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.)