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"Personal and family issues" had affected McMurray's ability to function in his office, he wrote in a letter to his two counselors in the governing First Presidency of what was known until 2001 as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which traces its origins to Mormon church founder Joseph Smith.
"I have done my very best to fulfill my responsibilities in accordance with the needs of the church and believe that God has gracefully blessed me in that effort," McMurray wrote. "Along the way I have made some inappropriate choices, and the circumstances of my life are now such that I cannot continue to effectively lead the church."
McMurray, 57, also mentioned that he had been diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease, which he said is treatable but will require attention to his health.
"I'm looking forward to having an opportunity to reflect on what's really important to me," McMurray said in a phone interview Thursday from his Missouri home. "I'll try to take time for personal renewal, then I'll figure out something to do that will be consistent with my primary values. It will probably have to be in a different venue."
McMurray did not elaborate on the reason for his decision. However, he said his wife, Joyce, and their two grown sons have had "long conversations about what's important to us as a family. I appreciate the love and support of my immediate and extended family."
More than 300 employees at the church's headquarters in Independence, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City, gathered in an auditorium Wednesday as the counselors read McMurray's letter on a video screen. Others at the church's schools and across the country watched on computer screens.
"The room was silent," said Apostle Linda L. Booth, Community of Christ spokeswoman. "There was a lot of sadness."
Many members of the 250,000-member church were "devastated," said Paul Edwards, retired president of the church's high priest quorum. "He was the hope of the church's progressive arm."
McMurray was "very loved and respected, very forward-thinking," said Russell Shipley, pastor of Salt Lake City's Community of Christ church, one of three small congregations in Utah. "One of his strengths was to challenge the people and cause them to stretch spiritually."
The Community of Christ was formed after the 1844 death of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Smith's largest body of followers trekked west with his successor, Brigham Young, but Smith's widow and children stayed with a small group in Missouri. In 1860, they formed the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with Smith's son, Joseph Smith III, as prophet. From then on, the presidency was reserved for Smith's direct descendants.
A lifelong church member, McMurray grew up in Ontario, Canada, where his family was deeply involved in church life. He moved as a teenager to Independence, where his mother worked at church headquarters.
At Graceland College, the church's flagship school in Lamoni, Iowa, McMurray majored in religion and then decided to pursue a theological education. Because the church had no graduate theological schools, he earned a master's of divinity degree at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, a United Methodist seminary.
At barely 26, McMurray went to work for then RLDS Church's historical department. In 1982, he was appointed World Church secretary, where he was responsible for much of the church's administration.
A decade later, McMurray became a counselor to church President Wallace B. Smith, a direct descendant of Joseph Smith.
In 1996, when the 66-year-old Smith announced his retirement, he named McMurray as his successor.
But McMurray was never comfortable with the title of "prophet, seer and revelator."
"I wanted members not to think of themselves as a people with a prophet, but as a prophetic people. To be prophetic is a powerful and profound call," he said Wednesday. "But if we get too caught up in personalities and don't understand the broader implications, we miss the power of it."
Over the years, he said, he has tried to talk to the church about unrealistic expectations of church leaders and ministers.
"We need to free our ministers to have questions and concerns that any other person has," he said. "The pressures on families in these kinds of roles are serious."
He is at peace with his decision. "It's the right thing for me and my family," he said.
In addition to giving up his presidency, McMurray also resigned from the priesthood. That means he cannot officiate for or participate in church sacraments, Booth said.
But he is still a member of the church in good standing and plans to attend, and can be reinstated by permission of the First Presidency.
McMurray declined to name a successor, as he could have, but suggested that his counselors, Kenneth N. Robinson and Peter A. Judd, preside over the church until someone can be named and approved by the membership. By tradition, that would happen at the church's next World Conference, in April 2006, but could be sooner if the leaders who are meeting next week call a special conference, Booth said.
No matter who is next to lead the church, McMurray's imprint will be felt for years to come.
During his eight years as president, he helped the church change its name, add women to the highest councils, establish a seminary to train pastors, expand the church bureaucracy by more than 200 people and establish the church in 10 new countries.
He began a church-wide conversation about homosexuality, particularly whether gays and lesbians openly in committed relationships should be ordained - they are not now. He initiated "listening circles" where church members could hear various points of view on the topic without rancor and polarization.
"Grant articulated a new vision for the Community of Christ with skill and wit," said William D. Russell, professor of American history and government at Graceland. "His leadership will be missed."