Testing Bishops for Skills, Aptitude, and Narcissism

Chris Kimball is a seven-times grandfather, a father, and a husband.  He was a fast-track Mormon church leader, with the right genealogy and checking all the boxes, until about age 40. On a very different path since then.  He is a good friend of BCC.

I was a Mormon bishop in the mid-1990s.  The experience led to my turning in my temple recommend and leaving full activity.  From an orthodox Mormon point of view, it was a destructive experience, even disaster.  I spent the next 10 years in therapy (on-the-couch deep investigation therapy) sorting myself out.  I probably should not have been a bishop in the first place. 

On the other hand, the whole experience–good and bad–contributed greatly to subsequent accomplishment and rewards in my professional and managerial pursuits, and I came into the 20-teens reasonably happy with myself.

In many ways I was well prepared to be a bishop.  I knew the Church inside and out.  I knew most of the questions and much of the history.  I have a knack for administration (if you read the right scriptures you’d call it a gift, see D&C 46:15, 16).  At the time I thought I would score pretty well on Paul’s scorecard (see Titus 1:7-9).  Not particularly willful, not quick to anger, not given to wine, not a striker, not given to filthy lucre; a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, temperate.  (However, to claim “holy” and “blameless” would be more than a small move beyond the pale.)

But I didn’t have the emotional maturity or character that I think should be requisite for the job. I feel confident in saying that about myself because those years of therapy and maturation have made me . . . well, not whole exactly, but in sight of what whole might look like.

Last week a report issued that “Anglican leaders are considering expanding its assessments of clergy candidates to include more rigorous psychological testing.” Some telling quotes:

“Both introversion and extroversion can reflect the divine image, but it is also very wise for the church to consider pathologies.”
“Narcissism can give pastors a confidence in their own ability to the disparagement of others, and a tendency to see the black side of others rather than the contribution people make to the church. There is a temptation to bully and demean.”

In the article, Leslie Francis, a canon professor of religions and education at Warwick University, also “warned that more rigorous testing could exacerbate a trend in the Church of England to recruit conventional clergy who do not rock the boat.”

 The LDS Church does none of this.  I think we should. Bishops. Stake Presidents. Mission Presidents.  Who else?  Are there emotional and psychological traits that would be qualifying or disqualifying for a Relief Society President?

If we paid more attention to what a bishop really does and should do and the character traits and training necessary, we would reduce the pool of qualified men.  That has costs and benefits.  At the same time, I believe it would become obvious to everybody that there are qualified women among us.

It would be a cultural revolution, including that it would require people to submit to examination, a lot like applying for the job.  I don’t see any doctrinal problem, or any insurmountable conflict with scripture or history.

To be fair, I would also reassess the job of the bishop.  If given the magic wand, I would drastically reduce the administrative work (counselors are or should be well qualified for this role).  I would eliminate all but the most extreme parts of the disciplinary process.  I would do everything I could to eliminate scorecards (activation, attendance, temple recommends, baptisms, solutions).  And I would (perhaps dramatically) emphasize the welfare and counseling roles.  Not with “fixes” in mind, but with help in mind.  Attentive to the journey, not some end goal.  As a small example, I would put all the temple recommend work on the counselors with strict instructions to stick with the questions as written, and accept only yes/no answers.  If somebody wants a discussion about their spiritual journey generally, I would put that over to the bishop for a discussion without judgment.


  1. Thank you for this. My EQP verbally attacked me yesterday during EQ, and the quote from Francis about “a temptation to bully and demean” hit home. The man is not fit for his position. Meanwhile, I’m not certain I can continue to attend the 3rd hour. The incident was upsetting enough that I was only able to get a couple of hours of sleep last night.

    I look back to my own time as EQP, in a prior ward. I certainly had struggles and made mistakes during that calling–but I never made enemies of those in my quorum, and I frequently reached out to them in fellowship. In doing that, I followed some of the best examples I’ve seen from bishops and other leaders I’ve been blessed to know.

  2. This is really interesting, Chris. Thinking about LDS bishops in the 19th century makes for an interesting comparison with your suggestions. In Mormon congregations, a bishop can have a powerful effect on the lives of individuals like CES employees.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Chris, good stuff.

  4. Old Man says:

    Hang on, Tim. Been there. Keep going to EQ and contribute. Bring in D&C 42:88 if you need to. He blew it. But stand your ground.

  5. BHodges says:

    I’m sorry to hear that, Tim. What set him off, if you don’t mind me asking? Do you have plans to address it with him or anything?

  6. Dave Combe says:

    Chris, I have long thought that the job of Bishop is two fold. One: administrating and two, ministering. I was one of those who in my last decade of activity alternated between ward clerk / stake clerk and ward executive secretary / stake executive secretary. My observation is that bishops, generally, are usually better at either ministering or administrating, but usually not both. So, split the difference and have a ministering bishop, and a ward administrator. Catholic parishes do this around here, with the priest and a parish administrator. The “terms” of these two positions in a ward could overlap, and the goal would be that only one would be replaced at one time. I have not set foot in an LDS building since early 1996 so what do I know anymore. This idea may be too Catholic or Protestant for the COB.

  7. Thanks, Old Man.

    I made a comment he didn’t like. It wasn’t even anything controversial. I think he just doesn’t like me, for some reason. I’d discuss it with him if I thought it would help, but I think it would just lead to further bullying. I’ve had mediocre priesthood leaders before (along with a lot of really good ones), but I’ve never before had ones who I felt actively disliked me.

  8. “perhaps dramatically) emphasize the welfare and counseling roles.”

    Crazy, leave counseling to the professionals.

  9. I saw my brother as a newly called bishop, after his first evening of bishopric meetings, get out of the car, walk to his wife, put his head on her shoulder, and begin sobbing. The calling definitely took a deep emotional toll.

  10. Dave Combe, I like your idea of an administrator and a minister. We had a bishop who administered instead of ministered and ended up administrating my child right out of activity. At about the same time, a stake presidency member acted in a way to make my spouse take a huge step back from the church. These men wield a great deal of power, to quote the great Stan Lee, with great power comes great responsibility.

  11. /marianneeileenwardle, I did the same thing after my first bishopric meeting as a new bishop. I remember it well. I was not sure what I’d gotten into…

  12. jlouielucero says:

    I’m the exec sec and we have made it a priority to give me nearly all of administrative responsibilities and let the bishop and counselors do mostly ministering type things. The bishop uses all the counselors pretty well, but admittedly if I wasn’t proactive about convincing him of the wisdom of this approach he would be doing all of that and burning himself out completely. We are currently pushing this idea in the stake and the stake leaders are on board.

  13. muttihaha says:

    Here’s a question. Who would do the assessing? Would higher-ups in the Church evaluate the potential candidates? If so, isn’t that pretty much what happens now? If not the local Church leaders, who would you trust to do an adequate job of assessing the maturity and capabilities of possible candidates?

  14. Who would do the assessing?
    I think we’d get 50% of the benefit by asking the question. Making emotional maturity a requirement, and thinking hard about what that means. I think wise Stake Presidents do it already, informally. I watched men get passed over when they thought they were next in line, and of course it could be inspiration, but it seemed obvious to me that they would be terrors in a position of authority and the Stake President knew that.
    Then we could get another 30% benefit by empowering Stake Presidents to consult with and have prospective bishops consult with a professional for an assessment. One of the psychiatrists I worked with had a sub-practice of working with clergy. I would value her input.
    Of course we will be less than perfect. But this all probably falls into not letting the perfect get in the way of the good.

  15. Happy Hubby says:

    I was about to say something close to what christiankimball said above. If you get a fist pounding Stake President, he tends to call fist pounding bishops and passes over “softies”. If you get a super loving Stake President, he tends to call those more loving and passes over the fist pounders. At least that is what I have seen.

  16. Released bishop who likes Chris Kimball comments says:

    This post brings up some painful memories of the five years I served as bishop of my ward. I tried very hard to be ministering and helpful to the most distressed and vulnerable. I think to a large extent I embodied the kindness and concern that is called for in the post. At the same time, the majority of the ward wanted a strong leader who did lots of church discipline against the people they didn’t like, they wanted someone who got them excited about untenable cultural ideals such as the superiority of Mormons and the evil ways of “the world”. I think the ideals proposed here are different from what the culture and the institutional church really wants. People want that kindness when they are suffering and vulnerable, but the rest of the time their wish is that the leader create the kind of church that they are intentionally conditioned to want.

    I was a failure as a bishop and am reminded of it fairly often by people in my ward. They are right—-dealing with sexual abuse situations and policies, knowing a lot about historicity issues and when they finally came out, seeing the essays as evidence of a systematic and deceitful inability to face up to issues…..it took its toll on my enthusiasm. I wasn’t the guy anyone ended up wanting for the job.

    Nice post, Chris Kimball!

  17. Bodensmate says:

    I agree with the overall idea of the post. But it would require a change in how we think about callings. ie: called by the Lord? OR qualified by passing a psychological exam?

    A rethinking of the phrase “whom the Lord calls the Lord qualifies” might be required as well.

  18. So glad I’m in nursery now. I am the son of a stake president and grandson of a bishop. Every month as a teenager or twenty-something, I had some well-meaning member of the church tell me that I was destined for this leadership position or another. It terrified me. It’s not really in my disposition to want to lead or tell anybody how to be. I am a great disappointment to them having artfully dodged being in bishoprics or any stake-level roles, but I am happy to have found a place where I can serve and be happy and use my talents to help others.

  19. Chris Kimball (also writing and commenting as christiankimball) says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Tim: I’m sorry. The words “ecclesiastical abuse” come to mind but I’m not sure Mormon culture is ready to accept or acknowledge the phrase or the possibility.

    Dave Combe, Hi, how are you! I tell people I’ve got online and real life friends from >20 years of online discussions (but usually no names). I agree that administration and ministering are different talents, although I don’t exclude the possibility that there exist people who can do it all. I guess the question is whether Mormons are interested in ministers, and doing what it takes to call people who are constitutionally fit for the role.

    Released bishop: I’m sorry for the painful memories, even though this is sort of an empathy session so it’s bound to happen. I haven’t lived in a ward where the prevailing ethic was exclusion and superiority. Thank God. The fact that they exist really puts the question whether testing as I propose would be for my desired goal. How big is the risk that we “exacerbate a trend . . . to recruit conventional clergy who do not rock the boat”?

    Bodensmate: I agree that it would be a change. On the other hand, I like to think that we use inspiration AND intelligence, not inspiration instead of intelligence.

  20. Christian, I think this is valuable because it asks us as a church to reconsider what a bishop and how we select them. Culturally and institutionally, as a direct consequence of correlation, we have created a bishop who must be a micromanager since he is involved with everything that happens in a ward. I think we need to de-correlate, to spread the authority out that has been concentrated in bishops over the last 50 years.

  21. Not a Cougar says:

    Any thoughts as to whether a desire to serve as a bishop should be taken into account? Don’t you want someone to be in the position who actually wants to be there? Or is it too likely you’ll get power-hungry people who simply want to be in charge?

  22. As a rather orthodox member who lived in and served in a leadership role in your Ward, I greatly benefitted from your insights and learned what it meant to minister through your example. My eyes were opened and my heart was softened in important ways.

    I still recall with fondness a certain sacrament meeting where you expounded upon the meaning of the atonement and then broke flat loaves prepared for the ordinance. The concept of a liturgy committee lead by women who organized the themes and talks for our Sunday Services was something that profoundly changed my view of sacrament meetings and what they can achieve. I learned so much just from being in your presence and watching you shepherd our Ward.

    I don’t know how many have expressed this to you but please allow me to say, thank you for your service and sacrifice. I know it was not easy for you and 20 years later after having served in Bishoprics I can far better appreciate now the struggles you endured.

    But please know your ministry was transformational for many including me. I am a better man, father, servant and Mormon because of you.

  23. Chris Kimball (also writing and commenting as christiankimball) says:

    Not a Cougar: I’ve got a friend who would like to be a bishop and will say it out loud, which distinguishes him. I think for all the right reasons, and I think he’d be good at it. (But will probably never be called, because he has a history that makes him the person he is today, but probably off the charts for the institution.) That is to say, I think I can tell the difference.

    If “wanting to be a bishop” were the only requirement, I would expect trouble. If wanting to be were combined with screening of the sort I argue for, I think we’d all win.

  24. Chris Kimball says:

    Alain: Wow! Thank you. (Please know that none of this was fishing for recognition. More like confession.)

  25. Alain – Thank you so much for your words as a former member of the Longfellow Park Ward. Thanks for “getting it.” Thanks for seeing him and recognizing his efforts.

  26. Jack Hughes says:

    Interesting. I’m conflicted about using psychological screening tools in a Church context. On one hand, they probably would have prevented a few of my least favorite bishops from ever becoming bishops in the first place.

    But who would establish the criteria? If it happened at the Church level, I would be concerned about them creating a very limited, cookie-cutter profile for the “ideal bishop” that may work in some areas but not in others. If the testing criteria were set at the local level, there are too many possibilities for abuse by agenda-driven stake presidents. I’m generally suspicious of psychological testing for screening purposes anyway. The true sociopaths and narcissists (the ones you really need to worry about) tend to be skilled at manipulating these screening tools in their favor. And qualified candidates are often unfairly sifted out by these tests because they don’t happen to fit a certain profile. I’ve been disqualified from a few corporate job opportunities that I was otherwise qualified for because of psychological testing as part of their companies’ hiring processes; apparently it’s not uncommon for strong introverts like me to “test poorly” on these things.

    Instead, I think criminal background checks for bishop candidates (including collecting fingerprints and DNA) would be appropriate, but we don’t do that either.

  27. Loursat says:

    So, on one hand there’s the problem of saving congregations from bullying, ambitious, or self-regarding bishops. And on the other hand there’s the problem of saving people like Chris from responsibilities for which they are not prepared and maybe not suitable.

    I’m curious, Chris, whether there is anything that you think might have helped save your sanity during your service as a bishop. For example, what if personal, professional counseling were available to bishops as a matter of course?

  28. Current bishop here. 8 weeks in. Gosh this is hard. I empathize with the challenge. Not sure where on the “spectrum” of different types discussed in this post I would fit. I have a very loving stake president, which helps. And which sets the tone for our stake. I feel empowered to reach out with Christian love, rather than administrative authority. I am trying to make my guiding principles Christ-like charity, empathy, and patience. When faced with an opportunity to “judge harshly” I try to remember that it is a very rare person that wants to be sitting in front of an ecclesiastical leader seeking spiritual or temporal help. Though there never seems to be enough time in the week to get to everything/one. A challenge. I have been very amazed of the confirming power of prayer. It is an essential tool in this position. And not wielding it usually leads to wrong results.

    I don’t disagree with your screening suggestion. Though in my experience the culling happens naturally, and with quite a bit of success, with discerning stake presidencies. That said, I somehow made it through the cracks. Proof positive that the system could be improved!

  29. Loursat, it’s not as a matter of course but I know through personal experience that many many bishops require and receive professional counseling. And I’m sure that many many others would benefit from it.

  30. Rexicorn says:

    I wish that we’d divide the Bishop role up into several roles, at least if it’s going to continue to be a volunteer position that’s typically done on top of a full-time job. It’s too overwhelming right now, takes too much of a toll, and can have disastrous consequences if the wrong person gets the job. Screening would be a good thing (and could be targeted for different roles if we did that), but the position is really not structured for success.

    Some of this is selfish, of course: my father was a fixture of ward/stake leadership positions growing up, and he also had a demanding job that required long hours and travel. When he was a bishop, I literally spoke to him one day a week (Saturdays) for years at a time. People assumed that my parents were divorced and my father had limited visitation, based on the way we kids would talk about getting to spend time with our dad. He did well as bishop and the ward loved him, but it seems like a very unfair sacrifice to ask of someone to handle all the administration of a ward on top of a paying job and family.

  31. sw, thanks for that response. Knowing how perceptive and sensitive many fine bishops are, it doesn’t surprise me that they would seek counseling. Even so, it does not seem to be commonly expected that counseling might be in order for a bishop. I wonder how much might we improve the experience of bishops and their congregations by making personal counseling one of the resources routinely available to bishops.

  32. Chris Kimball says:

    Loursat, it’s a really good question. One my wife asked me as she reviewed this piece before it posted. I’m of two minds, or maybe three.

    Having sought out professional counseling after the fact, it is very clear that it would have helped immensely during the time as bishop. I think it important to note that it needed to be on a steady ongoing basis. Just responding to a problem or crisis would have been too little too late.

    On the second hand, I doubt it was possible for me, because I was too young. I have a developing theory that there are few people prepared–mentally, emotionally, spiritually–in their 30s. Very much up for debate, but that’s where my thinking goes, now and on reflection.

    On the third hand, there are certain irreconcilable differences between me and the modern Church that were going to blow up sooner or later. Being a bishop felt like a crucible, but the tensions were there already and sitting as a bishop just brought them to a boil.

    (Hint (1 of many): When the exclusion policy came to light a few years ago I wrote to my current bishop: “I believe marriage is a moral and righteous choice, that it is good for me, for my children, and for society. Perhaps this makes me apostate in my heart? So be it.”
    and “If I were (once again) a bishop, I would not, I could not in good conscience, implement this policy. I urge you to consider your obligations to the children in the same way.”)

  33. Current Bishop says:

    Current bishop here, 4+ years in. Except with their own stake president, and perhaps with other bishops, bishops have very limited “sounding board” opportunities. This needs to change.

    I can echo the statements of other bishops: on occasion this calling is overwhelming and can often be too much. Near the beginning of my service, there was a period of 2-3 weeks that was unbelievably demanding, to the point where I questioned the calling with the stake president. I felt I should have written my employer a check at the end of this period for all the time I spent at work on church needs (I delegate well; this stuff was heavy and not delegate-able). My wife was seriously questioning the calling as well.

    Periods like that resurface on occasion, but the ongoing pressure and time demands of keeping a ward running — especially a smaller one, with barely enough active members to fill all callings — can be exhausting. It never stops. The stalwart members carry far more load than they should have to. I do think we need to reconsider the notion, and reset the expectation, that we as leaders (not just bishops) can be all things to all people. We need a “things to stop doing list”, greater simplification, fewer programs, etc., but few senior leaders are willing to make that their calling card. Always do more, not less, is the mantra.

    I love the church and my wonderful friends within it. There have been moments of pure joy related to this calling. I think we simply need to “see things as they really are” and allow members to have much more institutional input with regard to the impact of callings on their personal lives.

  34. I guess I’m a little dubious–not as to intent, but execution. In just this post and comments alone, this is the list of attributes we’re apparently seeking: not a narcissist, a good administrator, also a good minister, not too forceful, but assertive enough to get the job done, sensitive, perceptive, fully self-aware, highly emotionally intelligent, high degree of historical knowledge about the church, efficient delegator. To that I would add from other discussions I’ve recently had, good with names and faces, excellent speaker, calm demeanor, doctrinally sound, sensitive to women’s issues, knows when to hold and when to fold. Also, it would help if he knew how to draw the line so that he was a dynamite husband and father as well.

    Is there any one man you can think of that fully embodies all these attributes? And how would we tell until he was in the job? Is there a test you can think of that could legitimately get at all of these things (and more)?

    Our scriptures and history are replete with examples of God calling people who didn’t think they were the right for the job, and very well might have been wrong for the job by any objective standard. How does that factor in?

  35. nobody, really says:

    It would be great if we could train members as to what the appropriate uses of a Bishop’s time are.
    -Confession of a serious sin that we don’t feel is being resolved through prayer? Good use.
    -Asking to check the mechanical soundness of a car I want to buy? Bad use.
    -Asking for assistance on how to deal with aspects of a calling, after praying about it? Good use.
    -Asking to co-sign a loan? Very bad use.
    -Asking for a Priesthood blessing because I haven’t seen my “ministering brothers” ever? Good use, but the EQ Presidency might be able to do this instead.
    -Getting free, amateur psychotherapy for domestic abuse issues? Very, very bad use. Equivalent to asking a plumber to do your bypass surgery, because, you know, it’s all pipes anyway.

    A Bishop shouldn’t expect ward members to drop everything and come when he wants. Likewise, ward members shouldn’t expect the Bishop to be able to drop work, family, and personal needs to come whenever they want. And a good executive secretary is responsible for being the gatekeeper to the Bishop’s time – so the hours he does have to spend being Bishop are as effective as possible.

  36. J. Stapley says:

    Chris, there are some really interesting dynamics at play in perceptions of Bishop’s roles from COB among various living and deceased FP/Q12 members. And there is a lot of work to do there in order to improve the experiences of all church members. But today, I just want to thank you for this essay, yes, but also for your kind devotion through the years.

  37. Tracy Austin says:

    Narcissists will gravitate to positions of power in any organization. There are wonderful men in leadership of course. However, I’m tired of seeing Alpha Males strutting their stuff with little in the way of checks and balances at church. It takes willpower not to trip them up in the church corridors. As a women, I am powerless to do anything about this haughty unchecked display of power. At least in the workplace, there is a more reasonable chance of tackling inequity. I have to be a passive recipient of their peacocking and know that a world of privilege will continue if they continue to play the game. I see families enjoying the associated privilege. Yuck! While accepting that narcissists exist everywhere, I am concerned with the church’s continued focus on enabling patriarchy and the over valuation placed on the white CIS male point of view. With this model insitu, it seems to me that narcissists will always rise to the top at church. The continued invisibility of women in meaningful leadership positions continues to enable male dominance. Until the church enables women to be represented in a meaningful way, I don’t see the necessary cultural change required to ensure that the right leaders are chosen. The process is hard wired to enable narcissists. I’m glad when humble men get these roles. This is the very issue that dictates leadership roulette at the ward and stake level. https://hbr.org/2013/08/why-do-so-many-incompetent-men

  38. Rexicorn says:

    I like nobody’s comment about boundaries. I definitely know bishops who’ve burnt out because they were the opposite of narcissists — they were *too* empathetic and giving, to the point where they couldn’t set appropriate boundaries and gave more of themselves than they could handle.

  39. Son of a bishop says:

    Current bishop, at 4 years 3 months. My worst nightmare is next being called to serve on the high council or as a member of the stake presidency (which we know will be reorganized soon). I’m seriously considering declining any calling requiring Sunday meetings.

    My biggest struggles involve an all day Saturday youth activity, followed by all day Sunday meetings, and then going to work on Monday morning. I dread Sundays and have cried on Saturday nights to my wife that I don’t want to go to church the next day. The only thing that saves me is that I work from home and have a flexible work schedule.

    The calling needs to be fundamentally reduced. Tithing settlement, counseling, two round temple recommends, can all go in my opinion. Ward histories – really? Pie eating contests on pioneer day? Ensuring that everyone is signed up for seminary? Invitations to everybody’s first time endowments and marriages are nice (and even understandable) but take a toll. All the little things add up.

    I think it’s virtually impossible for anyone to be prepared to be a bishop even if their dad was a bishop and the wife’s dad was a bishop. As it’s currently executed, the calling makes entirely unfair demands on the bishop and his family. I do agree with the idea of maybe a simple checklist that says a few things like: is this potential bishop a prick? Is his wife a prick? Is he kind, patient, and a hard worker?

  40. Kristine says:

    Maybe we could just let Relief Society presidents do the screening. I think at least half of the men who would have authority issues would balk at being expected to submit in that way to a woman, so it would be a pretty effective screen (at least for the kinds of authority issues that come with a side of misogyny).

  41. Happy Hubby says:

    Kristine – Best suggestion yet!

  42. Is there in the comments a confusion of “narcissistic personality” with “authoritarian personality”? Not that there couldn’t be an overlap, but I’m insufficiently educated on both to be sure what the comments mean. I’ve seen plenty of the authoritarian personality in our church organizations at almost all levels. Wikipedia’s simple definition: “Authoritarian personality is a state of mind or attitude characterized by belief in absolute obedience or submission to someone else’s authority, as well as the administration of that belief through the oppression of one’s subordinates.”

    The whole “obedience-is-the-first-law”/”can-never-lead-astray” culture practically guarantees the rise of at least some authoritarian yes-men to higher positions in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
    I’m just grateful to have also seen plenty of other personalities at all levels — many of them focused on things other than themselves.

  43. Chris Kimball says:

    Kristine: My first inclination is to cheer loudly. And I do think the idea of women being involved in the screening is necessary. (Honestly, I never thought of it any other way. Probably because my first psychiatrist was a woman; she’s the one with extensive experience working with clergy. So it’s the water I swim in.)

    Then I caution myself with the realization that my picture of the women doing the screening is that psychiatrist, and you, Kristine. Do you need a job? The problem is that in my experience there are many women in the Church who would seek out and choose the hard-core toes-to-the-line bishop whom I would find intolerable. Excluding women from the process, as we do now, is absolutely wrong. We would do so much better just screening out men (and women) who would not subject themselves to an interview with a woman (or a man). But relying on women to magically get it all right . . . probably not happening. No more likely than relying on men alone.

  44. It’s a trend where I live to call men in their mid to late 30s with young children who are at the most demanding points in their careers. There are plenty of other men (and women, but having male reproductive organs is apparently a requirement to be a good leader and wield authority) who have the experience and time to effectively and wisely serve. For all the insistence about how family comes first, when the rubber meets the road, they usually end up burdening the families who need dad at home the most. If the Relief Society had any actual authority to carry out its mission, a good chunk of what’s expected of the bishop could be handled by the Relief Society (and Elders Quorum, for that matter).

  45. Old Man says:

    Tired, I agree. The .EQ and RS could create and manage most ward activities and ministering. The could plan and carry out temple trips, family history activities, ward dinners, ward cleanups, father and sons activities, women’s activities, etc. The RS and EQ could collaborate on ministering, in fact it works better when they do. Widows and single sisters tend to prefer a husband-wife team as ministers. Some widowers do as well. Both organizations are responsible for the overall health of the ward and every household is represented in these two organizations. A happy Bishop is one who hears reports of activity and ministering and does not try to micromanage it.

  46. Kevin Barney says:

    Very interesting discussion.

    I’m a couple of months into a new calling as ward executive secretary (a calling I held once before a long time ago), so I see at least some of the sausage as it is ground pretty close up. Thankfully, the bishops I have worked with closely were I thought excellent in the role. They were older guys without children at home, level headed, loving, pragmatic. They worked long hours at it (as all bishops do), but made it a point to carve out sufficient time for themselves and home life so they didn’t burn out (too quickly, at least). Good leaders, not authoritarian or narcissistic types, just regular guys trying their best, and I admire(d) them.

    That being said, I would make a terrible bishop, but between my beard, colored shirts and reputation for a bit of intellectualism, I think I’m pretty safe.

  47. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Let’s slow down before convincing Bishops to foist the things that wreck their lives onto other people in the Ward (especially women!). The list of things on a Bishop’s plate doesn’t need to be redistributed so much as it needs to be culled. Narcissistic Bishops might think they are so important that they need to be involved in anything and everything that is happening in a Ward. Bishops who are more compassionate and caring might not be able to say ‘no’ when asked to do things that are unnecessary, or to delegate tasks that would simply make life difficult for someone else. Stake leadership needs to train Bishops in things they can let go (and not create added work for them), and members need to learn that a Bishop’s role should be much smaller than they may be accustomed to. Years ago, the Church tried to make clear that Bishops (and other leaders) should prioritize time with family over endless meetings. That movement hasn’t really taken. Turns out, you can’t just tell people that things need to change. The Church encourages this behavior through structural incentives. Until they reward the alternative, nothing will change.

  48. Bishops (and wives)are imperfect people. Four years ago my bishop’s wife was unabashedly bullying my wife and daughter.

    I also think leaders and all of us need to continue to acknowledge that the Gospel is not the cure-all for mental illness just as it does not cure cancer, diabetes, etc.

  49. Kristine says:

    Chris–completely agree on the improbability of matriarchal nirvana! And, in fact, RS Presidents are sometimes plenty authoritarian in their temperament and outlook. I had thought first about suggesting required counseling with a woman with a Ph.D., casting her as both expert and authority…

  50. Tiberius says:

    @ Son of a Bishop:

    ​From everything I’ve heard Stake-leadership callings are relatively easy compared to bishop-ing. They’re the let-me-sit-and-impart-my-wisdom-from-on-high type callings. It’s the Bishops that have to take the call at 3 AM because brother so-and-so is beating his wife again or who have to clean the bathrooms in their suit because they’re a mess and nobody in their barely-functioning ward showed up for cleaning duty the day before (actual experience from Exec Sec days).

  51. I cared and tried and sacrificed a lot when it came to callings–both mine and my husband’s. And then it dawned on me that it didn’t really matter. I have one life. I’m not going to spend it being miserable over callings. Because it _is_ miserable to have your spouse gone all Saturday on a youth temple trip when the closest temple is in another state. And it is miserable not to see your spouse at all on Sundays because of meetings, meetings, firesides, and more meetings. Let’s not forget the two evenings a week that are eaten up with youth activities and ward council. It is miserable to spend the only hour you have to yourself preparing a sharing-time and a Sunday school lesson for other people’s children.

    I figure if the church was really invested in its people it would be investing in its people. It would train Bishops or at least screen them. It would background check the adults it calls to work with children. It would provide some bleach for the tile in the bathrooms that smell like urine. All in all there is a very hands off approach when it comes to local level activity. I decided that if family really was as important as church taught, then I had to stick up for mine. Our kids are only little for so long.

  52. Bishop Bill says:

    Anybody that wants to be bishop should automatically be disqualified. Maybe a lie detector test with one question “Do you want to be bishop?” Elder Gillespie of the 70’s visited our stake when I was bishop, and in a Bishops only leadership meeting, said that the average length of service church wide for bishops was 3.5 years. He said that the brethren want bishops to have a job and a wife when they a released, and too often that was NOT the case!

  53. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    I have been wondering how to respond to this post. It has been triggering and painful because of empathy I feel with the many comments that have been made. I appreciate Chris Kimball and have enjoyed his comments over the years. My mind also goes back to a similar post when I engaged with another commenter who felt that a Bishop should not need mental health support because their calling was made by inspiration and they have the Spirit to guide them. Thus the commenter had never been aware of a Bishop suffering emotionally. Though there have not been commenters on this thread who said anything like that, I fear that such an attitude if too prevalent among our general membership. I’m really sorry Chris, for the pain you had.

    I have served as a Bishop’s counselor and have had some anxiety that I might be called to be a Bishop. As Bishop Bill suggested above, I’m honestly doubtful that my marriage or my wife’s activity in church could survive it. We had young children and were still having babies when I was a counselor. Between my wife’s having to get the children all ready to go to church, then having to leave to take them out of Sacrament meeting for feeding and diaper changin, then missing any spiritual benefit of actually being in the meeting she had sought to receive, she kept asking herself if it was worth it. She either had to take ALL the kids out with her or get help from someone to watch the rest of them. This weighed HEAVILY on my mind. I had a young son come up to the stand and sit on my lap frequently during Sac meeting week after week to help him not be lonely for my presence. I would sometimes leave the stand when I saw my children misbehaving to give them the ‘father-parent’ discipline when it was needed. Once when my wife stayed home with a newborn and I took all the other kids to church, I sat with my kids instead of sitting on the stand. The Bishop excused me and said I was sitting in the congregation. Ironically, I was released a couple of weeks after that.

    I’m not sure I would place my trust in having the church administer a psychological profile to determine my fitness for a calling. How would the results be kept confidential? What else would it be used for? I would feel better if the psychological profile was done by an independent organization outside the church–but unlikely that would ever happen.

    I have had counseling for grief and I was forced to confront my own attitudes when the (Catholic) counselor asked me and my wife why we would have to participate in LDS church callings when we were deep in grieving. He asked ‘Isn’t the LDS church all about families?” I had to recognize that ‘No, the LDS church pushes activities that take certain individuals away from their families, and thus is not always about families.” I am not sure how counseling with an LDS counselor would work. Wouldn’t their goal be to keep you attending and active with that goal sometimes blurring what is needed for optimal mental health?

    We were fortunate to have some frank discussions with a member of our stake presidency while we were grieving and he was honest enough to say to us that sometimes there will be days when it will be better for us not to go to church. There may be triggers that, for our emotional health, we need to avoid. So we have taken his counsel. Members of our ward may or may not be understanding. They may feel we have grieved long enough and need to move on. One concerned ward member, after we kept our family out of the primary program for a few years, sent a card directly to our children mentioning that they were sad that they were unable to participate in the primary program and that their voices are beautiful. I was a bit shocked that someone would circumvent our parental guidance in trying to make our children feel like it was wrong.

    I do have a hard time believing that the average length of service for Bishops is 3.5 years, as Bishop Bill cited. I am seeing 5 and even 6 years. Maybe Bishops who move during their service reduces the length? I think our current stake presidency is aware that our grief has affected my Bishop-service-readiness in a way that I have been taken out of consideration. That becomes one less anxiety to have.

  54. Kevin Barney says:

    I think the intended “term” for a bishop is five years. Maybe the average is 3.5 for various reasons, but if a person gets called he should still anticipate five years.

  55. nobody, really says:

    I was sitting in a meeting with a GA who said he once saw a Bishop get down off the stand during a meeting to take a kid out. He also said he has never been more proud of any Bishop than that man at that moment.

    A Stake President told me recently that the job isn’t quite as bad as everyone imagines, including himself. By the time a decision gets to him, all the heavy lifting has been done at the Bishop level.

    I wish before every activity and every meeting, we could ask, “Is this activity really worth the cost? Not just the financial cost, but the strain on parents, on leadership, on members? Will someone’s life be worse off because we didn’t have a meeting?” We as a Church seem to live in abject fear that somewhere in the ward, somebody has some free time, and if we don’t immediately fill it, they will go merrily skipping off to Sodom and Gomorrah.

  56. That the GA visiting nobody really”s meeting had to even say that he had never been more proud of a Bishop than when the Bishop helped out with his own children during a meeting is the epitome of the problem. We’re in a bad state.

  57. Wondering says:

    “A Stake President told me recently that the job isn’t quite as bad as everyone imagines”

    Let me guess. He’s the president of a young, active Utah stake with all ward buildings within a few miles of each other, enough people to fill all callings, no family history centers, and a responsive and professional facilities maintenance group.

    Let’s talk about a stake in the Midwest where the Stake President puts 50-60,000 miles on his car each year. Let’s talk about a stake in the Northeast where every time stake callings are filled, the wards no longer have enough people to cover all their needs. Let’s talk about a stake in certain areas where the youth are growing up surrounded by poverty and crime.

    But from long observation, the calling of stake president does come without the risk of offending quite as many people as a bishop can over the course of the normal administration of a ward, all other things being equal.

  58. chompers says:

    I think all bishops should be required to complete a secular-based counselling course within a certain timeframe of being ordained. If you are in a position where you have to counsel people about sometimes serious matters, you have to know how to communicate and understand. Just being kind or Christlike is insufficient. There’s a reason why we make people get formal qualifications before counselling people – bishops ought to be no different.

    They shouldn’t attempt to actually counsel people – there should be a comprehensive procedure to refer those in need to professional services (such as marriage counselling, sexual abuse, addictions etc) that includes secular services.

  59. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Let’s talk about a stake in the Northeast where every time stake callings are filled, the wards no longer have enough people to cover all their needs

  60. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Agree with that comment

  61. Loursat says:

    Rigel Hawthorne wrote: “I am not sure how counseling with an LDS counselor would work. Wouldn’t their goal be to keep you attending and active with that goal sometimes blurring what is needed for optimal mental health?”

    I think it’s worth highlighting this because it reflects a common concern, one that might keep many people–not just bishops–from seeking counseling that could help them.

    A qualified, competent professional counselor will always put the needs of the client ahead of other agendas. The client’s well-being is paramount, and counselors will not impose their private beliefs about what a client might need. The client and the counselor arrive together at an understanding of what’s best for the client. Competent counselors do not manipulate their clients. This is a fundamental principle of the counseling professions. It is explicit in the ethical codes that counselors follow.

    Many Mormons’ only experience of counseling is in the personal discussions they may have had with bishops. Like many other amateur counselors, bishops often think it is their responsibility to manipulate people, so it’s not surprising that Mormons would be wary of professional counseling. But this is a misconception.

  62. Chris Kimball says:

    Loursat: Thank you for the clarification about professional counselors. I know this to be true of the profession generally, and my LDS counselor friends (whom I have not worked with professionally) assure me the same principles apply and are observed within that community.

    I had good advice and instruction on these matters–in a Church setting, from an older male Mormon psychiatrist who was on the High Council with me–before ever serving as bishop. Frankly it became (another) source of stress. As I listened and thought about what would be best for the person in front of me, best for them in their own journey, I could not keep out of my mind the two-deep temple recommend process, and the fact that there had been a bishop before, and would be a different bishop in a year or two, all operating in manipulative mode. So what is “best for the person” if they are going to continue living in a system that wants to tell them what to do? Should I tell them the same thing others are going to tell them, before and after? Or should I help them sort out what would be best for them in the present, without regard to the institutional message? The circularity was frightening, and part of what broke me.

    I recall a meeting with a man who was obviously concerned about his situation and had been for a long time. I was listening, trying to understand, hoping to get to the point of what mattered to him, when he suddenly stopped talking. After a small encouragement he said “I don’t know what comes next. Before this point, all my prior bishops have started telling me what to do.”

    Regarding bishops doing “counseling” more generally, I am very sympathetic with the comments (often observed and in several comments above) about “see a professional” or “report to the police” (depending on circumstances). However, the reality is that in Mormon culture the bishop will very often be the first contact and needs to be ready to make referrals out, to make recommendations, to triage. There’s just no escaping it. Also, there’s a significant and too often undervalued role as a spiritual guide or counselor. Within Mormon tradition, the bishop is uniquely positioned for that role. There is no good substitute institutionally. Unfortunately, I’ve only had one bishop I would have counseled with in that way (not incidentally, he was in his 60s and had previously been both a bishop and a stake president, and also on the outs with the Church for a time–a wonderful resume!) There were others whom I respect and in fact have sought out for conversation and advice, but only outside the office. The “bishop” trappings put them too much in fix-it mode.

    And for any kind of “confession” I’m going to seek out a Catholic priest. Just to identify another problem (and illustrate how radicalized I have become).

  63. nobody, really says:

    No, it was a stake in the Midwest, with three buildings, and requiring a 1.5 hour drive at interstate speeds to get across the stake from east to west. I will grant that he had a retired professional industrial maintenance service missionary to do building upkeep. The stake, before it split, included an area internationally known for riots, so it might be fair to say that it has its share of poverty and crime. It did have a couple of fairly well-to-do wards full of professionals, so the stake was net-positive in fast offerings. The stake president in mind was unusually good at delegation and using technology. High Council meetings always had a call-in number and a GoTo Meeting link. His two counselors were both Fortune 1000 C-level executives, and he would have been at the same level himself had his company not been bought out by a European conglomerate.

    A friend of mine was in counseling through LDS Family Services, and was actually advised to stop attending church for a while to work through anxiety issues. I realize “anecdote””data”, but there’s at least one case of which I’m aware.

  64. Angela C says:

    I’d love to see us test our bishops for skills, aptitude and narcissism, but apparently we can’t even do this with our POTUS.

  65. Bishop Bill says:

    Clarification on the average length of service being 3.5 years. Elder Gillespie was trying to get across that while a bishop should expect to serve a minimum of 5 years, and more like 6-7, that the average church wide was 3.5 years due to bishops getting burned out, moving (in some cases to get out of their calling), or any other reasons. So for every 6 year bishop, there was a bishop that only served 1 year! This was obvious a problem if he was bringing it up. Also I learned from a SP friend of mine that SLC will reject a recommendation for a new bishop if the outgoing bishop has not served 5 years minimum. If under 5 years there must be a good reason.

  66. not a bishop says:

    My dad was a Bishop, Stake President, Mission President, and on THE Correlation Committee. I’ve had the experience of everyone telling me I’d be a bishop one day since I was 12. I served as a counselor to the bishop in my early 30’s (after being ward clerk, executive secretary, and EQP a couple times each) and decided it was definitely not for me. I’ve declined every calling but primary or other teaching callings since. One of the best decisions I ever made.

  67. “I wish before every activity and every meeting, we could ask, “Is this activity really worth the cost? Not just the financial cost, but the strain on parents, on leadership, on members? Will someone’s life be worse off because we didn’t have a meeting?”

    Amen. So this begs the question, if the members almost all agree, and it appears we do, that we are over scheduled and overworked by non-essential Church activities, WHY DON’T THE Q12 MAKE CHANGES.

  68. Tiberius says:


    In the spirit of looking on the bright side–changes are happening, both in terms of official policies aimed towards cutting down on meetings and in the informal zeitgeist. It’s not nearly as bad as it was for the last generation; I get the sense that the expectation of giving up all your vacation days for scout camp isn’t nearly as much of a thing anymore. Of course you’ll still get the crazy EQ leader or Bishop that expects 20-hour weeks for non-Bishop callings.

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