Confessions of a Mormon Bishop

by Russ Hill on March 19, 2013

I pulled into my driveway at 12:30 this morning.

I sat in the car in front of our dark house for a few minutes.  Everyone inside was asleep.  The whole neighborhood was still.  And yet my mind was racing.  So many questions.  So many emotions.  Sadness.  Hope.  Inadequacy.

Welcome to the life of a Mormon bishop.

Like pastors, priests, and clergy in other religions, those of us asked to serve as a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spend hours behind closed doors meeting with people who allow us into the darkest corners of their lives.

They come to us for various reasons.  Because of guilt.  Because they have lost hope.  Because they have been betrayed.  Because they don’t know where else to go.  Because they feel worthless.  Because the person they are isn’t the person they want to be.  Because they have questions.  Because they have doubts.  Because they believe in a forgiving God yet feel disconnected from Him.

They come and sit in front of me.  Some hesitate.  Take a deep breath.  And grasp for courage to say out loud what they have been hiding inside for days, weeks, or years.

Others almost run in.  They spill before I sit.  They’re anxious to clear their conscience or announce their doubts.

Each one is different.

For hours every week I sit.  And listen.

I did not ask for this opportunity.  I never considered I might someday have an office in a church.  I have no professional training for this position.  I am not a scriptural scholar.  I have not walked through vineyards with robe-wearing monks.  And, if you’re wondering about vows of celibacy let me introduce you to my four kids.

All I did was answer a phone call.  Show up for a meeting.  And nod when asked if I would serve.

I don’t sometimes wonder why me.  I always wonder why me.

And yet they come.  Share their stories.  And look to me for wisdom.

I’m not sure any of them have learned from me.  But, I have learned so much in the hours I’ve sat in that office listening to them.

I have learned that we believe it is a strength to conceal weakness.

I have learned that it is easy to want others to overlook our flaws as we expect perfection in them.

I have learned that it is hardest to show compassion and grant forgiveness to those closest to us.

I have learned that while curiosity is a strength it can also be a curse.

I have learned that we are creatures of habit.

I have learned that faith is a muscle.

I have learned that it is far easier to deny deity than to deny desire.

I have learned the mystery surrounding death forces a consideration of spiritual matters.

I have learned that observance of the Sabbath recalibrates perspective and improves judgment.

I have learned that most of us bear scars from the failure, disappointment, and fear in our lives.  And, we prefer to wear long sleeves.

I have learned that to deal with life’s pain most of us choose one of the following: alcohol, drugs, pornography, or spirituality.

I have learned alcohol and drugs are the easiest path.  As long as you’re willing to never stop drinking, smoking, or swallowing.

I have learned pornography is highly addictive and has nothing to do with sexual appetites and everything to do with escape.  And that the habit is never overcome in isolation.

I have learned that we feel like a failure when we make mistakes even when we profess a belief that the purpose of this existence is to make and learn from them.

I have learned that forgiveness is the greatest gift we can offer someone.  And ourselves.

I have learned that many know about Jesus Christ but more of us could make an effort to know Him.

I have learned that the strongest among us are those with the cleanest mirrors.

I have learned that the sins of parents profoundly affect children.  And are often repeated by them.

I have learned that affection from parents profoundly affects children.

I have learned that most communication between parents and children is what psychologists call “superficial.”  Strong relationships are built on the “validating” variety.

I have learned that children desperately desire parents who listen.

I have learned that churches are not museums or catwalks for perfected saints but rather labs for sinners.

I have learned that “tolerate” and “love” are two very different verbs despite what popular culture professes.

I have learned that there’s more sadness in this world than I had realized.

I have learned there is more goodness in this world than I had realized.

I have learned that to be happy is a choice.

I have learned those preoccupied with serving others have less time to count their problems.

I have learned that a habit of one brief moment of spirituality a day can alter one’s entire direction.

I have learned that we want God to grant us space to make decisions but step in to stop others, nature, mortality, or illness from hurting us or those we love.

I have learned those who have made more mistakes have a great gift.  Empathy.  Now to the matter of searching out someone who hungers for it.

Indeed, I have learned I have much to learn.

The names of those I meet with will never be known.  Confidentiality demands I never disclose their stories.

But, late last night as I sat in my car on the driveway I decided I should compile a list of what the people I meet with are teaching me.

And, I wanted to share it.

{ 470 comments… read them below or add one }

emily pitts March 19, 2013 at 8:36 pm

my husband is a bishop, this is a very good list of things. thanks for taking the time to write your thoughts.

Alethea Arnold March 19, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Very beautifully said. I joined the Church 6 years ago and started my journey because Heavenly Father heard my pleas and sent two wonderful Sister Missionaries to my home. As a convert who struggled with being a single mother of four children and having lived though a decade of physical and emotional abuse. I m grateful for you and the Bishops I was able to talk with, cry with and gain strength from. Thank you so much for agreeing to serve.

Anni March 19, 2013 at 8:39 pm

That’s incredible. I always knew that bishops did a lot. And spent long hours.
But, in a way, I feel like it’s also a privileged experience. What a lot a bishop learns. What sacrifice and unselfishness. It truly is amazing to me, how many good men serve faithfully as bishops (or as pastors or in other roles in other religions). Thank you to all the good bishops out there, and especially the ones who have served me and my family.

Christine March 19, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Thank.you for sharing it!

Kali Church March 19, 2013 at 8:59 pm

One of the things I have always loved most about you,Russ, is the great power of your words, the strength of your insight, and your generosity in sharing both. You are an exquisite human being, Russ. I benefited greatly from reading this. Thank you!

Kris March 19, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Russ,
You sure have a way of writing incredibly insightful posts. Your flock is blessed to have such an amazing shepherd. Keep it up!

Heap

Cheryl Buckley March 19, 2013 at 9:36 pm

My husband just got home from going after one of his beloved flock who was in danger!
It is 10:30 pm and he has been going since 4:00 am. I read these words to him and could tell they touched him to the core. I don’t know how to print this off facebook. Could you please send a copy to my email? It would be a great comfort to my husband! You have a very special talent of putting together words that stir the heart! Thank you for sharing and thank you for your unselfish service for the people in your ward, all of us, and most of all Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ! And may you and all Bishops and their families be blessed with all their righteous desires! With love and gratitude! :)

Tina March 19, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Thank. From a Mormon who has been to a bishop;)

Wes Whittaker March 19, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Russ,
Thank you for a great article. I couldn’t put my new experience as Bishop in any more eloquent words than what you’ve said in this post… Thank you for the expression of love and heartache that you/we experience.

Carol F. March 19, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Thank you so much for your service and for the very enlightening and validating message you have shared. After my father served as bishop for six years he said that if we were to treat each person we meet as if they are going through something very difficult, we would be right most of the time. It is indeed a very great debt of gratitude we owe our church leaders who ache over us. Thank you for putting your deep emotional experience into words that can teach us all how to be better to our leaders and fellow ward members.

Brooke March 19, 2013 at 10:53 pm

This was so beautiful and poignant and real. Thanks for sharing what you have learned.

Ester March 19, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Thank you for putting in words what a bishop does through what they learn. I have a bishop in my home and I have seen how he has gone from someone very surprised about his calling to someone very humble about his relationship with the Savior. May you continue to be blessed and sustained along with those in your family. They are also sacrificing a lot!

TED March 19, 2013 at 11:38 pm

Very well said. It reflects my exhausting, yet exhilarating 4.5 years so far as a bishop. I have learned that there is no Mormon bishop without an exceptional wife and an infinitely patient Holy Spirit. I have also learned that everyone has had greater bishops in the past to measure against.

Lori Allred March 20, 2013 at 12:05 am

Loved reading this. I feel I often times defend our Bishop to others that forget you are all simply “men” who answered the called to serve. You are not professional psychologists, counselors, etc. yet your power to heal through Spirit and listen to those in need is a power that cannot be denied. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, it was touching.

Dolly March 20, 2013 at 12:29 am

“I have learned that the strongest among us are those with the cleanest mirrors.”

Great list but this line is my favorite. The looking glass is the strangest place of our existence.

Wayne Shek March 20, 2013 at 4:18 am

Thanks for sharing. In three more days, I will be bishop for five years and the things you shared echo the hours and days I have spent in my office. I love this calling so much that I wish the Lord could extend me for five more years.

Mitch MacKenzie March 20, 2013 at 5:38 am

Thank you.

Arlene March 20, 2013 at 5:52 am

Bishops are a treasure to each ward
I hope you are aware of the church’s Addiction Recovery Program
We are ARP missionaries.
This program offers hope and healing through the atonement of Jesus Christ
AND lightens the load our dear Bishops carry
Please send ward members to this powerful healing program

Jeff March 20, 2013 at 6:16 am

Russ,
Thanks for you great insight. I am a relatively new bishop in the Middle East and all I can say is Amen! My beautiful wife printed this off for me to read as, like you, I get a bit overwhelmed with serving the needs of my congregation. It raised my spirits and realized that no matter where we are in the world, much we deal with is the same. I am humbled by the members of my ward and their deep faith and desire to be right with Heavenly Father. While I may wondered “how do they get themselves into these situations?”, I realize that we are all one mistake away from being on the other side of the desk. Like you, I too feel very inadequate at times to offer guidance and wisdom. I am grateful to know that there is a higher power than I who shores me up and fills me with a little more compassion, sympathy and empathy than I had at the start of the day. If just one ward members has greater hope when he/she leaves my office than when they got there, that really is all the Savior is asking of me. Thanks for writing what all of us are feeling, Brother. Here’s to long nights and the opportunity to do some good.

R. Spencer Robinson March 20, 2013 at 6:23 am

Reading this no doubt helped inspire what I said to my very stressed wife as she ran out the door, late for an early morning meeting. “Remember, you are wonderful even when your day is not.”

Craig March 20, 2013 at 6:28 am

Highlight it, copy it. Open notepad, press paste. Print it out on three pages like I just did. Keep it close and share this with others.

Odeh marcous March 20, 2013 at 7:37 am

Thank you for sharing,I have learn something from reading this artical,

Rachel March 20, 2013 at 7:48 am

Russ, as you may already know, this post circulating all over facebook.
While I appreciate your sincerity, this post makes me a little uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it’s the post’s title, the fact that this is linked to your business website, or if it’s because it’s being shared all over Facebook, but if I were a member of your congregation, I might feel a little weirded out by this. I would also second-guess coming to you for counsel for fear that it might be the indirect subject of a future post. If I were a nonmember reading this, I might be more curious about the confessions rather than the Gospel itself. Maybe I’m missing the point entirely, and I do appreciate your turning this into a list of personal lessons that you’ve gained, but something about this just doesn’t sit right with me.

Don March 20, 2013 at 7:49 am

As a former Bishop, I concur with your thoughts. Most of the members have no idea what a Bishop actually goes through. My successor was amazed at what he found when he first met with people. I still have seared in my memory the time I went to help fish a good member out of jail and intervening in a domestic dispute that involved the police. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything in the world, but I am enjoying my slightly less stressful life.

Jared Bourgeois March 20, 2013 at 8:34 am

I appreciate the sincerity and thoughtfulness. I agree with many of your ‘lessons learned’ but think you missed the boat on the following:

“I have learned that to deal with life’s pain we all choose one of the following: alcohol, drugs, pornography, or spirituality.”

I understand how that may seem to be the case when everyone you’ve counseled probably falls into one of those buckets, but your extrapolation onto all people is naive.

For example, I can’t speak for others, but in my case I have found a profound sense of peace and understanding of who and what I am outside of spirituality and the vices you mentioned. Stated differently, I “deal with life’s pain” without turning to any of the options you mentioned. I think spirituality can be helpful to many people, as well as religion–but spirituality and religion can also be very harmful, especially when dogmatized.

Consider adding honest and humble secular humanism to your list. You may just find that there is still more that can be learned!

Becky S March 20, 2013 at 8:54 am

Thank you for this. I think my spirit innately knows all these things too, but I am grateful to you for putting words to it. And thanks to you and all the Bishops for giving up family and personal time to serve those around them.

Patsy Bybee March 20, 2013 at 9:20 am

My dad served as a bishop for 12 years, all my growing up years. He was my idol, still is in fact, although he passed away 5 years ago at the age of 99 11/12. He carried a great load and it sometimes showed on his face or body carriage, he was a great bishop, activated many people and helped many people. I miss him so much and his ward loved him. When he was released they gave him a quilt with blocks made by each family in the ward, it is a treasure.

Doug March 20, 2013 at 9:28 am

I got the opportunity to sit down in front of a brand new Bishop recently. It was his first night of interviews since being called to a Bishop. First thing I said was ” Bishop I need to be excommunicated”
How about that for breaking in a new Bishop. I love my Bishops warm and loving feelings towards me as I go through my repentance. Bishops will be rewarded by our Father in Heaven some day! Thanks Bishops! Thanks Heavenly Father! Thank you Jesus for your unconditional Love!

Lynda March 20, 2013 at 10:04 am

Thank you so much for your article. As the wife of a former Bish0p and a current Relief Society President, and can appreciate all that you have shared. It was funny some 14 years ago when my husband was called as Bishop, he said to me…”if I’m the best they can find in this Ward, I am in trouble”…lol. He was a wonderful Bishop, and it was great for all of us to see him in that light. There were days I wanted to bite his head off, for saying or doing something, and then someone in Fast and Tesitmony mtg would stand up and say how great he was, and they don’t know what they would have done without him. Our teenage Children would approach him and say “dad, I want to talk to the Bishop”…hehe…they knew the “Bishop” would go easier on them than “Dad.” Anyway…thanks for all the hard work you do. It is a trial and a blessing.

Marissa March 20, 2013 at 10:07 am

I think this is a very good post, and I agree with almost everything you’ve said and how you said it, except one:

“I have learned that to be happy is a choice.”

For so many of us, this is not as true as we would like it to be. I hope that when you see people who are desperately miserable, who can’t break habits, who have been unhappy for years despite their church membership, you refer them to good psychiatrists. To be happy is a choice, yes, but things like depression and other mental illnesses can take that choice away from us. And we don’t need anyone telling us that if we just tried harder, just wanted it more, we could be happy. We have enough disappointment and misery and anger at ourselves.

Thank you, though, for the empathy and humility you shared in this post. I know it must be difficult to have all those people looking to you for guidance when you’re just a person, the same as them.

Darrell March 20, 2013 at 10:42 am

Your candor is something we need so badly.

I desire that we all understand we have far more in common than in difference. Satan desires that we feel alone.

The Savior desires that we bear one another’s burdens. When ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me. When we think, speak and interact with our fellow man we should do so as if we were interacting with the Savior for in the final analysis we are already doing so.

Deciding to treat everyone as if the Savior has become the most powerful mental tool I have ever been taught. By doing so every single day our lives can and will be completely transformed.

As we hold our heads up and serve at every possible opportunity according to our desires and as moved upon by the Holy Ghost our lives will become the most glorious experience beyond anything ever imagined.

Desi March 20, 2013 at 10:44 am

Thank you for this beautiful post. As Marriage & Family Therapist I have learned many of these same principles and love how much I have come to know the depth of God’s deep and abiding love for His children through my service and training. Having worked with many bishops to help their ward members has been an eye opening experience into just how much service is involved as bishop. I am so thankful for faithful bishops! My husband is in our bishopric, and though not the bishop, knowing how much he does makes me even more aware of how much our wonderful bishop does. Thank you for being willing to serve and share your thoughts!

Tom March 20, 2013 at 11:10 am

I would say that, given his list, and the amount of observation it took to come up with it. there is some wisdom in there (in answer to his concerns about wisdom). He probably does a lot of good for those he helps.

However, (and there always seems to be at least one, doesn’t there) The problem with being a cop, or a priest, or a mormon bishop or really any occupation where your business is the problems of others, is that it is very easy to fool yourself into believing that everyone falls into the category of being “in need of your professional attention”. Some cops, after dealing with the bottom of humanity for so long, begin to behave as though everyone, everywhere is the bottom of humanity without regard for whether or not it is actually true. This is human nature, and takes a conscious effort for some to overcome.

So, I believe it is true in a similar matter when a man such as this guy can make such a logically false statement as the following:
“I have learned that to deal with life’s pain we all choose one of the following: alcohol, drugs, pornography, or spirituality”

The problem of course with making such a statement is that is casts doubt upon others that you make. It would have been far better to leave such a statement out.

shenna sinclair March 20, 2013 at 11:10 am

I am an alcoholic/addict and inactive member of the church. Your words truly touched my spirit and you helped me understand a little more that I will not be lost forever. Thanks

Jami March 20, 2013 at 11:22 am

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m filled with appreciation for all the many bishops who have blessed my life and a little more patience for the few who have frustrated me.

Nathan March 20, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Loved it. Thanks! Ever since my mission I’ve told people that every LDS member (and most likely every person for that matter) can be
lumped into those four categories:

‘I have learned that to deal with life’s pain we ALL choose one of the following: alcohol, drugs, pornography, or spirituality.’

I’ve never been in a bishopric but I see things in an Elders Quorum presidency. I’m grateful to know that we have a loving Savior who will look past whatever category we find natural man in if we do our best, repent, and strive to be more like Him.

Keylimesoda March 20, 2013 at 12:24 pm

I’ve seen 3 other major coping mechanisms beyond those mentioned here, and particularly prevelant in the church: food, anger, and TV.

Bruce March 20, 2013 at 12:33 pm

I too served as a Bishop and like this Bishop with no experience and no training. I now am a Chaplain for Hospice of the Southwest in Mesa, AZ and it is the experience I gained as a Bishop that led me to this field. I could not have put into words like he did the very thought that was constantly on my mind. I also could not be more grateful for this education and experience I gained, as humble and overwhelmed as I felt many many times over.
Thank You Bishop Hill

Richard March 20, 2013 at 12:46 pm

One word “wonderful”

martin l. March 20, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. God gave you a gift to compile it and present it in a way you did. Many people will read and not comment, but their lives will be changed nonetheless.
Again, thank you sir. I do not belong to LDS, I do not live in USA, but your words made a huge difference.

Jakob March 20, 2013 at 2:32 pm

It’s the large unpaid lay clergy of The Church that distinguishes us from other denominations. While they have their professional clergy with college degrees that do so out of a career we have people called to do it for free as a second full time job.

If the church had to have a paid professional clergy we wouldn’t have been able to build the beautiful City Creek Mall in downtown SLC. It’s a testament to the business savvy of our leaders.

Katrina March 20, 2013 at 2:35 pm

I love this just as I love the many Bishop’s who serve the members and our Savior. I have had many who like you emulate our Savior and have helped me and my loved ones reconnect with our Savior and Father in Heaven. Thank you and them for your service.

Devon March 20, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Love it. Thank you.

Brady March 20, 2013 at 2:55 pm

My husband is a YSA branch president – has been for about five years now. Some nights as he gets home I can tell his heart is heavy and he is a little more withdrawn. He keeps their confidences close to his heart. He prays for them, loves them, worries about them, and confides in no one. He gives them assignments, meets with them, consoles them, pushes them to be better, and continues to love them. I watch from the sidelines and the miracles are evident, even though I do not know names or stories. Please continue your wonderful work.

Jana Francis March 20, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Your wisdom is very insightful and valuable and I’m glad you shared it. Very thoughtful & rich with meaning. Meant a lot to me personally for many reasons. You’re the bomb.

Jennifer Jackson March 20, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Thank you.

Josh K March 20, 2013 at 3:32 pm

I appreciate your insights. I hope I never have to personally get a taste of the kinds of experiences you’ve been through to gain them. I don’t envy bishops, stake presidents, etc., but I sure do appreciate them. Thanks to you and your family for the time and resources you devote to serving the Lord.

bishop Ret March 20, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Thank you soo much for this.

Kimi March 20, 2013 at 3:38 pm

When my husband was bishop there were times when he would come home and thank me for being who I am. I always knew in those times that it had been a rough day at church. I agree that anger, food, tv are all coping mechanisms and would add Facebook and other social media sites.

Danielle Mathieson Pederson March 20, 2013 at 3:48 pm

What an insightful and poignantly written post.
Thank you!
So much of what you have written I want to quote, or print off and put up on my walls. Again I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write and share this. It’s definitely something that should be read and reread and pondered on. Just as scripture should be and just as each of us needs that moment of introspection each and every day.

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