun 18 '18 at 12:57
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    @kutschkem The emphasis was that the bishop does not give them authority to perform the sacrament, he gives them permission to perform the ordinance. – ShemSeger Jun 18 '18 at 17:53

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