Church Callings: How much to ask? How much to accept?

I recently read Stephen E. Robinson’s book, Believing Christ. It is a wonderful book, and I heartily recommend it to everyone, both LDS and non-LDS. I do have concerns, however, about one thing in the book, and I would like to comment on it.

In his chapter on Misunderstanding Grace, Robinson answers the question, “Then why the demand for more?” He comments that it is unfortunate that people are frequently asked by their church leaders to do more than they can realistically do. As an example of this, he relates an experience he observed in which members of his Elders quorum were asked to donate one Saturday that month to each of six separate projects. Since that month had only four Saturdays, it was impossible for the elders to complete their assignment. Robinson indicates that this discrepancy was pointed out but the leaders did not change the assignment.

In answering the question, “Then why the demand for more?”, Robinson states that we must remember that perfection is our “goal, and we should be working for it with all our best efforts.” To illustrate the importance of working with “our best efforts”, Robinson relates his experience as a high school weight lifter. As he worked out with weights, a spotter stood next to him to grab the bar if he couldn’t handle it. After he had done as many repetitions as he could, he would tell the spotter to take the bar. The spotter would always say, “No, do one more!”. He would manage a few more repetitions (with “do one more” occurring after each one) until his muscles gave out; at that point the spotter would take the bar. Robinson said he had the “satisfaction of knowing that I had worked out to the limits of my strength and that it was making me stronger.”

Robinson then associated this experience to the heavy demands sometimes asked by Church leaders. “Since we make the most progress by working at the limits of our abilities, then no matter how much we do or how well we do it, the Lord–like the spotter in the gym–will always ask for more, will always seek improvement, will always push us toward perfection.” Robinson reminds us that our salvation is not involved with our being given heavy demands, for our salvation is already settled by our covenant and partnership with Jesus Christ. The heavy demands are to help us towards our eventual goal of perfection.

I am concerned about this part of Robinson’s book, because I suspect his experience with the spotter was probably more harmful that it was beneficial, and I believe unreasonable assignments by Church leaders can also be more harmful than helpful. First, let’s see why unreasonable training in sports is unwise, and then I’ll share my feelings why I believe excessive demands from Church leaders can be harmful.

The “no pain no gain” philosophy of training that Robinson experienced has been popular in the past. People who follow that philosophy are taking high risks of having muscle injury in order to gain quick improvement. They are betting that their muscles will be able to handle the high stress caused by their excessive training.

My experience as a runner for the past 25 years has been that the safest way for one to gain physical development is to not train until his or her muscles give out. All the reading I have done in the running literature indicates that stress destroys muscle fiber and does not build strength. The strengthening of muscle comes from rest that occurs after the stress has been applied, not from the stress itself. During rest, our bodies react to stress by becoming stronger. If sufficient rest does not occur, then residues of stress linger, and those residues accumulate and will eventually cause injury. Of course, we must have stress in our training, but we must have sufficient rest to allow our bodies to strengthen themselves. The running literature I have studied indicates, and my own experiences in running everything from 5K to marathons have confirmed, that the wisest way to develop as a non-competitive athlete is to use moderation in one’s training and allow time for one’s body to strengthen. I have never had an injury in 25 years of running, due, I believe, to my listening to my body and adjusting my training according to how I feel each day.

Similarly, if we experience excessive stress in our lives, we risk frustration, depression, and eventual burnout. An example of this occurred in my life after I had been married for two years. I was making a career change, and my wife and I moved to a new city where I began a job in which I traveled all over the United States. I didn’t particularly want to travel, but I needed the experience that that assignment would give. I had expected that my wife would travel with me, but it didn’t turn out that way. I was gone without her for weeks at a time, and when I left on a trip, I didn’t know how long I would be gone (one assignment that was to last a week took three months). During the 18 months that I held that job, I retained my assignment as a home teacher. I obviously did not visit my families while I was away, so when I returned after each trip, I visited my families and tried to do for them what I could. Since I was only home for a few days and was then gone again, many of my evenings while home were spent home teaching.

Because of this, my wife became frustrated and wondered why she was married: I was gone for weeks, and when I came home, I spent the days at work getting ready for the next trip and the evenings visiting my home teaching families. I spent little time caring for her needs. I expect that my home teaching families also had concerns about their sporadic home teacher. It never occurred to me that I should talk to my Priesthood leader about being relieved of my home teaching assignments, because I had been raised to never doubt my Church leaders but to accept their decisions without question.

I realize that we should not criticize our Church leaders, but I believe that we must recognize that they are human and make mistakes. Our leaders are here to help us find happiness and success, but we, not our leaders, are responsible to the Lord for our own lives. I believe that if our leaders impose demands that would be difficult to for us to accomplish, we have both the moral right and the obligation to discuss those callings or assignments with the leaders. These discussions must be in the spirit of reconciliation and love such that we reach solutions that are acceptable to both the leaders and us. Our leaders do not always know of circumstances in our lives that would make particular assignments difficult, and it is our responsibility to bring those circumstances to their attention.

In writing this essay, please be aware that I am not saying that we should have no stress in our church callings; it’s through learning to handle stress that we grow. I am saying that the stress must be of a magnitude and duration that we can handle it without becoming overly frustrated and angry, without becoming depressed and eventually suffering burnout. King Benjamin encouraged his people to impart of their substance to the poor and to administer to both their physical and spiritual needs (Mosiah 4:26-27). He cautioned his people, however, to do those things in wisdom, and he said “it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” He then counseled that “it is expedient that he should be diligent”. King Benjamin’s counsel is that we should not run faster nor slower than would be wise for us. This counsel indicates that both we and our leaders are to be wise in our Church activity.

Leaders who accept responsibility over others, must prayerfully seek guidance about how much to ask of their people. They must have the humility to recognize that because they are human and make mistakes, they may at times ask things of their people that carry high risks of frustration and burnout. The leaders have to decide if the growth due to those assignments is worth that risk.

Likewise, when we are given callings and assignments, we must prayerfully seek guidance about the amount of Church activity to have in our lives. Our purpose is to progress towards perfection in ways that bring happiness and satisfaction. Just as I should enjoy my running, so should I enjoy my Church activity. If I over train as a runner, I will experience pain. If I ignore that pain and continue or increase my level of training, I will incur injury. Similarly, if I am “over active” in my Church callings and other activities, I will experience pain in the form of frustration, anger, and eventually burnout. The Gospel is to bring happiness into our lives, not just happiness within the Celestial Kingdom but happiness now, every day! Just as pain is a sign that I am over training as a runner, so frustration and anger are signs that I am “over training” in my personal life. In both cases I need to lower the stress levels in my life by backing off and allowing more time for my growth.

8 Responses to Church Callings: How much to ask? How much to accept?

  1. Tiffany Johnson says:

    I feel the same way you do, but I can’t get anyone in my church , to think that way….
    I am a woman, who has had a husband be in high responsibility callings,and was gone all the time, and I got angry and depressed and burned out…. Then when they released him, he was lost and angry and fustrated because he wasn’t being used….

  2. Sean McLaughlin says:

    This is one of the most cogent discussions I have found. I couldn’t agree more. I was recently stunned by a related occurence in my own life wherein I was chastised asking for a release from a heavy calling. I am grateful that I have found sensible and sensitive treatment (you are never alone!) of this subject here.

  3. Taylor says:

    This is very good. I think leaders often don’t understand a person’s situation, although they have good intentions when offering callings. This is very reasonable.

  4. Brent says:

    That’s right. The culture of “never ask to be released from a calling” can be harmful, in my view. I have since learned to assert myself and not feel badly about it. One has to do what is best for one’s mental and physical health first. I take comfort in the statement by Joseph Smith that the gospel will roll forward throughout the earth with, or without us. I rely on that during those times when I know I have only so much to give.

    • bruce says:

      Maybe asking to be released? Rarely. Maybe just transferring burden to another. Better to unburden through deligation and counseling with leader to endure well, prosper and be happy in service.

  5. Sharon says:

    Thank you for your very insightful article! I have accepted many callings that were extremely difficult for me, and have usually grown because of the stretch. But I was once called to a relief society presidency while suffering extreme postpartum depression. When I told my bishop that I was struggling, he said, “I know you are. Hang in there.” I was too emotionally weak to do anything else but go on in the calling, much to my detriment. My depression worsened and my family suffered. In hindsight, I would have set up an interview with my bishop, explained the situation, and asked to be released. I would still have willingly served elsewhere, in something that would not have heightened my depression. I’ve heard it said that callings are 10% inspiration and 90% information. I have learned there are times that we definitely need to keep our leaders informed about circumstances in our lives that they may not be aware of.

  6. RGI says:

    When we received a special assignment to attend a struggling Branch in our stake instead of the ward we lived in, I was so gung-ho at first to be out building Zion. I had several Branch callings at the same time, and was very happy with them. I continued on this way until we had a crisis that was mis-handled by Branch and Stake leaders. I discovered that our Branch President’s wife was texting and Face-booking my teenage son compulsively. There were over 400 messages in 2 weeks. Some of the messages were predatory and she even told him not to tell his parents about her messages. I freaked out, of course. I reported this to the Stake President, and provided printouts of the FB message. The SP he chose not to get involved and instead referred to matter to the Branch President. The BP defended his wife of course, and she continued on as a Seminary Teacher and youth Sunday School teacher. After that incident, it has been extremely hard to motivate myself to serve like I should. I feel like the Church abandoned me. The Stake Leaders asked us to leave our beloved ward and to sacrifice a lot for the Branch. But then it seemed like they didn’t care about keeping my children safe in the Branch. I felt like they were trying to suck us dry. Don’t know how to get rid of this burnout I am feeling and again find joy in serving. I recently met with our new Stake President, and he affirmed that the situation with my son was not handled correctly. I felt validated. Maybe I just need a break. Maybe the old Stake President was burned out and needed a break too.

  7. Allen says:

    RGI, This is the Lord’s church, but the people he has in leadership positions are mortal, human, and do make mistakes. Because the church uses lay members as leaders, there will be times when the leaders make mistakes in their actions and judgments.

    Be assured that the Lord has not abandoned you. He loves you, and he hopes that your experiences with imperfect leaders will make you stronger. As we get into situations that tax our faith and testimonies, we need to ask ourselves, “What does the Lord want me to learn from this?” Hopefully, you have learned patience and love toward your leaders, and greater guidance from the Spirit, as well as things that you and I may not be familiar with now but will recognize as you look back on this situation in the future.

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