In Defense of Missionary Numbers

There’s a fun thing people do with Dalle where they have it create an image with a certain descriptor, then continually ask it to make it “even more X.” In this case I asked it to create a righteous-looking missionary, then asked it to be even more righteous, then even more righteous, etc. After six iterations “The image now portrays the ultimate embodiment of righteousness in a Mormon missionary, reaching a celestial level of virtue and spiritual enlightenment.”

It has become fashionable to deride the use of missionary numbers, ministering metrics, or other quantitative indicators in Church work. An overemphasis on numeric indicators bothered me as much as the next missionary, and nobody can accuse me of being a “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” type member who thinks that Zion will be achieved with some second-coming-of-Mitt Romney MBA clone to whom is revealed God’s chosen seven step program for managerial success. Still, there are people who swing too far the other way, and think that if nothing but a burning testimony of the Savior was good enough for Paul it should be good enough for our missionaries. 

Except it’s really not. Our missionaries are essentially late-teenagers, and as annoying as it is to admit it, it was clear in the mission that having some kind of quantitative standard that we were expected to hit did in fact lead to more proselytizing overall. Were the motives absolutely pure? No, but if God required absolutely pure motives for every effort for His Kingdom there would be a lot less effort expended for His Kingdom. 

Of course, there are some numbers, baptism being the prime example, that hinge on other people’s decisions , and in many cases have a low enough sample size anyway that statistically speaking they map only very imprecisely and noisily onto missionary quality. (I was a bit of a smart aleck on my mission, and when people would try to connect baptism success with not taking a lunch break, spending exactly 10 minutes planning instead of 9 minutes, etc., I would point out that in my highest baptizing area I had an apostate companion that would watch TV with the members we lived with). 

However, other numbers were more achievable by any reasonably productive missionary. In my mission, for example, we were expected to contact at least ten people every day, come heck or high water, and having that expectation, and knowing we’d catch flack if we didn’t meet it, did in fact lead to us being a little more chatty on the metro on the way home. 

Something similar can be said for ministering. As adults with mortgages we’re probably a lot less susceptible to being motivated by a reporting or numbers game than the more-zealous-but-more-immature late-teenagers, but still, knowing that I have to return and report about my ministering assignment does in fact motivate me, if for no other reason to avoid an awkward discussion. If we achieved a state of higher law existence where we naturally fulfill our responsibilities without any reporting or quantitative indicators, then and only then will numbers be superfluous but until then being obedient to a lower law that impels us towards action and concern (because, while the motivations are rarely completely pure, neither are they completely impure either), is better than having a higher law that does not impel us.

21 comments for “In Defense of Missionary Numbers

  1. I agree with most of this. People need structure and guidance. Personally I’m a fan of the Covey 7 Habits stuff. When I was a young adult the day planners helped me with goals and priorities and I think I’m still more productive as a result. I really dislike the quick baptism/salesman techniques and I think the missionary program needs big reform.

  2. mission stats….im getting triggered…I think we had something like 28 stats to keep weekly. Brother Green would say I am remembering it wrong and there was probably only 3… ;) (i kid)

    These stats were reviewed by my CEO mission pres in our mission conferences for all the missionaries to see on an overhead projector. If you had poor stats (in his opinion) you got reamed out, dressed down, yelled at, by him… in the chapel, in front of everyone. Good stats were of course praised and were attributed to exact obedience and overall holiness. What the CEO did not realize was people were tired of getting yelled at so they stared to lie about the stats. This culture was so twisted and jacked up that my trainer lied about our stats because they were too GOOD! What?!

    I think this is more because the church call/hire uber successful biz leaders (for various reasons) that are overachiever type A’ers, hence the worldly success, to lead these missions. These leaders are obsessed (in general) by “success” hence the stats culture. I certainly hope that the church during mission pres training is not teaching them to be this way! Cant be. No way.

    I feel that the church has an unhealthy view of the Lords “go baptize” talk in the scriptures. I dont think God/Jesus care if we baptized more or less from last year #’s. You can tell by how missionaries are trained that we are more concerned about the selling process of missionary work and less about the teaching part. Don’t get me started on retention.

    We have the structure and “guidance” because we decided to send out kids and not adults. I am not saying we shouldn’t send out kids anymore, good luck getting married men to go serve missions like the olden days.

    I hated the obsession with the stats and a close 2nd was the obsession with exact obedience. I am glad lots of things have changed for the better. It makes us look less like a cult.

  3. As someone who served in what was for a while the highest baptizing mission in the church (by one measure anyway), I’m guessing I could tell stories that would top anyone’s; but I won’t. (“Don’t get him started,” my wife would say.) I’m not sure if this is better or worse, though, but in my mission I don’t recall anyone pretending that there was any correlation between baptism numbers and personal righteousness. It was viewed more as a matter of determination and mastery of selling techniques, learned from the sales books that we were assigned to study.

    My experience would support Stephen’s point in one way. When a new mission president relaxed the numbers and high pressure tactics, there were elders who now barely left their apartments, and baptisms dropped to less than 20 percent of what they had been.

  4. I overall agree with the thrust of this post—that there is indeed a sweet spot between being overly numbers driven and giving teenagers too little structure—but as a sidebar, can we take a break from the AI art for a little while? My eyes can only handle so much uncanny valley.

  5. I regret that your church superiors are demanding ministering reports and numbers from you. When home teaching was replaced by ministering, the duty of reporting numbers was purposefully and by inspiration taken away. Please go back and watch the session where ministering was introduced. In ministering, the purpose of ministering interviews is for the elders quorum presidency (for men) to strengthen and encourage ministers, not to receive reports from them.

  6. JB: Lol, I am thinking of moving back to Midjourney, which provides more photorealistic content, but I’m probably too cheap for the $10 a month. 

    JI: I purposefully didn’t say “ministering numbers,” because I know that we’ve moved away from that, even if the numbers aren’t kept anymore I still think the spirit of “return and report” that we have now have, whether it was meant to or not, has some effect of accountability, not so much in terms of getting the right number before the quarter or what not, but just doing it at all, which is where the bar has sunk at this point. So no, they’re not demanding it from me, as a member of the EQ presidency I’m the one talking to other people about their ministering assignments. 

    SDS: That’s interesting that your mission didn’t connect righteousness with baptism number; another example in which mission cultures can vary dramatically from place to place.  

  7. While willing to give the OP the benefit of the doubt as to whether this comment was intended to be sarcastic, watching television is absolutely, unequivocally not “apostate” behavior, even on a mission. The cult of obedience in the Church would conflate mission rules with doctrine and commandments. Just like a beard or a tattoo can be characterized as a heinous sin by the ultra-orthodox, they consider mission rules to be on par with doctrines like denying the Holy Ghost (an exaggeration…but only slightly). That is simply not accurate, nor is doctrinal. Mission rules are designed to modify the behavior of missionaries and not obeying them does not represent “sin” in any way.

    More generally, I cannot speak to contemporary patterns or behaviors, but in the 1980s, numbers did rule most missions (including the one in which I served and those in which my friends served). I actually got off on the wrong foot with my mission president in our first encounter. He asked what my goal was for how many baptisms I would have during my mission. I responded that I had not given that any thought and that my hope was that anyone who joined the Church as a result of my missionary activity would remain actively engaged in the Church. His negative (and, frankly, disappointed and condescending) response to that statement established the parameters of our difficult relationship for the next eighteen months.

  8. Stephen, I hope you can use ministering interviews to strengthen and encourage the brothers you interview, rather than self-imposing a “return and report” mentality. I remember the great promises that were made at the introduction of ministering, and I think part of the reason we are not seeing the results you want is because we’re still in the old mindset.

  9. A: Apologies, I was using “apostate” in the missionary lingo sense, but again I’m sure the lingo varies from mission to mission, but in this sense “apostate” is simply a habitual rule breaker, not somebody who, you know, actually denies the faith.

    ji: Of course, and again the primary function of the interviews is to see how people are doing, but it does make things awkward (having been on the receiving end of this), when you said that you were going to actually talk to your families last time they did ministering interviews, it’s been a while, you have another interview coming up, and you still haven’t done so..

  10. Well, I don’t want to overly belabor our side thread — but I disagree that “the primary function of the interviews is to see how people are doing” — let me suggest that the primary purpose of ministering interviews, maybe even the sole purpose, is the strengthen and encourage the minister. With that perspective, the perspective that Elder Holland and others shared when introducing ministering, everything changes — but in reality, things haven’t changed on the ground, so to speak, because we have not adopted the inspired new perspective rather, we cling to old ways instead.

  11. @ji – I dont think the “brethren” even know what they want regarding the ministering program. When you have talks in general conference by well meaning leaders that say things like “ministering in not less, it is more” the church and its members start clinging to the old ways and over program it. Our culture, like the mission culture, is to always do “more” when these things happen. To me it was clear that when the brethren announced ministering, they in fact meant to chill out about it, not make it more. (men) Members seem to not be able to adjust on this. I tell my minister to never come over but I will reach out IF I ever need something from him. He honors my request so to me he is the best minister I have had. I agree with you, we are clingy to the old way and trying to make something new out of it too.

  12. I think business management is still the go-to worldview of most local church leaders. Looking at the church through that materialistic lens practically demands numerical data.

    Unfortunately, most of those with a management worldview lived home teaching. Data was immediately available. Ministry breaks the box for many. Just the other day or EQ presidency advocated for monthly visits with a message. Luckily, the Bishop slapped down that notion, but more than a few were advocates of reviving home teaching.

    I hope that youth and mission leaders of today learn to provide support in developing ministers who minister as Jesus once did. Because I fear many good people in the older generations don’t get it.

  13. Yeah, it seems that too many church leaders (and members) see stakes, wards, quorums, and so forth as production units with production or output goals, with employees at the bottom and local and regional managers in the hierarchy. I think that mentality is sad and error, and I hope it can change. I like what our Savior did and taught while he lived among mankind.

  14. ji, thank you for your post at 8:31. The reporting of ministering numbers has been one of the most frustrating examples of gaslighting. I was in the EQ Presidency when the shift from HT to ministering was announced and I remember vividly that reporting numbers and interviews were discontinued. I thought I was going mad. Basically ministering, which was meant to be an authentic expression of service has become HT by another name. And I know this makes me a bad Mormon, but I don’t do ministering because of this.

  15. Jason,

    I could be wrong–but I don’t think the interviews were discontinued. Ward leaders still need a way to find out how folks are doing–and that’s where the interviews become useful.

  16. Jack,

    In ministering interviews, elders quorum presidents and their counselors are supposed to strengthen and encourage brothers in the quorum, not receive reports. Holding on to the old ways is so common and prevalent, and may be motivated by good intentions, but we were asked to change our mindsets. Too many among us cannot change as we were asked. I loved the inspired message we heard that day, and I wish that others did, too.


    I understand.

  17. I’m seeing a lot of good things said in the comments; here is my perspective, having just gotten released from a stake calling.

    Ministering is definitely supposed to be more about actual ministering than reports – but nevertheless, data on how much ministering is happening in an area is in fact supposed to be gathered, and does have an impact on how a ward and stake functions. The ‘once a month visit’ mentality may still be strong and is NOT encouraged by the higher-ups; instead, they are hoping for members to create good, strong relationships with members of their congregation that they would not otherwise cross paths with. Their goal is congregational unity, not 100% ministering reports – but the reports nevertheless help the bishop and auxiliary presidents to better understand the needs of their members.

    The problem is, far too many people do not interact at all with those they are assigned to – and therefore needs go unmet and those who are struggling may end up isolated unless they themselves reach out.

    Ministering interviews are meant to be an opportunity for leaders to minister to those under their care; we had multiple trainings on how to reach out with compassion and sincere concern for our ministers. Did that mean our stake had 100% ministering interviews or a metric of ‘number of people helped’? Nope! It meant that we tried our best and hoped that someone had their prayers answered by those who had been called of the Lord to help them – and that we encouraged our leaders to log their interviews so that we knew that the wards were functioning as intended.

  18. “having [X] did in fact lead to more proselytizing overall”

    I do not agree with this argument, which seems to be that more proselytizing is the highest good under consideration.

  19. I think ministering makes Stephen C’s point rather well. Unlike home teaching, there are no set expectations for ministering. There’s no tracking of numbers. And from what I can see (including my own behavior) the result is that a lot less is getting done. I suspect that if missionary work were transformed the same way it would be a disaster.

    The difference is that most of us are not 18 or 19. We’re supposed to be able to handle autonomy and not being commanded in all things. So this is not a criticism of ministering, and I’m optimistic we’ll grow into it. But it is sobering how we did better under the “Law of Moses” of home teaching than we are under the “higher law” of ministering. (I definitely include myself in that statement.)

  20. Stephen, do you include blogging in your monthly ministering stats? Posting is praxis.

    Seriously, I’m very bad at ministering, but I do respond promptly whenever anyone has a need (and I typically get a few of those each month). Something else I’ve done is try to make more of an effort to get to know people in the ward who live close geographically, regardless of ministering assignments.

    I tend to agree with Stephen’s point. It’s certainly possible to go overboard with collecting and emphasizing statistics, but data and management skills are important and you can’t do without them for too long before things start to get flaky.

  21. Lol. Funny you should say that; one of my past ministering families from long ago stated that they weren’t interested in having ministers, so we respected their wishes, but he actually mentioned in passing that he reads my T&S posts, so I joked that I counted that…

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