I recently wrote this profile on the topic "Service in the Mormon Church" for my writing class at school.
Service in the Mormon Church - July, 2008
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, is unique in many ways. From its American founding to its doctrine as a restoration of the original church of Jesus Christ, one of the most unique characteristics of the Mormon Church can be easily observed on any given Sunday. The characteristic of which I refer to is its organization comprised of a lay ministry, that is, a voluntary ministry performed by members both young and old; members who have no formal training and may serve in very different capacities throughout their lives. In the words of Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at Virginia's Richmond University, "The value of [this] system is that it prevents religion from ever becoming a spectator sport. One doesn't go to church to be ministered to, but to minister. And since we tend to love those people and institutions we invest in, lay service forges powerful bonds of interdependency and unity," (LDS.org, 2008). As a member of the Mormon Church, I have observed and experienced first-hand the practice of serving in a Mormon congregation and am currently in a transitional period of moving from one function to another.
From the earliest time I can remember, baptism into the Mormon Church was expected of me when I reached eight years old. This baptism included making covenants that I would obey God's commandments and try to serve him. Very early on I observed what that service to God entails. Members of my family were given jobs to do in the Ward, the basic Mormon congregation, such as visiting the homes of other members to share a Gospel message or serving as a Bishop, the head of the Ward. Jobs, or "callings" as they are known, range from passing the Sacrament to organizing Primary to playing the organ. There are jobs that require enormous amount of time and sacrifice, and jobs that require very little time and sacrifice. I observed that all of these callings were filled by people I knew. They were my neighbors and my friends' parents. My first calling came when I turned twelve years old and I was set apart to pass the Sacrament and collect Fast Offerings for the poor. (Fast Offerings are donations made when a member fasts, equal to the amount he would have spent on meals, used to help those who haven't the means to feed themselves.) Eventually I was put in charge of blessing the Sacrament, as were my friends. All the while I was being taught that I was expected to one day serve a mission in a far away place for two years. Members can serve either a proselytizing mission when they are adults or a service mission when they are retired. They are unpaid and even require that the missionaries provide for themselves. Every calling in the Mormon Church is voluntary, my own callings not excepting.
Three years ago my wife and I moved into our current Ward and were expecting a child. After six months, my Bishop felt he knew me well enough to ask me to be President of the Young Men program. The young men range from ages 12 to 17 and the duties of the president are many. I was required to prepare Sunday instruction, weekly activities, Scout camp-outs, and trips to the Temple to perform temple ordinances. I had never held a big calling before and I felt overwhelmed with everything I would have to do. I was nervous and worried that I would fail. I soon started a new job and began going to school. With a new baby boy and new responsibilities, my family would have to sacrifice in order for me to succeed at fulfilling my new obligation. But like any calling given in the Mormon Church, I had the support I would need from my presidency, my Bishopric, and my wife. It was a time that I learned valuable skills in managing my life. And I am grateful for the opportunity I have had the last two and half years to serve the young men of my Ward and watch them grow. However, every calling must come to an end so that others have a chance to serve. My end has come as President of the Young Men, but my beginning is here as an Adult Gospel Doctrine instructor.
That calling I have now accepted is not one that will come easy to me. And like two and half years ago, I feel overwhelmed and nervous at the prospect of standing in front of forty or more of fellow Ward members, most if not all of them older than me, and teaching them Gospel doctrine. I feel like a little child standing at the base of a high cliff, expected to climb to the top. This calling will help me to "forge powerful bonds," as did my last, with those who I am serving. This is the great strength of the Mormon Church's lay ministry. Just like within the Ward, there are other areas in the Mormon Church that require volunteer service.
The Mormon Church builds temples and the primary function of temples is the performing of ordinances for ourselves and for those who came before us. We are required to trace our family lines and stand in as proxy for our ancestors for temple ordinances. The Mormon Church also deploys members for world-wide humanitarian needs and disaster relief. Of all the volunteer functions performed and callings served, few members receive a living allowance. These are members of the highest governing bodies of the church who are called to serve until the end of their lives. Every other calling is served voluntarily during times other than when the member is working to provide for his or her family.
Service in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints means voluntary work in a number of different callings throughout one's life. It is a chance to learn valuable skills, strengthen relationships, give service to others, and spiritually grow into a better person, able to handle all of life's trials. In the words of M. Russell Ballard, a member of the second highest governing body of the Church, the Quorum of the Twelve of Apostles, "[A lay ministry] means we have been charged to watch over one another and to serve one another… Our callings and circumstances change from time to time, providing us with different and unique opportunities to serve and to grow. Most of the leaders and teachers in the Church are anxiously engaged in fulfilling their responsibilities. Some are less effective than others—it is true; but almost always there is sincere effort to provide meaningful gospel service," (Ensign, Nov. 2006)