Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

When should Mormons say no to a church calling?

Mette Ivie Harrison

A few years ago I was called to be the ward Relief Society President. (If you think YOU’RE shocked . . .) I was excited to receive this calling, but I wound up saying no three days later.

Why? My mom had just been diagnosed with cancer, and even though the early reports from her doctors were reasonably positive, I had a very bad feeling about it. I wanted my life to be as unencumbered as possible so that if I needed to, I could drop everything to go be with my mom.

I said no to the calling, and my bishop was absolutely lovely about it. The following week, my mom started having double vision and collapsed in a restaurant, which began the incredibly fast sequence of her decline. I left for my hometown the day I got the news. She died one month later.

I’ve never regretted refusing that calling, because I would have made a lousy RS president during that period of my life. But I did feel that old Mormon guilt about saying no (thank you, Boyd K. Packer).

So I was particularly glad to receive this wonderful guest post from our regular contributor Mette Harrison. She’s so on target here. Such common sense. In the end, each of us ought to know, individually, what the Spirit wants for our lives and service — and be ready to follow that prompting even if it flies in the face of custom or the “unwritten order of things.” — JKR

A guest post by Mette Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison

I received a calling a number of years ago when I was in a deep depression. I was frankly suicidal and explained to the bishop that I didn’t think I could manage to serve in this calling considering my mental health.

He encouraged me to accept it anyway, assured me that God wanted me to have this calling, and said that he would personally ensure that I didn’t kill myself because he would be prompted by God and come to rescue me, even if it was the middle of the night.

This bishop was someone that I genuinely feel was ordained of God, who had the spirit with him most of the time, and who had done some pretty wonderful things for our family. But he might have been wrong about this calling for me. I had already prayed about it and had been given the impression that God understood why I was turning it down and accepted that choice.

I think that the bishop seriously underestimated how depressed I was (partly because I wasn’t doing the typical female thing of weeping). He also likely overestimated his own ability to rescue me.

Luckily, I survived the calling. But it was a close shave, in my opinion. I spent a lot of hours fantasizing about killing myself, particularly on Sundays during church and afterward. I tried to get out of the calling when the bishopric changed, but it was nearly impossible because I felt I was going to end up hurting the feelings of those who had not seen my needs and that I was criticizing the leadership as a whole if I wanted out.

Ever since then, it’s a bit of a trigger to me when I hear lessons about how Mormons should always accept a calling. What I really want to hear someone enumerate out loud are the reasons that it would be acceptable—even necessary—to say no to a calling.

Look, I know as well as anyone that we need people to serve. With our lay clergy, Mormons have a lot of empty callings at any given moment and the more there are empty, the more difficult it is for the institution to function. Sometimes it honestly doesn’t matter if we’re good at the calling; we just need a body to fill the space. But it shouldn’t be assigned to someone who is going to be harmed by accepting the calling.

Here are six reasons that you should probably turn a calling down:

  1. You have family/marital problems that the bishopric is unaware of.
  2. You are suffering from a newly diagnosed mental illness.
  3. You are suffering from a previously diagnosed mental illness that you don’t have control of yet.
  4. You are dealing with severe doubts about the church, God, or the mission of Joseph Smith. A calling might help you deal with those things, but it also might not. It depends on the calling and on your unique situation.
  5. You have a criminal history that the bishopric doesn’t know about that would compromise your ability to serve in this calling.
  6. You have prayed about the calling for yourself and have received an answer that it isn’t the right one for you at this time.

And here are six reasons you probably shouldn’t turn a calling down (even though you may wish to):

  1. You don’t feel adequate to it. I really believe God helps us grow in callings.
  2. You don’t have time in your busy schedule to accommodate this calling. I believe that we are blessed in service and that if our lives are really that busy, part of that blessing might be becoming less busy.
  3. You have a disability or even a mental illness that is under control. I think the church as a whole needs to see people with differing abilities and challenges in callings.
  4. You need more help with your current responsibilities. While this is a legitimate issue for concern and you should ask your bishop to give you concrete solutions before you agree to the calling, it doesn’t follow that you should simply refuse the calling just because you need help.
  5. You don’t like or respect the people you have been asked to serve with. I can’t tell you how many times I have suddenly understood another person’s point of view or found an unexpected love for them when we were serving together under Christ’s yoke.
  6. You feel like you aren’t finished learning/serving/growing in the calling you currently have. I don’t think any of us ever feel like we are finished with the calling we have.

The truth is, we can all probably do a better job with the callings we are asked to serve in. We should be praying on a regular basis to be inspired to help those we are serving. We should be magnifying our callings and letting our callings magnify us. But in the infrequent cases when we truly can’t accept a calling, we should also feel less pressure about telling our leaders no and feeling good about ourselves and our willingness to serve if we could, and our ability to feel the Spirit speaking clearly to us even when those around us aren’t hearing the same thing.


Check out three other great posts by Mette Harrison, author of the bestselling mystery novel The Bishop’s Wife:

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • As someone who has extended many callings, sometimes people feel even more pressure to accept because the calling is extended 10 minutes before Sacrament meeting is to begin, and the assumption is that the person should be sustained immediately!

    Yet these examples are right on target! Sufficient time should be allowed for extending and accepting callings so that leaders can counsel with members about the call.

    I could add an additional reason that perhaps could go in either category – financial concerns. At one point, when money was very tight, we were concerned about our ability to purchase food and supplies for activities, even knowing that we would be reimbursed later. I’ve known others being called to the Relief Society Presidency that were concerned that on their Social Security income, they couldn’t afford gas money for all the visits they would need to make. Both concerns can be soothed through understanding and loving counsel with the leader extending the call.

  • I’ve both received and extended more than a few calling in my 45+ years as a adult convert to the LDS faith. I have never turned down a calling, but I have explained my situation to the person(s) extending the call a couple of times encouraging them to pray again about the calling while I also did so. In both cases the calling was withdrawn before I received spiritual confirmation that I should accept the call.

    In extending calling I have checked for worthiness and extenuating circumstances before extending the calling. That is simply part of the procedure in my experiences. Callings need to come from the Lord and not just the person extending it. The Lord requires us to do our homework (see D&C 9:8, etc) and to respect the moral agency of the individual being called.

  • I’ve only turned down one or two callings in my 64 years.

    Shortly after moving to my present location (27 years ago), the bishop asked if I would be willing to be the scoutmaster. I said no. I am a teacher in a very small town, and I told him the kids didn’t want to see all day then at night too. He withdrew the calling.

    Forward two years, different bishop, same ward. I’m the Exec Sec or Ward Clerk. He asks me to be scoutmaster. I give the prior excuse, but he insists. I work very hard at it, with the result predicted above. After 1 year I’m released. On my advice next SCM serves for nearly 10 years. Activity skyrockets.

    Same ward, new bishop. Calls me to be Cubmaster. My kids, all girls, are in their 30s. I serve for 3 1/2 years, do my best, but do not enjoy the calling.

    In each case, these callings were about desperation, not inspiration, and the bishops admitted as much.

  • I have had similar experiences as those shared except I was a divorced mom of two girls. I was a teacher of junior high kids and was busy making sure my girls had life experiences. I turned down a calling to the primary because I couldn’t face another group of children every week. When my girls were grown I was the Laurel leader twice. The second time I asked to be released because I remembered my Laurel leader and what an example she was to me and I felt that the “grandma” point of view had been worn out. Fortunately, in my ward of the bishoprics have been sensitive to my needs as well as those of the ward. I’ve been the ward activity leader, a RS teacher and even served in the RS presidency. I have been blessed by the callings, but I have also been prompted to say no or ask for a release. I am a child of God and deserve personal revelation, too.

  • I said no to a calling once because I couldn’t emotionally handle it. It was a bad time in my life, right after my divorce with my first wife. The following week I was asked to enter a room where they set me apart, with me telling them that I wouldn’t be doing the calling. It was very odd, they acted like a puppet had come to life or something. I apologized to the person over me, who had not extended the call or been in the room. He said he understood, but later told me that they had informed him that they wouldn’t call someone else, as I was already in the position. So, sometimes saying no doesn’t work anyway.

  • Those lists seem to be good guides. I think that it is important to discuss your reasoning with the person extending the calling so they can know why you are refusing. I have never refused a calling, but I could see legitimate reasons for doing so. I have definitely felt overwhelmed by callings in the past and have felt God’s help in fulfilling them. Exercising faith when a calling seems difficult has really strengthened my testimony. Sometimes I haven’t done a great job at fulfilling callings. I always figure that if they needed to they could release and replace me, or if there isn’t anyone else than even partially completing the calling is better than nothing.

  • There will be plenty of other people to ring doorbells and spread the word; if your mother is sick, the commandment of “honor thy father and mother” might well take precedence over the join in culture of the “calling”

  • Mixed feelings on this article – the two lists are excellent (when should I, when shouldn’t I). I especially appreciate how personal revelation does (and should) be requisite for acceptance to serve a calling. Every Bishop / SP should genuinely seek feedback from the potential office holder as part of the calling process.

    On the other hand, I would ask how any of this can’t be chalked up to the simple understanding that leaders aren’t *always* inspired when they make callings? Are any of us actually surprised (disappointed?) to hear that some callings aren’t necessarily the best idea?

    When we expect perfection from our ecclesiastical leaders, it’s only a short time until disappointment and even anger become actors on our stage.

  • I liked this one: “I really believe God helps us grow in callings.”

    Also, this one: “I think the church as a whole needs to see people with differing abilities and challenges in callings.”

    So much is dependent on circumstances including the nature of the calling itself that generalizations are difficult. The above will hold up.

  • So, you turned down two callings. It took maneuvering, and possibly some time, but you did. Why not just accept that you took personal and highly appropriate responsibility for your choices, rather than feeling like you have to create such an extensive justification? I feel our church puts great pressure on members and creates this need to look like you are conforming, all the while forcing you to take emotionally draining, convoluted measures to avoid facing your real self.

  • P.S. Actually, I’ve explained my situation to the person(s) extending the call probably 5 or 6 times encouraging them to pray again about the calling while I also did so. More often than not, as I prayed about the calling the assurance that I should accept it came and I served to the best of my ability. The two incidents I discussed above were exceptions to the general rule. Further, usually I feel the Spiritual whispering of confirmation while the calling is being extended. 😉

  • Here’s my list of don’ts.

    Don’t ask me to work with children. I do that five days a week and I need a break.

    Don’t ask me to teach anything. I do that five days a week and I need a break.

    Don’t ask me to talk to people. I do that five days a week and I need a break.

    If they can find a job that works with my don’ts than bring it on. So far I’ve been left alone and loving it.

  • Simple, whenever you know it’s not right for you. People over complicate it by imbuing aspects of “inspiration”, “god’s will”, and the like into the situation. Malarkey. The God who allows hundreds of decapitations in the Middle East just to mention one current set of atrocities cares who the assistant nursery leader is? Absurd. There is an organizational ethos in the church of “wearing oneself out for the lord”, that is incredibly self serving for the organization but not so great for the person. Just remember, like most corporations, the church is happy to take everything you have to give. Personally, I determined a year ago to no longer trade my todays for the promise of VIP treatment after I die.