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Bishop is the highest priesthood office of the Aaronic priesthood in the Latter Day Saint movement, and is leader of the Aaronic priesthood in a given ward or congregation. It is almost always held by one who already holds the Melchizedek Priesthood office of high priest and who serves as the leader of a local congregation of church members. The Latter Day Saint concept of the office differs significantly from the role of bishops in other Christian denominations, being in some respects more analogous to a pastor or parish priest. Each bishop serves with two counselors, which together form a bishopric.
The role of a bishop varies in the different Latter Day Saint denominations; however, they derive from a common history.
Edward Partridge became the first man called to the office of bishop in the early Latter Day Saint church on February 4, 1831. The duties of the office were to oversee the temporal affairs and accounts of the church through the implementation of the law of consecration. Partridge was called to preside over the Missouri church in Joseph Smith's absence and soon thereafter Partridge and his family emigrated to the church's growing colony in Jackson County, Missouri, where he continued to act as bishop of the branch of the church. Newel K. Whitney was then called as a bishop to oversee the temporal affairs of the church in Kirtland, Ohio.
When the Latter Day Saints were headquartered in Nauvoo, Illinois, the membership was separated into three "wards" or geographical precincts ("Upper," "Middle" and "Lower") and a bishop was called to oversee the temporal affairs of each ward. Partridge presided over the "Upper Ward," Whitney presided over the "Middle Ward" and Vinson Knight presided over the "Lower Ward." (See Jessee et al., Joseph Smith Papers:Journals, Volume 1 1832-1839, pp. 455–60) Over time in the church's history, the position of Presiding Bishop was created. Partridge is considered the church's "First Presiding Bishop", however neither he nor his contemporaries saw him as a superior to other bishops of the church in that time period.
In the largest Latter Day Saint denomination, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), bishops are called from among the members of a local congregation, known as a ward, and traditionally serve, without pay, for four to seven years (the actual length of service varies). A bishop must be a married high priest in the Melchizedek priesthood. The bishop acts as the Presiding High Priest of the ward. A bishop simultaneously serves as the president of the Aaronic priesthood and president of the Priests Quorum in the ward. In a branch, the branch president fulfills the same functions as a bishop; however, a branch president does not need to be a high priest.
The bishop is often called "the father of the ward" as he is the priesthood leader who is most intimately involved with individual church members. The bishop is not paid for the time he devotes to serving his ward. All ward and stake level callings in the LDS Church operate as a lay ministry; members donate their time to perform the duties assigned with each calling.
The immediate priesthood leader of the bishop is the stake president, who provides direction, training and counsel to the bishops of the wards within his stake boundaries; the stake president is assisted in these duties by two counselors and the Stake High Council. The calling of each bishop is approved by the church's First Presidency.
The bishop holds the primary responsibility for everything in the ward, both spiritually and temporally. Although he can delegate specific assignments to his counselors, the ultimate responsibility falls to him. His duties include presiding over and conducting meetings and worship services; serving as president of the ward's quorum of priests; acting as a "Judge in Israel" or "common judge"; providing temporary financial relief for ward members; serving as the presiding high priest of the ward; and organizing and managing the ward's auxiliary organizations. After being called, a bishop is ordained a high priest (if he does not already hold that priesthood office) and then ordained a bishop and set apart as the bishop and presiding high priest of the ward. He is also given the priesthood "keys" which authorize him to serve as a representative for the Lord in performing his duties.
In small congregations that are not large enough to be a ward, a holder of the Melchizedek priesthood is usually called to be a branch president. In rare instances where no worthy Melchizedek priesthood holder is available, a priest in the Aaronic priesthood may instead be called as the branch president. The branch president generally has the same responsibilities as a bishop and is assisted by two counselors. A branch president and his counselors may or may not be a high priest, and a branch president is not ordained to the priesthood office of bishop.
The LDS Church also has a Presiding Bishopric which oversees the temporal affairs of the church (including its Welfare Services) and provides assistance and instruction to the various bishoprics worldwide. However, there is no ecclesiastical or priesthood reporting relationship as the bishop's immediate ecclesiastical priesthood leader is the stake president.
According to Latter-day Saint scripture, a bishop in the church does not need to be a high priest nor does he need counselors if he is a Levite and a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith taught that this provision applied only to the Presiding Bishop of the church and not to bishops of wards.
In many ways bishops of Community of Christ continue to resemble those found in the church prior to the death of Joseph Smith, Jr. They are not pastors or branch presidents, but financial officers and ministers of stewardship. While in theory a literal descendant of Aaron could hold this office, no such claim has ever been made, and therefore all bishops are members of the high priesthood, as a high priest can serve in any "lesser office". All bishops are members of the Order of Bishops, with presidency vested in the Presiding Bishopric (consisting of the Presiding Bishop and two counsellors).
While all bishops are attached to a congregation (in the sense that every member of the church has a home congregation), bishops are not congregational officers, but preside as financial officers over larger jurisdictions, or support those who do. For example, each mission center will have a bishop in charge of all the finances of that area, who may or may not be assisted by other bishops. Likewise, some nations have a national bishop, and, historically, stakes also had bishops. Consequently, this makes the office of bishop somewhat uncommon. In recent years, some mission centers have been fortunate to have multiple bishops, in order to help promote the various ministries associated with good stewardship.
Other bishops have been appointed as "field bishops" who are assigned to assist one of the twelve apostles. The Presiding Bishopric is also regarded as the presidency of the entire Aaronic priesthood. Bishops in general are therefore sometimes seen as ideal resources to provide support and mentoring to local members of the Aaronic priesthood.