I’m in the bishopric, and have been for six years. Every Sunday, I sit on the stand, and it often feels ridiculous. I can see my wife and four sons in the congregation, and she is in constant motion, never really listening to a talk, doing a stellar job of keeping everybody happy and reasonably reverent. And I sit.
My most important job on the stand is to do nothing. I find that every time I move, everybody looks at me to see what I’m doing. So I sit still and wear an expression of interest in the speaker, occasionally doing something that looks like taking notes or reading a sacred text. And I wear a suit. Wearing a suit is an important part of sitting on the stand.
There are, of course, some practical aspects to sitting on the stand. Looking out (or really down) at the congregation, I get a sense of who is available or a possibility for a specific calling or perhaps who needs a calling more generally. We can also scope out visitors, seldom-comers and obvious investigators and target them for a between-meetings chat. I know that some bishopric-types will claim they can see how members are doing based on their body language and whatnot, but this is rubbish. Judging anybody’s spirituality on their attitude on a blizzardy Sunday morning after managing public transport or parking on the snowbanked street with a clutch of kids is obvious folly.
Sitting on the stand has to do with presiding, but the actual task of presiding, which is minimal, requires one person, not three. And so my role as a presider in sacrament meeting is to sit there, in my suit, and give a sense of gravitas: ‘presidiness’ if you will. The Handbook recommends that bishopric should be sitting on the stand five minutes before the meeting starts to set a reverent tone for the meeting. From my vantage point — perch, if you like — I can see all sorts of things need to be done to get the meeting together and get one’s kids in the right place in those critical five minutes, but three guys in suits need to be up there. Presiding.
I got a unique insight into the nature of presiding when the Helsinki Temple was dedicated. I was asked to preside at a chapel where a session of the dedication was being broadcast. (It was being broadcast in English, hence my presence.) I was a little nervous as I thought I ought to know something about what was happening or my responsibilities, but I was told by a member of the stake presidency that all I needed to do was sit on the stand (in front of the projection screen) until the broadcast started, and then I could sit with my wife. The purpose was to give everyone a sense that this was a church meeting that had a priesthood member presiding. And so I did. I sat there by myself, on the podium in the dark, feeling like a right fool, watching the ushers do their job. But doing nothing — being a figurehead in a suit in the front — was the most significant element of presiding.
I need to admit that I come off of the stand at least once during every meeting: someone needs the headphones for the translation of the meeting, or I need to get someone to translate if the member with the calling has not arrived; the audio system or room temperature needs some adjustment; more often, my wife goes to breastfeed or deal with a recalcitrant child, and I go to fill in. In case of a fraternal fight, I sometimes wave one of the combatants to join me on the stand. I am aware that this is considered inappropriate. A visiting authority pointed this out to me and recommended having someone else do these sorts of things. I should delegate.
My experiences with formal presiding has helped me understand why the language of the Proclamation on the Family might be problematic. To summarize: in their primary roles within the home, fathers should preside, mothers should nurture. Nurturing means doing stuff, lots of stuff, which President Beck has made clear in several talks. Presiding, in my experience, means doing nothing: benignly overseeing, giving a sense that someone is in charge, making clarifying statements, but not really doing. Yes, we are to assist each other as equal partners, but the father’s primary role in the home — when not out providing and protecting — is defined by inactivity.
So here’s the thing: I’m going to keep coming off the stand when I can see a need, and sometimes, when I’m not conducting and things are a little rough, I will tell the bishop I’m sitting with my family. I suppose symbolic presiding is fine if nothing else needs to be done. But sitting on the stand, literally or metaphorically, when others have needs, in meetings or at home, is foolish and inconsistent with the example of Christ. And I’m not going to do it.