Here’s a trivia question: How many of the 16 presidents of the LDS Church served at one time as bishops of wards, or congregations?
Just two: current President Thomas S. Monson and former President Howard W. Hunter.
That may be a bit surprising since former President Gordon B. Hinckley once said that “no one else, not even the stake president nor the quorum president nor the mission president nor, for that matter, the general authorities so directly affects the lives of the members of this church” as bishops.
Of course in the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many newly baptized members were called directly to high leadership positions in the new religion without much experience — so many early apostles and presidents did not serve as bishops.
Still, statistics show that even now, experience as an unpaid bishop is far from a requirement for being an LDS general authority, the name given to top leaders of the Utah-based faith.
Based on biographies of general authorities online and in the Church Almanac, The Salt Lake Tribune found that 84 of the current 103 general authorities have served previously as bishops or branch presidents (the name given to leaders of smaller church units) — or essentially four of every five.
That includes two of three members of the governing First Presidency; six of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; five of seven members of the Presidency of the Seventy; 52 of 59 members of the First Quorum of Seventy; 17 of 19 members of the Second Quorum of Seventy; and one of three of the Presiding Bishopric.
H. David Burton, past presiding bishop of the LDS Church, said serving as a bishop can be a great training experience for those who later become general authorities, but so can many other church assignments.
“There’s no question that as serving as a bishop, you become aware and are a part of the fabric of the lives of the members of the ward,” he said. “That training and experience of knowing and feeling how individuals are affected by various aspects of their lives is certainly valuable as you have other opportunities to serve.”
But, he added, there is no particular “line of assignment that prepares you for any assignment in the church. We’re an organization that believes the Lord prepares those whom he calls,” and does so in a variety of ways.
“The opportunity to serve in the local ward [in many callings] and in the stake or in a mission all provide some of the same kind of opportunities” as being a bishop, he said. While being a bishop “can be helpful in some cases, it certainly is not a requisite. Certainly there are other ways for the Lord to prepare his priesthood holders.”
Monson was 22 years old when he was called as a ward bishop in Salt Lake City before becoming an apostle at age 36.
He once told a worldwide training session for LDS leaders how a visiting board member of Union Pacific Railroad asked Mormon leaders in their Salt Lake City headquarters, “Tell me — how does a man go about becoming an apostle?”
Monson said he was the newest apostle at the time, so fellow apostle Harold B. Lee, who would become president of the LDS Church, pointed at him and asked, “How old were you when you were called to be a bishop?”
He answered 22.
“Brother Lee asked, ‘How long were you a bishop?’ ”
Monson said, “I replied, ‘Five years.’ ”
“He then asked, ‘How many members were in your ward?’ ”
“I responded, ‘1,080.’ ” (Most modern wards have around 400.)
“Finally he queried, ‘How many widows were in your ward?’ ”
“I said, ‘Eighty-seven, and we had the largest welfare load in the church.’ ”
“Then [Lee] said, ‘I know that ward, since as a very young man I presided over the Pioneer Stake. In that particular ward, the bishop in one year gains the equivalent experience of five years in any other ward. Therefore, Brother Monson has had 25 years’ experience as a bishop.’ ”
Monson said, “The Union Pacific man said, ‘Oh, I understand.’ I don’t know whether he understood or not, but let me say that I did.”
Many current apostles have not been bishops, but did serve as bishop’s counselors, members of high councils, in stake presidencies, as stake presidents (over a number of Mormon congregations) and mission presidents.
Members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who have been bishops, according to online and Church Almanac biographies, are Monson, Henry B. Eyring, M. Russell Ballard, Robert D. Hales, Jeffrey R. Holland, David A. Bednar, Quentin L. Cook and D. Todd Christofferson.
Those among such high leaders whose biographies did not include service as bishops are Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Boyd K. Packer, L. Tom Perry, Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks, Richard G. Scott and Neil L. Andersen.
Some of the positions held by those leaders who never were bishops include mission president, stake president, bishop’s counselor, stake president’s counselor, regional representative, general Sunday School president, supervisor of LDS seminaries and institutes of religion, and in the Presidency of the Seventy.
About Mormon bishops
“A bishop is the leader of a local congregation (known as a ward) with duties similar to those of a pastor, priest or rabbi. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this position is unpaid.
“Each bishop is assisted by two counselors. Together, this bishopric oversees the spiritual and social needs of their ward members.”