Is there a hierarchy of service?

May 2, 2011 | 26 comments
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0a-DrPlaygroundTo start out I should say that I like parks. My wife and I are raising three children (1 down, two to go) in a New York City apartment, so instead of a back yard, we have the park. But unlike the backyard, we have to escort our children to the park. So, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in parks. And how clean they are does make a difference.

But I’m not sure that cleaning the park should be our first choice for service projects.

With the call in General Conference for each Church unit to hold a day of service this year, I have to wonder about our priorities in selecting service projects. From what I’ve seen in news stories in recent months, we are cleaning a lot of parks. It seems to be one of our favorite ways to provide service.

I guess the issue that bothers me is that it sure seems like there are bigger problems and ways to offer more direct assistance to those in need than cleaning up parks.

We hear the Chinese proverb cited regularly, “Give a man a fish and he won’t starve for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he won’t starve for his entire life.” If I had to characterize cleaning the park as either “giving a fish” or “teaching a man,” I think its more like “giving a fish.”

But beyond this, isn’t there a kind of hierarchy that says that actually feeding the hungry is more important than cleaning the park?

I do recognize that finding service projects is not always trivial. Some things that could have been done in past decades (such as constructing houses, digging wells, etc.) are significantly less practical because of insurance issues and governmental regulation. It may also be more difficult to find projects that have direct beneficiaries in need because the beneficiaries may hide their need in some cases, or because their needs may be met in part by others. And some problems require ongoing, long-term commitments, which are often difficult for LDS congregations to make. In any case, it isn’t exactly trivial to find projects, and often requires a good knowledge of the community and its needs. [I'm sure there are other wrinkles that make finding projects difficult, please mention them in the comments.]

Still, I think finding recipients of our services who benefit personally is the ideal. In his address in General Conference on service projects, Elder Eyring suggested that when planning service projects we should “choose as recipients of your service people… whose needs will touch the hearts of those who will give the service.” Somehow, I have a hard time feeling like cleaning the park meets Elder Eyring’s suggested criteria.

I don’t know yet what our ward or stake will do. Like the congregations I’ve read about in the news, we have also cleaned parks in the past — perhaps even more than any other service we’ve provided. For all I know that may be what happens again this time. If so, I’ll glady participate.

And I will enjoy the cleaner park when I go there.

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26 Responses to Is there a hierarchy of service?

  1. geoffsn on May 2, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Are you kidding? These were my thoughts exactly. Our project was 2 days ago and we pulled out an invasive species of vine in a park in the middle of a rich residential area. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about LDS caring more about nature, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the main idea behind Helping Hands was to fulfill the 4th purpose of the church.

  2. CatherineWO on May 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Our stake has just signed on with other (non-LDS) churches in our area to be a partner church in the Family Promise program, helping homeless families with temporary housing, meals and job counseling. One of our neighboring stakes has been part of this program for a couple of years. It requires a long-term commitment, which can be difficult in our church because of the constant turnover in leadership, but I am excited to see it coming together.

  3. Ardis E. Parshall on May 2, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this, wishing for more fulfilling service in Relief Society. It seems like the only projects we ever do are putting together various kinds of kits for Humanitarian Services — something that anybody could do at any time, that doesn’t require any more effort from us than mere time (no skill, no preparation, no contribution of special skills or our selves). I think of those kinds of projects as akin to cleaning parks. Ditto those new micro-projects the Church is asking for help in indexing or proofreading in tiny little bits. I want to do something more, something solid, something that demands something of myself.

    On the other hand, those projects do need to be done, by somebody, sometime. I still want to do something real. Those large-scale, low-skill, low-commitment projects are still worthwhile. I just want to do something more, in addition. I’m not the kind of person who can design and initiate and accomplish the kind of project I’m longing for on my own, though.

  4. AHLDuke on May 2, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    On Saturday, our ward held a service project– to clear out OUR OWN flower beds at the local chapel. When it was announced in Elders Quorum, I had to practically staple my arms to my sides to keep from raising them to point out that when we do something that benefits no one else but ourselves (and the other wards that share our building), that is not service. If we clean the landscaping for another non-LDS church, that is service. If they come and clean our chapel, that is also service (for them). When we clean our own flower beds, thats just doing a chore.

  5. Adam Greenwood on May 2, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    You’ve inadvertently hit on the answer. The best service is of the ‘teach a man to fish’ variety, but that’s pretty hard to do, especially with 30 people on a Saturday morning. The best service looks a lot like what we call ‘hometeaching,’ which is no one’s cup of tea.

    Mass service projects may not be the tip-top themselves, but they are good preparation for disaster, I’ll bet.

  6. Jana H on May 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    @AHL

    We clean our own building and take our turn as a ward cleaning up the landscaping, but that is just part of being in our building. I don’t think anyone in our ward considers it a “service project” by any means.

    Our big Helping Hands project was cleaning up local wetlands. I didn’t mind.

    We’ve make humanitarian packages for Haiti, sack lunches for the homeless, hygiene packs/blankets/etc for women’s shelters.

    I feel like we get a wide variety of options for service. I appreciate how difficult it is to organize a service project and then get sufficient participants to make a difference.

  7. ESO on May 2, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Last year two local stakes partnered with a Presbyterian congregation on a Habitat for Humanity house. There was much moaning and groaning but I think those of us who actually participated, physically and financially, had really wonderful experiences.

    Our 2 stakes stretched to help with one house.

    That one Presbyterian congregation is in the middle of a 20 home project.

    Pretty pitiful on our part, I must say.

    I really do think that our issue with sub-par service projects is the way we schedule them. We want to do what we can en masse for a few hours on a Saturday. Any project that does not fit into that, we shrug and forget about. Hence: park clean up, or sorting cans at a food bank, yardwork, or assembling kits.

    When I was searching for RS service opportunities once, a local Hospice told me that they had a need: once a week they could use someone to come in and clean. It would have been real service to dying people and their caretakers, but I could not ignite any interest at all. It required a weekly commitment (I was willing to coordinate it, although I could not do it personally at that time given my family situation), and the real kicker (IMO)–it was service to be done in solitude. No credit. No bonding. Just actual housework outside of your house.

  8. Jax on May 2, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Great post! I have thought the same time for a LONG time, but mentioning it gets me dirty looks and a loss of fellowshipping. My branch president asked me what we could do to get a greater commitment to the gospel from our members. When I told him that asking for sacrifices is the best way I was mocked by his counselor.

    Our ‘day of service’ activity? We had 8 people interview people in the community about their life story and gave the video to the county historical society. Other than those 8 there was no request of help from other branch members. When they announced the project, they said “our day of service will be taking place from the 20-30 this month. If you want details please contact…”. They did talk to some other church who did the same things, but there wasn’t any interaction between congregations. My wife, the Public Affairs person, was told NOT to put out any press announcements about it because it might step on the historical societies toes – thus failing to fulfill the mission of the day of service which is to “bring the church out of obscurity.”

    No sacrifice from the members. No PR. No persons living standard raised. No interactiong with others…. But I think they called it a success. Anyone else skeptical?

  9. Kent Larsen on May 2, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Of course, as soon as this post went live, I discovered an article by the Brazilian author Rubem Alves, of Campinas, who wrote appreciatively of running into Mormons there caring for a park:

    It was on the first of May, May Day. The city was empty, the sky very blue. I drove in my car toward Pocinhos do Rio Verde. I found it strange that there were so many people working in the garden of Praça dos Expedicionários at the end of Rua Eduardo Lane. No, they weren’t city employees. I was curious. I stopped. I got out the car and asked. A man answered, smiling: “We are from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We decided to take a day to care for this garden…” I was shocked in joyful amazement. I wanted to hug that man. I don’t belong to their church, but I love these unknown workers. It may be that our theological ideas do not match. But who cares? We agree that gardening is a liturgical rite, a form of advertising Paradise. God is a gardener. He created the universe to plant a garden in it. I thought, there are so many religious communities in Campinas. Wouldn’t it be nice if each one took care of a public garden?

    There are wonderful trees in Campinas, trees that are worth seeing. Three of them are in the square in front of the Hospital Beneficência Portuguesa. Huge trees. I do not know what they are, because I’ve never seen similar trees. Could some agronomist or a landscaper tell me? On the central lawn of the Fazenda Santa Elisa there are three lixias, the biggest I’ve ever seen, big as old mango trees. It would be interesting if there were maps of walking tours through the trees: the flowering ipês walking tour, the purple glory tree walking tour, the flowering pata-de-vaca walking tour… Don’t the devote contritely visit the stations of Christ’s passion? Perhaps the flowering tree walking tours could be called the Stations of the Risen Christ, and be followed with joy. Looking at trees is a form of prayer.

    The praça do Castelo is sad, treeless, deserted, empty of birds and shadows. Could it have been Niemeyer’s design? Niemeyer hates trees. He loves geometric shapes, perfect because of their immovable beauty. Immovable beauty is eternal. It is not subject to change over time. Once built they last for centuries. But the price you pay for eternal form is that they are dead. Their inspiration comes from the pyramids, which are burial monuments. Have you visited the Latin America Memorial? A horror. Its interior has the immoble beauty of the tombs. I think that if he could, he would make trees of cement. We must resurrect the dead praça do Castelo. Plant trees. Palm trees, for heaven’s sake. Jamaican cherry for the love of birds. Magnolias, for love’s perfume. Shadows. Benches. Fountains… (my quick translation from portuguese. Originally published in the newspaper Corrieo Popular, 11 May 2003. Available on Alves website.)

    Perhaps cleaing the park isn’t that bad of an alternative, if it inspires that kind of reaction.

  10. Melissa B. on May 2, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Here in the Richmond, VA area, we have partnered with Caritas. Many churches participate. They offer the homeless a helping hand. For approximately a week, the homeless have a place to sleep, food provided and hygiene kits. We share the week with a Methodist Church across the street. They provide sleeping facilities, we help with food, serving the meals, shower facilities and hygiene kits, and the men in our ward volunteer to sleep over w/the homeless on certain nights. The whole ward is involved from RS & Priesthood to the YW & Primary. It’s been a great experience and the Methodist Church even invited us over to participate in a 4th of July pot luck lunch. They’ve even issued a calling to a member of our ward who prepares for Caritas. Believe me, it’s a big job! I think it’s been a very positive experience for both congregations and the community.

  11. Bryan in VA on May 2, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    Changing water to wine seems pretty low on the service hierarchy expressed here, but the Savior in his wisdon performed that miracle.

  12. Mike S on May 3, 2011 at 8:57 am

    I would change the entire missionary program to being service missionaries. We could go around the world helping people. This would include third-world countries. This would include inner-cities. This would include our own communities. This would increase interest in the Church. This would teach our youth at a young age how important it is to serve their fellowman.

    Teaching of converts could be done by members of the ward/branch with the help of the missionaries, as opposed to the other way around. This would help retention and the transition to membership.

    I have been home from my mission for 23 years. There have been between 70-100 missionaries there at a time. Look at the man-hours this represents: 85 missionaries x 65 hours/week x 52 weeks x 23 years = 6,607,900 HOURS invested. And there are the same number of members in the country now as there were 23 years ago. Now, imagine that these 6.6 MILLION hours from just one mission were devoted to TRUE service. Imagine the good that could have come from that.

    Something needs to be done. Trends in membership are not favorable. Our convert rates continue to decrease. Our “leaving” rates continue to increase. Unless these trends change somehow, in a few years we will be a stagnating Church. This comment is already getting too long, so if you are interested in seeing more detailed analysis of these numbers, I wrote about them in “Good vs Great: Iomega and General Conference Statistics”

  13. Kent Larsen on May 3, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Mike S, the analysis at “Good vs Great: Iomega and General Conference Statistics” is overblown in many cases, IMO. I followed the comments for a while, but they seem to be intent on looking at the data in the worst possible light. And much of the analysis is clearly misinterpreting or making bad assumptions.

    In addition, your attempt at hijacking this post isn’t appreciated.

  14. Martin on May 3, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    The youth from our stake and others just did a big service project building benches, filling planter boxes, and otherwise beautifying a neighborhood park where some sort of program is providing transitional housing for the homeless and others in need of aid. At first blush, I’d call it “giving a fish”, but the environment one lives in can have subtle, long-lasting effects, and it definitely touched the hearts of the kids participating. By all accounts, they really felt they created something beautiful and did some good. The amount of work to plan and pull that project off must have been enormous.

    On the same day, the rest of the stake picked up trash at beaches and parks. Not as satisfying, but it took a lot less time and was obviously much easier to plan.

    I think there’s definitely a heirarchy to service, but each step up that hierarchy requires 10 times as much effort.

  15. Mike S on May 3, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    I apologize if it seems like I was “hijacking” the post. I personally think service is more important than most other things we do on this earth, and the title of the post is what drew me here.

    I also think we have a tremendous opportunity to do true service to the world around us. We have tens of thousands of people who could do full-time service. We could dwarf the Peace Corps, for example, in what we could do. I also think it would change and permeate the culture of the Church in a good way.

    But that’s my own opinion. I suppose I’m dreaming too big for what you were looking for in your post and thought too far outside the box – so I apologize.

    (p.s. Whether or not the analysis of membership trends is “overblown” or not is obviously a matter of opinion. But it is hard to argue with the recent numbers. And it does beg the question about whether these trends are just “noise” in the data, whether they are inevitable, or whether we should actually be proactive and see if there is something we should do to potentially change them)

  16. Marie on May 3, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    The Humanitarian Aid program is now de-emphasizing assembling kits, etc (those assembled in the U.S. will now be used mainly for domestic disasters; supplies for foreign disasters will be bought and assembled closer to the site of the disaster). Having been chair of the Service Committee in previous ward and currently co-chair of my RS Humanitarian Aid Committee, I can attest to how nice these kit-assembling projects are for large groups; they are something any ward member of any skill set can participate in and they serve some of the most urgent needs in the world.

    However, I also like the change in the Humanitarian Aid program: rather than Church members focusing on humanitarian service through official Church channels, they would now like us to look for service projects in our own communities that will bless those not of our faith. This combines the elements of service and missionary work that Mike S mentions and also could help get us out of some of the service ruts we may have fallen into.

    However, the question of prioritizing whom we choose to serve is one I also think a lot about. A few years ago I arranged a ward service project at a SLC halfway house for drug-addicted women and their children. The frazzled, passionate director of the house expressed great gratitude that we had chosen to serve there because they had trouble getting volunteers from the LDS community, even during Christmastime. I was surprised and asked her why that was. She said that there were two reasons she could see: 1) confidentiality restrictions meant that volunteers couldn’t interact with those they were serving (so volunteers gravitated to institutions such as the Christmas Box House where they could read to children, etc) and 2) Mormons (and perhaps others) tend to prioritize service to those who are clearly victims (tsunami survivors, etc) over those who are perceived to have played a role in their own suffering (those who get addicted to drugs). Her assessment of the service situation in Mormon Utah hit me hard, and I hope that the Church’s new focus on serving outside the fold will help us open up our minds and hearts to the kinds of suffering that exist and be open to how God would have us prioritize our service.

  17. Struwelpeter on May 3, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Among the purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood is “give meaningful service”. The modifier answers your question. Of course, meaningfulness is a matter of degree, and I doubt any service could be found that is completely meaningless. But I have been involved in some service projects over the years that struck me as less meaningful than others.

    I was once in an English-speaking ward that shared a building with a Spanish-speaking ward. The tradition had developed that, before every English sacrament meeting, the Aaronic Priesthood would remove all Spanish hymn books from the pews and stack them on a cart, replacing them with English hymnals. The process was repeated in reverse before every Spanish sacrament meeting. The practice made little sense because there was room in the hymn book slots for both sets of hymn books. When asked why the Aaronic Priesthood should be required to engage in what looked like futility, the old guard pushed back that they needed service opportunities. I responded by noting that they needed “meaningful service” opportunities, and not busywork.

    As a Priest, I was involved in a quorum whose adult leaders pushed us to plan and carry out regular service projects. We would routinely suggest visiting Sister M, a widow, to work in her yard. After an hour of mowing and weed removal, we were assured of a delicious home-cooked meal, homemade root-beer floats, etc. We found the meals very meaningful, but probably should have spread ourselves out a bit, looking for others who had needs equal to or greater than Sister M, but were not as likely to feed us as well as she regularly did.

  18. James M. Spens on May 4, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    There truly is a heirarchy of service. To understand carefully re-read King Benjamins talk on service looking for “spiritual” service and the “wisdom” he is teaching of then also carefully look at the parable of the sheep and the goats with the idea of what is the greater level of service implied there.

  19. Barb on May 4, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Yes, it is best to give service where there can be a great deal of impact. And it is crazy that there are still starving children in the world. However, I think that we can focus efforts in ways that do good while still helping the less fortunate. I think doing service at parks ranks pretty high. After a tornado devastated a town in Nebraska near the Kansas border, the people in the town made special effort to clear the pool away quickly so that the children could enjoy the pool that summer. Then, there was the woman who collected cans to raise money to build a pool in her town. I guess its all about having a good wholesome time and creating memories.

    I think that M* had a post years ago about how giving money to local charities is much more efficient money wise than global efforts. I hope I’m not misquoting.

  20. Allisan on May 7, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Sometimes I wonder if we choose service projects that will get the most participation because they will make the least number of people uncomfortable. My general impression of church members is that the majority of us are more comfortable doing hard physical labor than actually interacting with needy people or non-members. (Especially in Utah.) Which is still good, you can do a lot of good behind the scenes this way. I’ve made baby blankets and hats for hospitals through relief society projects, and cleaned up more parks than I can count. But I agree, a bunch of cheerful, hard-working folks could make a much bigger impact in the world if they didn’t get the heebie-jeebies from people who are “different.” I applaud the wards that have the guts to venture outside of the comfort zone.

    As long as I’m not asked to hand-crochet leper bandages, as opposed to using those 30 hours of my life to buy some really nice manufactured bandages to donate… I’m a happy camper. Anyone else had to do the leper bandage thing?? I have yet to hear a sound explanation for that one.

  21. Marie on May 7, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Allisan — The Church Humanitarian Aid no longer accepts hand-knitted leper bandages now that they have developed a machine to make them to the exact specifications required. They formerly asked for hand-knitted bandages because they needed specific dimensions, breathability, fiber for leprous sores and there was no commercially available bandage that fit those precise specifications. If you know of something I can do with my final (half-finished) leper bandage…. :)

    The busywork Humanitarian aid projects that bug me are hand-coloring games for kids. A color printer could do it both cheaper and faster (and the printer wouldn’t make the bazillion mistakes that chatting Mormons make while trying to make friends and do charity at the same time :)

  22. Allisan on May 7, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Marie – thanks for the follow-up! I’m really happy to hear they have machines making them now, anyone who wanted something made to specific dimensions has no business asking *me* to crochet it for them, that’s for sure. I seem to remember mine being so crooked, they told me they probably couldn’t even use it!

  23. J.A.T. on May 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Marie,
    I’m fascinated to hear about your specific callings and charity work (in the SLC area). I’ve never seen an equivalent out here in the ‘mission field’. You stated:

    “However, I also like the change in the Humanitarian Aid program: rather than Church members focusing on humanitarian service through official Church channels, they would now like us to look for service projects in our own communities that will bless those not of our faith. This combines the elements of service and missionary work that Mike S mentions and also could help get us out of some of the service ruts we may have fallen into.”

    So, then if I have a limited amount of resources (time and money) am I supposed to use it all on projects by myself in my local area as opposed to sending it to LDS humanitarian aid? 70/30? 50/50? 20/80? What do they want? I’ve been in RS for 15+ years and can count less than four valid service projects we’ve done as a group. (Most of which were cleaning up homes or parks.) I went around and around about this on FMH or BCC a few months ago in a thread about the relevance of RS. Not wanting to threadjack or re-hash.

    Yes, service is wonderful and there is a place for all acts of service, big and small, cumulative and individual. I just puzzle about the scriputral statements recounting the purpose of the church- why Christ organized it, why it was restored and why we do things together in organized religion as opposed to being transcendentalists. Why did God give us this amazing restored church to accomplish so very much if we are instead encouraged to do our charity work by ourselves? If we are being asked to do our alms-giving and service privately and individually, then doesn’t that take away from the relevance of the “Relief Society”, humanitarian aid, PEF, the church as a vehicle of organized charity? If I can do it myself, then what difference does it make whether I donate to my local university or to the PEF, to the Red Cross or Humanitarian Aid, to the Shriners or Children’s Primary? The church isn’t making a case for getting people together and motivated under its banner.

    What is the church saying?

    A) ‘We can’t do local charity very well, but we’re great at the big stuff. Give to us for the big stuff like disaster recovery and national famines and do the local stuff yourself’.

    B) ‘Shotgun approach! Give everywhere! Red Cross, Ronald McDonald, local park, girl scouts, Shriners, save the whales, etc. King Ben said just don’t burn out. Give as directed by the spirit. If your local stuff requires $100 and we only get $0.10, we’re cool with that.’

    C) ‘We’re moving away from humanitarian aid ourselves. Let’s all give to the red cross’.

    D) Every man for himself. Look around you. Find something to do. Do it. Don’t wait for us. We’ve taught you the principle, now hop to it! We’re building temples right now.

  24. Marie on May 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    J.A.T. — Short answer: Group service projects are not being discouraged, nor is the Church’s Humanitarian Aid project being scaled back. I must not have been clear in my comments.

    I was referring to service (not money). The Church is not scaling back its Humanitarian efforts — just changing how they ask Church members (particularly those in Utah) to participate in them. They are actually requesting *more* donations to the Church’s Humanitarian aid. This will enable them to buy supplies for foreign disasters locally, rather than assembling and stockpiling them in Utah and having the expense and lag time of transporting them around the world. I don’t know if they will eventually have Church-owned storehouses throughout the world or just a storehouse of funds that enable them to purchase goods for far-off disasters in places closer to the crisis.

    And for the time being the service-and-stockpile model is still in place for disasters that happen closer to Utah. But taking away the opportunity to donate goods for — and prepare for shipment — supplies for far-away disasters means service directors in Utah wards don’t have that easy fall-back option in such abundance when planning group service projects. Lately if you try making an appointment to bring a group to serve at the Humanitarian Aid center in SLC you’ll probably have to schedule it months in advance. They are simply scaling back that form of service through Church channels because it makes sense in increasing our overall effectiveness and efficiency in helping the world’s poor.

  25. Marie on May 11, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Clarification: When I said “more donations to the Church’s Humanitarian aid” I meant money donations.

  26. Marie on May 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    J.A.T. — Sorry! Another clarification. When I referred in my initial comment to humanitarian service “through official Church channels” I meant service within the Church’s official Humanitarian service institutions — NOT ward service projects. The Church is now encouraging ward service projects to focus more on serving local needs with an emphasis on those in need who are not of our faith. So we would be supporting service endeavors of other groups and churches, but of course always with emphasis on real needs (maybe let the LDS widow’s grandson cut her lawn, if she has a grandson :) I’ve been looking at our local 2-1-1 volunteer website as a possible source of non-LDS service opportunities for ward groups to participate in. It’s more than just cleaning parks. :)

    Again, the Church’s worldwide Humanitarian aid project is still very much in force, but currently with a greater emphasis on monetary support than on donated goods and time.