My First Christmas As Bishop

We sat in her living room—she in her nineties, I in my thirties. Her health and the snowy weather wouldn’t allow her to come to the bishop’s office for tithing settlement, so I had stopped by her home instead.

She handed me two pieces of paper. One was her own handwritten record of the contributions she had made to the Church during the year; the other was a computer printout listing the same information.

“As you can see,” she said, “my records perfectly match the ward clerk’s.” I couldn’t help thinking that if there had been a discrepancy, the error wouldn’t have been hers.

Then I asked the question bishops are supposed to ask in these situations: “Sister, is this a full tithing for the year?”

She looked at me with incredulity in her eyes. There was a brief pause. And then, with mock indignation, she chastised:

“Bishop, that’s the most ridiculous question I have ever heard!”

In her case, I couldn’t help but agree. We laughed together as I gave her a hug. I had known the answer before asking the question. But I also knew she was glad for the opportunity to give a verbal accounting of her faithfulness.

Last December was my first Christmas as bishop and the first time I had conducted tithing settlement. Never before had I seen so clearly the beautiful correlation between those two events—tithing settlement and Christmas. And I discovered how appropriate it is that Christmas is the season when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are asked to meet with their bishop and give an accounting of their year’s worth of offerings to the Lord.

I was overwhelmed by the spirit of giving as faithful ward members came into my office—as individuals, as couples, and as families—and declared privately that they had paid a full ten percent of their income to the Lord that year. I was filled with a spirit of gratitude as most of them also reviewed with me the additional contributions they had made to the missionary and fast-offering funds—funds set up to help others in need.

Some of these offerings were large, some small. But all had been generously and willingly given.

I thanked the members for their generosity. I thanked the widow for her mite, the child for his pennies. I thanked teenagers for paying a full tithe on money they had earned bagging groceries, mowing lawns, or harvesting pumpkins. I thanked college students, single adults, young parents with small children and small incomes, and middle-aged couples with larger children and larger incomes. I thanked unemployed or retired members who had given much less than in earlier years—but still a full ten percent.

Never before had the Christmas spirit of giving been so present for me.

Then an older, graying couple came in. They had paid a full tithe and had given generously to the fast offering and missionary funds. As we visited, the husband said, “We would also like to contribute another check to the ward missionary fund. We’ll leave it up to you to credit this money to whichever missionary needs it most.” (At that time, fifteen missionaries were serving from our ward.)

When he handed me the check, I was astonished at how much additional money they were contributing. “But you gave that same amount a couple of weeks ago, with the same instructions,” I said. “Are you sure you can give that much again—and so soon?”

He and his wife assured me they could. And they reminded me that their gifts were to remain anonymous.

Then a young couple with several young children came into my office. Earlier that day in sacrament meeting, we had read a letter from the First Presidency, announcing that an additional category of voluntary contributions was now available to Church members—a “humanitarian fund.” Money donated to this category would be sent to Church headquarters and used for projects benefiting people worldwide, regardless of religious affiliation. This couple had lived in a developing nation and had witnessed the great needs there. Now they were donating a substantial sum to that fund, trusting that it would be put to the best possible use. I looked at their little children and then back at the parents. And I thought, “How can you do without this money at Christmastime?” But I had an idea that perhaps their Christmas would be even more fulfilling as a result.

Then there were the people who had contributed freely to the ward missionary fund, even though they had no missionary sons or daughters. There were those who had given to the general missionary fund and to the general Book of Mormon fund. And there were those who had contributed toward the yet-to-be-built Bountiful Utah Temple—even though they knew that the Church now pays for building projects through tithing, rather than through a separate building fund.

Later, another couple came in. They, too, had contributed liberally throughout the year. As we were about to conclude our visit, the husband said, “Bishop, is there anyone in the ward who has special needs this Christmas? We don’t have a lot of extra money, but we would like to give what we do have to someone who needs it.”

Immediately I thought of a single mother in our ward. She was doing her best to be self-reliant and certainly wasn’t looking for a handout. But money was tight. She was going back to school, and there were medical bills to pay. Surely she would be a worthy recipient of this couple’s generosity.

I accepted their offer in her behalf. They told me they weren’t interested in knowing the name of the receiver. And they, too, wanted to remain anonymous.

The husband pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and stacked several twenty-dollar bills on my desk. As he was doing so, his wife said, somewhat apologetically, “It’s not much. But now that our children are grown, we don’t feel that we’re doing as much in the ward as we used to. This is the least we can do.”

I protested at her apology, knowing they were doing much in their Church callings and in their quiet service to neighbors and to an elderly parent. And I thanked them for being so generous.

The next day, while taking the money to the recipient, I became a little uneasy. How would she receive this gift? Would she be offended? Would she hesitate to accept it?

When I handed the money to her, I described the spirit in which the gift had been given and encouraged her to receive it in that same spirit.

She accepted the money gratefully.

“I can accept this,” she said, “because when times were better for me, I often gave anonymously, just like this.” Then she told me about the secret projects her family had done over the years. She told me about times when she had purchased a frozen turkey and left it, with all the trimmings, on someone’s doorstep. She told me about anonymously mailing money to people who needed it, and about purchasing a coat and boots for the child of a needy friend. Now, in her time of need, she was a gracious receiver.

As I reviewed the monetary contributions so many ward members had made during the year, I couldn’t help remembering, too, their year’s worth of donated labor: The people who, week after week, had provided lessons and leadership—wherever they had been called to serve. The young men and young women who had cleaned the yards of elderly members, both in spring and in autumn. The sisters who had helped a member with wall-papering and painting. The elders and high priests who had done heavy yard work and repairs for those who were unable to do it alone. The young women and Relief Society sisters who had visited a homeless shelter several times—taking food, supplies, and encouragement. The young men who, without needing to be reminded, had gone out in teams and shoveled elderly members’ walks and driveways each time it snowed. The Scouts who had collected toys and books for the Primary Children’s Medical Center. The sisters who had taken meals and reassurance to the sick, the grieving, and the homebound. The priesthood brethren who had given countless blessings of health and comfort. The members who had donated time at the Church cannery to fill the shelves at the bishops’ storehouse. The many people who had quietly listened—and cared—and lifted. And the ones who had served in many ways without anyone else knowing anything about it.

And I thought of the many thank-yous from gracious receivers.

One was from a nine-year-old boy. Following is the letter he sent our Relief Society president and me after his family had received a load of food from the bishops’ storehouse (I have changed his brother’s name in order to preserve anonymity):

“Dear Bishop Gardner and Sister Thomas,

“I just got home from school. Ricky walked in first and said, ‘What in the … ?!’ Then I saw what he just saw. Food … Food! Food all over the place! Boxes, bags, cans, and even cartons of milk and eggs! Ricky said, ‘Look! There must be a million oranges!’

“We wanted to thank you, Sister Thomas, and the whole Church (especially our ward) for all the help you’re giving us right now, especially all this nice food donated from the bishops’ storehouse. It’s such a wonderful feeling to feel so loved, so cared for, and thought about.

“Gratefully.” (And he signed his full name.)

Then it was Christmas Eve. My own family of young children and teenagers were just finishing our annual Christmas pageant—complete with scriptures, carols, costumes, a real-live baby playing the part of the Christ child, a three-year-old Mary, a six-year-old Joseph, an angel, a shepherd, and a Wise Man. (I always somehow end up with the role of the donkey.)

There was a knock at the door. It was Santa Claus! In living color! He ho-ho-hoed himself into the living room, made a big fuss over each child, reached into his enormous sack, and pulled out a gift for each member of the family. As he did so, I noticed a vague resemblance between Santa and a member of our ward.

Then he wished us all a Merry Christmas and was off. Two of the youngest children were determined to see the reindeer for themselves, and they raced out to the front porch. But Santa must have parked his sleigh down the street somewhere. We watched and listened to his sleigh bells jingle as he trotted merrily through the neighborhood and disappeared into the snowy darkness.

What a Christmas it was—my first Christmastime as bishop! How could I ever express my gratitude for the many ward members who had made it a joyful time of giving and receiving—and for all who carry that spirit with them throughout the year?

And how could I ever express my gratitude and love for the Savior, Jesus Christ, who had set the pattern and had given the greatest gift of all?

Certainly, my nine-year-old friend is right: “It’s such a wonderful feeling to feel so loved, so cared for, and thought about.”

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson; posed by models