Here is a story about when I tried to do everything right but ended up doing everything wrong.
I had just moved into the ward and been made Elders Quorum President. I got my first call from the Bishop while I was mowing my lawn. “There is a man named Daniel staying at the Scotsman Motel in Martinsburg,” he said. “He is a member of the Church who just got out of a group home in Hagerstown. You just need to drive him over to the homeless shelter on Washington.”
As it turned out, though, there was more to do. At least I thought so. Daniel was homeless, and, in my judgment, incapable of taking care of himself. He had serious physical and mental challenges: he was diabetic, weighted nearly 400 pounds, and functioned about on the level of a twelve-year-old child. He was the least of these my brethren, and I was supposed to do unto him.
So I took Daniel to the homeless shelter, but there was no room at that inn. I took him to the hospital, which only bought a few days, as he was soon released. I paid for him to stay in a hotel until I could figure something out. I let him call me, any time, and when he did I drove the twelve miles from Shepherdstown to Martinsburg and got him whatever he needed.
For about two weeks, Daniel was the only thing in my life. I left work early almost every day. I neglected my family. I felt that this was a test of my moral fitness—the real, rubber-hitting-the-road, mourn-with-those-who-mourn test of whether or not I was fit for Zion.
And I accomplished a lot—much more than I ever thought possible. In just two weeks, I managed to get Daniel approved for Medicaid and food stamps (both had to be shifted from Maryland to West Virginia). I found him an apartment in a subsidized housing project. I got him enrolled in a day-long, special-needs program. I even bought him a television set. I fixed all of his problems because he needed me and I took the Gospel seriously.
Except that I didn’t fix anything. Everything I set up fell apart within two days. He got in a fight in his program and was kicked out. He lost his apartment because he kept pressing the emergency call alarm for no reason. He got arrested in the park for using drugs. And he left town, two weeks and one day after arriving; I don’t know where he went.
And I was a failure. My best was not good enough. I couldn’t help him, and I resented him for what he took from me. And I hated myself for resenting him. And then I resented him for making me hate myself for resenting him. And for the next two years, I was a completely ineffective Elders Quorum President because my main goal was not to care about anybody ever again.
In the intervening years, I have talked to a lot of professionally trained counsellors about Daniel: my own therapist, members of our social work faculty, my friends who are Catholic priests. They all told me the same thing: I made every mistake in the book. I got too close. I failed to establish boundaries. I did for him what he should have done for himself. I let his needs control my life. This is the stuff you learn in the first semester of any social work or counselling program.
And as I have talked with people of other faiths about this, they have all asked the same question: don’t you have any basic pastoral training before you start a job like that? It turns out that pastoral ministry is a thing. You can get a degree in it. In fact, in my current job as an administrator at a Catholic university, I supervise a bachelor’s degree program in just this subject. Students take courses in theology, but they also take courses in counselling taught by professional counsellors. They learn what social workers learn their first semester.
I see a great need for something this in the LDS Church too. Unlike most religious organizations, we are run entirely by unpaid, and untrained, volunteers. This is good. It gives opportunities to grow into the responsibilities that we assume. But it is also true that Latter-day Saints serving in Relief Societies, Elders Quorums, and Bishoprics have serious—and sometimes very heavy—pastoral responsibilities. Some very smart people have worked out broadly recognized principles for doing this kind of work. They could never replace inspired religious judgment, but they could give inspiration a lot more to work with.
An eight- or sixteen- week course in pastoral counselling would not have empowered me to solve all of Daniel’s problems. But it would have helped me not create more. It could have saved my family great pain, and it might have prevented this two-week incident from rendering me virtually incapable of future service. It would have taken my desire to do good and supplemented it with the knowledge to do well.