How your calling can save your life but make you depressed?

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.


  1. I’m involved in a lot of charity volunteering, burn-out is the result of bad management, both organizationally and personally. Big differences can be made with small efforts and it is very rewarding. These are efficient choices. For example, when my mother passed away she left behind a dozen pair of reading glasses. I sent them to the amazon with a friend who passed them out and together we changed 12 lives! They were used for reading and bead stringing by older women. I sponsor a South African AIDS orphan, it’s deducted from my account monthly and costs very little and I attend their fund raisers. I talk to people about clean water for third world villages and they write a check. Etc., etc. Lives can be changed with very little work.

    I’ve also cleaned chapels, it feels more like work and returns far less, I know someone has to do it so we have a clean place to meet but there is a difference, a very big difference. Slinging your time at brick wall or empty hole can be depressing.

  2. Thanks, Howard. I have no doubt you are right but your examples do not really jive with what it means to serve in the church — unless you believe we should be paying for someone to clean the chapel (actually, I agree, as long as it is a local member).

    With that said, cleaning the chapel is a very good example of what I am talking about. It is a form of giving that serves everyone but which can also feel unappreciated because it does not involve interacting with another person directly. Moreover, it almost invisible to everyone else who does not assist that week. My argument is that being able to find God in this type of effort while being sensitive to how we are blessed by that same kind of service is one way to avoid feeling ‘depressed’.

  3. Aaron R,
    I agree with your comment and I think you’re characterized it well. Much church related service involves direct interaction and that is usually the most fulfilling for all involved and God’s presence is often easily felt but others are more abstract and removed for example we rarely see the direct benefit of our humanitarian aid contributions. Personally I find it difficult to encounter God during building cleaning but I don’t doubt others do.

  4. Howard: “Personally I find it difficult to encounter God during building cleaning.”

    Me too, hence this post.

  5. When I was RS President in our very high-needs ward, I am sure I deflected any blessings coming my way due to my oft-times bad attitude and complaining. I definitely experienced burnout and sometimes even felt bitterness towards our church for how much it takes us to be a part of it. And then I’d subsequently feel guilt (especially in terms of temple covenants). Ugh–Mormon guilt!

    When I was in graduate school my dh and I lived in a small town in Italy for a year. The branch was small, hurting for active members and Priesthood holders, and that year it was as if we were serving a second mission. We did not experience church/volunteer burnout that year and loved our experience. I think this is due to the fact that 1) we did not have too many external obligations (ex. children), and 2) we did experience much of the immediate feedback that you talk about, Aaron. We could see very easily how our efforts helped strengthen our little LDS branch (for the short-term).

  6. Amen! My husband and I have been in nursery for the past year, and while we love the kids, it’s been really “depressing.” Our primary leadership is not very organized or supportive, which makes it difficult for our efforts to be effective. Additionally, the only people in our ward who know our names are age 3 or under. Even the EQP (whose son is in our class) thought my husband was inactive.

    That being said, our experience would be completely different if we felt our efforts were appreciated, or even acknowledged.

  7. I don’t feel much of God while cleaning our bathrooms at home either (though I did once while peeling potatoes. It kind of depends on where your thoughts are, not what you are doing) but if my home isn’t clean it feels less friendly to the spirit, it seems to me. If no one cleaned the church building for a couple of months I think you would notice the same thing. Trash cans overflowing with candy wrappers are hardly reverent. If nothing else some poor soul has the responcibility of seeing that the building is cleaned every week, find joy in helping him or her. I can tell you he appreciates your help more than you realize.

  8. I think learning to be like God is learning to serve and give when it isn’t reciprocated, or felt, or appreciation returned. I think we can feel joy in this the more pure in heart that we are.

  9. I don’t don’t know if there’s a superlative form of service. All of it matters.

  10. Molly Bennion says:

    We sometimes treat volunteer church service as though it were not volunteer, as though our religion requires any service anyone may ask of us. We forget please and thank you because we assume the server just has to do it. That’s neither true nor productive. We should be using the basics of leading any volunteer organization, including showing appreciation, being respectful of people’s time (don’t waste it in unnecessary meetings or tasks), encouraging initiative and creativity, and facilitating the breaks everyone needs for other responsibilities or for rest.
    But on the subject of gratitude, that often has to come from leaders and coworkers. The people we serve sometimes express only more wants and needs. To cope with that, I find it useful to think that I am making a choice to try to be a giving sort of person rather than to see myself a functionary with no choice. Choice is important.

  11. whizzbang says:

    I am the ward mission leader. Right now we have a sister missionary that is honestly a pain to deal with. She has a very high standard for herself and expects others to follow her lead. She has been out for 14 months and about as many companions. She has flipped out and yelled at correlation mtgs and she calls me a lot crying about well, nothing. A few weeks ago she was in the kitchen crying that one of her investigators wasn’t keeping the sabbath day holy. She wasn’t bawling but yikes. She thinks the ward and me are her servants. I had to shut her down nicely seevral times. The Bishop in my ward is on a very steep learning curve and has no real social skills. Despite getting training on how to run a meeting it’s still about as effective as a pig on stilts. I HATE getting calls from him or the sister in question. sometimes I feel like I am thrown back into jr. High dealing with missionaries petty problems and immaturity. I have told the Mission and Stake President all this but they have other things to deal with and sometimes I think the Stake Pres. just doesn’t plain old care, which is fine. I have been doing this calling for 2 years and have been on the ward council continuously since 2006 and I am burned out.

    my 70 plus yr old Mum is in primary and has been for 7 years and she is burned out. Sometime ago she had to break up a fight between 2 11 yr old girls and she shouldn’t have to manhandle to unruly girls at her age. but our stake is the STP principle all over the place and people get released and they split.

  12. This is a great post, Aaron. I really appreciated your next-to-last paragraph. (I was going to say “penultimate,” but I didn’t know if I could pull it off.) It’s something I hadn’t thought of before, or at least not in that way. We sort of take for granted that a ward is going to function, when the truth is, considering that the leadership is comprised of a bunch of amateurs who’ve been drafted, it’s kind of a miracle that it does. I will remember that the next time I am cleaning the windows at the church building.

  13. Amen to Molly’s comment that we sometimes forget that everyone at church is a volunteer. I loved that my RS favorite pres did not make *assignments* for visiting teaching, but instead asked if a change would be welcome. Even if someone is a committed member of the church does not mean they have to accept everything that is asked.
    Once I got a phone call from a president of a YSA stake asking if a calling for my husband to serve in leadership would be welcome. I said no, without further comment. I did not want to tell him of our very challenging family circumstances at that time. I’m so grateful he did not issue a call.

  14. Corrina, thank you for sharing your experience. When I have served in small wards I have felt the same.

    Ann, regarding peeling the potatoes, Kate H recently wrote a very thoughtful post on this topic at Peculiar People.

    JTB, while I do not entirely disagree with the sentiment it seems to me that salvation and divinity are shared with others (even contingent upon them). Hence, seeing how we are served by others will cultivate a particular type of community that will be different from one where we praise those who serve regardless of whether they are served. The latter will tend toward an atomistic-individualism where we others around might become less visible.

    Molly, that is a very important component of this conversation. Thank you for contributing.

    whizzbang, that sounds like a very difficult situation and I hope you find a resolution soon.

    RJ, thanks — you’re right, it is a little bit of a miracle.

    JP, very recently our SP visited us discussed with the us how, if a call was extended, this responsibility would effect our family. I very much appreciated the opportunity to talk about this before they eventually formally asked us to serve.

  15. We live several hours from the temple and always try to get there on our wedding anniversary ( as well as other times) but one year we couldn’t. To make it worse it wad our week to clean the chapel and that was the only day we coyld do it. At first cleaning the chapel on that day I was a bit annoyed. Then I remembered one of the reasons they started getting members to clean the chapels was to be able to afford the new temples. I realised that as much as I wasn’t serving in the temple that day, my service in cleaning the chapel was allowing many other people to. It has changed my attitude since. Every time we do it we make it fun and as a FHE with a major treat afterwards. Kids love it now.

  16. In our area it is the member’s responcibility to clean the temple. This is a sought after priviledge. Each ward does it for a month. It has been 6 years since we were able to clean and ward members still speak of how special it was to be able to help clean the Lord’s house.

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