In the General Conference of April 2021, Elder Quinton L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles concluded his talk with these words:
The calling, sustaining, and setting apart of a bishop is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. For me, it ranks with a small number of sublime events in the wide range and depth of feelings it evokes. It sits comfortably in a hierarchy of precious events like marriage and fatherhood that cannot be described in a few words
Bishops, we sustain you! Bishops, we love you! You are truly the Lord’s shepherds over His flock. The Savior will not forsake you in these sacred callings.
In the Lethbridge Young Single Adult Stake there are eight units- seven wards and one branch. Each of these units has a Ward or Branch Conference once during the year. Each conference gives the bishop or branch president (written as bishop(s) hereafter) and the stake president the time to speak to the unit on a subject they feel is important. Since President Eric Wilde has been stake president, he has not once missed mentioning that each bishop has been called by the Lord and is the one that is needed in that time and place.
As happens with most callings in the church, there comes a time for a bishop to be released. In a YSA Stake, this happens every three years. Most members of the church only see the sacrament meeting portion of the calling of a bishop and his counselors. It is a fairly simple thing to do but there are a lot of moving parts that lead to that sacrament meeting. Since we have changed many of the bishoprics in the stake recently, I would like to take the time to describe the process of calling a new bishop.
The Beginning: 3-4 Weeks
About two and a half years after a bishop is set apart, the stake presidency begins to discuss the upcoming change. As we sit in our weekly presidency meeting, President Wilde usually asks us to take a week and ponder on who would make a good bishop for a ward. Since the members of the stake presidency are from different parts of Southern Alberta, we know people in other stakes that the rest of the presidency members don’t so we are able to create a list that does not overlap too much.
When we meet again, we sit and talk about who we have considered. We make sure to discuss who they are, where they are from, age, family age (do they have kids in school still), occupation, and many other things so we can understand them as much as possible. A big part of the discussion is who the wives of these men are. Even though they are not receiving a formal calling to serve, the wives of the bishops are integral in helping the bishop fulfil his calling. Sometimes this means we take a couple of presidency meetings to discuss each person brought forward. Once this is done, we counsel together on the needs of the ward.
A unique problem to have in a YSA Stake is getting permission from the other stakes to call someone to serve in our stake. The Lord’s House is a house of order. Therefore, we as a stake cannot just call someone from another stake to serve with us. If we did, it would cause great confusion in the stake that person has come from. That other stake would have lost a Elders Quorum President, Relief Society President, or even a nursery leader with no knowledge of what happened. This confusion would lead to animosity between the YSA stake and the others stakes on whom we rely for our High Council, Stake Presidency, Bishops, and their counselors. To keep the Lord’s house in order, we seek permission from the other stake presidents to pursue calling a brother to be a bishop in our stake.
By this time, we have narrowed the list to two or three brethren. President Wilde will then take another week to ponder and pray about these brethren. He returns to our next meeting and shares his thoughts on who is to be the next bishop. Sometimes, he has gone to meet with the brother and his wife to see them and ask if they would be willing to serve in the YSA Stake in some capacity. Once the presidency approves of the choice, President Wilde will submit a request to the First Presidency to reorganize the bishopric of a ward.
The Wait- 1-3 Weeks
The next couple of weeks is a lot of waiting. The First Presidency approves each new bishop for the 31,000 wards and branches in the church and this process takes some time to complete. Once the First Presidency has had the time to ponder and pray about the choice of bishop, they send an approval or denial message to President Wilde. If it turns out to be a denial, which is extremely rare, then the stake presidency will go back to the beginning to counsel and discuss anyone else we feel could serve and resubmit to the First Presidency
Once approval is sent from Salt Lake, President Wilde will go and meet with the approved brother and his wife to extend the call. These are sacred and beautiful experiences for President Wilde and the newly called bishop and his wife.
The Call- 1 Evening
What is it like to be called as a bishop? In speaking with the bishops of the stake, I have been able to see that every call is different in form but not in spirit. For some, they have a feeling that a change is coming soon, and they must prepare for it. For others, the call to serve comes out of nowhere.
One bishop related that the call was like getting the weight of the world dumped on his shoulders. He felt a wide range of emotions- including feelings of being unprepared. A few things that helped overcome this trepidation and help build peace in his soul. One was the immediate support he received from his wife. Another was going through the process of calling counselors. Finally, he said that seeing and feeling the strength of the members of the Ward Council helped banish any fear he had.
Another bishop said that for the couple months leading up to his call, he began to notice a “constant and continual” increase of love for the people around him. His experience of meeting with President Wilde was humbling. He was blown away at receiving the call and wondered if President Wilde was at the correct house. Once he was assured that he was the man the Lord wanted, he had a “most reverent, calm, and humbling moment.” It was like nothing he has ever experienced. He had an immediate knowledge that the call to serve as a bishop was inspired.
A third bishop in our stake had President Wilde and another stake president come to his home to extend the call. He was reassured that his home stake had been involved, knew what was going on, and supported the call to serve. He also mentioned the humbling feeling of receiving the call. He said it was similar to receiving a mission call. The call to be bishop did not happen in one day but was the result of the preparations and opportunities from other callings and experiences in life that allows us all to grow and be refined into what the Lord wants us to be. He said:
A call to serve does not mean we are perfect for the position, but we know 'whom the LORD calls he qualifies'. Serving in any calling, especially a mission or Bishop requires a willingness to change. This change is often in the form of many painful growth experiences where we must humbly get on our knees and seek guidance and direction in the form of personal revelation.
Finally, one bishop recalled that when he received a call to meet with President Wilde, everything possible raced through his head. The questions of what it could and couldn’t be were bouncing back and forth. He said he eventually resigned himself to his lot and mentally prepared for whatever was coming. His feelings ranged from excitement to fear and everything in between. To help ease the wild thoughts and emotions, President Wilde presented a letter from the First Presidency that said this: “Please inform [the] Bishop that he has our confidence and prayers in fulfilling his important responsibilities… Sincerely yours, Russell M Nelson, Dallin H Oaks, Henry B. Eyring.”
With each different story, there were a few common themes that were mentioned. One was the love they felt from President Wilde. I would be hard pressed to find a person who loves those he serves more than President Wilde. If I had the time and the ability to put it into words, it would still be a shallow reflection of his love. A second theme was the peace they received from the Spirit. It did not matter whether it came right away or over time, each was given the peace they needed so they could serve. The third theme I found was how much they treasured the inspiration that was given to the stake presidency and the First Presidency.
After the Call- 2-3 Weeks
The new bishop is most often given a couple of weeks to ponder and pray about whom he wants as counselors. When he has done so, he submits them to the stake presidency for approval and further approval from the High Council.
This is the first time that the High Council hears of an upcoming bishopric change. They are informed that a new bishop has been called and then are asked if they sustain the choice of counselors. When the counselors are approved, the next step is to make the change.
The outgoing bishopric knows generally when a change is going to be made- as mentioned above, bishops get changed every three years. They don’t know anything specific until after the new bishopric has been approved and called. At this point, the ward members are told that a change will be happening on the next Sunday.
The Change- 1 Day
The morning of a bishopric change is one of the most sacred and spiritual experiences I have ever been a part of. The stake presidency goes to a special bishopric meeting for the outgoing bishopric and their wives. Part of the time is taken by sharing how they feel and asking what their plans are now that they will have a change in calling. Each member of the bishopric is given an opportunity to share what they have learned in their time in the ward and share a brief testimony. At least once in each of the meetings I have been able to witness, one person mentions how the members of our stake are Spiritual Giants and have taught them something new about the gospel- whether by word or action.
Once the testimonies are done, President Wilde will pause and express his thanks to all of them and extend the release to them. It is an amazing thing to see the physical change in a bishop when he is released. There is always a tear or two when the mantle of a bishop is lifted and the keys over the ward are temporarily moved to President Wilde. More than that, the feeling in the bishop’s office changes. There is a spirit of peace and comfort. It is hard to imagine having the responsibility for the spiritual and physical welfare of two hundred young adults lifted off your shoulders, but I think that it is quite an empty feeling. The love doesn’t go away but the authority to act through the keys of the priesthood has been removed.
The sacrament meeting when a bishopric is changed is always special. What makes this sacrament meeting different is we get to hear the testimonies of twelve people either at the beginning or the end a journey. The outgoing bishopric and their wives share how they have grown and how much they have learned in the callings they had. The new bishopric expresses their excitement and their trepidation at the new callings they have received. It is not uncommon for these sacrament meetings to last longer than the hour that the handbook proscribes but it does not feel like we have been inconvenienced. The Spirit is once again unrestrained, and the expressions of love and joy are felt by all.
The sacrament meeting is generally the only part of the bishopric change that is visible to all members of the ward. Once the meeting is done, the change is considered complete, and we can go on our merry way with the new bishopric. But there is one thing left to do. The transfer of keys needs to be completed.
After the meetings of the day are over, the new bishopric and their families are invited to meet with the stake presidency to be set apart. The new bishop is called up to be set apart first. He is ordained as a bishop and then given the keys to preside over the ward. It is not as easy to see the mantle fall all on the shoulders of the new bishop but there is always a look of calmness on his face. There is even a detectable resolve to do the best possible job. After the counselors are set apart, the change is deemed complete and the new bishopric is sent forth to serve.
It is all well and good to tell the story of how a bishop is called, but why does this process matter? Why do we need bishops?
Let’s explore the second question first. Back when the Children of Israel had left Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and camped beneath Mount Sinai, there was only one man that was responsible for the spiritual well being of the whole nation- Moses. We read that he was inundated by grievances (both important and inane) and was physically worn out. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who had a lifetime of experience as a priest for his people, came to him one day and basically said that Moses was working himself to death. In Exodus 18:18 Jethro gives this warning; "Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone."
His counsel is for Moses to appoint "able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness: and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundred, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens." This was given so Moses could focus on being the prophet rather than being the president, supreme court, and the legislator for the nation of Israel. Moses heeded this counsel and was able to better lead the people.
In the New Testament we read of bishops being called to serve by the apostles so the people of the church could have the priesthood keys in their cities. Paul writes more than once to Timothy, the bishop of Ephesus, giving him counsel and helping him in his calling. In his first letter, Paul shares with Timothy that a bishop needs to be "blameless, the husband to one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach." Paul goes on to say that a bishop must not be a novice but rather someone that has experience in church service (see 1 Timothy 3:2-7).
The purpose of bishops today is to do those things that the ancient bishops did- to give counsel to the members of their ward, helping them to overcome their challenges and to oversee the growth in the Kingdom of God, by exercising the keys of the priesthood he has been given. The bishop is important because he is better able to know those he serves. It would be impossible for members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to meet and know each of the nearly seventeen million members of the church, then give them counsel, and then administrate church affairs. They would need their own Jethro to tell them to take a rest and delegate some keys and responsibility to others. It is a lot easier to call brethren to preside over a small geographic area and have them serve the people there.
The bishop is called to serve as a common judge. This means that he helps the members of his ward “qualify for and be worthy of a temple recommend” (General Handbook). He meets with members of the ward to give spiritual guidance in personal problems and using the Atonement to overcome past mistakes. The bishops of our stake work very hard to meet with each member of their wards, both those actively attending, those who irregularly attend, and those who do not attend at all. The love they have compels them to reach out and search out those who need to feel the love of Christ. To be a common judge is to act as the Saviour’s open arms and hold those in need of comfort (see Alma 7:11-13).
To answer why the calling of the bishop go through the many steps outlined, we should look again at the phrase “House of Order.” This phrase is the model for how things are to be done in the church. Right from the beginning with Joseph Smith, the church was restored through an orderly progression. First, Joseph was called as the prophet. Then he received the plates and began to translate the Book of Mormon. As he learned and had questions, he was given more answers and responsibility. Eventually the church was organized and as it began to grow, more parts were added to help the saints learn and grow. This includes the Relief Society, Elders Quorums, Wards, Stakes, Areas, Missions, Temple Districts, Ministering assignments, and even nursery leaders.
Could you imagine going to the first meeting of the church on April 6, 1830 in the Whitmer farmhouse and being called as the Relief Society President? Or have the Come Follow Me format of instruction be announced that day? It would not work out well since no one would know what to do or how to do it. The Lord knew it was better to reveal to Joseph (and the successive prophets) what to do next once the church had grown and become able to handle the new quorums and auxiliaries.
Jesus knows each and everyone of us and our needs. He knows what we need and when we need it. His church has been organized in such a way that we can have close access to the keys of the priesthood that can help us move along and back onto the Covenant Path. For the proper use of these keys, He needs worthy and upright men. As mentioned above, President Wilde frequently reminds us all of the divine calling of each bishop in our stake and how each is revealed to be the needed bishop for that ward. The weeks long process to call a bishop is meant to allow as many opportunities to seek and receive revelation as possible. Every time I have been part of this process, I have been able to see the results of revelation. When President Wilde says that he would like to recommend a brother to the First Presidency, I can see his assurance of the will of the Lord, and I feel that confirmation personally.
Elder Cook invited us to counsel with our parents and bishops so they can help us make the important life decisions we have before us. He said:
Many of you precious young people may not have a clear vision of who you are and who you can become. Yet you are at the threshold of the most important decisions you will make in your lives….
We are aware that you have trials and temptations coming at you from every direction…. Please talk to your bishop about any matter in which a common judge can assist you in getting your life in order with the Lord in preparation for the “great work” He has for you in this final dispensation.
In the bishop’s office, there is only love. Seek out that love and the bishop’s office will become a holy sanctuary for all of us.
I know that each of the bishops in our stake, past and present, have been called by God. They have been looked after, cared for, and prepared to serve. I have seen the change in many from worry and trepidation at the start, to not wanting to leave at the end. I have seen them grow into the mantle that they have been given. I have seen the love for their ward members immediately blossom, allowing them to build trusting and loving relationships. The Lord loves us. He died for us and opened the way back to His and Heavenly Father’s presence. He has called bishops to help and guide us along the Covenant Path. I encourage you to visit with your bishop and get to know him. His concern and love for you is just as strong as a parent’s love for their child. Always know that there is a place to go when you need help, counsel, and prayers said on your behalf. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Stake Executive Secretary