Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Making my Proper Contribution

I've become a big believer in running the Church more like a volunteer organization1. I've talked about this before2. There's something to be said for trying to match people to performing responsibilities at church in which they are interested and find fulfilment.

Reality gets in the way sometimes though. For example, based on the reports I've heard from leaders of the children's organization (we call it Primary) at my congregation, it seems that there are really very few people who want to work in Primary, and hardly any more that are willing to work in Primary.  One of our friends was talking about this with Janelle one day and--apparently exasperated by the constant search for people willing to take on the enormous inconvenience--declared "If you don't want to work in Primary, stop having children."

(No really, it wasn't me who came up with that.)

Her reasoning was genius.  Children enter into Primary when they are 18 months old.  They remain in Nursery until the January 1st following their third birthday, and then they progress through different age-based classes until they turn twelve.  All told, they spend about ten and a half years in primary.  For our purposes, we're going to truncate this to ten  years of Primary time for each child.

Now let's assume that the usual class size is about five children (there is undoubtedly a wide variance here, but for most of the young ages, five children seems like a good class size for amateur teachers).  Lastly, we'll assume that we would like to have two teachers per class3.  For a class of five children to go through ten years of Primary with two teachers, you would need to staff 20 teacher-years4.  If we are fortunate enough that all five of those hypothetical children have two parents, then you would have a pool of ten parents to staff 20 teacher years.

Now, do the math--if the parents of the children are going to carry the load of staffing Primary (as is customary in most volunteer organizations), then for each child a parent has in Primary, the parent should expect to contribute two years of time teaching.

To put this in personal terms, I have two children.  Thus, I should expect that I will spend four years teaching in Primary, and that Janelle will also spend four years teaching in Primary.

The total time spent will vary, of course.  Perhaps your Primary only uses one teacher per class--cut the number of teacher years in half.  If the class sizes are larger, the total time per parent will decrease.  If the class sizes are smaller, the total number of time will increase.  If you have some parents who are willing, eager, and enjoy working in Primary, they can stay in Primary and other parents will carry a lighter load.

But at some point, somewhere along the way, if you have kids in Primary, you should expect to be staffing Primary for 1-2 years per child5.

I'm not really sure how a declaration like this would be received.  After all, the way volunteers are recruited in the Church has a bit of a mystical veil over it.  Making the claim that parents should be expected to carry the weight of the weekly church-based instruction kind of flies in the face of the "called by inspiration" model.  I imagine this has helped create the current culture of dreading and avoiding Primary callings but grudgingly accepting because turning down any responsibility in the Church is a sign of diminished faith6.

The reality is simple.  Children need to be taught at church, and adults will be needed to do the teaching.  If you have children, you can't fairly expect to pass off your kids to a volunteer organization each week and never contribute.  So if you have children, don't be surprised or horrified when your number comes up.  You did this to yourself7.


Going back and making this personal now: I have two children in Primary.  And I have yet to spend a day in Primary.  You could make the case that I'm not making my proper contribution to the Church.

Perhaps that will change now that I've just been released from my responsibilities in the Sunday School.  Sure, I can think of a handful of responsibilities I'd rather take on other than teaching children.  But I look back over the responsibilities I've had in the past decade, and let's face it: I've had an incredibly good streak of really enjoyable (for me) responsibilities.  I think it's time I started to pull my own weight around here, don't you?

Oh, and if anyone in my Primary Presidency reads this, I've actually really enjoyed spending time in nursery when I've been there the past few months--especially with the youngest kids.  Just saying.

So please--PLEASE--grab me up before the bishop asks me to do something truly terrible; like working with adults.

1 Probably because it is a volunteer organization
2 See my posts about Informed Inspiration here, here, and here.
3 I suspect this is not standard operating procedure through most of the LDS Church, but it seems to make a difference on the stress level felt by the teachers. If this isn't how your congregation operates, perhaps you should consider it.
4 A 'teacher-year' is a unit of time that measures the amount time a teacher is on active duty. If you have two teachers in a class for exactly one year, you have staffed 2 teacher-years.
5 I will say, however, that the more children a parent has, the closer this number should get to 1 year. Imagine, for instance, a family with six kids. If each parent worked 12 years in Primary, they may only get about 3-4 years outside of Primary, and I don't think that's necessarily healthy for their own development. It is no doubt a complicated balance to find. Open communication with leaders about balancing the needs of the congregation with the needs of the individuals is always crucial.
6 Gag!
7 This does not, however, give ward leaders justification to guilt or manipulate people in to service. I'm grateful that the leaders in my ward are sensitive and compassionate toward the needs of individuals, and I hope leaders across the world will show that same compassion.


  1. I'm very similar to you Ben. I don't really like children who aren't my own. Working with the youth, however, brings me so much joy.
    When I move into a new ward, as I'm about to do, our first meeting with the Bishop I flat out tell him I would order not to serve in primary/nursery.
    My life right now is devoted to being a SAHM to two little boys. One day a week I prefer to meet with teens or adults and have discussion of the gospel.
    Matt and I have always taught the youth 13-17 (depending on the ward) since we were married 5 1/2 years ago. I'm hoping the streak continues in our new ward.
    When I have 2 teenagers I'm sure the kids in primary will seem sweet and like a great calling. Right now though it sounds like torture.

    1. It was mentioned to me offline that perhaps I should have mentioned that service in Primary not necessarily coincide with the time that your own children are in Primary.

      Certainly, your feelings are real and ought to be considered. And you shouldn't ever be pushed into a set of responsibilities that will cause you more psychological or emotional trauma than benefit.

      But if you were to persist that you won't ever in your life serve in Primary (and I'm not claiming you're saying this) because you "don't really like children who aren't your own," then I'd have to call you a big baby :D

      But seriously, if a time comes that you are asked and you feel emotionally fit to do it at the time, then I hope you'll say yes. Even if that means you do it for a time and then realize six months later that you're losing your mind and ask to get out. At least that was six months that you were part of a solution.

    2. Hannah, I recently asked to be released from Nursery. I'd been in there since January, and even though I knew a release was coming (based on a previous conversation with my bishopric counselor), I couldn't do it anymore. There were a lot of extenuating circumstances that contributed, but they're not relevant to this discussion. Ben and I were talking at dinner the other night, and teaching Bug about callings, etc. I said to him, flat-out, that if were to be extended a call to Primary right now, I'd say no. I need the break.

      So I "get" the stages of life thing.

  2. I would much rather be in the nursery / primary than with the adults.

  3. You just have to play the piano, and then the only service you'll ever do will be from the bench. ;) My current calling as Acitivity Days leader is the first non-music calling I've had in over a decade, I think. And, I have two other callings right now which ARE playing the piano, so I'm not totally off the hook. Ha!

  4. I hope to serve in primary one day because I think there are lessons to be learned there.
    For me, right now is not that time. I recognize that and realize that if I'm not honest and upfront about that it leads a bishop to pray about callings without an understanding of where I am.
    Maybe i will want to be there before my boys are teenagers but right now when I have a 3 and 1 year old it's too much for me personally.

  5. It would be nice if the Bishopric also remembers that Primary isn't contagious for Priesthood holders.