By Contributor Diane Kipp
The TV in my bathroom, there so I can be entertained during the boring tasks of hair drying and makeup application, is often set to CNN, where I currently watch the soap opera-like Days of Our Republican Presidential Candidate Hopefuls. This has led me to an observation about Mormon bishops, which may be relevant to the one person who is a Republican presidential candidate and a (former) Mormon bishop. I do not know said candidate (Mitt Romney) personally and am not endorsing him politically; I am merely making an observation I suspect applies to him.
Conventional wisdom says a rich person cannot understand poorer people and their specific challenges. While I agree most of us do not really, truly get anything unless we’ve experienced it, it is possible to gain a certain depth of understanding through vicarious life experiences. And I believe for most Mormon bishops, bishoping (a verb I just made up; if you say it to another Mormon, s/he’ll look surprised) gives them some genuine understanding of what it means to be poor.
Mormon bishops are shepherds to their congregational flocks and they have an active and anxious regard for the flock’s well being; helping those who are in financial distress is a prime responsibility. Members who need help obtaining food, housing, employment, money for utilities, etc. meet personally with the bishop. He evaluates their needs, provides appropriate help through the church’s welfare system or through the congregational community, and helps them learn to help themselves. All humans tend to love those they serve (it’s a magic formula) and bishops love their congregations, especially the struggling members who need their help the most. It’s impossible for a bishop not to have a fairly personal, up-close idea of what it’s like, on a very practical level, to be poor.
This concept generally applies, to a lesser degree, to all Mormons. Mormon congregations are close communities; virtually all members who attend church regularly are active participants. We teach each other, perform service together, spend time in each others’ homes as visiting teachers and home teachers (more on that another time), and lend active support during health issues, unemployment, child rearing, death, divorce — all the challenges of life. So even those who are financially comfortable-to-wealthy are closely linked to fellow congregation members who are struggling, or worse, financially.
This description of Mormon congregations and Mormon bishops is probably very similar to that of any ecclesiastical leader and his/her congregation or community. My point is not that Mormons are special this way, my point is simply that anyone who has been a Mormon bishop probably has a surprisingly intimate and accurate idea of what it means to be truly poor. Even a very wealthy former bishop, even one whose wife drives two Cadillacs and who can be his own worst foot-in-mouth enemy, is likely not the isolated, “unacquainted with the realities of poverty” person that many assume him to be.