The Church under Quarantine: SWOT Analysis

SWOT stands for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats.” I take it that SWOT analysis is something every business major learns their first semester. I’ve never been a business major, but a SWOT analysis seems like a reasonable way to start thinking about what the church is facing in these virus-invested times of unknown duration.

A SWOT analysis of the church’s basic missions (with “perfecting the saints” articulated as curriculum, ordinances, and organization) might look like this:

Strengths

  • Humanitarian aid: The church has financial and material resources ready to go to those in need. It has established partners to work with. The current moment is a target-rich environment for humanitarian assistance.
  • Missionary work: The church’s missionary program is large and well organized. Missionaries have already gained experience working with Facebook, Zoom, and mobile apps.
  • Temple work: A lot of family history work can be done individually and online, including indexing, database searching, and preparing family names for ordinances.
  • Curriculum: There is a long-established tradition of broadcasting biannual General Conferences and at least parts of some regional conferences. The new home-based curriculum has been in place for 15 months.
  • Ordinances: Some households can administer the sacrament under the direction of their bishop.
  • Organization: There is a unified leadership structure that is able to give instructions worldwide and have them carried out with little to no delay. The president of the church is an MD. Alternate online methods for some things exist, including seminary and leadership meetings.

These are all significant. If the church has to go for an extended period without regular ward meetings or operating temples, it has real assets and experience to draw on.

Weaknesses

  • Humanitarian aid: When people are the vector of risk, all those “Mormon Helping Hands” have to stay home. Many traditional avenues of rendering aid are shut if people are sheltering in place.
  • Missionary work: There is no easy replacement for regular face-to-face contact. Missionaries have little opportunity to contact other people, and there are no church meetings to invite interested people to. Missionaries may be left with very little to do for an indefinite time, and prospective missionaries may see little point in serving at this time.
  • Temple work: With no temples operating, or temples at most performing living ordinances, family history work done now cannot progress to completion of vicarious ordinances.
  • Curriculum: The majority of the curriculum delivery structure, including all instruction for children and adults at the ward level, is out of commission.
  • Ordinances: Fundamental ordinances like baptism cannot be performed. Urgently needed ordinances like blessings for the sick cannot be performed in the face of a highly infectious disease. All ordinations to priesthood offices are on hold indefinitely.
  • Organization: There is no way to ratify callings, reorganize presidencies, or set people apart.

Despite all those strengths, there are warning lights flashing red across the dashboard. Missionary work may be the most adversely affected facet of the church.

Threats

  • Humanitarian aid: Low risk.
  • Missionary work: If there is a long delay before normal missionary work can resume, the entire missionary force and infrastructure will have to be rebuilt nearly from scratch. There may be no currently serving missionaries to train new missionaries, no known contacts with potentially interested people, and no experienced mission leaders. Given the large and rising number of coronavirus cases in the U.S., the largely American missionary force will risk being seen in other countries – perhaps correctly – as carriers of disease. Borders to other countries may be closed for an extensive period. A church that has no opportunity to present itself to the outside world risks becoming a church that doesn’t try to present itself to the outside world.
  • Temple work: Efficiently submitting names for ordinance work may come to take the place of actually performing the multiple and lengthy ordinances, with a corresponding loss of perceived significance.
  • Curriculum: With nearly all instruction now going on outside the supervision of the ward leadership, there is the potential for doctrinal drift.
  • Ordinances: Ordinances that cannot be performed risk theological reanalysis as ordinances that aren’t necessary, with substantial doctrinal consequences.
  • Organization: Nearly all the central leadership belongs to a high-risk demographic. At the local level, over time, organizations can lose personnel and presidencies can break down without a way for new callings to be extended. With so much of the local unit not functioning for an indefinite period, the church risks becoming a strictly media-based church.

    If response to the pandemic becomes politicized, church leaders could face conflicting pressures to resume meetings or maintain the suspension. If meetings are resumed too soon, this will only become apparent two to four weeks after the fact, when ward members and their friends and family are dying. Every sacrament meeting is an epidemiological catastrophe and a PR disaster waiting to happen.

    No matter when the church’s universities resume normal operations, some students will bring disease back with them. Without in-person classes or social life, attending school at a BYU campus (or anywhere, for that matter) becomes a questionable value proposition. Prospective students may decide to wait a year rather than enrolling in universities whose normal operation is not assured. Members reaching college or mission age may find no attractive avenue for either one, and no prospect for meaningful employment.

It would be an exaggeration to describe the current threats facing the church due to the pandemic as “the beast with seven heads and ten horns,” but looking over the list, you might forgive the exaggeration. Some of these are potentially existential threats.

But there are also opportunities to be found.

Opportunities

  • Humanitarian aid: With some deft moves, the church could gain considerable goodwill for itself in places (both geographic and social) that have been less open to dialog or suspicious of the church.
  • The entire missionary program can be rethought for the 21st century.
  • Temple work: Rebuilding or returning to the temple was a major, epochal event in the Old Testament. It could be the same way for us. The church could turn the reopening of the temples and resumption of vicarious ordinances into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for personal renewal and recommitment.
  • Curriculum: Every Sunday, all over the world, we are conducting an experiment in home-centered church meetings. Extended families and friends are sharing ideas. What works well can be systematized and scaled up. Enough people are looking to podcasts, broadcasts, and videos that this feature of Sunday worship may be with us to stay.
  • Ordinances: The first regular sacrament meeting could be a major event on the local level, with all members given special invitation to participate. Resumption of baptismal services could be used as a formal renewal of missionary work on the local level.
  • Organization: In an environment where many things can’t be done, local leaders may have an opportunity to determine what is essential and what is optional, and commit time and resources accordingly.

The church’s missions don’t entirely describe the activities and concerns of the church and its membership, and this is just one person’s first attempt, so there are undoubtedly many things missing. Other things may simply be wrong: What I think is the case worldwide may only apply to my ward or stake. But somewhere in Salt Lake City, there’s probably a document vaguely similar to this.

4 comments for “The Church under Quarantine: SWOT Analysis

  1. March 31, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    I’m worried about the effects of isolation on, especially, the young (increased risk for child abuse) and the old (increased risk for depression). I would love to see isolated missionaries (and others) address the problem virtually: they could volunteer to listen to a 4-year-old describe in loving detail every toy in the toy box while her parents get a much-needed break, and they could listen to and record personal history stories from older folks.

  2. queuno
    March 31, 2020 at 5:09 pm

    This is a great chance to keep simplifying or redirecting some programs. YM/YW could be turned into a junior service program. Many SLC HQ functions could be offloaded to younger missionaries around the world. A smaller, nimbler church focused on the essentials.

  3. acw
    March 31, 2020 at 6:23 pm

    Some additional thoughts: Seminary has all moved online; will early morning resume afterwards? What kind of a mixed format will our future administrative and ministering meetings take now that so many have become unnecessary or possible via Zoom? Given the current chaos in the missionary department, I foresee a loss of faith in the prophetic nature of calls/assignments and increasing distrust of institutional revelation given that this wasn’t “foreseen” and prepared for by the organization (although some see President Nelson’s home church/civil wedding/take your vitamins moves as inspired). Possible change to wedding culture with so many civil elopements.

  4. TTSB
    March 31, 2020 at 6:31 pm

    There’s a very real threat that missionary work never recovers as people distrust foreign strangers bringing foreign viruses.
    That church members disconnect and no longer care to come to church when it resumes.
    That authoritarian regimes abuse the willingness of people’s and institutions to self-isolate to keep the people (more) isolated and dependent on the regime in power.
    That various anti religious groups use this as precedent for future church closures for the benefit of the community.

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