Writing and Community Building

For the last several months I have been the editor of my ward’s monthly newsletter. This experience has been interesting in many ways and I wanted to share a few thoughts about it in this setting. First of all, I fully acknowledge that the existence of a ward newsletter is a luxury of being in a large, fairly active, geographically close ward. Although I have come to see many benefits from having a well-written ward newsletter, I still think it should be low on the list of priorities for any church unit. I live in Utah County and our ward boundaries are fairly small. This is one of the only wards I’ve lived in during my lifetime that has teachers come around to each home to collect fast offerings each month, and as part of their duties they distribute the newsletter to each household (I know that they also distribute it to everyone who lives in ward boundaries as well). If printing and distribution of the newsletter were more difficult I’m not sure it would be worth it, but from what I’ve seen thus far it is one of the tools we have available to us to foster better unity among our ward family and in our ward it seems to be working.

 One of the issues my calling raises for me is related to the fact that our cultural ideals state that any member can be called to do anything, and even if they don’t have the skills, God will qualify those whom he calls. However, most of us can think of plenty of exceptions to this rule. Music callings are an obvious one; no matter how well-intentioned a calling may be, an untrained person cannot suddenly acquire the skills needed to play the music on Sunday after being called on Saturday. Some members have incredible social anxiety and would do a terrible job teaching a group; while a teaching calling could possibly be a chance for the Lord to help them grow through a challenge, it could just as easily be an exercise in humiliation for everyone involved. If my calling had been given to someone else who did not own a computer, who did not have internet access at home, or who had no experience in writing, editing, or document design, the outcome would be vastly different. I know that part of the reason why I enjoy my calling is the fact that it involves skills that I have developed for years and that I am comfortable using. We have a narrative in Mormon culture that privileges sacrifice and struggle over comfort, but for right now I am happy and more productive in a calling that is not a sacrifice or a struggle for me.

Related to issues of skill and experience when it comes to callings is the fact that there is a difference between using your skills in a calling at church and using them in a professional setting. In the past, I have been in the position of editor or instructor when it comes to writing. My job was to critique writing, improve it, change it, and help the writer learn how to communicate more effectively. However, my fellow ward members are not writers or composition students. I cannot reject the incoherent, error-ridden prose occasionally offered to me with a declaration that it is not worthy. Although the Church places fairly high literacy demands on its members in the amount of reading, writing and analysis required for both teaching and personal study, members have varying levels of education and experience with the written word. In my calling, I am learning how to deal charitably with the sincere offerings of others who have not had the training or experience in writing that I have. I know I have a kindred spirit in the classically-trained choir director who realizes that a ward choir is more about enthusiasm than it is about precision.

I hope that no one misunderstands that last paragraph; I do not fault my fellow members for the quality of their writing any more than I hope they would not fault my total ignorance if I were to try and join our ward volleyball team. My point is that for most people in this world, writing and editing are not a priority, but they still want to offer something to our written newsletter. Each month my job is to try to shape those offerings into a whole that somehow transcends their individual strengths and weaknesses. This community building process is also the point of the newsletter; next month our ward family can read about touching experiences at Girls Camp, a scholarship created in honor of a ward member who is a retired professor, a new baby born to ward members, notes from missionaries serving in other countries, the achievements of Primary children, and a recap of our most recent ward activity. Some contributions I had to edit a little more heavily than others (like realizing that most of the older members of my ward would be unable to understand a missionary’s assertion that “The MTC is so sick. Our lessons are really dope.”) I hope that most of my editing will go unnoticed; I try to balance keeping the authentic voice of each contributor with a need for clarity and concision. When I first accepted this calling admit to self-satisfied thoughts about how well I could do it and how much everyone would admire my work, but it has taught me that the best editing I do is invisible. This has been a valuable lesson to me as a writer and editor and I hope I can remember it in future callings that are perhaps less of a natural fit for me.

Have you ever had experiences when professional duties and Church duties overlap? Have you ever been called upon to use your creative talents or skills in a Church setting? Church activities often expect a fairly high level of reading and writing skills (and, these days, comfort with technology); how do we best deal with the fact that our wards contain members with widely varying skill levels?

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5 Responses to Writing and Community Building

  1. Jessie,
    You make a great point that anyone lucky enough to have a Church calling that utilizes their well-developed skills and training must temper expertise with humility and the desire to serve rather than to show off.
    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  2. Mark Penny says:

    Church choirs. Yep. I once pooh-poohed the idea of auditions for stake choir (I was stake choir chairman) on the grounds that a church choir was more about faith than about skill. The only requirement, in my view, is a testimony to sing about. Of course, in rehearsal I would single out problems and try to address them (soprano caterwauling and base gravel grinding come to mind), but in the end, it was really about love for the Lord and the joy of singing about it, however badly.

  3. Mark Penny says:

    I’m a professional commercial English teacher and volunteer ward Sunday School president in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. A few years ago, I was ward teacher trainer. I think my greatest contribution as a supposed pro has been convincing one sister in a teacher training class that you can justifiably reconfigure the seating in a classroom to facilitate the lesson plan. I also suspect that the eventually stakewide fad a few years ago for splitting the class into groups which would share their insights on sections of the reading had something to do with my frequent use of that technique (to make up for my then inadequate command of Mandarin) in the various and sundry classes I inevitably wound up teaching.

    As Sunday School president, I’ve had to face the fact that most of my teachers are not as readily adaptable as I am. One good brother, a designated substitute, had serious qualms about teaching the adult gospel doctrine class on a Sunday when he was prepared to teach the youth. I believe I finally persuaded him to make the shift, but it opened my eyes to how my lack of debilitating nerves in front of even a impromptu audience has much to do with the flight hours I’ve put in as a professional English teacher. People without that experience are sometimes not quite as willing to do something they haven’t specifically prepared.

    Opinions may differ as to my professionalism in my current field, but I make a living at teaching, so I dare to call myself a professional teacher.

  4. I did a ward newsletter outside of the Wasatch front. It was like pulling teeth to get anyone to comply because they were so busy with other things. I took the risk and made it fun and funny and okay, a little sarcastic, since that’s my talent too. Stake president held it up to other bishops and told them to get their ward newsletter people to do the same. I felt awful about that. I mean, I’m glad he thought it was easy, but it wasn’t. And I knew it wasn’t a standard your average Sis and Bro Smith should be expected to meet. Also, I wasn’t able to be less professional about it than I was about my real writing. The lesson I learned? Sometimes its okay to give less than your best to the church. Seriously. ;) It took so much time, I was creatively exhausted each time I finished. Oh, and I broke the old copier because people actually wanted copies of it. I figure I was called to that position as a means to get a new copier in the building. I was released right after it arrived.

    Or maybe I was released so I wouldn’t break it by running so many copies. . .

  5. “out of the Wasatch front” was supposed to mean that I did it where Mormons were not the prevalent demographic.

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