Magnifying your calling, and other acts of hubris

Last week I was visiting teaching (mostly because it was the end of the month and I had to), and over the course of the visit with this sister I’ve known for six years, I learned that she is unhappy with her life right now. On previous visits she has always been cheerful, positive and easy-going, but on this particular day she wound up confessing, with some tears, that she did not feel at home in this ward, didn’t feel that she fit in with the other women, didn’t feel that she had any place in our community. I was surprised at her revelation, but I can’t say it shocked me, because while I like my ward and think it is filled with good people, I can easily see how one could feel excluded (and in some cases, even be so). I have felt out of place myself at times–I don’t relate well to the other women in my ward, lovely as they are, and I don’t have any close friends at church–but I’ve always considered that a personal problem. I still do think it’s a personal problem; I just didn’t realize anyone else shared it.

The conversation I had with this Dear Sister brought up enough issues to fill several blogs, but one that stood out was the fact that my visiting teachee felt that over the six years she’s been in the ward, she has never been given the opportunity to use and develop her talents in a meaningful calling. Before you get all 1 Corinthians 12 on me, you should know that our ward is very large and jam-chocky full of active super-Mormons. It is not unheard of to go without a calling simply because there are more people than there are jobs to do. Of course, rather than let people go calling-free for very long, the leadership will double people up on callings, or create 47-person subcommittees, so it is very easy to feel superfluous EVEN THOUGH YOU’RE TOTALLY NOT because the simple fact is, you could drop off the face of the earth and the ward machinery would continue to function without a hitch. With significantly less joy, of course, because each of God’s children has a unique gift to share! But still, probably no one would notice the variation in joy level(s) until someone needed a substitute for Primary. That’s just how it is here.

I know it is unseemly to aspire to callings or to be dissatisfied with one’s current calling (especially if the problem is that you don’t feel it’s “important” enough) or to long for a position in which you can “shine.” That was my visiting teachee’s word, actually: she was disappointed that she’d never been given a calling in which she could “shine.” She is currently a visiting teaching supervisor–which, I guarantee you, I KNOW is an important calling–but it’s not really a calling that calls for much sparkly goodness. You people know what I mean.

I had a calling, once, where you could very well say I “shone.” I was the Relief Society secretary in my singles ward. Now, Relief Society secretary isn’t usually a glamorous calling, but since a significant portion of our ward was comprised of students and flaky youngsters, we very rarely had a full RS board–which meant that I was not just the secretary doing the secretarial things, but I was also, at various times, one or both counselors to the RS President, Visiting Teaching Board Member (and all the supervisors), Homemaking/Enrichment Leader, Compassionate Service Leader, Newsletter Specialist and (on rarest occasions) Teacher. I was indispensable–a mover, a shaker, and a kicker of the body-part formerly known as “ass.” I was so good at that calling that I often lamented that there wasn’t a secular version I could do for a living, since my actual career was pretty disappointing.

I don’t want to make it sound like this calling was all about boosting my own ego. I learned a lot and grew strong in the gospel while I was serving in the Relief Society. I started my service out of duty and with not-a-little resentment and a strong sense of inadequacy (like humility, but less praiseworthy), but over time I came to be motivated by real charity. That happens to people who serve dutifully; their heart are changed, and mine certainly was. So I can honestly say that this calling was primarily “about” serving others, but I can’t honestly deny the happy side effect of a boosted ego–or, if you prefer, “increased self-esteem.” It is a good feeling to know that you make a difference–that you, personally, individually, make a specific, significant difference. It is the warmest of fuzzies. But alas, it cannot last forever.

In my case, I got married and had to be released. It was a sad day for everyone, I assure you. My husband said that he felt like he was taking away “everyone’s favorite person.” (He flattered me. I wasn’t really everyone’s favorite person. Just most people’s.) In my new ward I was called as the Beehive teacher, a job I had no talent for. I was so terrible at it, in fact, and so miserable, that they wound up releasing me after a few short months and putting me in a position where I could do relatively little damage: Young Women secretary. Let me tell you, being YW secretary wasn’t anything like being RS secretary. In my case, I can’t say it was like being anything at all. I wasn’t included in presidency meetings. I wasn’t really required to do anything but take the roll, and after a while they didn’t even let me do that. I was a new mom, so maybe it was just as well–except that marriage and the subsequent new-momhood really did a number on my sense of self, and “serving” in a calling that was essentially in-name-only did not really help matters.

The obvious contrast was my husband, who was serving as a counselor in the Young Men presidency and managing to do perfectly well in that position, despite the fact that he was working two jobs and going to school full-time. My husband was (is) also a fine musician and possesses, shall we say, ah…a “sparkling” personality. Having people walk up to me at church and telling me how awesome and talented and funny my husband was would have been a lot more enjoyable if I hadn’t been mourning the death of my previously awesome-talented-funny self. I felt invisible–sort of how I imagine my dear visiting teaching sister feels now.

Currently I am also a visiting teaching supervisor, which I admit is something of a letdown after serving as a ward librarian. (Someone with keys–feel the power!) I can’t say I’m dissatisfied, exactly–sad experience has taught me that I’d much rather do an “unimportant” calling adequately than an “important” one poorly. I don’t feel superfluous; a trained monkey could do this job, but other (happier) experience has taught me that trained monkeys are underappreciated. The fact that I actually fulfill my responsibilities automatically makes me important–or important enough, as far as I’m concerned. I was an awesome RS secretary back in the day. I know that I would not make an awesome one now. Not only do I no longer have copious amounts of free time anymore (Facebook wasn’t around when I was young), but my brain has atrophied to the point that I’m not sure I could take the roll (assuming they let me), much less create a spreadsheet tracking the visiting teaching stats, or whatever the heck crap I used to do.

Still, I sympathize with my visiting teachee’s complaint. A church calling can give you a sense of identity; it is an acceptable vehicle for developing your talents and spending time away from your family. (It’s for church! You have to do it!) I don’t really need my church calling to do that for me anymore, but I completely understand when others do feel that need and are disappointed when they aren’t given opportunities to “shine.” Theoretically, yes, we should all get lives and stop whining about the fact that we don’t have work enough to do, or not the kind we’d like. I know some Relief Society presidents who would probably love to switch places with some shiny types and just sit around being dull themselves for a while. But it’s not just the “shining” that people long for; it’s the sense of being not just useful but peculiarly useful–contributing something that only you can give. Sometimes I miss it. (Then I remember they could call me to be a cub scout leader any minute, and I repent.)


  1. Sidebottom says:

    “sparkling” like diamonds?

  2. Callings can be especially convenient for introverts. It’s not just a sense of identity within a group; it’s an excuse to actually interact with the group.

    People’s attitudes towards callings are interesting. I remember extending a calling to a sister to serve as the ward librarian, and she just stared at me for a moment before saying “that’s where you send empty-nesters out to die”. I started laughing — I couldn’t help myself.

  3. chelseaw says:

    I have a pretty pragmatic view about callings. They’re a way to get the necessary work in a ward or branch done. I don’t expect to be fulfilled in any special way by that work. In the cases where I do find a calling fulfilling, it’s icing on the cake.

    I’m currently in the best calling ever – nursery. I get to play on the floor, have snacks, get hugs from the kids, and teach the basics of the gospel. Plus I have a really good reason to wear pants to church.

  4. Rebecca, you’ve outlined in a wonderful way why the extending of callings is not just some HR exericse to staff a ward. It is true, of course, that we can’t always get the calling of our dreams, but hopefully we can feel comfortable enough to feel like we make a difference.

  5. I’ve been stuck teaching 12-year old Sunday School for a while now, presumably because I did something horribly wrong in the pre-existence.

    There are worse things than not getting a calling.

  6. Syphax – Indeed, there are many worse things. You’ll receive no argument from me.

    Martin – I was pretty sure I was being put out to pasture when they called me to the library, which is pretty disheartening when you’re only 36.

    Sidebottom – And so the lion fell in love with the lamb.

  7. Natalie B. says:

    Thank you for this post. The extent to which I have felt connected with my ward has often depended on the calling I had — I always appreciate callings that force me to interact with people when I am new to a ward, because I wouldn’t do it otherwise.

    I’ve often thought it would be a good idea to collect more information about what kinds of callings individuals would actually like before assigning people to them. So often, talents are go unnoticed and under-utilized, or people seem to end up in callings that they really don’t want/can’t do and then nothing gets done. I can’t see how it would hurt to do more research before seeking inspiration about who to call.

  8. I have nothing really to add except that being “connected” by whatever means is a nice and often important thing.

  9. “I know it is unseemly to aspire to callings or to be dissatisfied with one’s current calling”

    No, I think people should desire to have callings where they are able to feel important. President Hinckley very clearly stated how your calling was one of the big 3 issues involved in retention.

    I was in a meeting where Elder Gene R Cook went up to every new convert and asked what there calling was. If they had no calling or were given a “junk” calling, Elder Cook would have the Bishop stand up right there in the meeting and account why the new member wasn’t given a calling that stretched them.

    I’m not saying it is easy, especially in a large ward, but people should be given calling that stretch them and make them feel important. A calling is one of the “big 3” for a reason.

  10. Natalie (7) – In our ward they do ask new members (new to the ward, not just the church) what sort of callings they prefer, what their talents are, etc. I believe they do take these talents and preferences into consideration when they give you your first calling…but I don’t know if they consider them for subsequent callings. That said, all of the callings I’ve had in this ward have been just right for me: limited responsibility and limited interaction with people. So whatever system they’re using, maybe it’s inspired.

  11. Rebecca, you certainly do sparkle in the bloggernacle!

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    I would happily go the rest of my life without a calling. That dear sister is welcome to have mine. i guess I need to move to one of those Mormon megawards.

  13. I’ve been primary president and various primary teachers, chorister and pianist. and stake yw camp director, but my most favorite calling was sunday school teacher to the 13-14 yr olds.Then a year into it, they released me, because somebody else needed a 2nd calling…..saddest part was when the kids came to me and asked why I couldn’t be their teacher….. I didn’t have a good answer, but they weren’t liking their present teacher. I’m not always sure the calling are inspired.

  14. ByTheRules says:

    The responsibilities of visiting the sick, mourning with those that mourn, being a good neighbor to those in the ward, etc, will allow just about anyone to shine. Just trying to live up to baptismal covenants is a full time job.

    My point: a “formal” calling is not needed, if you have desires to do good, you are called to the mission.

  15. I remember when I went to a BYU ward right after my mission. I was coming in on the block. The bishop asked me what kind of calling I’d like, if I got to pick. I told him I’d enjoyed teaching Sunday school before. He scratched is head and said he didn’t think there were any teaching positions open. A week later I was called as the financial clerk.

    It was ok, though. I learned a ton, and the clerk I worked with was pretty cool to learn from .

  16. a “formal” calling is not needed, if you have desires to do good, you are called to the mission.

    Indeed, you are correct. On the other hand, formal callings will often put you in positions you would never think to put yourself. If you had asked me before I was called as RS secretary if I thought I would make a good RS secretary, I would have said no. I discovered that I was capable of more than I thought possible, and not just in the pure love of Christ department. (However, even in that department I would not have discovered my potential had I not been put in a position where I was essentially forced to interact with people I would never have thought to interact with before–because, for one thing, I didn’t know they existed.)

    Certainly everyone is capable of doing good even without being told. I would not suggest otherwise. This is why I say it’s unseemly to aspire to a calling or express disappointment with our current callings (or lack thereof)–and yet, if we’re to be honest, such discontentment exists in many people, even in those who know it shouldn’t be so.

    Just so everyone’s clear, this is a post about how human beings sometimes feel, not about how they ought to feel.

    Brenda (13) – I’m quite sure not every calling is “inspired,” though that doesn’t necessarily mean the choices are bad or wrong. It is odd to be released from a calling (without requesting the release) so that someone else can have a second one. I’m sure yours is not the only case, but that doesn’t make it less odd. It’s a shame.

  17. I wish there was a way to harness abilities of the people who need callings in your ward and put them to work in mine. Maybe we could have long-distance supervisor/clerking system, or we could outsource programs and newsletters.

    Anyway–I also feel much more connected when I have an RS callings. When you are in the presidency (and I have been Enrichment counselor 4 times in the last 15 years, and I am not that kind of girl) you HAVE to know everyone and their issues, frankly. It is a different level of awareness than, say, Sunday School teacher.

    BTW, my grandmother, who lives in small-town Idaho, has been the RS Secretary for her entire adult life. I always thought that was a funny position to pick if you were going to insist on a calling (which I assume she does since I can’t imagine that 60 years of RS presidents have been inspired to call her), but maybe this was why–she felt connected.

  18. Stephanie says:

    I totally hear you, Rebecca J. You could have been my VT about this time two years ago. I loved being YW President. It’s a good fit for me, it utilizes my talents well, I feel like I am making a difference. I loved being able to leave my home without children several times a week to go be with the YW and other leaders. It just very much was a good fit.

    When DH was called into the Bishopric, I knew it meant two things for me: I’d be stuck at home by myself A LOT, and I would lose my calling as YW President and get put into cub scouts. I was right about both (although they let me hang out as YW Secretary for a little bit because the Bishop knew how devastating it all was for me).

    Being a Bishop Counselor’s wife and a cub scout leader is not a good fit for me, and I struggle to feel happy while doing it. I have to make an active effort to have positive feelings about both.

  19. StillConfused says:

    I have never understood why people place their burden of needing self fulfillment onto the Church. If she wants to shine, why doesn’t she? Why doesn’t she volunteer ANYWHERE… public library, soup kitchen, women’s shelter, etc? If she really wants to shine, why does she require that it be at church?

  20. Norbert says:

    You had me at the title.

    And just to add that keeping callings filled is a nightmare.

  21. Boy I reeeeeeally don’t envy bishops, man.

    I’ve been in a meeting with Elder Cook before, and having him call you to repentance for not giving the right callings to new members would not be fun.

    I can sympathize with this post a lot because for a while I had four callings and, though it was busy, it felt really good and I liked them all, especially EQ instructor. I had that calling for about five years and really enjoyed it. After I was released, I ended up slowly getting released from all my callings except SS teacher. I’ve done that forever, first with the 17 yr olds and now with the 13 yr olds.

    I’m feeling really uninspired right now. 12 kids in the class and they really don’t listen, especially the bishop’s kid, who I’d like to strangle.

    I think everyone goes through times where they don’t feel particularly needed or fulfilled in their ward or calling. StillConfused (#19) has a good suggestion, but with work and family responsibilities and the time we spend in church already, there can be a problem with making time for some other volunteer work. It would be nice to feel like we are needed, fulfilled and shining at church. But it’s just not going to happen all the time.

    The good thing is that no calling (or lack thereof) is forever. The people who I have talked to that get the most pleasure and fulfillment out of their callings are the ones that teach at the metro jail, or the homeless shelters or the nursing homes in our area. Those are callings you can ask for.

    I’m curious what you said to this sister, Rebecca. If you didn’t already suggest it, maybe you should tell her to talk to the bishop or one of the counselor’s about the problem. they might be really glad to hear about it and might be able to help.

  22. Why is it “unseemly” to aspire to or ask for a calling you know you would enjoy? What’s wrong with letting your bishop know how you would like to serve in the church? Do your bishop, or RS president, or EQ president a favor and let then know how you would like to serve. Let them know how you could use your talents to serve the members of your ward. Don’t spend the rest of your life in miserable callings without doing anything about it because you think God assigned you the calling you have and decided you shouldn’t have any of the callings you really want. God just doesn’t work that way. Callings are not universally inspired. God expects the leaders of his church to use their own judgement and discretion and not be commended in all things. Apparently, Elder Cook understands that. Maybe you’ll get a calling you really like and maybe you won’t but it’s always better to talk to your leaders about what you’d really like to do than to wait in quiet misery for the bishop to be inspired to offer you a calling where you can truely shine.

  23. Mary AA says:

    This post depresses me. Mostly because I’m the RS president in my ward and I go into “does someone in my ward feel this way?” mode and start thinking about what I can do, etc. But then I get kind of frustrated because, sure there are callings that aren’t fulfilling that’s true, but there are tons of opportunities to pitch in and help. For example, this week our ward is hosting homeless families in our building (we belong to a network of local churches in our town that take turns housing homeless families). There were a ton of volunteer opportunities, tons of things the ward members could have helped with — and it was like pulling teeth getting people to help. And I’m almost positive there is someone in my ward thinking the exact same thing the OP shared about the sister in her ward.

    My suggestion, if you feel underutilized, look around in your ward and see what looks like something you would enjoy, be it Activity Days, RS Meetings, Sunday School instruction, and talk to the presidents of those organizations and ask to be a volunteer, sub, what have you. I would LOVE LOVE LOVE it if some sister came to me and said, “hey, I really like planning and working on RS meetings, can I help?” Be assertive, ask someone who actually can do something about it, and pitch your ideas.

  24. #22 & 23 are great comments.

    It’s always good to look for ways to serve, though I freely admit there have been times in my life when I’ve needed to be dragged into service only to find that it’s been a great blessing. I have a close friend who volunteers for nothing, but who will fill every assignment given him, not matter how inconvenient or how difficult. It’s just his view of how things ought to be.

    I also agree that an occasional conversation with the bishop or RS president or EQP about how we’d be comfortable serving is helpful to everyone.

    I remember going to the dentist as a kid. The dentist would ask if anything hurt, and I wouldn’t tell him if it did, because I knew he’d find a cavity. I figured if he’s that good a dentist he can find the cavity on his own. Problem was, he didn’t find the cavity, and my tooth hurt for another six months until i came back and the cavity was big enough for him to find without my help.

    It’s great that the sister in the OP opened up to her Visiting Teacher. That’s a great start.

  25. I’m with Kevin. The older I get the more I would be happy without any calling. But I live in a very small ward so that isn’t really an option so I am overjoyed to have my favorite calling – youth Sunday school teacher, an I applied for it. I was in PEC when they brought up they couldn’t find anyone to teach youth Sunday school. I immediately went into my spiel about how it was the greatest calling ever, and how I would much rather being doing that than my current calling (eqp – 5 member quorum with 2 former eqp’s; it was my turn). Two weeks later the SP released me and here I am very happy with my lot.

    In the last 5 years I have been eqp, ymp, ssp, Adult ss teacher, 12-13yo ss teacher, 16-17yo ss teacher, Nursery assistant, Webelo leader, scout committee, and eq instructor. So if you really want to experience all the callings, or a specific calling move to a small ward, specifically move to mine because we could use you.

  26. If she really wants to shine, why does she require that it be at church?

    For the reason I stated in the OP: if it’s church, she HAS to do it. Anything else–even volunteering in a soup kitchen, believe it or not–is viewed by some people as a type of luxury. I could certainly write another post about this mentality, but not today.

    keeping callings filled is a nightmare

    Yes, it is–which is why it’s nice when people do what they’re asked and don’t complain about it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always result in people doing a very good job. In my case, for example, I was willing to continue serving in callings that I hated–“willing” in the technical sense, meaning that I wouldn’t ask to be released–and in one or two cases I grew to not hate them–but I was never any good at them. It’s fine if all you need is a warm body–which is all you do need sometimes!–but if you want the job well, maybe better to give it to someone else. But I do know the nightmare of keeping callings filled–that’s how I came to have experience with (nearly) every calling in RS.

    Be assertive, ask someone who actually can do something about it, and pitch your ideas.

    Great suggestion, Mary AA.

  27. Who says she HAS to do it. Church callings can be turned down. Some leaders will be less understanding than others (some will be downright mean about it so be careful) but you can always turn down a calling or asked to be released from a calling. This is also true for giving talks. Just because you’re asked doesn’t mean you have to do it.

  28. DB, you missed my point, but I’m not sure it matters anymore. What you say is correct.

  29. I’ve always been raised with the mentality that if you don’t accept a calling, no matter how much you don’t want it, you are, in effect, saying no to Heavenly Father himself. However, in the past year or so, I’ve been so overwhelmed with work, kids, extra curricular activities like leading Girl Scouts and such, that for the first time, I said I just can’t be a primary teacher right now! I did, however, volunteer to play piano for primary so they called me to that. I was pretty happy.

    However, similar to Kevin Barney, I would be absolutely satisfied if I never had a (teaching or leadership) calling again!

  30. I want to point out, in my visiting teachee’s defense–since she seems to be coming off as kind of a helpless whiner here–this particular complaint of hers was tangential to the larger issue of not feeling at home in the ward generally. (Just because the tangent stood out to me doesn’t mean it was her main point.) It’s true that you’re free to volunteer for stuff and get personal fulfillment outside of church (I mean, I hope so!), but if you feel like an outsider at church, you are going to be unhappy–especially if church is your major social outlet, as it is for many women who work as full-time caregivers–and moreover, if you really are an outsider at church, your attempts to volunteer and contribute are often met with indifference–people may even turn you down (politely). So, yes, we should all be proactive, but I can muster some sympathy for someone who’s given up on being proactive when it hasn’t yielded results. This woman and I moved into our ward at the same time, and I know that she started out with exactly the right attitude–put yourself out there, be friendly, get involved. Like I said in the OP, she has always struck me as a positive, cheerful person; it’s only just recently that I’ve realized she’s been gradually withdrawing over the last couple years (as I have, which is probably why this factoid took so long to dawn on me).

  31. When I was graduating college and struggling with whether or not I should accept a job in Utah, I met with an LDS man who was the director of a large hospital in Dallas. He said to me simply:

    “In Utah, you need the church. Everywhere else, the church needs you.”

    And while I don’t fully agree with the entire statement, there is a great deal of truthiness to it. Enough so that I chose not to take the job in Utah.

    I have served in wards both large and small and I must say, I have always enjoyed being in the small wards more. It is hard not to feel like just another needle in a stack of needles in anyone of the mega wards that you can find both inside and outside Utah. However, in a small ward, you are able to “shine” as this sister said and provide real, meaningful service.

    I remember visiting my grandmothers small branch in Canada (about 9-10 people) when I was a young deacon. Well, this branch hadn’t had a deacon in years and I was quickly recruited to pass the sacrament. I was used to passing the sacrament in my mega ward back home, but I don’t think I truly understood and appreciated the service a Deacon provides until I went to a branch where they never had one.

    All of us want to serve the Lord in whatever part of the vineyard he has for us, but who wouldn’t be disappointed serving in a spot that has already been plowed, weeded and harvested? Well, unfortunately that is what service in a mega ward feels like. Nothing boosts self esteem like being needed and nothing boosts being needed like being in a small ward or branch.

  32. #31, your last paragraph gets to what Rebecca cites in #30 about the concern of the sister in the OP, namely not fitting in. Callings are part of a tradition of inclusion, of being needed, of giving service that help us to feel a part of the larger group.

    Some are able to accomplish this on their own by volunteering here and there or just making new friends, but others (and we all have different gifts, after all), benefit from the structure that a calling gives.

    I would say, however, that even the strongest ward may have need for strong hands and willing hearts.

  33. berzerkcarrottop says:

    Rebecca, I’m curious to know what you are going to do. Will you/have you passed on to the RS pres and/or bishop that this sister is not feeling connected? Suggest maybe they start thinking of a calling for her (especially if any auxiliary is looking to be changed soon). Do you feel more connected than she does, so you can make an extra effort to include her in unofficial ward activities (dinner parties, movie nights, etc.)?

  34. Mommie Dearest says:

    The point of the OP (and reiterated in #30) is that this is not about being unhappy in a calling but rather not fitting into a social clique. What is it in Mormonthink that makes people think that a calling will solve this problem? Sometimes it can help in the solution of the problem of church members’ exclusive social behavior, and sometimes the walls of the social clique are made of solid rock and nothing will breach it except the magic password.

    I’ve lived in the same ward since my children were small and I’ve served without complaint and never been a drain on anyone’s resources, and helped in every possible way that I was in a position to. I realized early I would never have the magic password since I married outside the church to someone who is not a prospect for membership. I understand exactly what the dynamic is here since I was raised in the church with semi/inactive parents. This is not the first time I have seen this.
    All the suggestions that have been offered in the comments have likely been tried by this sister and not proved to be the solution. I know what brings a person to the point of dragging their feet outside the ward building each Sunday. It’s loneliness, not calling fatigue. It’s hard to go when you feel like the only one there who knows you deeply is the Lord.

  35. Dave P. says:

    I remember being called as the Assistant District Leader in the MTC and, while my methods weren’t perfect, I did the best I could to make sure we would abide by the rules. Some didn’t listen since I was only the “assistant” but I did get vindicated during a priesthood blessing wherein I was told I was doing the right thing.

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