On serving as a Mormon bishop

I had an odd call at work the other day. My cell phone rang and I noticed an unfamiliar number with a Rochester, NY area code.

Me: "Hello?"
Rochester: "Hello, is this the bishop?"
Me: "Uh, yes"

I waved the colleague I'd been talking with out of my office and closed the door as you never know when a call like this will involve confidential matters.

Rochester: "I'm really sorry to disturb you but they gave me your number and told me to call."
Me: "Oh, no problem, what's this about?"

The caller went on to explain that he worked for the electric company and was looking for an updated copy of our church tax exempt form. I spent some time confirming what entity he needed the information for and ended up giving him another number to call to get that, but all along he was being very apologetic about it. I realized in the middle it was the word "bishop" that had him flustered. It sounded like he was familiar with the term from the modern hierarchy of the Catholic church, and I'm sure had some image of me with decades of religious devotion, dressed in fancy garb, presiding over a vast diocese. Though he knew that my church was a different one - "The Church of Jesus Christ" or "Latter Day Church" was in his records, as usual not quite complete, but we confirmed he had the right addresses for our buildings. I don't know exactly what he thought, but he is probably not the only one confused by the term "bishop".

As discussed in the recent Pew survey on Mormons in America, faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (often abbreviated as the "LDS" church) willingly volunteer for all levels of religious service. It's actually not so much volunteering as responding positively to assignments - a "calling". It's expected that most adult members will have some sort of calling involving administration, teaching, music, planning activities, or helping others. In my 23 years as a member of the LDS church I've held at least a dozen different callings. Callings are held anywhere from a few months to a few years. The calls are made by those having priesthood authority, as described in our Articles of Faith (see #5) - and that includes calls to priesthoood offices that hold such authority. All local priesthood authority in the church is entirely made up of local, unpaid members who have been called to these offices. That includes "bishop", the office to which I received a call just about a year ago.

Although priesthood leaders certainly consider the attributes of those they call upon to serve, the pattern of qualification is modeled on that used by Jesus Christ in calling his apostles - he found ordinary men going about their work, and asked them to come and follow him. Simon-Peter, James, John and the others had no special religious training or other obvious outward attributes of righteousness or honor that we know of. They made mistakes, one of them even ended up in betrayal. And yet they were called by the Lord to be his apostles, and that was enough. "Whom God calls, God qualifies" as Thomas Monson, now president of the Church, has repeated over the years.

An LDS bishop (along with two counselors as assistants - and I have two great men helping me) presides over a "ward" of at least 300 members (usually - smaller wards are allowed in some circumstances). The bishop is the main priesthood authority for that local congregation. Geographical collections of around 10 wards form "stakes", presided over by a stake president, who has much of the remaining authority for administration. Above that the church has had varying levels of hierarchy: there is the "mission" (in our case covering several stakes and mainly supervising the work of the young men and others who serve as missionaries) and the "area" (a good fraction of a continent) and then the presiding general authorities over all the church. Stake presidents and bishops and some area authorities are expected to work full time to support themselves. Mission presidents take a leave of absence from work for a few years, but they mostly pay their own way (it is not a paid position). I'm not entirely familiar with the rules for general authorities but I believe most are called at a time when they are able to retire and devote themselves full time to religious service. They are not paid for it, other than compensation for travel expenses.

The church does have some full-time paid employees: the facilities maintenance people, the software people, the people who staff the various help lines and employment and welfare offices and so forth. Even much of that work is done by volunteers serving without pay. But with priesthood offices in the church, there is a very fundamental philosophy that this must be unpaid. Priesthood should never be a "career" choice. I am not aware of any other religion that so strongly eschews making a career of religious service.

To a Mormon, the calling of a bishop is certainly one deserving of respect, even if it is only a temporary unpaid one. It involves a commitment of significant amounts of time - administration, teaching, interviewing, supervising everything that's going on. Many of my mid-week evenings, Saturdays and of course Sundays are filled with one church assignment or another. Monday and Friday evenings are reserved for family time - though often I do get a break on those other days as well (or take one, if there's something important going on at home). I still remember wise counsel from one of our previous bishops on achieving "balance" in your life between church, family, work, and your own personal time - but at least while I serve as bishop I've accepted the need to shift the balance a little more heavily to church responsibilities. The members here have become an extended family to which much of my thoughts and attention now turn at all hours. Even at work there are the unexpected calls or emails - but usually I try to defer those to when I can dedicate the time needed, as they are more often about events in members' lives that need some loving attention, rather than the electric bills.

The guiding principle of love for the members is one that I hold dear. Shortly after my call I contacted as many of the previous bishops of the ward as I could reach to ask their advice, and they all echoed the same message: "love the members". We are trying, ourselves and encouraging all our members, to follow the example of Jesus Christ in loving service to one another, and to others in our communities. That pure love that a parent has for their child, we try to have for one another. It can be very difficult, but in the end it is so rewarding. The apostle Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13 describe charity, Christ's pure love that we seek for: "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things... And now abideth faith, hope, charity these three; but the greatest of these is charity."

Paul's first letter to Timothy (chapter 3) also describes the characteristics of a bishop with words I've tried to keep in mind: "If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil."

There is at least one (fictional) Catholic bishop that I take as a partial role model: the good Bishop of Digne in Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables", who is so unassuming in himself, and offers mercy and forgiveness and understanding - and a path to a better life - to even the most downtrodden. And I have well over a dozen Mormon bishops as models, as I have gotten to know them over the years in wards where I was a member, or in other wards in our stake when I served as a stake clerk. Each is a different and unique example, yet all the ones I have known have been dedicated leaders well deserving of respect and love.

Beyond love, a second guiding principle fundamental to our faith is revelation, prophecy, answers to prayer that amount to divine direction in our lives. This is something very personal, subjective, and impossible to convey or explain to another in any direct fashion, but in my experience it is something very real. In working with and watching the other bishops I have known I have seen them struggle to solve problems, and then receive that inspiration they needed. And I myself have felt inspired in much of the work I have had to do - mostly in small ways that few would notice, but it is a real thing to me. Echoes of these inspirations frequently follow - little "love notes" that confirm we are headed in the right direction. Several months before my call as bishop I received a strong impression that there were some specific things I needed to study about my faith to prepare for future responsibilities. I did those things (memorizing our Articles of Faith as many of the children do, was one of them) and the call came! In another case, one morning I had a strong impression that, in dealing with a certain person who occasionally scared me with his words and actions, I just needed to show love and stick with him with no fear for my own safety. That night I believe my actions helped prevent his suicide. And there have been many more such experiences, though not usually as dramatic.

We try to follow Christ, but we are certainly not perfect as we believe he was. The more we study and learn and feel these inspirations flowing through our lives, the more imperfections we are liable to see in ourselves. Sins of commission may decline, but sins of omission - things we could have done to help another but did not, or choosing to do something merely "good" when there was something much better we could have done - become that much more obvious. We are all in need of repentance, and God's mercy and forgiveness. That is one message I truly hope our members understand - what the Savior said to the Pharisees is what we hope for in our church meetings today: (Matthew 9:10-13) "behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice; for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

With my call and ordination, to many of my friends I suddenly lost my first name and became just "bishop". I will always cherish these experiences that have deepened my faith and understanding of the gospel. To anybody still reading this not of our faith, you are welcome to come to one of our meetings any Sunday and find out what we do. Or check out all the resources and examples on www.mormon.org.

To all I want to close with my own statement of faith, the understanding that began for me 23 years ago after reading the Book of Mormon, meeting with members and missionaries, and especially listening to prophetic voices including Thomas S. Monson speaking of his experiences in opening up East Germany (months *before* the fall of the Berlin wall). I was doubtful, but I knelt and tried prayer. Nothing happened. I tried again, a few times, in different places. Didn't seem like anything. And then I tried one more time, and felt an overpowering sensation of peace and truth washing over me - something I had felt a touch of previously and not recognized, something I have felt again and again since that day. The spiritual dimension of our lives is not some fantasy, it is a real thing. I believe it is open to anybody who is willing to allow it. I know there are great truths to be found from other sources than my own faith. There is much that is good in the world, including from those who have no religion or call themselves atheists. But my personal experience includes spiritual events I cannot deny, for which the only explanation I have found is that provided by my faith. I have no doubt that following Christ's example as best we can leads us to our fullest potential as human beings, and that beyond this life the kingdom of God awaits.