I've been thinking on a thing that happened last week in church. It was one of those things where a presumably well-intentioned person made me feel very uncomfortable with his actions. While I choose to believe that was not his goal, the result was the same. Because of that experience, my thoughts are going in several directions and I'm hoping that putting it into words can help me focus my thoughts in a way that makes sense.
First, the story. We had a Sunday School lesson last week and the teacher asked us to break into small groups to discuss certain aspects of the lesson. Now, this is a thing that is often encouraged in teachers' manuals to invite participation from people who may not feel comfortable sharing thoughts in a large group. However, my experience of this format is that it is almost always less comfortable than a regular full class discussion. That is a personal preference, though, so I'm not here to criticize that teaching method.
While I was tempted to flee the minute we received the assignment, I'm really trying to be more engaged in lessons, so I turned my chair around to listen to the group. In my group were a couple of guys I have met but don't really know, and my friend who feels largely the same way I do about the format described above. One of the guys in the group, who I will call B, was wanting to encourage everyone to participate. Several times throughout the discussion, he would call on me or my friend to ask for our thoughts. Now, neither of us had anything particular to add to the discussion and neither of us was particularly interested in adding to it. And, on multiple occasions one or both of us declined his invitation to speak.
At various points, the small groups were called together to share our discussions with the larger group. Knowing this was coming, we were instructed to select a spokesperson for the group. B thought it would be a good idea to ask me to fill that role. I said no. He insisted that I had volunteered and I very clearly and in no uncertain terms stated my position that I would not be doing that and if I was called on, I would not speak. When the time came for our group, B called on me, despite my previous position. So I said No Thank You very loudly, and just let the awkward silence make everyone uncomfortable until B gave in and spoke for the group.
This put me in a very awkward position of holding my ground in front of a large group or caving to his pressure. I found it very upsetting that he would ignore my solid No in this situation and I felt very angry at him. At that point, I refused to participate at all in the conversations. B also ignored the No from my friend. After the meeting, both of us expressed frustration. There were a few points where we might have wanted to add to the conversation, but B's behavior led to both of us being unwilling to give any ground to him.
This situation highlights some obvious concerns with B in particular with regard to his behavior around consent, but I choose to believe he was trying to make sure we felt included. And I don't deny that my own stubbornness played a part in this going the wrong way. The more he pushed, the more I felt I had to stand my ground.
However, I would like to set aside the concerning behavior of this specific incident and think about behavior that we sometimes engage in with the best of intentions that can sometimes do more harm than good.
In my church, we are frequently encouraged to reach out to those in our congregations that might feel lonely or unwelcome and attempt to make them feel more comfortable. In my ward, we have a whole committee whose assignment is to fulfill that role. I think this effort can be very helpful for some people in making them feel welcome and wanted within the church. However, without the correct intention behind the actions, it can very easily feel phony and is often short-lived. It is easy for a person to tell the difference between someone fulfilling an assignment and someone who genuinely wants to get to know them.
It is important that my meaning is clear with respect to these assignments and efforts. I have experienced the benefit of being welcomed by people who genuinely wanted to have me in the congregation. Even though it was a role assigned to them, I could feel the love from them, the interest in me and my life, the earnest desire that I felt welcomed and comfortable to return. It is possible to develop this genuine desire for friendship with new people who attend with us, as I have felt that love from both sides of that interaction.
However, it can be damaging when someone feels like the interest stems not from the pure love of Christ but from a desire to check off an assignment.
Likewise, we should be cautious in how we encourage participation in lessons, in callings, in any kind of church service. We never know what someone is going through, what experiences led them to walk in the door that day, what challenges popped up their lives that week. There are Sundays where it took all the force of will I possess to get myself in the door, and I have no energy left to give comments in class.
Some of us battle severe social anxiety, so pressure to speak or pray or comment publicly can send us into a panic. Some of us are working on repenting and have been asked not to participate. It is up to each one of us to bring what we have to the table of Christ and we should be able to offer our widows mites without pressure or judgment from our peers.
Just as important is that we all do our best to follow the spirit in how we serve one another. Sometimes, the right path is to encourage those around us to participate more. Other times, our role is to allow people to absorb what they can without pressure. We are all on our own journeys, and all we can give is our best. That level will be different from day to day and week to week. Each of us will be asked to serve differently. Let's make sure we focus on our own service efforts, and not judge when someone else chooses to serve differently. We don't know their journeys.
In the New Testament, Luke 10: 38-42 Jesus enters Martha's house, and Martha and Mary are listening and learning from the Savior. At some point, Martha gets up to see about the meals and take care of the house, etc. and she is "cumbered about with much serving." She gets upset because Mary is not helping, "And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."
This passage is often used to say that Mary is better than Martha because she was focused on spiritual learning while Martha was concerned with temporal service to the Savior. But I see Martha serving the Lord in the way that she was able, and Mary doing the same. One is not superior to the other; both are necessary. But they each had something different to focus on for them at that time.
I am also reminded of a story I heard in a general conference talk, although I couldn't find it tonight to link in. It is a story of a visiting teach visit, where a woman was very busy with several small children, a messy house, and significant work to do. Her visiting teachers made an appointment and stopped by at the appointed time, sat down on the couch and proceeded to deliver the visiting teaching message from the church magazine.
These visiting teachers were doing their assignment as they understood it. They were attempting to fill their role by visiting this woman and bringing a spiritual message. It is likely they brought a delicious snack along as well.
But, it wasn't the help the woman needed at that moment. She probably would have preferred no visit at all over having these well-meaning ladies take precious time out of her day that she couldn't afford to lose. They were serving, but not in the way she needed to be served.
None of this post is intended to judge any other person. Not the well-intentioned but misguided visiting teachers, not Mary or Martha, not even participation B from my Sunday School lesson. All of us, including them, are doing the best they can. I don't know what they have happening in their lives that made them serve in that way and not a different way.
My point is that we don't know that about anyone, and we are left to do our best and follow the spirit as we try to serve our neighbors and our God. If you don't have the capacity to serve or to be served, that's ok. Its ok to decline to be the group spokesperson. Its ok to say I can't do that assignment today. And if someone says no to you, let's assume they are giving their best right now.
Instead of worrying about someone else's service, let's focus inward. Am I serving the way someone else needs to be served? Am I seeking the guidance of the Holy Ghost on how best to serve or to love or to fulfill an assignment? How can I improve my own service or my own capacity to serve in the future?
If love and charity are the driving forces behind our service, I think we can make our way to becoming like Christ; just expect a long journey. We won't always be perfect and sometimes we will do it wrong. When that happens, we can acknowledge our failure and repent and do better next time. At the end of the day, that's the best any of us can do.
Let me know your thoughts on this and any other ideas you want to hear from me about in the comments.