Some Callings are More Equal than Others

We’ve talked before about callings and authority; I’d like to talk here about something closely associated with the previous discussion, but which also has a peculiar dynamic all its own: callings and skill.

I been called to many different positions over my adult life, but one area of service I have never had a single calling to is music. I’ve never been asked to play the piano, lead the choir, conduct the hymns, or run singing time in the primary. Why? Because I can’t do any of those things. I can’t play the piano, can’t read music, and have a poor singing voice. In short, I have no skills in that area. Only those who possess these skills are called to serve in these capacities. (Emergencies where the piano player doesn’t show up to the baptism and some poor elder has to lead the group in an acappella rendition of a hymn don’t count.) Ok, yes, I did lead the nursery kids in song when I was a nursery worker. But generally speaking, I have never known of a true exception to this rule.

As a recent thread has made clear, this dynamic does not hold for teaching; we do not necessarily call only those with teaching skills to teach. I’m a professional teacher; I’m probably not a world-class one (that would be Jim), but I do know I can do a better job than many of those who all too frequently simply alternate between monotone readings from the manual and endless strings of embarrassing non sequiturs. Moreover, everyone else knows it too. And yet there is no expectation that I will always, or even usually, be given teaching callings. Why don’t music callings work that way? Why aren’t we told, for example, that if we don’t feel the Spirit during a musical number, it’s because we didn’t listen with appropriate gratitude, the same way we are reminded that a failure to feel the Spirit during a lesson is a reflection upon our poor participation, not the teacher’s poor presentation? For that matter, we have teacher development programs; why not music development programs? In short, why does “excellence” (or “genius,” to refer back to Jim’s original post) raise its head in one area, but not another? I can think of several possibilities right off the bat: perhaps the act of teaching is considered to be more spiritually valuable than musical performance, and therefore more important to spread around equally. Or perhaps teaching is considered (falsely, in my view) easier to master than music, so (unlike playing prelude music) it is assumed that anyone can figure out how to teach a class in fairly short order. Or perhaps we simply, on some level, have decided that sitting through a crappy priesthood lesson is acceptable, but listening to a crappy sacrament hymn is not. All of these make sense; none however, as far as I can tell, entirely dispel the slight incoherence and inequality attached to our assessments of different callings.

Are there any other areas of church service where this dynamic plays a role? I have no love for math, no knowledge of spreadsheet programs, little facility with data and minimal experience with balancing checkbooks (Melissa does that in our family). Does this mean that I shouldn’t ever expect to be called to be ward financial clerk? A harder question: ought someone like I ever be called to be ward financial clerk? Or should that calling be reserved for people who would be, you know, good at it?

17 comments for “Some Callings are More Equal than Others

  1. March 29, 2004 at 1:38 am

    Russell, I like this post. I’m afraid I have no real answers to your questions. But rather, just wanted to state that the official cop out answer to all of your questions is that we shouldn’t be having this conversation because all callings are “inspired”.

  2. March 29, 2004 at 3:32 am

    I think that the skill and training necessary to be a moderately adept teacher is far less than that required to be a moderately adept pianist. Fact of life. Yes to be an excellent teacher might require more. But as I’ve asserted elsewhere, I don’t think that really at issue.

    BTW – while not a calling per se, ward choir will accept people with no talent. And I have been asked by the Bishop directly to attend. (Although I feel my vocal talents to be such that it was the one call I’ve refused)

  3. Kristine
    March 29, 2004 at 8:00 am

    I don’t think it’s so much that being a good pianist is harder than being a good teacher, but that being a bad teacher is so much easier than being a bad pianist. That is, a teacher with absolutely no skills can still get up and fill 30 minutes with something vaguely resembling a lesson, while if you put someone with no skills at the organ, Sacrament Mtg. will grind to a halt, because the untrained organist just won’t be able to provide even the appearance of the required form.

    BTW, there are actually musical development programs–the church has published a Conducting Course book and a book on basic keyboard skills. Most wards figure if they have a couple of people who can play the piano, they don’t need to implement these programs. The most fun I’ve ever had teaching was when I convinced a bishop that we really needed a few more people with musical training if we were going to have a ward choir and he let me teach a 10-week Sunday School class that was about 1/3 general music history and appreciation, 1/3 Mormon musical history, and 1/3 basic music reading and singing skills. I (modestly, of course!) think lots of wards could benefit from a class like this.

  4. March 29, 2004 at 8:56 am

    “While not a calling per se, ward choir will accept people with no talent.”

    That’s true Clark. And moreover, a good teacher will accept and find a way to make use of comments from people who haven’t read the lesson, don’t understand the topic, and are, in fact, pretty much completely spaced out. But will someone without any musical knowledge be called to LEAD the ward choir? So, what about “leading” a class?

    I disagree that the “skill and training” necessary to teaching is less than that necessary to musical performance; it’s apples and oranges. However, Kristine may have a point: perhaps the FORM of teaching is easier to fake than that of music. Does that mean that, as we’ve all slogged through crummy teaching moments in church, we’ve just gotten used, maybe even become adept at, faking it?

  5. Thom
    March 29, 2004 at 11:44 am

    A few points. First, Russell said: “Or perhaps we simply, on some level, have decided that sitting through a crappy priesthood lesson is acceptable, but listening to a crappy sacrament hymn is not.”

    I think this is the ultimate answer. While having to put up with bad teaching can be just as painful as putting up with bad music, when music is bad it is likely more obvious to more people, and as mentioned previously, could bring sacrament meeting to a screeching halt. I think it is safe to say that truly bad music is more painful for its short duration than truly bad teaching is, although I’ve endured enough painful EQ lessons to realize this is debatable

    Second, the barriers to entry in music are higher than in teaching. Most folks learn to teach by sitting through good number classes, both gospel and academic, throughout their lives, and ultimately form various opinions about how lessons should be taught. Sure, people can be trained how to teach, but most people learn how to teach by watching it happen, not by doing it over and over again.

    On the other hand, the nature of piano and organ music requires the performer to have literally hundreds of hours of experience actually playing the instrument to even sound decent, and thousands of hours are required to sound inspiring. For choral singing the barrier is not quite so high, but again, it can be pretty painful when done badly. In either case, people learn music by actually doing for a long period of time before they ever perform in church

    These barriers to entry are also evident in the outside professional world: Bad musicians are laughed and can’t find work, bad teachers just work for the government and join powerful unions.

    Third, even bad music requires more preparation than bad teaching. Virtually anyone can stand in front of a class reading the manual and asking painfully obvious questions, whether they ever laid their eyes on the lesson before that moment or not. Music however, requires careful piece selection and time rehearsing. There are people with sufficient skill in music to stand and sing or sit and play a piece of music without having seen it before, these people are rare, truly talented folks with vast experience in music. I suspect that a truly talented teacher with significant experience could do the same thing with most standard gospel lessons, but even a lame-o can read from the manual without preparing.

    Fourth and final,
    I think that as a lay church, we don’t put a lot of emphasis on absolute “mastery” of our assignments, whether it is music or teaching. Some teachers and performers are better than others, and wards are surely blessed when they have true masters in either field, but there are plenty of wards and branches in the church that suffer with poor music and poor teaching. It just so happens that a lot more parents pay money to put their kids through music classes from an early age than there are that put their kids through “how to effectively teach” classes as kids.

  6. March 29, 2004 at 11:51 am

    Bad teaching is as cacophonous as bad organ playing. Kristine has a point, though, about the organist’s capacity to bring the meeting to a halt. I suspect that Aaron Brown probably has a good story about that. (I suspect that just because he seems to have good stories for every occasion.) When people are teaching badly, we can sometimes help by making a good comment, but no individual’s effort is going to overcome an incompetent organist.

    On the larger question, I like the lay church, despite its inherent shortcomings. I appreciate the chance I have had to develop new skills by serving in various callings. I was quite disappointed when my mission president asked me to serve as mission financial secretary (at least partly) because I had been an accounting major at BYU, and I would tire very quickly of being a ward or stake financial clerk, even though I would probably perform reasonably well in that sort of calling. That said,some minimal competence is certainly a good idea in those callings.

  7. March 29, 2004 at 12:05 pm


    “I think that as a lay church, we don’t put a lot of emphasis on absolute ‘mastery’ of our assignments, whether it is music or teaching.”

    I disagree; that’s why I made the observation I did about teaching and music. Maybe we don’t care about “absolute” mastery in any one subject, but we do care, sometimes, about competence. What is the criteria by which we, as a lay church, have come historically to accept the absence of competence in some callings, while expecting it in others? Think about this at the highest level: general conference. Some GAs stink as public speakers. But the MoTab, whatever its limitations, never would feature a soloist who stank. Why the difference? Obviously, our particular relationship to priesthood authority accounts for some of it–but does it explain all of it? Why are we silently accepting of high council speakers who are boring, but openly annoyed at music numbers that are off-key?

  8. March 29, 2004 at 1:29 pm

    Well, I’ve studied both music and teaching, and I am very confident that the skills to be an adequate teacher are much easier to come by and require less time and practice. Worse case scenario for teaching is to simply get a discussion going. I’ve been in lots of excellent priesthood meetings where that happens despite the teacher having few oratory skills and little by way of “extra knowledge.”

    The classes I’ve been in that have been painful could have been fixed with just a few criticisms. (i.e. don’t cry or “fake” spirituality when teaching; don’t go down rows with each person reading a verse; don’t ask questions that are easy “fill in the blank” answers; relate the theme of the lesson to the class via personal stories; limit reading of quotations to just what is required; when your stumped or the lesson is going slow, ask a few questions and try and get five answers from people for it. If no one raises their hand start picking on people you know.)

    Trust me. While those suggestions won’t make poor teachers excellent teachers, they will enable poor teachers to have reasonably good lessons. I can’t imagine anything equivalent that would let someone with no piano lessons break out in a rendition of Come Come Ye Saints on the organ.

    Regarding conducting, that is one that people do with little training. Heavens, I’ve seen it regularly in priesthood where they nab someone, teach them how to conduct the three main beats, and then carefully pick the song. It isn’t as if most people even pay attention. The conductor might as well not be there for all practical purposes.

    There’s nothing equivalent to

  9. Thom
    March 29, 2004 at 1:39 pm


    I think you’re right that we look to competence as a goal in the church, although we often make do with much less, especially in the teaching arena. Part of that is because we are not a religion of professional churchmen and churchwomen. We all have other jobs and responsibilities that keep us from devoting all of our time and talents to our ward callings, and few of us would be willing to criticize other non-professionals for being less than professional in our performance of volunteer work that we did not choose for ourselves.

    We do aspire to competence and absolute mastery, but only in the sort of way we aspire to perfection, with the realization that such things usually only come in the next life. In the mean time, we try to do our best with the time and talents we have.

    Unfortunately many of us (especially in EQ) try to get by with as little effort as possible, and we hope that no one will notice the difference. Even if people do notice, we know we are unlikely to be criticized for the reasons stated above. Maybe if people really notice, they will complain to the leadership and we can be released from the calling we didn’t really want in the first place.

    Why are some speakers boring in church and general conference, while soloists almost never are? Because speakers in church and general conference have received a calling and/or an assignment to speak whether or not they really want to, and whether or not they are particularly good at it. Musicians on the other hand are generally volunteers for such labor, usually because they are comfortable with it and enjoy it.

    Again, skads of kids grow up getting music and singing lessons, in church, at school, and at home. Who grows up getting public speaking lessons, at least before college? Even then, you have to seek out the opportunity because you have an interest in learning to speak in public. Musicians almost always want to find an outlet for their creativity. Sure kids grow up in the church hearing a lot of talks and even having to make one occasionally starting in primary.

    I do also think that bad music is more obvious to the average person than bad teaching or bad public speaking. We’ve grown up having to tolerate large doses of bad teaching and speaking, but we quickly change the channel on bad music. We hear so much skillfully performed music so often that we expect it.

  10. March 29, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    Well, Gordon, I wasn’t going to say anything, but since I evidently have a reputation to uphold…

    If my last few years in the Church have taught me anything, it’s that — contra Thom’s comment that “Virtually anyone can stand in front of a class reading the manual and asking painfully obvious questions” — No, Thom, there are some Elders Quorum instructors who can’t even do that. Take the case of “Bob Wilson”, (whose name has been changed). Bob is a gentleman in his 80’s who attends my current ward. He is an endearing old curmudgeon, whose strident, dogmatic comments are a source of comic-relief for the class, and who seems to enjoy the attention that his comments bring upon him, so it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. A couple years ago, Bob really wanted a teaching calling, and the Bishop decided to oblige him.

    Bob’s lessons were absolutely dreadful. Despite constant reminders that he should teach from the manual, he would rarely do so, even though in his mind, he WAS doing so. If he ever did try to read a paragraph from the manual, between his bad glasses, his propensity to lose his place, and his refusal to let anyone else read, it was an unmitigated disaster. Further, he spent hours and hours every week preparing elaborate outlines that he would put on a giant-sized notepad and which he would draw on with a marker throughout the lesson. The lessons (and the notepad) were incoherently organized (despite his sincere attempts to organize them) and they always managed to be about the same thing. No matter what the lesson topic was, Bob’s lessons always led to the same gospel clichés and strident Mormon Doctrine quotations. The topic could have been anything from “charity” to “fasting,” but every single time, within 5 minutes we were hearing “the Glory of God is intelligence,” “Man can be saved no faster than he can gain knowledge,” and Bob’s other assorted favorite phrases.

    It didn’t take long for everyone in the class to treat Bob’s Elders Quorum lessons as invitations to snooze or engage in personal scripture study. Occasionally there were moments of humor, but for the most part everyone tuned out as soon as the lessons began, and since Bob was oblivious to what his audience was doing, no one felt they were being rude. This probably went on every third Sunday for a year. The only real awkwardness came when a visiting member or investigator was in attendance. In those situations, someone had to pull them aside and apologize for Bob, explaining that his lessons were more for his own benefit and sense of accomplishment than for anyone in the class. Needless to say, lots of opportunities for substantive, edifying class experiences were wasted.

    How did this all come to an end, you ask? One Sunday, Bob came to Elders Quorum in an unusually agitated state. He began his lesson, and informed the class that despite his best efforts, and countless hours of reading and thinking, he simply could not make heads or tails of the material. (The lesson concerned the Gospel of Matthew). He had thus come to a firm conclusion, which he did not hesitate to share with us:

    Jesus was confused. He simply didn’t know what he was talking about.

    The scriptural passage which troubled Bob was Matthew 4:19, which reads: “And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

    “This doesn’t make any sense,” Bob insisted. “I AM NOT A FISH! I’m a human being!”

    The class tried to convince Bob that he had missed the point of the scripture, but in vain. Bob would have none of it. So the class discussion continued, with Bob explaining to us the biological differences between humans and fish, and the rest of us trying to assure him that we understood those differences, as did Jesus, presumably.

    But Bob was just getting started. He then offered his exegesis of Matthew 5:14-16:

    “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

    “I AM NOT A LIGHTBULB!” Bob screamed.

    Once again, class members’ clarifications followed. A heated conversation ensued. Some members of the Quorum were starting to get upset. (As for me, I just couldn’t stop laughing).

    The class ended before it could degenerate any further (as if that were possible). The Elders Quorum President decided shortly thereafter to release Bob as an instructor (a long story in itself, but I’ll spare you…)

    I must say that I do look back on Bob’s lessons with fondness, particularly his last one. But I think there’s little argument that Bob has absolutely no potential to progress as a teacher . Class members’ potential to be spiritually edified by his lessons was also virtually nil. The Bottom Line: Some people simply don’t have the talent, nor even the potential talent, to become effective teachers.

    Whether or not Bob has a future in the Choir, I cannot say.

    Aaron B

  11. Thom
    March 29, 2004 at 2:47 pm

    Aaron Brown,

    I did say “virtually anyone.” Is “virtually” not enough of a caveat for you? Clearly there will always be exceptions of people so below average ability and willingness that I could not in good conscience say “Anyone can stand in front of a class.”

  12. Kristine
    March 29, 2004 at 2:49 pm

    So now we need a whole new contest: Best Comment of the Week/Month/Year.

    But Aaron, can you please post a little warning above these: “For your own safety and that of your keyboard, put down your Diet Coke before proceeding.”

  13. Thom
    March 29, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    Great story though. It reminds me of the stories I used to hear from the students in my very first early morning seminary class. The kids would go on and on about the teacher they had before I started teaching them. Apparently he always wore a pink Pocahontas tee-shirt with dirty shorts and sandals to class every day. Why that persisted so long, I will never know. Nice Post.

  14. March 29, 2004 at 2:55 pm

    Aaron, You came through in a big way! Another hilarious story. I beginning to think that it’s all in how you see the world. Or do you just live in funnier wards than the rest of us?

  15. the frozen chosen
    March 29, 2004 at 5:23 pm


    I am going to have to be that annoying, non-mission related exception to the following rule…

    “Only those who possess these skills are called to serve in these capacities.”

    For some reason, despite continually reminding the Branch President of the fact that I am-

    1. Basically tone deaf
    2. Don’t play any instrument (piano or otherwise)
    3. Can’t even lead music

    I served as a Primary Chorister and as a special musical number coordinator. Wha??? That, I didn’t get. As to having unqualified teachers teaching classes when someone else could do much better, to that I can attest. I also served as Gospel Doctrine teacher and I was horrible at it. I read your description of what a bad teacher does and I secretly wondered if you had been sitting in one of my classes when you formed that opinion. I couldn’t get the class involved, my knowledge of the scriptures was not up to the par of every single one of those people I was teaching and I frequently forgot what I was saying midsentence! In the end I was comforted by the fact that at least I learned a lot from my teaching experience, even if my students didn’t. Mercifully, I was released and now serve in Primary where I do a much better job.

  16. cooper
    March 29, 2004 at 11:34 pm

    Okay, Russell this one has bugged me for years. Mostly because of my major and emphasis of work for several years. I was specifically trained to work with individuals with specific needs. I have made each of my priesthood leaders aware of the training and skills I have to no avail. I am the wrong gender. If I were a priesthood holder I would be assigned this task without anyone even asking if I wanted to do it. It is frustrating to say the least.

    So instead I am get to sahre my homemaking skills one a regular basis.

  17. March 29, 2004 at 11:47 pm

    It’s easier to point to something that’s objectively wrong with music (ie wrong notes or rhythm (at least, I wish people would point out wrong rhythm, but that’s a separate rant)). With most talks/lessons, it’s not as clear if something’s objectively wrong, and hence it’s harder both to measure quality and to complain if you don’t like it (while there are plenty of talks/lessons that don’t do anything for me, I can never be sure how much of the problem is mine rather than the presenter’s).

    In addition, it’s often possible to get something out of a bad lesson/talk, while an inadequate song is simply gibberish. The bare minimum threshold for tolerability is a lot higher in music.

    With respect to other callings, particularly of the administrative sort, the question is murkier. There’s the common pattern of calling trouble missionaries into the office so the MP can keep an eye on them, followed by calling competent missionaries into the office to clean up the mess they made. Based on that phenomonon and the Church’s minimum-priesthood requirements to create a new unit, I would guess that policy tends to be that there’s a minimum threshold of competence which is necessary, above which variation can exist and learning on the job can take place.

    Other questions: Does every member need to develop teaching skills in this life? Muscial talents? Spreadsheet capabilities? I would guess that learning to effectively teach the gospel is much more universally applicable, though the others certainly don’t hurt.

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