It’s hard to tell the story of when Rick received the call to be Bishop without telling some of what was going on with our family at the time. If you look back through our blog history, you’ll see I get quiet from 2010 through 2017. During those years, I spent much of the time in survival mode. I only documented large trips or events–if that. Mostly, our family blog was a place to put pictures. My personal journal writing is also kind of sparse. I did write, but mostly when I was upset or worried about something. Writing in my journal was a way for me to think through things. Because of this, there is a tone of negativity in a lot of the entries of those years. That isn’t to say there wasn’t joy or good times. Like I have said before, there is always opposition. I just didn’t record as much of the joy as I should have.
So, what was going on with us in the spring of 2013?
Brooklyn, our 6th baby was a newborn–a difficult newborn. She cried every time she was in the car–especially in the evenings. She refused pacifiers, so comforting her quickly was difficult. She didn’t sleep well at night.
Rick’s job was very demanding. He was approaching tenure and the timing was right for him to “get his name out there” as far as collegial notoriety. More experienced faculty encouraged him to present his research at several universities. Often, when presenting your research, the visit is structured somewhat like an interview. The presenter meets with leading faculty and sometimes job offers arise out of this process. We were strongly considering moving “up” to a more prestigious university at this point in Rick’s career. He had strong opportunities at a couple of schools and he was very close to accepting an offer at Dartmouth in New Hampshire. That is until I had a very distinct dream in which I was helping Rick write a letter to Dartmouth declining the job offer with very clear and inspired reasoning.
Basketball season was just winding down. Emily played high school ball, and Makayla, Ricky, and Andrew were played with AAU or YMCA teams. Sean had also participated in a Saturday basketball class. With the end of a very busy basketball season, Ricky wanted to give baseball another try. At this first practice, he caught a baseball in the mouth.
I was serving in the Stake Primary Presidency as 1st Counselor. Yearly ward conferences were scheduled in the springtime, so many Sundays found me and Brooklyn traveling between 30 minutes and 2 1/2 hours to visit wards and branches in the stake.
One very difficult week towards the end of March, little Brooklyn got her first cold. The congestion from the virus caused her to have an eye infection which she kindly shared with me. I had conjunctivitis in both eyes. The swelling, itching, and mucus were so bad that I had to wake Rick at night so that he could bring me the baby to feed her because my eyes were crusted closed.
At the tail end of this double eye infection, Brooklyn and I attended a branch conference in Belle Plaine, Iowa. Though medication had cleared my infection, I did not yet have new makeup (I threw the old stuff away to avoid reinfecting myself). The dark circles under my eyes were evidence that Brooklyn still wasn’t sleeping well. I looked hideous, but I was well enough to go to the conference. Just before sacrament meeting, President Hansen casually said, “Hey, I need to meet with you soon. Maybe when I get back in town, I’ll call you and set something up.” I said, “OK.” I was pretty sure I knew what this was about. Our sweet Stake Primary President had served a good tenure and had experienced a shoulder injury making her service very difficult. I thought the Stake Primary Presidency would be reorganized soon and I would be released.
A few weeks later, President Hansen called me to schedule the appointment. He asked that I bring my husband along. With the request to bring Rick, I wondered what this interview might be about because a simple release from my calling would not require Rick’s presence or approval. I teased Rick that he needed to practice being more supportive of me in my callings because something was on the horizon.
At the appointment, President Hansen called me in first. He asked about our family and how things were going. I was honest, but not pessimistic. I told him we were well, but I was tired. Our 6th baby was our most difficult (that’s because I hadn’t had the 7th yet). After our short conversation, he called Rick in to speak with him. Last, he called us both in together.
He looked at us, smiled, handed me a piece of paper and said, “Sister Mergenthaler, can you read this letter?”
I took the letter and began reading silently. I guess I must have made a face because President Hansen said, “Can you read it out loud?”
It was a letter from the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stating their approval to call Richard Dean Mergenthaler Junior as Bishop of the Iowa City 1st Ward.
We were completely blindsided! I laughed awkwardly saying, “Well, you’re tricky! We thought this was about me and my Primary calling!” I felt sheepish for teasing Rick about being more supportive because it was actually me who would have a lot of supporting to do.
I don’t remember what Rick said in his acceptance of the calling, but I do remember President Hansen asking Rick, “So does this answer your questions about your possible move?” And Rick said, “Yes. We will be here in Iowa for a while.”
And that was that! The rest of the interview was mostly sharing information. We found out that the change wouldn’t happen for nearly a month. Meanwhile, Rick was to pray about counselors, talk to the current Bishop, study, and prepare.
Those weeks before he was set apart were hard. We didn’t say anything to the kids until a few days before, but Rick’s absent-mindedness, intensive studying, and hushed conversations hinted that something was up. Our older and more observant children picked up on the change in home climate. The week after he learned of the call was General Conference weekend. Usually, we enjoy listening to conference together and doing something fun and active in between sessions. Rick was severely focused on reading in Handbook 1 about the duties and responsibilities of a Bishop and was very difficult to draw out. I played with the kids while he studied indoors. He spent his 36th birthday on a campout with the Young Men instead of with his family because in his preoccupation he didn’t realize the double commitment. A few weeks later, a friend of ours observed that he seemed pretty distracted on that campout, but he couldn’t pinpoint the reason. I don’t think this distraction or absent-mindedness is specific to somebody who is preparing to serve in a challenging calling, but I do think a calling like this can weigh heavily on a person–especially when so much is unknown and new. Rick’s personality especially leans in this direction. He recently accepted a calling to serve on the Stake High Council for the first time, and in an effort to serve well has been a little distracted, but not nearly like he was as he prepared to serve as Bishop.
I didn’t tell anybody. I’m good at keeping things quiet. Even my close friends rarely know when I’m struggling. Usually, only Rick bears the brunt of my worries and stresses (too bad for him). I’m not a whiner and I don’t open up about challenges too often. On the surface, everything went on for me as it normally would. One friend was pretty upset at me for not sharing, but she’s kind of a “talker,” if you know what I mean. I didn’t want any hurt feeling or confusion because I wasn’t careful about what I said. This ability to keep quiet was needed multiple times throughout Rick’s tenure as Bishop. Most of the time, I didn’t know what was going on, and some of the time I pretended I didn’t know what was going on.
Though I didn’t talk much, I thought plenty. One sacrament meeting, when the kids were especially peaceful, I looked over at Rick holding the sleeping baby and thought, “He will never be able to hold Baby B in sacrament meeting again.” On Sunday when he escorted Sean out of sacrament meeting to use the bathroom, “How am I going to do this on my own? Who will sit with the kids when I have to feed the baby? Will I have to traipse out of here with a trail of children?” I also mulled over the worries I listed in the first Bishop’s Wife Life.
Consider this picture I found taken about the time Rick received his call. Each of the facial expressions probably matched my own throughout the process. Emily looks dazed–like no matter what you say to her she will stare back, stone-faced. Makayla is annoyed. Ricky is surprised and confused. Andrew has a slight smile, like “Is this a joke?” Sean is confident and happy despite the odd situation he finds himself in. I knew that supporting Rick in this calling would be hard for our family, but the challenges were as temporary as the spots the kids painted on their faces. I also knew we would come away from the experience much better off than when we started–because when you start out like we did, there can only be an improvement.