What is a reasonable expectation for free labor from our fellow Mormons? It seems that different people have very different ideas of what is reasonable to request.

Now that we own a small business, I’ve also noticed that certain types of labor–usually lower skilled labor where the majority of the work is “manpower”–are considered a right rather than paying a company to do these things. In fact, when we opened our business, we joked that we would never have opened it in Utah where the main competitor was the Relief Society. Friends of ours had opened an elder care business there, and they found that the work their staff did was often in competition with wards’ free labor pool, not a great situation to be in if you are trying to grow a business.

Other types of free labor requests I’ve seen in Mormon congregations are things like yard care (particularly laying sod, general landscaping), construction clean up or debris removal, and of course, the dreaded moving. “Women’s labor” is usually just things like taking in meals, although with services like post-mates and door dash, this is also becoming less necessary. Occasionally, I’ve seen sisters be asked to do house cleaning for free for someone in need, although this has been more rare than other types of requests. But of course, much has been said about the church expecting members to clean the building rather than hiring janitors (as was done when I was growing up).

None of this is terribly surprising. We all do many different types of service in our wards, including all the volunteer hours we spend in our callings, and the old visiting/home teaching program that’s being ratcheted up a bit with the new ministering program. We are there to assist one another. We also believe in the law of consecration, although we don’t define it very well. Early Christian societies believed in sharing their goods so that there was less class distinction between them, a system that is socialism, except that we can’t say that or the right-wingers in our wards’ heads will explode.

Coach John Wooden really seemed to understand the right level of help we should give others. He was very focused on caring for others and teaching his players to care, and that character was more important than talent. He famously said:

If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.

And he exemplified another of his famous sayings:

Unless a life is lived for others, it is not worthwhile.

He was inspired by Abraham Lincoln who remarked that

The worst thing you can do for those you love is to do the things they can and should do for themselves.

It’s certainly a time-honored tradition within religious communities to serve one another’s needs on a voluntary basis, but there is still a wide variety in what is considered an “appropriate” request. Here are a few examples I can think of that I’ve either heard about from others or have observed firsthand.

Which of these do you think are reasonable? Which do you think are not?

  • A wealthy retired couple requests that the Elders Quorum provide at least a dozen men to come do yard work for them while they are out of town attending to a family funeral. It’s during the heat of summer in Arizona. They own a large estate and can afford to hire a landscaping service.
  • Two families request moving assistance: one is a family with physical disabilities moving from one small apartment to another. The other family is moving into a $2 million home and wants help moving in.
  • A family is moving to a new city. The employer pays full relocation expenses, including a moving and unpacking service, but the family wants to pocket that money and asks the ward to do it for them.
  • A couple wants to improve the resale value of their home by adding a full sprinkler system and laying sod. They prefer to use the ward’s free labor rather than pay for labor so that they are sure to get a return on their investment.
  • An elderly widow can no longer drive and needs rides to the grocery store and doctor’s appointments. She has adult children living with her who are able to do it, but she doesn’t want to burden them, so she asks the Relief Society to do it.
  • A woman requests help with her resume to help her get a higher paying job. She doesn’t take feedback, and has very limited computer skills. She wants you to make her sound better than she is by exaggerating her skills and doing it for her.
  • A ward member buys a $15 silent auction for pet sitting. Her requirements are so onerous and specific, and the driving distance is such that it requires 21 man hours to fulfill the obligation.

Another type of free labor request that sometimes happens is when someone who does a type of service professionally is asked by the ward to do it for free or occasionally at a greatly discounted rate. This is probably not a big deal depending on the scope of the request: is it a one-time request? is it for the ward as a whole or for individuals? is it in direct competition to their paid business? do they mind offering their service for free, considering it part of their volunteer work?

On the one hand, wards should be communities that include some networking opportunities as well as opportunities to serve. That’s how communities work. But on the other hand, some services are more prone to be requested on a free or discounted basis. Consider the following types of professionals who might be requested to perform services for free or at a discount:

  • Trades like electrician, handyman, pool care, landscaping, house cleaning.
  • Higher end trades like restoration work, construction, or air conditioning / heating.
  • Professions like accounting, legal advice, medical or dental advice or care.
  • Individuals who do personal services like therapy, business or professional consulting or personal trainers.

Are some of these more likely to be approached for freebies? Are some of these more at risk of being done free by the ward, competing with local businesses?

Recently, it came to my attention that my current ward objects to providing service if it occurs on a Sunday. This surprised me a little bit because Jesus specifically taught that we should help others in need on a Sunday. Mormons refer to this as your ox being in the mire, although the scriptural reference doesn’t actually use those words:

Luke 14: 5 And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the asabbath day?

So, clearly it would be more scriptural to say someone’s ass is in a pit, not that their ox is in the mire.

Years ago, we woke up on a Sunday morning to find that our upstairs had flooded. The carpet went squish when we stepped on it. We were supposed to be teaching at church, and we had to run to the church to hand off and find coverage, but then leave again immediately to go to Home Depot and get some drying equipment. A ward member who owned a construction business had some equipment, and he gladly offered to bring it down and assist right away. He even patched up our ruined drywall ceiling, which we paid for, but we suspected was greatly discounted by him. Other ward members immediately rallied to come help with getting the water up. We were kind of clueless, so this help was very welcome. People put us at ease, and were eager to run out with us to help.

In another ward I was in years ago, one of the members of the bishopric came home after church to see that his neighbors were having a sod-laying party. They were providing beers to the workers, and had several people there helping, although it’s always a big project, and nobody will ever turn away more help. These weren’t great neighbors. They often had loud parties, came in loudly at late hours, and were otherwise irritating. After sitting in his house for a short while, the bishopric member started to feel his conscience get to him. He shouldn’t begrudge his help, even if it was Sunday, even if he wasn’t thrilled with those particular neighbors. He changed clothes and went out and helped anyway. As a result, this family (who turned out to be inactive LDS although he didn’t realize it at the time) changed their opinions of the local ward and decided to start coming back to church. They felt accepted and welcomed because here was someone willing to meet them where they were and serve them without conditions.

Another bishop I had years ago came by the house one Sunday afternoon asking if I had a twelve-pack of Diet Coke for one of the sisters in the ward. I was a bit surprised by this request, but I went inside and grabbed one out of the drink fridge to give to him. He said he could tell she needed one, and that if anyone had one to spare, it was me! (Guilty as charged). It was a silly thing, but a thoughtful gesture that I suspect she will still remember.

Perhaps the objection is to helping people who really don’t need it, and the request just happens to be for a Sunday. Some folks have told me about situations in which the person requesting help is abusing the privilege through their own behavior, such as creating the need in the first place, expecting repeated help on something they should be able to handle with family members’ help, or simply not planning ahead. For example, showing up to help someone move, then finding that they haven’t actually packed anything yet or are still in the middle of doing so can be frustrating to the free labor pool. And the other issue that sometimes arises is people who are bossy and rude to the free helpers, an issue that I’ve unfortunately experienced directly as well as heard about from others. Some people simply feel entitled and ungrateful for the sacrifice of those helping them.

Finding the right balance between service and co-dependency in our volunteer church is a tricky one.

  • How do you think we are doing overall at helping those in need without enabling abuse of the free labor pool?
  • What are the worst examples of abuse of free church labor that you have seen?
  • Does you ward object to helping someone on a Sunday who needs it?
  • Have you ever been helped out of a tight spot by your fellow Mormons when you didn’t expect it?

Discuss.