Will the Real Mormonism Please Step Forward

Mormons are efficient. We are a large, hierarchical faith that runs like a corporation. The Brethren are powerful leaders with the ability to dictate the minutiae of members lives and call forth vast resources at the drop of a hat. Mormon congregations are well oiled machines. They even have so-called “home teachers” that visit members each month just to check up on them and insure that they are serving their proper roles in the Mormon juggernaut. Something like this image frequently appears in media accounts about the Church, and we as often as not like to repeat some version of it to ourselves. How many times have you gleefully heard members discuss the swift efficiency with which Mormons have sped relief supplies to disaster ridden areas. I have to confess, however, that I don’t really buy this image. The reason is that I actually go to church every week.

I don’t know about you, but the Church that I experience on a day to day basis is quite different than the media stereotype of Prussian efficiency. My ward is run completely by amateurs. My bishop is an accountant who occasionally has a deer in the headlights look as he conducts meetings. My elder’s quorum presidency is not a model of efficiency, even though it surely counts as one of the best run presidencies that I have ever seen. Home teaching in our ward is abyssimal, and we were recently lauded by the stake president as the best run ward in the stake. (Be scared. Very scared for the administrative health of the Little Rock Stake.) There are lots of manuals in our ward library, but I think that I would faint from shock if I was to learn that they were being followed even half of the time. From what I gather from my wife, our Relief Society is well run, but seems to spend a disproportionate amount of energy on center-pieces, hardly the stuff of corporate efficiency. Indeed, the only part of my ward that I can honestly say is a model of organization and the efficient use of resources is the nursery. As near as I can tell, everyone else is making it up as they go along and hoping and praying that no-one finds out. No one, of course, will because the rest of us are slightly panicked to realize that we’re the ones running things. Notice, I haven’t even said anything about the missionary program.

To be sure there is some truth to the journalistic stereotype of Mormon organization and efficiency, but most of the time, I live in wonder at the fact that anything works at all. It would be nice if from time to time the larger public persona of Mormonism contained some acknowledgment that the vast majority of all tasks in the Church are carried on by people who basically don’t know what they are doing.

14 comments for “Will the Real Mormonism Please Step Forward

  1. Julie in Austin
    August 2, 2004 at 12:23 pm

    Great post. I would add in the media stereotype of LDS leaders (local and general) as maniacal potentates bent on imposing their own will on hapless sheep. I have virtually no experience with general leaders, but I would say that the primary characteristic of local leaders is a quiet desperation that they won’t mess up anything big.

    That said, I think your post and my addition are a testimony to me of the truthfulness of the Church: the willingness of rank amateurs to go to bat every week, and the amazing good that they accomplish despite their utter lack of qualifications. The fact that there is Church on Sunday to show up for suggests that your ward isn’t that poorly run, after all.

  2. sid
    August 2, 2004 at 12:46 pm

    I agree fully with Julie. i, for one have never felt like I was part of some well -olied, efficient, corporate entity, or like being in a well run military outfit. What I found, coming in as a convert from Hinduism, is a big, loving, caring family, where things might not be as efficient as efficiency experts might not like, but, it made me feel welcome and helped me learn about Heavenly Father and about the Restoration. I wonder what motivates those in the Press to try to portray us as efficient automatons marching in lock-step to orderd from the Leaders at Temple Square.

  3. August 2, 2004 at 1:18 pm

    I think the efficiency might be in relation to the organization of other churches. Most churches have a paid minister who is basically in charge of everything (along with, no doubt, some membership assistance). But the LDS Church largely depends on unpaid members to make sure the church functions at all.

    I remember when living in New Jersey, a local minister basically gained a rudimentary testimony of the gospel but didn’t take the step of getting baptized. He seemed amazed that we had anything at all that resembled hometeaching. I’m sure though he didn’t realize how often wards have a low actual percentage of hometeaching that gets done.

    Speaking of which, some Bloggernacker coders have been helping to execute an idea I had… and it appears we’ve created a hometeaching reminder (or nagger) plugin. Check out either my site or Dan Hersam’s Amidst A Tangled Web blog if you’re interested in getting the code. Dan Hersam’s site provides this in php or javascript, so that it will work on more than one blog brand.

    If you like, you can see this little nagger functioning at the bottom of my left sidebar or at the top of the right sidebar at ldsteach.com (not my site). All it does really is tell you how many days are left in the month to do your hometeaching (or visiting teaching, if you want). It even accounts for leap years and such.

  4. August 2, 2004 at 2:22 pm

    As the quip goes:

    “Those who are critical of organized religion have never seen how MY ward is run.”

  5. August 2, 2004 at 3:08 pm

    What is your concern, Nate? Given the fact that things are carried out by laypeople, that should be more of a testament that through God, all things are possible (except maybe sunbeams sitting through sacrament without having to be carried out once).

    The press has a limited space or block of time to convey tne general impression of a group. Overall, things are run okay. This should be noteworthy. And a great deal of newspieces acknowledge that it’s laypeople doing the work.

    We’re not getting paid to do what we do. While wards aren’t perfect, there are people all over doing amazing jobs and the collective effort is better, IMO than a lot of corporations. It’s motivation is more respectable.

    I’ve honestly never seen a corporation that didn’t have it’s own problems. If you asked most people at my company, they’d say they enjoy their jobs, the company, and their co-workers. If you asked us what we didn’t like, we’d probably say the plethora of forms that have to be complete to manage processes. If we were described in the media, it would be more accurate to say “XYZ, Inc. is a highly successful company where employees pull together to get things done and have fun.” versus “XYZ, Inc. has archaic processes that slow down their efficiency. It’s a miracle anything get’s done with all the bureaucracy around there.” That latter is really minor compared to all the pluses.

  6. Matt Evans
    August 2, 2004 at 4:46 pm

    I think it’s likely that we are less efficient than other churches, but accomplish more because we invest so much more time in church work.

    The press can be better understood to be amazed by our productivity than by our efficiency. In that regard, they are probably right; it’s hard to match the accomplishments of a Mormon congregation. This is true even if we are relatively inefficient and must invest disproportionate resources to accomplish what we do.

    There’s also the possibility that the church is relatively efficient, like capitalism, despite rampant waste and misdirected resources.

  7. Dave Bjarnason
    August 2, 2004 at 4:52 pm

    Anyone who has served a mission can attest to the fact that missionaries, far from being hyper-efficient automatons, often strugle to remain focused and on task. They’re only human. None the less, they still manage to accomplish a great deal of good.

    My father has remarked to me on several occasions: “If the Church wasn’t true the missionaries would have killed it a long time ago.”

  8. August 2, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    Perhaps too, it would be useful to speak of specifics — the church is most productive in the following ways … or the church is most efficient in the following ways …

  9. Emily
    August 2, 2004 at 6:10 pm

    I think that maybe some of it has to do with an overall image. Maybe on an individual basis, wards aren’t 100% perfect with home teaching or using manuals or whatever criteria you’re considering… BUT overall, it church’s leadership constitutes somewhat of a backbone that gives your ward -some- structure.

    Whether or not the people in your ward or other wards put the doctrine to practice or not, the way that it’s all set up (if run effectively) is brilliant. I think that’s one of the things that gets media attention.

    Also, I really doubt that the lack of efficiency is as widespread as you would assume– in my experience (my ward, and also many wards I’ve visited while traveling), there are a lot of amazing wards out there that do a whole lot of good.

  10. Chris
    August 2, 2004 at 7:08 pm

    I am continually amazed at the amount of work that is done by volunteers within the Church whether or not it is done efficiently. In fact, I wonder what it means to say that it isn’t done efficiently when you consider that nearly every member of my ward leadership is doing his or her best to balance a job, a family, and a demanding calling.

    As an example, my bishop who has no management experience is managing budgets, multiple auxiliaries, seeing that a sacrament meeting is organized every week, dealing with dozens of interviews on a weekly basis and on and on. It seems nearly impossible to do that “ineffeciently” though I’m sure there are those who could do it better.

  11. greenfrog
    August 2, 2004 at 8:08 pm

    In response to the idea that there is some merit or side benefit to inefficiency…

    Under what (if any) circumstances would it be appropriate to save the drive time of all concerned and hold correllation, ward council, or PEC meetings by conference call, rather than in person? What is gained and lost by such an approach?

  12. August 3, 2004 at 10:59 am

    I have participated in EQ presidency meetings via conference call. I was in a car in the Florida Keys, on the way to Miami, the EQ president was in New York, and the other two people were at home in Boston. I have to tell you that singing an opening hymn was a bit strange, especially when you consider that I wasn’t driving the car, a co-worker was and he wasn’t singing, just laughing. Also, cell service in the keys is pretty bad. I was dropped and had to dial back in a few times.

  13. Adam Greenwood
    August 3, 2004 at 10:59 am

    Nate, what about your experience in the corporate or academic world makes you think that they are well-run corporate machines? The military certainly isn’t a well-run military machine.

    We’re worse, though, granted.

  14. August 3, 2004 at 11:10 pm

    Most wards I’ve lived in have been quite similar in thier inefficiency to what Nate describes, but I also have to say that several of them, when called upon to do so, have been able to rise to the occasion and marshal the resources necessary to address some particular challenge. Some people might tread water in their callings a good deal of the time, especially when there doesn’t some to be any crisis looming on the horizon, but when some urgent need does come along, everybody already has an assigned job to do, and they do it.

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