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Free-Range Saint

By Karen Austin

As we read the four gospels of the New Testament, we observe Jesus issuing a call to people who subsequently must work out what it means to be a follower of Christ. There were no buildings with set floor plans, no organization charts, no handbook, and no elaborate leadership hierarchy.  The saints of Galilee met with Jesus directly.

After Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Peter and the other disciples worked together, sometimes with a bit of tension, to transform their community of former-day saints to focus on Christ without His being physically present.  Yes, Peter means rock, but he is a smaller stone in the framework relative to Jesus Christ, the bedrock, or the true foundation (Ephesians 2).

While Peter led the congregations in the Holy Land, Paul and others actively took the gospel message to other cities, other regions—into Asia Minor and as far as Rome.  Paul spread the gospel and established congregations.  Several letters that Paul wrote to congregations guided these former-day saints on what it meant to gather in Jesus’ name.

For decades, I have read these letters, looking for guidance on how we should build the congregation on the chief cornerstone of Christ and then interact with one another as a “building fitly framed together” (Ephesians 20-21).  He also used the metaphor of the body, with all members of the community of Christ working together with equal value, led by the head of the body, Christ. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Sometimes I am in harmony with the rest of the building, rest of the body. Often I need to recalibrate, redirect my energies, repent to stay in synch with the atonement being the mediating force.

Unfortunately, as a current-day saint, I often spend more time looking at the organization of my congregations—the organization chart, the handbook, the formal callings for my role, my identity, my value. Because I have lived in nine different states (and several addresses within some of these states), I do often look to the ward for community—a sense of security, a place of belonging, a forum for forging an identity based on shared values.

I want to commune with my fellow saints as we work together with fear and trembling (1 Corinthians 2:3) to accept the covenants, principles, virtues, and values of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes I hit a stumbling bock. I have to crawl over construction rubble I have created, often because I have placed outsized importance on my formal roles in callings. In addition, I too often reduce other people to the person I see on Sunday without acknowledging that they are complex beyond measure.  I miss the mark.  I focus too much on utility and not enough on the transcendence of relationships grounded in eternal, spiritual, numinous import.

Recently, I have started to meditate on the concept of my being a free-range saint as a way to shrink the outsized role of institutionalized Christianity and expand the more dynamic, vibrant role of spiritual sensitivity. I think being an empty nester has pushed me in this direction to a degree because I do not have an entire family connected to the ward through multiple auxiliaries with their assignments and activities. The pandemic also pushed me a bit towards rethinking my internal faith with my external behaviors. Truly, I need the guidance of Christ-like virtues day by day as well as all day Sunday and not just for the two hours that I am in the building.

I could plead more in my prayers, “I need Thee every hour” and then follow up by focusing more on being a saint at all times and in all places.

Should I serve people only when assigned? Or can I be like the Good Samaritan, and serve in a spontaneous way as the time and place emerges?  Sometimes I am spontaneously kind. At other times, I cross to the other side of the road because I am too focused on the concept of service as assigned and as I planned in my all-too Type A manner.  I get impatient when what I planned in my head doesn’t unfold in a cinderblock room down the hall from the chapel.

I can do better at maintaining my faith when focusing more on building a foundation on the cornerstone of Christ.  This helps me withstand the tremors that shake me to my foundations that occur when I see other saints in their weakness as well.  If someone at church criticizes my service, do I resign my calling? When other people at church take a position on science or politics that differs from mine, do I stop attending meetings? When the policies and practices at Church headquarters take a position on issues that strikes me as being misguided, do I write a letter of resignation?

Right now, I find it productive to temper my overreliance on formal (and often very mortal) institutional concerns by praying, by meditation, and by studying the scriptures more with a view on the the informal yet vital elements of my faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. These are principles that exist behind the vicissitudes of temporal practices. These Christlike principles transcend time and place and unite me with all saints (current and former) striving to commune with Christ and his foundational teachings.



About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

2 thoughts on “Free-Range Saint”

  1. A thoughtful and beautifully written piece. The current structure of the church gives us some great opportunities to serve our neighbor, buy it seems geared toward our LDS neighbors to the exclusion of others. I'm trying to change that in my family and hope the spirit catches on at an institutional level some day.


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