A recent meta-analysis of the impact of volunteering on health outcomes found that those who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who did not. Even after adjusting for between group differences at baseline (such as health status) these lower rates of mortality remain. The results also suggest that volunteering can increase life satisfaction and reduce the likelihood of depression, but there is one important caveat.
People tend to volunteer for altruistic reasons, i.e. they want to help another person even if it involves sacrificing something that they themselves might want, such as time. Yet, if volunteers fail to experience reciprocity then the positive effects of volunteering on mental health are removed. For example, retired people who volunteered experience greater levels of well-being than retired people who engaged in caring for a partner. Part of the reason for this is that when volunteering becomes seen as another commitment rather than a choice, then the psychological rewards for service are diminished. In a caring relationship where a large number of hours of care are required and where, very often, there is less reciprocity than in other relationships or settings. Burn-out, as it is sometimes called, occurs when this situation is sustained over a long period of time .Some research has even found that volunteering more than 10 hours per week is some kind of tipping point for this association. While I am skeptical that such a tipping exists (primarily because those who volunteer more than 10 hours probably are more likely to be carers than volunteers) this body of research does raise some questions for our service in the church.
While few callings would demand the same level of commitment as this type of caring relationship, there are periods when people give a great deal of time but feel as though their efforts are unappreciated. It is not an uncommon experience for people to feel like they receive very little back from the people or institution to which they give so much.
Part of the reason we might struggle with such feelings of dissatisfaction while serving in the church is that it is very often quite apparent how much we give but what we receive is very often diffused through the institution.
Service in our callings is often directed toward a particular group. As a young women leader, for example, you will serve a specific demographic in the ward a great deal but by the nature of the specificity of this responsibility we may give very little to the primary or the Elders quorum. Others serve those groups and unless we have direct involvement with them (usually through some family association) we may fail to see the good done there because we may only receive such service in circuitous, carefully hidden ways. Because this service is opaque it is easily taken for granted.
In our ward, an elderly widow brings the bread every week for the sacrament. Her service is almost imperceptible as she quietly leaves the bread in the kitchen for the young men to prepare. To my shame, I had been in the young men’s presidency for 3 months before I knew who was bringing the bread every. Whether our ward was aware of this gift of not, every week we were blessed by the service of this faithful sister.
Even this concrete example obscures the ways in which less tangible service is rendered and transmitted. Like many others, a few months ago my family and I moved into an already well-established ward. We arrived on our first week without even talking to the Bishop and there we found a primary waiting to befriend and care for our children; we found classes prepared and taught by people who we had never met; and we found familiarity and safety. We did not build this ward. We still, even a few months later, have contributed relatively little, and yet we are the beneficiaries of the work of other faithful saints, many of whom we will never meet but who have created and sustained a community that now serves and loves my family.
The church is not unique. As with any form of volunteering, there are potential psychological costs of service in the church. ‘Burn-out’ is a very real possibility in an organization which localizes our efforts in order to promote efficiency and effectiveness. Yet, if we are perhaps able to discern how our service is diffused through a complex organization even while we are the recipients of the diffused service of others we may find a little more joy in striving to keep our covenants together.