The news is out that LDS leaders are adding a fourth mission for the Church: caring for the poor and needy. According to an official LDS spokesman cited in the Salt Lake Tribune article, the new mission (or purpose or emphasis) will be included in the new edition of the Handbook of Instructions to be issued next year. With a publishing deadline looming, I propose that we put our collective heads together and see whether we need a fifth mission as well. Perhaps adding a fourth mission alone is not enough to fill in the gaps apparently missed by the first three missions.
For background, go read the Keepa post “Origin of the ‘Threefold Mission of the Church’ Statement.” That post relates how in 1981 President Kimball identified three missions for the Church: proclaim the gospel, perfect the saints, and redeem the dead. This pithy statement of goals is useful for paring down the Church agenda, which at the time President Kimball laid out the three missions had bloated to include a wide variety of sports, cultural, and educational programs that had little to do with the gospel of proclaiming, perfecting, and redeeming. The contemporaneous work of Correlation to reign in the then-autonomous auxiliary organizations of the Church, which were partly responsible for the bloated organizational agenda, was another manifestation of the desire for a more focused Church. It was about getting back to gospel basics, one might say.
But getting organizational priorities right is never a one-off affair. As circumstances change, new priorities emerge. A trickier problem is that organizations have their own inertia which can take a policy or goal and transform it, over time, into something largely unrelated to the original directive. The popular term “mission creep” captures this effect. Here’s the opening paragraph from the Wikipedia discussion of mission creep:
Mission creep is the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, often after initial successes. The term often implies a certain disapproval of newly adopted goals by the user of the term. Mission creep is usually considered undesirable due to the dangerous path of each success breeding more ambitious attempts, only stopping when a final, often catastrophic, failure occurs. The term was originally applied exclusively to military operations, but has recently been applied to many different fields, mainly the growth of bureaucracies.
Adding a fourth mission is an implicit admission that three was not enough. Or that the three mission paradigm, as applied in the Church, was not getting the job done. Or that mission creep has occurred and some corrections are in order. Obviously, caring for the poor and needy was somehow not getting the organizational attention it deserved. Is there anything else that we’re missing?
My nomination: the youth of the Church. For organizational purposes, “We shall not let the youth of Zion falter” would be a nice statement. What do we do? We proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. We care for the poor and needy. We strengthen our youth.
It’s not that we don’t care about the youth now. But stated goals influence how organizational resources are used or, in simpler terms, how the money is spent. The proclaiming and redeeming prongs of the present three-mission statement support organizational budgets that direct huge amounts of money to support the worldwide mission program and an ever-expanding network of temples. At the same time, ward youth programs limp along on the meager provisions of the ward budget. Wouldn’t it be nice if the priority that we think we place on our youth were to get translated into organizational terms that would allow some of the resources that the LDS bureaucracy controls to flow to youth programs? If the youth really are a priority, let’s put them on the mission agenda.
The bottom line is that global statements of mission or purpose or emphasis do have an effect. Such statements focus the energy and resources of auxiliaries, staff, and local leaders on the stated priorities. Caring for the poor and the needy will shortly be given a higher priority. I think the youth (who we are losing in larger numbers than ever before!) need a higher organizational priority as well. Any other nominations? More generally, how can we as a church make the three-missions paradigm a more effective agenda for meeting the needs of the membership of the Church?