Brigham Rupp is a full-time seminary teacher in Gilbert, Arizona with bachelor and masters degrees in English. He’s served as elders quorum counselor, executive secretary, stake sunday school and young men presidencies, bishopric counselor and is currently in his 5th year as bishop. He served a mission in Chicago, Illinois and shares many of his scriptural thoughts at The Silver Grey. Also be sure to listen to Brigham’s How I Lead interview.
I was inspired by a recent Leading Saints podcast episode. I’m in my fifth year serving as a bishop, and listening to that episode led me to ponder what I wish I would have known sooner, but as I made my list it evolved just a bit, into what I wish I would have done sooner. While I believe many things are only learned by time and experience, my insights may be nuggets of useful wisdom.
Have Confidence in My Authority
I think I was too hesitant, early on, to speak with power and authority. I was worried about what people would think. I was worried about how people would respond to Brigham Rupp. I’ve learned that people have great respect for the office of the bishop, and (assuming you’re not a complete mess) you can speak with power and authority when moved upon by the Holy Ghost and people will respond. Not so much because of who I am, but because of the faith they have in the office of the bishop.
I am supremely humbled by the willingness of members to act on the bishop’s counsel. What a sacred trust! When the bishop says to do something, most people will do it. I believe God expects a leader to approach that sacred trust in faith rather than fear and use it to help people change their lives by being bold and brave and willing to challenge, invite, and encourage with power and authority.
Set Clear Goals and Articulate a Specific Vision
I spent too long trying to do everything and emphasize everything. The danger is, when you try to emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing. It’s more effective to pick a handful of priorities to emphasize and do those exceptionally well. I’m not arguing for shirking any duties. As for the administration of an entire ward, I believe good leaders can accomplish basically everything as far as the handbook goes.
However, on a macro scale, you can emphasize scripture study, temple worthiness and worship, charity, missionary work, Sabbath worship, quality teaching, etc. whatever you’d like. Yet you can’t emphasize all of them all the time. I find that paying close attention to the prophets and apostles reveals the most of what priorities I ought to have in my stewardship.
Learn to Say “No” and Set Boundaries
You can’t do it all. Don’t try to, and don’t make commitments as if you can. Early on I reacted to people without clearly established boundaries and eventually got caught up to the point where I was taking calls or responding to texts at completely inappropriate times. This can lead to personal burn out, or even worse, damage personal relationships with spouse and other family members.
To truly serve everyone in your stewardship, some of them will have to be told “no” or “not right now” some of the time. What a blessing it was to learn to set up limits and boundaries on my time, my appointments, texting, responding to emails, all of it.
Here are a few boundaries that I’ve tried to stick to:
- Welfare checks are signed two days a week only.
- No appointments during Sunday school or mutual time.
- I will always pick up each of my kids from primary at the conclusion of the church block.
- I will not respond to ward-related texts, phone calls, or emails while I’m at work or on Mondays after 6.
- Thursday nights are reserved for my wife.
- I will not set up an appointment myself, I will always turn people to the executive secretary.
- I will not go over my appointment times and leave people waiting for excessive amounts of time.
- I will not use text or email to discuss financial needs, worthiness, complaints, or other sensitive matters.
Of course, there have been occasional exceptions to each of these, but I have been supremely blessed by establishing each.
Let Your Spouse in as Much as Is Appropriate
I take bishop confidentiality extremely serious. I don’t tell my wife anything she shouldn’t know, and she doesn’t ask. That said, early on, I was so anxious to keep confidentiality that I didn’t discuss anything about my service with my wife. The sorrow, the pain, the fatigue, the frustration… none of it. This was a huge mistake. Many of the challenges of a calling can be better endured through the loving support of a spouse, but only as we let them into those challenges as much as is appropriate.
Get out of the Way
Early on I was so committed to doing everything and being at everything that I failed to recognize a subtle but consistent occurrence, that when the bishop is present, no matter what the activity, he presides and the members are going to turn to him for guidance and decision making.
You can do your best to point them back towards their immediate leaders, but if the bishop is there, they’ll usually want the last word to come from him. This tendency is born out of an admirable respect for the office of bishop and the order of priesthood keys but on the downside, it means that when the bishop is around it becomes very hard for anyone else to have any real experience leading.
For example, if the bishop always attends priest quorum, the first assistant is going to have a hard time getting much experience really leading. If he’s always at ward council, his first counselor is never going to learn how to run that meeting.
I realized how important this was when I wondered why our stake president, who lives in my ward, almost never came to any ward activities and rarely even came to our sacrament meetings. Then I realized it: when he’s at our meetings, he automatically presides, and if he’s always around then I can’t learn to truly lead because the authority is always his. After this realization, I backed off my commitment to always be at everything, every time.
Sometimes I intentionally arrive late to mutual so that other leaders can get it started. I bounce around during the third hour so the priest first assistant has opportunities to run the meeting. I don’t go to scout committee meeting because I want the young men presidency to lead out in that area. This isn’t an excuse to shirk any duty or pass off any stewardship that is mine but to give other people a chance to lead and make decisions without having me around.
Train My Replacement
Closely connected with getting out of the way is training your replacement. I mean this in the sense that there are people around you who very well may be in your position sooner or later. You have a wealth of information and experience you can impart to them. Particularly a bishop to his counselors and elders quorum president, you can be open about how you make decisions and why you do things that you do. Sharing best practices when it comes to various tasks that are unique to the bishop, etc. All leaders should be preparing others to leapfrog their efforts, when the time comes, to do even more and even better.
Fully Engage Relief Society and Elders Quorum in Welfare
If welfare needs aren’t filtering through the elders quorum and Relief Society presidents before they reach the bishop, the bishop is making a mistake. I spent my first couple years spending most of my time in the bishop’s office counseling people on financial matters. At one point, I got quite discouraged. I thought I would spend my time helping people come unto Christ and conquer sin and other challenges. Not that temporal affairs don’t matter, they do. Yet I felt like I was only working towards temporal goals.
After a few stilted attempts at setting this precedent, we’ve finally reached a standard where all requests for welfare assistance are addressed by the elders quorum and Relief Society through interviews, financial assessments, etc. I make the final call after counseling with those presidents. Since then, I’ve had much more time to reach out and help people on spiritual matters, especially the youth. Not only that, but the welfare work seems much more effective and streamlined.
Own the Meetings
While the secretary may prepare them, the presiding leader ought to be in complete control of meeting agendas. It’s very hard to have an effective meeting without a good agenda. A leader can’t hold an effective meeting without determining what ought to be on that agenda and then managing how the group moves through that agenda in the meeting. Keep it simple, focused, and realistic. Nothing should go on the agenda that isn’t essential for everyone in the group to know or discuss.
Enjoy the Journey
My father has often reminded me that if I’m not happy in general, something is wrong. Nobody wants to follow a miserable leader. There are times when we may get down. That’s the nature of leading in the church. However, we ought to be sure to always maintain an eternal perspective that allows us to see beyond the challenges of current circumstances and allows us to find joy in every circumstance. This is the gospel of joy, the plan of happiness. Ultimately everyone in the Church is seeking for nothing more than to be happy. We ought to be examples of that happiness.