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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