Eighteen months ago, I was called to serve closely with Bishop Don Fletcher in the Bay Ward here in San Francisco, as his executive secretary. In my Mormon career, I’ve had the great blessing to have had some amazing bishops, but this has been my first opportunity to really see a “bishop-in-action,” and be privy to some of the details of how an individual can manage this calling in a way that expands on it, grows the faith of those around him, and enables him to increase his own faith. It’s been a pretty remarkable experience.
Bishop Fletcher has been an outspoken ally of LGBT Mormons. In the past 18 months alone, he’s written a powerful op-ed supporting the evidence based research of The Family Acceptance Project advocating for a scientific approach to keeping our gay Mormon youth safe and healthy; he’s spoken in several LGBT Mormon forums (link) and shared his own experience, strength, and hope; and was the primary driver of creating a welcoming congregation for everyone in our ward boundaries—gay, straight, or anywhere in between.
And while his mission to the LGBT community is clear, his message of inclusion extends beyond gay Mormons—and at its core, is a message for all Mormons who feel ‘on the outside looking in’ for whatever reason. At our first Ward Conference over a year ago, he stood in front of the ward and stake leadership teams and said, “Everyone who wishes to come participate in our family of faith is welcome here—every spot, stripe, and pattern our Father created. Everyone has a place inside this church—and our doors are open to all of them.”
His inclusive, optimistic outlook is difficult not to like—and difficult to not like being around. I do believe, too, that this kind of optimism and kindness is contagious. In that spirit, I want to take the opportunity to share some of the things I’ve learned from him over the past 18 months. And while this list is by no means comprehensive, my hope is that it stands as a small—yet incomplete—tribute to a man I not only admire, but also love very much.
It is quite possible to be well liked, and well respected.
“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care,” is one of Bishop Fletcher’s philosophies. As an ophthalmologist, Bishop Fletcher often works with students to teach them what he calls ‘the art of medicine,’ meaning that his instruction includes the idea that it’s quite okay to endear yourself to people as you tell them things they need to hear—even if it’s unpleasant. The same, be believes, is true for him in his role as a Bishop: Even if you’re telling the truth, you never have license to be unkind.
Humility has nothing to do with humiliation.
One of my mantras for many years, I admire the way Bishop Fletcher puts this into action. “An old stand-by in medicine,” he told me, “is instruction through intimidation and embarrassment. That model doesn’t work for me in my career, nor in my calling. My role as a Bishop is not about shaming—it is to uplift and edify. You can’t accomplish that if you shame your fellows.”
This gives everyone the freedom to speak their truth without fear of retribution, and helps make our congregation a genuinely safe space for all our brothers and sisters.
There is no place for gossip in a healthy community of Saints.
“Words can harm, or words can heal,” he’s said to me, recounting the story of two patients with heart conditions—one who died in large part because he heard the wrong messages from people who matter.
Recognizing the power of words, Bishop Fletcher’s rules on this one are pretty simple: Before repeating anything, ask yourself:
- Is it true?
- Is it fair to all concerned?
- Does telling it build up good will and friendship?
- Will telling it be beneficial to all concerned?
If your answer is anything other than yes, then whatever you’re planning to say is likely best left unsaid.
Stand up for what you believe in.
Bishop Fletcher has created a ward environment where people are free to express their opinions and beliefs, even if they fall outside the norm of what we understand as Mormons. His caveat, however, is that there is a way to stand for yourself without standing against your fellows—another philosophy I support and try to live.
“Speak your own truth,” he advises, “But also understand it is not necessary to create an enemy when you do so. Tolerance,” he adds, “doesn’t mean I’m tolerant of only those who share my point of view.”
And I have seen him put this into action—he’s a master at disagreeing without being disagreeable in the process.
A Christ-centered life is more fulfilling than a rule-centered life.
“Rules matter,” Bishop Fletcher tells me, “But we don’t have to look too deeply into our Savior’s life to see that indeed, the rules are good—but building a life embedded into the spirit of the law goes so much further than one embedded into the letter of the law.”
His philosophy is similar to that of Joseph Smith—teach people correct principles, and they will effectively govern themselves. While it’s prudent to obey the rules, the rules alone aren’t enough. It’s far more prudent to understand the spirit in which they were meant.
And after all, if we get the first couple right—love our Savior, and love one another—the rest pretty much follow.
It’s okay to not be perfect. And it’s okay (and sometimes desirable) to say, “I don’t know.”
“President Hinckley was a man I greatly admired. One of the things I liked best about him is he wasn’t afraid to admit there were things he simply did not know, even in his position. If a prophet of the church can display such honest humility, how then, can I not follow his example?”
I think it’s safe to say Bishop Fletcher has a general disdain for pompous, self-righteous individuals who have a need to come off as knowing all the answers. Much more effective for him, he believes, is admitting the fact that he doesn’t know everything—and often enlisting the aid of those around him to help him figure things out.
“Often, we tend to fall into the very human desire to create an image of ourselves as someone who has all the answers,” he said. “But just because we’re called as bishops or leaders doesn’t mean our calling enables us to dispense all the answers. It is, after all, a sign of strength—not of weakness—to be honest, even if the answer is ‘I don’t know.”
Gratitude is critical—independent of where we are in life.
“As an eye doctor, many of the patients I see are keenly focused on the difficulties they face as a result of losing their sight. Often, they transfer this anger to God, another human, or the medical profession. With that, they are ripe to fall into a deep despair as a result of not being able to live their lives in the ways to which they’ve become accustomed.
“In each of these instances, I advise my patients to keep a Book of Abundance—where they record five good things that happen to them each day. The book is kept under their pillow, and I ask them to record their list at night before they sleep, so they can reflect on their day and close their day on an optimistic note. Moreover, if they know they have to record these five items before they sleep, their attention throughout the day will be guided to look for the hand of our Savior even in their current circumstance—and as a result, their perception of a more abundant life will flourish.”
Often a topic of our Bishopric meetings, gratitude is a quality Bishop Fletcher displays in all his affairs. Whenever a situation seems to take an unexpected turn for the worse, he can be counted on to find the silver lining.
“When I look for the blessings of my Savior, I find them. Conversely, when I look for the negative, that is also what I find. My life is much more peaceful and much sweeter when I make an active effort to guide my own perceptions.”
Bishop Fletcher isn’t perfect—like all of us, he has his share of human limitations. But what is remarkable, I think, is his willingness to admit that those do exist—and display a pretty good knowledge of what those limitations are. And with that, takes a huge step toward eroding their ability to impact his capacity as a human, a bishop, and as my friend.
Thank you, Bishop Fletcher. We need more like you.