Saturday, December 3, 2011

Regular Members as "Counselors in Zion" to a Bishop Who Is a Shepherd and Judge

Alma 5:59 says:

For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him. 

When I chose my New Year's Resolution for this month ("Watch over the flock more diligently."), I knew that I was stretching the technical definition a bit by focusing on this verse near the end of a chapter that talks so comprehensively about things that individuals need to consider with regard to their own spiritual growth.  The surrounding context of this verse makes it clear that it refers to Jesus, the Christ - the Good Shepherd - the one who watches over his flock and guards his sheep from predators.  The final section of this chapter is radically different in focus than the rest of the chapter, and I don't mean to minimize, twist or overlook that difference by taking verse 59 a bit out of context and "likening it unto (my)self".

When I made this particular resolution, nearly a year ago, I had no idea the posts I would read recently around the Bloggernacle - the multiple posts that would be written about pastoral care, the role of Bishops within the LDS Church and how members should and can interact with "shepherds" who are appointed to watch over them.  I was struck HARD as I contemplated this resolution how much Bishops are protectors and guardians - and how much that role is part of and impacts their duties as Judges in Israel.

I know I instinctively want Bishops to be counselors, and I know many Bishops who are good counselors - but, at the most basic level, I also know that a Bishop must be aware of and diligently on guard against potential dangers to his flock.  That role as protective shepherd sometimes can be at odds with my desire for him to fill a role as confidante and counselor - and it can cause a tension in situations where I or other members "confide" things that are not necessarily "confessions" of incorrect action or sin.

The expression of uncertainty and/or doubt is one of these situations.

The ideal Bishop-as-counselor/confidante would view such expressions as a chance to explore nuance and individual perspective - focusing strictly on the individual in question and not seeing anything in such expressions as "dangerous" or "harmful".  Such expressions of uncertainty and/or doubt would not be seen as "confessions" - since there is NO "sin" attached to uncertainty or doubt.  Thus, ideally, a Bishop would be able to listen to someone who was experiencing a crisis of faith (struggling to maintain hope in what cannot be seen) without any kind of "protective reflex".

However, as a "shepherd", a Bishop is required to be vigilant in seeing potential dangers to his "flock" - and it is easy for Bishops to see a questioning, uncertain and/or doubtful sheep as such a potential danger.  After all, what if that sheep talks with other sheep and plants questions, uncertainty or even doubt in their minds?  I acknowledge that such an outcome is a real possibility; hence, there is an inherent tension between a Bishop being an unbiased, objective "counselor/confidante" and a dedicated "shepherd/judge".

How does this relate to my personal resolution this month?

I am resolved this month to be more diligent in the protection of all who might turn to me for counsel, advise, perspective, insight or assistance of any kind.  I have more than one natural "flock": my children (and, in a way, my wife - although I am of her "flock" in that regard, as well); the students I serve in my role as a college admission counselor; the students whom I serve as an Institute teacher; people in my community who look to me to see how a Mormon acts and believes; those online who read my blog and my comments on other sites; etc.

I am careful in my use of the term "flock" - since I have NO desire whatsoever, in any of those roles, to "build a following" in the classic sense of the term "flock" - so I am using it much more loosely in the application I use for myself.  It simply has registered more deeply than ever before, over the course of this past month leading up to this month's resolution, that all of us who are members of the LDS Church and have committed to take His name upon us and act as His disciples in our day can share in His shepherding role to some degree and, by so doing, reduce the heavy burdens Bishops (and Branch Presidents) must bear by taking responsibility for those parts of a typical Bishop's burden that he doesn't have to bear strictly by virtue of his calling.

Being a counselor/confidante for others is one such way in which I believe I can help to lessen or remove an unnecessary burden - and, in the process, help build Zion in a very real and practical way.

God bless the Bishops (and Branch Presidents) of the Church - and God bless each of us to do what we can to love, listen to, counsel with and serve the sheep better (especially those who are uncertain or doubt) so Bishops can focus on protecting them more easily and not be put in positions where they must mitigate their own counseling in order to continue to protect and judge.


Paul said...

This is just terrific. It mirrors many of the thoughts I have had in the past week or so as I've read the same posts you have, and it's very similar to a post I have been mulling around in my head -- one that is now not necessary because you've said it so well.

When I served as a bishop a number of years ago I had two very different cases that illustrate what you describe. In one, a brother with doubts confided in me when I sought him out; he went out of his way NOT to share his views with others, but was pained that he could not resolve the matters for himself.

Another brother had in interviews with me, in his priesthood quorum and whenever he got the chance, shared his gospel hobby which ran counter to the official teachings of the church. I tried to reason with him (and even after my release I tried to take him on in discussions in a quorum meeting, unwisely, I think). He had no interest to "resolve" his doubt: he wanted to preach his version of the gospel.

In both cases, individual shepherds are likely to be much more effective at helping someone feel loved and listened to.

That said, as I've said in comments elsewhere, the bishops I've known have sought first to comfort and mourn with the doubter rather than to fence him off from other members of the flock.

Papa D said...

Paul, thank you for those examples. They illustrate exactly what I meant in the post.

Fwiw, I've enjoyed your comments over on Wheat & Tares, and I just checked out your blog. Good stuff! I've added it to my Blog Roll.

Papa D said...

There is a thread over at Wheat & Tares that was posted by Stephen Marsh almost simultaneously with this one. It also deals with the idea of confession and what it really means. I just posted a comment (#19 - not my first one in that thread) that I want to post here, as well:
There are two distinct and different usages of the word “confess” in our scriptural canon:

1) Confessing the name of God / Jesus – which always means, in context, the same thing generally as “testifying”. (admitting to one’s testimony, if you will) This always is positive, obviously.

2) Confessing sins and, in one case, faults – which also is admitting “to” something that has happened already.

I know that probably is obvious to everyone, but I find it interesting that most of the scriptural instances of confessing sins are mentioned in context of public confessions. voy is correct in that, generally, there isn’t much of a scriptural injunction to confess sins to a spiritual leader – since the scriptural injunction almost always involves open, public, group confession instead. Based on voy’s comment, however, I really doubt s/he believes in that sort of confession – and, all other potential issues aside, I’m not sure I would prefer public confession either.

The most interesting verse, imo, is James 5:16 – which reads:

“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

Notice, in this verse, James is not talking about “sins” but rather “faults” – and he says those should be confessed “one to another” in order for others to be able to pray for those who are struggling with “faults”. That’s the type of counseling and sharing of “confidences” to which I was referring in the first post to which I linked – those things that are not sins but rather should be shared outside a “confessional” with other members.

ji said...

I look at a bishop as a neighbor, a friend, who is also called to be a priest and a judge for a time -- I don't look on him as a shepherd or a protector.

I look at the lesser priesthood as more temporal. I look at the higher priesthood as more spiritual. I think of stake presidents and elders quorum presidents as being more of shepherds than bishops.

This approach works better for me. I know that our common culture exalts the office of bishop above all others, but I believe this works to the diminishment of the office of stake president and elders quorum president, which I tend to see as more important in the work of salvation and ptotection than bishops.

I appreciate youir point that the role of bishop is difficult, in part because there are so many demands on it from differing perspectives and expectations.

Papa D said...

ji, I actually agree that the Bishop's primary responsibility is of President of the Priests' Quorum. I have had the exact same thought over the years - that we diminish the potential power of our MP leadership (and RS Presidency) when we insist the Bishop be what he need not be.