The Eleven Percent Solution

By Dana Haight Cattani


Two years ago in the Midwestern college town where I live, religious leaders from several local congregations joined with civic and governmental partners to create an interfaith winter homeless shelter. Their goal was simple but ambitious: offer a warm and safe place for homeless individuals to sleep during the coldest months of the year.

There is no permanent, year-round shelter, but more than 20 local faith communities signed on as partners, including five which offered use of their buildings one or two nights a week from November through March. The shelter is open in one of those locations every night from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., and guests sleep in clean linens on individual foam pads in the various fellowship halls. Volunteers are recruited from the community, and they staff the buildings in overlapping three-hour shifts all night. In the morning, they serve donated coffee and granola bars. Although no drugs, alcohol, or weapons are allowed, the shelter welcomes anyone in need, including people who show signs of drug or alcohol abuse. The only real requirement of guests is respectful behavior.

My good friend is president-elect of one of the five original host congregations. Her church housed the shelter every Monday and Tuesday night the first year. It was a heavy responsibility, and she wanted to find another church willing to serve as the shelter for one of those nights. She said to me, “I know you play basketball at your church. Wouldn’t your gym be big enough to accommodate the 30 or so homeless people we typically serve? It’s a great service opportunity for your congregation.”

My head began spinning. It was a great service opportunity. However, I said, I did not think we could do it.

She knows me well enough to ask, “Why not?”

Where should I start? Family Home Evening on Monday nights? Relief Society Enrichment on Tuesdays? Liability? Insurance? Safety? Additional responsibilities for busy ward leaders? The lingering smell of coffee? Finally, I blurted out, “Who would clean the bathrooms?”

My friend stared at me quizzically. “The custodial staff.”

Ah, there’s the rub.


My ward, like most others around the Church, has taken on much of the cleaning and maintenance of our meetinghouse. Every Saturday, a crew—preferably six to eight adults—is scheduled. In theory, this shift from professional janitorial service to member responsibility is brilliant. It increases our sense of shared responsibility in caring for the building, generates camaraderie as we work together, teaches hard work and accountability, and saves money—which then can finance additional meetinghouses, temples, and church administration. This plan treats tithes and offerings as a sacred trust to be used judiciously, not squandered on unnecessary frills. Like a family, the Church can opt to do chores in-house rather than contracting for expensive outside services. So far, so good.

In fact, the devil is in the details—and the Dustbuster. Responsibility and accountability in a multi-unit meetinghouse are inevitably more diffuse than in a household. By the time someone notices that a stall is out of toilet paper or that all the dish towels have been used as bathroom rags, it is a little late. If I fail to replace the toilet paper at church, I am not particularly likely to be the hapless one who suffers the consequence or even to be traceable as the source of the problem.

Worse, in a centralized church with headquarters (in my case) five states away, there is no real opportunity to renegotiate the maintenance contract that I never signed. In a family, people might discuss chore assignments that are not working well and generate new ideas for getting the work done, including outsourcing. At church, I assume such discussions occur at the highest levels; they don’t occur in the meetings I attend. We are ground troops, and we discuss implementation, not alternate battle plans. In fact, when a member of the Council of the Twelve was assigned to preside over my stake conference last year, local leaders called a special four-ward Saturday work day one week before the visit to do landscaping and indoor deep-cleaning. My ward, which meets in a different building, was asked to help at the stake center even though we had to clean our own meetinghouse, as usual, that week. In other words, the stake members had to expend unprecedented and extraordinary effort in hopes of convincing the visiting dignitary that our routine maintenance was effective.

The demographics of the congregations sharing my meetinghouse are both unusual and typical. On Sunday mornings, my building houses a family ward comprised of married students (lots), permanent families with children living at home (few), and empty nesters/seniors/retirees (lots). On Sunday afternoons, a Young Single Adult branch of university students meets in this building.

Even though we have two congregations to pull from, the pool of potential cleaners is smaller than it might at first appear. The YSA branch is full of students who are often committed to a busy mix of classes, projects, and activities. Some have full- or part-time jobs. While the branch members might enjoy working with friends, cleaning the church is not a draw for most college students on a Saturday. Sometimes it does not get done, or it is done in a cursory way by the two people who show up.

The family ward has different issues. Most of the student couples have children, and most of those children are under age six. These families are stretched for money, for space, and, especially, for time. The families with school-age children tend to be very busy with school events, sports, music, and other worthy Saturday activities. The more senior members are sometimes unable to do the cleaning for health reasons, and at some age, people deserve a reprieve from pushing an oversized vacuum around the pews or scrubbing the nine toilets. Our single parents are hard-pressed for time already, and the singles without children often have other weekend priorities. The people married to spouses who are not members or are not active in the church are already splitting up on Sundays; adding Saturday commitments undermines precious weekend family time. As everywhere, cleaning duty typically falls to a small coalition of the willing.

And there are some amazingly willing people. I have seen breast-feeding mothers with newborns in slings cleaning the building. I have seen harried young fathers who have brought their toddlers so the mothers could have a moment’s rest or go to the grocery store alone. I have cleaned alongside presidents of various ward and stake organizations, bishopric members, and faithful souls who volunteer because they want to help even though they can barely walk, much less scrub a floor. Even as I am moved by their service, I have to ask, “Really? Do we need to have pregnant women and octogenarians cleaning the church? The Young Men’s president, bleary-eyed after a campout in a thunderstorm? The Relief Society president, who spent hours with an ill sister at the hospital this week? Does the bishop, who will be in this building at least twelve hours tomorrow, need to clean it today?”

Then there is the competence issue. No matter how clear the instructions on the checklist, how well-marked the map, how large the Sharpie pen labels on the cleaning solutions, the workers are all untrained recruits. We make mistakes. We are in a hurry, and we do a bad job of it. Our kids are crying. We need to mow the grass before the storm arrives. The weekend sale ends tomorrow, and we don’t want to shop on Sunday. So we don’t bother to wipe out the refrigerator. We nick the pews with the vacuum cleaner. We spill the sink cleaner on the carpet.

Undoubtedly in response to these very issues, my local Facilities Management representative gave a fifth-Sunday presentation on caring for the building. In a nutshell: do not, for any reason, ever, hang anything on the walls. (Apparently, the inservice motto, “Teaching, No Greater Call” is trumped by the FM oath: “First, do no harm to the paint.”) He told a story about a promising investigator who attended a church function. Although she had enjoyed the activity, liked the people, and appreciated the doctrines, this investigator was offended by the poor standards of cleanliness. She swore off any future attendance at such a shabby and unkempt building.

Hmm. I believe a sincere investigator could be put off at a Mormon gathering for many, many reasons, certainly among them the fact that in our church kitchens, cooking is forbidden. I wondered idly what would happen if, in baptismal interviews, prospective members were asked to commit to cleaning the buildings on Saturdays. Would full disclosure cause a precipitous decline in baptisms?

The Facilities Management representative went on to testify that member cleaning, if administered properly and done with faith and in the right spirit—and with a stop at the ice cream store on the way home to appease children and teenagers—can work.

Of course. Almost anything can. But at what cost?

No one knows, because we do not track the cost of volunteer time. We track home and visiting teaching statistics, tithing, attendance, Personal Progress, and merit badge advancement, but there is no accounting for volunteer labor. That’s okay. One of the primary functions of churches is service. However, we value the things that we track. If tithes and offerings are a sacred trust, something of worth that people give up for the greater good, is not time also a sacred trust that should be spent wisely? By and large, the Church is comprised of faithful and hardworking people, some of whom will move heaven and earth to fulfill a church assignment simply because it is a church assignment. Our collective widow’s mites are precious hours taken from family, from work, from studies, from the maintenance of our own homes, from other important service, from leisure and recreation, from life.

Case in point: every year my stake is assigned to do Saturday groundskeeping work at our nearest temple, 120 miles away. With country roads, weather, and traffic, it takes nearly five hours to drive a round trip. Given the commute, even a brief shift of weed pulling consumes an entire day. This assignment is a tough sell, not to mention a poor use of time, energy, and fossil fuels. It would make more sense and be more efficient to hire a local landscaping company to do this work, unless—and this is key—members’ time is valued as free. It costs the Church nothing, and it is freely given, but it is not free.

Sometimes wise leadership consists of not asking weary or busy people to run faster. Sometimes agency consists of opting out of an activity that does not make sense or work well. Sometimes charity consists of not judging another’s decision. Nevertheless, the buildings need to be cleaned and maintained. Anyone who does not participate in this work increases the burden of those who do.

I appreciate a clean building as much as the next person. However, if we are truly concerned about having orderly, well-maintained facilities that are inviting to people and to the Spirit alike, there is another solution. Hire a professional janitorial service. Build cleanliness into the budget and the schedule. Rely as little as possible on chance, lay people, and guilt.


One Saturday, I cleaned the church alongside a faithful sister of very modest means who has served countless hours in demanding callings over the years. As we finished and walked out the doors, past the lawn of dandelions to the parking lot, which was cracked and in need of freshly painted lines, she was uncharacteristically irritated and said, without much conviction, “Maybe this works somewhere, but I’d rather pay 11% tithing.”

She has a generous heart. If I have to clean the building, I think I should be paying less, not more, and 9% is my top offer.