I got a copy of an email from the stake high counselor over missionary work asking for our goals for next year, including our number of baptisms. This is familiar territory to anyone who served a mission, I think. And before I get into my reservations about this practice, let me say that I support the idea of setting goals generally; it is a process that can help us become more like God.
But the idea of setting a numerical goal related to conversion (or reactivation) has two problems with it, as far as I can see.
1. The most important factor in the process of conversion is the free agency choice of the potential convert, not the efforts of the converter. We can work and work, and they still get the choice. The idea that we would be rewarded for our efforts by someone being converted seems to violate free agency. Here’s what Elder Oaks says:
In the summer of 2001, Sister Oaks and I were in Manaus, Brazil. I spoke to about 100 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 discussing here.
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, “Timing,” Ensign, Oct 2003, 10–17
2. The numerical goal is too often seen as a sign of faith, and the larger the number the greater the faith. (This negates the argument that the goals, after being prayed about, are a spiritual verification that a specific number of people are prepared to hear the gospel within reach of the goal setters.) As a FT missionary, I was asked to set baptism goals for our area. After studying our teaching pool, the number of baptisms in the past, etc., we set a goal of four for the year. The DL called and we had this conversation:
DL: Your goals aren’t very high.
Me: But those are our goals. We pondered and prayed, feeling good about them.
DL: They don’t show you stretching your faith.
Me: Well, Elder J (the current AP) was here for 6 months and only baptized one. Can our faith be so much greater or our methods so much more effective than his?
DL: That’s not the point: you should set higher goals.
Me: OK, tell me what our goals should be.
DL: It doesn’t work that way. You need to prayerfully set your goals.
And so on. And again with the ZLs, except they were happy to set our goals for us. The number did not stretch our faith as much as move far beyond it: it was a pipe dream, not a goal.
Some will say that lofty goals, even if not unattainable, motivate to greater success. But it seems to me that the teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t need or deserve such salesmanship ploys.
I say lets set goals that are about what we can do — about the types of wards into which we’ll welcome converts, the types of lessons and talks to which visitors will listen, the kinds of activities to which we would be willing to invite our friends. Let the numbers take care of themselves.