I love the notion of “social capital” at Church — building up a reputation as someone trustworthy, reliable, the sort of “good neighbor” reputation that then permits you to act as you please . People with large amounts of social capital in their wards can say controversial things or act crazily (blue shirts! Pantsuits!) without fear of being marginalized. Attempt those tasks without a good buildup of social capital, and heaven help you. Once people know that you’re fundamentally a good person and worth of trust, you can get away with all sorts of antics .
However, much of the building of social capital has to do with initial positioning in the ward. As a new arrival, the heat is on — you’d better not make any false steps in building your reputation, or you’ll never gain the respect and admiration of your elder’s quorum. Let’s consider a few common pitfalls.
First pitfall: pigeonholed because of profession. Nothing will predestine you like standing up and saying, “hi, I’m here as a grad student” or “hi, we’re recent grads from BYU, Todd’s with CES…” It’s unfair that people would judge you on first impressions, but there you are. Consider introducing yourself in a way that highlights who you are and what you’re about rather than just your resume. A week ago I introduced myself in a ward and said that I was a lawyer, working for a large company in town — the company has a reputation for a certain demographic of new hire, and so I will be slotted into that bracket for a long, long time. Big mistake.
Second pitfall: too hot out of the gate. You can easily get branded as “the troublemaker” for making inflammatory and spurious remarks in class like “well maybe the Book of Mormon geography is smaller than we thought” or “isn’t providing for the family really everyone’s responsibility in the home?”. Just keep your mouth shut or you’ll soon be known as that guy who always says the nutty stuff.
Third pitfall: over-entitled. Look, you’re new. The elders quorum might move you in because they’re a bunch of nice guys. But if only a couple of people show up? Don’t complain. And if the ward doesn’t immediately create a separate nursery for your child with the allergy? Don’t jump up and down about it. This is a volunteer organization, and you won’t get everything you want the minute you want it. If you come charging in all super-needy and demanding, people won’t exactly warm up to you. Far better for you to be over-grateful, over-patient and giving of your own time… then you can start being a little demanding later.
Believe me, there are countless other ways you can totally mess up your standing at Church. These are just a few of the more benign ones. Just remember that it’s far easier to destroy a reputation than to build one.
 The first time I saw reference to this notion in an LDS context was in a blog post. I seem to recall it having been authored by Mike McBride during his guest stint at T&S, but it appears I am mistaken. An understandable mistake, to be sure — Mike is an economist and so naturally given to the generation of brilliant ideas.
 I knew a stake patriarch who could pretty much advocate the dissolution of the church and the violent overthrow of the goverment without anyone objecting. For most of us, it takes a velvet glove. Claudia Bushman is the master of this. Decades of patience and being a thoughtful, kind and contributing member of the ward paid off. She would quietly knit during lessons, then every once in a while she would let a comment fly that would set everyone’s hair on fire. As everyone reeled, she would sweetly return to her knitting.