I once had an idea for a cartoon. I pictured an angry, offended chicken confronting a startled cat. "No, this is not a chicken 'coop,"' the blustery hen is saying, "it's a chicken 'co-op."'

I think of that old hen whenever I hear people make unfair demands of their church leaders, or the church itself. And I've wondered if such folks feel "cooped up" in church because they've never caught the "co-op" spirit.

When people accept money for their services — from singing lessons to termite control — there's an obligation that needs to be met. There's nothing wrong with that. But in spiritual matters it can lead to conflicts. When a spiritual leader is a volunteer, the only obligation is to God — for both the leader and the led.

In my experience, Saints from Latin America can struggle with a belief in church "patronage." LDS Church leaders are seen as the great protectors in return for loyalty. I suspect that's because Latin American culture is based on such things. The president of the country is the great provider. And citizens repay him with their devotion. In business, politics and in social circles, everyone looks for a "patron" — a sponsor — to give them a leg up. Even in their religion, people turn to "patron saints" — holy people in heaven who provide special protection and care in exchange for devotion.

It's a natural impulse. As children we look at our fathers like that. They provide. We trust and follow.

It's in matters of the spirit where real conflicts arise. It's easy to get confused and split one's allegiance. If we're carpenters, say, and pray to St. Joseph for help, how much devotion, then, do we owe to God? Should we curry favor with religious leaders to gain benefits? Give to charity in order to "get ahead"?

Pretty soon, if we're not careful, we end up in that "serving two masters" debacle.

I've wondered if such thinking wasn't behind Jesus telling the people, "Call no man your father upon the earth; for one is your Father, which is in heaven."

The word "patron" comes from the same root as "paternal." It means "father." So to paraphrase the scripture, "Call no man patron." I think Jesus was telling people to serve and receive only from God. God was their protector, their provider, their counselor and comforter. If people started getting such benefits from some earthly "father" in exchange for loyalty, they'd end up divided. And a divided house cannot stand. They would no longer be "perfect" — meaning whole, complete and unfractured.

And so, in the end, I've come to see the "spiritual co-op" approach as a mark of the genius in Mormon culture. One day you're a stake president. The next day you're teaching Sunday School. Revolving callings with no salary keeps leaders from trying to become the "fathers" of the people and keeps the people from getting too attached to "earthly fathers."

That way, everyone — angry hens and catty cats alike — will feel helpful instead of "cooped up" by the church.

Jerry Johnston is a Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in the Mormon Times section.

E-mail: [email protected]