The Inspired Call: Overstating the Case?

A couple of months ago, I received a new calling. I’d sufficiently recovered from certain previous callings to feel that I could yet again give church a chance and make my availability known. In many respects, I was extremely fortunate in the way that process played out. A woman I know and like had recently been called as RS president, and one Sunday I happened upon her in the foyer and explained both my willingness to serve and the limitations of my current situation. Because of circumstances involving my own health and my husband’s inactivity, I can’t fulfill a Primary or weekly teaching calling right now and probably won’t be able to for the next couple of years. So I suggested that a Relief Society committee might be appropriate.

Several weeks later a member of the bishopric asked if he could speak with me, and after we sat down in the bishop’s office and went through the conversational preliminaries, informed me that the bishopric was calling me to the Enrichment Committee. I immediately accepted, since it was precisely what I myself had just requested. The good, kind man who extended me the calling first said, “We’d like to call you to….” and then corrected himself, no doubt as he’s been instructed to, and said, “We feel inspired to call you to….”

It’s not that I have the slightest sense that the calling was flatly uninspired or in any way contrary to the will of God. But at the same time, I just wanted to laugh. It felt as if this member of the bishopric and I were playing a game, both of us reciting our well-rehearsed parts, even though of course I knew better than anyone that I’d engineered the whole thing myself, and it’s possible he knew that as well.

I do believe that callings are sometimes inspired. In the various church stewardships I’ve had over the years, I’ve occasionally known exactly who needed to occupy a particular position. Once as education counselor in an RS presidency, I knew that we needed to call a woman to teach Relief Society, and I pushed for it even though the other members of the presidency were somewhat hesitant (possibly because the woman in question was Korean-American; this was in the heart of Utah Valley more than a decade ago). After the woman was called to teach, she told us she’d been praying for a calling that would help keep her active. Similarly, when I was YW president and had to call a counselor, I found myself sitting in gospel doctrine one day behind a young couple that had just moved in and knowing that the wife was the person whose name I should give to the branch president.

But for me those experiences, beautiful as they are, are the exception rather than the rule. I’ve been involved in far more calling extensions about which I felt nothing in particular, or felt that they were simply “fine” or “acceptable,” not “imperative” or “the personal will of God that must immediately be enacted in the sixth ward.” This calling certainly falls in the first category; I studied it out in my own mind, the powers that be in my ward acquiesced. No irrefutable burning in the bosom has followed, and frankly, I think it would be a bit ungrateful and demanding of me to expect one.

On the one hand, I love it that as Mormons and Christians we reject what Weber called the disenchantment of the world. But on the other hand, the thoroughgoing enchantment of the world we Mormons and Christians sometimes assume simply trivializes God and paralyzes us with the expectation of superhuman intervention in even our minutest affairs. Some callings are inspired, many others are simply acceptable, and some few–I myself have accepted one or two–are downright disastrous. But if we insist on speaking of all callings as if they enacted the personal will of God on earth, we lay an almost unbearable burden of significance on our own inevitably human decisions. To ask to be released as the ladies’ restroom toilet-paper straightener then becomes an affront to deity.

Personally, it would be a great help to me if bishoprics and stake presidencies could get past the church-talk (saying, “We feel inspired to call you to…” regardless of the actual decision-making specifics) and be a little more candid about the degree of inspiration under which they’re operating. If the bishop or stake president genuinely feels that God very much wants me to do X, well, hey, I definitely need to know that. But if they’re just desperate to fill a slot and think I might be willing, or if the call is based on some sort of demographic calculus (infertile woman with inactive husband will represent diversity in this presidency/on this committee), I very much need to know that as well.

27 thoughts on “The Inspired Call: Overstating the Case?

  1. 1

    Our Bishop actually did that at a baptism this last Sunday. He explained to the woman being baptized that usually he sees a need and tries to get someone to fill that need. He recommended that she (because she is moving) go to her Bishop in her new ward and ask for a calling so that he can focus on her and not just on current needs. He never claimed callings were uninspired, but admitted what I’ve always assumed everyone knows: lots of callings are extended simply because there’s a primary class that needs to be taught or a piano that needs to be played.

  2. 2

    (I should add that I can’t ever recall having been told that the bishopric member felt inspired to call me to something. Which isn’t to say that he has or hasn’t–just that the formulation “I’ve been inspired . . .” isn’t, fortunately, a universal one. I agree in general with what you say, though.)

  3. 3

    I think the term “inspired” is vague enough that it can be correctly used to describe plenty of situations with varying degrees of *divine* origins. In other settings, we are perfectly comfortable using the word “inspired” without implying God’s intervention.

    For example, on a rare occation, I might feel *inspired* to, say, clean the garage. I’m not claiming that “God told me to clean it,” just that based on my own analysis, I believe it’s best for me, my family, my garage, my car, my sanity, and my bicycles that I clean the garage.

    or an architect might be inspired by existing buildings, or an artist’s painting might be inspired by earlier artists paintings… or a poem might be inspired by a tree or something, etc. Plenty of things can be the source of “inspiration.” It’s only at church that we assume “inspired” means “inspired by God.”

    I use a secular understanding of the word “inspired” at church and everything seems to make a lot more sense to me.

  4. 4

    I would beg to differ a little. Not all inspiration needs to come with burnings in the bosom, glorious senses of urgency or lightning strikes of unusual insight. Sometimes God gets our attention that way, and sometimes he gets our attention by just encouraging someone to come up and explain how things are. And then it all makes sense and seems right, because we now have the information that was missing.

    The member of the bishopric that said he was inspired may or may not have been parroting a phrase that he thought he was supposed to use, I don’t know. But I have had plenty of experiences where, after being informed by someone else about what I needed to know but didn’t know before, the solution to a need became clear and reasonable and felt right. Mind and heart knew without any big strikes of heavenly input or amazing choirs singing in my head.

    While I appreciate amazing inspirations, I also feel like it is very important that I recognize the more mundane ones. They may not be quite as spectacular, but I have had enough experience with the Holy Ghost to have to say that it is definitely involved in those too.

    I’m glad you spoke to your friend/RS president. I really appreciate it when my sisters tell me what they are thinking and the pieces of a puzzle come together with a gentle touch of the Spirit.

    Whether or not she and your bishopric member were going that route, I don’t know. Some people do not listen to the Spirit when they try to administer the gospel. But knowing that they may well have, though in a less amazing way, it would be a shame to discount it unnecessarily.

    You are right that we sometimes get the notion that every inspiration, in order to be real, needs to be urgent, specific to one’s personal destiny, life-changing, and the one and only true inspiration on the face of the earth. But that is our own fault for telling too many such stories. Most heavenly inspiration, in my experience, is less urgent and more flexibly lovely. Really, quite delightful.

  5. 5

    Eve, have you ever considered that, in this case, YOU were the one who received the inspiration to make your desires known? If that is correct, the calling certainly was inspired.

  6. 6

    Mary B, I had typed a long comment that said essentially what you said, but felt “inspired” to delete it. I had no idea why until I read your comment. Yours said it much better than mine, and mine would have been completely redundant.

    There are very mundane things that are inspired. Too often, we just don’t recognize them because of their simplicity.

  7. 7

    A bishop or a stake president should be inspired or moved by the spirit in all things to do with the church. If not he should get his house in order or step down from the position.

  8. 8

    Henry B. Erying, Conference 2002:,5232,23-1-315-23,00.html

    And so, to everyone, man or woman, girl or boy, who has been called or who will yet be, I give you my counsel. There are a few things you must come to know are true. I will try to put them in words. Only the Lord through the Holy Ghost can put them deep in your heart. Here they are:

    First, you are called of God. The Lord knows you. He knows whom He would have serve in every position in His Church. He chose you…..The person who was inspired to recommend you for this call didn’t do it because they liked you or because they needed someone to do a particular task. They prayed and felt an answer that you were the one to be called.

    The person who called you did not issue the call simply because he learned by interviewing you that you were worthy and willing to serve. He prayed to know the Lord’s will for you. It was prayer and revelation to those authorized of the Lord which brought you here. Your call is an example of a source of power unique to the Lord’s Church. Men and women are called of God by prophecy and by the laying on of hands by those God has authorized.

  9. 9

    Mundane things can be inspired, but when I was called as librarian it was presented apologetically as if we need someone to fill the slot and well, you need a calling. Actually I enjoy the calling but the approach was a let down.

    Thank you for posting this topic; it is something I have wondered about.

  10. 10

    A bishop or a stake president should be inspired or moved by the spirit in all things to do with the church. If not he should get his house in order or step down from the position.

    Hand #7, aren’t you pushing the Lord a bit much on that one? Do you really think it’s necessary for God to be involved in calling every hymn-book coordinator? The Spirit bloweth where it listeth, and all that.

    As for me, I am often just as (flattered?) honored to know that the ward needs my help and I am deemed responsible and capable enough to be able to provide it, even if the hand of God was not involved.

  11. 11

    I’m not in a position to know whether a call is deeply inspired by God or not. So, I give the Priesthood Leader the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t worry about it. His job is to make callings based on his judgment plus what ever inspiration he has received. My job is to fulfill the calling. I let him do his job, and he lets me do my job. He will be accountable to the Lord for his actions, and I will be accountable for mine.

  12. 12

    I agree with Eve in the OP.

    My wife needs an adjustment in her calling, which is really two. That was ok in the summer, but now she’s in school full-time plus working part-time, and she can do one or the other or not both (or she needs an assistant or something). I often see the bishop on the train, and I mentioned this situation to him. His response was that she should discuss it with the Primary President. His approach is to let the presidents govern theri own organizations, and he generally follows their recommendations.

    I frankly told him that I thought that was a terrific approach, and that were I in his position I think I would do something similar. And this approach has the virtue of really making the Primary and YW and RS Presidents responsible in a more significant way for the success of their own programs.

  13. 13

    My husband is the EQP and admits to not being inspired when he issues callings. I think it’s honest, he just says, “I needed someone to fill this calling, and I think you’re a good fit.”

  14. 14

    Thanks for all the comments!

    Sam B., I really like your bishop’s suggestion–that by taking the initiative the woman can shift the focus from the need to fill slots to her particular situation, what she has to offer, where she might need to be at this point in her life. A great idea.

    SingleSpeed, Mary B, and Ray all essentially (if I’m reading you correctly, and if not, please don’t hesitate to correct me) propose a broadening of the term “inspiration” to include such processes as rational analysis of a situation and the arrival at a solution–the garage is a mess, it’s time to clean it, or given her current circumstances the enrichment committee does indeed seem an appropriate place for Eve. I’m not completely averse to this broadening, and indeed, I think it can allow a more realistic and a more subtle view of God’s intervention and presence in our daily lives. There’s much to recommend this kind of divinely attuned awareness–not least of all, scriptures such as D&C 59:21.

    On the other hand, this broadening of the term inspiration isn’t without its risks, chief among them the confusion of our own thoughts and feelings with communication from God. Clearly neither every emotion nor the outcome of every reasoning process is divinely sanctioned; the counterexamples range from the trivial (I have an old friend who’s obsessive about money and who tends to think that every markdown on chew toys in the check-out line is an answer to her prayers) to the chilling (the Lafferty brothers). We’ve all known earnest, well-meaning, in some cases mentally ill people who inappropriately claim revelation based on such confusions, and sometimes they do immense harm, as when a woman informs a neighbor whose child has just been killed in an accident that her loss is God’s rebuke for choosing to work outside the home. That kind of horror story should give all religious people pause, I think.

    AE HandofGod, I’m with BinV and jessawhy on that one. It seems way too much to put on a bishop, SP, EQP, RS president–on any human being–to demand that their every decision about every aspect of their organization be inspired. There was only one perfect human being, and all of that. The rest of us are just muddling along the best we know how.

    ed, I don’t know. In some cases that’s certainly true, but again, I think it’s an awful lot to expect of a human being that his every call be inspired. Clearly in some cases there is inspiration, but I’ve now seen enough disastrous counterexamples in my own life to subscribe to the idea that calls are always inspired.

    Howard, thanks for bringing up an angle I hadn’t considered in my original post. It certainly is much more inspiring to be called of God than to be told that the ward needs an X and you need a calling, ergo, you’re the new X. I can definitely see how that kind of call would feel like a let-down.

    Allen, there’s much to recommend your approach, and I think for me it works–to a certain extent. However, I have been extended callings that turned out to be complete disasters for me, causing me months of misery, derailing my relationships with God and the church, and driving me into desperate demands to be released and periods of inactivity. Those experiences have made me want much more candid up-front assessments of the degree of inspiration involved in the callings I’m extended. For minor callings I’m fairly confident I can handle (hymnbook coordinator, committee member, toilet-paper straightener) I certainly don’t need the reassurance that the calling is God’s imperative for me at this time, or anything on that scale. But for a major calling that is going to be time-consuming and emotionally and spiritually demanding, particularly one involving administration–at which I decidedly do not excel–I really do need to know it’s the will of God. If my call was just the outcome of a slot-fitting exercise, or a demographic analysis, well then, I’m unlikely to accept in the first place, knowing now from experience the effect it’s likely to have on my spiritual well-being.

    Kevin, that sounds like an excellent approach to me!

  15. 15

    I remember feeling, the first time I served in a presidency (which was not until I was 34 years old – I was active, just not used a whole lot – with no complaints from me) that the process of making callings was not so much inspired as “organized” – and I was a little disappointed.

    Now that I have served for over 25 years in administrative callings, I know that it’s a mix of all the above situations and suggestions.

    But often in retrospect I can see the inspiration – it just wasn’t identified as such at the beginning.

    For example, I am Stake R.S. President. I wasn’t real keen on the calling but accepted it – I always do – and then felt impressed to ask for guidance in choosing counselors. A member of the stake presidency replied with the name of a sister I hardly knew when I said I wanted a single sister in the presidency.

    She has been the most wonderful counselor and I have grown to love and appreciate her. And she has been able to bring the single sisters to the forefront and it has strengthened our small stake. And she has lifted many burdens from my shoulders that had worried me when the call was extended.

    My husband then suggested that I call a younger woman who could be trained to be a ward R.S.President – so I did. And she was great -and a year later she was called to be a ward R.S. President and she’s doing a great job.

    I guess if I keep working long enough, I will figure it all out.

  16. 16

    Part of the reason the Lord put us here is to think and learn for ourselves. If we are told what to do in all things, we are being led by the nose, never growing or maturing.

    I think some callings are directly inspired. I think that others are plug-the-hole callings and it is up to us and those who call us to make them inspired by our actions.

    When the Lord gave the authority to “bind on earth”. etc., I think he trusted us to do our best, much like we do when we give our kids the key to the car. When I had to choose a secretary in a stake calling no names to mind as much as I prayed about it. FInally I asked a friend in another ward if there was anybody in his ward that liked to work with youth, but presently had no calling. He gave me a name of a mostly inactive man. I got no positive or negative feeling about it, gave the name to the SP and the man was called. He magnified his calling to such an extent that some people came to me and asked whatever inspired me to call the man. I just smiled and the said the Lord works in mysterious ways. And it is still a mystery to me, sometimes.

  17. 17

    you wrote:
    “On the other hand, this broadening of the term inspiration isn’t without its risks, chief among them the confusion of our own thoughts and feelings with communication from God. Clearly neither every emotion nor the outcome of every reasoning process is divinely sanctioned;”

    Precisely true. I, like many others, would like for my discernment of the Spirit to be more accurate than it is. Nevertheless, as the years go by, with much practice, trying it to see what happens, and loving listening, it does get easier to recognize it. And God is patient with the times I get it wrong; more patient than I am.

    I take comfort in Paul’s words that we see through a glass darkly. If it was challenging for him I can expect it to be challenging for me to be able to clearly recognize spiritual promptings and directions every time in all their varied forms and sort them out from among my self-generated thoughts and emotions. And it requires more leaps of faith as I test what I think I’ve received and more forgiveness of self when I find that I’ve confused the message.

    It’s harder this way, but it also requires more thoughtful reflection on each successive encounter with divine inspiration as I become more familiar with it. And I think that makes me learn more from it.

    And it does get easier, over the decades, to recognize the real thing, though I’ve still got a loooooong way to go and I still need to learn to trust it more.

  18. 18

    Thanks for an interesting, post, Eve.

    ed (#8), thanks from the quote from Elder Eyring. I don’t know, but that sounds pretty far out to me. He really knows that not only have all callings at all levels of the Church been inspired, but all future callings will be too? Does this include the calling of markawhy (jessawhy’s EQP husband) who freely admits to making uninspired callings? 🙂 I’m completely with Eve on this one–to claim that all callings are inspired requires that we loosen the definition of inspiration until it’s effectively meaningless.

    But Elder Eyring’s quote nicely illustrates what may have motivated Eve’s bishopric member to correct himself: the worry that if members know how often we’re called primarily based on something other than inspiration, we’ll be less likely to take our callings seriously.

  19. 19

    This is a complete tangent, but I wonder if shrouding the level of inspiration in local callings in order to preserve the illusion of equal inspiration equally dispensed is related to vagueness at the general level about what constitutes revelation.

    Okay, that’s probably too strong. I guess a better statement is that the one reminds me of the other. The vagueness of what gets to be called revelation came up, for example, in the first few comments on Kevin Barney’s Most Challenging Mormon Issues post on BCC a while back. Official Declaration 2 was based on a revelation. We’re clear about that. But since then, what is? The decision to build smaller temples? The Proclamation on the Family? The Perpetual Education Fund? The (I’m sure forthcoming) decision to reduce the 3 hour block to 2 hours? 🙂

    Anyway, as I said, just a tangential connection.

  20. 20

    As a current bishopric member I wrote a guest post about this exact thing over at VSOM. The key paragraph in that post is the last:

    Now, there are two forces at work here, 1) God determining who would best fill a need and 2) the bishopric determining who would best fill a need. It’s nice to believe God called you because you can be assured that there is a profound reason behind it. I’ll let you in on a little secret, when the bishopric calls you out of desperation, there’s also a profound reason behind it, and it’s usually probably the same as Gods: there are people who need to be served.

    It seems that most of our discussions about callings focus on us. If we were to shift that focus to the actual purpose of the callings (the service we render) then I’m not so sure we’d get as hung up on whether or not they were “inspired” or not. Ultimately, it’s all the same to God as long as we’re serving others.

  21. 21

    A bishop or a stake president should be inspired or moved by the spirit in all things to do with the church. If not he should get his house in order or step down from the position.

    If a bishop asked to be released on the grounds that he did not feel he was receiving inspiration for every single calling he issued, he would be laughed out of the stake president’s office. OK, not really, but he would be told to get over it and get back to work.

  22. 22

    It seems that most of our discussions about callings focus on us. If we were to shift that focus to the actual purpose of the callings (the service we render) then I’m not so sure we’d get as hung up on whether or not they were “inspired” or not.

    I would have to agree here. I would say a many times callings are “confirmed” by the Lord, not necessarily “inspired” by the Lord. If there isn’t a reason why one couldn’t do something, why would the Lord, or anyone else, have a problem with it.

  23. 23

    Perhaps we should accept that both things could be true: you could have asked for this calling, AND your bishopric could have felt inspired to extend that calling to you. Even if the RS president brought them the name, we need not discount the inspiration that they felt in actually agreeing and extending the calling.

    That said, I would appreciate candor in some callings–occasionally callings can be exactly the wrong thing for our lives, yet we accept because they were “inspired.” It would be better to know that they just need a warm body, so I can decline the calling that would drive me nuts.

    I was once in a branch where I was given no callings for 7 months (!) and was going crazy, so I dropped some heavy hints about needing something to do. The next week, I was called in and given an “inspired” calling–I was literally told the Lord wanted me to teach youth Sunday School–I accepted, and then I was asked my name. Maybe the inspiration was visual?

  24. 24

    I know a man who was newly called as a bishop and was determined to get strong spiritual confirmation for every decision he made in connection with the ward. He would go to the temple and meditate in the celestial room over every calling, and spend hours alone in the bishop’s office praying. After about three weeks, he decided it was about the stupidest idea he everr had.

    I also think we need to revise our definition of what inspired means. I think the entire process of a lay ministry is a stroke of inspired genius. And I think that occasionally, our leaders do receive very strong promptings, but they are often unexpected and not the result of prolonged fasting and prayer. And I also think this post was inspired.

  25. 25

    then I’m not so sure we’d get as hung up on whether or not they were “inspired” or not.

    As rank and file members of the church, I feel it our right to get hung up on whether a calling is inspired or not, or even what the source of the inspiration was.

    I’d like to give an instance to illustrate the point.

    I was extended a calling by a member of the stake presidency to be the stake computer specialist. After he extended the call, I declined on the spot. He was taken back and then emphasized to me that the stake presidency was “inspired” to extend the calling to me. I informed him that I was moving out of the stake in less than a weeks time. Our discussion quickly ended.

    Often, as members of the church, our well meaning leadership are all too willing to play the “inspiration” card when there either wasn’t any to begin with, or their source of inspiration came from somewhere other than the spirit. The rank and file, especially those raised in the church, are conditioned to always say yes, even if by doing so it would be the wrong thing to do. And when declining a calling, the leadership tends to pull out the “inspriation card” and beat us on the head with it.

    If you’re going to use revelation or inspiration as a motive for offering a call, it better well be real. I grow tired of dishonest leadership who use “inspiration” to justify their spiritual lazyness. If it’s desparation, then say so. Just don’t lie to me.

  26. 26

    Interesting points. Just to chime in as someone who does callings:

    1. I like to tell people the process we went through in issuing the calling. Usually it’s something like, ‘We had a need, and we thought about you because you seem to have the skills needed for this calling. As we thought about it and prayed about it, we felt like this was a good calling for you at this time.’ Or ‘The RS president mentioned you as someone who could do this, and after thinking about it and praying about it…’ In other words, there’s no harm in telling what ‘inpiration’ really means, and if it is something more significant, then by all means say so. But don’t pretend the magnets on the bishop’s wall get moved around like a Ouija board.

    2. This is from the Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting: Building Up a Righteous Posterity:

    Sister Tanner
    I appreciate priesthood leaders who look at family situations before they make calls. I know calls are inspired, but they also require wisdom and judgment on the part of priesthood leaders.

    So there’s a sort of ‘chicken inspiration’ from the HQ.

  27. 27

    Just started reading this blog site. A lot of open dialog here something my ward lacks. Is it even remotely possible for a bishop to be inspired in all 1-2 hundred callings they extend in a year? I think sometimes we expect so much from our leaders that we get let down. We are as inspired in our own lives as most bishops are in their role as ward leaders. We should listen to the spirit ourselves isn’t that why we were given the Holy Ghost? I have taken positions that I did not want but the spirit was there to help me feel comfortable. The times I accepted without that comfort I did a very poor job and nobody benefited. I really think the ward and I benefit more from open dialog with no whining of course. The great thing most bishops get better with this as time goes by. Once they realize it is the lords church and not theirs they grow into their own position just like the rest of us.

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