Elders Quorum and the Secret of Measuring Success in the Church

asleepAs a new member of a bishopric in a ward with all-new boundaries, I now get to attend all sorts of stake training meetings which I’d never been expected to get out to before. This is, to be clear, not exactly my favorite part of my new calling. But I have to admit that I learned something at a stake training meeting last night–or at least had a thought planted in my head which is probably worth some discussion.

At the outset of the meeting, the claim was made that the strongest indicator of the spiritual health of any local church unit–ward or branch–is the level of activity of the Melchizedek priesthood. By this, what was apparently meant was attendance at meetings and the acceptance of callings. Moreover, as the instruction continued, it became clear (to me, at least) that the focus of the claim was primarily the elders quorum. Now that initially struck me as a somewhat self-serving definition of the “health” of a ward or branch, given that this was a meeting for Melchizedek priesthood leaders; what about, oh, hours of humanitarian service, or the level of fast offering donations, or the rate of home and visit teaching? (To say nothing of other, probably even more obvious measurements which get used in the church: number of temple recommend holders, sacrament meeting attendance, baptisms, etc.) But as I thought about it throughout the meeting, I realized that I could read this claim in a more charitable light: if one is just trying to identify relevant and measurable variables which are indicative of “spiritual health,” however defined, then Melchizedek priesthood activity (and particularly elders quorum activity) is probably more reliable than most. After all, given how poorly most 18-40-year-old white American males score on measurements of religious interest and participation, especially in comparison to every other relevant demographic, it actually does seem reasonable to conclude that if you have an elders quorum with large numbers of people consistently showing up to meetings and accepting callings, you probably have a pretty awesome ward or branch there.

Thoughts? (I can see this variable losing its indicative value in areas with a large number of Mormons, as peer pressure/social expectations would likely be primary motivators there, thus eliminating the likelihood of such attendance and participation pointing towards spiritual health, however defined.)


  1. Out of curiosity, why is Elders Quorum activity a better indicator of spiritual health than Relief Society activity?

  2. Does a full and active EQ imply that the elders’ wives and children are also fully active? I think an “active EQ” gives credit to the husbands and fathers, when the strength might be coming from not only him but the entire family’s participation…but it’s easier to just measure the adult males. Plus, there are so many callings that can only be filled by active men.

  3. Put it this way: Who has ever seen a ward with a weak Relief Society and a strong Elder’s Quorum? A strong Elder’s Quorum but a weak bishopric or High Priest’s group?

    The strength of the Elder’s Quorum is a trailing indicator, but it’s more than that. Typically, if you have a strong Elder’s Quorum, it’s in part BECAUSE you have a strong Relief Society and bishopric. Conversely, when there are a lot of less active priesthood holders, they have a remarkable ability to create a cumulative drag on a lot of the women in their households. That greatly diminishes the strength of the Primary and Young Women’s. And weak fathers means a host of problems among the teens. You’ve gotta have a lot of active Elders, or it hurts everyone, if only indirectly.

    There’s a critical mass at which enough righteous Elders makes a huge difference everywhere. (I belong to such a ward right now, thankfully.) A critical mass of Elders who don’t get it disproportionately drags everyone else down as well.

  4. EdwardJ (#1)

    Why is Elders Quorum activity a better indicator of spiritual health than Relief Society activity?

    I don’t know if it is (and of course, so much depends on how one defines “spiritual health”). All I’m saying is that I can see some logic to the claim made in the stake training meeting, even if that isn’t the logic those doing the instruction themselves employ. Pursuant to what I wrote above, it might be suggested, in response to your questions, that women show greater levels of religious interest and involvement across the board, and hence a ward or branch that actually sees a lot of participation by men (particularly younger men) might be assumed to have more going for it, comparatively speaking, than a ward or unit which has high levels of Relief Society participation, which arguably is an easier goal to achieve. Do I believe all this? Not really, because I don’t accept the definition of “spiritual health” which it implies. But I can see why someone might be persuaded of it.

  5. Swisster (#2),

    Does a full and active EQ imply that the elders’ wives and children are also fully active?

    Going along with what Lorin says in #3, non-participating husbands and fathers statistically have a greater drag on levels of family participation than do non-participating wives and mothers, because–again, statistically speaking–it seems very likely that if the female in a family unit isn’t interested in church, than the male in that unit is already non-interested as well. What Lorin says about “cumulative drag” is a measurable reality. Is it the best possible measurement? Again, I don’t think so, because I’m doubtful of the real merit of equating “activity” with “spiritual health.” But it remains reasonable to conclude that, if you accept that equation, then looking and Melchizedek (and especially elders quorum) activity may be the best possible indicator available.

  6. Nice, at least, that _someone_ acknowledges that all the lip-service given to the importance of women is just that!

  7. 5. “I’m doubtful of the real merit of equating “activity” with “spiritual health.”

    I’m far less doubtful. While it’s pretty easy to find “active” Elders who are spiritually unhealthy, when you lump them in with all the rest of the active Elders, the “active” group is still going to have a far higher spiritual health as a group than the “less active” Elders. (With individual exceptions.)

    A spiritually unhealthy man attending church has a far better chance at a positive future than he does if he stays home.

    Activity among the Elders is a fantastic metric to get a snapshot of the spiritual state of a given ward.

  8. “Nice, at least, that _someone_ acknowledges that all the lip-service given to the importance of women is just that!”

    Not sure I understand whose comment this is referring to. I, for one, am saying that as the men are, the women already were! I’ve been in close to 20 wards in my lifetime. Haven’t yet been in one where the women as a group were trailing the men. We talk about measuring the strength of the men not because they matter more than the women. We do it because measuring the men ALWAYs indicates how strong the women are, while the reverse is not necessarily true.

  9. Or to clarify #8, if we find a lot of strong men, we know there are a lot of strong women. But where we find a lot of strong women, we don’t necessarily find a lot of strong men.

  10. A. Nonymous says:

    I used to have a calling which required me to fill out a quarterly report for the area presidency. One part of the report tracked men from age 16 through MP ordination, endowment, and mission. There was no corresponding caetgory for 16 y.o. women, in fact there was no category for women of any age or stage of their lives. Women simply didn’t appear on the report at all. Maybe now with more women participating in missions this will change. Maybe.

  11. Russell (#4),

    What you say is fair, and I would not be surprised if you are empirically correct.

    My worry is that our organization values men (and men with “leadership potential” in particular) at the expense of everyone else. (See, for example Judy Dushku’s comments on how she and her sons were treated in her Massachusetts ward: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/election2012/6370/mitt_romney’s_best-known_mormon_critic_tells_it_all._one_last_time.__%7C_election_2012_%7C )

    I believe in the radical equality of all souls. I understand the empirical observations, and I hope they do not shade over into valuing men’s contributions or activity or spirituality more than women’s (protestations here and elsewhere notwithstanding). I believe Jesus when He says all are alike to God, “male and female”.

  12. Continuing from (#11)

    I believe Jesus when He says all are alike to God, “male and female”. I’m not entirely convinced that the church believes it.

  13. “Women simply didn’t appear on the report at all. Maybe now with more women participating in missions this will change. Maybe.”

    I don’t know about the Area level, but at the Ward level, RS Sisters and YW are included.

  14. EdwardJ (#11),

    My worry is that our organization values men (and men with “leadership potential” in particular) at the expense of everyone else.

    It depends on what you mean by “our organization.” If–as I suggested all the way back in the original post–you challenge the notion of “spiritual health” as something which basically is tied to our institutions and programs, and how well they are functioning, and instead look at humanitarian service or charitable donations, etc., then our organization, which certain provides many opportunities for those things, doesn’t necessarily discriminate against non-males (or even “non-leadership-potential-males”). But as Kristine has pointed out to me elsewhere, our rhetoric of family and priesthood and such is built into our institutional structure, and so what is the reason for someone who is committed to the church organization to challenge that definition of spiritual health? And thus, it follows that, if you’re concerned about spiritual health, you’re logically going to go after those variables which will have the most bang for the buck, institution-wise: and that means men, rather than women, whom the organization knows, relatively speaking, that it can mostly manage its most pressing institutional structures (ward leadership, etc.) without.

  15. “Indicator” does not mean “what has the most value”. It’s sadly not beyond my understanding why some would take discussion of an indicator, something that’s basically used a statistical correlation, perhaps even a causation in some cases, and assume that indicator is actually what’s being valued most (and then presume the devaluation of all else).

    If the low fuel indicator light comes in my car, I pay attention to that indicator. I do not assume the light is more important than the fuel it represents, and it goes without saying I don’t offer to trade my engine and tires to the gas station in order to fill up on fuel and turn off the indicator.

  16. Meh. The Area Authority over my mission said that the two best indicators of someone’s spiritual health is if they pay a full tithe and what they think about during the passing of the Sacrament. Was he right? I don’t know, nor do I care. There’s isn’t a hard and fast rule about any of these things. After hearing that, however, it made me a lot more aware of what I think about during the Sacrament. And that’s a good thing. And if what that Stake President (or whoever) said helps you in the shepherding of the saints within your stewardship, great! If not, drop it. Kristine already has.

  17. And what Kaphor says.

  18. I think this is a case where while true, it suffers from a correlation/causation issue. Spiritual Health is not Caused by MP attendance or accepting callings, actually, the opposite is true. Spiritual Health causes these things. Thus, continually attacking these numbers will not only not increase spiritual health, it will not increase these numbers. A better question is what creates spiritual health.

  19. I agree with #15 and #18, I think in these kinds of discussions it is important to stress that “an indicator” is not necessarily a “cause.” To say that “the strongest indicator of the spiritual health of any local church unit–ward or branch–is the level of activity of the Melchizedek priesthood” is not to same as saying that the health of the local unit is “caused” by Melchizedek priesthood activity. An “indicator” is not a causal nexus. Rather, it is as if saying, we do not know the cause and we cannot pinpoint a casual nexus, but in absence of this, this “priesthood activity” appears to be a good indicator. Certainly, several other indicators could be proposed, but an “indicator” is not necessarily a cause at all. In addition, when leaders talk about best indicators, they may not be speaking in terms of a social science method of causality. They may just be using the term to encourage people to do those things like the comment in #16, in which case the best indicator is more or less the behavior that the leader wants to encourage or modify. Church metrics is certainly a fascinating issue; almost as fascinating as people’s reactions to it.

  20. Molly Bennion says:

    Agreed, Matt W in 18. But first the question is what is spiritual health.

  21. Kaphor, Rusty, Matt, and Aquinas,

    I don’t dispute the (obviously correct) point which all of you are making; as I wrote in the original post, “if one is just trying to identify relevant and measurable variables which are indicative of ‘spiritual health,’ however defined, then Melchizedek priesthood activity (and particularly elders quorum activity) is probably more reliable than most.” I recognize that the claim which was made as part of the stake training was to point at an indicator, not a cause. I admit it’s a legitimate indicator; the correlation there is real. However, two things worthy of note. First, the discussion which dominated the training discussion which followed the original claim was a bunch of “how to” stuff dealing with increasing activity and fellowship amongst Melchizedek priesthood groups, primarily elders quorums, with the aim of getting them to attend and accept callings, which suggests that they, at least, assumed that there was at least some kind of causal element mixed in with that correlation. Second, recognizing that something is a good indicator doesn’t assess the value of that which is being indicated itself. This was the point I was trying to make in #14 in response to EdwardJ; differing definitions of spiritual health will cause us to discover the indicative value of different variables. If some reads a certain kind of (male or institutional) bias or preference in the highlighting of this particular variable, that doesn’t dismiss it’s value as a variable, but only points back towards whatever it is that someone defines as worth measuring in the first place. Which, really, is Molly’s point in #20, after all.

  22. Indicators, sure. But to go along with the analogy of a car’s dashboard, there are all kinds of indicators flashing red, all the time. So without suggesting causation, it is at least an interesting question, isn’t it, why we choose to focus on this one?

  23. For instance, if we really believed our own Mother’s Day discourse about how the woman really is the solid rock of the family and will carry everyone to the celestial kingdom on her coattails whether they want it or not, it is at least conceivable that we would be interested in the spiritual health and activity of women more than men who are, after all, along for the ride. I think it will be a cold day in St. George before we are required to report RS activity but not PH.

  24. When I was a missionary in South America, my last area was in a very strange branch where the men were a lot more active than the women were. One Sunday there were nearly 30 men who showed up for EQ, but there were zero women in Relief Society. Zero! Some people speculated that there were more (and stronger) male converts in that branch than female converts due to the American sister missionaries who had always served there. But there were also several families in which the wife was a member but she attended much less frequently than her husband. We couldn’t figure out why.

    That branch was probably the LEAST spiritually healthy unit I have ever been in. It was just weird.

  25. Russell, I appreciate your post. I understand you to be saying that the more charitable and less self-serving way to read the claim that priesthood is the best indicator of the health of the local unity is the way that a social scientist would understand the claim (by not confusing correlation and cause). One question, however, is whether the leaders are making this claim based on that understanding and whether attendees would understand the claim that way, and what the end result would be after hearing this claim.

  26. Just because the gas light describes the health of the gas levels of my car it doesn’t mean I don’t also frequently check my trip/odometer meters, oil level, and tire pressure to guage the health of the other factors of the car. Sure, the gas needs the most frequent attention, but the gas is codependent with the health of the tires, oil, and every other aspect of the car.

    Even so will the health of the other aspects of the ward indicate the overall health of the ward. How are the Primary children doing? How about the women? The high priests?

    In one ward which I attended, the Primary frequently exceeded 100% attendance because there were so many children attending who were not “of record” and so were not “expected” on the official attendance numbers. A number like that certainly indicates /something/ regarding one or both of their parents or perhaps the success of the children in inviting their friends to church.

  27. I’m sorry but active Melchizedek Priesthood numbers may indicate available bodies to serve but there’s little correlation to actual spiritual health. It’s an indicator of something but if you want an indicator that demonstrates spiritual health of the Ward then you need to look at percentage of temple recommend holders and regular temple attendance. The first statistic is easy to deliver since MLS reports it directly to you. But as with all things important, the latter is not reported and something that requires being in touch with the lives of your members.

    Why does regular temple attendance matter? Because it’s amazing how as a Bishopric and Relief Society Presidency and EQ Presidency / HP Group Leadership you find that when your members put the temple foremost in their lives the number of other issues diminish.

  28. MP attendance is a great indicator of the organizational health of a ward or branch – and when I’ve heard the term “spiritual health” used as a collective indicator, generally it has been used in a way that points toward “organizational health” in practical terms.

    Spiritual health is a totally separate issue, as I have seen in wards with the same level of MP attendance and radically different levels of spiritual health.

    We conflate words and principles all the time in the Church, and I think this is a perfect example of that tendency.

  29. Russell, I didn’t thank you for the post and the discussion. It’s one we need to have in the Church.

    Fwiw, I think the spiritual health and personalities of the Ward Council is probably the best indicator of the spiritual health of the ward, with a heavy indicator being the Bishop and RS President. At least, that’s my own observation over the decades I’ve been involved enough to observe that group.

  30. I can’t confirm this, Alain, but I would suspect that if you increased the number of attending* Melchizedek Priesthood holders on the MLS reports, every other metric on the report would increase.

    To be fair, I think that increasing the number of attending women would increase the other metrics as well. But I would guess the increase per male attending is larger than the increase per female attending.

    My guess is based on the numbers in my stake. The units with the highest percentage of attending melchizedek priesthood holders have higher rates of recommend holding adults, home teaching, visiting teaching…….

    The fear I have about this statistical possibility is that people will apply it in a completely destructive manner. If we take this and say, “we need to focus on converting the men and getting them active,” we’re not going to accomplish much. In fact, I would expect more harm than good from that approach. In my opinion, the most effective approach would be to provide opportunities for service and entertainment that appeal to all members of the ward (although not necessarily all at once). You improve the spiritual health of your ward by building a sense of community and common worth (something Relief Societies seem to be very good at). Targeting or favoring a specific demographic only creates competition (compare scouting budgets to young women budgets). The priesthood/Relief Society dynamic doesn’t need any more reason for contrast–they need to learn to collaborate.

    * Assuming that “attending” is a valid surrogate for “active”

  31. #27, your comments resonate deeply with me. I am going to share with my circle of friends and family.

  32. This discussion reminded me that people suck at statistics. Also, that I enjoy being a Primary teacher and not going to EQ.

  33. So as far as I can tell, the chain of logic goes like this: There is a thing called spiritual health. Spiritual health is synonymous with or closely related to the organizational health of the church. Because organizational health can be measured, spiritual health can be measured. The best indicator of spiritual/organizational health in a ward is the activity of the MP, particularly EQ. MP activity may or may not be a factor causing spiritual/organizational health. One reason MP activity is a good indicator of a ward’s health is because there are a number of leadership positions that can be filled only by men.

    As Russell (14) (21) and Molly (20) point out, we have not yet defined spiritual health. I propose that spiritual health for an individual takes the form of positive spiritual growth. A group of people is spiritually healthy if the individuals in the group feel the Spirit while gathered together in Jesus’ name. I deny that spiritual health can be quantified and I strongly suspect that the only meaningful way to assess it—as with physical pain—is self-reporting of the individual(s) involved. I am not convinced that a larger number of people equals a healthier congregation; this is complicated, however, by the church’s mission to reach more souls.

    I want to include a screed here about how Mormons focus on the external at the expense of the internal, how we measure righteousness by actions/inactions rather than by the heart. But this is complicated by the fact that there are certain in/actions—church attendance, tithing, prayer, scripture study, WoW, chastity, etc.—that create conditions welcoming to spiritual growth, even if they do not cause spiritual growth per se. And how can we assess people’s spirituality if not by reference to in/actions? (Would self-reporting work? Could we get out of the business of assessing people’s spirituality altogether?)

    Re MP attendance indicating spiritual health because there are male-only positions to fill, this is a tautology. I eagerly await the day when there will be no male-only leadership positions in the church, which will then take away our need to focus so intently on EQ as an indicator.

    To the argument that MP activity is simply used as an indicator here and not a causal agent of spiritual health, I say that where our treasure is, our heart is also. We need male leaders so we look to male quorums and we (in Russell’s meeting at least) spend our time talking about those male quorums. Even if those male quorums are empirically a stand-in for the entire ward, there is a strong message being sent to ward leaders that men are more important.

    What would happen if we took away all of the numbers and instead sat down with every Primary child and young woman and young man and brother and sister in the ward and asked them (if they felt comfortable sharing) to talk about their personal spiritual growth and their perception of the ward’s health? What if we took their experiences and suggestions seriously in assessing the health of the organization and crafting organizational goals? I suspect that would provide a better indication of the ward’s spiritual health than measuring activity/attendance in EQ does.

  34. To add another aspect to the discussion: Russell’s point (#4) that women show greater levels of religious interest reminded me of an interesting book I’m reading called Why Men Hate Going to Church (by David Murrow). He makes some really interesting points, one of which is that many men don’t respond to the “touchy-feely” nature of what today’s church services have become (catering to the majority-female membership). He also suggests that men’s passivity in church stems less from laziness and more from uneasiness with the “feminine status quo”. I wonder how applicable those comments are in Mormondom. Thoughts?

  35. @34: Are men also expected to be “touchy-feely,” or just acknowledge this exists?

  36. EQ attendance looks pretty good in the picture at the beginning of the article. Maybe it’s because of the nice pair of legs behind the sleeping man—padding their numbers by offering added incentives to show up. I’ll bring this up at our next ward council meeting.

  37. hi jeremy says:

    Isn’t this a math question?

    (active MP holders) – (HP + bishopric + ward clerk + sunday school pres. + male primary workers + young men’s) > 20 = healthy ward…?

    It’s something I struggle with in my ward. We don’t have enough HP to support a real group, so they took some older elders and called it good. Why does senior and junior MP exist when there’s no such thing for Relief Society? The equation above will always be < active Relief Society. So, there should be a direct relationship between active EQ and active RS.

  38. #37
    “Why does senior and junior MP exist when there’s no such thing for Relief Society?”

    Social pressure. Senior leadership callings in the local church (e.g. stake presidencies, bishoprics, high council) require HP status. With no automatic promotion age from Elder to HP, leadership can use the withholding of an HP ordination to encourage men to make themselves available for those callings.

    Any 45-50+ man still in Elders Quorum finds life increasingly uncomfortable in the Church. If you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, then you’d start towing the line.

  39. #38 – I typed something different initially, but my edited version is:

    I respectfully disagree completely and strongly.

  40. Being a church based on Patriarchy, I’m not surprised at the use of the EQ/HPG indicators. My personal feeling has been that if there are a large number of active Priesthood holders in the ward or branch, then there are a similarly large number of households where the Priesthood is present. Those households don’t have to call a friend/neighbor/Bishop/EQP when someone needs a blessing or anything, they are spiritually “self-sufficient.” Hopefully. Does that make any sense?

  41. Adding on to my above comment: For the record, I don’t mean to say that a house without a Priesthood holder is less than spiritually self-sufficient. Ladies can do just fine, but Priesthood blessings can be super helpful, but I personally hate calling people I might not know well for stuff like that. Good thing I have a husband close by. When I was single, there were a few times I had to call friends, one time at like 2 am. I felt terrible waking him up to come over, that’s the point I’m trying to make. Calling someone outside your home makes you feel like you’re inconveniencing him so you can get blessings.

  42. Brooke, when faced with an ox in the mire needing a priesthood blessing, just think “What would Mary Fielding Smith do?” :-)

  43. it's a series of tubes says:

    42 for COTW.

  44. Geoff Kerr says:

    I first want to thank you for this message. It comes at a time of the year that quorums are discussing ways of helping those in need in their wards. A couple of years ago I was in a ward that had a very strong Elders quorum attendance. I saw there what you are talking about. It felt like we as a quorum were the back bone of the ward. The ward I live in now is almost the opposite. I have seen our attendance dwindled over over the last year and a half. Our Elders quorum activities and service projects only bring out a few each time. I teach regularly in my quorum and will share this article with them. I believe in this Gospel with all my heart and want my ward to grow. I thank my Heavily Father for all that he has given me. Especially the Melchizedek Priesthood and the unity of an Elders Quorum.

  45. This whole metric makes sense from an organizational perspective, because the biggest bottleneck the church faces in growing units and maintaining units is enough active capable priesthood bearers to fill leadership positions. Of course we could make that whole bottleneck go away by giving women the priesthood and then this male-centric way of tracking the church would be irrelevant.

    Amen again Kristine. and #10. If you look at the record keeping and reports the “women are around to support the creation and activity of men” is pretty hard to dispute. What you measure is what matters.

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