Death, phronesis and young Bishops, or, What Aristotle could teach us about calling ecclesiastical leaders?

Recently, I have noticed a concerning trend in the British Isles of calling Bishops who are under the age of 35 and, very often, under 30. This is concerning because these men are very often starting out in their careers and are occasionally in full-time education, because they have very young families who need their attention and because their spouses are burdened with far more than their share of the child-care and housework. These are all important concerns and they are probably common in some form to most Bishops; but I want to explore an additional concern that is, perhaps, unique to young Bishops.  Some forms of knowledge are only gained through practical experience and youth can be a significant barrier to these forms of knowledge.  Moreover, knowledge which comes through practical experience is very often vital to ministering with love and wisdom. This post is not a blanket proscription against calling those aged under 30 to be in such positions.  Rather it is a suggestion that those forms of knowledge which require time and experience to obtain are properly valued.  Calling young Bishops should be the exception rather than the rule because ‘Knowledge of the good for mankind lies through the observation of particulars’ [1].

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, wrote: ‘Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and are wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it’ (Nicomachean Ethics 1142 a).

Zealous twenty-somethings are more than capable of reading widely in the LDS literature and of being familiar with the CHI.  They are ‘wise within these limits’ but they are often not familiar with those particulars which ‘become known from experience’. Certainly these youthful leaders have other virtues: they are very often malleable and willing to sustain their leaders, they are both enthusiastic and vocal about their faith, and, I suspect, they very often value particular forms of growth which are also valued by their leaders. And yet, if calling a Bishop focuses solely on these attributes other values might be neglected, such as what Aristotle called phronesis.

Phronesis is not easily translated from the Greek, but it refers to notions of reasonableness, wisdom or the capacity of being able to judge. For Aristotle, and I am following Gadamer’s reading here, this word suggests the mixing of both theoretical and practical knowledge. Phronesis emerges through practical experience, but it is also more than this. Phronesis is a form of self-knowledge that is gained through experience of the world, and in particular through conversation. Phronesis follows the inevitable dialogue of living our ideas in the presence of other people.

Responding to death is one area where this practical wisdom is particularly important. Unfortunately, death, in all its variety, is something most Bishops will face during their tenure and there is very little help provided by the CHI or other LDS literature on how to grieve with and love those who suffering during these times of intimate tragedy. My response to most things in life, including death, is to go to the literature. A Bishop might read C.S. Lewis or Joan Didion. He might read Dylan Thomas or W.H. Auden. He might even read the bloggernacle; but most of it will be of little help.

I propose that when Didion describes grief as ‘distance’ that it will be very difficult to understand what she is trying to describe unless you have lost someone very close to you. I never have. I have only experience Grandparents that I did not know well and some acquaintances, even friends, that have passed away. But I have never experienced the type of grief described by Didion, or these other writers.

To be the minster of a person who is grieving is a sacred trust and a Bishop who has not, through life experience, developed a sense of phronesis regarding death is poorly equipped to fulfill the role given to him.

Certainly there will always be challenges in the lives of others that are outside of the realm of our experience and therefore all Bishops will inevitably lack experience in some areas. Yet, in my reading, it is precisely the quality of phronesis which will aid those who possess it to minister in circumstances beyond their experience. Therefore, I agree with Aristotle (and Gadamer) regarding the need for time and experience to cultivate an understanding of suffering and death. Increasing the value stake leaders place on virtues such as phronesis will move us away from consistently calling such young men to serve in these important positions.


1. John Barton, Ethics and the Old Testament, SCM Press, 15.


  1. Wonderful thoughts — I really like this framework of looking at the experience or wisdom that a bishop needs to have to minister properly. Perhaps a factor has been that managing people rather than ministering to them has been seen as having priority in decisions of who to call as bishops. A twenty something man can do a fine job of managing an organizational unit based on corporate policies put in place at central headquarters and rigorously policed by regional middle management. But as you observe, the empathy that can only be acquired through life experiences — the “phronesis” in this analytical framework — is often profoundly lacking.

    As a side note, it is worth considering whether 20 something bishops are more or less likely to pursue “creative” approaches to problems and/or mundane matters in the life of the ward. One could argue they would be more creative due to their youth, energy and zeal than an older bishop who is entrenched in imagined “unwritten order” type of procedures and policies (e.g. a female chorister does not have the right to indicate to the congregation to stand for the intermediate hymn because she does not have the priesthood and therefore cannot direct priesthood holders to do something like that). But on the other hand, a young bishop might be less creative in planning for the ward and responding to specific issues because he might be less confident of the “right way of doing things” and more willing (too willing) to defer to the preferences and desires of stake officers in setting the course for the ward.

    I have observed that where a bishop has the confidence to be creative in these things, the ward often thrives and a palpable energy can be felt in the meetings and in the members. But where the bishop (and bishopric) is not creative because they are not confident, there is real stagnation and the ward suffers — because policies and programs invariably get put before people and progression.

  2. Our current and previous Bishops (as well as half the High Council) are under 35, here in Brooklyn.
    Excellent post, and first comment as well.

  3. My first experience in having to minister to someone who was grieving was my own bishop, who had lost his mother, when I was his newly called counselor. I was 24 at the time.
    Now, as a young bishop (called at 27) I have to minister to people dealing with a whole range of issues that I have very little or no experience over: divorce, rape, child abuse, adultery, drug addiction etc etc. In a lot of those cases I have to stand alone because of confidentiality issues. At least with a bereavement, a lot more of the ward ministers to those who are grieving, especially the Relief Society.
    I’m lucky to have two counselors who are former bishops and who offer me advice gathered from their own experiences. Beyond that, I hope I am doing the best I can following the promptings of the Holy Ghost and acting upon them.
    I’ve learnt an awful lot over the last few years and certainly don’t look young anymore!

  4. Phronesis FTW.

  5. John F., a wonderful comment which invites some introspection. To build on your response, I wonder whether that confidence can emerge through the process of practical experience described here. Yet there is, at least I would like believe, a revelatory element to that confidence which may come in particular circumstances. Finally, I suspect personality is also important.

    Ben S., it is interesting to hear that this is not unique to the UK. I had suspected that this was a consequence of calling the first generation of RM who had also been raised in the Church over here. In other words, this crop fit the mold of Bishop to a larger extent than some of the elders, who are maybe converts and who did not serve missions.

    ldsbishop, thank you for sharing your experience. I imagine it is an incredibly difficult responsibility that you have. I hope my post did not diminish the great work that I am sure you and many others like you do.

  6. I’ve had similar thoughts regarding a young (my age) RS president. She was just SO inexperienced, I am very certain there are many life issues she did not even imagine and many women who had issues that they would not take to such a leader.

    It seems there is a very strong tendency for leaders to call counselors or supports who are even younger than themselves–maybe they feel it unseemly to manage or boss around their elders, or maybe they are somewhat insecure. Therefore, a young stake president is much more likely to call young counsellors and young bishops and young HCs. In turn, those young bishops are apt to call a young bishopric, young RS presidents, young primary presidency, young YM leadership, etc. While there is much to say for youth (the aforementioned creativity, energy, fewer kids, etc), there is much more to say for experience, wisdom, or just having had the wind knocked out of your sails a few times. Why should we relegate all that expertise to teaching Sunday School and coordinating cleaning assignments?

    That said, maybe leadership has always been this age and they seemed old until now that they are our peers?

  7. Aaron, this is an excellent and thoughtful post, and I thank you for it.

    I reflect on my own service as a bishop (twice) and as a bishop’s counselor (three times). When I came home from my mission, I thought I was ready to serve in any calling in the church. The first time I served as bishop, I was in my late 30’s in a foreign country speaking a foreign language. I was at once overwhelmed and strangely confident in a put-my-head-down-and-just-do-it kind of way. I had by then been a bishop’s counselor twice (including in that ward) and had the chance to watch a number of seasoned bishops serve, and I worked hard to remember the lessons I learned from them.

    A year after my release (because we moved back to the US), I was called as bishop of my US ward — a suburban ward in a large Mid-western metropolis. I was better prepared, and relieved to serve in English! But I became keenly aware of my shortcomings in my first time around. Now that I am nearly ten years removed from that service, I am even more keenly aware of my shortcomings the second time around, too. My point is that whenever we serve, we will fall short. And we will do what ldsbishop is doing now: the best we can.

    It was only years after my service as bishop that my wife finally told me how hard it really was for her during those years of service. I honestly knew she and my children sacrificed, but I did not know how much.

    I still have ringing through my ears the message President Monson preached in the dedicatory session of the Toronto Temple I attended many years ago, and which he’s also preached in General Conference since: Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies. I do not believe that necessarily negates the thoughts of the OP, which I broadly agree with. But I believe that a careful bishop, even a young one, can find compensatory blessings for himself and for his flock. On the other hand, a few (certainly not all — not even the majority) of more mature bishops I have known have often relied more on their own experience and wits than spiritual guidance (at least as far as I could tell from where I sat; it’s probably an unfair judgement for me to make since I don’t know their private interaction with the Lord).

    I will also observe this (and I apologize for the long comment). During each of my terms of service, I had teenage children who left the church. I wondered to my stake president how I could possibly be a bishop when I felt my own house was out of order so much. He reassured me that I had been called of God. After my release the second time around, more than one person confided in me that they felt they could trust me precisely because of my experience with my sons; they felt that I understood them better because of my experience. That certainly speaks in favor of your argument in the OP.

  8. I generally accept the premise but after being called as a bishop at 36 (still 29 in my head) I quickly learned that there are many older people who still struggle with the same issues they had when they were younger. If a person uses age, experience, and “wisdom” to make meaningful changes in their own lives then I completely agree that they are in a better position to help others later on. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case in most instances.

    For me the best part of having a young bishop, or of sort of being one, is that we can take a fresh look at the handbook and the doctrine and get rid of those old practices that have become traditions that have no real place in the church of 2012. I like the example of the choir director but in my ward I purposely do things like rotate the last talk in sacrament meetings between the women and men . . prayers as well. It will take time to change the culture but I think having younger bishops is a great way to start.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron R., if it is not too personal, I am wondering whether your own experience being called as a young bishop in England perhaps gave rise to this reflection?

  10. I always thought that Phronesis was the study of bumps on the head… :-)

  11. I understand the benefits of wide-ranging personal experience, and think the OP was thoughtful and useful. I’m in my mid-40s and I’m a heck of a lot smarter than I was two decades ago. If this is a growing phenomenon, however, I embrace it. It’s risky (and I’m the first to testify to the wacky counsel and potentially destructive behavior of inexperienced bishops, from my own experience) to place youthful people in positions of authority, but I think it’s risky not to. Why allow people to become lax, complacent, and confident that everyone else will handle things? By the time they have the wisdom, they may have lost the will.

    The calling of a young man with too much on his plate already forces him to approach God and to lean on him, to become a conduit for the will of heaven and to become accustomed to the flow of wisdom beyond his own. This is empowering beyond anything we gain through experience. What a perfect way to shift from a corporate church to a revelatory church! Just as in the days of Joseph, when there was no MTC and people went on missions weeks after hearing the gospel preached, what jewels will emerge! It certainly may be too much for some, and hopefully this is judiciously applied so as to neither wound men or those they lead, but my first thought is Ooorah! A sea change is coming!

  12. This is excellent Aaron. I have a 32 year old BIL who has been called as a bishop. I think he struggles with his lack of experience as a direct cause of his youth.

  13. I really like the Aristotle quotes. Post is well thought out and written. Really made me think and I was really going along with the line of logic, but I think when a person is called of God to be a Bishop that it does not matter his age/wisdom etc… I believe God calls him based on an eternal plan and recently in Sunday School we talked about Nephi and how he was called to do things and God always provided a way to help and accomplish the task. I wonder how old Joseph Smith was when he was called as President of the Church? Imagine the level of ministering he performed while at a young age for all the grief and suffering the Saints went through then? I don’t want a checklist of pre-requisites that must be fullfilled in order to be a Bishop. 35 years old (Check), witness/experienced close personal tragedy/death (check), and so on. I trust in God’s plan on who is called to fill any position in the Church and my job is to sustain/help regardless. Just my thoughts.

  14. esodhiambo, my own experience is otherwise but I know that it does not count for much. With that said, I can see that there is potential for the dynamic you describe to be at work in such scenarios.

    Paul, thank you for your thoughts, particularly because they stress some of the tensions at work here. I am sure that many people hold onto dearly the notion of compensatory blessings. At the same time that God leaves people to act without constant guidance in such situations requires that we be very careful about how we perform our duty.

    Kevin, this post is certainly motivated by experience.

  15. Thank you for the gentle push-back. The comments have been thoughtful and engaging. I clearly have some more thinking to do here.

    Bonnie, I am not so confident because I can see how inexperience leads to fear and insecurity which can also lead to assertions of authority whilst hiding behind policy and the handbook. Not that you are incorrect but I do not think inadequacy necessarily leads us to the Lord neatly. That transition is messy, very difficult, and fraught with conflict; both with God and each other.

    Roger, are there exceptions to the rule? Yes. My point is not that young men should be forbidden from serving but that the value of phronesis (wisdom) be put in its proper place. I am not sure that it is where it should be in some circumstances.

  16. I’m 2 1/2 months into being called as a Bishop. I am 33 years old, I’ve never served in a Bishopric unless you count a stint as Executive Secretary. This post really resonated with me. A couple of things came to mind.

    My youth is an advantage in the most obvious way and that is working with the YM and YW of the ward. I feel as though I have a better understanding of the challenges they are facing and can better relate to them. I’m also more likely to go on campouts, participate in mutual activities, etc. than the previous two bishop’s were simply because of age and energy, both being well into their 60’s.

    I also see a bit of what John f. talked about in #1. Not so much creativity but more an attitude of “why not?” Members of the Ward have commented that the previous bishop (who I don’t want to disparage–he is a great man) was too quick to shoot down ideas and wasn’t open to new or different ideas.

    My biggest worry is the main point brought about here. How can I with limited wisdom and experience minister and offer counsel to those in need. And worse yet, will the members who are suffering and in need of counsel even want to come and see me thinking that a man so young has little to offer them? This occupies my thoughts quite a bit.

  17. This is extremely thoughtful, Aaron. I think this is particularly evident in the modern church as it is common for people to live into their thirties without ever witnessing death, mortal illness, or even significant tragedy, within their immediate surrounding. Of course all of those things are proximate to us all, but I think that it is common for people in their twenties to never have to deal with them personally. Perhaps I am just projecting, but now having delt with those things and now in my mid-thirties, I feel like I am in a completely different world.

  18. I agree that it’s a risky proposition all around, Aaron. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to live this life neatly! I think the opportunity is for many at once (counselors who need to learn to support, congregation members who need to learn how to seek their own revelation and support their bishop, stake presidents who need to learn how to mentor like Zenos’ Lord, high councilors who need to learn how to be effective links between SP and bishops, wives who need to learn to be independent, etc.) We like our church to be neat, but it’s messy. So we have the atonement! Cool plan!

    I would imagine you were a profoundly inspiring bishop, even in your youth. I would imagine that you touched people you could never have led with the greater wisdom you now possess. Inscrutable are the ways of God, but 20 years sure gives us some perspective. My dad, who was an abusive, authoritative, infuriating man (and whom I miss fiercely now that he’s gone) used to say, “Twenty years from now, what do people remember?” The good.

  19. whizzbang says:

    My previous Bishop was a year older then me and I loved him, i’m 33. Our current Bishop and one counselor (who believes that drinking Coke is the first step to apostasy and has no compassion) are nice but they are so rigidly stuck to the manual that it is going to be interesting to see how this plays out. Certaintly if a Bishop seems like a hardliner then no one will want to visit with him and confess their sins to him and either people deal with thier own problems or the problem could get worse. I like the leadership vs. management idea but their is going to be that tension between two leaders, like if the SP asked the bishops to do something but what if that something wasn’t in line with what the Bishop had wanted to do? you need give and take and flexibility

  20. “I have noticed a concerning trend…”
    Concerning to you? Not trying to incite an argument, but when you tell the Lord you’re concerned with whom he calls it serves to demonstrate the application of nearly everything that follows (from this “concerned” line of reasoning) is not in accordance with his spirit. Your entire post is based on reason alone and cut off from being guided by the spirit. Surely, it would be wise to agree with you if the spirit was not present in the calling, sustaining, and qualifying of those whom the Lord calls.
    The more concerning thing is not the age of the bishops but the logical framework from which this post is basing its assumptions.

  21. J. Stapley says:

    …also I think that we find a premium on this experiential knowledge in the book of Alma, where it is called knowing “according to the flesh.”

  22. Part of the problem in the Church is the need to fast-track leadership at a young age. If a man is not put into a position early, he cannot expect to rise high in the organization. It is a cost of being a Mormon. If it were not so, no one would be called to be bishop at such a tender age.

    Heber J. Grant was called as stake president at age 22 in Tooelle in order to fast-track him into the presidency. My GGF was the previous SP and took him under his wing to teach him the ropes. Grant mentioned that he, at 22, had a hard time putting together a five minute talk. HJG loved John Rowberry and used him in his sermons as an example of a good man in his role as mentor and tutor.

    Age cannot help some people. We have a pretty deeply flawed bishop who is near 50. Would I want to go to this man for advice or with my deep problems? Not likely. But the Church has a way around these issues in the Handbook. As long as the handbook is being followed, something will be done, whether for better or worse.

  23. I endorse what RW has shared. Additionally, there is some sense of resentment out there from older members that I’ve observed in several Utah wards. They feel that it used to be normal for a bishop to be called at about 30 and that the “youth” aren’t pulling their weight. There is a perception that there is a generation that is now 50 or 60 that has had to serve two or three times over because the 30 year olds aren’t getting called.

  24. queuno says:

    I care more that my children have a relationship with their bishop, who was called at 40, that if I do…

  25. btdgreg says:

    When I was still in my thirties, I was concerned about this trend also. Now that I’m forty, I’m more concerned about people in their forties being called into bishoprics.

  26. >Part of the problem in the Church is the need to fast-track leadership at a young age.

    Agree. It’s also a symptom of the regrettable EQ/HP divide.

  27. “….more mature bishops I have known have often relied more on their own experience and wits than spiritual guidance…”

    Paul’s got a good point here. I’m no bishop nor ever will be, but I can see this in myself for sure. I certainly feel I understand a lot more than I did when I was 30, but I’m also pretty sure I’m less receptive to revelation. I’m used to relying on my own flailing around, and I manage to get by. This has got to be a reason I don’t see more 50+ empty-nester bishops who haven’t-left-on-missions-because-they’re-still-working.

  28. fbisti says:

    One thought that has not, yet, been given: Not all callings are inspired. I have served in 2 Stake Presidencies (as clerk), 7 bishoprics (as clerk or counselor), and 1 High Council. In my experience, the SP or the Bishop generally gave at least a fair amount of thought regarding whom to call, (or other decisions) there was usually a fair amount of discussion to solicit other’s thoughts and opinions, but inspiration was not claimed nor alluded to in most of these. It was just good men using their wisdom, experience, knowledge, etc to reach their best decision.

    It is enormously useful to promulgate the belief that God is making all these decisions, but He definitely is not.

  29. SP x 2 says:

    Thanks to Aaron and all other posters in this interesting discussion. Having participated in the calling of many bishops and branch presidents over the past 15+ years, my experience is that the Lord calls whomever he calls. Age, experience, testimony, family situation, work situation, and especially the strength of the wife, are all considerations in the call. Needs of the ward are also important. However, in the end there is rarely an “ideal” candidate who meets all the desirables. Instead, there is the process of revelation for which the manifestation seems to be unique in every situation.

    I’d like to add something that seems to be missing in the comments, and that is the support that should exist for every bishop from the stake presidency. As a new bishop I was encouraged by my stake president to call at any time with questions about anything, and I took advantage of that to fill in some of my own inexperience. When he was unavailable I called a counselor in the stake. It always added value to decisions. Now that the situation is reversed, I now try to do the same in responding to bishops – not to take over their responsibility to judge but to add perspective and experience to their own; phro-ing in a bit of extra phronesis, if you will.

  30. SP x 2 says:

    In response to #28, every bishop called where I have participated as a counselor or SP was done after revelatory confirmation was received. Until it was received, the process was delayed. I acknowledge that such may not always be the case but it should be, IMHO.

  31. Benjamin says:

    #28, fbisti – My experience with callings has been similar, although I don’t know that I would say inspirations was not involved in most cases. I agree that it often starts with “good men using their wisdom, experience, knowledge, etc to reach their best decision,” but I also feel that in most cases, confirmation of both the process and the result was sought.

    “it is enormously useful to promulgate the belief that God is making all these decisions, but He definitely is not.”
    I’m not sure how useful this belief really is. I think I’ve seen it do more harm than good–on a spectrum of leaders using it to manipulate people into taking callings to members refusing to ask for releases when their callings make them miserable. I think the Church would function a lot better if more people understood that revelation isn’t a process that produces unique answers.

  32. #28, while I cannot discount your experience (it’s yours, after all), I can tell you mine is different. Indeed some of the most spiritual experiences of my life have been around learning whom the Lord had called to serve in a particular position. As a bishop I took that very seriously, including who served in the nursery. (I also acknowledge that the Lord may well have had more than one person who would have been acceptable in some callings, but as SPx2 indicated, we did not proceed without confirmation. I can also say that other bishops I worked closely with (as counselor, executive secretary or clerk) did the same.

    And the stake presidents I worked with when I was bishop were role models in this regard, particularly the second. He was careful to take his time to receive confirmation. Once he did, however, he moved quickly. When I was released, he mentioned about 3/4 of the way through the regularly scheduled PPI I was in that he had gotten the impression that morning in his prayer that it was time for me to be released (a little sooner than the traditional 5-year period of service) and within minutes he was taking my recommendations for brethren he might consider to replace me. (I had also had a similar impression the week before the PPI and I had a list for him.)

  33. cris, #20, I’m guessing that not only were you guided by the Spirit and not reason to declare that Aaron’s post was “cut off from being guided by the Spirit,” but also that your entire comment was itself guided by the Spirit. At least I hope that was the case.

  34. Benjamin, #31. Yes, I agree with you fully. I just didn’t want to get that heretical. The over-emphasis on callings being inspired (and the near complete lack of recognizing/teaching how much human reasoning is the most common method) results in more bad than good–but it keeps the sheep more contented because they won’t “speak ill” of God.

  35. When I was called as Bishop, I was 37, my 1st Co. was 47 and my 2nd Co. was 27. (We chuckled about that). I served in EQ Presidency with 2nd Co. prior (he was EQP) and when I was released, my 1st Co. was called as Bishop.

    Impressed with comments of SPx2

  36. Aaron,
    How is it that you claim not to have the depth of personal experience for deep grief and yet have captured the essence of what one struggles with and desires more than anything when faced with the edict to be “survived” by someone extremely close? I’m impressed. Your entire post was written for me. In my grief, I hesitated to grasp for the comfort of a priesthood blessing, from my husband or anyone until I had felt every bit of what I needed to feel and had turned to reading scriptures, personal accounts and conference addresses to try to “study it out” before going to the God for relief. My complexity was that it was too stark for me to say, it was God’s plan for my brother to die. As I felt peace early on and throughout my grief, I did not want to minimize how badly I felt, and sometimes still feel. It was four months ago.

    I lost my 40 year old younger brother to a fatal, freak accident. Compounding the shock of the loss was that he was a wondrous person with so much love and compassion and service to others, who was excommunicated a few years ago and was not free of his struggles at the time of his death. Six months before he died, he wrote me an amazing letter regarding his testimony and goals. He and I are remarkably similar, so there is no doubt in my mind, what his claims and intentions were. Yet, his tangled web was fiercely in tact. Did God say, “Enough my child, come home and I will heal you?” Did his heart that was prone to wander, become sealed up with God, in His courts above? These were my questions for which I instinctively knew could not be answered by my Bishop. Yet I felt that there were other ministers within reach, who had particular experiences that could help. After a couple of months, I got the nerve to ask one of my neighbors who happens to be the Stake Patriarch if he would give me the blessing I had put on hold. I tried to clarify that I was not asking for it for the purpose of him being the patriarch (because I knew that this was a totally separate thing). Rather, I was asking him because he was a retired military minister and proximity. As such, I was sure that he was qualified in phronesis (my instinctive take on it because I did not know this word prior to your aptly written explanation of it). I was met with willing reluctance and referred to the Bishop for permission first. Having a decent respect for protocol, I chatted with the extremely likable Bishop for whom I have considerable respect. (Since this post is about age and catharsis, I’ll add that me and Bishop are the same age.) His compassion and desire to help were not lost on me. He wanted to give me ‘the blessing’ I was seeking. How could I decline? I don’t quite remember anything from it, except for maybe something about in due time, I may come to understand…

    At this point, I’m filing your post and my lengthy reply as part of the ongoing dues of time. It’s been real for me.

  37. A post that talks about Phronesis and embodies it.

  38. Chris Gordon says:

    @Dolly, it’s always humbling to see someone express something raw like that. I’m certain that hearts and thoughts are with you.

    @Aaron re: the thoughts in 28, I’m having difficulty isolating an element of your thoughts: where in the process is the concern to be found? Taking as an assumption that callings are at the very least ratified by the Spirit if not prompted thereby, is the concern in overlooking candidates who might have greater experience or is the concern lack of availability of candidates who might have greater experience? Just curious as to where, from a process point of view, you find the concern taking the most hold and having the most impact.

  39. #38
    I’m not speaking for Aaron, I don’t know him, and he seems eminently qualified to answer your question himself. What I took from the post however, was that the concern lies perhaps in which candidates are considered in the first place…
    Quoting Benjamin (#31)
    “the Church would function a lot better if more people understood that revelation isn’t a process that produces unique answers”
    I agree with the idea that there is no one unique answer necessarily, so are they, in those cases, only considering the young guys to begin with?
    I’ve no idea, but it could be the case…

  40. DavidH says:

    Amen to the OP.

  41. NewlyHousewife says:

    I still don’t get why 40 is the magical number.

    Yes chances are one will have experienced the death of a close family member (I’m assuming the OP meant parents) the longer one has been alive, but why discredit ALL young bishops due to your own experience?

    I prefer young bishops because they tend to be more towards equality. Older ones tend to be stuck in the “women stay at home, you’re the RS president not the EQ president” rut. Young bishops tend to symbolize the changes that are to come. By discrediting them, are you also discrediting any and all changes that come from them?

  42. whizzbang says:

    I can attest to the idea that people are being recalled into Bishop type callings. Here in Manitoba I know at least 4-6 guys who have served as Bishop twice, one of the Stake Pres. is in for the second time and he has served for YEARS in leadership callings, i.e Bishop, HC xa million, Mission Presidency, Stake Pres. twice and frankly he is worn out and bored to death of it and we are bored to death of hearing his recycled stories. One of the wards here recently recalled a man who had served previously as Bishop and the list of potential candidates was guys who had done it already, guys who hadn’t ever served in Bishoprics and guys who were partially active, non tithe paying whatever, testimony issues. So they went with a fellow who had done before and his counselors have no experience. One thing too is you can’t get experience unless given the opportunity to get elsewise you run into what we have abundantly here, the STP principle, “Same Ten People”

  43. it's a series of tubes says:

    Calling young Bishops should be the exception rather than the rule

    This has been an interesting discussion, and I appreciate the various perspectives that have been offered. My .02 on the portion of the OP quoted above is that it paints far too broadly.

  44. “Calling young Bishops should be the exception rather than the rule”


    1. I wonder whether the under 30 trend (which is in my area as well) is in part a way for the saints to emulate our Prophet, President Monson, who frequently and nostalgically speaks of his time as a young bishop (serving widows).

    2. We have a young bishop, and most of the ward frequently cites it as a trial and learning experience primarily for the ward members.

    3. I have a difficult time understanding the logic which follows that revelation almost necessitates inexperience and naivete. (Joseph Smith, young missionaries, young bishops, etc.) We use it as proof of divine intervention, “see, we do all this with our hands tied behind our backs”. It’s a symptom of the academic/knowledge backlash we sometimes bemoan in the church. I propose that each circumstance is unique. What would be the point of this mortal walk, if our experiences always made us less understanding and incapable of hearing/following revelation? God’s purpose in sending us here is didactic. I find it interesting that we have such little respect for His tutelage. If growth is achieved through experience, it should be celebrated, used in the service of others, and respected. Maybe things would be different were the church run through an Asian culture, where age and experience are given more reverence.

    4. #22 RW has struck upon an interesting point. The ‘pick ’em young and keep ’em in’ idea lends itself more toward elitism, and the ‘ages and stages’ group seems more egalitarian. Do we take turns being sheep and shepherds, or once a sheep, always a sheep? Is a worthy and faithful man ever self-actualized if he never serves as a bishop?

    5. What would happen if we replaced “annual income” with “age” in our discussion of bishops? Financial success is seen as a marker of phronesis, more so than age.

  45. whizzbang says:

    My friend’s dad served as a Bishop years ago at the age of 27 and it nearly killed him, spiritually speaking, and to this day he wouldn’t ever recommend it. He is now serving as a BP to a branch with maybe 30 members but he is older and has no kids at home anymore and is retired.

  46. Buendia says:

    An interesting discussion–thanks to Aaron R. for the OP and to all those who have commented.

    I might suggest that rather than saying what we _don’t_ want–“Calling young Bishops should be the exception rather than the rule”–perhaps you might state what we _do_ want: bishops called who demonstrate “reasonableness, wisdom or the capacity of being able to judge”. I agree with you that those characteristics are more likely to be found in a person with a little more experience in life and in the Church, but age alone is a poor predictor of such.

    I was called as a branch president when I was barely 29. I know that I made many mistakes, some of which might have been avoided had I been older, more experienced, and hopefully wiser. My successor (and former counselor) is easily older than my father, and I am positive that he brings some attributes and experience to the table that I did not possess.

    That said, though, I wonder if too much is made of the value of extensive experience. As a missionary, I always felt that some people needed to hear that one goofy missionary in order to find their testimony–they were unmoved by eloquence, or experience, or scriptural knowledge, or any of that, but connected with that elder who could never seem to keep his tie on straight or memorize his discussions.

    There are certainly bishops who are indisputably wonderful, and some who are widely recognized as mediocre or worse. But in the middle are the great majority–they are heroes to some, forgettable to others. When I think about the bishops I’ve known who have occupied those categories, I see very little correlation to their age. But all the great ones were, as you say, men possessed of “reasonableness, wisdom or the capacity of being able to judge”. They were empathetic, kind, forgiving, encouraging, loving, humble, and enthusiastic. They were good listeners and took council well, and did their best to hear and follow the Spirit. None of them were 29, but some were in their 30s. Others were past retirement. In short, it was who they were, not how old they were, that made them great.

  47. Yet Another John says:

    There are some that claim the Church is too ‘corporate’ as it is. Restricting the ‘gene pool’ further would have a stifling effect on the vitality and leadership of the Church. Experience is over-rated anyway. While valuable, it can also breed complacency and a ‘been there, done that’ attitude. I have had bishops in their 70s and bishops in their early 30s and everywhere in between. While all have been mortal, all have been the right bishop at the right time.

    As was mentioned in an earlier post, or two, humility and a willingness to reach out to counselors and the Stake Presidency would be a more important qualifier.

  48. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I’m surprised that more people haven’t mentioned the effect of a young bishop on his family. Watching young bishops (and their wives) closely–it is an incredible sacrifice. And one I think could be delayed by 15 years, in many occasions.

  49. whizzbang says:

    @48-I know a young bishop was released and just called onto the High Council and his wife was crying and upset by the whole thing, because they have little kids and it’s more time where she won’t be sitting with him. Another thing mentioned by Pres. Packer and others of other faiths is how many of these young leaders are getting into gospel doctrine classes and how many read the scriptures?

    “Some time ago I interviewed a young bishop in Brazil. He was twenty-seven years old. I was impressed that he possessed every attribute of a successful Church leader—humility, testimony, appearance, intelligence, spirituality. Here, I thought, is a young man with a great future in the Church.

    I asked myself, as I looked at him, “What will his future be? What will we do for him? What will we do to him?” In my mind I outlined the years ahead.

    He will be a bishop for perhaps six years, then he will be thirty-three years old. He will then serve eight years on a stake high council and five years as a counselor in the stake presidency. At forty-six he will be called as a stake president. We will release him after six years to become a regional representative, and he will serve for five years. That means he will have spent thirty years as an ideal, the example to follow, the image, the leader.

    However, in all that time, he will not have attended three Gospel Doctrine classes in a row, nor will he have attended three priesthood quorum lessons in a row. Brethren, do you see yourselves in this illustration?

    Unless he knew the fundamental principles of the gospel before his call, he will scarcely have time to learn them along the way. Agendas, meetings, and budgets and buildings will take up his time. These things are not usually overlooked.

    But the principles are overlooked—the gospel is overlooked, the doctrine is overlooked. When that happens, we are in great danger! We see the evidence of it in the Church today”.

  50. Thank you for the thoughtful comments. This has been a very interesting conversation.

    Dolly, thank you for comment. I hope you can find a degree of peace.

    A number of people have raised the issue of revelation and although I agree with what others have said I want to respond directly.

    Although revelation is part of the decision making process it is not the only factor. More than one person is (in most situations) worthy and able to serve in a particular capacity at any one time. God allows us to make a choice and is willing to sustain that decision. Therefore it is possible that reframing those attributes we value most might lead us to take a different name to the Lord for confirmation and also receive that spiritual affirmation.

    Therefore my concern in this post is not to diminish revelation in the process but just to reframe those virtues we value and to emphasise one virtue (phronesis) that deserves to be prominent among many others.

  51. I’ll be honest, there are very few people my age or younger that I believe I would be able to sustain in the office of my Bishop. I look (perhaps too literally) to the Bishop as the Father of the Ward. If someone is my age or younger, I would hardly think of them as paternal in relation to myself. This may be a consequence also of never having had a Bishop anywhere near close to my age though either. As far as wisdom goes, in the normal course of things age brings wisdom, but I have seen enough silly and immature 50-somethings, and wise 20-somethings to not necessarily be stuck on the equation of age/wisdom. My 2 cents is all.

  52. Chris Gordon says:

    @Katie B. (48), I can definitely see what you’re saying. I have a question regarding the joint sacrifice of families to fulfill the callings that take one part of the family away from the other: does it ever get particularly less easy? Theoretically, you trade one set of busy stress for another. From what I hear, getting teenagers moving and out the door is potentially not less of a complication than toddlers. The absent older parent trades not being there for bedtime for not being there to give rides to soccer.

    My point is not to diminish the challenge of dealing with young children alone before or during church (I get to sit with my family during sac mtg but I’m not there to get them out the door before church) and the toll that takes on a family. My only point is that I’m not sure there’s a magic age where the stress and difficulty of joint sacrifice in order to fill assignments ever truly goes away. There might be an age at which you feel better prepared to take those on, but that’s a different issue.

  53. whizzbang, good citation, here is another quote from that same talk, I think Elder Packer is trying to get at the phronesis that Aaron speaks of in the OP:

    “It is our responsibility to discipline members when there has been a very serious transgression. The organization and the procedures for holding a court are explained in detail in the handbook. However, unless you know the principles that apply in such cases, you might hold a Church court in technical compliance with the handbook, even follow proper procedures, and yet injure rather than heal the wayward member. If you do not know the principles—by principles I mean the principles of the gospel, the doctrines, what’s in the revelations—if you do not know what the revelations say about justice or mercy, or what they reveal on reproof or forgiveness, how can you make inspired decisions in those difficult cases that require your judgment? There is a spiritual element beyond the procedures in the handbook. It belongs to the priesthood and carries supernal power. Unless you are familiar with it, unless bishops and stake presidents are familiar with it, they might implement programs and yet not redeem the Saints.”

  54. I’m happy to see the Elder Packer quotes, as #53 and #49 point out. The phronesis point is the main point here. Age can get in the way of that and I love how Aaron reiterates that it is a valuable if overlooked virtue that one can take to the Lord when seeking approval for a worthy Bishop to be called. Even at that, I don’t discount the opportunity that in some cases, the suffering are meant to be the teachers.

  55. “I have a difficult time understanding the logic which follows that revelation almost necessitates inexperience and naivete. ”

    Of course, we get the opposite complaint (not from me) about Apostles- not enough youth, too much old!

    Nice finds by KLC and Whizbang

  56. Sharee Hughes says:

    #28, fbisti: “It was just good men using their wisdom, experience, knowledge, etc to reach their best decision.”
    And who’s to say inspiration was not a part of the wisdom, experience and knowledge those good men used?

    I have had two Bishops who were under 35 in my ward. Both were excellent bishops. My current bishop is older and has been a bishop before, as well as on the High Council. He is a spiritual man, very learned in the Gospel, and a wonderful bishop. But is he a better bishop than those two younger men who served some years previously? Not necessarily. I believe in the quote from President Monson that someone mentioned earlier: Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies.

  57. I know the brethren have been leaning heavily on the bishops for some time now to spend as much time and focus on the YM and YW as possible. Is one reason for a young bishop a hope that the bishop will be able to better relate to the youth? Bishop as de facto YM president, hip and with it?

  58. Norbert says:

    I have heard from someone that would know that SPs in the Europe Area have been encouraged to look to younger men to be bishops, so it isn’t just coincidence.

    I have mixed feelings, having served in 2 bishopric with bishops right around 30. The phronesis is an important point and one that needs to be considered. On the other hand, young bishops are I think more likely to use their councils and less likely to throw their weight around.

    The ‘father of the ward’ image is one of the least helpful ways of thinking about a bishop.

    In my experience, the ability to understand grief comes quickly and does not require firsthand knowledge.

  59. Benjamin says:

    Cynthia, I hope that being able to relate to the youth isn’t a major concern. Youth don’t need bishops who can be their friends. They need bishops who can be their mentors.

    As anecdotal evidence, I’m a 30 year old assistant scoutmaster in my troop. The scoutmaster and the other assistant are both in their fifties. I’m the “cool” leader that they make fun of and like to congregate around–until they have a serious question. Then they always want to talk to one of the other leaders.

    The older leaders may not be as hip and with it as I am, but the boys still value their advice over mine. I believe most youth will tend to value the advice of someone a little more experienced so long as they genuinely believe that person genuinely cares about them.

  60. Norbert, why is “father of the ward” the least helpful? If a ward is a family, which it supposedly is, the Bishop is definitely the father. What else would he be? Your sister’s boyfriend?

  61. whizzbang says:

    Something i find also interesting starting in the late ’40’s and going up to the late ’60’s is several of the General Authorities called at that time had little or no previous church leadership experience. I am thinking of Elders A. Theodore Tuttle, Dilworth Young, Paul H. Dunn, Hartman Rector, Bruce McConkie, Boyd K. Packer. Obviously not all the brethren called at that time were like this but it seems like something that hasn’t really happened since for some reason.

  62. lindberg says:

    FWIW, in our stake we have two bishops that may still be in their 40s (but if so, they’re getting quite close to 50). The others are all in their 50s, I think, maybe a couple in their early 60s. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a bishop in their 30s. If I have, it’s when I was young enough that anyone over 30 looked ancient to me.

    I do have a brother that was a bishop while in his 30s (tiny ward in Albuquerque with very few viable candidates), and also a cousin (large ward in eastern Idaho, no such excuse).

    While in general wisdom and “phronesis” tends to increase with age, I think it’s only a weak correlation. I know people in their 30s that would be great bishops, and quite a few in their 50s and 60s that would be terrible bishops.

    (Parenthetically, I’m not looking forward to that inexorably approaching day when I have a bishop younger than me. It was weird enough switching doctors a few years back and realizing that we were close to the same age. I’d like to think that I’m not getting older, it’s just that the rest of the world is getting younger…)

  63. “To be the minster of a person who is grieving is a sacred trust and a Bishop who has not, through life experience, developed a sense of phronesis regarding death is poorly equipped to fulfill the role given to him.”

    Aaron by the way is my bishop and I called him up today and spoke to him about an incident that happened at our house early this morning. A fox broke into our chicken pen and killed one of our chickens the other was maimed which I had to put out of its misery and did a very poor job of . When I got home tonight I helped my wife who is a nurse put stitches in one that maybe touch and go.

    I caught Aaron driving home from work who was driving straight to PEC. He was just pulling up to a drive in and I could hear him place his order which was a Texas BBQ hamburger. He was going to get something Chicken but decided it would be in poor taste because of what I just had told him, which shows the integrity of this man :)

    Its funny how this has changed me. Killing one chicken and having to dispose of these breathing living things has affected me more than I ever thought it would. My wife sometimes would let these ex battery hens roam in our garden and when I pulled in they seemed genuinely excited to see me and come would running to me. We have even broken the Cardinal rule of giving something that could end up on our dinner table names.

    Both of us concurred you can’t really have empathy for someone unless you have experienced it your self! Bishop Reeves agreed with this but said we have to try and feel and understand how others feel or the world will be a horrible place.. we just have to keep on trying! I felt that what may be a silly thing for some people Aaron showed a great understanding and empathy to what I felt.

    Both my parents have passed away which you would think that would make me more compassionate when a friends parent dies or a ward member dies but I don’t make the effort that I should. Maybe older bishops find it mentally, emotional and physically draining to stir up past feeling in themselves that were excruciating to deal with at the time. When my parents have died I can’t remember my bishops even acknowledging it or saying a word to me about it.

  64. Sorry to hear about your chickens James — but I agree Aaron is an amazing Bishop!

  65. Love the post, brings up some worthy things to ponder. My dad was called as bishop in Utah at age 27 (they called him the baby bishop). I was maybe 3 or so years old, so I don’t recall it, but my parents had 3 young kids and my mom worked as hard as you can imagine.

    Once in a while I’m reading something JS did when he was younger than I am currently and I just shake my head in amazement.

  66. #59 Benjamin — I agree it’s not really a good reason, but I was just wondering if maybe that had been a reason in some leaders’ minds when going for younger bishops.

  67. Great ensuing discussion in the comments, y’all.

  68. Aaron, #38: “I’m having difficulty isolating an element of your thoughts: where in the process is the concern to be found? Taking as an assumption that callings are at the very least ratified by the Spirit if not prompted thereby, is the concern in overlooking candidates who might have greater experience or is the concern lack of availability of candidates who might have greater experience? Just curious as to where, from a process point of view, you find the concern taking the most hold and having the most impact.”

    While those are valid concerns, mine is the inappropriate indoctrination angle. The frequency, or degree to which, we ascribe to callings that they are inspired directly from God (not from wisdom or experience) is what I commented on. But, that is just an example of the overly strong emphasis on how our leaders are “of God.” In my experience I have seen too much emphasis on “follow the prophet” (and by implication local leaders). On the face of it that isn’t concerning as a background principle–we need to have an appropriate level of respect and “followership” towards our leaders (whether in a church, a corporation, or a Kiwanas Club). But in our church, the underlying meaning is most often “don’t question, how could you question God” and the like.

    We, both officially (and I include anything said by current and past GAs or in our church lesson manuals), and culturally (local talks, comments in classes, etc.) strongly reinforce the God-directed aspects of our leaders–to nearly complete absence of their human-ness. We venerate them to excess to reinforce the obedience ethos (nearly a mantra, at times). “Don’t speak ill of the Lord’s anointed” is the unspoken charge to nearly any disagreement with local decisions–let alone those from SLC (such as supporting Prop 8 in California a while back).

    As a somewhat (well…very) outspoken person in discussions on church policies, practices, principles, teachings, doctrine, and history, I am too often countered with an argument that relies on the inspired nature of the issue or leader in question. That mindset and cultural “value” (trope, canard? is a function of an ongoing emphasis (in technical or academic terms: indoctrination and propaganda) on the holiness of our leaders’ decisions.

    The last line of my initial post refers to how helpful (the inspiration trope) is in getting members to accept callings that are wrong for them or they don’t want, aren’t appropriate for, or don’t really have time for by being able to say, believably, “but, God wants you to do it.”

  69. fbisti, yours is an interesting point of view to me. The local chuch leaders I have known locally (except maybe for one) would have been uncomfortable with the notion that everything they said was to be accepted as divine will. At the same time, on matters of the most importance, they have been very careful to take decisions carefully, seeking inspiration and confirmation along the way.

    I wonder about the “follow the leader” counter argument that is so often cited (not just by you, certainly). There is a great difference in my saying “My bishop is just plain wrong about this,” and saying “I wonder why my bishop has recommended that; it doesn’t make sense to me,” or “I like to think the bishop has been inspired in this matter, but I just haven’t felt it (yet).” All three of those statements express doubt, but in very different ways. Each may be appropriate in its own way. But the first is much more likely to get a defensive response, I suspect.

  70. Admittedly, I did not read through all of these comments (just the first couple dozen)… while I see a lot of wisdom in what was said in the original post, as well as many comments, I disagree with the simplistic notion that age is the difference-maker in gaining important life experiences and increasing in wisdom to know how to appropriately succor those around us. Serving in a bishopric as a young 20-something father of 5 children and completing my Ph.D., I certainly saw my limitations. But it was very clear to me that most of the priesthood leaders above me (HP group leader, bishop, stake president; each of whom were at least 20+ years older than me) often were far more “corporate” policy-oriented and dogmatic than I. I saw little evidence of them being more inherently wise than I was (again, I say that with all humility, as I recognize my many inherent flaws and limitations), and I often had great difficulty/disagreement with their decisions on how to treat individual members/families relating to various problems/concerns. Rather than focusing on age (young or old) what I think we need more of are leaders who are not simply black and white, dogmatic thinkers, but rather much more nuanced in how they approach real, complex problems. At least where I am at, I often see little evidence of this, even among the “mature” and “experienced” older priesthood leaders…

  71. Jon, I certainly do not disagree with the desired outcome but maybe I take a different perspective than you on the way I view the intersection of age, life-experience and this type of moderate approach to church service. Certainly it is possible that those who are more mature (let us just say for the sake of argument that they are 40+) are ‘corporate’ or ‘policy-oriented’ than others who are younger. My point is that within that individual there will in general be a trend toward this nuanced approach across the life-course. Moreover, I think those of us who are younger (especially those who do not value what we see as ‘dogmatism’ or ‘corporatism’) might find that we might learn the wisdom of some of those policies over time as well. I think Aristotle’s practical wisdom cuts both ways and those of us with those inclinations to complexity would do well to remember that we might come to see the virtue of policies and practices that we currently do not agree with.

  72. Aaron R., I am a professor of business (org. behavior and human resource management) and certainly understand the value of the corporate model, strategic policy, etc., and I understand its role in the church. Some younger people are more inclined to act more “corporate” or “dogmatic” in their roles and some older people are… I don’t think it has so much to do with age… more to do with upbringing, culture, personality, etc. In my opinion, we have more than plenty of the “corporate” or “dogmatic” leaders in the church, and not nearly enough nuanced critical thinkers using the wisdom and experience you describe to inform their decisions. I guess the rub for me is the inherent agism and blatant stereotyping in the argument (on both sides). While, on balance, older people tend to have more wisdom through their learned life experiences as you describe, I am sure we all know extremely mature and wise-beyond their years young people, and incredibly immature and foolish old people. Living life into old age across some arbitrary age-point itself does not necessarily give people the wisdom you described, nor does it necessary act as a prerequisite for have such life experiences. Nor does it necessarily give an individual a firm grasp and better understanding and appreciation/sensitivity to the stages of the life course (I can’t tell you how many times I have had well-meaning leaders do and say incredibly insensitive things to individuals/families in the earlier phases of the family life course… sometimes it is like they forget what it was like when they were there themselves)… So while I certainly don’t consider myself to be incredibly wise, I wouldn’t consider most of my recent priesthood leaders to be incredibly wise either. That is not to demean them or their position, just stating an observation. I still support and sustain them to the best of my ability (knowing they are good men fulfilling their callings to the best of their ability), providing counsel and input when appropriate.

  73. Jon: Hear, hear! to most of your comment. And with regard to sustaining…only the perspective you voice (“knowing they are good men fulfilling their callings to the best of their ability”) allows me to hold my hand up on sustaining occasions and TR interviews. Some of them are making very poor decisions, “but that don’t make them bad guys,” to quote someone you never heard of. And, there is no correlation to age. Currently, the stake pres is in his early 60’s and the bishop is under 40–both making decisions/taking actions that I wish I could council and convince them otherwise on.

    Just so long as the TR interview question doesn’t become: “Do you believe that your leaders are called my inspiration from God?” I can still answer yes that I sustain them. (Elsewise, God has a really bassakward way of getting his purposes fulfilled)

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