Monday, May 15, 2006

The Participatory Gospel and Setting Limits

The LDS church has long, even ridiculed, been known for strange practices. Secret temple ceremonies, polygamy, and “magic underwear” leave nonmembers scratching their heads. What are those Mormons thinking? But these are obvious departures from other churches and sects, and can be attributed to those Mormons just being crazy.

Having a lay, unpaid clergy is, in some ways, a more fundamental difference from other religions. Why? Because the entire structure of the church is different from other churches. There are still spiritual leaders and teachers, but they can be chosen from out of the general body of the church. In theory, no one person is more important or more holy than any other in the church, because no calling is unimportant. As a result, we have no professional theologians, no regular preachers and paid teachers (except seminary, but that is an actual job, not a calling). Other Christian churches have paid ministers.

Especially on local levels, no member of the clergy receives a paycheck. Most have jobs or other responsibilities, including families, and most serve only part-time. Missionaries are an exception, because they are full-time in their duties, but even they or their parents often pay for the privilege of serving the Lord.

But service in the kingdom, no matter how important, is sometimes given grudgingly.

Take my current ward. It is normally a fairly established place, with lots of houses full of people who don't move. However, this summer, many of the established, home-owner families are about to move. Literally everyone in my elders quorum presidency will be moving, except the president. Times like this, one can see a lot of young, married men ducking and trying to avoid catching the eye of the president, who is on the prowl for new counselors and a secretary. The joke in the quorum today was if you don't want the calling, you better start mowing the lawn on Sunday with your shirt off. In other words, make yourself as unworthy of the calling as possible.

The take home message was: to serve in the church is good, but only if you can't avoid it. This brings up the huge question of why people, myself included, try to dodge out of church service. Is it a lack of understanding? The doctrine is pretty clear.

This church is a participatory church, requiring each member to serve each other and bear one another's burdens (see Galatians 6:2). It is even a requirement for baptism (see Mosiah 18:8). This practice could be considered akin to the Savior choosing his 12 apostles from out of the working class, rather than priests and other professional theologians of His time. Instead, He chose fishermen and tax collectors. We dont know the professions of all the original apostles, but there is evidence that before becoming a persecutor and later a powerful teacher, Paul was a tentmaker (see Acts 18:1-3).

Today, in the local leadership of the mainstream LDS church, you find businessmen, lawyers, and doctors alongside construction workers, store managers and policemen. Yes, Im using the politically incorrect terms businessmen and policemen, because these are not callings for women (feel free to see my essay on priesthood and the female believer for more of my thoughts on that). Education does not matter as much as willingness to serve and compliance to the rules God and man have set up.

The rules of man? Yes. For instance, there is no rule or commandment from the Lord that a member of the bishopric has to have short hair and be free of facial hair, yet when I lived in Tucson, a young father was called to be the second counselor to the bishop. He had a long pony-tail and a beard. Both were cut by the time he was set apart.

Orthodoxy is also important to a called leader. I am aware of a man, currently the president of a moderately-sized MLM company in Utah, who was in the bishopric of a student ward. The calling did not last too long, because his ideas are more on the fringe. He placed the importance of essential oils above the use of olive oil or the priesthood in healing the sick and afflicted. He has seen angels on mountain tops and had revelations given to him. In a case like his, thankfully, those around him noticed the unorthodox beliefs and helped get him released. Doctrinal purity must be maintained.

But for those who comply with all the written and unwritten rules, leadership in the LDS church is a very high likelihood. Worthy men are in short supply. The world seems to beat down the good men. Problems like infidelity, pornography and drug addictions render many men impotent to feel the spirit without repentance. Jobs and hopes for more money beckon. Nice cars, fancy gadgets and sports serve as major distracters. The media portrays all fathers as hopeless idiots or as abusers, so there are few role models for the LDS male. Yet, despite being targets to a world that would rather marginalize the role of father, a world that mocks fidelity and a world that ridicules the faithful, there are men who manage to maintain their righteousness and purity (see my essay on whether women are more spiritual than men to read more of my feelings on that). So the few that do exist are called and drained of their energy in the service of God and His restored church.

Drained may be a strong word to choose, but the Lord said through Joseph Smith, Jr. that we should waste and wear out our lives to teach the gospel and serve the church (see D&C 123:13).

The church will take all that it can, all that you are willing to give. There is such a need for willing hands, even in the heart of “Zion” (aka Utah), that if you are at all willing, you will be utilized in the service of others.

And for what, in return? Not much. The church pays almost no one for their service. The one exception I am aware of is the Seventy, the apostles and prophet, who have living expense stipends. The difference for them is, they give their lives to the church, full-time. There is no time and no chance of them going out and getting a job. But for those who serve part-time, it is all done for free.

What kinds of service is performed for the church? In addition to actually running local wards and stakes, there is a number of other duties done for free. We are commanded to teach one another (see D&C 43:8 and and Colossians 3:16). This is done in a variety of ways, from home and visiting teaching, to Sunday School and invitations to speak in sacrament meeting. There are also ample opportunities to provide direct service to others. The Elders Quorum often is called upon to help members move in our out of a ward. Of course, in such instances, it is appreciated if the boxes are already packed. But that's just a small quibble. The Relief Society is definitely active in helping others, with meals, sewing blankets and such. They even have a compassionate service position, just to help those are going through a hard time.

I am merely scratching the surface. There are many other ways one could spend time serving in the church. The problem is, the church will not hesitate to ask, because it must. However, there are personalities that do not know how to say no. While it is admirable to give time and energy to something you believe in, there must be a limit. Why? Because without a limit, other aspects of your life will suffer. I have been aware of fine, upstanding members of the church who help anyone and everyone who needs it, excepting their own children. They do not intend to ignore their children, but they are so busy with their callings and with all the activities and so forth, they have no more left to give to those who matter most.

Just the meetings generated by church government exceed the levels of sanity. The Brethren have had to tell local leaders of the church to limit Sunday meetings so fathers and mothers can spend time with their families. But many resist, because there is always another reason for a meeting. The bureaucratization of the church may help accomplish many goals and serve many people, but it does no favors to the men and women stuck in the endless loop of meetings.

So, what is the answer? Should members refuse to take callings? Refuse to attend meetings? Well, that is a personal choice, of course. However, it might be worthwhile to reconsider a calling when it is extended. Not only ask yourself if this calling is right for you, but also ask if you can do it right then. Sometimes, the answer is no. If your family life will suffer, is it worth it to take a calling?

This is a serious question. Many bishops and stake presidents have not had the time to take care of their children. They are the ones who's children often turn out the worst. It is not just a matter of faith, is it? Should I be called to such a position, do I have faith that my kids will be watched over? Of course, I do. But that does not absolve me of my duties as a father. And that's what it comes down to. When a calling is extended to me, I have to ask if I can perform the duties required and still be a father and husband. Everyone will answer that question differently.

As for skipping meetings, I have known at least a couple individuals who have done just that. It seems unlikely that either will be called to a leadership position again, any time soon. But they have their priorities. Spending hours on end in a meeting is not as important as being with their families.

Where do you draw the line? I personally hope I'm never called into a leadership position, outside of the Young Men organization, perhaps. I don't consider myself a leader. In fact, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I refuse to be a member of any church that wanted me as a leader. Seriously, I don't understand the people who seek out leadership positions. But then, I often just want to do my own thing, be left alone. Leading takes a lot of time, and takes a personality type very different from my own. Should I ever find myself in such a calling, I would have to find a way to limit the time spent serving others and being in meetings. For my wife's and my sanity. Remember, delegation is a true principle, too. It is a sad joke that wives tell one another when their husbands are called to "important" callings: I've become a church widow.

Somehow, there must be a balance between participating in the church and setting limits. But I seriously doubt such balance will be achieved quickly by the general populous, because they do not know that it can be better for them.