The gift of our calling
It was five years, almost to the day, but if you saw a picture of that Bishop from the start of his term, you'd be forgiven for thinking 15 or 20 years had passed. The marital disputes, the midnight runs to the chapel to forestall eviction, and the last-second interviews had taken their toll on both his hairline and his beltline. "Busy as a man can be," indeed. But finally, it was time to pass to baton. The new Bishop took the stand to bear his testimony.
"Brothers and sisters, during this season of the year we express gratitude for gifts. I want to start by thanking our Bishop for the gift of his devoted service in our ward." A moment of silence follows– the Latter-day Saint chapel equivalent to hearty applause. "I thank my wife and children for the gift of accepting the call to sustain me without hesitation." Another well-deserved round of silent mental clapping. "And I especially want to thank God for His gift of calling to me to be the new Bishop."
We don't aspire
Did that last sentence seem a little jarring to you? Maybe a little prideful? That's not too surprising. In our Church, we frown on the idea of treating callings as honorifics or signs of divine preference. Aspiring to callings and seeking recognition or authority is called "priestcrafts," and the Book of Mormon makes clear God wants nothing to do with it. When I think of this attitude towards callings, many quotes from ancient and modern scripture jump into my mind. For example:
- Paul told the early Saints, "no man taketh this honour [callings] unto himself, but he that is called of God." Latter-day Saints echo this same principle in our Articles of Faith: "We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority."
- When Alma the Younger wished for additional spiritual responsibility, he chastised himself, saying "[I] do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me… why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?"
- God rebuked William W Phelps, for "he seeketh to excel, and he is not sufficiently meek."
- Pres. Hinckley reminded us, "Your obligation is as serious in your sphere of responsibility as is my obligation in my sphere. No calling in this church is small or of little consequence (link)."
- Pres. Oaks echoed that sentiment, telling of a man released as stake president and called as a nursery leader: "Only in this Church would that be seen as equally honorable! … There is no 'up or down' in the service of the Lord (link)."
- Pres. Packer said, "It would be very disappointing to my wife and to me if we supposed any one of our children would think that we think we are of more worth to the family or to the Church than they are, or to think that one calling in the Church was esteemed over another or that any calling would be thought to be less important (link)."
- Pres. Faust's counsel to Church leaders to "be thankful" for members' gracious treatment, "but don't you ever inhale it."
- Pres. Uchtdorf's injunction not to "covet a crown" of priesthood leadership.
Yep, as a Church, we are rightly very against aspiring to callings.
The gift of our callings
I didn't just make up that anecdote about the man thanking God for calling him to be the Bishop. I pulled it from the Book of Mormon. In Moroni 7, the prophet Mormon thanks the Lord for "the gift of his calling unto me."
Mormon was grateful to be the prophet. He considered his difficult calling a gift. And yet when I put the same sentiment into the mouth of a new Bishop, it sounds prideful or aspiring.
I wonder if perhaps this cultural stigma against aspiring has gone a bit too far. Are we so focused on the sacrifice and the responsibilities that we ignore the fact that they are gifts? In our zeal against "seeking to excel," have we maybe created a cultural idea that callings are not only not to be sought, but not even enjoyed?
My mission president taught me a lesson I will never forget. During one mission training, he said, in effect, "Elders and sisters, let's be clear: you're not here to see the sights and make friends and have fun. You're not here for your own enjoyment; you're here to work. That said," he added with a twinkling eye, "if you're not enjoying the work you're doing, you're doing the work wrong."
Whether we are called as full-time missionaries or apostles or assistant hymnbook coordinators, God promises us "joy in the fruit of [our] labors." That joy is usually visible in our countenances. The brothers and sisters I know who best exemplify Pres. Uchtdorf's admonition to "lift where we stand" are excited to interact with the sweet nursery children. They are touched by the profound insights of the five-year-olds. They tear up when they think of the valiance of the young men and women. In each of their callings, they are excited, confident, and obviously enjoying their opportunity to serve in almost any assignment in the Lord's vineyard.
But then these rock star members are called as Relief Society Presidents or to the Bishopric, and everything changes.
Suddenly, they are quick to bring up their inadequacies. They joke that the priesthood leader who extended their call must have been desperate. When you ask how things are going, they start to emphasize the burdens, the meetings, and the unpleasant aspects of their callings– not to complain, but to steer everyone far away from any idea that they might be happy to serve in a leadership capacity.
Humility is a virtue. But callings, even callings to preside, are gifts and we should treat them with gratitude. For all the anti-aspiring quotes I shared earlier, there are plenty of others that come to mind, teaching that we ought to openly rejoice in the blessings we have been given to serve as God's hands:
- The sons of Mosiah aspired to serve as missionaries and aspired to change the hearts of the Lamanites. The Lord honored and fulfilled their righteous desires. After tremendous success, Ammon was accused of prideful boasting in his calling, but he was righteously rejoicing because "we have been instruments in his hands of doing this great and marvelous work!"
- The Three Nephites and John the Beloved loved their callings that they desired their missions be extended. At first, they were embarrassed that their desires would be considered inappropriate (aspiring). But the Lord honored and fulfilled their righteous desires to magnify their service.
- Abraham wasn't content with his situation; he aspired to "great knowledge," priesthood ordination, "and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace." The Lord honored and fulfilled his righteous desires.
- Abraham's grandson, Jacob, wrestled with God for a blessing and prevailed. He was given a new calling and a new name with a promise that continues to define the great gathering work of our dispensation today. The Lord honored and fulfilled his righteous desires.
- Paul taught that "If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work" (or rather, "a good workout!").
- Pres. Eyring taught us to treasure the spiritual gifts of our callings: "The day of your release will teach you a great lesson…. [While you are called,] you will have the gift of seeing your service magnified. Give thanks while that gift is yours. You will appreciate its worth more than you can imagine when it is gone (link)."
Love your callings
My kids are at the age where they love feeling included in everything my wife and I do. My 18-month-old "helps" me switch around the laundry. My 3-year-old "helps" sweep the floors. And all of our kids enjoy "helping" Mom cook in the kitchen.
My 18-month-old doesn't know that the laundry takes far longer when he "helps." My 3-year-old doesn't know that her "help" in the sweeping actually spreads the crumbs further across the house, requiring my wife and me to "un-sweep" after she goes to bed.
It would be easier, faster, and more efficient for my wife and me to clean and cook without involving our children. We let them "help" because we want them to learn the value of work and develop the skills to contribute someday, sure. But part of our motivation is seeing how much they enjoy leaving their own tiny hand-prints on the life of our family.
I see God's hand in that pattern. God repeatedly reminds us, "I am able to do mine own work. And King Benjamin made clear that our efforts to "help" ultimately aren't all that helpful to Him. Yet He still invites us to participate and put our own mark on the family work, "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life."
I've served in several leadership callings that often come to mind when we talk about aspiring, dealing with urgent issues in the congregation. I and those I served with dealt with worthiness issues, watched marriages crumble, and grieved over addictions and loss. The kind of stuff that weighs you down at night and you're not allowed to even talk to your wife about.
I was a newlywed in my twenties at the time, so the experience was doubly strange to me. Sitting in meetings with so many men and women far more spiritually mature than me made every ward council feel like "bring your kid to work day."
Holding those callings, I felt inadequate, I felt humbled, and I often felt overwhelmed. But let me be absolutely clear: I loved every single minute of my time serving in those callings. I loved feeling the Lord's love for those members and trying to express it through my service. I loved sitting in counsel with leaders and learning from them in training meetings. I loved the members who were humble and forgiving enough to accept the direction of a kid who felt more at home sitting with the deacons than with the ward council.
I can't say what impact my callings have had on others, but I know the impact each has had on me. So, like Mormon, I thank God for the gift of my callings.
I've been thinking a lot about callings a lot recently. About how to know if I'm doing "enough" in my calling and how to motivate myself to reach out and serve even when I don't have a formal assignment to do so. A few resources I'm revisiting that you may find helpful if you're in the same boat:
- My friend Bad McBride coincidentally posted a great article about callings today, too. Check it out at ThusWeSee.com
- An interesting LeadingSaints episode on the aspiring culture
- My other calling-related previous posts: