This post was submitted anonymously by a Bishop who is currently serving in the Church.
“I, uh, I have a confession for ya.”
As a bishop, I spend mutual nights with the youth, alternating between the young men and young women on a weekly basis. I had spent that night with the young men, who had discussed Elder Renlund’s October 2017 General Conference address and then built and launched makeshift rockets from PVC pipe/soda bottle launchers. (It was a good activity!) When the activity wrapped up, I went to see how the young women were doing and to say hello.
After the closing prayer, the Young Women’s president walked over and jokingly told me that she had a confession for me.
“Uh, okay. Shoot.”
“We kinda call you some names in our house.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. “…. Uh huh. ….”
She was happy to explain. You see, the Young Women are in charge of the ward Christmas party this year, and the Young Women’s presidency had asked if they might take a theme from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Normally, I’d be a bit wary about getting too far from “Jesus Christmas” (as opposed to “Santa Christmas”) at a church activity, but I can be a bit too uncompromising at times, so I put it out to my bishopric without voicing an opinion myself.
They came to the general consensus that you can have a Seuss party anywhere, and perhaps we needed to be mindful not to remove the Savior from a ward-sponsored activity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was fine with that. I thought it was a reasonable position, and I agreed, so I found the Young Women’s president after church and told her about our concerns of having a ward Christmas party with a secular theme. She was disappointed (“We’ve had freaking Polar Express parties!”) and asked if she might take our feedback back to her counselors and see if there wasn’t a way to address our concern but still include elements of their original idea. I told her that was fine.
Three days later, she was telling me at mutual that I’d been nicknamed “grinch” in her home for my obviously grinchy demeanor.
“We also call you Bishop Onion,” she added.
“Oh do you?”
“Yeah. It’s because I always cry in our meetings.”
(She is emotional, which is fine, of course, and it’s not uncommon for us to discuss emotionally taxing things together.)
We talked about her ‘confession’ for a minute. It was clear it had bothered her, and enough that she wanted to clear the air, but she played it off as a joke, more or less. “Grinch” and “Bishop Onion” were endearing, you see, really.
I didn’t say much. I’ll need to think about how I should respond further, if at all, and this happened just this week.
But while I ponder, I’ll tell you about one thing I did share with her, and one thing I didn’t.
I did share with her a story about restitution.
Or rather, the absence of it.
Years ago, my dad was in a counselor in the bishopric. He was at the building one night, probably on a mutual night, when he was approached by a woman in the ward.
“Hi, Brother [Smith], do you have a minute?”
“Sure,” my dad replied.
“I just wanted you to know that I’ve said some things about you. To other members of the ward. And it wasn’t true. And I’m sorry for that.”
And with that, she bounded away, relieved to have gotten that off of her chest, leaving my dad largely dumbfounded at the revelation that he was the topic of ward gossip (and false gossip at that!).
“Oh my goodness, that’s terrible,” the Young Women’s president told me when I recounted the story.
“I agree,” I replied, “and isn’t it a bit crazy that, to her, her obligation was fulfilled! She had confessed, and in her mind, that was all she needed to do to set things right.”
“Oh, of course, that’s crazy.”
I added, “My dad told me later, ‘I couldn’t care less if she comes to confess to me. That’s fine, but whatever. What I really want is for her to go back to all of those people she told lies to and correct them!’”
“Right,” the Young Women’s president replied.
“Right,” I pressed. “Sometimes, restitution means more than confession. We have to make things right, in whatever ways we need to.”
I thought that I was being appropriately transparent – I was laying it on pretty thick, after all, given that she’d come to me with her own confession (her words) – but that’s about where we left it.
I appreciate what Joseph F. Smith taught us about making things right. He said:
“Does repentance consist of sorrow for wrongdoing? Yes, but is this all? By no means…. True repentance is not only sorrow for sins, and humble penitence and contrition before God, but it involves the necessity of turning away from them, a discontinuance of all evil practices and deeds, a thorough reformation of life, a vital change from evil to good, from vice to virtue, from darkness to light. Not only so, but to make restitution, so far as it is possible, for all the wrongs we have done, to pay our debts, and restore to God and man their rights—that which is due to them from us. This is true repentance, and the exercise of the will and all the powers of body and mind is demanded, to complete this glorious work of repentance; then God will accept it.”
The Examples We Set
How does one make restitution for names like “Grinch” or “Bishop Onion”? Frankly, the discussion we had was fine, and, for my part, I’m not all that concerned about it. It’s not a big deal for me.
But what about the impact this has on her family?
That’s the thing I didn’t share, and it worries me far more than what someone may or may not be calling me behind my back.
(Trust me, considering only the things that make their way back to me, I’m pretty confident that name-calling happens. As it goes, this is tame. It comes with the territory, unfortunately, and it’s not worth worrying over.)
It may be the case that we, as a bishopric, were a bit too uncompromising about the ward Christmas party theme, and we should be a bit more open to what are essentially secular garnishments, things that are naturally peripheral. The moral rightness or wrongness of our decision here is secondary.
At the forefront is another question – what is she teaching her kids about priesthood keys?
She may think that she’s teaching, in this very specific instance – where you have a perfectly acceptable Christmas theme and a stuffy bishopric who’s way too uptight – it’s okay to hem and haw, to criticize in private, and to even come up with harmless nicknames that poke fun at the whole situation.
I worry (a great deal) that she’s actually teaching something else – that when you have a disagreement with a priesthood leader, the best way to handle that disagreement is not to sustain the decision of the presiding council or officer, but rather to complain, backbite, and publicly entertain your frustration over not getting your way.
That is a lesson with potentially disastrous (and eternal) impact.
A youth teacher tweeted this recently:
Delayed preparation. “Hated” lesson topics. And a church that “pushes… sexist gender roles.” That’s not a criticism about a local issue, where there may be someone who needs a gentle invitation to tone down their comments in Sunday School; that’s an institutional criticism, speaking out against the presiding officers not just of a local ward or stake, but of the entire Church, the men who hold priesthood keys to govern the work of the Lord in the whole world.
That youth leader may think Church leaders have not become familiar enough with expanding scientific research into sex and gender and young women have more opportunities than ever before to contribute to society in meaningful ways outside of their homes. She is using her “rationale” to teach it’s okay to be critical of Church teachings and 20-year-old doctrinal proclamations.
I worry (a great deal) she’s actually teaching something else, in addition to her misguided direct instruction: when your political or cultural ideology is in conflict with the gospel, God is patient with your personal quests for truth, inside or outside the strictly correlated Church structure and with your decision to ignore Church leaders.
The lessons we teach by the examples we set may not be the lessons we intend, and if we’re thinking about making restitution for speaking ill of priesthood leaders, it might very well start with correcting poor “lessons” taught by our poor example.
While it’s important for those who we sustain to feel of our sustaining support – our sustaining naturally blesses them – the Lord also requires us to sustain priesthood leaders because of the way it changes our attitudes and behaviors – and ultimately blesses us. When we demean those who hold priesthood keys, we see (and treat) those keys differently, cutting us off from potential blessings.
President James E. Faust told a story in October 2005 General Conference about a bishop who volunteered for a demeaning activity. This affected the way others saw him. President Faust taught:
“Many years ago we used to have money-raising events in our wards to pay for the utilities and other local expenses and activities now paid by the general Church funds and the local unit budget allowance. We used to have bazaars, fairs, dinners, and other fund-raising activities. At that time my ward had a wonderful, devoted, committed bishop.
A member of a neighboring ward found that a dunking machine was a successful money-raising activity. Participants would pay to throw baseballs at a marked mechanical arm. Hitting the bull’s-eye would trigger a release, plunging the person sitting on the seat of the machine into a big basin of cold water. Our ward decided to use this machine, and someone suggested that more people would pay for balls to throw if the bishop would be willing to sit on the dunking seat. Our bishop was a good sport, and because he was responsible for raising the money, he willingly consented to sit on the dunking seat. Soon some began to buy balls and to throw them at the target. Several hit the mark, and the bishop was drenched. After half an hour of this, he began to shake with the cold.
While some of the people thought this was great fun, my father was very offended that the office of the bishop had been so belittled and held up to ridicule or even contempt. Even though the money raised was intended for a good cause, I can still remember feeling ashamed that some of our people did not show more respect for both the office and the man who had by night and day served us so well as our good shepherd.”
We live in a world not unlike what the prophet Joseph saw around his childhood home in Palmyra, full of “confusion and strife,” competing ideologies, “war(s) of words and tumult(s) of opinions.” This kind of warfare is constant in the world in which we live, and current technology allows that war to be as present in our lives as we allow it. It’s more important than ever to root ourselves in gospel truths; how we view priesthood keys has a tremendous impact on where we look for truth, and consequently, on our happiness here and eternally.
Last General Conference, President Eyring taught us,
“Your faith to sustain servants of God has been at the heart of your happiness in this life as well [as before you were born]…. Keeping those promises [to sustain those whom the Lord calls] will also bring eternal happiness. Not keeping them will bring sorrow to you and to those you love—and even losses beyond your power to imagine.”
One day, I will be released, and the keys I hold will be passed on to someone else – someone, no doubt, more talented or more experienced or at least less prone to unforced errors. That’s the way the work of the Lord goes – calls come and go, keys pass on, and the work moves on unencumbered despite our imperfections. Let us be careful how we speak of those who hold the keys, for that determines whether we move on with the work ourselves.
Those of us who do are distinctly aware of our failings, I assure you. I echo the words of the writer of Hebrews, who pled,
“Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly.”
We ask for your sustaining prayers, for surely we need them desperately. Perhaps at the same time you might recognize our good faith, for we seek to live honestly. Consider leaving “grinch” and “onion” out of it to ensure that, when faced with a difficult choice to sustain, there’s nothing holding you back.
“The Power of Sustaining Faith” – President Henry B. Eyring, April 2019
“Standing with the Leaders of the Church” – Elder Ronald A. Rasband, April 2016
“Peace of Conscience and Peace of Mind” – Elder Richard G. Scott, October 2004