In Praise of our Secret Keepers

I have a secret. This isn’t one of those fun, gossipy secrets. It’s more like a burden…a trying to keep someone from getting hurt kind of a secret…and it’s weighing on me. I have this strong urge to divulge, like keeping it in is somehow painful. So, I went to see a secret keeper, my bishop, talked it over with him, unburdened myself, and left feeling calm, peaceful, and able to cope. On the ride home I thought, “how many more people unburdened themselves tonight? How many more secrets is he living with?”

Being lay clergy is an unenviable job. From a secular perspective, it is completely unfair. All of the expectations of traditional clergy, with no training, and no monetary compensation for the many hours spent ministering. A bishop must serve people with whom he has worshipped in the past, maybe neighbors, probably friends, and possibly a few he wouldn’t count as friends. The hours are long, at times the gratitude is short, and then there are all the problems, burdens, and secrets.

I’ve never been a bishop, but knowing the work that bishops have done for me, considering that I probably haven’t been the most difficult ward member for most of my life, and then multiplying that by 2, 3, or 700–that is daunting. Which brings us back to my original thought, the most difficult task for me would be bearing the burdens–keeping the secrets.

I think that bishops sometimes get a bad rap in the bloggernacle–everyone has had the bad experience with the odd bishop, and of course, those are the stories we tell. But I want to be publicly grateful. I’m glad someone will listen to me and allow me to unburden my heart. This is amazingly selfless service, and it occurs that it echoes the profound service the Savior offers all of us–to take on Himself our burdens and pains.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I never thought about it before, but keeping secrets would be a very tough part of the position.

    I’ve never had any trouble with any of my bishops. They have all been uniformly good and diligent men I respected. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky.

  2. I’m in the bishopric right now and can say that it is definitely one of the toughtest, if not the toughest calling in the church. (not my calling, but that of my bishop). I dread the day when I’m called, because it really means that it is my responsibility to shepherd not just the members of the church, but everybody within the ward boundaries. I’ve had to deal with an abusive bishop, so my tolerance for bishops is not very high. But I try to give them the benefit of the doubt as much as I can. They are not professionals, but they are called of God.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Amen Karen. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. It’s also statistically stunning if you see this as a purely personal achievement of each bishop.

    I would not predict, if I did not have the experience I do, that even a majority of many thousands of men doing this difficult unpaid job with little formal training would do the job well. It’s a result of a extensive and redundant set of formal structures that Joseph Smith created and that have been modified in form but not in substance over the years, don’t you think? These structures both train men for the calling and provide support and restriction during the bishop’s tenure.

    It’s good men doing good works, but maybe more than that too.

  5. Thanks for this Karen. It approximates my admiration for our bishops, their qualities, and their service as well.

  6. Hey, look, it’s a lyle sighting!

    My DH asked a friend who is a new bishop how he liked the new gig. The friend said the hardest part is all the things he now knows about people that he really doesn’t want to know.

    I joined the church almost 20 years ago, and I’m currently on bishop #11. So far, they have all been wonderful men, though this one is pretty new and likes to have extra meetings, so the jury is still out.

  7. Well, that was me. New anon tag next time…

  8. I’m not the lyle you think I am.

  9. We welcome all lyles, even ones that are not Stamps.

  10. If you just need to unburden yourself of secrets on someone duty-bound to keep them, and you don’t want to overburden your poor bishop, you can tell your lawyer. For just a few hundred dollars an hour I’ll listen to your dirt and take it to the grave. That way you can tell your secrets, not bother your bishop, and buy me a Lexus. Everybody wins.

  11. Yes, but if you tell your lawyer, then he’ll find out a way to sue someone, and spend the rest of your time with him trying to convince you to do it.

    Bishops are free, and they rarely urge litigation. I’m sticking in the pro-bishop camp. :o)

  12. By the way, it’s really kind of nice listening to everyone’s GOOD feelings about their bishops. To echo lyle, who may not be lyle, you wouldn’t predict their success rate just looking at the circumstances. It seems to be a testimony of the good that can come from good people trying to do selfless service while listening to the spirit. Maybe a more powerful combination than we seem to give it credit as being.

  13. Ah, a nice job.

    And thanks for reminding me of my gratitude that I am genetically over-qualifed for the position of bishop. They just shifted the bishopric here because the old bishop became the SP. I had a great time kidding my buddies in the HP quorum.

  14. lamonte says:

    Karen – Thanks for your good thoughts about bishops. Having served as bishop of my ward I will not disagree with you about the burdens of keeping secrets – for life. But there is another side of serving as bishop that you didn’t mention and that is the blessing of being able to share in the joyful experiences in the lives of the ward members. All the baptisms, weddings (I actually peformed five of them), baby blessings and so many other joyful experiences that usually include the bishop make all the long hours and the painful or sorrowful experiences worth enduring. And to Dan #2, you may not be seeking the office of bishop right now because you see the commitments required of the job (a perfectly appropriate attitude to have) but if the opportunity presents itself accept it with the knowledge that God will hold you up when you think you can’t stand anymore and you will be able to accomplish more than you ever thought possible because of His love and strength.

    Thanks again Karen, for reminding me of a wonderful time in my life.

  15. Lamonte,

    Thanks. I certainly won’t decline the calling if/when it comes. I think I still like the idea of having free time to myself on occasion. :)

    But if the Lord calls, I am ready.

  16. I have to also pay respect for resisting their human nature to tell the secrets. Last year, for one reason or another, I was told by different people their dark secrets. And they were dark. And so juicy. And such good stories. I knew these people were all separately working things out with our bishop. He knew what I knew but I also knew he wasn’t telling anyone, even though surely he had to have some impulse to say to someone, you will NEVER believe what I heard.

    That’s very impressive to me, as I have a very difficult time resisting my natural impulses. I am convinced that while bishops are still human, still themselves, they’re also being made more than they are.

  17. Is there a scriptural basis for bishop’s filling this role? Maybe it has something to do with temporal welfare of the membership.

  18. My impression is this – Bishops are unpaid, untrained Proesthood holders, who have been called to take on the role and the responsibility of being the Bishop of a Ward. And, they are inspired by Heavenly Father, so, almost all of them raise to the occasion, and become wonderful leaders of their Wards. Though, it is those rare ocassions, wehre the person called is not inspired by and/or guided by Heavenly father, that you hear about the Bishops who failed in their calling. Thankfully, such examples are few and far between.

  19. Well said, karen. My dad was just released aft ~10 years of service as a “judge in Israel.” It is miraculous.

  20. What a great Potter-analogy. Indeed, the Bishops of the world are handed burdens, but I believe through the ministry of the Spirit they are allowed to drop those burdens and put them on Christ.

    I have a young bishop… 33. He is one of the most wonderful Bishop’s I’ve ever had. He is always compassionate, loving, and kind. I never feel judged. I never feel that I am “less than” in his presence. He is a great man fulfilling his calling with great majesty.

    Thank you Karen for this wonderful reminder.

    Remember… we are only as sick as our secrets. Way to unload in the right way.

  21. Probably one of the hardest things is not so much keeping secrets, but realizing how very little can be done to ameliorate the pain behind the secrets.

  22. as physicians we can go to jail for years and be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars if we even accidentally disclose private information. this responsibility is much easier to keep since we don’t have social relationships with our patients as a general rule and are much more interested in caring for their medical problems than in gossiping about personal matters. I have great respect for those who can keep secrets even within their social or church community. So hats off to bishops as a group.

    Do any of you infractionists (I’m trying out different words for lawyers) happen to know whether there are legal ramifications to disclosures of said information, whether advertent or inadvertent, by ecclesiastical officers, and does it matter whether they are professional or lay?

  23. Uh oh Karen,

    Now we’ve simply switched from negative stereotypes about Bishops to negative stereotypes about lawyers.

    Like most bishops, most lawyers aren’t all that bad either.

  24. Sam, there’s no legal obligation of confidentiality by a mormon bishop. Some jurisdictions recognize a notion of ecclesiastical privilege (meaning they can’t force your priest to testify as to a confession), but not all areas do this. My understanding is that it is a church policy to keep confidentiality in most (but not all cases), but there is no obligation.

  25. S.P. Bailey says:

    Sam: I would add to Steve’s response:
    (1) the common-law tort of disclosure (roughly speaking, widespread dissemination of confidential information) would be an avenue of legal redress for harm caused by loose-lipped lay clergy; and
    (2) plaintiff’s lawyers have also tried to pursue (with limited success) “clergy malpractice” claims. It is not difficult at all to imagine a plaintiff’s lawyer contending that revealing confidences learned while ministering falls under the rubric of clergy malpractice (success on a such a claim would vary by jurisdction).

    As far as church practice goes, it is my understanding that the church seeks to carefully guard confidences under the clergy-penitent privilege (not an easy task with thousands of lay clergy at play) unless there is a legal obligation to disclose (i.e., each of the 50 states imposes different obligations regarding child-abuse reporting).

  26. SP, is that true? I thought that in abuse cases or crimes the church policy is that confidentiality is out of the question.

  27. Mark IV says:

    The church maintains a toll-free number bishops can call and get advice as to what they can disclose, and, just as importantly, what they must disclose. The state of Idaho requires that a bishop or pastor receiving a confession of certain kinds of child abuse call the police within 48 hours.

  28. rleonard says:

    The state laws are a hodge podge of different standards on reporting child abuse. Some lean towards disclosure after confession and some do not. Currently the trend in new legislation seems to be towards reporting it to police. That is one reason there is the hotline.

    In different states the church has been sued both for divulging a confession of child abuse by a bishop and for not reporting it.

  29. S.P. Bailey says:

    I have read an interesting article on the subject. Also works as a powerful non-prescription sleep aid.

  30. As the wife of a bishop for the past several years, I appreciate your post, Karen. Thanks for noticing this and for taking the time to write a post about it.

    However, I think one aspect of secret keeping that hasn’t been mentioned yet is the effect that it has upon a Bishop’s family members, especially their wives.

    I recognize that I am particularly sensitive to this due to the fact that I have some major “trust issues” from some traumatic experiences with men in my past. It has been difficult for me over the years to learn to accept the fact that there are things about my husband–people he’s developed strong relationships with, dangerous situations he’s been subjected to, topics he’s discussed that I’m not even aware of–that he can’t even speak to me about in general terms.

    Because my trust/faith in men in relationships was shattered so many times, my husband and I got engaged only upon the specific condition that we would “always” tell each other “everything”–where we were, where we were going, etc.

    Fast forward 4 months after our wedding, and DH received his calling. It didn’t really start to hit me what ecclesiastical confidentiality entailed–and how it would affect our relationship–until a few big-time secret situations occurred in the ward and DH started having to make numerous, regular visits with certain individuals. I wasn’t working/in school at the time, and I just remember sitting alone in our dark & empty apartment, a young bride 3,000 miles away from her family and friends, wondering where the hell DH was and why God would want to subject me to this type of emotional torture.

    I have to say that my husband is the most trustworthy man I have ever known (many describe him as “without guile”). But in certain situations even that hasn’t been enough to help me overcome a PTSD-like reaction to not knowing exactly where he has been, who he has been with, or where he is going. It’s gotten better over the years, but even now when he comes home at 1:00 am after having spent the entire evening with “someone” in the ward who is in trouble, my little emergency!emergency! sensors still trigger and I have to methodically talk myself through a dialogue that goes something like this: “I trust DH completely. God has confirmed to me that He wants DH to serve in this calling. DH would never do anything to betray my trust or hurt me.”

    The only thing that has really helped the situation is that DH and I talk a lot about how I am feeling when the alarm triggers start going off. Usually if I talk about my feelings long enough, I can calm myself down and gear myself up for being the bishop’s wife for at least a while longer.

  31. Melinda says:

    I heard a former bishop say once that he honestly could not remember many of the details of the confessions he had heard while serving as bishop. He suggested that having those memories blurred was part of the Lord’s promise to remember the sins of the repentant no more.

  32. Maria:

    I appreciated your comment. We had been discussing a similar issue at the ExII blog a couple of weeks ago, and it has had me thinking. My husband and I have been together almost five years and share *everything.* In fact, after watching some close friends break up because of secret-keeping of a very different sort, we have made “no secrets” a sacred vow in our relationship. That said, I have begun the long slow road of getting a doctorate in psychology, so at some point, there will be details I *cannot* share with him. But we’ll have a lot of years of communcation behind us at that point. Having a your husband called to this position at such an early stage in your marriage must be difficult. For what it’s worth, I’ll send a prayer your way tonight.

  33. Deborah,

    Thanks for your prayers. Incidentally, I’m writing this comment as I wait for DH to finish up a phone call with some crying woman in the other room. Ah…such is my life.

    I wasn’t aware of the conversation going on over at your blog–I would have definitely had some strong points to chime in with. I could write volumes on the woes of being the Bishop’s wife…especially those woes particular to a feminist wife.

  34. lamonte says:

    Maria and Deborah – I won’t pretend to know the feelings that you are describing other than to say that I was blessed by the attitude of my wife during the time that I served as bishop. Long hours away from home and spending significant time with others, sharing their “secrets.” My wife never wanted to know the secrets and we never talked about them. It was always a practice of mine to have a member of the bishopric close by, in an adjacent room, when I was meeting late night with a female ward member. Perhaps the fact that your husband was called shortly after your wedding date made a difference in your feelings. My wife and I had been married for 22 years when I was called.

    May I suggest that both of you read a talk by Elder Holland from the November 2002 Ensign entitled “Called to Serve”. Or better still, if possible, listen to Elder Holland on a DVD version (he’s one of my favorite speakers). Elder Holland relates the experience of one bishop’s wife that really touched my heart. I hope it will help you.

  35. [Maria — if you have a chance, shoot me an e-mail at exponentblog at I have a thought/question. Thanks! (p.s. If I don’t respond immediately it’s because I’m out of town this weekend.)]

  36. Most Bishops are good.

    However I unloaded a confidence of a rather serious nature, a few years ago. This was followed by him discussing it with his Counsellors, and the Stake President. and to cut a long story short after I was re fellowshiped some 5 years later I moved to a different ward, and the bishop of that ward, came to me and asked me about it and had I re offended, How did he know my former problem?

    If I ever did re offend, I would go to the Lord in mighty prayer, but never divulge my secret to the one man the Bishop, who then told the world.

  37. I was just going to comment to 36 – there are cases in when a confession to a bishop does trigger discussions with counselors and the SP. The issue of “confidentiality” is not intended to be ‘absolute’, particularly when discipline is required.

    Certain issues do you follow you — but note, it was the *bishop* of the other ward who approached you, not the EQ president. Certain disciplinary matters are marked on your Church records for the rest of your life. [Not saying that those apply in your case.]

  38. To Maria,
    As I young wife (31 years ago) and now a mother of 8 and grandmother to 11, I have been in your shoes.
    I don’t think the Lord intends to have us ‘feel’ left out of our husbands confidential callings. A large part of our ‘feelings’ are self-generated. I’ve been there and sat alone on a bench with my little children for years.
    Attitude is everything.
    Instead of swimming in the forboding sea of estranged feelings, resentment and loneliness. (1)Talk to your husband and Stake President, (2) ask for a Priesthood blessing with them both present. (3)Have a specific night where your ‘DATE’ is not disturbed. ‘Sneak’ time away, even if just an hour. Have your own little gesture (tug your earlobe)or sign (wink/blow a kiss -with out your hand) or key word you can breathe to him while passing in the hall at church or peek your head into his office (we liked RANGER COOKIES)- just to remind him that you love him, miss him, and are thinking about him. (4)When you are together talk intimately about your family/love.(5) Never Gossip! and Don’t Whine!
    Your husband’s calling need not affect you in a negative way – that would be the adversarily relationship that Satan wants you to have, making the calling of your husband form a wedge between you.
    Please understand that you are his ‘North Star’ and ‘Anchor’, if he cannot feel or you cannot communicate your sweet and tender compassion his confidance will suffer and his trust in you may also.
    The Lord called your husband because He had faith and trust in you as well. He is on LOAN to the Lord right now!
    Rarely do these calls last forever! Stand tall in your support, you’ll get him back one day! – How will ‘your term of service’ be remembered?
    On more than one occasion I have heard my husband receive a comment similar to this one, “You are one Lucky guy!”
    And if has been a while, then I TELL HIM!
    Good Luck!


  1. […] “If you just need to unburden yourself of secrets on someone duty-bound to keep them, and you don’t want to overburden your poor bishop, you can tell your lawyer. For just a few hundred dollars an hour I’ll listen to your dirt and take it to the grave. That way you can tell your secrets, not bother your bishop, and buy me a Lexus. Everybody wins.” […]

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