Among the unique aspects of the Mormon Church is the institution of a lay clergy. With the exception of a few leaders at the very top of the church’s hierarchy, almost all leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are lay clergy, without professional training or salary. I am unaware of any other Christian denomination¹ that relies so heavily on its rank and file to perform the functions necessary for worship and administration. I understand that certain early Methodist congregations would sometimes appoint a lay minister, who would receive some leadership training and ride in a circuit, preaching to different congregations; this is very similar to the Mormon tradition during the mid 1800’s. But in modern times the Mormon Church is relatively unique in this respect.²
What this means for a practicing Mormon is that he or she will almost always have some sort of church responsibility, usually referred to as “callings.” Per the recommendation of Mormon Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, even new members of the faith soon have duties commensurate with their level of experience or ability. Some of these callings involve practical necessities, such as cleaning a meeting house or helping disabled congregation members around the house. However, most callings involve an element of overseeing the spiritual well-being of other parishioners. For example, most active members of a Mormon congregation can expect to be called on to teach a Sunday School lesson or give a talk during Sunday services, as well as looking out for the needs of several other individuals or families in the congregation.
Sometimes I feel jealous of people who go to other churches, especially if I have to wake up for early Sunday meetings. My evangelical friends are very active in their congregations, and yet they don’t seem to spend so much time doing church things. On top of the standard three hours of Sunday services, many Mormons can expect meetings during the week, youth activities on weekends, and performing and receiving visits as part of the “home teaching” program of the church. Depending on one’s calling, Sunday may not be quite as relaxing as the label “Day of Rest” would seem to suggest.
I recently moved and changed congregations, necessitating my “release” from the calling I had been in charge of. Because my responsibility had been fairly time-consuming, I suddenly found myself with more time on my hands. And while I’ve appreciated the extra hours, I also miss taking part in the functions of the congregation. Though I may be jealous of my friends in other churches, I don’t actually want to give up the participatory nature of Mormon religion. It has its down sides, but it certainly helps me be less selfish and more inclined to help other people. I’m sure that things could be done much more effectively with a professional clergy, but that probably wouldn’t help me as much personally.
It’s only a matter of time before I am given a new calling in my new congregation. It might be to teach a Sunday School class or to pick up hymnals after meetings or to help members of the congregation find or upgrade their employment. Whatever the assignment, I’ll once again be part of the machinery that makes each congregation run. And as much as I would like to have a leisurely Sunday, it’s a part of my life that I need. It isn’t a perfect system, but hey, we’re not perfect people.
1. The question of whether Mormonism is a Christian sect is another topic entirely. However, for the purposes of this discussion, let us loosely define “Christian” as any denomination that identifies with the Christian tradition.
2. I know Buddhism involves the laity in certain roles, but given Buddhism’s lack of rigid hierarchy, I think the comparison is only approximate.