When we moved to Jonesboro, I found myself called into the elder’s quorum presidency, which is the first time I’ve ever served in any kind of executive capacity in the church. (Being a district leader in the mission doesn’t count.) I served with two elder’s quorum presidents, and found myself seeing church service, and the economics and politics of running a ward, from what was for me an entirely new and somewhat fascinating angle. But all experiences must come to an end, and when our elder’s quorum president was called into the just-reconstituted bishopric, I was released. After floating free for about a month, I was returned to what is, surely, my natural habitat.
Since getting married and escaping the perpetual near-farce which is the essence of practically all single-adult/student wards, Melissa and I have routinely been labeled Primary people, and we’re happy for it. Over the last eleven years, I’ve served in the nursery and taught the Sunbeams, the eight-year-olds and the ten-year-olds; Melissa has played the piano for Primary, been in a Primary presidency, and taught the Sunbeams, as well as served in the nursery. Right now, she’s the Primary music conductor, and I’m taking over the eleven-year-olds. Between the two of us, less than four of our combined twenty-two years of church service as a married couple have been outside the Primary.
Why the Primary? Well, I can’t account for Melissa; it just may be that her particular style tends to attract the interest of other Primary people before it does that of the (in our experience usually somewhat more cliqueish) Relief Society or (especially) Young Women, and so they grab her first. As for me, it’s not hard to figure out. For starters, I’m a male who is good with children; I interact with them well, don’t lose my cool with screaming kids, volunteer for Primary activities and nursery duty during conferences. That leaves me a marked man. Moreover, while few people will admit it openly, it isn’t difficult to discern a subtle (and, I should note, not necessarily unreasonable) prejudice at work in how priesthood and Sunday School assignments are handed out in the typical ward (though obviously, there are exceptions). In order to successfully teach Gospel Doctrine, or take on executive responsibilities in one or another quorum, it is generally assumed that a certain level of education, professional attainment and church experience are required. If you randomly picked two perfectly active and orthodox males in the average American ward, and one of them turned out to be a doctor, businessman or banker, and wore clothes and carried themselves as one would expect such a person to do, and the other turned out to be, say, a janitor, garbage-collector, or volunteer clown at the nursing home, and dressed and acted as you might expect such a person to do, well, frankly, I could lay pretty good odds as to which one of them might be a high priest group leader and which one might be Scoutmaster, and so could you. As I commented parenthetically above, to the extent that this prejudice exists, it’s not necessarily an unreasonable one. By and large, we assume that certain callings are more “important”–or at least “high profile”–than others, and putting someone who has just a slightly greater chance of turning out to be a flake in such callings is something every bishop wants to avoid. Again, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule: I’m an inconsistent tie-wearer with a mediocre home-teaching record who teaches philosophy in a mostly blue-collar ward and who makes, when called upon, some occasionally irresponsible statements in elder’s quorum meeting; it’s probably a miracle that I was in the presidency as long as I was. But now I’m back in Primary, where everyone assumes I’m a good fit anyway.
And they’re right–I am. I like Primary, but not just because I like singing and playing games and kids. I like it also because I really believe it’s worth doing. As I’ve mentioned before, as vital as congregational association is, I’m not especially certain that any particular set of meetings, aside from the worship service when we take the sacrament, actually matters. But if any meetings do matter, then clearly, Primary is included on that (probably rather short) list. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come realize that my father was/is right about just about everything important (of course, I’ve also come to realize that there are relatively few things that are important), and one of the lessons he taught me had to do with Primary. He’s been a Bishop and served in a stake presidency, and he once told me he couldn’t understand why there seemed to be this presumption, or even competition, to get the best, most responsible, most orthodox, most accomplished, most experienced people called to teach or serve their fellow adults. “When you get right down to it, generally most of us don’t need those people,” was his comment (I’m paraphrasing him). “If your Relief Society instructors are all obsessive, irresponsible, uninformed, crazy women, well, most of the sisters in Relief Society will still do just fine anyway. And if not, it’s hard to say that having the prophet’s sister-in-law be their Compassionate Service instructor would make any difference. But the children, on the other hand, really need the best people. Convince them that church is worth taking seriously, and they’ll remember it when they get older and temptation and trials come. But allow them to believe that church consists of listening to a bunch of unprepared, weak-testimony people who can’t answer their questions, and they’ll never take it seriously.”
Yeah! Take that, Mr. Ward Mission Leader! I’m off to teach the Valiants.