Could We Serve More?

It has often struck me (Kathleen from Dialogue) how willing the people in my ward are to participate in service projects. The best attended Enrichment Meetings are the ones to assemble whatever hygiene kit ,back-to-school kit for needy kids project, or food bank drive, that comes down the pike. Through an Interfaith Council our stake participates in a program that provides meals and a place to sleep for homeless men. Our church never hosts the sleeping arrangements, but whenever it is our ward’s turn to provide dinner, lunch, and breakfast for these men, it’s an easy sell for the sister in charge. Considering service more broadly, it seems as though all my Salt Lake nieces and nephews have gone to Africa or South America to help out in a orphanage for a month, or gone with somebody to Tibet or Mongolia or some other far away place to deliver medical equipment that some church member has managed to collect. I know Young Men and Young Women leaders are always looking for ways to involve the kids in meaningful service.

One the one hand, there is the willingness to help. On the other hand, it is difficult to come up with the right kind of service project. I know because I have been in a position to try. What is usually required is a situation where a group can spend 2 hours, make a difference and move on. It can’t be too depressing, and it can’t be the kind of problem that is best served by professionals. The church group is usually looking to tie into some organization that already has a project in place rather than developing its own. Most of these organizations would probably prefer consistent long-term volunteer involvement rather than a burst of involvement.

While we are encouraged to be involved in our communities and to serve one another, I don’t think our church is known for social activism. We don’t set up soup kitchens nor sponsor low income housing, for example. Would it be feasible for a ward to participate in a long-term project, like tutoring at a school or providing health education? Would it be possible for a ward to instigate and organize such a project as opposed to participating in someone else’s? It would have to be politically neutral, not connected with government, involve no church money, and not require professionals to be effective. How would the continuity of commitment work in a church where leadership rotates every couple of years? What would happen when the enthusiastic bishop, Relief Society president, or specialist was released? Would the generosity that is so available once in a while be equal to weekly commitment, in a situation where the results are not immediately visible? It’s hard to know because it isn’t tried very often (that I know of). It isn’t that the needs in society aren’t great, and it isn’t that Mormons aren’t capable and willing. It seems like the two could be more efficiently combined. Any ideas?


  1. Hi Kathleen—a couple of thoughts. If we link our service to programs explicitly or implicitly supported by the church, we necessarily cut ourselves off from many great, long-term service opportunities (due to the problems you bring up). It seems like many (but certainly not all) church members are ready and willing to serve when it’s a church-supported program, but that we often don’t go outside that structure and get involved in our community—it’s easy for me to say “I’m serving enough” when I look at “all” I do for/in/with church. And I’m comfortable with things and people I’m familiar with. The problem with that line of thought is that it tends to make service a quantifiable virtue—and it’s easy to slip into a “list mentality” of righteousness that way (you know, where you check things off of the “righteous acts” list so that you can be sure you’re going to heaven …).

    That said, the wards that I have been in that do have successful, long-term service opportunities set up and established ususally have some sense of tradition and responsibility attached to those service projects. They have been wards where at least a few members have been there a while and are planning on staying. Society as a whole seems to be promoting more mobility throughout life, and in my limited experience this trend is reflected in wards and stakes. Could that increased mobility be affecting the existence of sustained service as well? Thanks for the post—I’ll be thinking of it as we gear up for another round of “Sub for Santa” in our ward …

  2. Jonathan Green says:

    Or you can turn the question around. Your ward or its auxiliaries have numerous helping hands willing to serve periodically; what community member or institution is able to connect the ward’s resources to appropriate projects? Rather than trying to change your ward’s service capabilities, or taking on the full burden of finding projects, it might be better to figure out if there’s already someone in your community who coordinates volunteers with projects in need of help.

  3. Antonio Parr says:

    Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” This ancient maxim, attributed to Saint Francis, provides sage advise to our beloved Church today.

    President Hinckley stated in the most recent General Conference that the conversion rate in North America is low. Perhaps instead of having our remarkable pool of young missionaries knocking endlessly on doors to empty houses, we should use the formidable organizational skills of the Church to have these same young men (and the Wards to which they are assigned) spend their day “preaching the Gospel” by engaging in acts of great service. Run an after-school reading program. Rebuild houses, a la Habitats for Humanity. Clean up a stream. Such acts of Christian service speak deeply to a neighborhood/community/city, and increases both the strength of the Ward providing the service and the likelihod that others will want to join us. (Not to mention the missionaries who get to go home each day feeling successful, where service is its own reward. My heart goes out to these missionaries who judge their success on the number of converts that they bring into the Church.)

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I totally agree with Antonio Parr. But that kind of thing is out of our control and in the hands of the powers that be.

    I like that the Church tends to partner with established programs, even those of other faiths (such as Catholic Relief Charities and Muslim organizations). They have the track record and the skill and the knowledge, and it is hard for us to duplicate that efficiently.

    I would be leery of trying, frankly. We are a volunteer church. We have limited control over our people. We like to pretend we’re a church of assignment, but the reality is that everyone has her free agency and can always say “no.” I would hate to make a long-term commitment on our own and then not be able to deliver the goods.

  5. In my life, the challenge to become engaged in service is one of identity, which underscores Jenny W’s note about successful long-term service arrangements being a function of tradition.

    One-off projects (and I’ve worked on lots and lots of them in the context of ward functions and Scouting’s Eagle Projects) are easier to arrange and manage precisely because they are short-term. The decision to participate can be motivated by lots and lots of different things, ranging from sympathy for the coordinator, to a briefly awakened sense of altruism, to institutional loyalty to the sponsoring organization. Whatever the internal impulse, the participant’s life continues on, both before and after, in much the same course it would have without the experience.

    But committing to a long-term or to a permanent service arrangement is rather different, at least it is for me. First, most of the things that motivate me to agree to participate in one-off projects are evanescent. They don’t hold up when the question becomes, “will I commit a significant part of my life to this?” The things that motivate me to the kind of commitment Ammon showed in his ministrations to the people of King Lamoni (“…I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die.”) are the sorts of things that change my life entirely. As I tend to think of myself and other humans as fundamentally conservative in the Burkean sense of the term, those kinds of change-your-life motivations don’t happen every day. Sometimes they never happen.

    But they can and do happen, if we allow them to. And when they do, they lead to decisions to serve, whether by volunteering for every other Thursday night at a soup kitchen, or teaching meditation to inmates, or assisting in an understaffed public school, or providing health services at a free clinic. And volunteering not just to do so for two hours next Saturday, but to change our lives to enable us to serve forever — giving up time with family, enduring the annoyance of an employer who wants more time and attention invested at work, frustrating even church leaders who seek to fill service projects programmed on their own or the Church’s terms.

    But there’s service and there’s service. For me, at least, one-off projects, whether repainting lines in a parking lot, cutting and hauling dead trees to reduce wildfire threats, or sorting donated clothing, require only my body — not my soul. The other kind of service — giving of one’s life hour by hour, week by week, year by year, for others — that requires me to change my identity, enlarge my borders, extend the stakes of Zion to encompass more than I reach today.

  6. You make a good point Kevin, because no one is full time and paid, Church service is inherently ephemeral. Even Bishops change every five years. I love the idea of service and I think that the loss of the welfare farms has had a greater effect than just about anything in the last 30 years. Having regular opportunities to actually work and serve with others is how you make a community of love and trust…Zion. And that doesn’t even consider the people that receive regular service.

    Jonathan Green, I think that the point you make was actually addressed in Kathy’s original post. The regular institutions don’t like short bursts and that is the typical offering.

  7. I think one reason that one-time projects are so inviting is that they have the feel of a gift rather than a duty. Once you commit to something forever, it becomes a duty, and therefore less fun. It feels less like you choose it each time when you set about to do it, maybe because the act of choosing was further in the past, or because of the feeling of accomplishment that comes when a service is complete. I’m not sure why, really. A duty is just a gift that you give over and over again, that you give reliably and consistently, and yet often it isn’t as much fun.

    So even if we do take on more long-term projects, there will always be room for those one-time things, that we can do and feel accomplished and happy about, that make us feel a special joy.

  8. I really wish we could edit our posts in the bloggernacle! I can’t seem to write coherently unless I read back over and over something. =) The third sentence in the first paragraph should read thusly: “It feels less like you choose it each time when you set about to do it, maybe because the act of choosing was further in the past. It lacks the feeling of accomplishment that comes when a service is complete.”

  9. So all you software geeks, please fix that, okay? =)

  10. Antonio Parr says:

    Having just reread my post of earlier today, I need to echo the lamentation regarding editing gaffs and snafus. Hopefully we all give each other blanket absolutions with respect to msispellngis, etc.

  11. The fact that some people don’t have the time or desire to volunteer on a regular basis seems to be a recurrant problem for charitable organizations. The Cares organizations (I first heard about San Diego Cares, then New York Cares, and there’s a DC Cares, among others) offer flexible volunteering opportunities to people who don’t want to make long-term commitments. When I went to the San Diego orientation, they had projects ranging from walking dogs at a Humane Society to delivering meals to AIDS patients. They seem to work as a clearinghouse; in the aggregate, they supply enough people to volunteer without any one person having to make huge commitments.

    I don’t know if the institutional Church would necessarily make use of this, but it seems like a good resource for finding service projects that are doable within the constraints of an all-volunteer church for people who (in my experience) really do want to serve.

    I found some local clearing-house organizations here:

  12. I echo the suggestion to tie into already on-going projects. Two that I have seen wards successfully participate in are the local senior center’s Meals on Wheels program, where we would take lunch or dinner to local seniors once or twice a month, and taking a once-a-month turn at making and serving dinner at a local soup kitchen.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    To buttress CS Eric’s suggestion, my own wife started driving on Fridays for a meals on wheels-type seniors’ program like 15 years ago. The idea was introduced as part of a RS lesson, as I recall, and she actually signed up and has been doing it ever since. This isn’t something coordinated through the church; it was inspired by the RS in the first instance, but now she just does it. The whole infrastructure of our local ward has changed many times over since then, and if this were a church-run program it would have died a long time ago, but her individual commitment is of course within her own control.

    (One of the men on her route has a crush on her and gives her dark chocolate candy bars every week. It’s very cute.)

  14. I too have been in wards that participate in long term service projects–even a student ward of mine back at the BYU was linked to a mentoring program of a school in our ward boundaries. I believe this went on in spite of rotating Bishoprics every 3 years. They relied on our ward to provide a group of mentors for the school, and our ward came through each year. Additionally, in my grandmothers ward they rotate with other Churches running a local soup kitchen. I’m not sure if one church is more in charge than the others, but it’s a long term program for that ward and something that also rotates with other Churches (which I think is great). So I think it’s definitely possible for a ward to find a long term connection for service–the rest is up to individuals.

    Also, I think our church welfare program is pretty established throughout the world as a predominate force for good–we’ve given money/food/supplies during the tsunami of 2004, hurricane Katrina, and I would say most other major disasters and many smaller disasters. Not to mention on going health care in certain parts of the world. I know this is a little off topic, but I was confused by Kevin’s comment that other Churches have the ‘track record, skill and knowledge” etc. . . I think we can and do hold our own.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Miggy, I was talking about local efforts of wards/stakes, not the centralized bureaucratized Humanitarian Fund types of things.

    If my ward gets the bright idea to start, say, a soup kitchen, we might be able to figure out how to go about it. But it seems to me that it would be way more efficient to support an existing soup kitchen, where the people already know what they’re doing. That’s all I meant by that comment.

  16. Antonio Parr says:

    I think the key is to use the missionary program as the foundation for service projects, as missionaries already have the time, and, presumably, the desire to make a full-time commitment to service. And if we were allowed to bet, I would wager that our growth as a Church (in every way, including numbers) would be substantial.

  17. I like the idea of having the young missionaries get involved in these types of service projects. Perhaps even have missions exclusively dedicated to hard manual labor. I absolutely hated proselyting. I never got used to it. For me it was a waste of time. My testimony wasn’t/isn’t that strong. But I always liked serving in the manual labor sense. The most rewarding days of my mission was helping the local branch build their chapel, but I was only allowed to help out on p-days.

  18. I know there are already a lot of humanitarian service missionary couples (I worked with some in India who despite being in their late sixties carried about 9 massive jugs of water up to the ninth floor of the childrens hospital twice a week), but I love the idea of some younger missionaries having the option, or chance, of being called on a service mission. Im sure this couple would have loved some younger help!

    I do have to say though, service is already an integral part of successful missions – I know many missionaries who didn’t hesitate to get their white shirts and ties dirty fixing cars, helping build houses, serving in soup kitchens and other such things. I don’t see why missionaries couldn’t start actual service programs in their areas – Im sure many already do.

  19. Kevin–thanks for clarifying. I get it now.

  20. In Finland, when the current mission president came, a book had just been published ranking the public perception of different religions in the country. Ours was second to last. (JWs were very last.) The Salvation Army was first. In a move I think was inspired, he told missionaries to stop tracting altogether, and they should find opportunities to serve others and make friends. They worked in soup kitchens, went skateboarding, hosted ice skating parties and football clinics and became a staple at every large sporting event in the city.

    But of course this is long-term seed planting, and the numbers fell, and I gather that the higher-ups have not approved wholeheartedly. Now they are supposed to tract 2 hours an evening (which is still better than the 8 hours a day I did). Still, it was an original approach that matched the needs, but probably won’t last.

    I have a lot of trouble with passing off the need to do service to the missionaries. The idea that we don’t have time to serve others seems to be a fulfillment of some sign of the last days, although I don’t know the scriptures well enough to say for sure. Isn’t the whole point that we as individuals arrange our lives so we have the time? Certainly the wards could help with that. When I lived in London, they had this elaborate ‘night in Bethlehem’ stake Christmas party that took hours of planning and loads of money to build things and decorate the hall. Meanwhile, there were homeless men sleeping on the steps on the side of the church building. I refused to attend.

%d bloggers like this: