The Perils of Setting Baptismal Goals

I am a lousy journal writer. Always have been. Yes, I kept a journal as a young child at my parents’ insistence and it is fun to go back and visit those juvenile entries once in a blue moon. But ever since I was seven, I have only made diary entries on rare occasion. Even as a missionary, I couldn’t bring myself to write regularly. I always felt like there was no obvious method for selecting what I should include and exclude from my daily drama, so rather than having to make judgment calls as to what would be important to put on paper, it was easier just to bag the whole project.

This evening, while I was perusing through some old files, I happened upon a mini-essay I penned as a missionary, written on a piece of paper stuck between two pages of my (nearly empty) missionary journal. The essay is undated, though I believe I wrote it about half way through the mission. I have fixed some of the punctuation and translated the occasional Spanish word into English, but otherwise, I resisted the temptation to give it an edit (which it desperately needs). Here it is:

Why I do not have and will not have a mission baptismal goal

When I first arrived in the mission field, I arrived at my first area at the same time as my trainer, and we basically opened the area. There had been 2 missionaries working there immediately before us, but they had not been working like they should, so they were removed, leaving us with basically nothing to start with. Within the first 7 weeks I was there, my comp Elder Zacarias and I had 13 baptisms. Needless to say, that was the highest number of baptisms performed by a companionship in the mission that month, and was the highest the mission had seen in quite some time. We became rather famous in the mission for a short time, and of course reveled in the praises and respect given us by our mission president, as well as fellow missionaries.

Let it be stated that I was just a greenie at the time, who often felt he was just being taken along for the ride, but Elder Zacarias was an experienced elder who had had somewhat similar experiences throughout his mission. Elder Zacarias had set a baptismal goal of 100 baptisms in his mission, and I do believe, if I’m not mistaken, that he reached it. Needless to say, he left the Mission Trelew with one of the highest number of baptisms for a missionary ever achieved in the mission. I’m sure he returned home at the end of his 2-year stay quite content with his work, and felt that his mission had been a complete success. . . . but from my point of view, in many ways, Zacarias’ mission was a complete DISASTER.

What the rest of the mission didn’t see (and what I believe the president chose not to see) was the real, behind-the-scenes story behind the numbers Zacarias was pulling in, a story I fully lived as his companion for two months. The truth was, although Zacarias admittedly had many excellent qualities as a missionary (his ability to animate members and investigators, build social trust, leave spiritual impressions, and work unceasingly were among the best I’ve ever seen in the mission field), he was driven by a burning lust for high numbers and personal recognition, and nothing was more important to him than this. Because of this, Zacarias left behind him a legacy of baptized drunks, and instant inactives — inactives not because of the many unforeseeable motives that might drive people inactive (indeed, we as missionaries cannot always blame ourselves for the choices of our investigators, saying it was wrong to baptize them. But in these cases, the responsibilities of the missionary to ensure preparedness and appropriate baptismal motives were not fulfilled, and that is definitely deserving of blame), but because of the simple fact they were unprepared (many never had any church attendance) or had never gained testimonies (some had never read almost any of the Book of Mormon).

So what’s my point? What this all boils down to, I think, is a dilemma that not only I have had to face during my mission, but one that I think all missionaries have to face at one time or another. . . The eternal struggle between QUALITY and QUANTITY. Theoretically, it goes without saying that everybody wants the maximum quality and maximum quantity out of their baptisms. But the simple, mathematical reality is that less quality inevitably leads to more quantity and vs. versa. Every missionary learns that the line between the two has to be drawn somewhere, and each missionary has to make the decision for himself/herself as to where he/she chooses to do it. And working within a system (such as the mission) that is so numbers-oriented (or appears to be becoming so), it is very easy to take the Zacarias option and make a “run for the glory.” Needless to say, many do. And then we foolishly ask ourselves why we have a 70% inactivity rate in South America.

I will repeat. . . missionaries cannot blame themselves every time a baptism goes inactive. Inactivity is the free agency of every individual. But if we have not done all that we can to prepare our baptisms. . . if we have not ensured that our investigators have gained adequate testimonies of the gospel, then we are at least partially at fault for their failures.

So why don’t I set a number as a baptismal goal? I choose not to because I don’t want to risk becoming another Zacarias. Not even a little bit. Instead, my goal in the mission is to work as hard as I can, to the best of my ability to bring about as many baptisms as I can, be that 10 or 1000. My baptismal success depends upon many things (the personal choices of my investigators, my teaching ability, the openness of the people, their reception to the Spirit, God’s will, my faith, etc.), but in the end, at least I will know that I’ve done my best, and I’ve done it for the right reasons. I see no reason to cloud my judgment by tempting myself with inappropriate motives.

It is fun to read the thoughts of a much younger me. I get to relive some of the frustrations and other emotions that I felt all those years ago. But what I want to know from you all is: did the 20-year old Aaron Brown have a point, or was he just blowing smoke?

I assume my observation as to the inevitable tradeoff between “quality” converts and high numbers of baptisms is a true, and perhaps obvious, one. (But feel free to disagree if you’re so inclined). More interesting to me is the question of setting goals, per se. Does the very act of setting a numerical baptismal goal increase the chances of one’s cutting corners in preparing investigators, obsessing inappropriately about numbers, overfocusing on outward, meaningless benchmarks of success and viewing potential converts as mere means to a selfish end? Wouldn’t missionaries be better off making sure their hearts are in the right place, their motives are pure, and that they are working hard, leaving the Lord to take care of the numbers? Or was I wrong to identify the act of goal-setting, per se, as the source of Elder Zacarias’ problems? Are there virtues to the goal-setting process that more than offset any of the negatives I mentioned? Or is goal-setting itself not the source of the problem at all, contrary to my essay, and I was engaging in a serious misdiagnosis? A penny for your thoughts…

Aaron B

Comments

  1. “At least in the 90’s, Chile was something crazy. I would blame the low rentention in Chile on the inablility, or lack of effort, of wards and branches to do the work necessary to retain new converts. At any rate, whatever was happening in Chile was definately not happening in the rest of the world”

    The above statement by Hmm is patently offensive not to mention ignorant. The Saints in Chile went above and beyond in an attempt to draw junk baptisms into activity. The reason many previously active Saints went inactive was the inordinate draw on their time represented by new baptisms who had no clue about the Church and no intention of staying active.

    As far as Chile not being representative of the rest of the world, again, your ignorance shines through. Three other Latin American countries show the same pattern as Chile.

    Take a look at census data from Brazil, Chile, and Mexico. You’ll find only 20-24% of those the Church claims in those countries as members actually consider themselves as such.
    In Mexico, this turns out to be 202K, Brazil 197K and Chile 107K versus 1 million, 900K, and 520K respectively. Remember, these are only identification rates, not activity rates, which are lower still.

    Here are the links where you can see for yourself:
    Chile
    http://www.ine.cl/cd2002/religion.pdf

    Mexico (click on ver cuadro)
    http://www.inegi.gob.mx/est/librerias/tabulados.asp?tabulado=tab_re01b&c=738

    Brazil
    http://www.ibge.gov.br/home/estatistica/populacao/censo2000/populacao/religiao_Censo2000.pdf

  2. “But its a decision that you are not authorized, or qualified to make”

    Could you clarify that for me? I’m certain you are aware that it is indeed teenage missionaries who interview candidates for baptism, so what do you mean? If you are saying that if a person is able to respond appropriately to all baptismal interview questions, then a missionary should not stand in the way of their baptism, then I agree with you. But I’m not sure that is what you mean.

    Could you also clarify exactly what you mean by a correlation between high baptisms and high retention. How were they measuring retention?

    Also, that may have been the case in California (why can’t you post the stats), but it certainly was not the case in Chile or the Philippines.

  3. “I frankly find your views on this matter bizarre. No, deciding someone “isn’t ready” for baptism is not depriving them of their right to utilize the atonement. It is trying to help them better prepare themselves so that when they finally do get baptized, they will better understand the significance of the atonement and be more likely to make it effective in their lives.”

    But its a decision that you are not authorized, or qualified to make. No matter how noble your intentions, you are depriving them of the first life saving ordinance. If your way if thinking is correct, then why don’t we all wait for the moment when we “better understand the significance of the atonement and are more likely to make it more effective” in our lives to be baptized? Why do we baptize 8 year olds?

    “You’ll note that the “protocols set forth by the Brethren” certainly do not sanction the immediate baptism of any drunk on the street, Brigham’s comments notwithstanding. So which is it? Do you think any of the current “protocols” are important, or not? For example, in the Los Angeles mission, investigators now must attend Church several times more than they used to as a prerequisite to baptism. Presumably you think this is a bad idea, since the delay is unnecessarily depriving them of the blessings of the atonement. How frustrating this all must be for you.”

    The current protocols are extremely important and I would never advocate ignoring them. But you are trying to add to them. If a missionary follows the protocols, asks the commitment questions and the investigator complies, he better baptize him, whether or not he believes that the investigator was sincere in his commitments. I don’t see who anyone can think otherwise.

    “As to the discussion of “quality” vs. “quantity,” I don’t claim to know how baptismal rates correlate with retention rates in most missions, but I very seriously doubt the relationship is a positive one, as you suggest. If anyone else out there knows, feel free to chime in, but I suspect your empirical assumptions are simply mistaken.”

    I can tell you that I have, in my possession, the convert baptism numbers and retention numbers for all California missions between the years of 1990 and 1998. Its not a perfect correlation accross the whole spectrum, but it is very strong. From 1993 to 1997, for instance, the highest baptizing mission (which was leading the other California missions by a wide margin) also had the highest retention rate. I won’t post the numbers and I won’t produce the documents, so I won’t expect you to believe me. Maybe someone else out there in blogger land will back me up on this one. You know, “by the mouth of two or three . . . ” ;)

    I understand your concern that too may people are baptized who are not really ready. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. But the Brethern have established the process for baptism. Missionaries should follow it. If a member of the Twelv

  4. Hmmm. . . says:

    “The above statement by Hmm is patently offensive not to mention ignorant. The Saints in Chile went above and beyond in an attempt to draw junk baptisms into activity.”

    There is really no reason for you to be offended. Certain missions in Chile were baptizing 1000 people a month. The wards and branches in Chile just didn’t have the priesthood leadership or man power to keep up with those kinds of numbers. I said that they either didn’t have the resources or they were unwilling. I didn’t mean to imply that ALL saints in Chile were unwilling. Both of my statements are true.

    “As far as Chile not being representative of the rest of the world, again, your ignorance shines through. Three other Latin American countries show the same pattern as Chile.”

    I was speaking about baptismal rates. The other countries didn’t have any where near the baptismal rates that Chile was having. Chile was special.

    “Take a look at census data from Brazil, Chile, and Mexico. You’ll find only 20-24% of those the Church claims in those countries as members actually consider themselves as such.
    In Mexico, this turns out to be 202K, Brazil 197K and Chile 107K versus 1 million, 900K, and 520K respectively. Remember, these are only identification rates, not activity rates, which are lower still.”

    I have no doubt that these numbers are accurate. They tell a sad story, but I fail to see how they add to the discussion. Unless, of course, you are implying that those who answered that they do not consider themselves members of the church should not have been baptized to start out with.

    “The reason many previously active Saints went inactive was the inordinate draw on their time represented by new baptisms who had no clue about the Church and no intention of staying active.”

    Well, following the logic of most on this board, those previously active members probably never had a testimony to start out with, because, we all know that the inordinate draw on their time is not a good reason to go inactive. Their actions have therefore shown that they lacked true conversion, therefore, they should never have been baptized to start out with. Right?

    And what on Earth is “junk baptism” supposed to mean?

  5. (continued). . . . .If a member of the Twelve commits someone to baptism and then decides that that person really isn’t ready, so be it. But the church doesn’t need a bunch of teenagers deciding. Missionaries should never cut corners on the established protocol, but its equally alarming when they add to it . . . and it seems to be happening all the time.

    As sincere as your feelings on the matter are, I think they tend to give missionaries an excuse to fail before they even try.

  6. Aaron Brown says:

    …. understanding and worthiness. How did you put up with all this unnecessary nonsense for two years? Maybe someday you’ll become a mission president and be able to facilitate the rapid, mass baptismal ceremonies that God apparently prefers. A word of advice: why not set up a community baseball league, and baptize all the neighborhood schoolkids in droves? Rumor has it it’s been tried before, and with great numerical success!

    As to the discussion of “quality” vs. “quantity,” I don’t claim to know how baptismal rates correlate with retention rates in most missions, but I very seriously doubt the relationship is a positive one, as you suggest. If anyone else out there knows, feel free to chime in, but I suspect your empirical assumptions are simply mistaken.

    As to President Hinkley’s comments: I am not claiming to have said the last word on the virtues and vices of goal-setting. Obviously, Church leaders believe that setting goals is beneficial, and I am not claiming to be smarter than them. I am merely pointing out that there seems to be a serious downside to the preoccupation with numerical targets, and I freely invited counterarguments in my post. I suspect there are counterarguments to be made, even though many commenters here happened to agree with my basic point.

    Finally, as to my “cult following,” I can only say I hope you’re right! I would really love to have a cult following, and I am thrilled that at least one person perceives the cult to be coalescing. Once my dutiful followers reach a critical mass, I plan on demanding a cut of their tithing, and I will be able to quit my day job. :)

    Aaron B

  7. Last_lemming says:

    I think it was more the Lord’s gift to a faithful missionary, though, than the fruits of the goal-setting method.

    I had countless arguments with my ZLs over the futility of setting goals that depended upon the agency of others. Their response was that the Lord had revealed to the mission president that there were plenty of people who would choose to be baptized if a faithful missionary would just find them and teach them with the Spirit. Therefore, it was not inappropriate to set high goals. In other words, they did not see any distinction between the fruits of goal-setting and the Lord presenting a faithful missionary with a “gift.”

    I have never come up with a convincing counterargument. But I still routinely decline missionaries’ invitations to “set a date” by which one of my acquaintences will start taking the discussions.

  8. Last summer Sister Oaks and I were in Manaus, Brazil. I spoke to about a hundred missionaries in that great city on the Amazon. As I stood to speak, I was prompted to put aside some notes I usually use on such occasions and substitute some thoughts on the importance of timing–some of the scriptures and principles I have been talking about today.

    I reminded the missionaries that some of our most important plans cannot be brought to pass without the agency and actions of others. A missionary cannot baptize five persons this month without the agency and action of five other persons. A missionary can plan and work and do all within his or her power, but the desired result will depend upon the additional agency and action of others. Consequently a missionary’s goals ought to be based upon the missionary’s personal agency and action, not upon the agency or action of others.

    Dallin H. Oaks, BYU devotional 1/29/2002

    Aaron, I guess you ar lucky that elder Uchtdorf and elder Bednar accepted their recent calls to service. You were a decade ahead of Dallin H. Oaks with your insight.

    Truly, you are a spiritual giant.

  9. Aaron,

    Fortunately, I had a really good mission president who didn’t go along with the baptism/numbers game. I remember a zone conference where he specifically advised against it, and used the example of Abinadi. Going just by numbers, Abinadi was a lousy missionary.

    He encouraged us to set goals in terms of hours worked, new contacts made, etc., but also to allow for the agency of others. A very wise man.

  10. Aaron Brown says:

    And note that the exercise of this discretion is in no sense “adding” to the mission “protocols” inappropriately. It is an exercise of discretion that the missionaries already have, and rightly so. The missionaries are our footsoldiers in the war for converts, and if we’re going to trust them to be effective vessels for the Spirit as they teach our friends, there’s no obvious reason why we shouldn’t trust them to use discretion as to how they manage the investigation process for each potential convert.

    Elder Zacarias was largely uninterested in the actual spiritual progress of our investigators. Elder Zacarias was interested in reaching “100 baptisms” before the end of his mission, and he did. We taught a lot of discussions, got everybody to say “yes” when they needed to, and baptized a bunch of people. Hooray. Zacarias was even able to say that he baptized a Protestant minister that had personally baptized over 300 people into his own congregation – a feat for which Zacarias was quite proud. It probably would have been better to slow down a bit with this gentleman, to actually see whether he had ever opened the Book of Mormon after the first time we had read it to him (he hadn’t, I later learned). Then, perhaps we could have helped him become truly converted. But no … that would have slowed down Zacarias’ momentum toward the big 100! Besides, in order to “count” him, Zacarias needed him to get dunked before transfers. And so he was.

    Aaron B

  11. a random John says:

    Goal setting is not the problem. Making everyone’s numbers public is the problem. That is what gives people the wrong motivation. Why does the one hand have to know what the other is doing? Why is it a competition? It is very odd how the esteem of your fellow missionaries can seem like the most important thing in the world. Especially when you consider that you will never see 98% of them again in your life. Ok, make that 50% of them if you are so unfortunate as to go to BYU.

    I could go on and on, but the stories are upsetting and I honestly don’t know any of you (with a few exceptions) well enough to share. I will say that predicting quality either way with any certainty is nearly impossible from what I have seen.

  12. Aaron Brown says:

    Hmmm,

    While I believed (and believe) that missionaries ought to exercise more discretion with respect to their investigators than they often do, you misunderstand the nature of the discretion I advocate. I am not suggesting that, assuming an investigator jumps through all the hoops (takes 6 discussions, answers “yes” to the commitments, passes the interview), missionaries should add an extra hoop in the form of “Do I, Elder X, think my investigator should qualify for baptism, notwithstanding their having met the other formal requirements?” Yes, I can see why giving the missionaries permission to impose additional, ad hoc criteria on the baptismal process would be troublesome.

    But I do think that elders can and should do a much better job of exercising discretion in other areas. For example, when a missionary finishes a discussion, and evaluates how it went with his companion, he hopefully is not only interested in the question “Did we make it through all 6 principles, and did our investigator say “yes” at the appropriate moments?” Ideally, a missionary is also thinking about other questions, such as:

    –Did our investigator seem to understand what we were teaching?
    –Did our investigator seem to mean it when he answered “yes,” or was he just being polite or knee-jerk compliant?
    –If he didnÂ’t understand, how can we slow down and better help him understand?
    –If heÂ’s saying all the right things, but doesnÂ’t really seem to buy into the significance of Principle X, how can we help him to better grasp its significance?

    If a missionary really cares about his investigatorÂ’s eternal progress, as he should, he will be interested in these questions, and tailor the timing and nature (to some extent) of the discussions accordingly. If a missionary is unduly preoccupied with meeting a numerical baptismal goal, he is much more likely to try to rush through the discussions as quickly as possible, ignoring the questions above, perhaps in order to improve his baptismal stats before the next transfer. I obviously think that too much focus on achieving numerical goals creates incentives to rush inappropriately through the baptismal process.

  13. I almost didnt serve a mission for fear of not being a capable missionary. I had heard a hefty amount of negative responses from rm’s upon my decision to serve in regards to sister missionaries, and didnt want to be some burden interfering with the Lord’s work. It would of been easy not to, being a girl, but I couldnt shake the repetitive awnser I was recieving much to my annoyance and had to set some ground rules for myself.
    I discovered very quickly that if I compared myself to the elders in doctrinal knowledge, in numbers, in my ability to speak over other people (isolated cases) that I would become discouraged. I am of course an individual and had such qualities to offer in the missionfield and life. I did set goals as to numbers of discussions and progression of investigators, and not until the near end did I realize the healthy perspective I had obtained from not trying to compete. My less experienced companions would get discouraged when we came nowhere near our goal numbers despite our efforts and I found words of near wisdom spouting from my mouth. I explained that if we based success as missionaries on such superficial results, we had indeed failed. We were dealing with free agency and could not force or manipulate others into fullfilling our goals, no matter how great our faith. I would find that in not attaining anywhere near our goal and timidly explaining why to our district leader I would happen upon an ephinany as to the progression of a contact or invenstigator that I had overlooked in our tireless struggle to be perfect missionaries.
    I served spanish speaking in Toronto Canada and it never ceased to amaze me how a handfull of the english speaking elders would make great attempts to teach the spanish. In instances where we would meet a new hispanic face in the chapel only to find that he was meeting with the english for his baptismal interview. Upon brief conversation we would discover that they had no idea what the word priesthood meant but readily recognized the word sacerdocio. Granted teaching in english was not always easy in that great multicultural city, but what was the motive in not turning those ready spanish speakers over to us to recieve the gospel in their own language?
    Two years after the mission, I am still unsure as to the number of baptisms I witnessed come to pass, not that the number is large. It probably does not exceed 10, but I have this personal roadblock that wont allow me to count. And I am glad.

  14. I find that two areas of study in my life have helped me look at this topic in a way I might not have otherwise.

    First of all, as a member of the debate team in high school, I learned that one of the most important aspects of getting your point across is making sure that you have “framed” the debate correctly. That is, setting the definitions for the terms used in the debate. Improper “framing” seems to be one of the problems in the mission field. Ask anyone what the true goal of mission work is and they will say (if they think about it) that it is to get CONVERSIONS not baptisms. A conversion, to me, means a real change of heart and a commitment to the Gospel, not a quick dunking in a river. A greater focus on this term may make a change in the way of thinking among missionaries.

    My second field of study is business. In my MBA program we took classes in Operations and Manufacturing and one principle that is indisputable is that, in the long run, increased quality is NOT gained at the expense of quantity. In the end, when a business focuses on quality first, their quantity goes up, in terms of number of customers, levels of customer satisfaction and company revenues. Every company that focuses on numbers first will invariably have some short term spikes (and the term “fastest growing” will be tossed around) but long term prospects are dim. The church, as an organization, knows this. That’s why they focus on retention. But, as usual, the guys on the manufacturing line (or in the mission field) often lose the message and think sheer quantity is the answer. It’s not.

  15. I just came across this site, is this some kind of cult following of Aaron Brown? I can’t believe there isn’t anybody who disagrees with Aaron’s anti-goal setting philosophy.

    So, I’ll be the first to call horsefeathers on Mr. Brown’s theory.

    First – I take exception to the overall feeling of Aaron’s post (and the follow-up comments) that if someone goes inactive immediately after baptism, they never should have been baptized in the first place. Baptism isn’t some initiation into our little social club, baptism is for the remission of sins. If they are not baptized, they can never be forgiven for their sins. Why would you prefer not to give someone the opportunity to be forgiven for their sins, whether forgiveness comes on the day of their baptism (in the case of a true conversion) or years later after true repentence (in the case of an inactive who finally seeks God’s forgiveness)? Every time you decide someone shouldn’t be baptized because you think they “aren’t ready” or they “will immediately go inactive” you are taking away that person’s right to utilize the atonement. Even assuming you’re 99% sure that your judgments on that person are true, why on Earth would you want to take that responsibility on yourself? Brigham Young once said that if a drunken man approached him on the street and asked Brother Brigham to baptize him, that he would take that man to a river and baptize him immediately. If missionaries today follow the protocall set forth by the Brethren and a person commits to baptism, they should do it as soon as possible. Any missionary who takes it upon himself to judge whether this person truly is ready for God’s atonement is playing with fire in my opinion.

    Second – I think its erroneous to assume that there is some tradeoff in “quantity” and “quality.” I can’t speak for South America, but numbers I have seen in stateside missions (like CA missions) show that those missions with higher baptismal rates also have higher retention rates. Why is that so? My guess is that when missionaries focus primarily (almost exclusively) on baptisms, they are less likely to break mission rules, spend more time teaching and testifying and, as a result, are better catalysts for true conversion. In my observation, missions where the missionaries are “focusing” on retention, reactivation, home teaching, or anything other than baptism tend to produce missionaries that spend way too much time hanging out (as friends) with members and inactives. I could be wrong, but how else to you explain the numbers?

    Third – President Hinkley set a goal to double the number of baptisms. If its okay for the prophet to set a goal based on numbers, why is it so wrong for Elder Brown to do it too? Further, how do people accomplish anything without setting some kind of goals?

    Finally – While everyone may be sincere about this whole “setting goals is wrong” discussion, I think this way of thinking is poisonous to the

  16. I served in Chad too’s mission shortly after he returned, and I had a similar experience cleaning up the records.

    My mission president was one of the most corporate types you could imagine — and I think he was one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever known. He focused on numbers — retention numbers. That was the one statistic that got publicized more than any other in our mission.

    Focusing on retention did a few things. First, it focused our minds on helping our investigators develop strong testimonies and relationships before baptism. Second, it helped us feel like our work was succeeding in a low-baptizing mission. Third, it distributed the success — it’s easy for one missionary or companionship to claim credit for a baptism, no matter how many missionaries and members helped along the way. It’s very difficult to point to a single person or companionship responsible for converts staying in the Church. Fourth, retention goals are almost always achievable in some sense. If you miss a monthly or yearly or mission-long baptism goal, you’ve blown it. But if your retention numbers are down, you can always work on bringing back those members who have fallen away.

  17. I think the 20-year-old Aaron B. had an observation that may seem obvious in some respects, although it’s not that obvious in many others. Missionary measurements are extremely powerful. For those who have heard the almost cliche “quality vs. quantity” discussion, little seems to stick. This is because it is human nature to only perform according to how we are measured. My theory is that the measurements have to change before the missionaries will.

  18. In Guatemala (way back when I was serving) the main problem was women and children getting taught and baptized without the husbands and fathers participating. Our mission president stressed that no child should be taught without one of the parents present — and he also stressed that a real effort needed to be made to include the husband/father in the process from the get-go.

    Finally, he came up with a statistic that in practice really made sense. He said that about 25% of baptisms that took place in the mission should be adult males. Looking at this percentage helped to test the quality of teaching and baptizing that was occurring in the mission.

    Our monthly baptisms as a mission plummetted quite a bit (I think it went from 550-700+ baptisms to 150-250+ baptisms) as a result of these policies but the retention went way way up.

  19. Aaron Brown says:

    In response to Hmmmm …..

    “I take exception to the overall feeling of Aaron’s post … that if someone goes inactive immediately after baptism, they never should have been baptized in the first place. “

    You are seeing things in my post that simply aren’t there. If you read a bit more carefully, you will see that I went out of my way to acknowledge that missionaries are not completely responsible for the choices new converts make after their baptisms with respect to enduring to the end in the Gospel (or even enduring for the next few weeks). I acknowledged at age 20, and I acknowledge now, that the free agency of converts is real, and whether they choose to exercise that agency for good or ill is not solely determined by anything the missionaries do or don’t do. However, any moderately astute observer of the mission field recognizes that the level of effort and care put into preparing investigators to understand the Gospel and find their place in the Church often makes a huge different in how and whether new converts acclimate to their new life in the Church. I never suggested that inactivity is prima facie evidence that a new convert’s baptism was a mistake. Things are, of course, usually more complicated than that.

    “Every time you decide someone shouldn’t be baptized because you think they “aren’t ready” or they “will immediately go inactive” you are taking away that person’s right to utilize the atonement.”

    I frankly find your views on this matter bizarre. No, deciding someone “isn’t ready” for baptism is not depriving them of their right to utilize the atonement. It is trying to help them better prepare themselves so that when they finally do get baptized, they will better understand the significance of the atonement and be more likely to make it effective in their lives.

    “Brigham Young once said that if a drunken man approached him on the street and asked Brother Brigham to baptize him, that he would take that man to a river and baptize him immediately. If missionaries today follow the protocall set forth by the Brethren …”

    You’ll note that the “protocols set forth by the Brethren” certainly do not sanction the immediate baptism of any drunk on the street, Brigham’s comments notwithstanding. So which is it? Do you think any of the current “protocols” are important, or not? For example, in the Los Angeles mission, investigators now must attend Church several times more than they used to as a prerequisite to baptism. Presumably you think this is a bad idea, since the delay is unnecessarily depriving them of the blessings of the atonement. How frustrating this all must be for you.

    In fact, I imagine you must have found the mission experience to be maddening in many ways. Think of it … investigators have to sit through 6 long, complicated discussions, commit to pay tithing, obey the Word of Wisdom, keep the Law of Chastity, and sit through a baptismal interview that confirms their

  20. It’s funny, for as much as we always read in the Book of Mormon all the examples of missionary work, I never got a sense of goal setting from Ammon or Aaron. However, I think that they are the prime example of quality AND quantity. So why do they stress goals so much in the mission? Does it have anything to do with the “corporate-style” leadership culture of the Church? I’m not sure.

    I think you are also on to something when you alluded that it seemed to be more of a selfish endeavor for this elder, so that people would respect him more (giving rise to “aspiring” to leadership). If that’s the case, then that, in my opinion, is the crux of the problem. He wanted 100 baps so he could say he had 100 baps, not necessarily so that 100 people would change their lives.

    I’m glad my mission president didn’t focus on numbers. We had an elder in the mission who was the son of a (now) 70’s and nephew to a 12. All seven (or something like that) of his older brothers were AP’s in their missions so the pressure was on. He aspired. But he was a good guy. At the change conference when he was anticipated to go AP, there was another elder called (greatest missionary I ever knew) and everyone cheered. It was great.

    There was a missionary in my zone that all he wanted was to be a ZL. I took his stats every week and he always had peculiarly high numbers. So I went on splits with him and discovered why. Everyone he taught was kids under 12 or so and he divided up all the discussions (so that he could teach the third discussion in three segments, in three consecutive days, guaranteeing higher numbers). This was supposedly so that the child would understand better, but after teaching with him I discovered that the kids didn’t understand a THING! It was really sad that he was so focussed on something so arbitrary.

  21. My mission president was actually quite blunt about quality vs. quantity. He said “if you don’t have quantity you have NO quality at all.” He said this was what he learned from a GA in Mission Prez training.

    In all my discussions with RMs, I don’t believe I have ever heard of a more numbers-focused mission than mine. We were openly encouraged to be competitive with one another, and we were always encouraged to “beat” our neighboring missions. We had to call in our numbers every night and if we hadn’t made our minimums we got yelled at (the mission training manuals called it “holding their feet to the fire”).
    Our mission president made his fortune selling real estate and he frequently liked to regale us with stories of how he would ruthlessly fire underperforing agents (“I wasn’t running a nursing home,” “that’s how I made a lot of money”). I’m not sure exactly what his point was; maybe he wished he could fire some of us.

    O.K., sorry for ranting. He was, in the end, just trying to do his job the best way he knew how and we all know what an enormous sacrifice it is to be a mission president.

    Do some of you get the sense that missions in general in the mid 80’s to late 90’s focused heavily on baptisms, creating some of the skewed scenarios mentioned by previous posters, but that now the focus shifted more to retention?

  22. Response to Jared. . .

    “Could you also clarify exactly what you mean by a correlation between high baptisms and high retention. How were they measuring retention?”

    In California (between 1990 and 1998) missions with higher baptismal rates had a better rentention rates (measured as a percentage). Doesn’t mean its true in every area of the world, but missions around the world are probably more like California than Chile. At least in the 90’s, Chile was something crazy. I would blame the low rentention in Chile on the inablility, or lack of effort, of wards and branches to do the work necessary to retain new converts. At any rate, whatever was happening in Chile was definately not happening in the rest of the world.

    As for renention, its measured quarterly for the area authority. He gets the numbers from both the Stakes and the Missions. Sometimes the Stakes and Missions work together to gather the information, sometimes they do it separately. The method is as simple as looking at the names of the baptims during a set period and asking whether they “regularly attend sacrament meetings.”

    The area authority reviews the numbers with stake and mission presidents. You might be interested to know that periodically, at least in the CA area, the area authority meets with all of the mission presidents at one time. During that meeting they go over baptismal numbers mission by mission. One mission I spoke to said “you definately didn’t want to be the mission with the fewest baptisms.”

  23. Hmmm. . . says:

    Second response to Jared . . .

    “Could you clarify that for me? I’m certain you are aware that it is indeed teenage missionaries who interview candidates for baptism, so what do you mean? If you are saying that if a person is able to respond appropriately to all baptismal interview questions, then a missionary should not stand in the way of their baptism, then I agree with you. But I’m not sure that is what you mean.”

    The missionary conducted baptismal interview is a series of “will you” questions (the commits all over again) and, at least when I was serving, the big three “have you ever” questions. There is no decisions to be made by the DL or ZL doing the interview. If all of the “will you” questions (notice that they are not “are you” or ‘have you” questions) are answered in the affirmative and all of the big three are answered in the negative, then the investigator should be baptized. The missionary is not authorized to then unlaterally decide that the person should not be baptized, just like he isn’t authorized to baptize someone who answers negatively to one of the commits. There is no decision making on the part of the missionary in the process.

    Aaron rips on Elder Zacarias for baptizing people that, in Aaron’s 19 year old opinion, should not have been baptized. Well, if Elder Zacarias was baptizing people who would not commit to ALL of the commitments or who answered affirmatively to any of the big three, then shame on Elder Zacarias. But I suspect that wasn’t the case. Zacarias’ investigators probably all passed the interview, Aaron probably just thought they shouldn’t be baptized anyway. I just can’t agree with that.

  24. Rosalynde Welch says:

    Serving in Portugal, I never even considered making a global goal for total baptisms on my mission (nor were we encouraged to do so–were, we Ryan? maybe I’ve forgotten). But setting weekly goals for discussions were among the most difficult moments of my proselyting week–I desperately wanted to have faith, but I hated the futility of picking a pie from the sky and pretending to my companion and myself that it meant something. I finally figured out how to make the discussion goals more sensibly–looking at each current investigator and envisioning the progress he or she might make during that week, then maybe throwing in one or two extra just to aim high. But I still felt that somehow I was manifesting my lack of faith by my modest aims. (The most discussions I ever taught in one week was nine–actually, not bad for our mission.)

    But I did witness one positive goal outcome on my mission. A wonderful elder working as ZL in a struggling branch set a goal to have 35 people at sacrament meeting on particular week. For weeks he worked to make it happen, visiting inactives and rallying members, etc. Things went badly in the branch, though, and the goal seemed hopeless a few days before the target date. But on that Sunday, by some miracle there were in fact exactly 35 people in the room (I was there, I did the counting, in fact)–unexpected visitors, extraneous family members, and other miscellaneous items showed up. I think it was more the Lord’s gift to a faithful missionary, though, than the fruits of the goal-setting method.

  25. Aaron Brown says:

    Thanks for your comments, Sarah.

    Aaron B

  26. Last_lemming says:

    The reason missionaries don’t set conversion goals is that the missionaries (hopefully) don’t convert anybody—that is the Holy Ghost’s job. Missionaries seem to need something they can legitimately take credit for, however perverse the resulting incentives.

  27. The Sons of Mosiah are touted as great missionaires–and they were. But if we read more carefully, they knew they would be succesful before they even got to their “areas.” No wonder they could act with so much faith. Promises of success and protection from death had already been made.

    I had no guarantee of success, and I didn’t have much faith in goals that depended on someone else’s agency.

    I think mission goals ought to focus on things that are in the missionary’s control.

  28. The ward and the missionaries had been working very hard to bring all the members of a certain family into the church. The man was a member, the woman was not his wife. She had three children and was still married to her husband. They had lived together as husband and wife for several years when the missionaries first called on them. She accepted the gospel almost immediately, and her children were baptized within just a month or two.

    Getting her baptized was complicated, of course, by her marital status. It took the better part of a year for them to save the money, file for a divorce, and have it finalized. Within a week or two, her baptism was being planned.

    The problem was that the missionary “in charge” had a goal of a certain number of baptisms that year, and he was quite insistent that the baptism be held between Christmas and New Year. We lived in a college town, and most of the members who had been actively working with the family were leaving for the holidays. We strongly recommended that the baptism be postponed for a week, so that there would be a lot of people there. But he was adamant – he had his goals, and he was in charge of picking the date, so it was held on the Saturday night between Christmas and New Year. Hardly anybody from the ward showed up (because they were not there!)

    He met his goal, but the woman and her family were terribly hurt by what they saw as a lack of support. They stopped attending almost immediately.

    So, Aaron…you’re right. Goals are bad, because they cause otherwise sensible people to value numbers above people.

  29. What you wrote shows you were a mature missionary with a real perspective of what was happening — for good and bad. I’m sure a lot of your fellow RMs can feel what you were righting.

    I remember in one area that had a reputation for being difficult we were praised for having 8 baptisms in a single month … but I was discouraged because I knew that the father of the family we baptized returned to his drinking ways after his baptism and that his family consequently went inactive.

    I do remember my companion giving a blessing upon of the head of this man’s daughter, that she would one day be married in the temple. That has always stayed with me and I take consolation and comfort from that.

    One can never know for sure what happens in the years after the mission takes place. But #s of baptisms alone are never enough to get a realistic perspective of what has happened.

  30. When I served in my mission, it was still recovering from a period of numbers-focus; to the point where more than 1000 new converts were baptized one particular month. THe Church was initially thrilled, but started to wonder when despite ~12,000 new converts in a year’s time, sacrament meeting attendance wasn’t up and there was no demand for new buildings. Of course, there were thousands of kids and homeless people who had no idea they’d been baptized — they just thought they were playing with Americans in a river.

    Numbers can get out of control when they become the focus instead of the converting power of the Holy Spirit.

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