There are many myths in Mormon lore. One of the most reliable is that the call to serve as a bishop is to be dreaded like a death sentence. When one bishop’s term is coming to an end, ward members speculate, look for telltale signs of crestfallenness in the remaining men of the ward and joke about carrying a pack of cigarettes in their pockets or adopting other behaviors to deflect an unwelcome call.
I’m not sure why our culture has developed such stereotypes concerning the “burdens” of serving as a bishop.
On a recent visit to Utah I went to dinner with my brother Brent and his family. Brent is currently serving his ward as bishop. Somewhere between the mountain of nachos and the first bite of enchilada, I asked him the question with the surprising answer: “Brent, according to LDS culture, serving as a bishop is torturous and exhausting. How does that fit with your experience?”
Brent lit up. I knew that his experience was like mine. He listed thirteen (by actual count) amazing blessings of service he had enjoyed just within the previous week. I could feel the joy as he described the blessings of serving the people of his ward.
Although taxing at times, the opportunity to serve as bishop is a sweet and sacred blessing. I have compared it to being a UPS deliveryman. The bishop is God’s special messenger to deliver packages of love, encouragement, and invitation to His children far from Home.
God has seen fit to use me as a bishop. I am grateful for the experience. I may have learned more vital lessons for eternity while serving as a bishop than during any other era of my life. So I determined to inventory some of the discoveries that came from serving.
1. God cannot use us until we feel our limitations.
Somewhere along the path of early adulthood, it occurred to me that the Lord might call me to be a bishop someday. I thought I might enjoy it. Years passed. With time I began to feel that I wasn’t good enough to fill the calling. I felt that I wasn’t smart enough, inspired enough, or unselfish enough. I knew that I wasn’t equal to the calling.
And that is when God called me. When the stake president asked if I would accept the calling, I instinctively replied, “I can’t. I’m not good enough to be a bishop. But if God will act through me, I will accept the call.”
I felt like Paul, “And [the Lord] said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. . . . for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
2. There are many ways to serve.
I felt uncomfortable as a new bishop. I felt that I lacked the wisdom and dignity to fill the calling. I thought of sagacious bishops who had blessed my life. I wasn’t like them.
I grieved for weeks. Finally it occurred to me that I could not be Bishop Bangerter or Bishop Smoot. But I could be Bishop Goddard.
If Brigham Young had tried to be just like Joseph Smith, he would have failed. But he succeeded famously at being Brigham Young. Each had different gifts. Each leader can bless the Church in the way God has designed.
3. God speaks.
Once during an interview I asked a young bride in our ward how she was getting along with her Heavenly Father. This stirred some sober reflections for her. She told me that, as a missionary, she felt that she had not always done her best. She felt that she was under a cloud of disappointment from Father.
This was one of those times when I was a spectator at God’s inspiration. My instinctive reaction was to argue with her perception. Instead I found myself asking her to reflect with me. I invited her to relax and sense which of three options accurately represented God’s attitude toward her.
- He is frustrated with you. You wasted your time and His. He is annoyed with you.
- He is mildly disappointed. He had hoped you would do better. If you learn and improve, you can return to His good graces.
- He loves you and is profoundly grateful that, in spite of family tragedies and challenges, you chose to serve. He is grateful that you loved His children, taught them, and bore your testimony to them. He rejoices in your desire to be a good saint.
She did not need to say anything. The Spirit testified decisively to both of us that the last option was the right one. This was one of many times when just the right thing got said. And I knew it didn’t come from me.
4. God expects us to use what He has already given us.
There were amazing interviews where heaven clearly spoke. There were ordinary interviews in which I waited for heaven to speak but nothing earthshaking came. For a long time I wondered if I was unworthy of guidance. I eventually came to understand that heaven expects us to use the light already granted to us. In many cases we already have the truth we need. God expects us to use it.
5. He aims to redeem.
I remember counseling various ward members who had made messes of their lives. Some appeared to be beyond repair. Yet God consistently offered specific, loving, and encouraging counsel. I was often amazed. Sometimes, after interviews with troubled souls, I knelt alone in the office and wept with wonder and joy.
God really loves His children! And He is willing to move heaven and earth to save them. That truth should be obvious. It should be the central reality in our souls. Yet it is often obscured by trivia.
Because of loving interviews with troubled saints, I finally came to accept that God loved me. It was a revelation. I don’t deserve His love—but I am everlastingly grateful that “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds my recurring wrongs.”
6. He tends His sheep with love and care.
During the course of my term as bishop, several people died and one family quit the Church. In most of the cases, the departures were entirely unexpected. Yet not one of those departures happened without the bishopric making a visit to the person within a few days prior to the event.
I had a very clear sense that God inspired His messengers to be at the crossroads. I stood in awe.
Our bishopric had a custom of visiting members of the ward one night each week. Before we went visiting, we knelt in the bishop’s office and prayed for guidance. One week we felt a clear impression to visit a single adult. We went to her apartment but found no one there.
We might have been tempted to question the inspiration that sent us there that evening. Instead we wrote a note and left it on her door. Later that evening she called me at home and expressed heartfelt appreciation for a needed message from God. Once again I was filled with awe for Heaven’s tender mercies over all His children.
7. Earmarks of truth.
I learned during the course of service that the natural mind is an enemy to truth. Very often our logic leads us only to trivial and faulty wisdom. In contrast, the trademark of God’s great truths was that they are things we never supposed. He regularly surprises us with insight and goodness far beyond our expectation. I came to recognize that as an earmark of truth.
8. We affect people more than we know.
I felt impressed to leave home a little early before some of my weeknight meetings and stop at the home of a middle-aged couple who were not participating in church activities. I hated to pester or bother them. I felt apologetic. But I visited as God directed me to. On those visits I asked how they were and expressed love and appreciation. It made a difference. This small act built a bridge between them and God.
9. Little things can be big dividers.
The closest thing to a ward revolt came when a ward council cast a tie vote on the menu for a ward social. When continued discussion did not break the logjam, I made a tie-breaking vote. A prominent member of the ward was indignant. “That is not what you eat at ward socials!” He shared his anger regularly and widely.
I realized that we’re all pretty fragile. Each of us has strongly held views that may cause us to revolt when they are threatened.
In another case, one prominent family quit coming to our ward because of several of my faults—including my unwillingness to assign the mother to visit teach a woman who, unknown to her, had asked that I not assign that woman to visit teach her.
Little things upset us. And, unfortunately, bishops are still human. I had (and still have) faults, shortcomings, blind spots, and quirks both small and large. Perhaps God would like us to exercise charity—even toward our leaders.
10. Imperfect offerings can be acceptable.
Some years after my first service as a bishop in Utah, I was called as a branch president in Alabama. I served for several years, but my new career was demanding and we had teenagers in our family. I did not dedicate as many hours to the calling as I had as a young bishop.
For months after my release I felt a painful sense that I had disappointed God. One day while riding with an LDS friend and reflecting on my nagging feeling, I speculated that maybe the Lord had needed something different from me in that different place and time. Maybe my offering, though smaller in hours, was still acceptable to God.
Whack! The Spirit testified powerfully and unexpectedly that that was true. I am grateful that God had factored in the demands of our life in Alabama when He extended that call. I am glad that God can sanctify our imperfect offerings.
11. God chooses—and doesn’t choose—for reasons that often are not clear to us.
When Nancy and I left BYU and settled into teaching school in rural Utah, our first bishop was a modest, gentle man who was a meat-cutter by profession. After a string of professors and professionals as bishops at BYU, I was judgmental. Could Bishop Brown really be a bishop?
I had much to learn. Over the course of years, Don Brown was one of the finest bishops I have ever known. God can call welders, contractors, and car salesmen. God will call for reasons we may never know.
He will also choose not to call some who seem worthy. My dear father served in many roles in his life, but never as a bishop. Yet he is one of the finest and wisest men I know. Did God have different, more appropriate experiences in Dad’s personal curriculum? I don’t know. But I do know that it is unwise to measure any saint by his or her callings.
President J. Reuben Clark taught us all when he observed: “In the service of the Lord, it is not where you serve but how. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one takes the place to which one is duly called, which place one neither seeks nor declines” (Conference Report, Apr. 1951, 154).
12. The mantle is real.
When we are released the mantle of the calling is noticeably absent. We are entitled to inspiration in all of our callings, but the keys that come with the calling of a bishop are a special privilege to hold. They are a big responsibility but also a great gift. No wonder bishops say this is the best job in the Church.
No one should campaign for the office of bishop—or any other office in the Church. No one should resist the call. And we should not talk as if serving as the father of a ward is a desolating scourge. It is a sacred opportunity to be a messenger for the God of heaven.
Of course, the joy is not restricted to those with leadership callings. As Elder Robert L. Simpson testified: “There are those who associate high calling in the Church with guaranteed rights to the blessings of heaven, but I wish to declare without reservation that the ultimate judgment for every man will be on the simplest of terms, and most certainly on what each has done to bless other people in a quiet, unassuming way” (“Go, and Do Thou Likewise,” Ensign, July 1973, 22).
May we all serve gladly. And may we appreciate those who serve us as our bishops.
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