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Mormon Inquiry

A post at Mormanity raises the question of the role of statistics in managing the LDS Church. Statistics are ubiquitous in congregations, stakes, and the Church as a whole. I understand why local and senior LDS leaders rely on statistics, but rarely is the downside of this statistical focus discussed.

On the positive side, tracking statistics is an incentive for good performance and a basis for accountability. If Sunday meetings are worth attending and if individual Latter-day Saints have a commitment to attend whenever possible, then measuring attendance is a useful statistic to help leaders assess the faithfulness of members and their own effectiveness as leaders. Similar arguments could be made for a variety of other statistical categories. So one can argue that taking statistics seriously shows that LDS leaders take their responsibilities seriously.

There are problems, however. How much is too much? In any bureaucratic system, required statistics and reports accumulate and only rarely get purged or streamlined. Worse, the important things (e.g., do visitors feel welcome in the ward? do members of the ward exhibit charity and love unfeigned?) may be difficult or impossible to measure in a statistic, while minor or even irrelevant data (the number of bodies that appear in the adult Sunday School class on any given Sunday) are easily measured and become the focus of reports and discussion. Measuring what we can measure as a substitute for the important stuff we can’t measure is not the best approach. You know the anecdote about the quarter and the streetlight.

Or take the ubiquitous home teaching percentage statistic. I have seen claims made that the home teaching percentage is an inerrant indicator of the spiritual health of a ward or stake. I suspect what it really measures is the commitment of local priesthood holders to do what they’re asked and support their local leaders, whether they think it is accomplishing anything or not. In practice, the home teaching percentage sometimes functions as an indispensable part of the management-by-guilt toolkit: it allows local leaders to rail on the men in priesthood meetings each Sunday, stake leaders to rail on the local leaders, and senior leaders to rail on the stake leaders.

Perhaps the whole statistical approach could use some reevaluation.

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