Our language often gets in the way of understanding and implementing the gospel. Words that have been passed down to us from generations gone before can confuse us and cause us to stumble. Perhaps in the day of their first use their connotation or context would lend listeners to feel more fully the spirit, but in today’s world and work they fail us.
“Assignment” is one of those words. I’m running into the idea that “we are a church of assignments” more frequently than I used to. Perhaps it is because I have been challenging myself to learn to become a better leader in the church setting, or perhaps it’s just because the topic of agency has been on my mind lately so I’m recognizing it more. Either way, there is something about the way that phrase is used that seems to contradict the Lord’s gospel of loving persuasion and his pattern of consistent personal invitations.
The reasoning behind our “church of assignments” has been that the Lord cannot do his work on volunteerism alone. The Lord can do his work however he wants to. But that aside, I really get that point. We’ve all seen how that plays out. It’s the end of the lesson and you ask for someone to say the prayer. Crickets. Then you either say it yourself or that one person who always volunteers says it. You ask for volunteers to show up to help clean out someone’s garage. Only the same three people show up to every service project. Or cleaning the church. Or bringing food to an activity. Or putting away the chairs after a meeting.
There is a problem with strict volunteerism in an organization, but it’s not what we think it is. Most complaints against volunteerism revolve around the inadequacy of agency, that if we left everyone to their own devices nothing would get done. While on the surface that might be an accurate description of what is seen, it is fundamentally flawed. There is nothing inadequate about agency. There is nothing lacking in the premise that we all can and must choose for ourselves. The entire plan of salvation rests squarely on agency and it’s unique ability to bring us to perfection.
The real problem with volunteerism is that there is little to no connection. There is no unity, nothing which draws us together in Christ. There is a task presented and someone arbitrarily steps into it. Often those who volunteer are those who have had experience with the task before and feel up to it. And we treat them that way. We don’t support or sustain a volunteer as readily as someone who we feel might be out of their league a bit. It doesn’t lend itself to stretching the soul or perfecting the saints, for those that volunteer or for those that ask for volunteers.
I’m not talking about our own choices to volunteer. Certainly there is much to be gained from that experience. Choosing to walk into a refining fire, or even just choosing to help out with something you know how to do well, definitely has value and can be rewarding. And I’m not talking about announcements of general needs when appropriate. In some settings, letting people know there is a situation that could use some attention or prayers is all that is required. I’m just saying that from a leadership perspective, only asking for volunteers when there is a job that must be done may lack a few important ingredients to facilitating the types of meaningful moments which are possible in church service.
So what’s the answer? Assignments, apparently. Let’s just remove all doubt and tell someone what they are supposed to do. Then we don’t have any awkward silences and the job will get done. Right? Anyone who has experienced a leadership calling knows that assignments don’t always work. And anyone who has ever been assigned a task know that there’s something missing in that engagement. I, for one, am one who really loves to step up to a challenge and see what I can do with it, but if you tell me what I’m supposed to do it loses all of its savor. Without the option of saying no am I really saying yes?
And then there are those who don’t love being surprised by a challenge, especially not publicly. The assignment becomes a stumbling block. They feel unprepared and maybe even offended. Perhaps they’ve been asked by the Bishop to not say prayers in groups at church, and now your assignment put them in a really tight place. Perhaps they’re going through a super rough time with their family and your assignment places undue burden on them and their loved ones, because they’ve been taught to never turn down an assignment at church. Perhaps they say yes, but just can’t give it their all because their faith is struggling. They needed to council with someone but didn’t feel they could because an assignment was given and an obligation established. From here, you get a completed job, but also perhaps a little shame or resentment.
This is not the Savior’s way. There is no task, no checklist, no objective which overrides the importance and dignity of the individual. The one lamb is precious to the Shepherd. In all things, the Lord’s charity is the guiding influence. It is the very essence of his priesthood. Persuasion, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned.
Asking for volunteers and making assignments both fall short of the Lord’s way of ministering to God’s children. Callings are extended and we choose ourselves. Members are presented and we choose to sustain. The choice to sustain is presented before anyone is ever set apart. The Lord’s church operates on the law of common consent. Agency is forever held inviolate. There is a way to organize and govern which is not volunteerism or by way of assignment. There is another word, which has been used more and more frequently among the leaders of the church, and which embodies the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It embraces our divine agency, promotes connection and sustaining support, and ensures whatever needs to be done will be done in the Lord’s timing. This word is “invitation”.
I know that may seem a little obvious, but when we really look at the way we do things in the church, are we inviting the way the Savior invites? Is each invitation a manifestation of our personal ministry to the one? Is it extended with love and in such a way that a yes or a no can be given without any coercion? Do we then follow through and fully support those who have accepted the invitation, whatever it may be, that they may know that our faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death? Are they personal, meaningful, authentic, and sincere invitations to learn, serve, and progress together and as a member of the body of Christ?
Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you. (Alma 5:33)
Now, when I encounter a job that must be done and for which I have a stewardship to find a way for it to be completed, I try to remember to invite the way the Savior did. Come, follow me. Walk with me. Experiment with this. And I prepare myself to support that invitation with all of my heart.
Behold my Spirit is upon you, wherefore all thy words will I justify; and the mountains shall flee before you, and the rivers shall turn from their course; and thou shalt abide in me, and I in you; therefore walk with me. (Moses 6:34)
And I will extended personal invitations.
Behold, thou art Nephi… (Helaman 10:6)
Behold, thou art Joseph… (Doctrine and Covenants 3:9)
Thou art Peter… (Matthew 16:18)
There are many personal invitations in the scriptures, many examples of the personal ministry the Lord and his servants have. He knows us, and his calls are to us directly. He is fully prepared to sustain us and support us throughout the entirety of the call should we choose to accept it. And he really hopes we will. His is an invitation that will bring us closer to exaltation. Our invitations might also bring ourselves and others closer to exaltation if we follow his example, and lead not by coercion, passive generalities, or abrupt assignments, but by faith, hope, and charity. Minister, by personal invitation.