Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Wild Card Factor or I Am Sold Myself: Recent LDS Church Focus Groups on Extraordinary Missionary Success

This past Sunday during our fifth Sunday meeting a couple of high council persons came under the direction of the local stake president to discuss ways of improving missionary work. One of them dramatically posted statistics showing a 1% decline in convert baptisms worldwide. He showed a drastic reduction in the numbers for the core Church which is Canada and the United States. His reason for coming was to share the results of a survey and recent focus group studies done by the LDS Church that would help us be better missionaries. David Stewart would be proud that the scientific method is becoming more pervasive in the Church today since he has been calling for more classical techniques being utilized by Church leaders.

His first slide was the word Enthusiasm. He told us that we needed to remember the i*a*s*m*. He said as a salesman that it was critical that "I Am Sold Myself." We all could make up any deficiency in our missionary efforts if we were enthusiastic.

He then shared the results of research that had been conducted by the Church. He showed us the methodology for "How the Research Was Done."

Question: Why do some wards achieve extraordinary missionary success (
≥24 baptisms per year with at least average retention), while similarly situated, "matched pair wards" often get different results?

  • Reviewed more than 40 ward mission plans
  • Identified 160 high baptizing wards ≥24 baptisms/year
  • Eliminated 125 wards with unusual or unique characteristics (language units or singles ward)
  • Selected 15 high baptizing wards
  • Identified 15 additional wards that could be matched or paired with 15 high baptizing wards
  • Selected an additional 5 high performing wards ( a total of 35 wards)
  • Using a 30 question survey, interviewed stake presidents (17), Bishops (35) and other leaders
  • Analyzed differences between high performing and lower performing wards
(A "matched pair ward" was defined as "Wards in the same stake with similar demographics, proximity to each other, etc. and assessed by their Stake President as having equivalent missionary potential.)

The high council person then showed a slide that discussed five results for the extraordinary wards versus five results for the "matched pair wards." He told us that the extradordinary ward had a clearly defined ward mission plan that had the support of the bishop and leaders. He showed us a slide that discussed how bishops engaged and prioritized missionary work in their wards. He discussed purposeful planning versus random seeding. Extraordinary wards do both while as matched pair wards did the latter. The active engagement was the key according to him.

I have had a few days to mull over what he said and I have a few impressions. Upfront I want to say that I want to improve my missionary effectiveness but I am not sure if I can't remember what was suggested that it will be hard to do. When he made his presentation he offered to give us a copy of the methodology. I went up and told him that I was more of a visual learner and could he give me a copy of the whole presentation so that I could become sold myself. He rejected my request saying he didn't know if the Church or his leader wanted the findings disseminated in written form. I told him that I thought that was an idiotic way to get member buy-in when I couldn't go home and think over it again and again. I told him I was a visual learner not an auditory learner. He did give me the one page he offered and told me he would get back with me eventually. Unless I can analyze the findings myself I am not sure that it is very meaningful or that I can transfer the findings in to my every day life. First off I can hardly remember all the fine points and the ones I do will dim with time.

At first blush here are my impressions. I think it is a worthwhile activity to discuss ways of improving missionary effectiveness. Being an obedient person I would like to implement the suggestions in to my member missionary practice. I will try to do it if possible but I have a couple of major concerns. First, I have no clue what the mission plan of my ward even is. I recently moved to this ward about four months ago. I was given a Hurricane Evacuation Plan in a nice manila envelop by my bishop with detailed instructions on what to do during a category 2 or 3 hurricane. I was not given a copy of the ward mission plan. It has never been discussed in any shape or form. Second, since I don't have a copy of the results of the Church Focus Study I will not be able to remember let alone implement something I have sketchy notes on.

It is not surprising extraordinary missionary success wards have a ward mission plan that is operational. In 2004 when I went to the Harvard Educational Leadership Seminar we used Lee G. Bolman and Terrence Deal's Reframing Organizations which says that a first class organization is one that doesn't drift from its vision and mission. The closer in alignment to them the more effective the organization will be. In their construct you experience a paradigm shift by viewing an organization through four different lens: human relations, technical, political and symbolic. In terms of the process it is more than a top down approach it is a bottom up and top down both. The disconnect in most LDS matched pair wards is that a few leaders get together and come up with a ward mission plan usually the bishop, his counselors, and the ward mission leader.

That there is little or no buy-in by the general member should not be surprising. The most effective form of planning is when you involve the general member in the survey or the focus groups. If bishops could move their members on their sheer power of persuasion than there wouldn't be any "matched pair wards." Even bishops who do not prioritize missionary work higher than fifth or sixth still discuss it on a regular basis. The Church has in place a missionary correlation process where auxilaries come together and discuss monthly ways of integrating investigators in to the ward.

Without the ability to analyze the data on the overall Focus Study there may be factors of omission. In my doctoral classes when I did a program planning doctorate on needs assessment my professors would warn me about how the study was conducted. It is good that this study did some action research it went beyond a survey only approach to actual field work. I am not sure it went deep enough since it took a top down approach again. Just because you tell someone to go and do something doesn't mean they can go and do it. My professors criticized the classical form or update model as being good only for a technical process like how to make an automobile. The saw qualitative improvement as a kind of continuum moving from the classical to the interpretative to the critical approach.

The approach that was given to us in our meeting would fall under the interpretative. Someone on high told us what the study meant and they feel that there are transferable characteristics for "extraordinary missionary success wards." If we follow them we will be successful. One of my professor's would have rejected this approach saying that these wards are unique in themselves. The missionaries that taught in them might be more enthusiastic than the missionaries in the other ward. The members in the extraordinary ward might be better member missionaries and more engaged with people in their community. The bishop might use programs like priesthood visits to inactive members or assigning missionaries to less active. There could be a host of wild card factors. His contention is that the skill sets of the people doing the actual missionary work could be different as well as their motivation.

There is a plethora of research in adult education that shows there are barriers to teaching and learning. In my opinion there needs to be training on the bottom more than telling us if they can do it you can do it form of mentality. I want to be upbeat so I will offer a few suggestions:

Since a ward mission plan in an extrordinary ward is a living document then it should be reexamined using the same methodology for everyone in the ward. The general members should receive a survey and ward mission leaders could conduct focus groups for stakeholders or members. If you want someone to be sold you need to invite them to become a part of the process. People buy in when they produce the outcome. The Ward Council could put together a report since it is a little bit more inclusive. The bishop could be the final person at the ward level to edit their results. Of course this would be a form of critical theory since the culture and climate of the Church is top down rather than bottom up.

You transcend their skill set and change the whole process when you are actively engaged in it. My professor used to say that the very examination changes what you are trying to measure. By making meaning or intrepreting it you make it something different. A stake president might describe the face of missionary work saying the nose is round the bishop might say it is round but has a tiny bump in it when you draw it it becomes an amalagamation of the two and doesn't look anything like a photograph would show of that nose.

If you really want to transcend the process than you need to do something that Stephen R. Covey proposed and many LDS leaders have bought in to as they are adherents of his model. You start with the end in mind. If you want to drive the approach and LDS leaders do you use both a top down and a bottom up approach. You will need to change the climate and culture of the members. Leaders would need to confront members and why they aren't doing missionary work. It might require individual counseling and accountability. You might have to get tough. One time I was in a stake where they stake president declared that all his high council members would make sure every less active person was visited by Christmas if the wards didn't do it. I knew that it was rhetoric since when our ward went out every Wednesday night not one of them showed up to go out with the bishop, his counselors, the elder's quorum presidency, or the high priest group leaders (which I was a member). Bishops would actually be engaged in baptizing new members as would their leadership. Whitleaf's servant leader would be in effect as the bishop would be actively engaged.

I think that this discussion is a good start. I am not sure that statistically or interpretatively or critically we are scratching the surface yet. I think that for those who engaged in the process in the sample group that it is meaningful and possibly better than a guess about what is happening to this group of wards. Whether or not we can make a blanket statement for every other ward is yet to be determined. I personally believe there are many wild card factors that can cause a ward to produce large numbers.

One time I taught Alvin R. Dyer's challenge to a missionary in Hawaii who baptized nearly a thousnd people and went on the be an assistant to his mission president. Another time I taught the same challenge to a missionary in California who baptized seventy-eight people. He was busted as a zone leader and alienated many members. Both missionaries had missionary potential and both produced numbers but I am not sure at what price or that their converts had average retention. If you could use a blanket then I think the Church would have followed the Dyer Plan or the Hartman Rector Plan. It is because of wild cards and ward specific missionary minded people that the results may vary. I have been enthusiastic about missionary work for nearly thirty years now but my results have been up and down.

Before I jump on board the Enthusiasm express I will need to receive some training and have the program slides and information given to me in print so I can better analyze how I can help in this important undertaking. One presentation doesn't give me enough information other than to know that extraordinary missionary success involves good mission plans, implementing them, bishop engagement, purposeful activity and random seeding. I can't do anything about the first three except read the plan. The last thing wasn't clearly defined in the four minutes we discussed it so I probably can only do the last part but I have no input in the purposeful activities. I could be more like IndyBook Slinger and plant tons of books out there but I wouldn't know if they produced results. I think my stake and ward needs to connect members to the process in some organized way. No one ever likes for loose cannons to be set on the community. Some people are extremist and will take this as a charge others will so hunh and others like me are waiting to be told what comes next.

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