An anonymous reader writes:

May I be so bold as to offer a topic of discussion? “The Value and Effect of Service.” Sometimes, receiving service in the church exacts a rather high psychological price.

Perhaps my concerns are a little too close to home, as I strive to deal with yet another seemingly medically-inexplicable yet definitely physiological malady which has relegated me to “scooter status” (three wheeled motorized wheelchair). I am finding, though, that there are many who are so eager to serve, to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice for others, that they are trampling on the psychological need for self-sufficiency and its companion, self-efficacy. Why is it that when we offer to take someone to church or on other errands that we feel it is then our right to pry, second-guess decisions or courses of actions, and even force our will on those whom we are serving? ‘Tis hard enough to find the fine line between accepting help gracefully and becoming dependent and a burden.

I can't help but wonder how other sisters who have needed help over the years feel about this. I'm especially concerned about those sisters who rear children with disabilities who prefer to “go it alone” because they are so tired of being judged as inadequate parents by those who may be “well meaning” but totally clueless.

Jeannie says:

From the beginning of time, we see scriptural evidence of insincere service. Whether Cain or the New Testament hypocrites fasting openly for public recognition, those doing their “alms before men” have always and will always be with us. “Demonstration,” as you have noted, is the key issue here, and it clearly suggests a motive other than true charity. I can't imagine too many things more uncomfortable than being captive in a car with some “well-meaning” zealot doing a 15-minute makeover of my life.

On the other hand, many of us who have been on the receiving end of long or short-term help have been awed and humbled by devoted, sincere service. Maybe the answer is in educating our sisters on the “do's” and “don'ts” of courteous charity.

Just as we sometimes need to sensitize our sisters as to how long a baby should cry before removing him/her from a meeting, or how and when to enter a concert in progress, it may be very helpful to open a discussion on service etiquette. This could be done in any Relief Society meeting and be a recurring theme as the opportunity for service presents itself. Prying, second-guessing or forcing our will on others is just about as far from the motto “Charity Never Faileth” as Christ is from Satan. It harrows up a perpetrator-victim scenario that negates the Spirit and consequent blessing from even the most “well-meant” act of service.

In the interest of fairness however, it would be appropriate to say that sometimes the burden of “education” must fall on the shoulders of the person receiving the service. No one in this situation has to take what is being shoveled at him/her, even if served on the most “righteous-sounding” platter. With a few kind, but well-chosen words, super-counselor can be gently persuaded to save the advice for her next newspaper column.

I'm really hoping that your experience is the exception, not the rule where service is concerned. I have known of and been myself, the recipient of some of the most selfless acts of charity on the planet. These acts have restored my faith in all mankind and made me fall to my knees in gratitude. It will be interesting to see our reader responses. Thank you for the great question.

Kathy says:

Dear Sis:

Thanks for opening this dialog. I think it is very important and appropriate for us as sisters to be just a bit less reticent when discussing issues this close to our hearts. I think everyone who reads our column will be able to remember a vivid example of both of Jeannie's scenarios.

Let's remember together, for a moment. Was there a time when you thought you were being offered a pleasant gesture of fellowship, only to learn that you were actually being interviewed, adjudicated, sentenced and rehabilitated all in one brief “outing”? How did that feel? How about the opposite pole? Can you recall a time when you were with a trusted friend who made you feel loved and supported, offered you needed comfort and maybe a good laugh or a well-placed swift kick without assuming any sort “one-up” posture in your relationship? Think about the way that feels, for just a moment. It's pretty self-apparent; but it's not easy for us to change our characteristic patterns of responding to anything puzzling or outside the routine.

My comment on the sort of service that feels like a duty date or a self-appointed mercy project is that we need to open our hearts on both sides. Maybe the server actually does genuinely enjoy the servee and look forward to their time together, and the latter is just a bit paranoid. Maybe the server is, actually, just trying to exemplify the principle, and not getting it quite right yet. Maybe the recipient is accurate in assessing certain “helpers” as a bit on the pious side if not downright obnoxious. We can still support all our sisters' efforts to learn discipleship and possibly even offer a gentle and sincere suggestion. “We are trying to work on our trials with faith and optimism. Thanks for your concern; we appreciate your help so much! But we feel it's a family matter.” Or “your love and prayers are always appreciated. We can never thank you enough. But we try to limit our discussions to our professional counselors, just so nothing goes further than necessary.”

I think many of us, as Jeannie suggested, need to be retrained. It would be wonderful to evolve a level or two, into saints who could look with kindness and compassion on another saint's efforts to learn the charity principle, even if we are the object of an occasional botched project. It might also be beneficial to our growth, all around, for those of us who feel impressed by the spirit or possibly just want to improve in the area of offering more service, to whip out that glittering ruler. Make sure that, as a rule, it's really golden. Think through our style of communicating with someone who is working through conspicuous challenges. Would we like it, ourselves, if people began to look at us as weirdos who can't manage our own lives? Would we like it if our kids were stigmatized for external traits or circumstances?

Judith Martin, in her humorous guide, Miss Manners' Guide to Excurciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated, says the only appropriate greeting for 6'8″ red-headed conjoined twins is this: “How do you do? How do you do?” In other words, the rest is none of our business and there is absolutely no proper way to comment on the height, coloring or unusual physical characteristics of a person with whom we interact socially. If the relationship changes and trust is earned and intimacy takes the place of social guidelines, this will evolve naturally, over time, and with complete mutuality. Until and unless this occurs, offer a ride, a hand with babysitting, a meal or two or whatever service you feel prompted to render. But don't assume that means you are the newest and closest confidante. Does this make sense? We are hoping many of you can relate to this question and add to the learning experience for all of us.