A friend of mine suggested a few months ago that ward Elder’s Quorums should stop helping members move. Why, he asks, should we be competing with businesses in our area?
After discussing this with him, I understand his viewpoint. Our local units provide a lot of services, often for free and not for charitable purposes, in direct competition to for-profit businesses. My friend argues that if we allowed the businesses to perform these services, they would be strengthened, perhaps hire more people, and the economy would also be strengthened. Even if purchasing services from a business doesn’t mean more jobs, presumably the business can do the job more efficiently and with less risk than the Elder’s Quorum volunteers who move people once or twice a year instead of every day.
Oddly enough, that is exactly what we practice when it comes to many professional services. When Church members need medical attention, we send them out to doctors and hospitals. Likewise for lawyers and many other services where there is either a legal prohibition against those who aren’t qualified performing the service, or the service is technical in nature in a way that keeps most non-professionals from knowing how to do the job.
In other cases, we have developed the expectation that certain services will be provided to the Church free-of-charge. Music is an excellent example–some professional musicians are conflicted with the idea that the Church expects them to perform regularly for free, while other denominations pay for the same services. Its not that they aren’t willing to share of their time, talents and blessings with the Church, its that it is often hard to see where the line is between making a normal, useful contribution and being taken advantage of. Performing a few times a year in Sacrament meeting is one thing, repeatedly being asked to provide entertainment at ward or stake social activities is another.
What is particularly troubling to me is that the overall effect of our current practice is to support higher-income professionals over unskilled labor. If you are a doctor or a lawyer, local Chuch units can refer clients to you and will pay for your services. But if you are a house painter, a ward or stake is more likely to call for volunteers, and do the job itself.
Now, I don’t meant to suggest that I have bought into this logic completely. The history of the Church shows a completely different motivation for these activities, even if the economic logic is somewhat persuasive.
A lot of Mormonism’s roots lie in its communitarian past, where the community did large jobs (the proverbial barn raising as well as some harvesting) together. These jobs were done not just to benefit individuals, but to benefit the community. Communities didn’t just perform these services with a quid-pro-quo expectation that everyone would benefit equally. There was also an understanding that a strong neighbor, when there were few around, was something that you needed. This communitarian ideal also extended to quasi-governmental projects, like constructing community bridges and dams and other public works when formal governments were either weak or non-existent.
Today Mormonism has maintained certain parts of that ideal, and I think moving families is a good example. There is a quid pro quo going on here, at least in many cases, justifying assistance even to those who don’t need it. Other times we help in order to make stronger members of our wards and stakes — stronger members of our community.
In this latter sense, even paying for someone else to do the work won’t accomplish the goal. When you pay for a service for me, it can create a distance, a sense that because you have enough money to pay for something that you are somehow better than I am. When you come into my life and help me to do the service for myself, the message is more one of how much you care and how much you want me to be part of the community.
Since service is often a part of the welfare program, it is probably no surprise that economic dilemmas appear here also. I know of two active LDS families that are having financial difficulties. In one case, I suspect (but don’t know) that the family is receiving financial help from their ward’s welfare funds. In the other case the family is having to relocate, and the Bishop has sought donations from the ward on their behalf.
Of course, there is no real reason to expect that these families would be treated equally. Their circumstances are different and the amount that they need and the kind of things they need is different. But in the U.S. culture today, there is a kind of expectation of equality, and when one is treated publicly better than another–when donations are sought on behalf of one and not of another–others in the ward who are also deserving or think that they are deserving, might feel excluded.
Complicating all this is the magnitude of the current economic woes. Wards that are used to handling a handful of welfare cases now have 10% and 25% of the ward with economic difficulties. Where most wards are used to working with members on a case-by-case basis, putting most or all of the ward’s available effort into a single case, now that is not really feasible. Let me extend this idea to the example in Bishop Richard C. Edgley’s wonderful conference address, This is Your Phone Call. It is possible, as he suggested there, to help a single member in the ward start a business (the story of Phil and Phil’s Auto, 9th paragraph in the talk). But what about when there are a dozen men in Phil’s situation? How many wards have the resources to help start a dozen business, or find jobs for 10% of the ward?
Even the fast offerings collected by the Church must get taxed in economic times like this. On a strict monetary basis, the fast offerings only cover food at a 1:44 ratio (if I donate the cost of two meals each month as a fast offering, this only pays for 1/44th of the meals another ward member might need during the month). So once the number of needy pass about 2% of the members of a ward, the need is for more than what the “cost of two meals” formula would provide.
I’m not suggesting that the Church’s welfare program isn’t up to the task at hand. I am suggesting that some practical and economic thinking in our wards and stakes needs to happen to maximize the effect of the resources we have available. We might start by giving very generous fast offerings. And then we might take a look at how and why we use the resources of our wards the way we do, and figure out where the line is between a useful, communal activity, hopefully something that also helps those in need, on one side, and an economically constructive way of helping, on another side, and activities we should really pay for, or not do at all, because they are neither service nor welfare.