Bishops, Lay Clergy, and the Quest for Community

Several experiences lately have caused me to reflect on the nature of a lay clergy in the LDS church and the duty that we all share to sustain each other in our various responsibilities. It might be true that familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes, but familiarity is also the only way to test and develop true love. Religion is shallow if it only fosters love of strangers, of mythic heroes, or of extraordinary people. The great test of gospel living is to see and hear God in those we know best; it is the test of the Supper at Emmaus. Can two or three be gathered in Christ’s name and still feel His presence? Perhaps for this reason, Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles once said that “our personal relationship with the bishop is often a good indication of our personal relationship with the Lord.” I don’t think he said this because he was asserting his confidence that each and every Bishop is the most Christ-like person we will ever know or because everything a Bishop says or does is necessarily from the Lord. Rather, it means that our spiritual strength depends on our ability to find Christ in the intimate circumstances in our lives and among the most ordinary people.

I am well aware that bishops are not perfect men. I say this because I was a bishop myself once upon a time. At the time I was called, I was serving in a bishopric as a second counselor. I was used to watching my bishop and thinking of him as someone different than the rest of us. He was a particularly energetic bishop with lots of church experience, and it was easy to imagine that the burdens on his shoulders were of his own choosing, especially because he seemed to fulfill the duties of the calling with such passion and capacity. But at some point, I remember thinking to myself: “Why do you suppose that you have a right to take a slower lane in the gospel just because you aren’t the Bishop? Why isn’t acting like a Bishop a responsibility you have, that everyone has? When are you going to start acting like the church is yours as much as it is the leaders’s or everyone else’s? When are you going to accept full responsibility for your fellow ward members?”

These feelings, which I believe were inspired, caused a change in me. I prayed, read, served, and lived with more intensity and with more purpose. A few months later I got a phone call asking me to meet with a stake president on the BYU campus. When I hung up and told my wife about the call, my wife looked at me with a baffled expression.  “What would that be for?!” she said. The truth is that I had felt impressions that something like this was coming, so I said, with a blush, “I think it might be to call me as a bishop.” Amy didn’t hesitate:  “No way!” she said. I teased her that it was at least conceivable in maybe another universe other than this one and that stranger things had happened. Christ had raised the dead, God called a stutterer to be prophet, he created a world, so perhaps making a Bishop out of her husband wasn’t out of the question.

At the interview, the Stake President handed me a letter, addressed to me from the First Presidency of the Church, explaining that I had been called by the spirit of prophecy and that I had their sustaining confidence and prayers on my behalf. What a document this was to hold in my hands. A few days later, I walked into a chapel of some 200 people who didn’t know me nor I them. I was asked to stand and was unanimously sustained as their bishop. You can imagine how grateful I felt to know that I could count on their faith and how it inspired me to do my best to not let them down. The truth is, there were many times when I had a hard time seeing myself as the Bishop.

I don’t think I was a perfect Bishop, by any means. But I did feel power I had never felt before, power to love beyond my natural capacity, doses of discernment to help me feel and express concern for individuals whose happiness was compromised by poor choices or threatening circumstances, and an intimate feeling of appreciation for every person and for every talent. These feelings were a gift but also a burden, but I had many good brothers and sisters in the ward who were similarly willing to assume a portion of responsibility for the welfare of the whole. This miracle of church service makes any good Bishop a much better Bishop.

I have seen and heard of Bishops saying or doing things that have hurt their members, and I have sometimes heard of people airing these mistakes publicly. I don’t think sustaining your Bishop means that you accept everything they say or do as the will of the Lord. But I do think it means loving them as much as you can, forgiving them whenever necessary, and seeking to share the burden they carry. After all, a lay clergy implies that all duties belong to us all. From time to time we might catch a glimpse of human weakness in our leaders, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that human beings are, well, human. Feeling self-satisfied about discovering these weaknesses is like feeling smug because you figured out that an orange is a fruit.

The real challenge and the real miracle of working in the church is learning how to see how the Lord makes use of very ordinary men and women to carry His work forward. If we all thought more about the collective struggles of a ward family, we would worry a lot less about whether someone’s style suits us. In a ward setting, councils are how leaders come to decisions and to revelations about matters of concern in the ward. Revelations aren’t arrived at merely by fiat but are instead the result of a process of conversation, of sharing divergent points of view in the spirit of love and with a willingness to find and build on common ground. Variety of styles and opinion in a ward is as it should be. Unity is never a pre-established fact or a pre-requisite for service. Indeed, different perspectives make the process richer, more fulfilling, and likely more productive of deeper understandings of what is right. Leaving the church over such differences, or withdrawing your support either in silence or in outspoken protest, weaken the fabric of a spiritual family of brothers and sisters. You and your Bishop are better together, unified in a common cause, even if you aren’t unified in points of view. You and all of your brothers and sister in the faith are better together than apart and alienated from one another. It might feel that you carry certain burdens alone. But those burdens are your gifts too. You have a particularly unique and valuable set of experiences that are your gifts to give to your ward and you are called to that community as a member just as anyone else has been called, including your Bishop. Each day, each decision, each place you find yourself—these are all part of your unique path of service to which you are summoned. Your Bishop may very well not see things as he should in a particular instance, but he will benefit far more from your honesty, love, and commitment to service than from undermining criticism. And, perhaps more importantly, you are more likely to see things more clearly if you have such a commitment. If he needs to improve, it is likely in ways you do not fully understand. So too for you. A Bishop cannot be all things to every member, but he is very likely doing a particularly excellent and vital job for some individuals even if he is not able to address every problem.

By my count over the course of my life I have had somewhere close to 25 Bishops, including five Bishops for whom I served as a missionary. Some I have known well and will admire for the rest of my life. Some are among my best friends. Some I hardly knew. And some were personalities very different from my own and took some effort on my part to appreciate. Over the long term, this kind of variety tells me something about God’s workings in the lives of ordinary people. He seems not to consistently choose the most talented or the most effective communicators or even the most knowledgeable of the gospel. And his ability to see the gifts of an individual is far stronger than mine. All my Bishops have been ordinary men every one, trying to do something extraordinary that they were asked to do. Their capacity to do the miraculous increases to the degree that they are surrounded by people who supplement his service with their own, and it decreases to the degree that others are intent on running interference on their best efforts to move the work of the Lord forward. I don’t mean to sound insensitive to the legitimate pain some individuals feel, but I believe that if you wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking your suggestions for doing things differently in person, or if you simply can’t speak in a spirit of love and mutual commitment to the welfare and good faith of the ward family, then it probably shouldn’t be said. I don’t think this is a special ethic that only a Bishop deserves. This is an ethic to live by throughout life, no matter the circumstances. Such an ethic is a fundamental recognition that people are weak and that God’s work only happens through commitment to consecrate our collective weaknesses and make them work to bless the human family.

 


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