Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Punctuality--Order and Exactness--George's Post

1.    Punctuality--Order and Exactness

The Mormon Church operates in an orderly way and expects its members to follow Church practices and protocols with a measure of exactness.  Our experience in Malawi underscores the importance of emphasizing such exactness.  Malawians are notoriously late for meetings, appointments, and commitments, the more important the individual the more egregious the conduct.[1]  Being late, and forcing others to wait for you, is a measure of one’s prestige.  Important people don’t have to worry about the schedules of others less important.  Not surprisingly this lack of punctuality has been carried over to the Mormon Church.  Anyone ever attending the Mormon Church in Malawi knows what a struggle it is to start meetings on time.  Regular Church meetings frequently start 20 to 30 minutes late.  At the appointed hour, very few members are in their seats, including the leaders who are invariably late taking their places.  It is even worse for branch socials or other less formal gatherings—such as institute or seminary classes—where people may show up an hour or two after the announced beginning time.  Members arrive on a rolling basis, without a sense of urgency.  No one takes the schedule seriously.  Only after a quorum has assembled does the scheduled meeting began—and who knows when precisely that will happen.  No one appears too upset by the delays.  Time is not that big a deal.[2]
Initially I was mildly amused by this custom.[3]  Of all the things we needed to address, punctuality ranked low on the list.  Far more important was helping members appreciate the importance of modesty in dress, keeping the law of chastity, learning to be honest in their dealings, developing unity in the branch, becoming self-reliant.  It was better getting them to attend church on a regular basis than worrying about when they get there.  One can’t tackle all of the problems in a branch at the same time—choosing one’s battles is imperative for any church leader.  Emphasizing everything is the same as emphasizing nothing.  What does it matter if church meetings start late?
Several months into our mission we travelled to Lilongwe, where the Mormon Church has four units.  We were surprised to discover the two senior couples then serving there (the Fisks and Stones) had emphasized with the leaders starting church on time.  As a consequence, while meetings might start a bit late, they began only five to ten minutes after the scheduled hour. 
Inspired by the Lilongwe experience, Carole and I began encouraging, first the Zingwangwa Branch leaders, and later those in Blantyre Second, to be more “exact” in their obedience—starting Sacrament meeting on time, whether or not anyone was there.  And at the beginning that was literally the case—Sacrament meeting could begin with only ten members in the chapel.  We also stressed starting other church meetings at the scheduled hour.  Over time, we have found some improvement, though it is still the case that many members come late, many long after the sacrament has been passed.  Both branches do announcements at the end of the service to maximize the number who get the news.  
Much to my surprise this slight adjustment appears to make a big difference in the members’ attitude and the flow of the Sacrament and other meetings.  I am hard pressed to understand why this should be the case.  Yet somehow being obedient to this one seemingly trivial instruction matters.  It increases accountability, makes the meetings flow better, gives us something we can rely upon.    It is as though discipline in one “small thing” carries over to an exactness in areas far more telling.  While they may not be directly relevant, I am reminded of those scriptures speaking of the significance of “small things”  in the kingdom of God.  “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work.  And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.”  D&C 64:33.

[1] Several months ago President Matale, the area’s Public Affairs representative, invited a number of City Councilmen and village chiefs to come to the Blantyre building to talk about this year’s Helping Hands’ project.  The Deputy Major was the senior most member to attend.  Though he arrived slightly before the scheduled meeting time, when he discovered that others were not yet there, he went back out to the parking lot and sat in his car for some 30 minutes after the scheduled meeting was to start.  Then he made his appearance and we began the meeting.  
[2] This may, of course, be the key to understanding Malawian behavior.  Unlike Westerner countries, where most everyone is time driven, Malawians, at least those living in the poor areas where we labor, are not driven by schedules.  They have an abundance of time—they are not generally hurrying to get anywhere—so why does it matter when meetings start.  They will start when enough of the people get there and waiting around is not upsetting.  It is simply more time to socialize or another way to kill time.  Church buildings are nice, when compared to their homes, so there is nothing unpleasant about being stuck at Church.
[3] The longer we are in Malawi the less we tolerate tardiness in the behavior of others.  Disregard for others’ time and schedule is disrespectful and causes havoc to others’ plans and efforts to get things done in an efficient manner.  After a while we advised tradesmen and others providing us services, that if they couldn’t get there at the scheduled time not to bother coming at all.  Without such rigid rules it is really hard to get anything done.