Two coalminers

Their story would have made an agreeable Ensign article were it not for that later development that ruined its beauty. Oh, believe me, I was tempted to censor the second part. But it would feel like cheating. Besides, the aftermath carries the morale of the story.

It all happened many years ago in that minuscule branch I attended during my graduate studies. Their names were Gerard and Etienne. Both men were Flemish coalminers in this already distant past when thousands of pit men descended daily in the Walloon shafts in Southern Belgium.

I was somewhat familiar with the work in the deep darkness, having known as a child a talkative coalminer. He lived in the vicinity of our countryside summer cabin and often came to make some extra money, clearing garden paths or pruning trees. I was fascinated by his activity in the depths of the earth and he enjoyed introducing this 11-year-old city boy to his world. One summer my parents asked him to dig a deep water pit. For days I watched his labor. He used the endeavor to teach me the principles of excavation and reinforcement. Each day at noon, after spooning up the bowl of soup my mother brought him, he would draw, in the heap of sand and clay next to the pit, layers, shafts, and drifts – naming their varieties and characteristics. As the water pit grew deeper, he installed a drum with hoisting rope, built a little platform over the gaping hole and had me empty the buckets next to the shaft. My imagination, nurtured by my mentor’s vibrant descriptions, did the rest. Amidst a dozen miners I stepped into the cage. We were wearing our hard-hats and headlamps and down it went, down and down, to the lowest junction, some 3,000 feet deep, from where the black bowels with bolted roofs, sparsely lit, split out. We sat down, tight to each other, in a track-mounted carrier which took us rumbling through a lengthy haulage way, further and further away from the exit’s safety. Then, at a cross-cut, we walked into a drift and followed the meandering coal vein, until we reached the front chamber where labor would begin — blasting, drilling, hewing, digging, and loading ore and muck.
– Wilfried! Dreaming again! called my mentor from the bottom of the pit.
I grabbed the bucket filled with moist sand and emptied it.

All right, you wonder, where is Gerard and Etienne’s story? Well, I had to clarify that when I got to know those two Mormon coalminers in that tiny Flemish branch, two familiar spheres merged in my mind, the marvels of the Gospel and those of the subterranean world. Besides, that world and its symbols are at the core of the religious part of the story. I would never have fully understood its dimension without my childhood’s experience and the words of my mentor, who, next to the details of mining, also taught me the victory of those who labored in the darkest depth — the victory of human dignity over conditions aimed at destroying it.

Etienne had been a Latter-day Saint for a longer time than Gerard. He was one of the very first Mormon converts in this Flemish city, mid 1950s. One may wonder what brought this tall and skinny workman, from socialist stock, rooted in a realm of drinking and swearing, to accept the message of two young Americans, to give up tobacco and alcohol, and become a persuaded and persuasive Latter-day Saint. Six months after his baptism he was ordained a deacon, as was customary at the time, then was advanced, semester by semester, until an elder. Though one of the two missionaries presided over the tiny branch, Etienne was quickly called to give talks and lessons to the handful of older sisters, stalwart souls, who had dared to abandon almighty Catholicism to cast their lot entirely with this infinitesimal cult, meeting in a small and shabby rowhouse, on a street called Gibbet’s Hill.

Then entered Gerard. He later told me his conversion story in detail. He was from the same area as Etienne, worked in the same mine, on the same night shift, with the same expertise: securing the safety of newly excavated drifts, by timbering, arching, cribbing, beaming, bolting. Every day, late afternoon, they left on one of the old company’s busses that took Flemish mineworkers to Wallonia’s black region, the land of triangular slag heaps set against a grey horizon, of steaming washboilers and grit-spewing chimneys. Fourteen hours later, a sooty bus would drop off the worn-out men, coal dust still in their eyelids, in spite of the soapy showers right after work.

Gerard told me: “There were eleven hundred mineworkers in our mine. We all drank and swore. Except one: Etienne. He was different. He was proud to be different. I was curious why he seemed so happy, so we talked, during our breaks in the mine, about his religion. We chose a quiet corner in a drift. There, at a depth of 4,000 feet, I heard for the first time about the celestial kingdom.”

Etienne the proselytizer was a master at comparisons. For Gerard he illustrated doctrines, principles and ordinances with all that the mine had to offer. Heading into galleries and drifts is like life: one needs directions, air and light to give purpose and safety to the journey. Revelation is receiving instructions from a geologist, who can probe beyond the walls and within the strata, pointing out where the best beds of thick coal will be encountered. The worker has to accept it in faith and first drive through worthless mudstone or friable rock to reach the promised solid ore. If he then hits the purest anthracite, it is like the fullness of the Gospel. But dangers are looming. Infractions to safety rules are the sins that can destroy us. The various kinds of wall and roof reinforcements – Gerard and Etienne’s daily duty – became symbols for assorted commandments: segmental colliery arches for chastity, bolts with threaded expansion shells for tithing, wooden lagging for the Word of Wisdom.

Baptism? Through a narrow, unlit incline Etienne took Gerard to a sump — a large underground excavation to collect water. Within that cavern his portrayal of the ordinance visualized how two figures in immaculate white stepped into the dusky basin, while the surrounding walls mirrored the reflection of the lamps on the water, suggesting the presence of angels. If they had had permission and apt clothing, Etienne would have baptized Gerard right there.

Etienne did baptize Gerard a few months later, but in their home town’s swimming pool. Then, every six months, a priesthood ordination followed.
– After eighteen months, Gerard told me, I was a priest. It was such a wondrous occasion to be able to bless the sacrament for the first time. I still remember the hymn we sang: God Our Father, Hear Us Pray.

A semester later he was an elder too.

For two years I met every Sunday with that handful of Saints. Gerard taught the priesthood lesson to Etienne, the missionaries and me. Then Etienne took over for Sunday School, as our group expanded with two or three older sisters. Etienne could preach for an hour, in a peaceful, enchanting way, as if he had assimilated sermons from childhood. The mining metaphors were never far away.

During the week I attended my graduate classes — I recall vaguely Rudolf Boehm’s course on the phenomenology of Husserl and Roger Dragonetti’s course on medieval literary techniques. But each Sabbath I delighted more in the handshake, the smile and the words of two coalminers, in a small living room, called our chapel, on Gibbet’s Hill.

Here the sweet story would end. I was tempted to leave it at that, but do we draw sufficient lessons from idyllic events turning into quiet routine?

And so, one Sunday, towards the end of my stay in that city, it happened. I cannot recall the precise reason nor the circumstances, because it happened so abruptly, so totally inconceivably that it struck me dumb, as well as the missionaries and the older sisters. It was, to pursue the mining imagery, as if a whole gallery caved in, shattering arches, bolts, bars, wedges, poles and planks. Or as if a methane explosion engulfed the mine.

Across the Sacrament table, Gerard and Etienne were yelling at each other.

Only years later, after witnessing similar incidents with members in the mission field and having gained a modest insight in the meanderings of some converts’ psyche, did I understand what was, actually, a simple affair to elucidate.

Gerard had been called as branch president, Etienne had remained Sunday School president. And so, somewhere, somehow, relations had been altered, expectations sprained, sleeping ambitions awoken or frustrated. In the primitive Church realm at Gibbet’s Hill, devoid of long traditions in callings and releases, the tension burst in its rawest form. There came no end to it. In spite of numerous reconciliations, quarrels continued to break out. Eventually, both men became inactive.

However painful, what I learned was beneficial. Certainly, people accept the Restored Gospel for valid reasons. But some, I presume by and large unconsciously, unintentionally, also fall for the charm of recognition and appreciation from the community they enter. And a few, notably in immature fields, are attracted to the prompt opportunity to lead and preach. In time that seductive enjoyment may prevail over other feelings. It is stimulated by our lay organization, where anyone can be someone, or at least think to be someone — priest, elder, president, counselor, teacher. It is stirred by our pulpit rhetoric, when leaders praise each other, but by so doing also foster envy, while omissions trigger resentment. It is encouraged by as simple a thing as seating on the stand. Those among us who are totally unaffected by such sentiments are as innocent as they are mature.

In the mission field the matter often pervades the small assembly. The conversion process lifts discarded or frustrated human beings to a new life, but that includes both the satisfaction and the temptations of its splendor. We say a calling keeps a convert active. True, but I have also seen scores become inactive, partly or even mainly, because of callings and their unintended consequences.

Gerard and Etienne… Two coalminers I remember with deep affection. I learned much from them, both from their dedication and from their human foible. I will not refer to D&C 121:37-39. It was not that these good men used their callings to cover their sins, or to exercise unrighteous dominion. But in their primitive Church context we probably failed in providing sufficient guidance and warnings. That distressing process persists today in many young units. As the Church expands into new territory, in particular in countries where hierarchical relations are deeply ingrained in patriarchal, nepotic, tribal or single-party traditions, the training on how to handle callings and releases deserves, I believe, special attention.

At the same time, to counter any negative taste this post may leave, it is obvious that no other Church provides as much opportunity to all its members to learn to serve, cooperate, guide, obey, accept, and to grow. Callings are an essential part of that enhancement, but entail challenges and risks.

Commenters, no doubt, could point out that the conflictual intricacies of leadership relations, and ambition-driven strategies, veiled and sly, are not limited to the immature realm of the mission field. I’m not inviting anecdotes to illustrate it, but I would welcome constructive suggestions for the benefit of us all.

43 comments for “Two coalminers

  1. Blake
    November 17, 2005 at 11:08 am

    Beautiful post Wilfried! I share your wonder, awe and … consternation, pain and bewilderment. I saw some of the same dynamics tear a branch of the Church apart in Italy — and I’ve seen it numerous times here in the heart of Salt Lake City with individuals who have become inactive. I suspect that none of us are above the disappointment of knowing that we have gifts to give that the Church doesn’t value, or ability to lead that is never given the chance, or the judgment that the person leading is not as qualified as I or a hundred others may be. It’s easy to say these judgments are petty and unjust, but they are very human.

    I concur that the Church must give special attention to callings and releases in cultures that see a release as a demotion, or as a message of failure or obsolescence.

    Thanks for your faithfulness, perceptiveness and sheer ability to inspire Wilfried.

  2. Seth Rogers
    November 17, 2005 at 11:43 am

    Oh gosh did I ever see this in Japan.

    Of course, there, it’s further complicated by the rigid hierarchical structure that the Japanese impose on every aspect of their lives. I think they take it harder generally when a Bishop is “demoted” to “Sunday School Teacher.”

    They are simply unfamiliar with the egalitarianism of the whole idea of being a bishop one day, and in the nursery the next. Also, they have a hard time adapting to new and unexpected social and positional changes.

    It was always touch-and-go every time a Branch President got released. You never knew what was going to happen to the branch.

  3. November 17, 2005 at 12:24 pm

    A wise and thoroughly seasoned bishop once taught me a very valuable principle which I have posted on the wall of every office I’ve ever been in:

    Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.

    Sometimes, oft times I’m afraid, that is easier said than done.

  4. Kevin Barney
    November 17, 2005 at 12:31 pm

    My understanding is that this sort of thing is a particular cultural problem in Russia, as well. It is common for a man to be released as branch president and never show up at church again.

    I’ve always thought that there needs to be particular attention in such areas to try to get the people to understand that this is not a demotion or a failure. Communication is the key. Whent the person is first called, the calling authority should explain carefully the egalitarian nature of church service, and warn him that inevitably the day will come when he is to be released and serve in another capacity, and that that is not a bad thing or an indication of demotion or failure. This same sort of lecture should be repeated to the congregation whenever changes in local church governance are announced. I’m sure it would still be a problem, but proactive communication might help.

  5. Tatiana
    November 17, 2005 at 12:57 pm

    Such a great post, Wilfried! So much to be learned from it, if read as a lesson, but most of all I feel the personal aspect, and I’m left just wishing those two could find some way to come back to the gospel. When you write, the people you write about become like dear friends to your readers. You have such a gift!

  6. Mike
    November 17, 2005 at 2:04 pm

    This story resonates with me, especially the end:

    ” it is obvious that no other Church provides as much opportunity to all its members to learn to serve, cooperate, guide, obey, accept, and to grow. Callings are an essential part of that enhancement, but entail challenges and risks.”

    I see myself in this story. I had a best friend in a rather dysfunctional ward when I first cut my teeth in ward leadership and we both had positions of responsibility far beyond our capacity. He is not active now, because of some other complicating factors. I have issues. I think I will forever be wishing that we could have done better and paradoxically be thinking I could do better than the current schmuck who happens to be in charge of whatever position. I’d like to see him deal with….(whatever catastrophy I had to face). I see the current ward through the lens of perception that I ground back then when I served in a ward in enormous disarray. And I also suspect that my “highest” callings are in the past. Further opportunities to grow at church will be in areas that emphasis humility and tolerance rather than leadership. If I get any callings at all.

    Dalin Oaks said something like: we don’t move up and down we just move around in our callings at church. I have to believe that what I am doing today is somehow a step up in some subtle way than what I did before. Otherwise the ideal of progression falls by the wayside. Perhaps this is another reason why the Apostles serve for life. Can you imagine the let down from Apostle to Dutch Oven Ancestral Recipe Specialist? (That is until you taste my latest recipe and compare it to recent GC talks-just kidding).

    It might help if we stopped thinking of climbing the church hierarchial ladder as similar to climbing a corporate ladder. We could start in the mission field by restructuring the leadership there and some of the more experienced missionaries could serve a few months as junior companions while a “greenie” served as AP. We could do more on the ward and stake level by calling people to “higher” positions who had little experience instead of the musical chairs system for a few trusted righteous that seems to be the current practice. I say this out of one side of my mouth while harping about incompetent ward leaders who do significant damage to youth and adults alike due to their inexperience out of the other side of my mouth, and acknowledge the hypocracy but have no solution to it.

    David O. McKay (an exception in just about every way) was called from Sunday School teacher to Apostle. He never served in any ward or stake priesthood leadership position except as a full-time missionary. When we release a Bishop why not release the entire Bishopric? Our current practice is to keep one if not both counselors and all of the clerks. Why not the entire ward hierarchy? If our 600 member ward is so small and fragile that it cannot tolerate the removal and replacement of most of the leadership then maybe it needs to be combined with another ward or something. Let most of the back row assume the stand and the retiring leaders relax on the back row together and try not to laugh out loud at the new leaders or criticize the mistakes.

    A final aspect of this (which might ruffle some feathers) is why do we practically worship the ground that the highest church leaders walk on? Obedience and heeding counsel is one thing, but the way we treat our leaders like they are celebrities is part of the problem. If we think GBH is like a professional athlete in some spiritual sense, then it follows that we see ourselves as some kind of spiritual college jock when we are asked to serve in some petty position of authority and get hacked off when we don’t get drafted to the next level. It helps me to realize that Gordon B. Hinckley, remarkable life that he has lived, is not much different than some of the old guys in my ward. This according to my father who knew him well years ago. I do not have to walk in his church career footsteps to be as good as he is. Not that I am even close.

  7. Wilfried
    November 17, 2005 at 3:44 pm

    Thank you all for those helpful comments. I appreciate the shared concern and the added insights. I wonder if studies have been made about this aspect of hierarchical relations in cultures where the traditions are different, but are also very difficult to change. And to what extent this matter contributes to inactivity. It seems many of us have seen those kinds of conflict happen – I have seen them repeatedly over decades – yet I have not noticed differences in leadership training or adaptations to the calling and release structures. So it seems we are facing the same drama’s over again in e.g. African and East-European countries where we are now organizing new branches and districts.

  8. Madera Verde
    November 17, 2005 at 4:25 pm

    Right on Mike. That would be ideal.
    Some random thoughts relating to this topic:

    Some won’t serve if called.
    There seems to be an imbalance of experienced leaders from ward to ward.
    Missionaries are sometimes branch presidents. How incredible is that!
    We were told recently that Stake Presidents no longer have a number to call to resolve troublesome issues, that they should consult the same source that G.A.’s do. Or in other words that they are the prophet for the stake. This would make developing leadership more essential. But I think it also neccecitates more diversity in Leadership as well as into and out of it. We all know that Joseph Smith and other prophets usually recieve revelation as a result of inquiry. Therefore we need the inquirers to have a wide cross sectional knowledge of people and conditions in their areas. If leaders associate with the standard ten people (What we call the musical chair phenoma mentioned in #6) their views will be somewhat parochial.

  9. Paul Mouritsen
    November 17, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    The problem, I think, is partly one of social class rather than culture. In our ward, we have both white collar workers, who spend a lot of their time working with other people, and blue collar workers, who work mostly with things. Although their incomes are often comparable, they view activity in the church differently.

    White collar Mormons take releases in stride. That is not true of many blue collar workers. For them, a release from a calling is much more difficult. I think this is true anywhere, not just in small branches. When an attorney, a physician, or businessman is released, he probably feels relieved. A carpenter, mechanic, or factory laborer may see a release as a rebuke or a sign of failure. His emotional investment in his calling is much higher. His calling gives him a certain amount of status that he does not get from his work.

    Also, laborers, because they are not constantly working with other people in their occupation, get a lot of enjoyment out of the constant round of church meetings. They see a long PEC meeting as a welcome change from their routine. It is an important part of their social life. White collar workers sometimes see these meetings as a nuisance or a waste of time.

  10. November 17, 2005 at 4:56 pm

    Paul Mouritsen, my experience in a largely blue-collar ward isn’t very much like yours. I’m good friends with a number of them, and they don’t seem any happier than I am about long PEC meetings, nor do they seem any more inclined to want church callings or to keep them than I.

  11. Wilfried
    November 17, 2005 at 6:18 pm

    You bring up an interesting point, Paul. We would need a little sociological analysis, with anonymous enquiries, to see if your viewpoint would be confirmed. I guess you may be right in theory, but there is probably a difference between people raised in the Church, in well-established wards (and who got used to the routine of callings and releases, whatever their social background) and converts (mainly in the mission field). With converts a study would also have to take into account another factor, that of their character/profile before conversion: what would be e.g. the profile of white-collars who join the Church, if we dare to talk about a certain profile? I must honestly say, from my experience, that within the white-collars I have seen join the Church in Europe, I think many had some hidden ambitions, expected to be leaders, or had difficulty to be led by the “less-able”, and were the source of more trouble than blue-collar workers.

  12. Ben Huff
    November 17, 2005 at 6:56 pm

    This is an interesting example of yet another way in which we may forget how different what we are doing is from so many other human pursuits! Funny how while accepting the authority of God, we are also embracing a deep subversion of common notions of authority. It is, in a way, extremely American, although this sort of subversion is manifestly built into Christ’s entire life.

  13. JWL
    November 17, 2005 at 7:40 pm

    Some of the difficulty stems from our lack of an exposition of our practice of a lay hierarchy. There are no scriptures that say “every member shall have a calling and be rotated through various callings throughout their life so that they may grow in humility and wisdom, saith the Lord.” The idea of the universal lay ministry was never explicitly commanded at all — it just happened. Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling is magnificent in describing this process. (As another example of this, try finding the scripture that says that every leader, not just bishops and church presidents, must have two counselors.) Nor have Church leaders ever articulated much our reasons for this practice. Growing up in the Utah Church, most Church leaders have just accepted the practice as natural, never understanding on an emotional level how significant the lay ministry is in the life of a Mormon as opposed to virually any other religious believer.

    Another complication is that the practice of the lay ministry has evolved. In the 1800s, many callings were for life. Todays’ life tenure for Apostles is simply a vestige of earlier life tenures for bishops and relief society presidents and many other church officers. This also has reduced the extent of any tradition of commentary on the practice of rotating callings.

    So I view the “fault” as lying as much with the “Utah” church leaders, members, and missionaries for failing to expound on this profound religious practice even to themselves, as with inexperienced foreign Church members.

  14. Wilfried
    November 17, 2005 at 7:59 pm

    That is a fascinating addition to the discussion, JWL. Thank you very much. Indeed, when you think about it, the whole concept of lay ministry and (unsystematically) rotating positions is so foreign to any other church, and so tied to local Mormon developments over time, that we seem to lack a theoretical framework to understand it fully and to assess the impact on our lives. Combined with the challenges of totally different intercultural traditions, the matter seems to require a thorough assessment. It seems we lose many converts over it now, and precisely those whom we need most to build a strong leadership base abroad.

  15. Ben Huff
    November 17, 2005 at 8:23 pm

    Very interesting. Thanks for taking us there, JWL!

    It’s funny; for my part, for years now I have seen this as one of the most distinctive and spiritually powerful features of our church. I think its effects are almost as powerful as our having a prophet at the helm! I think there are strong theological reasons for it, as I hinted in refering to Christ’s teaching on leadership, reasons that are related in my mind with the “lay” priesthood and various scriptural teachings. But I agree it is costing us dearly where people don’t “get it”. Which is the contingency, and which the timeless truth: the earlier practice of lifetime callings for bishops etc., or the current practice of frequent rotation? Or are there principles behind both that would support our taking a different route in different parts of “the vineyard”?

  16. jjohnsen
    November 17, 2005 at 8:57 pm

    Thank you for the story Wilfried, beautifully told.

  17. Mike B
    November 17, 2005 at 10:24 pm

    This is sort of peripheral to the discussion here, but it is interesting to watch men aspire to certain leadership positions. And sad to see them make fools of themselves in the process.

  18. El Jefe
    November 17, 2005 at 11:07 pm

    I believe that in many cases, in the developing Church, leaders are told when they are called that they will someday be released. That this is part of the normal process of callings and releases in the Church.

    But they don’t get it. You can tell them again and again, but they don’t get it. Our culture is so different from the world’s hierarchical culture, that it usually takes a generation growing up in the Church, and the culture becoming a part of one’s understanding of the Church, before they get it. I remember, years ago, serving as the counselor to a branch president in the developing world. No stake where we were, just a district and the mission.

    I remember walking in for a branch presidency meeting, and the president saying: “That’s it! I’m not taking it any more, I’m resigning!” “What’s the matter, President?” I said.

    “The District President has done it again, and I’m not going to take it any more. I’m resigning!”

    “Calm down, President. We don’t resign in the Church.”

    The problem was that the District President had called someone out of the branch to a District position without letting him know. He was right, the DP should have let him know; it took some talking, but he eventually understood that he couldn’t resign, and how the process of callings and releases works. Some years later, when the first stake was formed in that city, he became the first stake president. Subsequent to that calling, I heard from someone that he had apparently gone inactive.

    Even today, in the developed Church, we still have leaders who are hurt when they are released from some “important” position, and are not called to another “important” position. It takes much maturity, at both the Church and individual level, for us to understand how the process works. But the same thing was true of the Church in Kirtland and Nauvoo. People getting their feelings hurt out of pride, and a failure to truly understand the the Lord’s kingdom operates on different principles than the world does. On so many levels, that is a lesson we all have to learn, sometimes over and over again.

  19. Kayla
    November 17, 2005 at 11:32 pm

    I wonder if having a defined service duration would help in these cases (inactivity due to competition, loss of ego). If every calling had a set time (there would be exeptions, of course), then someone would know they only have 3 years as EQP, or 1 year as SS teacher, and 3 months as Nursery leader (which would still be too long :)

  20. Ben Huff
    November 18, 2005 at 12:37 am

    I’ve never been a bishop or SP, but just coming home from a mission was hard enough that I imagine it is not only a matter of whether people “get it” or not, either. I wanted to go home! I enjoyed my mission, but I knew there was a good reason why it was just for two years. Still, it was really disorienting. You learn a certain way of functioning at church, of directing that energy, and then suddenly you have to completely switch gears. You wonder, “Now, why am I here, exactly?” because you are no longer needed in the same way, but you also don’t have the same needs you had that kept you coming before the “big calling.” Maybe people don’t just need a concept; maybe they need coaching! Say, being home taught by another former SP who is now teaching SS. And another calling they really believe in, perhaps.

    In some ways, though, I think our American egalitarianism may be unrealistic. Theology aside, there are reasons why heirarchies work a certain way in most human spheres, and they are not all driven by pride or lust for power. To remove from leadership someone with strong leadership ability and working relationships and replace her or him with someone without leads to real, costly inefficiencies. This is a sticky puzzle.

  21. APJ
    November 18, 2005 at 5:28 am


    This is probably the most thoughtful post I’ve ever read. Thank you for reminding me of what is really important.

  22. Wilfried
    November 18, 2005 at 10:44 am

    Mike B (17), your remark about men aspiring to certain leadership positions, is certainly not peripheral to the discussion. It is at the heart of the tensions I described. I believe it applies only to a (small) minority, but the strategies of such people are indeed often quite visible and risible. I guess we need to pity them more than anything.

    jjohnsen (16) and APJ (21), thank you for your words of appreciation. Such are always encouraging.

    El Jefe (18), your story is very recognizable. Thanks for sharing it, and, yes, “a lesson we all have to learn, sometimes over and over again.”

    Ben (20), excellent addition, worth repeating: “Theology aside, there are reasons why hierarchies work a certain way in most human spheres, and they are not all driven by pride or lust for power. To remove from leadership someone with strong leadership ability and working relationships and replace her or him with someone without leads to real, costly inefficiencies”. I can only concur. Seen it more than once, also in the replacement of mission presidents, which is unavoidable in our present system.

    Kayla (19), your question if having a defined service duration would help in these cases, is an interesting one. It would help in some cases — and take away the uncertainty of the length of the call, and the surprise /disappointment of the release. The problem is that in many parts of the world, the lack of leadership potential makes it hard to plan with such timings. But even if there is enough potential, if certain feelings of ambition, self-worth, ego… drive people, tensions no doubt will remain.

  23. Seth Rogers
    November 18, 2005 at 11:52 am

    The problem is that the Church requires Bishops and Branch Presidents to pour so much of their time and energy into their service that, when it is suddenly taken away, the man is left feeling very empty. It’s a very lonely and sad time for such a person.

  24. b bell
    November 18, 2005 at 12:10 pm

    I to have seen this occur on my mission in a developing country. But I have also seen it here in the US. I will never forget sitting in a bishopric mtg and hearing how one of the HC had been released form the HC called to teach the 14 year olds in SS (Great calling by the way) and he had called the bishop to complain that his skills and leadership abilities were being under-utilized.

    In the developing world we need to warn newly called leaders that in 3-5 years they will be released. That is happens to everyone and that they should expect it. Then they should be told this from time to time. Tell them stories of people that were released and went inactive.

    Here is the US if you get upset like the before mentioned HC then you need to repent. What I am taking from this thoughtful post is that we need to remember that callings are a priviledge to serve others and not for our own self-promotion.

  25. CS Eric
    November 18, 2005 at 12:25 pm

    I have also noticed that there is a misunderstanding, even on the part of people who are called, of what the basis of the call is. I was in a branch that had a strong Branch President, well-liked and well-connected in the area, and grew in that calling to become one of the finest and most Christlike men I have ever met. When it came time for his release, one of his counselors was called to succeed him. This man was very uncomfortable in his new position, and in one of my first conversations with him after getting his calling, he complained that the other counselor had done “everything he could to _not_ be called.”

    Sure, the other counselor was struggling with significant issues in his family and work situations, and sometimes did not cope with those situations very well. But if the Lord wanted the other counselor to be called to be Branch President, it would have happened. The new Branch President wasn’t called because his life was more tranquil, he was called because the Lord wanted him there. Unfortunately, I think his initial attitude to the calling hampered his ability to be the kind of Branch President he could have been.

  26. Tatiana
    November 18, 2005 at 1:44 pm

    Ben (#20) “In some ways, though, I think our American egalitarianism may be unrealistic.” It depends on whether the task you’re trying to accomplish is “getting the work done well” or “perfecting the worker.” In secular life, the former takes precedence always, with the latter only an occasional happy side effect. In Zion we’re at least as interested in developing qualities in the workers as we are the fruits of their labor. Therein lies the difference.

  27. John Mansfield
    November 18, 2005 at 3:48 pm

    A related issue can be the need to explain to neighbors and friends that is normal for Mormons to be released from their positions and not a sign of wrongdoing. I remember once a family with many Mormon friends, including our bishop’s family, being very concerned when the bishop was released.

  28. Wilfried
    November 18, 2005 at 4:17 pm

    That’s a good point, John (27). Sometimes we forget how peculiar and how different we are from other churches when it comes to perception. I remember such experiences, with Mormons loosing their “credit” when outsiders heard they were no longer in their leadership position. People suspected their Mormon acquaintance had to have done something very bad…

    A related issue has to do with titles and different traditions. Here in Provo I noticed former bishops are stilled called “bishop”, while that is unknown in places I know in Europe. Also the title “president” can be a sensitive issue, moreover, combined or not, with the more familiar use of just a first name. All this, and the consequences it entails, would make for fascinating socio-linguistic studies.

  29. CS Eric
    November 18, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    Wilfried (#28),

    My understanding is that a bishop is always a bishop–sometimes he is called to lead a congregation, sometimes he is released from the leadership responsibility. Something to do with it being an Aaronic Priesthood office, with High Priests called to serve.

    Presidents, on the other hand, are only “President” when they are called to lead the organization.

  30. Wilfried
    November 18, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    You’re right, CS Eric. The point was only to mention that the naming-tradition is different from country to country. Even the use of the title “bishop” for an active-in-office bishop is probably different from country to country in our Church. In Catholic countries you would never address a Catholic bishop with “Good morning, bishop” and that hampers the transfer to the local Mormonish. In some languages, I presume it would indeed sound awkward to address a bishop with the short “bishop”. (I remember one occasion when a journalist asked me if he had to address the local Mormon bishop as “Monseigneur” — sure, you do, and you kiss his ring). Same considerations when you think about our use of “elder”, on the one hand for our young missionaries (and in some languages the translation of elder really emphasizes “old”), while we use the same title for the apostles.

    Our use of titles certainly has a bearing on the topic of the post (to come back to that). Material for socio-linguistics theses at BYU or elsewhere…

  31. CS Eric
    November 18, 2005 at 4:50 pm


    I guess I missed the point of your comment. Thanks for setting me straight. You are right about confusion among non-Americans calling the missionaries “Elder.” During my mission in Korea, a lot of people had a hard time getting their minds around that concept. It worked okay for me, since I am a nearly white-haired blond, and the only experience most Koreans had with hair as white as mine was with their “senior citizens.” Koreans love to nickname their missionaries, and mine was “Haraboji Chang-no”, or “Elder Grandpa.” Until they saw my face and saw how young I really was, many people wondered what I was doing hanging out with these young Americans.

  32. El Jefe
    November 19, 2005 at 1:24 am

    The title goes with the calling, not with the ordination. That is why elders are called “Elder” while on a mission, and not afterward. General Authorities are called “Elder” while they are serving, but after they are released, they can very properly be called “Brother” (as can any male member of the Church–and no GA is offended if he is referred to as “Brother”). However, the title of “President” or “Bishop” or “Elder” is out of respect for the calling they hold, not for themselves.

    So bishops have no right to hang on to their title, because they no longer have the calling. That is not to say that some may call them that out of habit; but the title belongs to the calling.

  33. Lawrence
    November 19, 2005 at 1:22 pm

    This was a great post. For me, it raised very important issues that I hope will be seen and addressed by mission presidents and others in positions to overcome the inherent traits of cultures that most of the U.S. church understands and readily accepts. There will always be those like the HC who seek continuing self aggrandizement and attach the importance of their callings to themselves.

    I had no problem with being released from the bishopric of a young singles ward, returning to a family ward and begin teaching 13-14 year olds in SS. Both callings gave me intense satisfaction. Fortunately, I’ve not seen very much of what Wilfried beautifully depicts in my many years of church service.

    There were also some very insightful comments generated by the post. Some just as thought provoking as the post itself.

  34. Wilfried
    November 19, 2005 at 3:36 pm

    Thank you, Lawrence, for your kind words and comment. I certainly concur it is for a large part an intercultural issue.

    CSEric and El Jefe, thank you for the added insights. The title-giving is a complex issue, I presume entirely due to evolving traditions and dualities in interpretation (like bishop = a temporary calling, but also an office in the Aaronic priesthood and therefore “permanent” as ordination). In the same vein there must be historical reasons why the title “Elder” was attached to GA’s. I guess we sometimes invent “rules” to explain the use “logically” afterwards, or to determine boundaries, while it is purely a phenomenon of linguistic frequency that came to prevail, and that frequency may differ from country to country and from language to language.

    When I think of Gerard and Etienne (to come back to the post), the use of titles was part of their (unavowed) problem. A branch president is called “president”, but not a Sunday School president. People are sensitive to titles.

  35. UKAnn
    November 20, 2005 at 5:40 am

    I’ve seen both sides here in England and generally have found that the less spiritually mature are upset on release, whilst for the spiritually mature to be released is often a relief if they have been in time-consuming callings, with a sense of excitement at the new challenges that will come to them (because you’re never without some calling if you are a member in England), even if the calling is a Primary teacher. I love callings that bring you ‘closer’ to the members in the units, where you can hopefully have positive effect.

    A little anecdote – when we visited BYU to see a young friend of ours who works there, she stopped to introduce us to one of her senior colleagues and introduced my husband as her old ‘Bishop’. I was quite surprised at this because I imagined she would just introduce us as ‘visiting friends’. She explained afterwards that the colleague would be much more impressed, and my husband would receive much more respect being introduced as an ex-Bishop. We felt kind of uneasy about that.

  36. November 20, 2005 at 3:13 pm

    UKAnn: If your young friend knew your husband before or after his service as bishop or as something other than a bishop during his tenure, then I find her introduction odd. I don’t think it is common to do that in Provo, but perhaps I’ve not paid enough attention.

  37. JWL
    November 20, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    El Jefe commented in #18 that “I believe that in many cases, in the developing Church, leaders are told when they are called that they will someday be released. That this is part of the normal process of callings and releases in the Church. But they don’t get it. You can tell them again and again, but they don’t get it.”

    First, let me note that I think El Jefe makes a perceptive larger point in the comment about cultural expectations. However, I am suggesting that part of the problem is that in fact we really don’t “tell them again and again.” Sure it may be mentioned once or twice in an interview, but is it really a part of our teaching? How often do we hear talks in General Conference or any where else in the spirit of J. Reuben Clark’s “To Them of the Last Wagon” [Ensign, July 1997, pp. 35-39] making the point that every position is equally important to building the Kingdom? How often do we really preach the Gospel’s egalitarianism — the point of modern scriptures and parables of Jesus in the Gospels too numerous too mention? Not that it is never mentioned — but just weigh the extent of that message against the volume of “follow the Brethren” talks glorifying the importance of high positions in the hierarchy? And I have to say contra Ben Huff in #20, that I don’t think this egalitarianism is especially American. As other commentators have noted here, plenty of American Mormons are bothered by being released from positions perceived as prestigious, and I find that ideals of equality and fraternity and dislike of social and hierarchical pretension are very well accepted outside of the USA.

    Beyond the specific issue of dealing with releases, I would like to see a more articulated embrace of the entire concept of the lay clergy. To me, it is one of the great glories of the Restored Gospel. I would love to see it be part of our missionary and public relations message. In terms of total impact on the work of perfecting the saints it stands with modern prophets. The scriptural formula is that this is “the only true and living church” (D&C 1:30). Prophets make it the true church, but it is the universal lay ministry that makes it the living church. From a spiritual perspective we could perhaps start to do this by having every new member read Gene England’s magnificent “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” (see which explains how it is the very bumps and bruises of Church service help perfect us. From a more human perspective, it makes a powerful contrast to other churches. We don’t have an isolated priestly or ministerial class — every member is a minister and we serve each other to the extent that we switch around our positions periodically so that everyone can have different opportunities for service and development. If this were a highly and explicitly emphasized part of our teaching, I would hope that releases would be less traumatic. The loss of perceived social prestige could be absorbed in the larger prestige of demonstrating that we truly practice Jesus’ teaching that he that is the least shall be the greatest.

    With regard to the comments about the custom among western Mormons of continuing to address a released bishop by his priesthood title, I suspect that this is a remnant of the days when the position of Bishop had life tenure. If someone was released after 20 – 30 or more years of service in a small community because of age or ill health, it is understandable how a decades long habit in the community of addressing him as Bishop might continue, especially when he would have been at that point one of the truly respected senior figures of the community.

  38. Wilfried
    November 20, 2005 at 11:10 pm

    Thank you, UKAnn, for your thoughts and the anecdote. I think it’s true that some sensitivity to the title “bishop” prevails. I guess it could also be a subtle way to convey to an outsider the message that this person is a devoted church member. In that sense it may not be too odd to introduce someone as “my old bishop”. Much will depend on the tone and the context.

    JWL, interesting comments as always. I agree with your remark that “follow the Brethrenâ€? may add, for some people, a connotation of “the importance of high positions in the hierarchy”. The deference and veneration often surrounding the Brethern no doubt may trigger some envy for such “positions”.

    And I also concur with you that we should not be too simplistic in opposing “American egalitarianism” with a standard sense of “authority and hierarchy” abroad. I have known lots of members in the international church who honored the principles of “equality and fraternity” and served and got released without any problem. And, vice-versa, I have known a few Americans who were explicitly striving to become a GA.

    You finalized it beautifully: “The loss of perceived social prestige could be absorbed in the larger prestige of demonstrating that we truly practice Jesus’ teaching that he that is the least shall be the greatest.”

  39. UKAnn
    November 21, 2005 at 4:00 am

    Jim (#36). Your comment made me less uneasy. It was a young friend of ours whom we had known since her birth (she was in her late 20’s at the time of the comment). Her parents are close friends of ours.

    Incidentally, I’m finding over the years in England, as we are getting into 2nd and 3rd generation members, that the practice of denoting members by their ‘seniority’ in the church is becoming more widespread. It’s not unusual now for, say, members to say that their children have married or become engaged to so-and-so, whose father is a member of the Stake Presidency/Bishopric, etc, I think, as Wilfried says in an attempt to “convey to the outsider that this person is a devoted church member” and is of a ‘good’ background. Agreed, Wilfried, that much can be conveyed by tone and context.

  40. Sara Steed
    November 23, 2005 at 11:00 am

    In response to Mike (#6)–yes, I’m hearkening way back, I don’t think it is a smart idea to release an entire bishopric at once. Well, let me rephrase that. When a bishop gets released, the counselors subsequently must be released from being counselors to that particular bishop. However, to have a completely new bishopric with new clerks, etc. could cause a lot of chaos. Obviously, a new bishop is not constrained to use the previous bishop’s counselors as his own–the new bishop must follow the inspiration that he receives; but having experienced through my husband what happens in the event that ONLY a new bishop is called, I truly think that it is not a bad thing to have experienced counselors. For what do counselors do? They give advice to the bishop, they oversee different auxilaries and programs. In the instance of a new bishop, especially if he has never been a bishop before, wouldn’t it seem a positive thing that his counselors have experience. Again, I refer back to the fact that I have seen how helpful a previous bishop’s counselors can be to a new bishop. My ward just got a new bishop a couple of months ago, and my husband was called to be one of his counselors. He was the clerk, and was only such for a month or so before being called as a counselor. We had a huge turnover in our ward (which is the nature of married student wards) and the new bishop chose the ward clerk and the previous counselor (the one who hadn’t moved) to be his counselors. Between the two of them, they probably didn’t even have three months’ worth of experience in the clerk/counselor callings, but they had more experience than most of the other men in our ward (note: I’m not trying to be derogatory, just realistic; nor am I saying that experience overrides revelation). I cannot say what the new bishop’s reasons were for calling his counselors. But, in seeing how stressful it was for my husband the first few weeks of the new bishopric’s existence, I’m sure they were all happy to have some people who had seen how a married student ward functions, who knew the people (and their needs), and who could provide the new bishop with a sense of security in his new calling. And as I said earlier–using the conditional/hypothetical tense, it sometimes might not be a good idea to just release everyone. I truly do think, though, that people who have a problem with previous counselors being recalled into a new bishopric should really try to sustain them as they promised they would when they raised their hand to the square. Even if the man who was called isn’t the greatest guy (I’ve known some who do abuse their counselor position and who use it to satisfy their vanity and pride), if we as members do our part–do our best–in sustaining them, then we won’t be held accountabel for anything. Ok…long enough… c’est tout :)

  41. Wilfried
    November 23, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    Thank you for those relevant remarks, Sara. They bring nuance to the topic and help us see various sides. Sorry for the delay to get this comment through our new WordPress system. From now on your comments should appear immediately, so keep coming! We appreciate your contribution to the discussion.

  42. ESO
    November 30, 2005 at 8:14 pm

    Another great post, Wilfried. I have always wondered if this was more of an issue with men in the Church than women.

    For example, as a sister missionary I NEVER tracked which other sisters were made senior companions (our only “promotion”) or when while elders I served with kept copious notes of who made senior, DL, ZL, office missionary, and AP and when; they did this, I assume, in order to compare themselves and their relative success. Sisters, by having no leadership postions, had no interest in this and no associated stress or worries (and no feeling of being snubbed).

    While there are some leadership positions for women, we seem not to jockey for position so much. There must be exceptions, but I personally have never known a woman to be dissappointed at being released from being RS, YW, or Primary president.

    A BIC RM recently moved to our small branch and I heard from MANY sepparate people their astonishment at him being a 27-year-old High Priest! It really seemed to irk some people.

    In my current branch, the few RMs seem to be purposely kept out of leadership postions. Maybe this is simply my perception. I suppose it is possible that others are being given the opportunity to develop skills, but we have had some significant mis-steps along that path (leadership making pronouncements that specifically go against Chruch policy and then not being willing to accept a gentle nudge in a more Church-like direction). I can’t help but wonder if these might be avoided by putting an experienced member at least in the branch presidency.

  43. Adam Greenwood
    November 30, 2005 at 8:50 pm

    “The scriptural formula is that this is “the only true and living churchâ€? (D&C 1:30). Prophets make it the true church, but it is the universal lay ministry that makes it the living church.”

    Remarkable. Thank you.

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