A Call(ing) for Cooperative Leadership, Part I
It’s summer, which in my Boston-area ward means that on any given Sunday about a third of the ward is on vacation. The handful of families who were moving out have already left, and their replacements are trickling in. We don’t know yet how many new families we’ll have by September, but I’m betting on at least two young couples showing up unannounced over Labor Day weekend (hey, it’s a big college town). It’s an exciting time, the only period of transition we really get in my super-stable, super-active, super-smart congregation, and I’m relishing it.
I’m also scheming, because I’m in the Relief Society presidency and we just lost a teacher.
A month ago we were having a presidency meeting around my dining room table (which also serves as my desk, the table where I lay out quilts, my children’s repository for all things needing to be mended, and the general mail inbox), and we had a collective spiritual experience. We’d been tossing out names for a replacement teacher, and none of them felt right. Then I mentioned a name. One by one the other women said, “Yeah. Yeah. She’d be great.” We all looked at each other. This was the best we’d ever felt about a calling. The president said, “I’ll call the bishop tonight. This is perfect.”
The answer was no. (Feel free to add an “of course” here if you deem it appropriate.) We eventually asked for someone else who’s going to be just as awesome, and the bishop said fine, and he’ll get around to extending the call when he’s back from vacation and things have settled down somewhat. But the thing is, I’ve been stewing about it.
And then, in the middle of my stewing, I got inundated with links to Neylan McBaine’s talk from last week’s FAIR conference. (If you haven’t read it yet, trust me, you really really want to.) It’s a smart, thoughtful talk from a woman who spends a significant percentage of her time around the general Church leadership, and though I’d love to sit down with her and argue some points, I think she really gets it. Plus, she speaks the same marketing/PR language that I do, so I think she’s awesome. Among other things, she points out that the Church’s leadership model isn’t actually hierarchical, even though we often see it that way. Instead, it’s a cooperative model where leaders are really servants, and we all have different stewardship, and everyone ends up taking a turn. (See? I said you really want to read it.)
I’ve been mulling this talk over for about a week now, and I woke up this morning thinking, “What would our process of calling women to serve in Relief Society callings, or Young Women callings, or Primary callings—what would that look like if we were really practicing cooperative leadership?”
It seems to me that part of that would mean giving auxiliary and quorum leaders full responsibilities over their own staffing. Instead of creating more work for the bishopric, our Relief Society presidency (made up of four capable adult women) should be able to call teachers, assign women to committees, and ask someone to play the piano for our meetings. And that the same should go for the Elders Quorum, and the Primary, and the Young Men…you get the idea.
It used to be that way, of course. My mother is in possession of a letter that her great-great-aunt received from a Relief Society leader of the time, thanking her for accepting a call to serve in one of the society’s large-scale humanitarian projects. It’s clear to me that this calling didn’t go through a bishop or a stake president—the scale is too large, and the spheres of influence at the time too separate. (Also, the thank-you is a bit too personal for something mediated by an outside authority.) But somewhere along the line, local bishops became responsible for extending every calling made in each ward, on top of everything else they were doing: looking out for families who needed help, counseling with members who were having a hard time, interviewing everyone for temple recommends, ensuring that the financial and membership records were all shipshape, and wearing the Santa Claus suit at the ward Christmas party.
I see many good things in the correlation process that dominated the mid-twentieth century. They’re chiefly things that have allowed the Church to grow internationally: mitigating the most expensive building projects by sharing the load for them throughout the Church; allowing rapid, high-quality translation of written materials; forcing us economically into a we’re-all-in-this-together Zion mentality that we’re loath to take upon ourselves as individuals or small groups. But as organizations within the Church have lost their autonomy to call their own teachers and committees, the effect of the good we’re doing gets diluted. If it takes three months to call a Sunbeam teacher because it’s gotten stuck in the middle of the bishop’s already long to-do list, don’t we already have built into our religious structure a way to streamline that process?
There are a few reasons to run callings by the bishop before they’re extended, and they’re good ones. First, he may know something about someone’s ability to fill a certain role that the rest of us don’t. That’s valid. (Of course, there are cases where the presidency of the auxiliary knows details that the bishop doesn’t know, and that’s valid too.) Second, the bishop is responsible for the whole ward, and he may have multiple organizations asking for the same person. But these are reasons to do a courtesy heads-up, not to pass the buck. In fact, I think it’s a great agenda item for ward council—it makes a lot of sense to talk about how to staff an entire ward with, well, all of the leaders in the ward.
So here’s my question. What would it look like in the Church if callings came from the president of an auxiliary or a quorum instead of going through the bishop? Would it carry less weight? Would we feel that our service was less acceptable?
My best guess is that we’d be fine. We might even trust our auxiliary and quorum leaders a little more, as we get used to acknowledging that quorum and auxiliary leaders receive revelation for the organizations that are in their care and stewardship. Handing the power to make callings back to the leaders of the organizations that need to be staffed shows that we trust those leaders and that we are okay with them having authority. We’d be more nimble as an organization—faster to respond to crises, more effective at filling empty holes, maybe even better at applying the gospel to the specific needs in our wards. As Joseph Smith instructed the founding members of the Nauvoo Relief Society, “If any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c. are among us.” That’s almost a heady amount of responsibility in the Church as it is today, but this is God’s work. It’s a huge, important, daunting, humbling, critical responsibility.
And if there’s a mistake somewhere? If someone gets asked to do more than one thing? We’re grown-ups. What’s so wrong with someone accepting a calling and then having to tell subsequent people, “I’m sorry, I can’t teach Sunday School this year. I’ve already been asked to play piano for the Primary”? It seems to me that the “I should never turn down a calling” mantra is setting good people up for some significant temporal and spiritual burnout. What if we trusted them instead to ask God and to say yes to the callings that had been spiritually confirmed in their hearts? What if we empowered them to say no to the ones that simply make them feel panicked, confused, and overburdened?
What do you think about a cooperative leadership model? And specifically, should auxiliaries and quorums be able to extend callings, as long as they’re coordinated with the ward council and the bishop approves?