The late apostle President Boyd K. Packer’s oil painting “The Bishop’s Team” depicts a pair of work horses standing in a furrow with the reins draped over the plow — their owner nowhere in sight.
That pastoral tableau was inspired by the actions of an actual bishop/farmer named Emery Wight who immediately left his farm work (and his team) to help someone from his ward in need.
“The image of that team of horses standing for hours in the field symbolizes the dedication of the bishops of the Church and of the counselors who stand by their sides,” wrote President Packer in his book “The Earth Shall Teach Thee.”
The strength of the Church is largely determined by the strength of its bishops and branch presidents. Those men hold essential priesthood keys — serving on the faith’s frontlines and looking out for everyone in their respective units.
For generations of Latter-day Saints, the bishop is the priesthood holder they traditionally seek out for spiritual guidance, blessings and encouragement. He is the man they look to — in Emery Wight-fashion — to stop whatever they are doing to serve.
But the ongoing pandemic is altering how bishops and branch presidents perform their callings. They are no longer presiding over Sabbath-day services at meetinghouses. One-on-one interviews are usually happening in virtual formats. Social distancing practices have become, at least for now, standard operating procedures.
Still, their ministering charge is perhaps more essential than ever before at a time of uncertainty and fear.
“I obviously don’t have as many face-to-face interviews, which has been difficult” said Bishop Scott Newman, who presides over the Harvest Park 2nd Ward, Riverton Utah Harvest Park Stake. “It’s always wonderful to sit across from someone — and so much of our communication is non-verbal.”
Bishop Greg Byers of the Yale (Mandarin) Ward, Irvine California Stake, said the highlight of his ecclesiastical duties “is just being with people and visiting with them in person — and now that’s happening virtually through online resources.
Still, Bishop Byers and his fellow bishops/branch presidents across the globe “try to be a voice for the ward.”
Emails, text messages, online newsletters, virtual temple recommend interviews, personal worthiness discussions and, of course, video-conference calls are the shepherding tools of COVID-era bishops and branch presidents.
Bishop Jose Fernando Zambrano of the Granjas Ward, Cali San Fernando Colombia Stake, said his congregation is discovering its own capacity to adapt during the pandemic. Utilizing apps such as Zoom and WhatsApp has become essential, “so many of our members have had to learn new technology.”
While grateful for communication-enabling technology, bishops and branch presidents emphasized that divine guidance remains their most reliable communication resource.
“We’re becoming more sensitive and responsive to the Spirit,” said Bishop Jaime Galaviz of the Silla Ward, Monterrey Mexico Los Angeles Stake.
Bishop Keith Grunig presides over a ward in rural western Nebraska that stretches across multiple counties. The youth in the Sidney (Nebraska) Ward, Cheyenne Wyoming East Stake, attend eight different high schools. Given the sheer space that separates ward members, Sunday gatherings had long doubled as spiritual “immunity builders.”
Besides the health and economic welfare of his congregants, Bishop Grunig’s largest concern during the pandemic remains keeping people connected.
“We’ve had to figure out how to still reach people and provide some sort of structure,” he said. “The members are really missing each other. We are a family. And so people come to Church because they love to be together.”
So, in traditional fashion, Bishop Grunig and others divide their time between individual ministering (typically done over the phone) and larger gatherings (conducted via virtual meeting platforms).
Some bishops even report increased productivity in their ward council meetings because the coronavirus has sharpened awareness of the needs in Relief Societies and priesthood quorums.
Bishops and branch presidents remain key mentors for full-time missionaries returning home. Traditionally, that’s meant counseling on educational and dating decisions.
But in recent weeks, they have unexpectedly welcomed home thousands of missionaries because of the global pandemic. Many such elders and sisters are hungry for guidance on what to do next.
“You’re heartbroken for many of these missionaries who were just hitting their strides,” said Bishop Newman. “So I stay in contact with them and we’re doing our best to make sure they are keeping up on their language and teaching skills, while encouraging their parents and families to use them to teach ‘Come, Follow Me’ lessons at home.”
Large virtual gatherings are becoming increasingly common and offer bishops and presidents opportunities to keep their units socially connected — even as individuals and families worship and study at home.
Bishop Byers recently utilized a Sabbath-day video-conference devotional to allow a young woman to share with other ward members some experiences from her recent mission.
He talks about the personal benefits of video-conferencing, being able to “share my feelings for the ward members. They could hear my voice, they could see me and I could see them. It helped us feel connected.”
Bishop Galaviz’s ward in Mexico maintains a dedicated digital channel to share recorded messages from ward members, adding that the sharing of testimonies “was wonderful.”
Nothing can replace the Sabbath-day fellowship and social uplift of physically worshipping alongside fellow Latter-day Saints. But Bishop Zambrano marvels are the power of the messages being delivered each regularly in his ward’s virtual gatherings.
Conference-call protocols help maintain orderliness during digital group gospel study and discussions. Instead of raising their hands to share experiences or ask questions, “the members simply use the chat function to share comments or make a request to use speak,” said Bishop Zambrano.
By definition, a good bishop or branch president is hopeful. During tough times, they are keeping their flock focused on better days ahead.
Many are now looking forward to that future Sabbath day when they can again physically gather with their ward to share the sacrament, pray, sing and worship as one.
“I almost hope I’m not conducting that week, because I’ll have a hard time getting through it,” said Bishop Grunig. “I can only imagine that day being like reunions on the other side of the veil and just being with people you have not seen in so long.”