Sleeping With The Bishop: One Wife's Wish List

I was really encouraged by the conversation that was started in response to my last post. I am grateful that so many of you felt comfortable communicating your feelings, and that those feelings reflected diverse experiences. I have much to learn from each of you.In one of her comments to my last post, Eve asked me to share some thoughts on what would make my life easier. Not wanting to miss such a great opportunity, I responded with a few ideas almost immediately. This post is my more-reasoned response (and includes a few of the points I mentioned earlier).

From time to time, ask us how we’re really doing. Sometimes it feels like the only reason anyone talks to us is if they want something. It would be nice if ward members would occasionally recognize that we are people with feelings, good and bad days, trials, and needs just as real as theirs.

Occasionally say thanks. A kind woman in our ward recently coordinated a massive “bishop appreciation” project. Early Valentine’s Day morning, we were awakened to the sound of the doorbell ringing. On the porch, we found a shiny red box filled with Valentines from the ward. We spent hours reading the cards, laughing and crying. The red box sits on our computer desk—all it takes is a glance in its direction and we’re buoyed up by memories of the sincere expressions inside.

Call your visiting/home teachers first. Save the calls to the bishop/his wife for the times when the bishop really needs to be involved. Don’t call the bishop’s house for ward members’ phone numbers when you’ve lost your directory, when you’re wondering what time stake conference starts, etc. Rest assured that twenty other members have already called that week with similarly non-pressing issues. Although your call only lasts five minutes, those five minutes add up quickly.

If you are in a position to do so, try to ensure that your bishop’s family is visit/home taught. All too often the assumption is made that since it’s the bishop’s family, they don’t have any problems. Hah! Not only do we have problems, but we need to feel like we have at least one or two people in the ward we can turn to if we need something. It seems like a pretty basic idea, but I honestly didn’t realize it until a short time ago when we began to receive visits from our HTs/VTs [maybe it had never dawned on me because I myself struggle to do my own VT?]. It feels so great to have someone I can call when my car breaks down and I need a ride to the doctor, someone to hide behind in the hallway when a cranky ward member is on the rampage, etc. Even in wards where the number of dedicated VTs/HTs is limited, this type of support is in the ward’s best interest—to paraphrase the old saying: “If the bishop’s family ain’t happy, ain’t nobody in the ward happy.” If the bishop and his family are feeling supported, they will have greater motivation, energy, and patience to serve others.

If you must criticize the bishop, do it the right way. I’m under no illusion that my husband does things perfectly. This job has a sharp and lengthy learning curve. Most bishops don’t really “get” how to be a good bishop until right around the time they are released. Therefore, it’s inevitable that he’s going to make some blunders, or even serious mistakes, along the way. If one of those errors has significantly affected you, let me make the following suggestions:

1. Before you bring your concerns to the bishop, ask yourself a couple of tough questions: What is the real issue here? What are my motivations for speaking with the bishop? What do I hope to accomplish by discussing this? What part might I have played in the problem? Have I done everything I can to resolve the issue from my end?

2. Address the issue as soon as possible. If, after asking yourself the questions above, you still feel that you need to speak to the bishop, call the executive secretary and make an appointment. Now. Small wounds can get infected and turn into gangrene rather quickly.

3. Do not send your criticisms via email. Tone is too easily misread; words both spoken and unspoken might be negatively construed. Speak to him face to face so that he can gauge how upset you really are, focus in on the most important issues, and immediately start working with you on a solution. [If you are too intimidated to speak face to face, or if it just isn’t your style, you should be cognizant of the disadvantages of written complaints. Do all that you can to make your letter clear, fair, and solution-oriented.]

4. Do not criticize your bishop in public. Public means with your friends in the ward, even if it’s a “private” conversation (who else would you talk to about this stuff?). While venting to your friends might feel good at the time, your words are damaging on many levels. First, I can promise you that it will get back to us. This is difficult for the bishop on a personal level, and, as a wise anonymous commenter in the last post said, “Criticism deeply, deeply wounds [bishops’] wives and children when we speak ill of them. Their families are making incredible personal sacrifices to enable them to serve, and we should shield them and their loved ones from our judgments.” Second, your words will have an effect on the listener and the listener’s relationship with the bishop. If you have an issue with the bishop, please recognize that this is your issue, and not necessarily anyone else’s.

5. Before you walk into the bishop’s office, remind yourself that you are probably not the first person who has criticized the bishop today. Imagine what it would feel like if you were sacrificing all of your free time (and a significant amount of your family, school, work, exercise, and sleep time) toward your calling, and that no matter how hard you tried, there were always people who were upset with you—telling you what a jerk/how incompetent you were. Take a deep breath. Play nice.

6. Speaking of playing nice, start off the conversation by specifically recognizing the many sacrifices that the bishop and his family are making on behalf of the ward. This will take a little bit of the sting out of what you say next. As the discussion progresses, the bishop will feel less like “I’m doing everything I can but people still complain!” and more like “This person can see I’m working hard and is willing to work with me to help me become better.” This will help the bishop feel less attacked, which will help you achieve your goals in the conversation.

Please, please pray for us. This calling is the hardest thing we have ever done in our lives. We need your prayers. One day when I was visiting primary, a little girl gave the closing prayer: “. . . and bless Bishop X and Sister Maria so they can drive home safely . . . and bless them to have a nice week, too. . . .” My heart melted and I felt the spirit for the first time in a long while. I thought, “Hey, as long as this sweet girl is praying for me, maybe I can handle being the bishop’s wife for another week.”

—-
Although I am generally annoyed when women apologize for (or make disclaimers about) their feelings, I’m going to make a mini-disclaimer:
(1) These suggestions reflect my personal experiences (and the experiences of a few women I have spoken to), and may not be representative of the feelings of other bishops’ wives. [If you have a different perspective, I would actually really appreciate hearing about it.]
(2) I explicitly recognize that I have not always lived up to these expectations in the past. They are aspirations—meaning they are ideas that everybody (including myself) could work toward implementing.

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  1. Caroline says:

    Maria, thanks for sharing this. This has been very good for me to read, since it puts some things in perspective for me…

    My experience in my ward has been to hear lots of positive things about the bishop, lots of over the pulpit expressions of love and trust in our leadership, lots of gratitude for all the time the bishop spends, etc. So much so that I kind of want to roll my eyes when I hear it. But reading your post reminds me that there’s a lot of criticism going on behind the scenes that I don’t know about. Which makes me feel more compassionate towards him.

    You’ve also given me a new perspective when it comes to the nice little things ward members can do to show appreciation. I’ll confess that last Valentine’s day, when I passed by the Bishop’s office and saw that the Young Women had “heart attacked” his door (i.e. pasted it with little construction paper hearts with messages on them), I felt a bit nauseous. Once again I wanted to roll my eyes. But reading your reaction to your Valentine’s Day gift makes me realize that little things that seem saccharine to me, an outsider, can actually be really meaningful and appreciated when one is putting in so much time and emotional effort.

  2. Maria says:

    Caroline:

    I’m with you on the kitschy public displays of affection. Yick. But the Valentine project was different–there were dozens of not just cards, but long letters, expressing specific thanks for specific instances of assistance, etc. And, incidentally, quite a few apologies for having been nasty in the past. Those were the ones we cried over.

    I’m definitely NOT a big fan of the “heart attack.” Unfortunately, nearly every set of sister missionaries assigned to our ward seem to think it’s a good idea. Especially when you live in a big city, having giant fluorescent hearts screaming “You’re AWESOME!” “Your apartment is SO CUTE!” “Dinner was SO YUMMY!” splattered all over your apartment door (for 10 hours before you come home) can make you seem a little crazy to your neighbors. But I just don’t have the heart to tell the sisters how uncomfortable it makes us feel. Oh well. We have much more important things to worry about than what our neighbors think…and it’s the thought that counts, right?

  3. TftCarrie says:

    Thanks for this list. It is something that we all need to be reminded about whether it is dealing with the bishop, RS president or anyone serving in a leadership capacity in the church.

    I am so glad you decided to joing ExII. They are really lucky to have you.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m a bishop and I dislike the public recognition regarding how hard I work, the sacrifices I make etc. I’m not tempermentally inclined to those kinds of public displays and, more importantly, I feel like members of the ward who distrust authority in the church are further alienated by some of these displays.

    Keep in mind the bishop may not be excited to listen to the stake president, YW advisor et al. tell the ward what a great guy he is either–especially when he feels like he isn’t a particularly good bishop. He might prefer to be told he is doing a good job in private–but bishops don’t get their way nearly as often as some might expect.

    One thing this calling has taught me is to go a little easier on everyone around me.

  5. Deborah says:

    I’ve been thinking about this issue since your first post, Maria. It’s so easy to objectify people on the basis of the roles they fill in our lives. In a professional clergy, leaders have a mantel that’s supported by pay, associations, and training. As Mormons, the success of a leader is so inticrately linked to the support those s/he is serving.

    It’d probably be helpful to give reminders like the ones in your list to a congregation when we are asked to sustain a Bishop/Relief Society President. We are a lay leadership and lay congregants — and we could all use the training!

  6. EmilyCC says:

    One of my visiting teachees just became a bishop’s wife. I’m going to give her a copy. Thanks!

  7. Naismith says:

    I guess the list is going to vary from ward to ward, depending on the specifics. To me adding something like, “Pitch in and help!” would be appropriate.

    My ward is pretty transient, and so leadership is often criticized for leaving positions unfilled for an unconscionable length of time.

    What members may not realize is that maybe three different people sequentially refused that calling, and it takes a while to get a new name approved after each refusal.

  8. Anonymous says:

    As some have alluded to in the comments most of the same principles can (and should) be applied to interacting with the R.S. President. I am a former RSPH (R.S. President Husband) of three years. The sisters in the ward consumed much of my wife’s time during those 3 years, family time that we can never get bad. My wife never complained and was mostly happy to serve, but if I could offer unasked for advice 1) Grow a backbone, 2) don’t share intimate marital details with the R.S.P.

  9. Maria says:

    Anonymous Bishop:

    My husband feels much the same way that you do about public recognition. It makes him feel very uncomfortable. That’s why private thanks, whether written or verbal, is a better approach (at least for him).

    I think you would agree that the best praise/thanks is when people just do what they’re supposed to do without complaining, go the extra mile, and are proactive about meeting others’ needs.

  10. Maria says:

    Deborah:

    A few weeks ago we had dinner with the bishop of one of the Spanish wards in our stake, and his amazing wife. His wife expressed to me that, in her experience, it was difficult for new converts in their ward to grasp the idea that her husband was not a full-time member of the clergy. She thought it was perhaps due to a holdover cultural expectation re: parish priests in Mexico, because many of the new converts expect her husband to be available to them at only a moment’s notice–and had no concept of boundaries (demanding a lot of unreasonable, time-consuming assistance). She said that to remedy this, they’ve asked the RS/EQP to give all the new converts a lesson on what “lay clergy” really means, outlining specific guidelines for what you can/can’t ask the bishop to do. I thought this was a great idea, especially since they have a ton of baptisms every month.

  11. Maria says:

    Emily:

    Tell your VT that I wish her the best of luck! And, if she ever needs someone to talk to, feel free to send her my way.

  12. Maria says:

    Naismith:

    I hear you on the not being able to staff callings quickly and the members left in the lurch getting concerned/cranky. I mean, in some ways, I can’t blame them. When you’re running an organization all by yourself and are just dying to get that new counselor you requested, it can sometimes seem the that bishop is being unresponsive to your (very real) needs.

    But, as you point out, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that they bishop can’t exactly tell you about. I remember one particular experience where my husband was being accused of incompetency right and left by members of a certain organization in the ward, but in reality he had extended the calling to 3 or 4 people who had either refused or revealed major transgressions that would prevent them from accepting the call. In that situation, he felt it was better for him to take the heat than to let anyone in on what was really going on.

    It really hurt my feelings to hear people criticize him at that time, because I knew (generally, not the specific details) of what had happened. I just wished people could impute positive, rather than negative, motives in his actions, and realize that he had everyone’s best interests at heart.

  13. Maria says:

    Hear, hear on the anonymous RSPH’s comment re: these same rules applying to the RSP. Many RSPs make just as many (or more) sacrifices as the bishop does, and are just as busy and overwhelmed, too. It makes me think of our RSP–she is a saint of the highest caliber. The ward would not function without her. And she came over here and visited me tonight with one of my regular visiting teachers…just to check up on how I was doing. I swear, she is going straight to the CK.

    Also, RSPH–do you have any other sugggestions for interacting with the RSP? I would love to hear them.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I hope this comment isn’t too off subject, but I guess I’ve never truly understood why we have unpaid clergy. Obviously I understand the basic concept that this gives individuals in the ward and opportunity to serve, but there are still many many opportunities to serve in congregations where the pastor is paid. The issues Maria has raised along with my own experiences make me I wonder if the Church would ever change this structure at least just for the role of Bishop? Is there some doctrinal reason why Bishops could not be compensated?

  15. AmyB says:

    last anon,

    Are you wondering if we should keep the same structure but compensate bishops for their time, or are you wondering if we should start having bishop be a vocation for which people are trained, and then that is their career? Are you asking something in between?

    Maria, I appreciate your perspective. I’m reminded that I can never really know what’s going on for the bishop, or anyone for that matter, and that I should be much quicker to offer help or compassion than to judge.

  16. Maria says:

    I imagine that our lay clergy system is rooted in fears of priestcraft. As it is, you have a complicated mixture of religious feelings, authority structures, personal pride, etc. Can you imagine what would happen if we threw money/someone’s livelihood into that mix? Yikes.

    Also, having an unpaid clergy means that we also have an untrained clergy. This may be connected to our church’s emphasis upon personal revelation, as well as God’s willingness to utilize the most unsophisticated members of the human family as the means for effectuating His work. Think of 19 year old missionaries being the ones to introduce the gospel to the world, the 14 year old farm boy who started the church, and the son of a carpenter born in a stable.

    An untrained bishop may be more open to, and reliant upon, the spirit than someone who spends years in training and receives some sort of title/degree signifying that they are a fully competent church leader.

  17. Maria says:

    Having said that, however, I would actually really appreciate a more formalized training program for bishops after they have been called. The “Worldwide Leadership Training Meetings” are very helpful, but they often leave us yearning for more guidance.

    But, then again, maybe that’s the intent, given my earlier point about reliance upon the spirit.

  18. Michelle says:

    In my current ward, I am distant from the bishop and his family and rarely interact with them. I don’t make any demands on them, but am not really friendly with them at all either. I’ve been thinking some about the wife of my bishop. She always seems a little rushed, slightly anxious, and panicky. I think it is probably in large part her personality, but I’m sure her husband’s responsibilities make these characteristics more exaggerated for her. I think that I will try to get to know her better. Thanks for the great list of ideas.

  19. Anonymous says:

    AmyB

    “Are you wondering if we should keep the same structure but compensate bishops for their time, or are you wondering if we should start having bishop be a vocation for which people are trained, and then that is their career? Are you asking something in between?”

    I was asking whether having the position of bishop become a vocation, rather than a service calling, would be prohibited by any sort of doctrine?

    It makes practical sense to me to provide formailized training for the person leading the ward. It also makes sense to me to have that person choose to take on such a role, rather than be called.

    Considering Maria’s comments, I can see why traditionally this hasn’t been the case in the Church, but I’m wondering if there is doctrine behind this?

  20. Maria says:

    Hmm…I don’t think there is any doctrinal prohibition, given that certain general authorities, mission presidents, and others receive living stipends.

    As far as choosing to become a bishop, or any other leader in the church, I feel that you always have a choice and that no role is forced upon you. I look at callings more like “invitations,” but that may just be my interpretation.

  21. AmyB says:

    Anon, I can’t answer your question about a doctrinal basis. When I think about it too much I don’t know what doctrine is anymore . . . but a while ago there was a post by Lynette at Zelophehad’s Daugthers on this topic that you may find interesting.

  22. Anonymous says:

    AmyB

    Thank you for the link – very interesting.

    Maria

    Sorry to get off topic.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Maria,

    As a Bishop’s wife, I totally agree with your suggestions. At times, I’m amazed at when and why people call my husband. If my car broke down, the last person I would think of calling in the world would be my bishop, but trust me it’s happened. We’ve also gotten calls in the late evening or at 4 or 6 a.m. that were not emergencies but from people who just had something on their minds (this was especially irksome the first few months after our baby was born). Another suggestion, if you call and get the answering machine, just leave a message instead of hanging up and calling every hour. I think people often forget that the Bishop is usually fully employed at work and not just sitting at home screening his calls. Also, whether it’s the answering machine or someone other than the Bishop that picks up, if you want to maintain your privacy it’s probably best not to divulge too much when you leave a message or appeal to that person for help.

    On a related note, my stake president actually gave me a great piece of advice when he called my husband to be bishop. “Always remember that you are Sister [Anonymous], not Sister Bishop.” Meaning that if people approach me with problems that should be solved by my husband, I should politely refer them to the Bishop. The sacrifice a family already makes by not having their father/husband there is even more difficult when members of the ward try to involve the Bishop’s family in their problems.

  24. Maria says:

    Sister Anonymous:

    I like your advice on not leaving overly personal messages on the answering machine. Due in part to a very inappropriate message left on our machine a few years back, when we moved to a new apartment we didn’t bother to set up a landline. Now, the only way to get a hold of my husband is on his cell phone–which only he answers (and which he regularly turns off, and doesn’t feel guilty about turning off, either).

    One question I had for you is about the point you made in your last paragraph. I can see the wisdom in not heaping additional responsibilities on a likely-already-overworked wife. I’m just curious as to whether you’ve ever encountered situations where you actually thought you might be better able to deal with a person’s problems than your husband could. While situations like that have been rare for us, there have been a few times when I’ve been incredibly frustrated that I couldn’t be more involved in the process. I’m just wondering if you’ve had that experience, too, and if so, how you handled it. Or, if you haven’t, what your thoughts would be on a hypothetical situation like I describe above.

    In any event, thanks for dropping in and sharing your thoughts with us.

  25. Eve says:

    I don’t have anything to add to the conversation–this whole experience being so far outside mine!–but I’m reading it with great interest. It’s certainly making me think of ways to be nicer to my bishops and their wives.

    Thanks, Maria, and all commenters, for your thoughts. Most illuminating!

  26. Naismith says:

    “there have been a few times when I’ve been incredibly frustrated that I couldn’t be more involved in the process.”

    I think you CAN get more involved if you want to help, but your involvement should be through your husband rather than directly with a member. That difference may be subtle but is an important distinction.

    I often went on visits with my husband, or did things for him, but I always made it clear that I was acting at his request/direction.

    If a member would approach me personally about a problem, I would nicely but firmly direct them to my husband, reminding them that he was the one to see. And then I would warn him and offer to help if needed.

    About professional clergy, in recent years the church has greatly expanded the support to bishops that is available through LDS social services in our area, and this has helped cut down on the hours and hours of counseling that bishops used to do, and now they can focus much more on spiritual matters. I think everyone is better served.

  27. Maria says:

    Hmm…Naismith, I think I didn’t express exactly what I wanted to in my last comment. I guess my question is less about actually doing an “act of service” for someone (I can do that any time I want), but more about me disagreeing with a specific approach that my husband was taking toward a person/situation in the ward. Does that make sense? Again, those situations have been rare, but when they’ve occurred they’ve been pretty tough.

    So, to clearly state my real concern: Have you ever disagreed with something your husband was doing in his capacity as bishop? If so, how did you and your husband handle it?

    Even asking this question reveals my double standard: I get really annoyed when other people try to tell my husband what to do, but somehow I think it should be different when it’s me. 🙂

    For me, all of this is complicated by the confusing “presiding in the home v. presiding in the church” rhetoric. It’s just strange to me that in every other aspect of our lives we are “equal partners” in the fullest sense of the term. But with respect to his calling as bishop (arguably one of the most important things in his, and well, my, life), we are not equally yoked. While most of the time my opinions are valued and appreciated (and incorporated), in just a handful of situations the inequality of authority has been, well, stark. My husband and I are very open with each other about how difficult these situations were, and neither one of us spent too much time dwelling on them, because, frankly, the complexity of it all just kind of made our heads spin.

    I know that many women expressed gratitude about the clarifications Elder Oaks made in conference about the differences between presiding in the home and church ( Priesthood Authority in the Family and in the Church, October 2005.). However, for me, the two are so blended and intertwined that it is very difficult to sort it all out.

    Any advice on how you have understood this or applied this to your marriage would be greatly appreciated!

  28. Caroline says:

    Maria,
    I don’t see why helping people should always have to go through your husband. It seems to me that as ward members, friends, and sisters, we should be able to offer help and counseling if someone comes to us and wants to discuss a problem. Of course, if it’s a repentence issue, it seems like it would be good to listen compassionately and recommend that they talk to the bish, but if it’s other things, I don’t see why you couldn’t act as a friend and give your best advice as a friend.

  29. Caroline says:

    Ah, I just read your last comment. Yes, that’s a tough one – when you disagree with something he’s doing as bishop. I suppose the only thing you can do is tell him exactly how you feel – and how strongly you feel it – and hope for the best. Like you said, this is an area where you guys really are not equally yoked (sadly, IMO. I’m a big believer in the co-bishop idea.)

  30. Naismith says:

    “It’s just strange to me that in every other aspect of our lives we are ‘equal partners’ in the fullest sense of the term.”

    In our marriage, we’ve had some struggles with this one. About 15+ years ago, my husband accepted a new job where he was a Big Fish. I found that he came home and started snapping out orders, since he was used to doing that all day. It was a challenging few weeks for me, and I was greatly helped by a body of literature about physician’s wives, who have to deal with this a lot, apparently. It took some working through and talking in order to get him to accept that while he may be a Big Fish at work, he was my equal partner at home, and he can’t order the children around, either.

    Since then, we’ve never had a problem with him having different relationships in different parts of his life. In almost 30 years of marrige, we’ve always governed by consensus. There has never been a time where he made one of those mythical “tie-breaker” decisions; if we didn’t both agree, we wouldn’t do it.

    But how we function at home, and how we function in callings or in our careers may be different, and we don’t have a problem with that.

    Another thing that helped in our case was that I had served as RS president before he was called as bishop. When I was RS president, he would sometimes try to give me advice/counsel. And I would thank him for his concern, but act as I felt best. And he understood that I, not he, had the keys to that calling and never got upset if I failed to act as he had suggested. I might add that I occasionally had to bring him along for visits, if I was dealing with welfare issues involving a single dad, or a funeral when a man was the surviving family. He was along to serve as priesthood chaperone, but he always deferred to me as the one in charge.

    So why would I treat him differently than he treated me?

    Plus, although I know a lot about what goes on in his calling, I don’t know everything. So if he did something differently than I thought should be done, I would assume that he had more data upon which the decision was based.

    I think this shows how different couples can be so very different, and I think we had it much easier than Maria because we had been married longer.

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