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
  • Callings
  • 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?