Can a bishop be judge, counselor, and administrator?

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?


  1. I think we’re seeing a shift in the church’s training in this exact direction. Bishop’s are being trained and challenged to delegate more, even things they hold close to their hearts, in order to focus on issues only they have the keys to deal with. For example, a Bishop should not be filling out food orders or ‘needs and resources analysis’ forms anymore. He should only be reviewing them and insuring that they are following proper guidelines, then signing off on them.

  2. Chris Gordon says:

    The short answer to the question is no, he generally cannot do these things all together and a wise one won’t try, but will swear by his counselors, exec sec, and clerks. Really savvy ones will jump on the new directions mentioned above and swear by their ward council as well.

  3. I think the current model needs doesn’t need changes so much as church members need to look differently at the model we currently have. And I think the leadership at the top is actually trying to push things somewhat in the direction this post identifies, but that is an uphill battle.

    For example, I’ve been a bishop’s counselor before to a bishop who was pretty comfortable delegating administrative duties to us. The counsel I’m seeing from church leadership now is that counselors SHOULD be handling most of the administrative duties, and that the bishop should only be handling the duties he alone can handle. Some are far more successful than others. A counselor should, in fact, be the one praying about every name to bring up for callings in bishopric meetings (just a thumbs up or thumbs down from the bishop should be his only input in most cases), the executive secretary should administer 80% of his “schedule-able” schedule, etc. It takes a very organized bishop and competent bishopric for the bishop to allow others to handle most administrative duties, however.

    As far as the counseling, I’m now HPGL, and I can tell you that we’ve been strongly counseled lately that things are changing — that Ward Counsel members (yes, the women, too), should be looked upon to give much of the counsel that bishops have typically given. Worthiness may be the bishop’s call, but the HPGL or a member of my group might be the one to meet regularly with someone who has a porn addition (which they explicitly stated as an example).

    The problem isn’t the structure so much as the fact that everyone looks to the bishop to be everything (including the bishops themselves), and don’t see other ward leaders as having a “counselor” and “administrator” role.

    The direction we’re getting in the worldwide leadership training meetings seems to be to get all the other ward leaders to step up and be as inspired as we’d hope our bishops would be — to counsel and administer with only feedback and coordination from the bishop.

    It might take a long time for other ward leaders to see themselves in that light, and even longer for ward members to see their EQ president or RS president as someone they can go to for counsel, or someone who the bishop may assign to give them counsel. That’s the direction the brethren seem to be going, however, and it’s a good one.

    So I think this post brings up a lot of issues with which the brethren seem acutely aware. I think the direction they’re going is inspired, but it’s going to be a long uphill battle to change the culture accordingly.

  4. Natalie B. says:

    It’s exciting to hear that the church is moving in these directions.

    I think the issue #3 identifies about member perspective is an important point. I know that I’d want to talk to the bishop about faith-issues over others in the ward just because of how I perceive his role.

  5. After spending a year in a singles’ ward with a severely over-taxed bishop (and bishopric, and EQP, and RSP…) I can see where more delegation of certain responsibilities is both wise and necessary. I think, though, that it will take time to fully move into the new model Aaron mentioned because of the combination of 1) the possibility of wrongful assumptions that the bishop “isn’t doing his job” and 2) misplaced guilt at one’s own need to delegate. Even with those potential barriers, I think in quite a few matters in most wards, more delegation could be an effective first step.

  6. Interesting thoughts. I think you’re spot-on with the conflict between the counselor role and the judge role.

    I don’t think there are doctrinal barriers to reform. (At least I can’t think of any.) It seems to me that the judge role is the only one that has to reside in the bishop. The administrator role could easily be delegated to the other members of the bishopric (with final authority still resting in the bishop), and the counselor role could be filled by bishopric members, elders quorum presidency members, relief society presidency members, home/visiting teachers, etc.

  7. Chris Gordon says:

    Just realized I shouldn’t have posted from my phone. I always sound more curt than I want to!

    Anyway, it’s so interesting how the doctrine of spiritual gifts in D&C 46 manifests itself in our lay leaders. A leader who knows his limitations knows how to surround himself or herself with counselors and support that fills in the gaps in one’s own gifts and talents both to learn from and to be the biggest blessing for those served.

    I’ve also been amazed how if you hang out in one area long enough, you get a chance to see the pendulum of leadership style swing back and forth almost with every subsequent calling. In my mission and in later wards I saw this where an efficient administrator who seemed a bit cold was succeeded by the biggest teddy bear with no acumen for organization or process. Maybe that’s the Lord’s way of evening things out a bit, as each had the potential to reach different people in different ways.

    It also seems like bishops in particular follow a certain formula with their counselors: the young-ish guy as second counselor to work with the youth and the “always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride” first counselor who’s on his 3rd go-around as a counselor, has lived in the ward forever, knows everyone, etc. Each has a target demo in the ward, I suppose.

    For my part, in times when I’ve needed bishoply help for various things, I’ve had to do so with bishops to whom I feel close (natural counselors, if you will) and those to whom I don’t (natural judges). I’ve always felt very lucky that when I had to go see the judge, I was able to find the counselor elsewhere–a young men advisor, in my own home, etc., and I think that’s okay.

    It sounds callous, but I’m sure that a cut-and-dry high priest type would probably tell you that the inner battle we face as to when and whether to approach a common judge with a problem is part of the repentance process. I only hope that there are enough nurturers along the way to help us get there.

  8. Natalie, I have a good friend who is studying to be an Episcopal Priest. He’s been telling me about their structure, and it actually separates out some of the authority, with one of the Priests being assigned to do only Pastoral care. I thought that was lovely–a church leader unfettered by administration issues.

  9. Echoing #1 and #3, the WW Leadership Training done in November 2010 and then with a follow up in February this year heavily emphasized that the Ward Council members should be bearing a greater share of the burden in both administering as well in some cases in counseling members depending on the nature of their struggles.

    If I recall the emphasis for example to Elders Quorum Presidencies and HPGL was that they should focus less on temporal service needs.

    From Elder Oaks’ talk at the November WW Training:

    Another major theme in Handbooks 1 and 2 is to reduce the workload of the bishop. Partly this is done by allowing some flexibility in meetings. Just as important, Handbook 2 seeks to reduce the workload of the bishop by enhancing the role of the ward council and its members. They are to act not just as representatives of their quorums and auxiliary organizations but, with their counselors and organizations, to receive delegation to assist the bishop on matters of importance to the whole ward. Quorum and auxiliary leaders will also assist the bishop by helping in the rescue role of activation and retention of their members.

    The roles of elders quorum presidents and high priests group leaders are significantly enhanced in the new handbooks. These leaders and their counselors have increased responsibilities to help individual quorum or group members, both spiritually and temporally. Handbook 2 directs them to “encourage quorum and group members to fulfill their priesthood duties, especially their duties as husbands and fathers” (7.3.2). They are also directed to work with their “counselors and with home teachers … and others in reaching out and ministering to those in their organizations and others who need assistance” (4.5.1) In order to accomplish these vital ecclesiastical responsibilities, these priesthood leaders will have to delegate extensively and may need to reduce some temporal service demands, such as helping members move.

    I guess the prerequisite for an EQ Pres to be the owner of a truck is no longer. ;)

  10. Best Bishop I have had so far was excellent at delegating. I needed some counselling in an area and he reffered me to a specialist, best move ever! The previous Bishop I had would have taken on counselling on himself, which he did anyways with distastrous results-he spent so much time at Church functions to get away from his wife.

  11. Of course the “new” council isn’t all that new. But we need to be taught and re-taught, especially as new people inhabit those callings.

    A good (and wise) bishop will rely on counselors to handle all administrative stuff (which works exceptionally well in some wards I’ve been in). Getting EQPs and HPGLs to step up to their role (and getting their quorum and group members to let them) is a challenge.

  12. Paul in # 11 is correct. This is the way that the duties of the bishop, counselors, and ward council were envisioned some 15 or 20 years ago. A big part of that is the member’s perception of the duties of the bishop, and not always being comfortable looking to others for some of the help that is needed. With the new training, and the greater availability of the new handbook # 2 online at is helping to change that perception.

    The downside is that the other members of the ward council need to pick up more of that responsibility, and be willing to take on those duties in a more serious manner. It hits kind of hard at my house, as I am the HPGL, and my wife is the RS president right now, and we both work full time, which currently is a bigger issue for her than for me. However, sleeping with the RS president helps incredibly with the flow of information for at least two members of the ward council. :)

  13. As a church we have spent the last 50 years creating, defining, and reinforcing a rigid hierarchical structure in wards and stakes. So now, according to several comments, the message is, “never mind”? One of the cons of a hierarchy is that there is one person at the top through which everything funnels into and out of the ward. But we created that funnel and the only way to dismantle it is to dismantle the hierarchy.

  14. Natalie B. says:

    A few weeks ago, a bishopric member expressed surprise that I had never heard the goals they had set for the calling I had been in for two years. Of course, during those two years no one had ever solicited my opinion on the issue or asked how the calling was working. Nor did they seem particularly interested in my views when I offered them.

    I give this as an example of what seems like a large, but probably common, disconnect between the ward leadership and other members. Even if we delegate more of the administrative roles to a committee like Ward Counsel, can that really fix certain problems of information flow? Or is that just another level of hierarchy?

  15. KLC, I don’t think the message is “never mind”. Yes, the bishop is the ultimate authority position in the ward, but the process of expanding the roles of the other members of the ward council has been going on for quite a while. Overall, I would say that the role of bishop is substantially reduced in terms of both power and authority over what existed in the 19th century. In addition, stake presidents have seen their roles grow, with many things that used to be the responsibility of general authorities now attached to their duties as SP. Stapley could give a more detailed list, but it has been an evolutionary process.

    In addition, the high council reps assigned to each ward regularly meet with the HP group leadership and EQ presidencies, providing both direction and serving as a source of feedback to the stake level. Stake auxiliary presidencies perform a similar function for the primary, YM/YW, RS, and Sunday School. The inverted funnel you refer to looks more like a colander to me.

  16. Kevinf I know drill. I was at the WW training, I read the new handbook, I’ve heard people expound on the ideal of delegation my whole adult life. I’ve had the HC rep assigned to my ward meet with me when I was in the EQ presidency, and then meet with me when I was in the HP group leadership. I guess you could call it training but really what kind of expertise does he have merely by virtue of being called to the HC that I don’t already know? I’ve heard countless comments about how Home Teaching should work ideally, that the HT should take the lead and relay problems up the chain of command. I don’t know about you, but I would never even think of taking a serious problem in my family or my marriage or my personal life to my HT, not in a million years. Some of them were nice guys, many of them were great HT but it’s just not going to happen. And if I had a porn problem would I counsel with the HP group leader? Again, not in a million years.

    We don’t lack for information, my bishop doesn’t have any more knowledge than I do, not more wisdom either. What he does have is a perceived mantle of authority. We are an authority driven church and we look to the authority for our direction.

    We created a hierarchy from what used to be a much less ward/bishop centered church, I think we’re stuck with the fruit that comes from that organizational maneuver as long as we keep the hierarchy.

  17. Chris Gordon says:

    KLC, do you think that you should want to discuss personal problems with your HT’s or your HPGL? I don’t think I would either, but I kind of feel like I could and maybe should. There is a mantle of authority there and I think well-meaning auxiliary leaders and HT’s are probably entitled to a similar level of spiritual reinforcement in having to deal with what I’d be dropping in their laps were I to do so.

    I think it’s a similar issue when maybe we don’t see eye to eye with a bishop bit need his counsel for repentance. At some point we bite the bullet out of respect for the calling and its attendant blessings.

  18. KLC, the issue, as you said, is that the bishop has the “perceived mantle of authority.” I would argue that the mantle of a bishop is more than “perceived”, but that’s not the point here. There is also authority delegated to the quorum leaders, and to HC reps, etc. What we are not doing is a very good job of changing the perception of who shares authority.

    Two other quick observations: First, you are right, I would not initiate a discussion about a p*rn or other personal problems with my quorum leader, nor would he expect me to. However, what should happen is when someone is at a point in his (gender specific for a reason, as will be shown below) discussions with the bishop about personal or family issues, the bishop ought to then be able to recommend, with the that person’s permission, that they talk to their quorum leader.

    For the sisters, I can immediately see some differences. It would be creepy for a sister to be directed by the bishop to talk to the HPGL or EQ President, unless a husband was involved at each and every meeting. Still tricky, even then.

    But there is also a “perceived mantle” of knowledge more than authority involved in how ward members, particularly the sisters, view the RS president. She obviously knows everything that goes on in the ward, especially about sisters, says the conventional wisdom. But I don’t see that visiting teaching is directed to have the same level of review as home teaching via PPIs.

    We all know what direction this is all supposed to take, but we are ponderously slow in changing course, taking decades or longer for even simple cultural changes.

  19. Kevin, if I understand you correctly you are saying what I’ve heard my whole life, if only we used the organization correctly we could lift burdens and share the work. I don’t think that is true. While delegation is possible and sharing burdens is possible I think the system inherently creates these burdens at the top because of the hierarchy we created and continue to reinforce. Examples of high councilors training the EQ/HP or HT ferreting out ward problems or the HPGL counseling members with porn addictions are philosophically appealing to the MOB/MBA mindset in the church but they just don’t happen in real life. Some want to believe that they don’t happen because we aren’t using the system to its full potential, I think they don’t happen because a rigid hierarchy, and I don’t know what else to call our existing ward/stake/area organization, creates a climate where top down involvement in everything that happens.

  20. “…creates a climate that demands top down involvement in everything that happens.”

  21. Benjamin says:

    Kevin (18) “For the sisters, I can immediately see some differences. It would be creepy for a sister to be directed by the bishop to talk to the HPGL or EQ President, unless a husband was involved at each and every meeting. Still tricky, even then.”

    1) Would it be any creepier than discussing these issues with the bishop?
    2) Why not direct a sister to talk with the Relief Society president?

  22. Benjamin, talking to the bishop about repentance issues is never easy, but there is an implied confidentiality (along with actual privileged communication status, in a legal sense) with a bishop that makes it a little easier. In the sense of a bishop referring a sister and her husband to the HP group leader, for example, it would not be about details of confession or the sin, but instead on things like communication and relationship skills, and then only if the bishop felt okay about that.

    WOrthiness issues are the sole responsibility of the bishop and the stake president, and should not be discussed outside of that. Counseling and supporting a person through the repentance process in terms of advocating and supporting scripture study, prayer, family relationships, and other things that don’t relate to direct confessional issues would fall in this category, and I can see avoiding pornography could fall in this category.

    And a sister could be directed to talk to the relief society president under similar circumstances.

  23. Lorin, I find that very interesting. I can see how it could get out of control, though. I have mixed emotions about it.

    I like the way things operate now, provided (in a perfect world) members could recognize and forgive our bishops for being people. I’ve seen different emphasis’s (is that a word) in different bishoprics and it seems like others just fill the gaps. Which is how it should be. There has to be flexibility.

    Now that my bishop is one of my son’s friends from childhood and the EQ president is young enough to be my child, I won’t be sharing my problems with anybody in the church. Too embarrassing.

  24. The current model, it seems to me, makes the bishop little more than a bureaucrat. He has no time for pastoral duties and relies, or over-relies, on the home teachers to do that. As for the judge part, over the years I have come to dislike it greatly, except for one former bishop who treated us like grown-ups and made it clear that we were responsible for our actions, that the Lord, not he, would be our judge.

  25. I agree that there is a conflict of interest when a bishop has the role of judge, counselor and administrator, and these roles should be separated. I also think it’s impossible for a bishop to fill all these roles and also that of husband and father. I have yet to meet a bishop’s wife (and children) who didn’t feel short changed in the deal. And then there’s the issue of who does the bishop’s (or stake president’s) wife go to for counsel? As for the issue of confidentiality, it depends on the individual leader, from bishop to RS pres., as to whether or not information is kept confidential.

  26. Let’s think about this. The “mantle” the bishop has regards his role as judge in Israel, not as super counselor to the ward. That said, a bishop may be inspired to offer counsel when sought, just as a friend, family member, home teacher, quorum leader or Relief Society leader or visiting teacher might be so inspired.

    We choose who to go to for counsel. But in matters of repentance, we have little choice if the situation requires a conversation with a priesthood leader.

    But even in matters of discipline, if one feels unfairly treated, he or she may go to the stake president for help.

    The bishop who does not have time to minister (which may include counseling with his members, but certainly focuses more on individual needs than on administrative tasks) is missing out on what I believe is the most important part of his calling.

    #25 — we’ve met different people, I guess. I have known bishop’s wives who acknowledge that it’s not easy to be a bishop’s wife, but they recognize the Lord’s hand in their family and gladly support his service. Maybe that wife also feels shortchanged but does not express it.

  27. Get real… the only opinion that counts is Heavenly Father’s. There is a system in place and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it works, it works well. When it doesn’t work it is awful. Remember, there is oppostion in all things. However, irregardless of how well it works it is what we are required to do, not by man, but by God. The men who generously donate their time in the role of bishop often have families and work commitments also. They do their best to balance their time and resources in all of their commitments. Do they do it perfectly??? No! But they do their best. And that is all God asks of them. Do they all do their best??? No, but that is between them and God. They are called by God through the principle of revelation. They will be held accountable to God for what they do with their time. There is a process for raising complaint regarding any of the work they do. Firstly, speak to them if you are not happy with anything they do. If you are still unhappy, see the Stake leaders. If that is still unsatisfactory, the Area Presidency is the next port of call. If you haven’t received the help you require by this stage perhaps it is not the Bishop you should be pointing a finger at. Try a mirror instead. Most Bishops are truly wonderful yet unremarkable men doing their best to do the work of God. They can and do fulfil all that is asked of them and are led to make decisions through the power of the priesthood as revealed to them by the Holy Ghost. And just as they are directed, so too is the First Presidency. If changes are required, and they will be as the church continues to grow, then the Bishops will be taught what changes they need to make.

  28. Wifish, that’s two comments in short succession that come out of nowhere to be really aggressively grumpy and complain about what others have written. If you hate these posts this much, let me gently suggest just not reading them, or finding a way to kindly redirect the conversation or set what you feel is a better example.

    Don’t make me to edit your comments to change your handle to “Oscar the Grouch.” That is not an idle threat!

  29. Clarification: you don’t have to agree with everything here. But I think you can find a way to disagree that doesn’t involve overly disagreeable tone, such as putting three question marks in a row &etc.

  30. I have every right to complain as you do to complain about my complaining. What I have said are fair thoughts whether or not you agree with them. And fine… you can call me Oscar if you want to, but I see more grouchiness coming from the antiestablishmentism mentality. Systems are put in place for a reason, except this one comes from the highest authority. Is it perfect no, but then we are not a perfect people.

  31. Wifish, I can’t help but notice that you haven’t graced these three of our recent posts with your light-giving presence. Perhaps you could oblige us:

  32. Have you?

  33. Wifish, I can’t help but notice that you haven’t graced these three of our recent posts with your light-giving presence. Perhaps you could oblige us

    bwahaha. I mean yes what she said.

    I’ve never thought about the conflict of interests as a judge and counselor…interesting. Our last bishop was an exceedingly poor delegator…my husband ended up being his glorified babysitter (the other guy in the nieghborhood while he was Doing All That Bishopy Stuff)

  34. “All that Bishopy Stuff” needs to be done too, but not at other people’s expense. In any relationship, including Bishop and counsellor, if there is an imbalance it is a problem of both parties. It’s important that people are aware of their own boundaries and limitations and discuss them appropriately. But the priesthood are called because of their abilities and their inabilities. The position, while one of instruction and guidance, is also one of learning. your Bishop has probably learnt much from his time in the calling, and subsequently may gain much from observing others in the same role.

  35. Thank you wifish…so next Problem To Solve:

    my computer has a virus…go

  36. Skill and or training as a counselor does not mean that those being counseled will have success.

    As a side note in a recent training by LDS Social Services: “Skill makes some difference, but the single biggest factor in how well treatment goes, I am afraid to say, is how well the people involved ‘click’ with their counselor or therapist”