Several years ago, my DW and I were called to be the Activities Committee Chairpersons in our ward. I will always remember that to be the moment I realized that the Lord loves irony. I don’t really like going to activities, because I don’t get on too well in social situations—as an economist, I rarely have anything useful, interesting, or clever to say (my wife has lots of useful, interesting, and clever thoughts; however, she is from Finland, and doesn’t speak in public as principle of national pride.). After a quick perusal of the handbook and consideration of the various wards I’ve lived in, I came to a couple of conclusions. First, every ward I’ve lived in has had the same basic activities:
1. A BBQ/Dutch oven party. This typically takes place in the nearest available canyon, or, if you live in SoCal like I do, at the beach. Because the local beaches are extremely crowded and fire pits are reserved on a first-come, first-serve basis, you typically have to show up early in the morning and squat on it for the entire day. Sunburns. Heat stroke. Good times.
2. A pancake breakfast on the 4th or 24th of July. Cold, nasty, store-bought syrup, mass-produced Krusteaz pancakes, and High Priests trying to convince people that such scout-camp food actually tastes good. My brother describes this activity in Haiku form:
3. The Christmas Party where everyone sits awkwardly with the non-member friends they were told to invite (and to whom they promised a “traditional, Bible-based Christmas party”) while the Bishop reads a few chapters from Helaman and 3 Nephi. Since my birthday falls close to Christmas, I try to schedule any celebrations for the night of the Ward Christmas party.
Pr op 8 Phone-a-thons Ice Cream Socials. These are pinnacle of Activities Chairperson self-loathing. They usually take place following some other, more important, activity, such as ward temple night or primary board meetings. Two buckets of ice cream. Six attendees, including the organizers.
5. Potluck Linger-Longers. The instructions are clear: A-G bring a salad, H-M bring a main dish, N-Z bring a dessert. So why is there never anything but cookies, Jell-O, and two vats of chili sitting on the table?
6. Trunk-or-Treats. I’m not even going to bother describing this, because a) you all know what it is, and b) it’s too painful.
Maybe the ward you live in has some activities that do not fit these categories, but I’m willing to bet that this group fits the vast majority of LDS wards. The second conclusion I came to is that, in skipping activities, I wasn’t missing much because they were all pretty lame—outside of the always-impressive “free food”, none of the activities really catered to any of my tastes and preferences. More importantly, it seemed odd to me that the same boring, run of the mill activities were regurgitated and spit out upon the membership year after year with little or no innovation or variety to be found. Thinking about these two in tandem led me to the discovery that Church activities resemble the output of a centrally planned economy; that is, there is very little innovation, there is very little variety, and there is a constant calculation problem that results in either over- or under-supply of almost all goods and services. In short, individual preferences are sacrificed for a collective least common denominator. The resulting activities do not allow members to align themselves based on shared interests (which would likely facilitate more bonding and fellowship), but force them together on the basis of a single—and oftentimes socially irrelevant—characteristic: membership in the ward.
The reasons for this bland assortment of activities are clear: The task of deciding what several hundred people think is “fun” is placed in the hands of a couple of people who have (arguably) the least information about members (and their respective preferences) of anyone on the ward council. After a couple of activities that inevitably don’t go exactly as planned, the Activities Chairpersons will no longer directly seek to maximize the total utility of ward members. Rather, the underlying incentives will point them toward the intersection of effort-minimization and attendance-maximization. The key concept here is that activities are unique in that they are the only part of the Church where the success of a given activity is measured in large part by the popularity of the activity.
(Wouldn’t it be cool if the whole Church worked this way? First, President Monson could receive a dozen or so different revelations on diverse topics sometime in late January. Then, during February and March, Public Relations majors at BYU would conduct focus groups and surveys among members to determine which three revelations should be revealed at the April General Conference. Endless fodder for the bloggernacle.)
Although other factors may contribute or detract from the success of a given activity, but at the end of the day, there is nothing worse than putting your heart, might, mind and strenth into an activity and having no one show up for your event.
The realization that Activities Chairpersons are not actually seeking to maximize our welfare has huge implications: The goal of getting as many members of the ward to attend an activity requires that the menu be disutility-minimizing (read: child friendly): Nothing weird, fancy, or exotic can be on the table, or it will face widespread rejection among children, resulting in crying toddlers, early departures and subsequent non-attendance from families with kids. In this context, we can boldly overthrow the long-standing belief that Mormons love Jell-O and corn flake potatoes: At best, all we really know is that no one really hates them.
After thinking through this, we came up with a plan to allow markets (interests) to dictate what activities should take place. After conducting surveys to extract information on preferences, we eliminate the big quarterly activities—which no one likes, but everyone tolerates—and replace them with weekly interest-based activities designed for 6-10 people. A week later during tithing settlement, I explained our plans to the Bishop, and we were released the following week (after 1 month in the calling. I am not making that up.) I wasn’t upset, because I didn’t really want to be the Activities Chairperson anyway. I was a bit miffed when, a year later, the 1st Presidency and General Relief Society ripped off my plan without citation when they disassembled the old monthly Enrichment night and started the now-thriving Relief Society Enrichment activities.