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Church Callings - A Bishop's Gift to Give

Several months ago, I was asked by the a member of my ward's bishopric whether or not my wife and I would be available and interested to be a Ma and Pa for this summer's pioneer trek (a short re-enactment of the 19th Century Mormon Pioneer journey west from Illinois to Salt Lake City) should we be called to do that.  I told him that we always make ourselves available for anything the church asks us to do and that such a calling would be difficult but very rewarding.  I told him that I believed in the inspired calling of our stake president and trusted that if the Lord inspired him to call us, then the Lord would help my wife and me to make our schedules work out.

He pressed gently and indicated that if we would check our availability and assert our interest beforehand, the call would likely be issued.  I told him that I saw the church working in the opposite direction; we will be interested and available should our stake president receive inspiration that it should be us.

Now, that was probably a bit pedantic and unhelpful of me (a weakness I have), but I was slightly miffed because I didn't want to receive an "inspired" calling having indicated beforehand that I would "show up".  I interpreted his request as an invitation to me to aspire to a calling, which is typically frowned upon in the Mormon church, and I reacted poorly.  Though I reiterated our conviction that we would happily fulfill any calling extended to us, I declined to volunteer.  Even though this calling was something that I have always wanted and dreamed of doing, I couldn't bring myself to engage the process in the reverse.  Ultimately, we were not called to serve as a Ma and Pa, and I was left to wonder whether it was because I was a bit too strident in my comments to this brother about "how the Church works."

If you fast-forward a few months, you'll find me listening to a talk by Seth Payne today regarding Pastoral Apologetics.  Many of the points in his talk struck a chord with me as I have a special place in my heart for LDS who are struggling with their faith, especially due to intellectual or historical issues.  In the Q&A section after he finished, though, the question was asked (paraphrasing here):  "I currently find participation in the LDS Church exhausting.  Is there a way for me to tone it down, but still remain active and simply enjoy  worshiping our Savior?"

Seth Payne emphatically replied "absolutely!", and I agree with him--we take the load that we can and we rely on the Lord for the rest.  However, I was uncomfortable with one of the strategies for implementation he mentioned.  Basically, he encouraged this member to sit down with his bishop and explain to him what callings, level of participation, etc., he was comfortable with and go from there.

This again felt backwards to me.  Granted, I've never been a bishop, and I've never felt Church service to be exhausting beyond the Lord's capacity to help, though I have had a number of heavy callings.  I haven't yet had the challenge of feeling like the Lord isn't giving me sufficient strength to do His will.  (full disclosure:  I'm not a mom.)  These reasons definitely contribute to my backwards view of Seth Payne's suggestion.

However, I have had experiences where I needed to heavily rely on the Lord to make things work.  I've offered rocks, and He has touched them to make them light up.  He has always qualified my efforts to accomplish His designs, at least as far as I can tell.  This has given me a testimony that I can trust the bishop when he issues me a calling, and that I don't need to forewarn the bishop of some callings that I "won't do" or "can't do".

(Of course, this is probably why I'm currently the scoutmaster. :)  The saying goes that the scoutmaster is the one who wouldn't say "no").

It appears to me Seth Payne's suggestion also goes a bit against the teachings of the Church.  (I understand that there are members of the Church who advocate an a la carte or cultural-only approach to the teachings of the Brethren, but I do not.)  In 1 Nephi 3:5-7 we read about a request that Lehi issued to his sons to go back to Jerusalem to retrieve some family records.  Some of his sons complain.  He explains to them that it is the Lord that has asked them and that their father is just the messenger.  Nephi, the protagonist, states that because it came from the Lord, the Lord will make a way for them to accomplish it.  This is a particularly famous passage of scripture in Mormonism and is typically used to help folks when challenging callings or admonitions come from Church leaders.

Additionally there is our current prophet, Thomas S. Monson, who is often heard saying "whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies" and "do your duty, that is best, leave unto the Lord the rest."  In John 15:16 it states "ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you" and J. Reuben Clark reminds us that callings in the Church are things that a member "neither seeks nor declines".  (emphasis mine on all)  There is a substantial mountain of references that when we make the covenant of baptism, we put the Lord in the driver's seat.  When we make that covenant in the Mormon church, we declare that we trust that our bishop is the Lord's representative for our ward.

I'm not advocating blind obedience.  The Lord doesn't want a people that won't think and decide for themselves.  I am advocating that there is no need to engage in a preemptive strike against our local bishop.  If we believe the truth claims of the Church, then we can trust our bishop and keep our hands off the Ark.

What the Lord wants is a people who He can bless through serving one another.  When my bishop issues me a calling, I feel as Nephi wrote that I know the Lord will open a way to accomplish what the bishop has asked me to do.  (I suppose if I ever don't feel that way when receiving a calling, my bishop and I will have a deeper conversation.)  This is exciting because through these callings, I see the Lord's hand making a way, much like the Israelites saw the Lord's hand as he pushed away the waters of the Red Sea.  I look forward to any calling because it invokes Nephi's promise and is a path to seeing the hand of the Lord in my life.  To boot, I get to change other people's lives for the better, even if it is in the boring way of keeping the bishop's calendar intact.  :)  Why would I preemptively constrain the Lord with regards to the kinds of blessings I would like to have? Frankly, I might have done that when I was a teenager ("Is it gonna be haaaaard? Do I haaaave tooooo?"), but no longer as an adult.

Of course, it's not that simple.  Aside from needing to be able to trust the bishop and have a testimony that he is God's called servant for my ward, one still needs to decide what is "ark-steading" behavior and what is just being a helpful person.

To use an analogy, I hate (HATE) telling people what I want for my birthday, for Christmas, etc.  When a relative asks me what I want for my birthday, I'm flattered that they thought of me, and I tell them, of course, that they don't have to get me anything.  Inside, I'd really love a gift, but I want it to be a bit more thoughtful than just handing them a wishlist.  Last year, I actually did suggest to my sister that I wanted a book called "Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction" to give me some activity ideas for scouts.  I felt some serious guilt after the fact, especially when I opened the gift and found exactly what I'd asked for.

To use another analogy, I hate the idea of political campaigning for oneself.  This is, of course, the precise way that it is done, but in my ideal (read: imaginary and probably impossible) world, others would advocate for you and campaign on your behalf, not you yourself; the reluctant leader and all that.

Now, I feel a great amount of love from a thoughtful gift and from a genuine other campaigning for me (this did happen once).  I feel a great amount of love from the Lord when I receive a calling in His church.  But, when you add up all that I've said, it actually creates a bit of internal tension when I'm "between" callings.  I don't readily offer suggestions to where I might like to serve.  When asked, "where do your interests lie," I have an incredibly difficult time answering with anything other than "wherever the Lord calls me, I'll be happy to serve."  Of course, there are places where I would love to serve, and on my more selfish days, I pray to be able to serve in those capacities, but like the thoughtful gift, I'd ultimately prefer it come from the bishop after he has consulted with the Lord.

If I were on the other side of the desk, though, I might very well consider asking members about their interests, past callings, and maybe even desired callings to be part of "studying it out in my mind".  Bishoprics look for clues all the time to excavate what might be a person's inclinations; why not just straight up ask them? And if that's okay, why not the member just turn the table and save the bishopric the trouble of asking?  Maybe it would be better for me to be a bit more helpful.

In any other volunteer organization, folks are invited to contribute wherever they are passionate about the cause.  It would be a lot of fun to self-indulge in the areas of church service that are most interesting to me.  If I had my way, I'd be a full-time seminary teacher or maybe a preacher, if our church had those.  If the church worked like other volunteer organizations, I'd probably pick things that lined up with those sensibilities.

But, that's not the way the church works.  The church works and has worked with the Lord, though his appointed servants, giving us the challenges and growth opportunities that we need in order to be able to live His commandments and be the people He needs us to be.  Callings come best through the mind and heart of a loving bishop who knows me and the Lord well.  In the absence of either, I'd still prefer to give my bishop the reigns, even if it means I end up in a calling that I'm not too excited about.  It's their gift to give, and it's the thought that counts.


Mishqueen said…
Our stake approaches Ma an Pa as a special assignment, not a calling. They don't give people setting-apart blessings (I don't think). Since they are temporary and very date-centric, I believe people here are also asked ahead of time if it's something they can do. I guess I never thought about it being against revelation in that aspect.
Josh said…
Mishqueen, great insight. To be clear, I am splitting things into two categories: Things the bishop asks me to do (assignment) and things I inform the bishop that I would like to do (volunteering).

With that perhaps over-simplistic division, there is plenty of room for some things in the church being volunteer-based and other parts being assignment-based (e.g. the choir in most wards is 100% volunteer-based).

I agree with you also that there are things in the church that don't really require settings apart (e.g. an opportunity to serve at the cannery), but for me the actual blessing is less important than the decision-making flow. Did Nephi receive a blessing from Lehi before he went to get the plates? Maybe. The narrative doesn't highlight that; instead it seems to highlight that the direction came from God and that providence was implied when adhering to God's will.

I view assignments with the youth specifically to be among the most important in the church. Because of that viewpoint, I guess I lean towards the assignment-based approach.

With all that said, it's more than likely that my example isn't a good one. I believe my inability to tell him "yes, we're available" is more indicative of a personality flaw than it is that brother not following "protocol".

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