Does it matter who your bishop is?
In my experience, many types of people can be good bishops. But they are not identical. They bring their personalities and experience with them to the calling and no ‘mantle of priesthood authority’ completely erases that. When Brother X is released as the bishop and Brother Y is called, things change.
With that in mind, I’ve been considering the ways in which our expectations about who will serve in leadership callings creates blind-spots for the church as a whole. If only a particular, narrow type of individual is considered for such callings, then our leaders will generally bring only a narrow perspective to their work. Religious creativity is likely to be sacrificed to conformity.
Consider for a moment who is NOT likely to be called as your next bishop:
1. Anyone who has, in the past, shown outward signs of a ‘crisis of faith,’ even if they’ve worked through that crisis and continue to be an active, engaged member of the ward.
2. Anyone whose wife is not a member, is inactive, or has left the church.
3. Anyone who is not married. This would include any homosexual members who have chosen to follow the law of chastity by adopting a life of celibacy.
4. Anyone who is not a cisgender male.
What do these folks have in common? Other than not fitting our model of what we expect a priesthood leader to be, they also all bring experience that might make them wonderful pastoral caregivers. They just might, by their experience, have some insight into helping ward members who are struggling – with their faith, with their families, with their status in the church. In other words, they might be exactly the kind of leaders we need right now.
In 1950, a 22-year old Tommy Monson was called to be the bishop of his ward. There were over 1,000 members, including the famed 85 widows he began visiting regularly. Think about that for a moment. How many men which we would traditionally think of as being suited for the calling of bishop must there have been in that ward? But instead of calling one of them, Thomas S. Monson was given the opportunity to bring his own perspective to bear on the ward. That meant he also had the chance to develop the leadership qualities and experience that he would bring with him in other capacities, including as a mission president, apostle, councilor in the First Presidency, and now President of the Church. As an institution, we have benefited enormously from the chance that some stake president was willing to take on a 22-year old whose military service had kept him from serving a full-time mission.
Sixty-five years later, the Church is much more diverse and its members face new challenges. A young, white, lifelong member is not a radical break from who we usually call as a bishop. (Neither, by the way, is another Western European apostle.)
What if, instead, we called people who paired the requisite qualifications with a new set of life experiences? People who knew what is was like to reconfigure a family when a spouse left the church. People who knew what it is like to struggle with their own membership. Who knew firsthand the toll that homosexuality and celibacy can take on an individual. As far as I can tell, it would require no new revelation to open the way for such individuals to be called as leaders. But it would take some creativity and willingness to break the mold by stake presidents and others.
What might be the result of calling such men (and, eventually, women) to leadership positions? I expect it would bring a new burst of pastoral creativity. Instead of saying that we ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’ or responding to concerns about belonging by emphasizing our inability to change doctrine, I suspect that new kinds of leaders would find new ways to strengthen those who struggle.
Imagine what it would do for someone who was struggling with their testimony if a bishop could say, “I remember when I was thinking about leaving the church. That was a really difficult time in my life. Can I share with you some things that helped me…” Or what it could do for a gay teenager to see older gay role models accepted into leadership. Or what insight a bishop whose spouse had left the Church might be able to share in counseling with those who faced struggles in their own marriages.
“For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.
“To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby…
“And again, to some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know the differences of administration, as it will be pleasing unto the same Lord, according as the Lord will, suiting his mercies according to the conditions of the children of men.
“And again, it is given by the Holy Ghost to some to know the diversities of operations, whether they be of God, that the manifestations of the Spirit may be given to every man to profit withal…
“And to others it is given to have faith to heal.
“And again, to some is given the working of miracles” (D&C 46:11-12, 15-16, 20-21).
Perhaps what we need is to stop assuming that every bishop requires the spiritual gifts of administration and operation and realize that our wards also need plenty of healing and miracles.