Daniel Duckworth is a changemaker, teacher, and community-builder. He’s building a tribe of changemakers and positive deviants. You can join the tribe at deepchangeforall.com. If you live in Utah, you can join Changemakers Live, a tribal gathering designed to generate passion, creativity, and community, in November by going to deepchangeforall.com/events.
A bishop, contemplating the implications of his reemphasized role as president of the Aaronic Priesthood, recently asked me, “If you were me, what would you do?”
This is a beautiful question. First, it’s evidence of the bishop’s humility and desire to do right. Second, it reflects the reality that so much has been left undefined.
My spur-of-the-moment thoughts could not have been of much use to that bishop, so I’ve reflected more deeply. This article is my response.
If I were a bishop or newly-minted stake or ward “officer” during this time of change, this is what I would do—
I would give away my power.
Empowerment is a chic concept today. Yet, being almost universally misunderstood, it is frequently abused.
To empower means to give power to someone else. To do so means to give up power, to let go. You cannot give power and retain it. Either you hold it or another holds it.
Leaders at work, church, and home fail to empower others because they fear to disempower themselves. The fear to let go is rooted in distrust and ego.
To give away power is to let others determine the pathways and processes the community will follow. That’s risky. Momma said, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
If the people fail in their tasks, we reason, the community will fail to achieve its objectives. We will be left holding the bag—as important people look on with disdain.
Fearing both performance impacts and reputational implications, we retain power. Though we may assign, we control. We dictate the terms. We coerce. We oppress.
The people at first feel frustrated. Soon, they resent the charade. They disengage. Without passion or creativity, they go through the motions. They become exactly what we feared they were: listless and untrustworthy. We feel vindicated.
Vindicated, but alone and exhausted.
For decades, the Brethren have exhorted local leaders to empower others. While most have trifled with delegation—or the assignment of responsibility—few have learned to give away power to others.
When considering all the recent centrally-mandated changes together, it seems the Brethren are attempting to make it easier for stake and ward officers to give away power—and harder to retain it.
But make no mistake—structural changes can only shove a leader closer to cliff’s edge. She still must choose to leap with faith.
One Prophet, Yet Many Prophets
Several years ago, I was privy to a dramatic transformation led by a stake president. Eager to expand the influence of a stake president’s keys, he learned to empower his counselors, then the high councilors, then the stake officers. The stake flourished. There was only one stake president, but it was as if there were nineteen.
During this time, amidst many compelling conversations, the Spirit directed me to the story of Moses and the seventy prophesying elders in Numbers 11. Though Moses had, up to that point, many experiences with delegation, he had yet to learn to empower. But he was ready.
At the Lord’s command, Moses identified 70 elders. He took all but two outside the camp, where, for the first time, they prophesied. Instead of one prophet, there were suddenly 70.
At the same time, the two elders who stayed in camp also suddenly prophesied. Out of character and countercultural, this threatened the established order. A young boy ran to Moses to tattle-tell.
Hearing the report, Joshua, a high-ranking officer, cried foul. Playing to Moses’s ego, Joshua urged, “My lord, forbid them.”
But Moses saw more danger in Joshua’s jealousy than the two elders’ empowerment. He replied, “Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”
Moses’s vision of universal empowerment is scary. If everyone is a prophet, who then is in charge?
We confront this concern in the very next scene in Numbers. Moses’s siblings, Miriam and Aaron, have grown tired of his leadership. They question, “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us?”
They had a point. The Lord had empowered them both and 70 others with revelations. But Miriam and Aaron had lost touch with a paradoxical principle: though there be many prophets, yet there is one Prophet.
But importantly, with his authority challenged, Moses is again not jealous. It is the Lord, not Moses, who reproves Miriam and Aaron, famously striking Miriam with leprosy. The Lord teaches them the paradoxical principle: though there be many prophets, yet there is one Prophet.
Imagine a stake with one Stake President, yet 19 stake presidents. Or a ward with one Bishop, yet ten bishops. Can we trust the Lord’s pattern and the paradoxical principle of “one but many” enough to even envision such a change?
“If you were me, what would you do?”
I would give away my power.
For example, to ensure I could be both physically and psychologically present with the youth, I might do something like this—
- I would not take any appointments with people who had not first met with their respective ward officer—the elder’s quorum, relief society, or young women president, or, in the case of deacons and teachers, my counselors.
- Then I would only take new appointments with people referred to me directly by one of those ward officers. I would teach the ward officers to retain both responsibility and power to counsel with their constituents, even in the rare cases that require my involvement as a judge in Israel. I would trust the ward officers to counsel and make referrals by the spirit of prophecy.
- I would teach the executive secretary to decline incoming requests for interviews and refer them to their respective ward officer’s secretary. I would teach him to follow-up with the ward officers’ secretaries to be sure no one’s pleas for help go unanswered. I would empower the executive secretary to work with the ward officers’ secretaries as a team.
- As the first of three exceptions to these rules, I would meet with any priest at any time. As the second, I would empower the executive secretary to set up an appointment with anyone whom he feels by the spirit of prophecy ought not to be referred to another ward officer. As the third, I would maintain a list of no more than five people who should be given an appointment with me at any time. As I felt to add someone to this list, I would force myself to remove another, such that it never exceeds five.
- Anytime I felt prompted that a member needs help, I would ask the Lord, “Is this one of the five? If not, which ward officer should I refer them to? If so, which one of my five should I replace them with?” I would then request the executive secretary to take over.
- As for the young men, I would focus almost exclusively on training and elevating the Aaronic Priesthood quorum presidencies, as well as the quorum members, in their ecclesiastical duties and opportunities, or what is called “the work of salvation”—ministering, temple and family history work, and temporal service. I would empower the adult advisers to plan meaningful activities and to learn to implement the new youth initiative—without my involvement. I would show up at these activities as a minister, not an administrator. I would resist every temptation and external pressure to become a de facto “young men president.”
I would do these things not because they are “right” but as experiments. And I—and all the ward officers—would learn our way into a new, more excellent pattern.
If the Brethren are asking bishops to spend more time with the youth—and not less time with their families—this can only be accomplished by letting go—of tasks, of power, of control.
Give away your power. Trust in the spirit of prophecy. Trust in the paradoxical principle of “one but many”. Take a leap of faith.