Mormon bishops wear different hats: They are administrators of ward functions, personal counselors to their members, and judges in ecclesiastical issues. The question for this post is whether it is possible for bishops to simultaneously fulfill each of these roles well.
The potential conflict between the role of counselor and judge becomes apparent in the case of the temple recommend interview. For many members, this interview is one of their few points of personal contact with the bishop (or bishopric member). The questions invite an opportunity for meaningful discussion between bishop and member: What does it mean to sustain the apostles? Do you feel worthy? But a member who wishes to truly discuss these issues with her bishop during the interview might feel constrained by the fact that the bishop can deny the temple recommend if he finds the member’s take on the questions out of acceptable bounds. Given the costs, members might not risk a discussion that they would otherwise desire. Others have recently pointed to a similar phenomenon in regards to the BYU honor code: Will people speak to their bishop about a sin and seek help if faced with the immense consequences of violating the honor code?
Other conflicts might be subtler. If a bishop must spend the bulk of his time counseling distressed members of the ward, then he might inevitably lapse in other functions. For example, he might not have time to administer the ward well. He might not have time to meet with non-distressed members, leaving the majority of the ward to feel disconnected. He might not have the time to contemplate who would be effective in a certain calling.
One can imagine alternative ward governance structures. Perhaps the roles of administrator, counselor, and judge could rest in three different people. Perhaps some functions—such as responsibility for callings—could be delegated to other members more than we already do. On the other hand, there are some advantages to the current merger of roles: We might appreciate that knowledge of someone’s welfare needs or family situation is kept within a small circle. That circle would expand if there were more people filling the traditional bishop roles. Or, we might think it useful for a judge to know the member’s background well.
The following questions present themselves: Is the current model of bishop functioning well? Would an alternative system produce more benefits than costs? Are there doctrinal barriers to reform?