Background: A couple of weeks ago, a new Bishop was called and sustained in my ward. As luck would have it, my new Bishop is also one of my closest friends in the ward. On his first Sunday as Bishop, he passed out a survey for members of the ward to complete.
Dear Bishop N.,
You and I moved into this ward with our tiny-but-growing families a few weeks apart during the summer of 2006. Perhaps because of the similarity of our situations in life, as well as some mutual friends who greased the wheels ahead of time, I felt a warmth and closeness with you more or less the instant I met you. I sensed in you a greatness of spirit and capacity for leadership that I have rarely experienced–maybe only a time or two before, and I knew that, despite your relative young age, you would be standing before our ward as Bishop sooner rather than later, if only we both remained in the ward long enough to see a change.
The experiences we’ve shared over the past three years–birthday parties for our kids, watching conference together, swapping babysitting duties, saving you from an apparent drowning, enduring long ward council meetings, and just chatting in the street while our boys make each other cry, have all served to confirm the initial impression I had of you.
When the word was given a week prior to your sustaining that there would be a new Bishop, I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that you were the best man for the job–and I even tried to (tactfully) tease you and express my sincere excitement and joy for your upcoming assignment during the week–I knew you were the new Bishop. My wife felt similarly, as did many others in the ward who participated in the obligatory speculation sessions that precede new Bishopric sustainings. Truth be told, there wasn’t really much chatter about who the new Bishop would be–it was just about who your counselors would be.
Despite, or maybe because of, the complete and utter lack of surprise when your name was presented for sustaining, there entered into our chapel a spirit and peaceful energy that firmly and undeniably witnessed to me–as well as to many others present—that you had been called of God. It was extraordinary. I support and sustain you as my Bishop, and look forward to serving under your guidance.
You asked me–both in a survey you gave to ward members, and individually as we talked after your sustaining–for my thoughts. Over the past three years, you and I have had many conversations about our ward, about the gospel, and about life in general. You know that I have strong feelings about our ward and the issues it faces. We also talked about the difficulty in talking or soliciting feedback on these issues, because neither of us wants to suggest that the outgoing Bishop was anything less than magnificent–because he was fantastic and used his spiritual gifts to bless our ward in innumerable ways. Nevertheless, your spiritual gifts and style of leadership are different, and it is only fair to expect that you would excel in some different areas.
I jokingly suggested that you didn’t really want me to answer your questions because of my blunt nature, but, in the immortal words of The Great Matsby, “look Poindexter, you knew what I was when you [asked].” I chose to respond in a public format like BCC because I have often found that extra eyes can illuminate many flaws in my own thinking (Just be wary of anything that comes from a rogue named “gst”–he is not to be trusted), and also because I’m running out of ideas, and I have a monthly posting quota to meet. So here goes.
1. How connected/integrated do you feel with your ward family? Why do you feel the way you do?
Though it may surprise you (or not) to hear me say this, I feel quite un-integrated, and actually very lonely in our ward. I imagine that, to others in our ward, my wife and I appear to be very well integrated and seem to be among the more active and happy families in the ward. We are not. This is partly my own fault, to be sure–I’m not the shining beacon of friendliness and warmth that I could/should be, and I’m by nature quiet around strangers (Let’s blame it all on my Finnish wife, okay?). But it’s not entirely on us, either.
A story my brother once told me describes a common feeling I get in our ward. During the five or so years he spent in a very non-LDS community for graduate school, he and his wife observed a very odd, phenomenon: They made it a point to invite people over to dinner on Sunday as often as possible–monthly, perhaps?–and without fail, every single time their guests were not LDS, the couple quickly responded in kind and invited he and his wife over for dinner shortly thereafter. However, the LDS couples they invited rarely, if ever, observed this social norm of reciprocity. My wife and I feel very much the same way in our ward (exceptions do exist–Miles & Michelle! Ben & Holly!)–and we’ve wondered if somehow we just lost the ability to make friends. We have continued to try to invite people over, but we have long since abandoned the idea that we might be asked over to someone’s house to eat. Maybe our kids stink. I don’t know.
That’s just one example, but whatever the reason, we don’t really have any “real” friends–the sort we actually engage with outside the confines of the Stake Center–beyond of our amazing home teacher, your family, and a few others–many of whom have recently moved away. Increasingly, our best friends, and those with whom we prefer to spend time, are not in our ward at all. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that, it’s also a little bit sad.
2. How ready do you feel for a change in calling? (Feel free to be candid.) What talents and interests do you have that you would like to bring to a calling(s)? What calling(s)?
Regarding my current calling, I have never felt particularly good at my calling, partially for reasons that I will talk more about in a minute, and partially because of my own weaknesses. However, since incompetence was not one of the listed reasons for being released, I will defer to your judgment here.
As far as future callings are concerned, well! I had spent the last 29 years honing myself into an under-30 year old Bishop, but you just destroyed all of my hopes and dreams, so thanks for that. Just kidding. Really.
The truth is, I don’t really have an well-formed opinion as to where my talents are best suited in the Church–my answer would have been different 10 years ago, different again 5 years ago, and will probably be different a year from now. I enjoy serving in almost any area of the Church, and have been involved in about everything at one point or another–teaching, auxiliary leadership, Priesthood leadership, activities, temple preparation, subversion, family history, and clerking. I’ve never served in the Relief Society, though, so there’s a thought, I guess.
I believe in the company line that a calling is what you make of it, so I can only say that the one constant has been that I’m not particularly awesome when it comes to dealing with other peoples’ offspring (or my own!) until they’re about 12 years old. :)
3. Do you have any other suggestions of thoughts for the Bishopric? What else would you tell us at the start of our new term of service? Please be candid. We appreciate any information or inspiration you care to pass to us.
First and foremost, prayerfully consider the counsel of the eternally wise Mark Brown, given here, and Kevin Barney, given here. After that, everything else will be cream cheese. Well, not really, but it’s a start.
Bishop, as you know, I am the Fellowshipping Chair in our ward–it is sort of a quasi-clerk position dedicated primarily to managing the ridiculous size of our ward, which is, as you know, ridiculous. As I understand my calling, I am specifically focused on helping people, and especially new move-ins, feel comfortable and integrated in our ward. (The irony of this calling, given my response above, is not lost on me in the slightest.) In my view, this calling gives me a unique view into what I perceive to be the primary source of challenges facing our ward–it’s size, and I have written about this at length here. I hope you’ll give those a read, but I know you’re a busy man and may not get to it soon, so let me summarize a few of the key observations I’ve made after serving in this calling, and as a membership clerk in our ward.
- Our ward is split into three very distinct groups that have demonstrated almost no capacity or willingness for mixing: The Students, The Older Retired Couples (Orcs), and the Young Professionals. While this may be a naturally forming equilibrium, it also means that many people ignore or are otherwise unaware of 2/3 of the ward.
- Our ward is very unfriendly. This is, as I said above, partly my fault, too. I promise to try harder, and will employ unrighteous dominion to make my wife try harder, too. But Orcs are scary, and the Students and YPs are absorbed in taking care of their children.
- Most of the non-Orcs in our ward feel very disconnected from the leadership of the ward. I expect that, given your youthful stature, this dynamic will change somewhat, but the basic problem will remain: 1 Bishop + 650 Members = Not much face time.
- While the Students and Young Professionals are often transitory and exhibit a high turnover rate, we’re still people–you know this, because you’re one of them! It is destructive for the spirit in the ward, and for the spirit in the lives of young couples, starting out on a shaky path of activity, if these people are seen as temporary ward members, with temporary concerns, who need temporary callings. Liberate the nursery leaders!
The culture of unfriendliness and non-integration in our ward is not a problem that can be solved with a single Sacrament meeting, or a new set of goals in ward council. We are where we are, and that is where we must begin. As such, my sole suggestion is very simple: Attitude reflect leadership, Bishop. Learn the name of every ward member. It is a first step, and even though it is difficult in a ward of our size, it will remove part of the disconnect between the leadership and the body of the Saints. More importantly, it will set an example of recognition, familiarity, and one-by-one ministration that others will follow.
Bishop N., I love you and sustain you, and I know that your tremendous capacity for love and your willingness and ability to serve are not dependent on my input. I know the challenges and burdens on your shoulders are great, and I do not claim to comprehend or appreciate them. I also know that you have keys and rights to inspiration that I do not. But, as I said before, you asked, and I hope some of the above was helpful.