The Refiner’s Fire

“Was the refiner’s fire hot?” my stake president (SP2) asked me on the night he came over to give me my release a little less than a year ago. This was a bit of a surprise since it was at 4.5 years, but SP2 explained that they were reworking the boundaries. His question was in reference to the hard time he knew I’d had as bishop, and I appreciated his acknowledgement of that.

Lots of reasons why and I consider an instance I’d had a couple of months before my release to be most indicative of the experience. My wife (Lee) and I were on a date and had stopped to do some grocery shopping. As we sat in the car, Lee cried and expressed how difficult and emotionally exhausting my time as bishop had been and how she couldn’t wait for it to be over. My radiantly positive and confident wife doesn’t do much crying in the car, but was that evening.* SP1, who called me, told me that he hoped my time as bishop would be the very best time for my family; that goal didn’t seem to have been achieved.

And yet, a lot of other things had been achieved for me. I came in feeling pretty shaky about a number of things, and at the point of sitting in the car in the grocery store parking lot, I was definitely feeling better about the church and my place in it, with all my unconventional views (more on all of that).

So as Lee cried, I thought, “I’m actually feeling better about things, but considering what we’ve been through, crying in the parking lot seems like a very appropriate response.” The point of this post isn’t so much to focus on those difficult things, but more of my sense of myself and relationship to God and the church that I developed during the process despite my unconventionality.

A good story of how I felt at the time of my release was when the youth Sunday school asked me to come see her class on my last day. As I walked down the hall to the class I thought, “Oh, man. I was so bad at working with the youth, and I never improved.” But as that thought crossed my mind, another thought did as well: I truly believed that I had given everything I had to the calling, even if a lot of things about it I was bad at. God had asked for everything, and I had given all I had.

Being a bishop is really hard and I think I may have had a few additional challenges. I’d break those overall challenges into four categories 1) the general hard stuff of the huge calling 2) perhaps made harder by my social awkwardness and introversion (kind of unacceptable for bishops and that’s hard) 3) my own struggling to make sense of my unorthodox views on the church and unorthodox research, and 4) the changes the church leaders made over the last 5 to 8 years, many of which made the bishop’s task much harder, in my experience.

The point isn’t so much to complain as to give some context for what I’m sharing here. All of these contexts include many long stories, but I did very much come to view my hard stuff as very useful learning experiences that God wanted me to go through. And in terms of the context for this series, a big part of that was the sense of myself as committed to God and the church despite my unorthodoxy.

Watership Down was my wife’s favorite book as a kid and became a family favorite. I hope I’m not giving away spoilers to say I love the book’s many climaxes, especially the great showdown between Woundwort and Bigwig. Woundwort is the biggest, fiercest rabbit who has come with his lieutenants to meet out revenge on the Watership Down warren for having tricked them. The mighty Bigwig, though not as large as Woundwort, must hold off Woundwort while Watership Down’s clever leader figures out a way to save his warren.

Woundwort and Bigwig clash again and again both knowing that if/when Woundwort kills Bigwig, his rabbits will have the Herculean task of trying to remove Bigwig’s corpse from the tunnel he is guarding. Woundwort, exhausted from the fight, and knowing what a problem Bigwig’s death in the tunnel will cause, pleads with Bigwig to come out, offering him all kinds of inducements.

Which leads to what is likely my favorite line in all of literature: “[Bigwig’s] reply, when it came was low and gasping, but perfectly clear. “My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.’”

Bigwig v. Woundwort

Bigwig’s resolve holds them off, and having loved that allusion of Bigwig’s ultimate dedication, I do feel like my time as bishop was a Bigwig-like task. I did feel absolutely pummeled by those four factors I listed above in Woundwort-like fury for 4.5 years. And though not a mighty rabbit like Bigwig, my sense of having come through the process does make me feel like I’ve come to Bigwig’s resolution. God asked me to perform bishop and other tasks and I will stay and defend my tunnel while the Woundwort storm rages on.

So if I cause any discomfort or confusion over any of my future posts (sorry!) leading any to wonder or express, “What kind of Mormon is this?” just know that I will disagree with claims that I’m not properly LDS (though I can certainly understand confusion, that makes sense). I definitely have a knowledge of the sacrifice I gave and what I learned from it. That’s a big part of what I took from the experience.

More to come!

*And, no, I wasn’t a bishop-husband forcing the imposition of my calling down my wife’s throat (I hear that can happen!) Like I said in my last post, my wife is quite assertive and had overwhelmingly took the view of encouraging me to hang in there. Plus I did a lot more crying (the “sad tear” kind, though a few happy tears too) than her while bishop, as she is generally more resolute and joyful than I am, but even she was exhausted by that point.

37 comments for “The Refiner’s Fire

  1. I want to be careful not to overstate the Bigwig metaphor I’m using here as there are many parts of that episode that I am NOT relating to my bishop time. I’m not calling the difficulties I had as bishop some sort of evil like Woundwart, but only that they were extremely difficult. I’m not saying that I was “saving” the warren like Bigwig, only that I was trying to perform a hard task by staying in the “run.” So hanging in there while feeling pummeled is the metaphor I wanted to get across.

  2. Mr Fleming – I appreciate this series so far. Thank you for making the time to share with us.

  3. I think the church needs to realize that wards are different and not every ward should have a bishop serve 5ish years. Another culture thing we just do. (besides YSA wards, they have a strict time limit) Some wards are easy, (easier) and being a bishop for 7 years might not be a big deal for some. Other wards are very difficult and maybe 2 years is all any man/family should be called to endure. Add in the ability/personality of the man called, wife support, career, children, church experience, testimony, the other volunteers that you work with etc…and its a wonder any man can endure the calling!

    I agree with you regarding the changes the church made in the last few years and making it harder for bishops. Head scratcher for me.

    I was talking to a friend, who is a current bishop, just a couple nights ago and asked him how things were going. His ward has 5 nurseries, 2 primaries, 2 Relief Society groups, 2 EQ, and multiple Aaronic Priesthood/YW quorums/classes. He has 11 pages to fill in for tithing settlement! He is 3 years into the calling.

    I admire any man that has been bishop for any length of time. I think there is a special place in the tippy-top kingdom for them. Actually there is probably an entire “better” kingdom for them! I think it would be much easier to be an Apostle than a bishop.

  4. How has serving as bishop become harder since 2018? Wasn’t the idea then that the bishop should concentrate on things only the bishop can (confidential issues of members’ moral worthiness and authorization to receive welfare assistance), plus concentrate on the youth. Most of the rest of running the ward, like directing the ward mission leader and the temple and family history leader, and counseling with members on most matters, was supposed to be picked up by the Relief Society president and elders’ quorum president? That’s how I remember Elder Cook’s description of the 2018 changes in responsibility.

  5. Thanks, Jack and Raymond. I do feel quite committed and attached to the church and Mormonism, but you might perhaps hold off on designating how orthodox I am until a few more posts :).

    In fact, the answer I’m about to give may shed some light on my being a bit outside the box.

    REC, yes things can vary greatly between the nature of wards. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a ward having two primaries, but it sounds like your friend’s ward is headed for a realignment.

    John: here I may need to back up a bit because it was this experience that was most painful for me and my family, and also one that caused some adjustments in how I viewed the church.

    I shared this experience before here at TS a while back and I’ll share it again as a useful starting point. SP1 would hold monthly interviews with the bishops (something SP2 didn’t continue) and in what may have been my last interview with SPI (released a few months after I was called) in response to how I was doing, I told him I felt very uncertain, and very worried whether I was making the right choices/decisions on callings etc. (I’d only been there 5 months when I was called and really didn’t know anyone).

    “Bishop,” he cut me off, “If you make a mistake, fix it an move on. Do you understand?”

    Long story short, all my history study and time as bishop has made it clear to me that our leaders, like I was and am, are also capable of making mistakes. That doesn’t undermine the church’s value for me. Like I said, I do feel quite committed. But I also believe that like I had to often use trial and error in my decision making, our leaders do as well. I very much believe in inspiration, but also that God gives us lots of problems to figure out for our own growth.

    So in listing out what policy changes I found really difficult, I don’t mean to sound like a doubter/dissenter. But I also experienced what I did. I also really don’t like it when I say that something really caused some hurt to me, my marriage, and family to get the response, “It’s not theologically possible for any policy to be imperfect! YOU are the bad guy for claiming to have experienced what you experienced!” Again, that is a big reason for my Woundwort reference, and why I’m going to disagree with commenters who give me that answer.

    I understand our leaders are likely worried about flattening growth numbers and increasing numbers of young people leaving. So making changes to try to improve things make sense in how I view church leadership: God expects us to try things and doesn’t give us all the answers so that we can grow.

    What I found totally devastating was the October 2019 change to get rid of the young men’s president. Others have been difficult too like 2 hour church makes it harder to get things done. It’s definitely easier to have more time at church when the active members are there to talk to. Others things have been hard to, like switching to ministering. I could go through a bit of a list, but getting rid of the ym pres was utterly devastating, especially in light of losing an hour of church.

    The model we were given of explaining how this all made sense with pictures, bore very little resemblance to what I actually did as bishop. The change was completely crushing. One of the most painful experiences I had as bishop happened about 8 months before I was released. In one of our meetings where the bishops would get together and talk, I discovered why none of the other bishops seemed at all vexed by running the ym. I was the only one who did it: all others had handed it off or didn’t have ym.

    I went home and sobbed and sobbed. Apparently I was the only idiot who hadn’t figure that out. It took a terrible, terrible toll.

    But! I’m okay with what I have come to believe as imperfect leaders using trial and error. Inspiration is real, but trial and error is still necessary. I love the church, I stood in the tunnel and took my beating and learned a tremendous amount.

    As President Monson liked to say “You can’t run from trouble, there’s no place that far.” Life is hard, we can all grow from our experiences, and I heard a line in a podcast lately that I really like: “I choose to deal with the problems of community, because I find them preferable to the problems of lack of community.” We have a wonderful community/church and I am fully committed to it.

  6. Agree with with the assessment re YM presidents. I don’t know how I would have survived that change when I was bishop.

  7. I’ve served the last 4 years as a bishopric counselor and the two years before that as the YM president when that still existed. I too have struggled with the organizational aspects of eliminating the YM president, and I consider myself generally orthodox. I think in theory it can work—bishops are supposed to push much of what they used to do to the RS and EQ and then use that time to take a much more active role with the YM. But in practice, not every EQ and RS president can or will fully step up to the plate, which may leave a bishop doing both jobs.

    But even in a strong ward, I think it means your YM advisors are almost inherently underused. We have some of our best people as advisors (former bishops and high councilors) but none of them have a calling to be in charge. So they’re all waiting for the bishop/bishopric to tell them what to do because they don’t want to be seen as taking the mantle from the bishop. This, in my experience, leads to the bishop not just being nominally in charge, but actually dealing with the minutiae of running the organization, which would be a major time commitment even if that was all he had to do. Yes, we figured out how to work around it, but it took us some time and no small amount of frustration. I’m still not sure we’re there.

    I’d also say that a big drawback of the bishop being the YM president is that it leaves him very little time to get to know the YW well; they meet and have activities at the same time as the YM.

  8. It is as if the church leaders are trying to force the bishopric to be more engaged by dropping the YM presidency instead of teaching/emphasizing them to be more involved. As Bishop Fleming found out, most bishops didn’t change at all and did a work around. Reminds me when they moved missionary work from a stake level to the bishops. They didn’t have time for that either. To help, they moved temple rec renewals to every 2 years. Not a good trade off IMO.

    As Bishop Fleming said above, the church is trying their best to keep the younger generations in the pews. Lots of changes are for this purpose IMO.
    Combining HP with EQ (meeting in circles)
    Calling HP aged men to be EQ pres (in my wards this has happened 100% of the time since the change)
    Saints Book
    Ordinations/temple and advancements earlier age
    Almost all the temple changes (mostly for the women)
    Women witnessing baptisms
    Bishop being YM pres
    Bishops and Stake Pres being called at younger ages (where they can)
    Lowering mission ages
    Ministering (less ridged and formal for the men)
    YSA wards/Stakes having YSA’s serve in bishoprics and HC.
    Updating For the Strength of Youth (less do’s and don’ts)
    Mission rule changes (stuff like calling home and dress attire)
    Institute classes that encourage the youth to ask every church history question they have. Nothing is taboo. (this is huge IMO)

    Probably some more that I am forgetting but you get the idea. The future leaders and tithe payers are leaving the church in alarming rates. And its just the beginning, going to get a lot worse.

    Back to being bishops…
    I was in a couple local meetings for Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics with some apostles years ago and these two things stuck out.
    Pres Eyring said that bishops should not be out of the home more than 2 nights a week. (my first thought was has he ever been a bishop?)
    Another apostle said Bishops should always be home from church callings when you tell your wife you will be home. (work around here is to never tell your wife when you plan on being home)

  9. Sorry if I kind of went off there. Still feel a little touchy about that. It was hard.

    We figured out adjustments, and my counselors did a ton. But the hard part is that I felt like by getting rid of the YM pres and the old eqp, that there was now a ton of work for the remaining male leaders. Very easy for my counselors and the eqp to get overwhelmed, which for me, was just one more thing to worry about.

    Jimbob gives a good assessment of just how much there is to think about. There is so much detail with the YM that, as we know, it’s quite a big calling in and of itself. There’s so much other bishop stuff the bishop can’t hand off, just all the being in charge stuff. Running the YM just constantly made my brain feel fried. Again, we made adjustments, but that process was rough.

    I don’t mean to make my posts all about church policies (but happy to opine is TS will grant many posts), and I do get the worry about young people leaving. I’ll talk some about that too.

    I’d heard anecdotally that good YM presidencies were often hard to staff. Lots of men don’t like doing it (I’ve heard and seen somewhat, as opposed to much higher percentages of women who like serving in YW). And all the male callings at the ward and stake level that tend to get staffed with good youth leaders would seem to deplete the number of the available YM leaders. My guess is our church leaders saw putting bishoprics over the YM as a way to help with the common problem of not enough good YM leaders being available.

    That makes sense, but my take is that there is reason to be very very cautious about increasing bishops’ loads. The claim that they offloaded enough of the bishops’ duties to make the YM manageable was not my experience. Overwhelming the bishops seems like a bad idea. I understand the lack of manpower problem, but I’d advise more consolidating wards (there has been a trend towards smaller ward in many places), and reducing stake positions (yes, I think it would be wise to even rethink how the high council works). My 2 cents. Plus I’m hearing lots of claims of YM organizations running poorly when the bishoprics do try to run them.

    More possible posts on these matters, and my point isn’t to be critical, just to share some parts of what it was like to go through the journey. Some context I wanted to point to.

  10. I was RSP in my ward during this same period when YM presidencies were eliminated and high priest groups were folded into elders quorums. I’m in a strong Utah ward where we literally have probably at least 30 men who could be Bishop, there is no staffing problem ever, but this was catastrophic for the youth program. That has been the case in every ward I am aware of. I’m honestly very surprised it has not been reversed yet.

  11. Thanks for responses to my question. From Stephen Fleming’s my understanding is that the two hours of Sunday School and priesthood meeting were when he got a significant portion of his time for talking to individual ward members. Those two hours were cut down to one, and half of the Sundays the bishop now spends that one hour with the Aaronic priesthood; a bishop in the year 2020 had a quarter of time available during Sunday meetings to pull people into his office that a bishop in the year 2018 had. Personally I have often found that use of meeting time by bishoprics to devalue of the efforts of those called to teach classes, but I can see how such use would be tempting.

    From jimbob’s response, I get the idea that the Relief Society and elders’ quorum are not really picking up the work they are asked to, but that for whatever reason men called to a young men’s presidency did do that work when called. Shifts in responsibility take a long time to work out, and sometimes they never do work out. In this case: 1) The Relief Society and elders quorum have to start doing something they had not been doing so much of before. 2) The bishop has to stop doing some things that bishops have always done. 3) Ward members have to stop expecting the bishop to do things that bishops did previously.

    The day after that Oct. 2019 shift in assigned responsibilities my bishop and I met together early in the morning. I pointed out to him where he had been one year prior: visiting my wife in hospice every one of her last eleven days. It wasn’t a requirement of his calling, but something he felt a bishop ought to do. He and I had met that fall Sunday morning in 2019 because he was looking out for me as a recent widower and had been inviting me to meet every few months. I asked him if he saw himself changing how he went about serving as bishop after Elder Cook’s talk, and his answer was more or less, “No, I will still make time for such things.”

    Recently I was talking about that with a friend. He had spent much of the past month with his mother before she died, and he said it bothered his mother a bit that she didn’t see more of her bishop during her final days. So much of how we go about fufilling a calling is copying what we have seen others do before. Change comes slowly. Last Sunday my brother-in-law brought up the time bishoprics spend planning sacrament meetings, and I said they should turn the planning over to the ward council like they had been directed, but which doesn’t happen. I looked up in the handbook to show him where it says that ward councils are supposed to plan sacrament meetings, and I couldn’t find it. All I could find is that bishoprics are responsible for planning sacrament meetings. I did a web search on “ward council”, “plan”, and “sacrament meeting” and found that, yes, in 2015 there was some training about turning over planning to the ward council, and bishoprics would approve the plans. Nine years later, that instruction turns out to have been a short-lived idea.

  12. E,
    I agree. We have also seen an attendance reduction in the post-Boomer crowd in EQ. If you are a youngish (25-50) adult male, and you are not in the Bishopric or one of the few AP advisors or Sunday School teachers, your only hope for callings is the Primary. Primary teachers lose contact with the adults in the ward, especially if it is a calling that extends for years. It is odd that the Church has initiated a plan that (in some instances) marginalizes the parents of the kids they are trying to save. Why can’t we have a viable YM’s program to alleviate the stresses on the Bishops? It would provide callings for capable adult men.

    The Church has also limited High Priest ordinations for mature adult men (they are remaining Elders unless called into a Bishopric) while simultaneously ordaining young adult men high priest right out of the mission field and putting them in Bishoprics in student wards. This means that many active fathers cannot even assist in ordaining their sons in their student wards. I’ve seen some bitter tears over that one.

  13. Okay, just want to say to the generous mods here at T&S who invited me on, inviting criticism of the church wasn’t my intention with these or other posts. But I do appreciate being allow to share my experience, and hope it’s okay to continue to engage with commenters.

    E., what I’ve heard anecdotally about the change has all been negative (except from old dudes who aren’t involved at all, but feel certain it’s scriptural–disagree!)

    In terms of why keep it when it seems to be a clear problem, that IS a topic I’d like to post more about. Again, my study and experience suggests we have a lot of more trial and error than we often say and my sense also is that we tend not to talk about that. My sense that there is a worry that walking back a policy would look like admitting error and my sense is that leaders worry that would be a bad look, undermine faith etc. No doubt the church HAS reversed decisions, but such reversals often do lead to criticism and confusion, so I get the sense the leaders would like to keep such reversals to a minimum.

    The way I see it is that the more accurate “trial and error” model would ultimately work better (after people adjust their thinking). We’re all doing our best, lets be like what SP1 told me: “If you make a mistake, fix it and move on.”

    Old Man and E., another thing I’ve observed is the big difference in experience between big and small wards. Mine did and does struggle to staff and ended up with an off-beat bishop. But yeah, I’m hearing that in bigger wards they’re struggling to find things for people to do. In the big ward I grew up in Utah, I’m told my sister teaches Gospel Doctrine every six weeks. Not much of a calling.

    But my sense is that the leaders have adjusted things to make it so that wards can be smaller. While Utah is a big exception, things tend to be smaller in a lot of places and there’s shrinking in many also. SP2 hinted to us that leaders who loath to do more consolidation, and there could be lots of reasons for that (want to post about it). Smaller wards struggle to staff, have very small youth programs, and my experience is that hurts morale.

    Need to run. More later.

  14. On the subject of offloading work onto the EQP and RSP, that’s great in theory. But even if the EQP and RSP are willing to pick up the ball and the bishop is willing to let go of it, you still have to get the members on board. And as long as the bishop is the one with all the trappings of power (sitting on the stand, having an office with a door that locks, controlling the checkbook, and controlling the temple recommend), the message to the members is that the bishop is the one who can deliver what they want. So they will always go to him, not to the EQP or RSP who can give them little more than advice in an unused classroom.

  15. Last Lemming, in my experience, as a practical matter, the Bishop was not truly allowed to offload anything to the EQP and RSP. The EQP in my ward was very effective, very capable, and very willing to do anything he was asked. The ward members were supposedly going to go to the EQP/RSP for personal issues and counseling? I was already available to the sisters to counsel with and they often did, but that was not taking anything off the Bishop’s plate. Only the bishop could hear confessions, and the bishopric did all the temple recommend interviews, tithing settlement interviews, youth interviews. The bishop had to approve all assistance offered, all callings. We were not even allowed to plan and execute Relief Society activities without giving the Bishop a detailed plan to approve. The only action I can think of that I was allowed to do without involving the Bishop in some way was ask someone to give a prayer in Relief Society. The Bishopric had all the grunt work of arranging Sacrament Meeting programs. The Bishop was even told he had to approve the hymns sung, the chorister had to submit them in advance. It’s one thing announce that the RSP and EQP should take on more of the Bishops burden but it’s another to actually allow that to happen.

  16. John, I got mountains of similar sounding advice from the senior people in the ward and stake that were certain this would work if I just did it right. *sarcasm* It was super fun to be continually told that being crushed by the change was MY fault. Told over and over that I came up with metaphors for how it felt: like being stuck in the boxing ring with my hands tied behind my back and being pummeled, like being handed a Rubik’s cube that had no solution etc. etc.

    I got a lot of such advice from a dear mentor, a former stake president, and eqp when I was first called (before the stake took him). Very nice guy but I got a lot of “don’t talk to so many people, hand things off” etc etc, but any attempt to explain that just didn’t work to lessen the nightmare seemed to fall on deaf ears.

    I started having panic attacks about 2 years in, about 8 that year. Not just because of the YM policy, but all the stuff added together, but the YM policy didn’t help. He advised me to go to the temple more (sweet guy, but I found that frustrating and unhelpful).

    Finally, after I learned why all the other bishops seemed totally unconcerned by the YM policy (they didn’t follow it) I called him up to do some venting. “You know why they’re not having a hard time with it?” “Yes, I’m very curious,” he said (he was the stake YM pres, so a relevant conversation). “CAUSE THEY DON’T DO IT! I’M THE ONLY IDOIT TRYING TO PULL THIS OFF!”

    “Oh, so it sounds like this policy doesn’t work,” he said, and then advised me to call a YM pres and told me the handbook was just a suggestion. Interesting.

    So, no, I don’t believe the policy works, and I don’t believe the fact that it doesn’t work is my fault. That doesn’t make me want to leave the church. I want to stay and help bishops through the difficulties they may be facing, since I see the church and church service as very good though not perfect things.

    And yes, my RSPs and EQPs were very helpful and we worked as a team. They did a lot, but I think it would be a bad idea to play no role in welfare since the bishop is ultimately responsible for the budget and ought to look out for his people, especially the RSP and EQP.

    So, no, I don’t think this was a good idea. I experienced it first hand. I do think cultural changes to the church are coming, but different ones than John suggests.

  17. Good point, E. Technically bishops ARE supposed to “approve” all that stuff, but I was pretty happy to rubber stamp hymns and primary programs etc. But tons of the other stuff you mention are pretty big tasks: callings, talks, recommends, and just being the go to guy for complaints. I had wonderful counselors, EQ and RS, but what I really really needed was a young men’s president.

  18. Being a Bishop is a super hard job. I agree that having expanded role with the youth and the combing of elders and high priests without home teaching made it even harder.

  19. I suggested to my SP that “hard wards” have 2 bishops called and split up the duties. Lets think outside the box! For those who have been bishops, there is ALWAYS something else to do. The key is to (try) control the work and not let it control you. (not always possible) The constant management of time can be daunting. Too much time with the family, guilt. Too much time with the ward, guilt.

    Panic attacks are clearly not something that any bishop should have to go through. Bless you Bishop Fleming. (and your family)

  20. The YM thing…. I have 5 sons and 30 years in YM. Basically the bishopric being in charge has failed. It’s to much to ask on top of regular bishopric work to do weekly activities and regular campouts. In our ward we basically just operate like we did before. Each quorum has a strong adult leader or 2 in charge and we just run things with very limited bishopric involvement as before.

    I suspect they will eventually revert back to YMS presidencies.

  21. Okay, just want to say to the generous mods here at T&S who invited me on, inviting criticism of the church wasn’t my intention with these or other posts. But I do appreciate being allow to share my experience, and hope it’s okay to continue to engage with commenters.

    As long as the comments fall within the comment policy (as interpreted by the poster), it’s always great to engage with commenters.

  22. There is certainly a disconnect in the Church between the institution and the congregation, particularly when it comes to the actual work of the Restoration—ministering and succoring members, teaching, cultivating the kinship of covenant—the work of our wards. The fact that the institution relies so heavily on surveys and data sets to gauge the pulse of the congregation manifests as much. My brother is an auto mechanic, and he uses an analogy, describing inexperienced or lackluster auto mechanics for their tendency to “throw parts” at the vehicle—meaning, those who are not able to effectively diagnose a vehicle problem, end up fixing or changing out all the stuff they can, until the problem is identified or resolved. It seems sometimes that the institution has the same pattern—it will often make changes in the Church that dramatically affect the congregation, more like experimentation than proper troubleshooting. Many good members have stepped away from the Church, not for lack of faith in the Restored Gospel, but for disappointment and disillusionment in the institution that runs the Church. It seems sometimes that some of the middle-management and administrators of the institution are not able to recognize the effects their policies or decisions have upon those who are in the trenches. What we can be sure of is that good men like yourself serve selflessly, sincerely, and with genuine love for the membership. Speaking honestly about your experiences isn’t a cut at the Church—on the contrary, it’s what we need most to grow and move forward. I hope the mods at T&S will allow you to speak your truth. Bearing record of your experience is valuable and greatly appreciated.

  23. Stephen, thanks for taking the time and being courageous enough to put this out there. It’s an important topic. I wasn’t a bishop but I was in a bishopric the same time you were. I have so much to say about it but I’ll try and be brief.

    Tangentially, I completely agree that the whole concept of stake callings needs to be examined and reworked. The stake always takes the most qualified people that most wards desperately need. What real value does a stake Primary presidency or RS presidency or high council really provide? I would say precious littles the traditional stake youth activities. Pare down stake callings, make the high council part time, make stake conference once a year, make ward conferences just a Sunday for the stake presidency to speak in a ward. Recognize that real growth, real work, real change only happen at the ward level and everything should be organized to make life for the wards and their leaders as easy and productive as possible. That means getting the best and brightest out of the stake and back in the ward.

    I empathize with your pain over the YM change, we struggled and failed with it as well. To me this was a symbolic act that was made in a conference room without thinking through the real world implications. Symbolic in that the leadership is proclaiming, “The youth are our highest priority! And to make that clear we’re putting the big guy in charge!” Here are some thoughts on why that is the worst organizational decision I’ve ever directly experienced in the church.

    First, for 60 years the church has implemented priesthood correlation, it has created a system where everything funnels to and through the bishop. He is the CEO and CFO of the ward. The bishop is solely in charge of the system you created and 3 generations of members have accepted that and embraced that. You can’t erase that simply by saying hey EQP and RSP, take up the slack! It just doesn’t work that way. If you want to completely reorganize our wards then do the hard work and make the organizational changes so that other organizations have real power and authority not derived from the bishop. Don’t gaslight members by telling them it’s up to them to make the change.

    Second, the YM president was the perfect complement to a bishop. He took care of lessons, activities, service and the bishop could step in and mingle with everyone without taking up his time with the details. A YM president enabled a bishop, he made him more effective with the youth, not less.

    Third, before the YM and YW presidents were on a theoretically equal footing. Each one was at the same level of authority, each one was able to have some of the bishop’s time and attention. The bishop theoretically had equal allegiance to both groups. Now the YW president and all of the YW are at a disadvantage because their counterpart, the YM president, is also their leader. My bishop was conscious of this power imbalance, he would say, now I’m speaking as the YM president and not the bishop, but that’s not easy to do. It’s like a business where the VP of sales and marketing and the VP of operations both report to a president. Then the corporate minds declare that sales and marketing are so important the president will assume the role of that VP. But don’t worry ops, you’re still equal!! Who believes that?

    Much more to say but that’s probably enough for now. Thanks again for opening this conversation up.

  24. If I ran the zoo, I would take YM/YW in the opposite direction of what KLC recommends. I would eliminate YM/YW on the ward level. I would do that because of the many wards that currently combine youth and Primary with another ward. Instead I would have a stake program that would have no connection with Sunday worship services.

    I would also eliminate singles’ wards, and I would take the manpower currently spent on siloing the singles’ Sunday worship and instead use it to run singles’ programs that don’t invest most of their effort into simply duplicating a ward structure.

  25. Brian, agreed. Rec, yes a huge task, and doing some more tinkering (and walking back that YM policy, agreed Bbell) seems wise.

    T.M. That’s an interesting mechanic analogy, but I think we should give our leaders patience and grace as they “tinker with the car” that is the church’s current challenges. I’m sure they’re now feeling like they’re in a totally different world in terms of church growth than they were in previous decades. It makes sense they’d want to improve things but lots of what they face is uncharted territory, so I think it makes sense that many of the attempts at “fixes” will be hit and miss. I think our church has created an expectation of quasi-infallibility and almost omniscience among the leaders, which I think is a problematic overestimation. But thank you for your encouragement here.

    KLC, sounds like you and I had a lot of the same observations. It seems wise for the leaders to make a few more changes here and hopefully this can be a useful learning experience for all of us.

    John, yes, lots of places to tinker.

  26. And I do want to reiterate that though I do have some critiques and suggestions related to my bishop time, my intent in this post (and others) isn’t to stress overall dissatisfaction.

    We switched buildings during the realignment that got me released but still live closish to the prior building. A couple of months ago I was returning home from dropping a kid off and noticed I was driving by the turn off to the prior building and felt a warm feeling thinking of all the time I had spent there doing the bishop stuff. There had been many many hard things about it, but I think the reason for that warm feeling was/is my conviction that as a bishop I had been involved in a very good work. I’ll post more about that too.

  27. I have been in a Bishopric for about a year now and the Young Men thing is an issue in our ward too. But if the change will stick, it will take more time than has passed thus far.

    I prefer to see it as an opportunity though for creativity. My optimistic take is the church, in the post-boy scout world, is looking for local innovation in the youth programs. Rather than imposing a top-down program on the whole church, it’s looking for us to develop new local programs of advancement and initiation. It doesn’t say that in the handbook or anywhere else, but I think that’s the future.

    Also, wholeheartedly endorse running stake youth programs instead of ward programs. That’s probably the future too, especially in stakes with small wards, like mine. We already do combined stake youth activities once a month.

  28. I see the removal of the YM presidency and removal of scouting as two different things, Michael. Your point about local innovation is valid, but handing that off to bishoprics without adequate help (in my experience) is likely more than almost all bishoprics can handle. On top of everything else, they are now supposed to not only run, but create a ym program?

  29. And the idea of stake running the activity portion of the youth programs would definitely be worth exploring.

  30. I haven’t served in a bishopric, but the transition seems to have worked relatively well here. Part of the reason is that the bishop serving at the time was relatively young with children in the primary and youth programs, and well situated to be involved with the youth. The bishop called after him was also of similar age. But it also changes who gets called into bishoprics (men who might earlier have been called into YM) and into EQ presidencies (ours is now mainly composed of men who had previously served in bishoprics). Overall there can be a tradeoff of youth leadership skills against adult leadership/management skills, sometimes leaving other organizations to pick up the slack. But we’re adults who should be able to deal with it.

    Multi-ward or stake youth programs can work well in some places, but it didn’t work well when it was tried here. There are two demographically similar wards in this town, but there can be some surprising cultural differences and it was difficult (at least for some youth) to escape the perception of “uncool ward” (us) vs. “cool ward” (them) or feel like their activity suggestions were being taken seriously. With the next closest ward an hour away, that leaves few alternatives to somehow making the ward youth programs work.

  31. Stephen, indeed they are different but I’m just a hopeful optimist, that all these things will combine to make sense. Having a lot of advisors who oversee the logistics of the YM program, vs leading it has been helpful in our ward.

  32. Great post, and comments too.
    I second the idea of officially and formally empowering EQP and RSP. Based on my experience as a recently released EQP, and under the new order of things, they already constitute a shadow bishopric with the bishop over the ward; find a way to make it formal and effective. I heard someone say recently, and it struck me as right, the EQP/RSP is basically positioned to function as the bishop(ric) over the adult portion of the ward.

  33. The tricky thing, as I see it, Coment, it that it seems that SOMEBODY needs to be in charge. But I totally would have been good with the EQP being in charge and just being over the YM, ie just being the YM president :). As it stood, there was a TON of other stuff I was over. Why not give the bishops more help? Like a YM pres!

    I’m hopeful for you too, Michael. Good luck and I’d encourage you guys to make adjustments as needed and get all the help you can.

    *** Yeah the schematics of a stake youth program could get tricky depending on configuration and size.

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