Decades ago, I was in charge of a quality department in a call center. Ensuring that all our quality monitors evaluated the calls the same way was a neverending quest. While some aspects of a customer service interaction are objective (did you use the greeting, use the customer’s name, give accurate information), other aspects are a little more subjective (was your tone friendly, did you fully solve the problem, did you prevent future calls on this issue). Every week, the leadership team would score five calls together, discussing and coming to consensus on a score for each. Then, all team members had to independently score these calls. Those with a pattern of outlier scores would receive coaching. There were also “all monitor” sessions to review and discuss calls with team members to give them a chance to work through their own thought process. The goal was that most of our call evaluations would be consistent and accurate.
We found that some call monitors were just more severe than others while others were too lax. Some of them made innocent mistakes about product knowledge, incorrectly believing a call to be wrong when they were actually the wrong ones. A few even had prejudices against specific employees or accents. We would even find an occasional call monitor who wasn’t doing her or his job at all, instead just randomly marking the form with average scores, hoping not to get caught.
When we talk about “leader roulette” at Church, it’s usually a commentary on the inconsistency from bishop to bishop (and other leaders, too, but bishops are the most common). There are many “subjective” areas that reveal inconsistencies:
- Mask instructions
- Political views leaking into the ward
- Worthiness interviews
- Disciplinary actions
- Norms around communication or bishops requesting meetings
- Oversight of ward budget
- How council meetings are run
- LGBT issues
- Dress conformity expectations
These differences can emerge even when the handbook or an official letter from the First Presidency has been sent out with instructions. There are simply a lot of bishops out there. If there are 32,000 wards and branches, that’s 32,000 individual leaders with heads full of opinions that they may not know are one-offs. It’s even more than that, though, because bishops are rotated out every 5 years or so, meaning we start all over again with a “green” new leader who hasn’t yet gained the wisdom (or jadedness) that sometimes accompanies experience.
I observed as a missionary with missionary friends that mission presidents assigned to a specific mission often had a pattern. A hard-core president would be replaced with an old softy, and vice-versa. By switching things up this way, the average experience might be sort of normal, but in reality, the extremes experienced could be pretty extreme! Things that could get you a tearful hug of support from one could get you sent home by the other.
At BYU, back in the mid-80s when I attended, sometimes students who wanted to confess something to a bishop would “vet” bishops by comparing notes with other students. Nobody wanted to end up with academic consequences (that might also carry financial and social consequences) on top of spiritual ones just because they took confessing their sins to a bishop seriously. If their assigned bishop was a known or suspected hard-ass, they could wait that bishop out or move to an apartment complex that might have a better option. Now that annual ecclesiastical endorsements are required, this type of “shopping” is no longer an option. Instead, one’s best option is to lie your way through the endorsement if your bishop is a bad bet.
All of this is, of course, an unforced error. If we didn’t make “judge in Israel” the focus for bishops and instead focused on pastoral care, having a bishop who was judgmental and punitive would matter less. There would still be large differences in experience from one bishop to another, but that would carry fewer personal consequences. With a lay clergy and wards run by callings, there would have to be either a lowering of standards to hold callings (literally like there used to be in my lifetime before it was suddenly “required” that one have an active temple recommend for every calling) accompanied with a lot more trust in the members (and less puffing up of bishops’ ability to discern good from bad in their congregations, for which I suspect we all have numerous counter-examples).
Within the Church hierarchy, though, there is little ability to deal with a bishop who is rogue, punitive, or holds extreme views. They are appointed by Stake Presidents who generally support their appointees. Escalating concerns through the priesthood hierarchy usually results in either being ignored or your complaint being sent directly back to the ones about whom you are complaining–not ideal.
There is also a desired plausible deniability when it comes to the power bishops hold in the Church. Bishops may be rogue, but are supposed to represent the local ward’s flavor of rogueness in some way. This is similar to the upholding of states’ rights for conservatives. Rather than taking stands that might be unpopular if applied more generally, conservatives want to give state level leaders the right to do the more extreme things they wish they could do everywhere (e.g. suppression of voting rights, barring legal access to abortion, expanding gun rights). Bishops allow the Church to see how different social norms play out, whether this is intentional or a byproduct. While your Mormon experience may feel mostly uniform, no matter where you attend, these differences in leadership style can alter that experience pretty dramatically for the locals.
- What evidence have you seen of bishop inconsistency? What effects did those differences have on you or other members?
- How would you recommend someone navigate these big differences from bishop to bishop?
- If you ran the Church, how would you improve calibration so that bishops were more consistent or would you figure local variation doesn’t matter and/or matches local sentiment?
My recommendation for navigating anything with a bishop is to first recover one’s personal moral authority in full from the church. Look inward for that authority figure and voice. Then any meeting with a bishop is easy, because you control that relationship and conversation. I recently accepted a calling that I don’t want at all (I accepted in the interest of marital harmony…) and b fore accepting set some boundaries on what I will and will not do in the calling. The bishop was taken aback but took a little time to think about it, then sent me a recap of what he understood my boundaries to be and said he could work with that. This is indicative of two things: most wards, even big ones, are getting desperate for people who will accept certain callings, and retaining your personal authority can work in the church. You just need to make it work.
My biggest concern about “rogue” Bishops is the lack of mechanism for correction if they mess up in ways that hurt ward members. To use an example I have observed and has been discussed repeatedly here, a bishop may advise abuse victims to stay with and “forgive” an abuser. He may cover up abuse and may discipline victims. There is no mechanism for a ward member to get this corrected. You can complain to the stake president or higher, but I have never, ever, seen the church fail to side with the Bishop no matter how egregious the poor judgment or how much it harms the ward members. The only thing the church responds to are legal responses and (maybe) severe public relations problems. It seem like upholding the authority of the Bishop is the highest value. This is why I think abuse should never be reported to Bishops until civil authorities are already involved.
Hawk Girl is absolutely correct that there is too much leader-worship when it comes to bishops. It is God that should be praised, not man.
Unfortunately, this leader-worship allows far too many of the current generation of bishops to have outsized egos. They believe that they are there to “run” a ward and the ward council is there to “execute the bishop’s orders.”
This is what leads to bishop roulette—untrained leaders who are praised for doing whatever they want. This leads to ignoring the handbook and doing things their own way.
This should not be. Bishops should not be held out to be some sort of TikTok stars. They should be trained that their first duty is to be humble, and the rest will follow.
I can’t say I’ve had any “bad” bishops over the years. Some have been really good ministers. Others were good administrators. Some were “by the book”. Others were more “by the spirit” with everything. Some were highly involved in the ward members lives . Others preserved a clear boundary between their calling and their personal and family life.
A “perfect” bishop would dynamically balance these opposing demands and expectations, but as humans we all tend to rely on approaches we are most comfortable with. The best bishops recognize their personal shortcomings and humbly rely on the council, advise and labor of others in the ward to help the ward thrive.
One of my relatives went in for a TR. It was denied because, after her marriage, she kept her family name. A decision her husband was perfectly comfortable with. Luckily, she found an alternative interviewer.
Our bishop sent out an email supporting the FP3’s vaccine and mask admonitions. A few hours later he sent out a revised watered down version. He implied that the new email was the result of concerns over (objections to) the first one.
Being an ecclesiastic, judge, and counselor is an almost impossible job. Particularly when, the person receives little training. And I don’t like the Church’s policy of confessing to the Bishop. This is best handled between the individual and God.
I have a couple of thoughts on your last question. The Church could periodically send the bishops quizzes on policy questions and ask them what they would do in particular scenarios. (“Jane and John made out for 20 minutes. How does this affect Jane’s pending mission call?”) Of course, my example scenario reveals the weakness of the idea, as so many things aren’t spelled out in the Handbook. I don’t know the Handbook super well, but I suspect that the questions that have a definitive answer there are probably the least interesting or important ones (“How often should meeting X be held? Quarterly, monthly, or weekly?”)
So maybe a better solution would be to follow the example of hawkgrrrl’s company with the call monitors and have bishops meet and at least reach a consensus. But of course such a meeting could only include a fraction of the 32,000 bishops. And it would really only get at reliability (does everyone agree on the church discipline for X) and not validity (is that church discipline the best course of action). Validity is even more complicated because there’s a question of whether the GAs would agree, but also whether God would agree. It seems like this could run into questions like what I might call bishop nullification, where the Handbook (or the bishops’ consensus) says you should do one thing, but that’s just an awful or ridiculous thing, so a humane bishop doesn’t do it.
I also wonder about borrowing another idea from quality control in retail stores: secret shoppers. What if we had people secret shop our wards periodically to check how bishops would respond to standardized issues. This is of course complicated because in a retail setting, you’re in and out and there’s no history with the store or employees required, whereas interactions in wards unfold over a period of years. A secret ward shopper would have to (pretend to?) move in and interact with other ward members for at least some months, I would think, for their testing of bishops’ responses to be at all reliable. I guess it would be more like the movie trope of the young-looking cop sent undercover at a high school to bust them for drugs or whatever than like secret shopping. In any case, I think the Church could get really interesting data with a program like this, and maybe catch some of the most rogue bishops and release them. I suspect the GAs wouldn’t want to do something like this, though, because of the amount of deception involved.
Most realistically, because it doesn’t require the participation of the Church, would be an expanded version of what you observed at BYU with ward shopping. Some enterprising people could set up a rate my bishop site that’s modeled after rate my professor. Reviewers could share all kinds of useful information about bishops that might aid people looking to confess their sins to a kind rather than an authoritarian person, as well as people trying to decide what ward to move into. This wouldn’t solve bishop roulette, of course, but it would at least put more information in the hands of people affected by it.
2004 extended family member dealt with harshly by BYU bishop and his mom encouraged him to work through it with home ward bishop hoping for more leniency – just an example of indirectly acknowledging a broken system
2008 Bishop in ward council trying to debunk global warming
2010 friend rejecting Bishop’s counsel to not give the Aaronic Priesthood to her autistic son. Family successfully appealed to Stake President
2021 current Bishop telling the congregation that we will see the Second Coming in our lifetimes
RH said, “ One of my relatives went in for a TR. It was denied because, after her marriage, she kept her family name.”
Let me be the first to say: that is insane.
Many members are of the belief that the Church is perfect but its members (and leaders) are not. I used to repeat that mantra. But my experience is far different.
In my opinion, based on my personal experience, it’s the members and local leaders who are closer to perfection and it’s the Church, the institution and Brethren, who are far from perfect. I’ve been fortunate to have excellent bishops my entire life. Some better than others obviously but there’s not a single one who I’d really complain about (and I’m in my 50’s!). The same goes for most other local leaders with whom I’ve corresponded. I admire the sincerity of the average member to do what is right and I feel a lot of gratitude for the hours of sacrifice that our local leaders endured to serve in the Church (often with young families left at home). My experience with LDS members and local leaders is that they are a bunch of good people trying to do their best based on what they know (there are exceptions of course).
On the other hand, I don’t have a lot of respect for Church HQ. The General Authorities of the Church (70s and Q15) know what they are doing. They know about the wealth of the Church. They know about the troublesome Church history. They know they are part of a large money-making corporation. And they have a self-interest in preserving the status quo. Of course, there are exceptions to this description too. But I would put my trust in an average bishop ahead of the average 70.
I don’t want to be dismissive of those of you who have had bad experiences with local leaders including bishops. I’ve heard terrible stories. I’m simply pointing out that the real source of roulette in this equation are the guys at the top, not your average dentist-bishop who is just following orders and doing his best.
A number of years ago my devout father’s bishop denied renewing his temple recommend so that he could attend the sealing/marriage of one of his grandchildren on the basis that he had some Alzheimer’s. I think their Stk President didn’t agree with their Bishop’s denial.
Sometime around 2000 we had a letter-of-the law bishop who wouldn’t let women say the opening prayer in Sacrament meeting.
On the other end of the spectrum, we had a Bishop who wouldn’t necessarily follow the dictates of Stk leaders, saying, he didn’t think what the stake wanted to do would work for our ward. (He ended up serving as the bishop for 8 yrs)
One of the worst example of leadership was during the Prop 8 campaign when Stake leaders and our Bishop decided to teach “ Six Consequences if Prop 8 Happens” during the third hour of church to every ward. When we tried to bring to their attention the problems/ misstatements with the document they didn’t do anything, and continued to hand it out.
That was pretty much the last straw for my husband’s involvement with the church—who was a counselor in the bishopric at the time.
I’m not sure if you can really remove calibration problems, so instead, I’d propose doing something to significantly mitigate potential for abuse instead:
Eliminate worthiness interviews.
Interesting discussion. I can’t say that I’ve ever had a bishop who was deliberately abusive or harmful (though I don’t doubt they exist). But the “bad” bishops I had were generally ignorant, lacked competence (while being overconfident), out of their depth, or just plain overwhelmed, so I usually have pity for them rather than disdain. My current bishop, for example, is a textbook case of the Dunning-Krueger effect. Fortunately, I think he’s aware that he ultimately doesn’t have any real power over anyone, so he doesn’t try too hard to push it. But the other side of that coin is that he is pretty much an impotent do-nothing leader, and he is unwilling to innovate or try new things, so the ward is spiritually stagnating. Previously, I had a bishop who tried to play armchair therapist (while lacking any qualifications to do so), but I learned to take his unsolicited advice with a large grain of salt.
From my point of view, the problem is not so much inconsistency as it is too much consistency. The men that get chosen to be bishops and other leadership positions, at least where I live, tend to fit a very narrow profile, which includes background (all are RMs who also attended the BYUs), career path (white collar, usually boring), personality (somewhere between dull and milquetoast), race (white), politics (conservative), and in some cases come from certain local legacy families. They’ve all followed the checklist to the T, and have demonstrated that they will do whatever they are told from above and not try to upset the status quo. Lately, a fair number of them have been BYUI graduates in their late 20s to early 30s, and seem incapable of critical thinking or empathy (perhaps due to lack of life experience). Or maybe they are the only ones dumb enough to say yes to such a thankless, time-consuming, soul-sucking unpaid job. I wish we could break away from this pattern and call somebody interesting for once.
Better yet, we could solve all of these problems and more by calling women to be bishops.
I’ll add: I have not had nightmare leaders. But boy, I have heard some really terrible, gross stories from friends & family (women) particularly in the context of (1) pre-marital temple recommend interviews, and (2) confessing sexual transgressions (many of which in hindsight were probably more like sexual assaults at worst and non-consensual, innocent and confusing sexual encounters at best). Some of those bishops were straight up sexual predators asking utterly inappropriate and bizarre questions about bodies and sexual activity and we MUST disabuse people of the notion that if leaders are called of God they are somehow “safe”.
Elisa, same. I haven’t had personally bad experiences with bishops, but I’ve heard the same thing you have. Over and over, bishops side with abusers over abused and with rapists over victims. They clearly need better training, or better yet, as you suggested, the worthiness interviews need to be dropped entirely.
I’ve neglected another egregious mistake made by leadership that affected my family.
My son attended a highly rated university outside of Utah. The first semester he met a young lady— not Mormon—and started dating her. He had been attending the LDS institute next to the campus and invited her to a couple of activities. Big mistake . One example, the leader in charge of the ice cream social made the point of telling my son in front of her that they weren’t going to pay for her ice cream (which my son wasn’t necessarily expecting).
The final straw was when a stake leader scheduled a meeting with my son and told him he needed to break up with her and go on a mission.
Gladly my son didn’t listen and we now have one of the sweetest and amazing daughters-in- law one could hope for.
And no. He no longer has anything to do with the church.
“ the problem is not so much inconsistency as it is too much consistency. The men that get chosen to be bishops and other leadership positions, at least where I live, tend to fit a very narrow profile, which includes background”
Many years ago when I served in a Stake High Council, a case came up in the High Council to review an excommunication of a sister by her bishop. The Stake Presidency and the High Councilors concluded that the bishop had erred in his judgement, but the Stake President decided not to reverse the excommunication fearing that is would undermine the authority of the bishop. The excommunication stood.
That’s just horrible CM. Once again, the “ good ole boys club” acted to protect their own.
This is a serious topic. hawkgrrrl and in my opinion it cannot be talked about enough throughout the church. Bishops play a roll that is so consequential to each member’s quality of life and experience within the church that the subject needs more light. I have always been struck by the lack of dialogue at all levels of the church about this calling upon which so much hinges. For some odd reason, I have served with six bishops in five wards and four stakes. Here are some of my thoughts and observations based in part on my direct experiences.
*Elisa — Three cheers to dumping worthiness interviews. Based on my observations, no real good comes from traditional worthiness interviews. When trust exists and the bishop is wise, wonderful, life changing experiences can be had when the bishop focuses on the member’s wellness, is gentle and non-judging. In my local setting, I have become an outspoken advocate of pastoral care. Being a pastor is a completely different model and I’m not sure we will ever turn that corner in our church. The “judge in Israel” legacy seems too strong. Making this change could be one of the most positive steps forward for the church if it were to happen. To be clear, I’m talking about two changes that would drive so much good: (1) Get rid of the worthiness interview, and (2) move to a pastoral model of ward leadership.
*I was also confused that we would ask newly called scoutmasters to take a week of vacation from their work to attend Wood Badge, the intensive training for Boy Scout leaders, and yet no codified training was offered or mandated for newly called bishops. Sure there were trainings on how to approval a welfare request, how to fill out a temple recommend interview and recommend for a living ordinance, and we were all encouraged to read the handbook of instructions so our youth wouldn’t be out riding ATV’s for an activity and kill themselves–these all seemed to be ad hoc trainings and dependent on how proactive the stake president was. But to my knowledge, no formal training exists for newly called bishops. No required and structured training on how to recognize mental health issues and what to do, and what kinds of questions to ask (about the yucky worthiness interviews) and not ask when talking to a member, particularly of the opposite sex. What horrified me the most was when one bishop with whom I served dismissed with a wave of his hand a concern a female member brought into his office about how her husband was treating her–horrifying in the sense there was potential abuse and he turned her away, and then he talked so openly with us about it as he shook his head. When I suggested he should call in the husband, he was dismissive, “That’s not my place.” (This was in 2003 and was as shocking then as it would be today.) So…we can start with training and it should include at a minimum but not limited to these topics: how to recognize mental health issues; the difference between spiritual counseling and mental health / relationship counseling (as in bishops should not attempt); sexual assault, relationship violence; substance abuse and addiction; church history; counseling LGBTQ members; proper interactions with members of the opposite sex and children; and the list goes on. A concession: I think as a church we are getting better in some of these areas and I know literature exists, but I don’t think it is in the form of mandatory training. And I’m sure what I think the training should be would be different than how the church would write it and I think that is a problem too. Codified church counseling to queer members may not be helpful to our LGBTQ members. I have to add that personal footnote.
*The way bishops and stake presidents are called should be examined. Way too often you end up with one big homophily and that causes problems. When everyone looks and thinks the same, segments of the ward are overlooked and under utilized, and therefore harmed. And when that happens it is a bishopric failing. I witnessed the STP problem in wards where the bishop suffered from religious culture myopia. STP = Same Ten People, meaning the same ten people are always called to the plumb positions with a ward. I watched for over a decade in one ward where the young women’s organization was musical chairs. The same 10 just revolved in those callings over a 10 year period and with three different presidencies. Why? The bishop was stuck in a homophily and unable to recognize it. So many women in the ward mentioned to me how sad they were to realize those were callings they would never have because they weren’t on the ‘in.’ And the young women suffered as well. Homophilies exist at the stake level as well unless the stake president makes a conscious effort to build a presidency and high council with sharply diverging view points and whose members come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Sadly, I have not seen this be the case but in one stake in which I served. Typically the high council and bishops come from a small circle of individuals who all know each other out of convenience and have served together in the past and all think alike. We overlook an extraordinary amount of talent because of homophily effects, and worse, we marginalize members who are not at the mean. At best, about 50%-60% of any ward’s members are really understood and fully utilized as a result.
*The last thought I’ll share is the way “the spirit” is used as the justification for bad judgment and bad decision-making. I once heard a member of the twelve in a leadership meeting say very pointedly that discernment hinges on knowledge. He went on to emphasize that without knowledge there can’t be good discernment, and he expanded with examples that included how much a bishopric member should know about an individual member before extending a calling, including asking the member where they see themselves making an impact. I have witness bishops shortcut and make hasty decisions and then when things fell apart blame God because that is what “the spirit” prompted him to do. Nonsense. We need more bishops who demonstrate their wisdom and breadth of knowledge and sound judgment before they are called.
*Oh, and PS: We need women to be making big ward decisions with authority equal to men. Make the RS Pres the bishop’s equal. She or the YW’s president should meet with young women, not the bishop. An even better step, give women the priesthood and call those qualified to lead wards. That would help to solve some of the bad bishop problems we have as well.
CM: That sounds like the definition of fragile masculinity. If there are eternal consequences, they will belong to that SP. So often, it’s women who are thrown away like garbage in the name of upholding a man’s ego.
Nearly all the “bad bishop” stories I know of are quite similar. A college roommate was disciplined for chastity when she reported incest. She was depressed, suicidal, and what she called promiscuous, but I would call extremely passive about other’s sexual actions toward her and depressed (most survivors of incest that I know have sexual issues because they feel that nothing that happens to them matters). She was also not believed, told to beg her father’s forgiveness, and he suffered no consequences from the Church whatsoever. She ultimately cut ties with her family. I’m not sure her current status with the Church, but at the time she was an active returned missionary with no plans of leaving. She quit talking to the bishop and started talking to a therapist, a much better move.
Another friend’s ex enlisted the bishop and his wife in a smear campaign against her, including providing false witness in court against her when they barely knew her. The ex husband had convinced them that he was a “good priesthood holder,” and therefore of more importance to the Church than she was. Of course, he omitted the fact that he was abusive and cheated on her. He instead painted her as “crazy,” which was a complete lie to cover his own misdeeds. She still believes in the Church but will never set foot inside a church building again.
I know a number of people who married someone who was gay but the gay spouse was told by their bishop that heterosexual marriage would solve everything. These marriages all ended in divorce, custody battles, heartache, and then worse when the 2015 policy further tried to tear them apart over whether their joint custody children could even be baptized. That’s a problem the Church created and then punished the people whose lives they toyed with and destroyed.
I know good bishops who nevertheless did human things like gave bad advice, gossiped about things that were secret, didn’t know handbook policy, treated gay people with contempt or a lack of understanding, and myriad other errors. All human interactions include these types of interpersonal harms, but it seems worse when it comes from a bishop, particularly one enamored with the authority of his office.
Years ago in the then-RLDS Church, congregations were led by a presiding elder. While not as autocratic sounding as “judge in Israel,” the PE often tended toward “person in charge” as to the way things were run. There weee exceptions, of course. Nowdays in CofC congregstions that person (man or woman) is the pastor. I served in that role from 2003 to 2007. Interestingly, my congregation for the last decade or so has had a “pastoral commission” in which 4-5 people share leadership responsibilities (administrative, youth ministries, spiritual development, community outreach, etc.). Expecting one person to be in charge of a congregation (in our case, 400 members on the rolls) is a bridge too far.
Several years ago we were fortunate enough to get permission to have our records moved from a toxic branch president to another branch. Shortly after that, one of his counselors asked how we did that because he wanted to be able to do the same. He was a weak man, and in effect turned over running the branch over to his wife.
I was not surprised to hear, shortly after we moved out of the area, that he and the Elders Quorum President got into a fist fight in the foyer before the meetings one Sunday.
We met a member of the branch several years later who apologized for treating us the way the branch president encouraged the branch to do.
The majority of my bishops have been somewhere on the spectrum of harmless to helpful. One notable exception threatened to send me on a mission if I didn’t get married by the time I graduated from BYU (and I was naive enough to believe God would hold it against me if I refused such mission “call”). In the subsequent TR interview for my temple marriage he made me promise not to go on birth control (a promise I promptly broke). I’ve learned to steer clear of the problematical ones. My current bishop is gold – a good administrator as well as a caring pastoral leader, someone with healthy boundaries. But he’s serving on borrowed time now (six years).
I’ve learned over the decades to take as little of the bishops’ time as possible, to serve well in my various callings, to go to a licensed therapist when I need counseling, to an attorney when I need legal help, to the world of religious scholars in better understanding scriptures. This serves three purposes: take a bit of the load off the bishop’s plate, to rely on professionals when professional help is needed, and to keep a low profile with the problem bishops. I guess our scripturally-based fear of priestcraft keeps the organization from moving in the direction of professionally-trained bishops, and there may be some good reasons for that, but the cost is our current state of leadership roulette. There needs be a better way.
Sometime it is not so easy for SPs to release a bishop. A former missionary companion of mine has been a Stake Pres. He told me that once he had a bishop that was not doing his job, so he submitted a name to SLC for a replacement. Because it had not been 5 years, he was told it was his responsibility to train the bishops in his Stake, and that he needed to just train the problem bishop.
As a follow-up to Chet’s 2021 Bishop example, in a closing prayer in sacrament meeting a few weeks ago, first counselor in bishopric’s son:
…and bless us during the coming year as we welcome the second coming of Jesus”.
Well alrighty then. 😳
In my experience, many bishops are well-meaning people, but incompetent leaders. They actually tend to be followers. I have served as a branch president, counselor in a branch esidemcy, EQP, WML, ward clerk, etc. so I have observed this first hand with several different leaders over the past two decades. Bishops want approval from the stake and the ward so they don’t want to rock the boat. They surround themselves by others who think the same way. This is the only model they have seen as they were groomed for this position. I think this is very insidious. It allows them to have harmony and consensus and conclude they are led by the Spirit. (Bishops aren’t just to blame…their counselors and ward council members frequently fail to provide actual counsel–I know how hard it is to be the only voice of reason week after week after week–and just nod in agreement.)
In the past year I told my stake president and bishop directly that their failure to seek out diverse perspectives was preventing them from making good decisions, stressing that they can’t find solutions to complex problems if you don’t even know what potential solutions at out there. The same 10 people will never give them what they need.
Pastoral care is critical. For me, the lack of it has been “shelf breaking.” I have been a TBM for my whole life. I put concerns aside and focused on the good and defended the church for years. The failure of church leaders to stand up for what is right regarding Trump, covid, etc. had been tremendously hurtful and divisive. I’ve realized that the church is not my home–these are not my people. When I have reached out to the bishop and stake president on desperation, they have listened, been dismissive, and chosen policies and approaches that have demonstrated they care most about the approval of their core ultraconservative constituency/members/followers. I can’t give more to an institution that cares for the 99 more than the one; that’s the opposite of what Christ taught.
As someone who has served as a Bishop – my experience is this: most are simply trying to do what they think is best in circumstances that they would not have chosen. Most Bishops were not thrilled with being called. Often Bishops are in no-win situations: someone will be upset with his actions, no matter what. I tried to err on the side of kindness and access to all church programs and blessings. I never told someone not to take the sacrament. I have signed TR’s for individuals who I knew had W.of W. issues Marital counseling with two parties that were both unreasonable and immature leave a Bishop just as sad and frustrated as the couple. On an interesting note: I once apologized to the ward from the pulpit for a decision that I thought was right, but was disastrous. My words were “I thought the spirit was guiding my actions, but I think I was wrong”. A member of the Stake Presidency was there and scolded me for placing doubt in the minds of our members that leaders make decisions not backed by the spirit. I was incredulous. He became the SP a few years later and released me within 4 months.
I would divide a response into 2 responses: (1) if you’re still raising children and (2) if the kids are gone or you don’t have kids at all. For category 1, roulette and calibration can be very real b/c of the often outsized influence (good and bad) a bishop can have with kids (see comments above). It can be challenging as a parent to counterbalance nutty and even dangerous advice or “counsel” from a bishop. Kids may not be able to separate a whacky bishop from the overall church and may give way too much weight to what a bishop says about life, gospel, career/college choices. If you’re in a ward or stake with bad leadership, then move. It’s what we did and the change was remarkable.
For the second category, the Bishop-or any other church leader-only has whatever influence you allow them to have. Their nutty advice can be easily ignored or enjoyed for amusement. Their influence is only proportional to the weight you give them or their counsel. (Same is true for a SP, EQP, RSP, GA, Q15 etc.).
I have my own share of bad experiences I could share, or bore people with. As I look back, however, bishops-like everyone else- are humans and complicated. My last bishop was a huge Trump fan with wild views (Holocaust was payback!) but did not mix politics with church and spent fast offering money on people in need like he was Bernie Sanders and gave a lot of his personal time to doing practical things for people in need (fix plumbing, repair cars etc.). I would not send any of my kids to him for career or spiritual advice and am more bemused by his general approach to life and the gospel, but his commitment to help people temporally-unconditionally- was really unmatched. To judge him only by his political views, wacky theories, and slavish devotion to whatever comes out of BYU and the Q15, would also miss his genuine Christian service to a lot of people.
I don’t have a good suggestion on where to draw the line between sustaining, opposing (if possible) and ignoring bad Church leaders. I only know it is much easier since my kids left the house and are on their own. Now, I really could not care less what my Bishop/SP think or say b/c my kids aren’t around to hear it. Of course, they have their own Bishops and SPs to deal with and will have to calibrate as they play their own game of roulette.
Looking to the future, my kids and their Mormon friends are far less interested and influenced by church leaders at any level. My kids are all east coast based Mormons who attended college on both coasts (CA and the Northeast). They’re much more Catholic in their approach to Church leaders, i.e. not afraid to challenge the premises for arguments/conclusions of leaders, willingness to disagree, and to simply move on when the cost-benefit calculus turns to the negative. To the extent they’re representative of the next generation, the ability of bad bishops/SPs to wreak as much havoc as they did in ours and others has been significantly weakened b/c kids just tune them out or walk away. NB: none of my kids attended any of the BYUs and don’t really swim in those lanes so I don’t have much experience with that precious subset of Mormons. I suspect those kids will have more Church influence going forward than my kids and their cohort. They’re the next crop of Bishops and SPs for all of us to enjoy.
@cam, I think most people here recognize that. My point on eliminating worthiness interviews for example is that neither the bishop nor the interviewees should be put into those positions in the first place. Eliminating them is better / protective for both sides of the desk.
I think many of the suggestions re training etc are to that end as well – to help both bishops and the people they serve, recognizing bishops are human and doing the best they can and it’s not reasonable to put them in the situations we put them in with no resources or training and that unfortunately real harm can result as a result. We are criticizing the system, not the people in it.
If you’ve got a well-meaning man with some very particular views about sex or masturbation that he feels are appropriate to share or ask about (even tho asking those during a TR interview are against the handbook) but he’s never a bishop or doing interviews, well, maybe he shares those with family members – in any event his blast radius is limited. Put him in a BYU ward (which is where this happened to my friends) interviewing 19 yr old girls before they get married? Hundreds of girls impacted. Do I hate him? No, he probably means well. But the system that put him and those girls in that situation needs to be changed.
I agree with Elisa about eliminating worthiness interviews. We are putting youth and young adults in a room with a man who may be well intentioned, but has no training in talking about sexual matters, mental health, marital problems, etc. Many bishops just handle these interviews the way their bishops or leaders did with them. This potentially creates a situation where incorrect thinking and sometimes harmful advice is passed down from bishop to bishop. The mantle of Bishop cannot make up for he years of training and school that therapists and counselors go through. I have never used the bishop as a counselor, because I always thought: why would I ask the accountant who lives down the street advice about my marriage?
Unfortunately, my parenting was hijacked by a bishop through worthiness interviews. My son was traumatized for years with questions about masturbation. He suffers self loathing and depression as a result, He was too embarrassed to talk with us about it with us until he was older. By then, the damage was done. He resigned from the church when Sam Young was excommunicated. He has been in counseling for years trying to overcome the problems caused by well meaning, but misguided bishops. Thanks to Sam, the church now allows a parent or other adult in the room during these interviews. I would like to see parent attendance become a requirement, not an option. This could help prevent damage being inflicted on our youth (or adults for that matter). Also – parents could immediately talk with their children about any questionable things said in the interview to help the child understand that not everything that church leaders say is correct. My husband is a clerk and sets up some of the worthiness interviews in our ward. He makes sure to let the parents know that they can attend the interviews and encourages them to do so. I wish we could do more.
There are many great things about running a ward with volunteers (through callings). With most callings in a ward, it’s a net positive. You get to serve ward members and you learn new skills while doing so. Bishops and other similar leaders are the exception. We are asking too much of Bishops and it’s not surprising that we are seeing unintentional problems and harm as a result. We need to have trained people (men and women) who can offer pastoral care to ward members in a correct and healthy way. I don’t how this can be fixed in the church, but I hope someone at Church HQ’s is thinking about it. I think the current way we have set up leadership is a result of a provincial, rural, and secluded church. Those times are gone,
I cannot think of anything more inappropriate than a woman/girl of any age, talking to a man she is not married to about her personal sexuality or masturbation. WTF!!!!!
If you have a bad car, you can repair it or sell it. If you have a bad job, you can quit and go elsewhere. If you have a bad bishop … not many options. Either keep your head down and avoid messes or else go inactive until there’s a new bishop. Or move to a different ward, but who knows you won’t get the same problem.
“Bad bishops” is one of those problems that could be considerably improved if the Church wanted to. Think harder about who to call. And if the Church would just put more effort and more money and more attention into training bishops, some problems would improve. I went to regular stake-level bishopric “training” meetings for three years. Basically worthless. Every other meeting ought to be 100% directed to training bishops to be better counselors , which often means just not doing counseling and referring members to trained professionals. The Spirit is obviously not doing a good job guiding bishops. Let’s let professionals have a turn.
Leadership roulette just got more interesting for faculty at BYU with the announcement today that new hires will be required to “be worthy to hold and hold” a temple recommend….and that current faculty can “opt in” to that requirement (currently, faculty need only “live in a manner consistent with” temple recommend standards). This change in policy will have an impact to be sure–whether locking out potential faculty from applying or being hired, or creating a disincentive to be honest with an ecclesiastical leader, or effectively reducing faculty who choose not to “opt in” to second-class status (or be subject to extra scrutiny).
Three (of many possible) examples of roulette:
* I have mentioned this story before, so apologies for the repetition. When I was a teenager, my bishop nearly refused me a temple recommend to do baptisms for the dead because I drank Dr. Pepper. He eventually (and reluctantly) signed it–largely, I think, because I was the only male in my ward worthy to go (even drinking Dr. Pepper) between the ages of 13 and 18. But shortly thereafter, he refused to give my mother a recommend because she admitted to seeing the occasional R-rated movie. At this point, we had been members of the Church for about five years, so my parents had not been raised in an environment that emphasized obedience to authority without question. So what did my mother do? She got in her car, drove 2000 miles to Salt Lake City, and sat in the lobby of Church headquarters until she got to talk to a general authority about the situation. A few weeks later, we had a new bishop and my mother had her recommend.
* While in graduate school, I had a bishop who was in his late 20s who was a meticulous rule-follower (to an extreme). When contacted by BYU to inquire about my candidacy for a job, he made it clear to them that I did not attend regularly enough to be considered for a position. Given that (a) we had a child with autism who could not attend meetings due to behavioral issues, and, (b) I was commuting from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. for work, which meant that I was only home one weekend a month, I found that to be a slightly ungenerous interpretation.
* A recent bishop went totally off script during a tithing settlement meeting. Apparently, he was appalled by the low amount of tithing we paid and wondered aloud if we were doing OK financially. When I assured him we were doing just fine–not wanting to turn the meeting into a confrontation by pointing out that this sort of question was not, in fact, part of the process–he made it clear that we should be paying more given what he knew about my salary (which he had a general idea about because of my job at BYU and his work with the university). We then got into a spirited debate about gross vs. net tithing–you can guess which side he took–and eventually I made it clear that he would list me as a full tithe payer because that is what I said (and what I was)….and then walked out of the room. This same bishop basically drove my son out of the church…but that is another (longer and more depressing) story.
Leadership roulette is real and, barring massive and unlikely changes, unavoidable.
I agree that the entire conversation here is about systems, not people. A few observations:
1. We don’t train anyone in the church really to succeed, from bishops down to people like me who play the piano and got a 20-minute crash course on how to not blow it playing the organ. We set people up to fail.
2. Worthiness interviews just need to stop. Not only will this decrease harm, it will give ample time back to bishoprics and stake presidencies to focus on doing better in their callings.
3. I’m 100% with RB. We need to re-claim our own authority. The church will never teach us this. I learned it from Brene Brown, god bless her forever. Bishops cannot harm me anymore because I won’t let them. But I do worry about the children. While I’m working hard to make sure my kids understand this, not all will do so. At the very least, my kids have been taught to never be alone in a room with a church leader (we also made the leaders aware of this requirement and so far they’ve done pretty well). We are also working with them on saying “that question is personal” or “I’m not comfortable discussing that” or “please don’t ask me about that again.” And this doesn’t just apply to Bishops; they have employed this language with well-meaning youth leaders as well who want to know why they aren’t coming to the fireside or activity or temple trip. It’s been really positive so far.
This has been an interesting post. When I was a teen in the 1970’s, our few meetings with the Bishop were for baptisms for the dead. We were essentially asked if we felt worthy (hate that term) to go to the temple. That’s it. No questions about our sexuality or masturbation. When my children were those teen ages I was surprised at how often they had interviews. They actually needed them for dance cards to attend stake dances! It never occurred to me that they would be questioned so frequently about masturbation and other personal behavior. With the exception of one bishop (before my kids were teens) they never complained or told me they felt uncomfortable. Fast forward several years and I listened to the This American Life episode regarding Bishopric interviews. I was shocked and called my adult daughter to ask about it. Her reply was they were asked constantly about porn and masturbation. She said with her older brother it was even worse. No complaints about the Bishop himself but just that it was awkward and weird. I’ve had some residual anger about this. When both my children attended BYU I actually talked to them about being careful what they said to the Bishop. If they needed to repent for something to think long and hard if it was worth getting kicked out of school. Its a system that is ripe for abuse.
We had a Bishop many years ago who accused us of not paying our tithing. He was a hard man to like and because we paid our tithing “in kind” with stock, he couldn’t see our payment. It drove him nuts.
My own personal interaction was with a Singles ward Bishop. I was preparing to get my temple recommend so I could get my endowment and get married. My dad had served on the High Council with this man and had complained many times that he made him uncomfortable when they had Church courts. He asked questions that were way too intimate and detailed of people that had sexual transgressions. He called me into his office on at least three occasions to question me about my sexual behavior with my fiance. If I had anything I needed to “confess” to him. Was I sure? It was definitely creepy and weird. When I wouldn’t go along with his questioning he go frustrated. I shudder to think what probably went on with others that looked up to him. Nothing like an assault but just him getting his jollies by having young men and women tell him intimate details that were none of his business. This is the same guy that had a fireside where we were told French kissing with tongue was wrong. My future husband and I got quite a few laughs out of that.
Here’s the link to the This American Life episode:
My experience with bishops has been about the same as my experience with managers. I think the position attracts the Boy Scout type, who is eager to please the troop leaders and win merit badges. I think old grandpas make better bishops than young go-getters.
If bishops were more like Rabbis–competent with doctrine and scriptures, wards would be better off.
And I wonder how many bishops would modify their interviewing approach, if their wives were also present in the interview.
Either you’re a “servant/leader” or I want nothing to do with you…..and am now (after many, many years of learning) am more than happy to tell you just this….
@S, that sounds exhausting and discouraging. Thank you for speaking up so much. I’m sorry it didn’t go well.
I lost leadership roulette in mormondom and could speak at length of issues.
One story want to share, I going to the stake president for the pre-mission interview. He drilled me not on the law of chasity ( which was not a problem, either), but on word of wisdom.
I was on the HS football team. He accused me not of drinking alcohol ( to which I have never done), but smoking. I was baffled. ( I also never have smoked or hung around smokers)
He said several other kids in stake on football team admitted to smoking and suspected I had also. I learned that day the leadership has zero power of decernment and gets on power trips.
The LDS church leadership roulette is awful. The higher up the position, the more awful of the person called.
Those who admitted to smoking and also alcohol, are now bishops and stake presidents. They lied then and now barrage the youth because of their own past behavior.
Such a hypocritical system!
Bishops have a thankless and impossible job. All for no pay. It’s the system that’s broke. Too much depends on the bishop. More authority needs to given to positions like the RS president. There needs to be better training. More thought needs to be given to selection. Frequently the wrong person is put in the job. More concern must be made for the bishop’s family. His children need a father. (Or grandfather) In many ways, the Church sets up the unfortunate bishop to fail.
“My recommendation for navigating anything with a bishop is to first recover one’s personal moral authority in full from the church. Look inward for that authority figure and voice. Then any meeting with a bishop is easy, because you control that relationship and conversation.”
¡¡¡excellent starting point!!!
@marshall, I believe I have recovered my moral authority from the church. I also believe that based on my personality and gender and history, I will rarely be capable of controlling a conversation in a meeting with a male church authority, and those meetings will never be easy for me. Generally my best option is declining.
My youngest brother was recently released as the bishop of his ward. The oldest of my three brothers has also been a bishop. In talking with them we all agree that candidates for bishops ought to be required to take a personality test or be vetted in some way in order to weed out the kind of men who are attracted to positions of power and authority. Those are the last kind of individuals that should be leading a ward because they see their wards as their own personal fiefdoms and not as the body of Christ. My first BYU bishop was removed from his calling for instigating a witch hunt to root out any kind of immortality where he would wrongfully accuse students of being gay or participating in premarital sex. He would grill the students for hours while going into salacious details and accusing them of lying if they said that they pleaded their innocence. Our dorm mother was telling him if she saw us girls hugging or if girls got in late, etc. The RA of the Deseret Tower where the guys in our ward lived did likewise. Sometimes the bishop called the students’ parents and told them what perverts their children were. At other times he would turn them in to the Honor Code Office. With the Honor Code Office a student is considered guilty until proven innocent.
My best friend and I were hauled in before his tribunal because our dorm mother had caught my friend putting her arm around me because I was having a really bad day. We were beyond shocked when the bishop started going into vivid detail about what he was sure that we were doing to each other. Our denials just made the situation worse. He told us that he was going to hound us into repentance. Two days later I got a phone call from my dad saying that my bishop had called him and my mom and wanted to talk to them in person about my perversion. My friend and I also were invited to the meeting. Before this meeting my friend, whom my family loved and had adopted, and I told my parents our side of the story. We had no why we’d been accused in the first place or who’d accused us. The meeting was awful. The bishop had no desire to be fair or to do the right thing. He was on a power trip and was outright lying to my parents. About 5 minutes into the meeting my dad stood up, raised his right arm to the square and rebuked the bishop in the name of Priesthood. The bishop was unable to speak or move. Dad and my mom grabbed my friend and me and got us out of there as quickly as possible. Dad told us that he’d never felt such an overwhelming presence of evil as he had in that bishop’s office. The next day my parents helped me move out of my dorm and they lodged a complaint with the university and the church about the bishop. My friend stayed in our dorm. However, the bishop told her that if the two of us returned to school for the next school year he would make sure to hunt us down and tell everyone about our “shameful secret”.
This bishop was doing the same thing to many other members of our ward. One girl in our ward was so humiliated to be unjustly accused of being a lesbian and being threatened with being reported to the Honor Code Office that she decided to take her life. She very nearly succeeded. After she was well enough to tell her story the university asked the members of our ward if anyone else had had a similar experience. My friend and I told our story. There were many other stories just like ours. Our bishop was quickly excommunicated, and our dorm mother was kicked out of the university and disfellowshipped. I lost all respect for church leadership at that point and became somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist for three years until I had a spiritual experience that changed my life.
I firmly believe that people who are being considered for positions of leadership and authority should have to be vetted in some way first. The good old boys network or basing the choice of a new bishop on the eager beavers in the ward are not the best ways to go about finding the right person who will be kind, compassionate and empathetic and know how to delegate tasks.
I hate autocorrect. The word should be immorality.
@Elisa, your comments are wise. And as to others: you are correct, one out-of-control Bishop or SP CAN wreak havoc. That’s why it is essential to recognize for yourself, and then teach everyone who will listen, that YOU and CHRIST is the relationship that matters. Each one of us is responsible for that relationship. It is sad that we sometimes have to fight against a system to do what we think is best in regards to that relationship. It is also sad that we often don’t recognize that when we’re younger, and we waste valuable years being coerced into doing things that don’t feel right, or that do not bring us closer to Christ. We all matter to Him deeply and I believe it saddens Him when we give up our personal revelatory authority to follow others. IMO, only
I appear in front of judges with some frequency. There’s a definite roulette issue there on what they consider important and what they don’t, even though the rules are the same for all of them. For example, I know who I want to be in front of if I’ve got a tricky piece of evidence I’m not sure the rules will allow me to get in. Same goes for hearing officers with regulatory bodies.
My job requires me to meet with lots of leaders in the same organization. There’s a roulette system there, even though we’re all working from the same employee handbook. Some bosses emphasis some infractions over others. Some are more trusting; some are more focus-driven; some are more by the book.
I’ve got a kid with some latent behavioral issues. We’ve been to see a lot of principals. Turns out they enforce the same rules/guidelines differently as well.
In any system where someone has discretion, you will have a roulette problem. Full stop. This isn’t a church issue, it’s a human issue in a Mormon context. I keep reading in the comments that the “system is broken” and I keep wondering if they would prefer a system where no ecclesiastical leader had any discretion.
@jimbob, for the systems you mention there are appeals, reviews, recourse, forums for complaints, disciplinary boards, etc. etc. etc. Of course there is always human error any time a human stands in judgment of another.
The issue with the Church (and I imagine other religious institutions, although some do better than others) is the total lack of transparency, review, or recourse. You literally have to move to get away from a bad bishop. As has been described in many stories, bishops can do terrible things with no accountability.
So I think your comment only underscores the need to (1) have really good, standardized training and rules, (2) have a kind of appeals / review system in place to check against problematic bishops, and (3) limit the discretion of bishops as much as possible by narrowing their scope of authority (i.e., getting rid of worthiness interviews and questions about sexual behavior). Because, yes, in every organization we’re dealing with these kinds of issues, so we do what we can to mitigate the damage. Whereas in the Church, we prefer to ignore that the problem even exists because we act like every calling comes from God and every leader is inspired. And that’s a recipe for disaster.
jimbob: You are right that anyone in the position of judging will make mistakes. You know who is seldom in the position of “judging”? Most clergy. Their role is pastoral. When we hand bishops weapons like excommunication, or put them in the job of God’s bouncer, well, you’re right. They will make mistakes. And as Elisa rightly adds, there is arguably no appellate process. In fact, those who seek redress will often increase the retribution they receive (when it is referred right back to the offender).
* the worst bishops/branch presidents are young missionaries.
* The church can’t “train” bishops. You can’t “train” the core traits of spiritual leadership: maturity, wisdom, perspective, spiritual development, people skills, etc. Telling the church the problem is one that can be solved with more corporate training is like putting gas on a tire fire.
* The church should/could remove geographic boundaries for wards and allow people to transfer where they want to go. People will gravitate to good bishops and leave the toxic ones.
* Since we have a problem with struggling bishops, we should stop creating small wards and branches. Why call a bad leader when a talented bishop nearby could take on a bigger ward? My hometown has 3 wards, each with <100 members. There aren’t enough people to rotate through 3 good bishops every 5 years. Active members in each ward are burned out. Statistically, about 1 in 600 is a beloved/wise, inspirational bishop or TS president. Not 1/100.
Outside of Mormondom, mega churches are popular because (if well run) the size enables the congregation to produce many large/robust/effective programs that supposedly lead people to God while supporting their temporal/developmental needs. We’re talking amazing stuff. My local mega church hosts about 30 different programs including: AA, art classes, basketball, softball, dodgeball, water aerobics, zoomba, CrossFit, yoga and chi gong, couples/home finance
classes and professional free advisory services, current events study groups, political groups, Bible
study groups, divorce/marriage classes taught by licensed professionals, free counseling, parish nurses, boy and girl scouts, licensed daycare and after school “primary” and vacation Bible school, elder care/meals on wheels programs, hospice programs, a car repair ministry, nationally renowned charity projects, travel groups, etc.
Your basic LDS branch (<100 people) will have struggling if not inept leaders, a sucky choir, a lonely primary/scout/youth program, anemic RS things, overworked compassionate service people, etc. No comparison. I sometimes think the big wigs in SLC experience an LDS version of a “mega church” with all the big wards and stakes in SL, the MoTab, BYU, etc. and are really naive about what life is like in a dysfunctional little ward. We accomplish so much more together. Furthermore, the impact of idiots is buffered when they are drown out by a majority of normal people. On the other hand, a few idiots in a small ward/branch will bury it.
@elisa My experience is that just about every one of these appeal processes you mention are about as deferential to the boots on the ground as a SP would be to a bishop. In the law, for many issues, it is officially so.
@angela I’m not saying “mistakes.” I’m saying discretion. Some bishops will push harder on grace, others on the hard work of repentance. Neither will be outside the bounds of their callings. But the reactions from the members they counsel may vary. It would be hard to tell one bishop he’s doing it wrong, since both have plentiful antecedents in the scriptures.
@mortimer If you can’t see anything redeeming in 599 of 600 leaders in the church, may I suggest as gently as possible the problem might not lie with the leaders, but perhaps instead with the eye of the beholder?
@jimbob the *very possibility* of appellate review and oversight actually does a lot of curb abuse. So even if review boards are deferential (not my experience as an appellate clerk, depends of course on the issue and the applicable standard of review, absolutely no deference in “de novo” reviews from my judge) – but the *existence* of accountability and review may actually prevent problems and the need for review in the first place because a bishop will know his crazy questions can get reported up.
District court judges don’t like to be reversed, it hurts their egos, so the possibility of reversal keeps encourages them to closely follow the law. If there were no possibility of review or reversal they may act very differently. So I do not at all agree that review and appeals processes are useless.
In addition, of course, you haven’t addressed the other ways to mitigate damage in such circumstances – reduce scope and authority. So, eliminate worthiness interviews and sexual questioning.
jimbob: If you can’t see that bishops make mistakes, but are just going to chalk it up to “discretion,” then I don’t even know what to say to that. Is telling a woman she needs to forgive the father who molested her while her father has no consequences not a “mistake”? Is lying in court on behalf of an abusive husband in a custody case not a “mistake”? I know two people to whom these things happened, and neither of them had any redress within the Church. There is no appeals court.
Angela, you’re misreading me. I’ve never had a “bad bishop” myself, but I believe stories you’re telling. I’ve had a sister who has left the church because she didn’t like some unquestionably bad leadership advice given her during her divorce. What I am suggesting is that most complaints about bishops don’t fall in the outright-mistake category, as you’re describing above; they are more in the discretion category. And so long as any leaders in any human organization are given discretion, there is going to be the roulette problem you describe, appeals or no. But I keep wondering what the other option is–bishops with no discretion at all? Isn’t that worse?
Look, I’m all for better bishops. But I’ve served with enough of them now to know that most bishops are also all for better bishops, and would just as soon that someone else had the responsibility of making hard calls. But the truth of the matter is that in human organizations, someone has to be the leader and make the hard calls, and that inevitably leads to hurt feelings by someone.
I hear you and Elisa about “appeals” for egregious issues, and I’m sympathetic. For example, I’d prefer my sister was still in the church, and I think she would have benefited from someone taking a second look at her issue. But to Elisa’s point, just as district judges get their feelings hurt when overturned, how many bishops–who are already carrying a heavy load–are going to stick around if they feel like the SP is second-guessing the really hard decisions they make? I’ve left jobs for less.
I think there’s real, negative tradeoffs any way you slice it.
“…how many bishops–who are already carrying a heavy load–are going to stick around if they feel like the SP is second-guessing the really hard decisions they make?
I think the concern is that some person’s will suggest that in almost every situation, the SP will sustain the bishop even where the SP disagrees with or even cringes at the bishop’s decision, because the prime directive (to use a Star Trek term) seems to require solidarity among leaders over pastoral care for members. At least, I think this is what I am hearing.
Jimmy Jim Jim Jim Jimbob,
There are bishops who just struggle and do their best (we should all try to give them a hand) and then there are bishops who hold unrighteous dominion- whose actions are abusive, reprehensible, legally and morally damning to the church. I have less patience for them than Jesus did for the corrupt church leaders of his day. And we all know how he reacted to them. The bloggernacle is a place where people crowdsource their experiences with the good, bad, and ugly of leadership roulette. I’m sad to say that the real klunkers are statistically more prevalent than we would like to admit. And no, current processes are woefully inadequate to address these jerks, let alone protect their victims.
You suggested I was the problem in pointing out that one needs a ward of about 600 to find a good bishop. Consider this:
In any ward, more than half will be the wrong gender (#OrdainWomen), a third to half will be too young (primary, YM, YA). 30-40% of temple recommend holders will experience a divorce (so may not be remarried. I understand this isn’t prohibitive, but in many SP’s minds, it is). Only about 1/3 of a ward is active and fewer are temple recommend holder/tithe payers.
So if you have a ward with approximately 100 active people, there are typically about 10 active card-holding couples that would qualify as bishops. Of those 10 you’ll scratch some off the “bishop” list for various reasons (too old and sick, too young, struggling w health, has inflexible or unsteady employment, is poor (sadly this is a criterion of sorts), is contentious or a bad people person, struggling with faith or vices, needs to focus on their own children’s problems/needs, already serving in a stake calling, needed somewhere else, already been bishop and is burned out, etc.). So, sometimes you really only have one to three men to choose from.
Is it so bad to say that it’s better to pick a bishop from 10 qualified men? (A ward of 500-600?)
I’ve had 5 bishops with problems and deficits that would scare the church’s legal department into retirement. That’s a cumulative 25 years of struggle with problems that I will not rehash here. I’m so freakin’ tired of leadership roulette.
@jimbob your prioritization of concerns about a bishop with a fragile ego who doesn’t want to get second-guessed by a stake president over the concerns of women and children (and men) in his congregation who may face ecclesiastical abuse is 100% why we have serious issues of abuse and cover-ups in the church. You know what? If all the bishops resign over that, fine. It will force the church to rethink the whole model and perhaps decide to stop asking bishops to conduct worthiness interviews or otherwise get into situations that might expose them to stake President “review.”
Also, if you don’t like being second-guessed and have left jobs over less than that, I can guarantee you’d never keep a single calling as a woman in the church. Because that’s our church life, 24/7.
Elisa, I think we’re talking past one another. So I’ll restate my position succinctly and then bow out.
1. Leadership/decision making roulette isn’t a uniquely Mormon phenomenon. It is inherent in every system in which humans get to make decisions.
2. Because of #1, even if you burned the entire church leadership apparatus to the ground and started again with whatever system you found most ideal, you’d still have the roulette problem.
3. A formalized appeal system in what is essentially a voluntary pastoral process may introduce more problems than it solves. I think the unintended consequences could abound here.
As to #3, I think if I could pinpoint why we seem to be having two different conversations, it’s because I’m addressing the vast majority of good, hardworking bishops dealing with hard decisions they best they know how. And I think you and Mortimer and Angela are mostly only thinking about it in the context of abusive leaders, which undoubtedly exist. The problem to my mind is that it would be difficult to create a system to only address the latter. If you can appeal an abusive bishop’s unfair choice not to issue a temple recommend, couldn’t you also appeal a bishop’s decision to hold youth activities on Wednesday night rather than Thursday? And how would a formalized appellate process be any better or even functionally different than what the membership does now, which is escalating highly problematic decisions to the stake president?
I’m open to changing my mind here, but like yourself, I live in a world of rules of civil and appellate procedure. They have their benefits, but they’re set up for administering an adversarial system. Do we want that in church?
Mortimer: I once had a co-worker who considered himself a foodie. Every time I asked him about a restaurant, he would tell me it was horrible. By the end of the time we worked together, he’d only given me a thumbs-up on two restaurants in our entire town, both of which were well outside my price range. But I thought lots of the restaurants in town were actually pretty good—maybe not perfect, but a good meal in a decent place. So after a while I decided that if his tastes were so discerning that almost no restaurant made the cut, it may be because we were looking for different things—he only wanted the ideal while I was just happy was full and I didn’t have to cook or do dishes that night.
@jimbob, honestly, I think I understand you perfectly well. We both agree most bishops are good. But I think the consequences of abuse are so terrible, and the culpability we face for putting victims into the situation so high, that we do in fact need to “burn it all down” and come up with a solution that minimizes abuse. Like ending worthiness interviews. Which, for the record, I think are stupid for a ton of other reasons too. I have yet to see arguments for why any of the reforms suggested in the comments are actually bad ideas. Only your comment that there would be “unintended consequences.” Well, let’s just see, and then deal with those. Because we already have seen consequences of unreviewable authority and they aren’t good.
And I’ve also know plenty of “good bishops” that probably didn’t abuse people but were totally unreasonable and impossible to work with (at least for women leaders) and I think they could stand to be told they aren’t running the show.
And you know what? If the bishop decides to hold activities on a Wednesday instead of a Thursday and that’s a terrible decision that all the other ward leaders think is a bad idea because everyone has major conflicts with – then yes, they should have recourse. A bishop isn’t a king and if he’s acting like one there should be a check on it.
As for the adversarial system – I would prefer a cooperative system, but because the church has set up a hierarchy, that’s kind of impossible. So if a bishop isn’t going to cooperate (which is ideal) then yes there needs to be an escalation path.