This is the first article in a four-part series on community within the LDS Church.
During the Spring of 2017, I was working for Gallup, an engagement consulting firm. The project I was working on was an employee engagement project for a large university in Canada. We had all of the employees of the university complete an employee engagement survey and I was now sifting through the data to find interesting results that could be valuable to the organization.
Then it happened, with a few clicks of the mouse, I was looking at results that nearly floored me. Immediately, I couldn’t wait to show this to the university’s leadership group (top 200 employees).
What I was looking at was engagement scores across the different hierarchical levels of the organization. What I found was that the engagement of the top leadership group was astronomically high. If they were one organization, they would have been in the top 5% for engagement scores across Gallup’s entire database. However, here is the kicker, the nearly 2,000 employees below the university’s leadership group had engagement scores that were well below average.
Thus, what I was seeing was that the university’s leaders were having a completely different and much more positive experience with their work and organization than all of the other university employees. It was like two different worlds.
When I eventually went up to present the results to the university’s leadership group, they had to confront the reality that they were operating in a bubble and out of touch with their employees’ reality.
Since then, I have often wondered what the engagement results would look like within our wards and branches if I could run this same analysis. I wonder if the ward leaders are operating in completely different world than non-leaders. And consequently, I wonder if ward leaders were out of touch with non-leaders’ reality within their ward?
(If you are interested in learning more about this disconnect, read this article published previously by LeadingLDS)
Even more specifically, I wonder what percentage of ward leaders enjoy attending church on a weekly basis, and how that compares to the percentage of non-ward leaders (e.g., primary teachers, Relief Society committee members, ward missionaries) that enjoy attending church on a weekly basis. This obviously negates the fact that in most wards, roughly 50% of the people on the ward’s roster do not enjoy attending church because they fail to attend.
In my church experience, it has been my observation that the people that enjoy attending church the most are those who are in ward leadership positions. Since they enjoy attending church, they tend to think or believe that most everyone that comes to church enjoys attending church. However, that it is not the case. There is a meaningful percentage of active members that do not necessarily enjoy attending church but they attend anyway because they believe that is where they should be.
One Reason Why Some Members Do Not Enjoy Attending Church
While I do not know all of the reasons why some members do not enjoy attending church, I have had several recent conversations lately that have pointed me to one overarching reason why many members do not enjoy attending church: it lacks community. For some, this means that they do not feel included and for others this means that they feel judged. I am left wondering if ward leaders are aware of this because as a key player in the community, they likely feel like the ward has a strong community.
In this article, and in subsequent articles, I am going to be diving into the topic of community, with questions including:
• What is community?
• Why is community important?
• What forces are pulling against the formation of a church or ward community?
• What are the essential elements of a healthy church community?
• What can church members that struggle with community do to have a more positive experience at church?
• What can ward leaders do to ensure their ward or auxiliary has the essential elements of a church community?
What is community?
This is a challenging question to answer because the reality is that there are many different definitions of community that span a spectrum of involvement, with each level differing in involvement, associated feelings, and even identity. To simplify, I am going to break this spectrum down into three levels:
• Basic Community
• Involved Community
• United Community
I will discuss each briefly, but I provide additional detail in the table below. However, it is important to recognize that what I am describing is how someone feels about the community and may not represent how the community really is. For example, a husband and a wife can both be involved in their children’s school’s parent-teacher association (PTA). For one parent that is very involved, s/he can see the PTA as being a united community, but the less-involved parent may only see the PTA as a basic community.
A basic community is a community where an individual shares characteristics with others in the community but for the most part, there is little emotional connection to, pride in, satisfaction with, and involvement in the community. An example of this for me is being a BYU alum. I will state to others that I graduated from BYU and I share that in common with other BYU graduates but I have very little connection to the BYU alumni community. I am not engaged in that community and I am neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with the community.
An involved community is a step deeper than a basic community. Individuals share characteristics with others in the community, and members of the community have some emotional connection to, pride in, satisfaction with, and involvement in the community. A distinguishing factor of an Involved community is that while there is some engagement with that community, the member feels independent from the community, meaning they do not fully identify with the community and may not exhibit all of the same interests, goals, and beliefs that the community promotes or espouses. An example of this for me is being a professor at California State University, Fullerton. I am an active member of the community, in that I contribute to the organization through my teaching, research, and service. However I do not necessarily feel like I fit in, as I am the only person at my university actively researching leadership, I feel a bit isolated. Additionally, I do not feel like I identify with the school. Evidence of this is that I do not keep up with the latest happenings on campus or their sporting events.
A united community is a step deeper than an involved community. Individuals in a United Community not only share characteristics with others in the community, but they exhibit and internalize the same interests, goals, and beliefs that the community promotes and espouses. As such, these members strongly identify with the community. When the community hurts, they hurt. When the community is happy, they are happy. When the community comes under scrutiny, they get defensive. When the community errs, they become heartbroken. An example of this for me is being a member of my family. I strongly identify with my family; I try my best to align my interests, goals, and beliefs with what is best for my family; and, when someone hurts or is happy in my family, I hurt or am happy.
The reality about these different types of communities is that one form is not necessarily the most optimal or ideal. They each come with their pros and cons.
For example, while there is usually little involvement in and satisfaction as a member of a basic community, there is also little demands on one’s time. Additionally, if something negative happens to the community or to a member of its community, it has little, if any, effect upon you personally.
Additionally, when one see’s their community as being an involved community, they are able to experience some of the benefits of being known and befriended within that community, while also able to maintain their independence. While there is likely pressure to more fully conform in order to more fully be accepted and feel a greater sense of belonging, they are able to keep an emotional distance and healthy objectiveness about the community.
Finally, when it comes to being a part of a united community, there are undoubtedly many benefits. Fundamentally, they feel as though their community is “home.” Not only do they fully belong but they feel energized by their community and their involvement in that community. While their involvement can be demanding, they usually consider its demands to be a privilege. Issues within united communities start to become apparent when members’ personal identity becomes intertwined with that of the community. While there are some benefits to this intertwined identity, such as increasing one’s perception of their value and worth, some of the side effects can be severe. These side effects include (1) groupthink, (2) losing objectivity about the community, (3) experiencing emotional and/or physical harm when the community comes under scrutiny and criticism, and (4) a willingness to engage in unethical and immoral behaviors for the sake of the community.
I hope this article leads you to ask two sets of questions.
First, (1) How do the leaders in your ward perceive your ward’s community? (2) How do the “average members” of your ward perceive your ward’s community? and (3) What is it about your ward’s community that prevents those that do not participate in the community from participating more frequently?
Second, which form of community should we be striving to create in our wards and branches? In the next article in this series, we will discuss the important role that communities have played and currently play in the LDS Church. I will encourage readers to take an objective view of both the positives and negatives associated within our church and ward communities in an effort to help us be more intentional about creating even healthier communities.
Ryan is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at California State University-Fullerton. His topical expertise is in success mindsets, leadership development, performance management, and organizational topics that include employee engagement, psychological safety, trust, and fairness. He holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from Indiana University and a BA from Brigham Young University. Additionally, he is a former Gallup workplace analytics consultant, where he designed research efforts and engaged in data analytics to generate business solutions for dozens of organizations across various industries. He has published over 15 articles in various journals including Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Management, Business Horizons, and Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. You can check out his leadership and personal success blog at https://www.ryangottfredson.com/.