Somehow, I ended up watching the first few episodes of House over the last few days. The good doctor presents the tricky challenge many managers face from time to time: a supremely competent, possibly brilliant, employee who is grouchy and abrasive and often downright insulting to colleagues, clients, and customers. It’s a common device in television dramas, but it’s a real life thing, too. And here’s the rub: Competence is in such short supply in many fields that managers and coworkers will put up with a lot to keep a superstar happy and productive. Many fields, but not all. So let’s have a short discussion about competence in the Church. Where is it needed and where is it fairly optional? What does competence even mean in particular church callings?
Your Friendly Bishop. What does competence mean for a bishop? Relevant skills might include running a productive meeting, conducting an effective interview, providing meaningful pastoral counseling, exercising good judgment, being able to make right decisions, and knowledge of LDS doctrine and history. On the other hand, in practice these skills are more or less optional. Some bishops know almost nothing about LDS history and entertain some odd notions about LDS doctrine. Some bishops hold meandering meetings that don’t accomplish much. Some bishops are downright dangerous when it comes to pastoral counseling. Most bishops have fairly good judgment.
Strangely (and this is where the discussion gets interesting) I’m not sure any of those skills are particularly relevant to how bishops are selected. I think the primary requirements are unquestionable loyalty to the Church and a good income. Neither of those, to be blunt about it, are really skills. Either you’ve got loyalty and money, or you don’t. So, oddly, competence is not really relevant to the selection or performance of bishops. Some are better than others, but I’m not sure sending the bad ones to a one-week intensive “bishop’s training workshop” would make them better. Largely because any such workshop run by the Church would not focus on the skills I listed in the first paragraph, but on other things.
Proselyting Missionaries. What does competence mean for a missionary? Relevant skills might include familiarity with the Bible and LDS scriptures, a solid knowledge of LDS doctrine and history (which is, after all, what they are supposed to be teaching), some teaching and listening skills, and the ability to function as part of a team of two or three missionaries. Maybe some proficiency learning a language. Given the young age of LDS missionaries, you could scale back your expectations, but these still seem like relevant skills.
But again, it’s not like prospective missionaries have to take a test to get in. Pretty much no one willing to serve, in adequate health, and meeting LDS worthiness standards is turned away. Money is not an issue, as extended family or generous ward members often willingly kick in the few hundred bucks a month to support a young missionary. It’s nice if they have a testimony, but they are encouraged to go even if they don’t have much conviction, as long as they are willing to serve. A willingness to work hard is something like a skill and is certainly relevant to “being a good missionary.” That might be as close to competence as we’ll get for missionaries. But hard work is valued in many fields, and we don’t have much problem distinguishing between hard work and competence. There are diligent but mediocre workers. There are brilliant, unmotivated workers. So again, there is this odd result that competence doesn’t seem to have much connection to missionaries.
A quick disclaimer: I’m not trying to give bishops or missionaries a hard time. I’m just puzzling over this odd result. Administrators and staff put up with Dr. House because he was marvelously competent. Other doctors are good or average or even below average, but House was brilliant so everyone put up with him. Why doesn’t competence have much relevance for all the stuff that’s done in church? Or maybe that’s a feature, not a bug. Maybe LDS church is something you can succeed at even if you lack any relevant skill or competence. Church is not the place for elitist achievements, just for serving responsibly when called and enduring to the end. Okay, one last try.
Apostles. What does competence mean for an apostle? I suppose the same skills noted above for bishops apply to apostles, but in rather more elevated terms. But I’m not sure any of those skills are part of the hiring process. Instead of loyalty and a good income, the practical requirements (the boxes that must be checked to be a candidate) are super loyalty and quite a lot of money. And that’s not unreasonable: every institution wants senior leaders who are very dedicated to the success of the institution, and since you are serving full-time you need to have enough personal resources that you can focus on the work rather than on how to pay college tuition for the youngest kid, etc.
Compare the job of apostles running the Church with other executive positions: CEO, head coach, president of a university, governor of a state. Some of these succeed marvelously, others get by, some fail rather miserably and get replaced. There is definitely some relevant competence that goes into leading a corporation, running a professinal team, directing a university, or governing a state. Bad coaches get fired. Bad governors can get recalled. But I’m having a hard time nailing down what a good apostle or bad apostle would be. Apart from having an affair with a secretary or neighbor, it’s hard to see how an apostle could actually fail.
Conclusion. It’s not like competence is completely irrelevant to LDS church life and governance. I’m sure you can point to a person you know and say, “Brother X was a great Young Mens President” or “Sister Y was an outstanding Relief Society President.” At upper levels, when competence in particular fields is required (building design, accounting, law) experts can be hired. It’s just the odd fact that in other similar large hierarchical organizations, competence is prized and often absolutely necessary for the organization to succeed or even continue as a going enterprise. But somehow it doesn’t seem that necessary at all for the LDS Church. Or maybe for any church? I don’t have a bottom line on this one. It’s just a puzzling topic.
Let me throw out a contrary observation or two. The LDS Helping Hands initiative is quite effective and does good work. The Church is admirably well organized for humanitarian aid and emergency supplies. The Seminary system has some flaws and we talk about those from time to time, but most other church look with envy on how involved LDS youth are in the Church and at LDS youth trekking off to early morning seminary five days a week and at how successful the LDS Church is at retaining youth. So the Church does do some things very well. And we have great and spacious parking lots. But again, these seem like system or organization traits. Competence seems to reside or be lacking in individuals. So the puzzle remains.