Monday, February 25, 2013

Uninformed Inspiration: Recruiting Volunteers at Church

Brother Samuel invited Sister Elaine into one of the empty classrooms.  They sat down and had the usual small talk.  Samuel then invited Elaine to say a prayer.  After finishing the prayer, Samuel introduced the purpose of their meeting.

"Sister Elaine, we would like to call you to be a nursery teacher.  Would you be willing to accept this calling?"

Elaine went off script.  "I'm not sure that's a good place for me right now."

"What is your concern?"

"My husband is in medical school, and is gone before the kids wake up.  I am home all day with my four year old, my two year old, and my 8 month old, and my husband barely gets home before the kids go to bed.  Sunday is the one day that I feel like I have a reprieve from the child care duties."

"Well, Elaine, I certainly understand what you're saying.  My two children certainly are a handful for my wife.  I want you to know that this calling is inspired of God, and you will be blessed for your willingness to serve.  Will you accept this calling?"


That's a dramatization of an actual report from when I was working with the bishopric (each LDS ward has a bishop and two counselors responsible for overseeing all the affairs of the ward).  If fact, I've underdramatized it--and it happened more than once.  These were times when I wanted to scream.  After multiple accounts such as this one, I began to take note of flaws in how volunteer labor is recruited in the LDS church.

Most churches rely on volunteer labor at some level.  One of my coworkers described the process of recruiting volunteers at his Catholic congregation.  Typically, an announcement is made that a volunteer is being sought.  Over the course of a couple weeks, the announcements become more intense/desperate.  Finally, the clergy approaches a handful of people and begins the art of arm twisting.  Eventually, a volunteer is persuaded and fills the role.

That is a stark contrast from what we saw in the dramatization.  I would be surprised if many churches recruit volunteers like the LDS Church.  Then again, I'm not sure you can say the LDS Church really 'recruits' volunteers.  It more or less drafts them.  Mormons receive 'callings' to serve in their local units.  These callings typically come from the bishop of the congregation1, who is himself a 'volunteer' that was selected by the regional leadership.  Generally, when making a decision about who to call to a position, the only source of information from outside the bishopric is from the presidents of the various organizations (men, women, Sunday school, etc).  It is rare to have any other feedback about the calling until someone springs it on the member, often times with only a moment's notice, and normally with the expectation of an immediate answer.

If you think about this process from outside of the LDS mindset, you might wonder how anything gets done2.  What makes this model succeed is decades of rhetoric about accepting callings that come from divinely appointed leaders.  Most of the rhetoric behind this success falls into two major themes:
  1. Each calling is inspired of God through the leaders of the congregation
  2. “Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies.” (source)
Thus, the implication that is behind every request from a bishopric to volunteer is that you are turning down the Lord if you say no, and that you are automatically entirely qualified for the position if you say yes.

I've observed that the Church is getting better about (not) enforcing those implications (something I'll discuss in greater detail in a subsequent post).  There also seems to be a positive trend toward assimilating feedback from the members who are asked to serve.  Yet, it remains hard to determine how much progress is being made because a) some leaders do continue to push this rhetoric, and b) a substantial portion of the membership continues to live by this rhetoric.

The rest of this post is going to focus on some of the negative results of callings rhetoric.  Please don't assume that I have nothing good to say about volunteer recruitment in the Church--I just plan to say it later this week.  And because I can't think of a good way to talk about it in prose, you get sections.  Enjoy!

Guilting people into accepting
The first attitude I dislike is one of guilting people into accepting callings. In my time working with the bishopric in my ward, I listened as a couple of men recounted extending callings to people and then being somewhat taken aback when it wasn't immediately accepted. In some cases, they even reported telling the person, "this is an inspired calling from God and we are asking you to sustain your leaders and have faith in the Lord by accepting."  Nothing says love and compassion like that reminder that you're failing God in one promise if you are for any reason (valid or otherwise) hesitant to make another.

"By virtue of being the bishop, I can match you to the right calling without ever talking to you"
I also dislike that people are matched to responsibilities based on what the leaders think is a good fit. Often, this works out well, but I have yet to hear of a bishopric who asks people "in what areas would you be most interested in teaching and serving" or "in what areas do you least want to serve?"

Calling people into positions of no interest to them is usually detrimental to the quality of the program. I have heard multiple youth leaders, for example, express their distaste for weekly youth activities. They often express relief if a meeting is cancelled for lack of a plan. That kind of attitude gives incentive to poor planning. Those individuals tend not to attend trainings. And the youth program suffers as a result. It would be far better to first consider in your pool of candidates people who have expressed an interest in serving in said position.

"I'm so faithful, I've never turned down a calling"
In Mormonism, people sometimes use their willingness to accept any calling as a badge of honor.  It's a symbol that they are truly devoted.  More imortantly, it's a symbol that they are more devoted than anyone who says no. People who express this attitude probably don't think much about whether their interests, talents, and abilities fit well to the responsibility being accepted.  Part of working for a volunteer organization is not letting the organization down.  Sometimes, it might be better to decline a calling so that someone better suited to fulfil the responsibility can do so--and that can be just as noble as accepting.

"Because I am called, I am qualified"
LDS leaders are, in my opinion, grossly undertrained.  In some ways, I think the Church has realized this.  I've seen LDS Family Services do a lot of the counseling that my father would have done as a bishop 20 years ago.  This is a good step.  But at times I feel like the prevailing attitude is that if you've been attending church for several years, you've had sufficient training to be a leader in the Church.  It also seems like Mormons don't take seriously the opportunities to receive more training.  I've fallen victim to this myself--I spent years avoiding some of the Boy Scout training programs because "I already knew what was in them."  Fortunately, with some mentorship and maturity, I've learned that I would benefit a great deal from more training on things that I already know.

Even if you could convince more leaders that they need more training, there just aren't many opportunities.  Formal training meetings tend to come once every six months with the regular stake conferences.  Most of these training meetings I've attended consist of someone standing at the pulpit and talking about what we could be doing better.  The format just doesn't work for translating theory into practice.

In closing, I don't mean to say that the uninformed inspiration model--where the bishopric decides in confidence who to extend callings to--is a model we should never use.  Only that it shouldn't be the only model that we ever use.  There is certainly room for inspiration in that model.  There are certainly times where a wise and spiritually in-tune leader can nudge an individual into a calling that will allow him or her to grow.  My concern is that we try to force this model when that inspiration isn't there.  If you don't feel that inspiration, maybe you should try a different approach before carrying on.

Upcoming Posts
Informed Inspiration and Extending Callings
A Thought Experiment in Informed Inspiration

1 Or one of the counselors on behalf of the bishop.

2 Giving generous estimates off the top of my head, I'd say about 10% of stuff just doesn't get done, 15% gets done poorly, 60% gets done well enough, and 15% gets done exceptionally well.


  1. One of the complications of 'volunteer' leadership, is often lack of communication skills. Many are only carrying on how they have been 'called' to serve.

    And I believe often callings are inspired only for the purpose of the interview. Sometimes people need to hear that they are being thought of and considered valuable and able. Even if they don't 'accept'.

  2. Hi Ben. Wanted to add a comment here...

    I don't think we in the church understand revelation very well. We have this idealistic, narrow way of conceptualizing and experiencing it. Like it comes from a magic 8 ball that says yes or no. Or Like a+b must equal c. And if it doesn't, we'll make it equal c through our somewhat good intentioned insistence. Like if I felt it, it must be right for you! And if you don't agree, you must be faithless. (How many guys tried to win a girl at BYU like this?)

    I think broadening our view of revelation, God's will, and duty could help. What if we sought, in addition to simply matching a person with task, guidance on how to approach a person or any given individual situation. And then act accordingly on a case by case basis. Perhaps there are times when one person is "supposed to be" in that calling at this time. But I'd love it if we could differentiate those times with the "I just need a warm body. Will you help?" I'll tell you this, I'd trust bishops a whole lot more if I saw less judginess and guilt, and more wisdom filled invitations.

    In response to the "never say no" mentality, I think the church has tried to break it..... or at least modify it. After all, we come by this paradigm honestly. With so many pioneer ancestors who left it all, gave it all...and with so much heralding of this over the pulpit, what else are we suppose to do? But I think that we are learning that this kind of devotion, while essential to the early church, may not serve us the same way now. As with all revelation (and practice & policy), it's suppose to be appropriate for the time, place, and needful purposes of any given "now".

    I believe we need more balance and regulation about how, when, and why we serve. We need this because so many of the challenges we face today are so individual. The early pioneers were literally building and saving the whole. We today, I think, are so often saving the one.....lots of "ones" simultaneously. What I am trying to say is that we serve best, grow best, love best when we are in balance and when it's ok to balance. I'm not sure we know that it's ok to balance. At least I didn't grow up knowing it was ok. Father himself had to come and coax me out of it.

  3. Being a convert, I've dealt with several times when I wanted to decline a calling but felt that I was pressured into accepting because I joined the church that only has lay people work in the church. In many other Christian churches, you volunteer for positions. I for one love working with high school and middle school youth and did so for 6+ years before becoming LDS. Since then, not one calling having to do with that age, only nursery, primary or RS (and I really am not cut out for working with the young kids - one reason I enjoy working outside the house :)