This is the third article in a four-part series on community within the Church. Read article 1 and article 2 here.

In the first article in this series, I discussed how some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really enjoy going to church because they receive value from being part of the Church community, but I also recognized that not all members feel this way, leading to the identification of different types of communities ranging from basic communities to united communities. I suggested that local Church leaders need to be conscious of how all Church members feel about their local community. In the second article in this series, I discussed how the Church has largely possessed and currently possesses a united community. While united communities have greatly benefited the Church, I identified common unintended and negative side effects of united communities, and suggested that it is not uncommon for our stakes, wards, and branches to possess these unintended and negative side effects. Together, these articles leave us with the question: “Which form of community should we be striving to create in our stakes, wards, and branches?” This article seeks to answer this question.

In a recent Harvard Business School article on successful teams, the article suggested that the most successful teams [and communities] possess two specific traits to a high degree. These two traits are cognitive diversity and psychological safety.

Cognitive diversity is the inclusion and acceptance of people who offer unique perspectives.

Psychological safety occurs when people in a community feel safe expressing ideas and opinions without fear of negative repercussion.

The article then goes on to present the following figure describing four different teams [and communities] depending on whether they are low or high on these two traits.

  • What type of community should we promote?
  • Is my ward low or high on cognitive diversity?
  • Is my ward low or high on psychological safety?
  • Thus, what type of community does my ward have?

Let me share a personal experience that just happened yesterday (as of writing this), and you tell me what type of community happens to be in my ward.

Yesterday, in gospel doctrine, I was asked to read a passage of scripture (1 Kings 3: 10-14) about King Solomon and give some of my thoughts about what I read. The passage discussed how the Lord was “pleased” that Solomon had asked for an understanding heart, and had “given” him a “wise and understanding heart.”

In my comments on the passage, I said that sometimes I have a hard time with the Old Testament because the narrator seems to interject his/her own comments and often makes it sound easier than what likely happens in reality. For example, how do we know for sure that the Lord was “pleased?” Further, in my opinion, the passage makes it seem as though Solomon is asking a Genie for a wish and the Genie grants it immediately. I suggested that based on my experience and seeing the experiences of others, gaining an attribute like an “understanding heart” takes time and concerted efforts. Additionally, developing an understanding heart is not something Solomon likely asked for and received immediately. Rather, I think him expressing his desire is only one piece of a larger development process, and that it is through great desire and concerted effort that we can gain similar traits as Solomon.

After my comment, there were four comments. Three of those four comments were about how we need to take the scriptures literally, not question them nor interpret them for ourselves. After the class, I had two people come up to me and say something along the lines of, “man, you got roasted in there;” and I had another gentleman say to me, “I also have a hard time with some of the scriptures, thank you for sharing your perspective.”

Do you think there is a culture of cognitive diversity in my Sunday school class? Do you think I am going to be more inclined or less inclined to share my ideas and opinions in the future (psychological safety)? Would a similar thing likely happen in your ward when a non-conventional comment is made?

Here is another litmus test for you to try to get a pulse on the community in your ward or branch.

I recently saw the following advertisement for a friend’s church:

Do you feel like your local Church community feels the same way?

I will speak for myself and say that while I consider myself rather open-minded, this is something that I have a hard time with. I am not sure how accepting I am of people who show up to church looking like this person. In many ways, I have felt (and I am trying not to feel) that other people have to adhere to certain standards of living or dressing in order for me to be open to “accepting” them. This suggests that I am surely someone who, in my own ways, prevents cognitive diversity and psychological safety.

Improving Our Communities

There are some realities that are important for us to understand. First, our church possesses a strong united community (see Article 1 for more information). Second, united communities have their advantages and disadvantages, and often it is difficult for those within united communities to see the disadvantages of such communities (see Article 2 for more information). Third, while there is much good about our church and local communities, there is room for improvement.

As an organizational behavior and leadership scholar and as an organizational consultant, something that I have learned is that great, inclusive, and loving communities do not come about by chance, they come about intentionally.

This suggests that if we want to improve the communities within our Church and our local congregations, we really need to be intentional and deliberate about ensuring our communities have the advantages of united communities, but not the disadvantages that often come with them (e.g., low cognitive diversity and low psychological safety).

In what follows, I identify six elements that are necessary for creating healthy and productive communities, what I call, intentional communities. Also, I will identify a common aspect of united communities that we need to avoid in an intentional community, as it commonly stands in the way of the six elements necessary for intentional communities.

Six Elements Necessary for Intentional Communities

1. Charity – I happen to think we give this a lot of lip service in the Church but have very little clarity on what it means. In my study on the topic from sources within and outside of the Church, I believe that charity is seeing people as they truly are, as people, and then valuing them as such (regardless of how they look, dress, or talk). In doing so, we consider the needs and feelings of others to be as important, if not more important, than our own needs and feelings. This is different than viewing others as objects, which implies that we are more important and more deserving than others. The recent breast-feeding at church fracas appears at the surface to be one in which the focal party and family involved feels like they are being treated as objects more than as people.

2. Safety – Google has found that the primary factor that makes their top-performing teams top performing is psychological safety. Again, psychological safety occurs when members of a team or group feel like they can (1) express their ideas and opinions, and (2) take risks, both without fear of repercussion. This means that prior to defending one’s position when we hear something we do not necessarily agree with, we seek to better understand the other person’s position, allowing us to respond in a way that they feel comfortable contributing their ideas and opinions again in the future.

3. Openness – Openness includes the following factors: (1) a desire to seek the truth, regardless of the source, (2) willingness to hear new ideas and different perspectives, and (3) an acknowledgment that we do not possess all information and all truth. Here are a couple quotes I like on the topic that reaches beyond the common “knowing” culture in the Church:

  • “There’s a difference between knowing and learning. If you’re attached to knowing, it stands in the way of learning.” (Adam Grant)
  • “You, like me, probably don’t know everything you need to know and would be wise to embrace that fact. If you can think for yourself while being open-minded in a clearheaded way to find out what is best for you to do, and if you can summon up the courage to do it, you will make the most of your life. If you can’t do that, you should reflect on why that is, because that’s most likely your greatest impediment to getting more of what you want out of life.” (Ray Dalio)

4. Inclusiveness – A willingness to include many different types of people and treating them all fairly. The basic idea is that everyone/anyone should feel welcome and that they do not have to meet any certain requirement to feel welcomed and loved. As the saying goes, it is not our job to judge, it is our job to love.

5. Being present – People are busy and they have a lot on their plate. This means the amount of time that people spend within a community may differ. What is important for an intentional community is that when people are spending time with the community, they are present with the community and are giving the community and the people within the community their attention. While a certain amount of responsibility should fall on members’ shoulders, local congregations must organize meetings and activities that are worth being present for.

6. Purpose – This may be the most important element of an intentional community because purpose unites people to a common cause. When people have a common purpose, particularly one that is other-focused and greater than themselves, they start heading in the same direction. When people within a community are headed in the same direction, they are able to focus and devote their attention to the purpose, and not to other non-important things, such as how someone is dressed or how they look.

All six of these elements are not things that come about naturally, in fact, they are largely in opposition to our natural inclinations. That is why we and local church leaders need to be intentional and deliberate about creating these necessary elements of an intentional community.

Stop here and reflect for a moment: When you think about the life of Jesus Christ, would you say that these are attributes that he emulated and encouraged? Would you say that Jesus Christ was intentional with his life and leadership?

A Common Aspect of a United Community to Avoid in an Intentional Community

There is an element that intentional communities need to avoid, as it has the power to erode all six elements of an intentional community. It is an element that is commonly found in united communities. This element is identification (closely related to pride).

When people belong to a united community, it is common for the community to become an important part of how they see themselves, something that they feel adds value to their self-worth. Thus, they develop and possess a strong emotional attachment to the community. This is called identification.

When members identify with a community, when the community is successful, they feel successful; and when the community is unsuccessful, they feel defeated. We see this a lot with sports. Many sports fans identify with “their teams.” So, when their team wins, they feel like a winner; and when their team loses, they feel like a loser.

When members identify strongly with their community, they (1) have a difficult time being objective about the community, (2) are opposed to changes, and (3) easily get defensive when new or different ideas are presented. This leads them to develop a “country club” mentality that is the opposite of being inclusive, safe, and charitable (among other traits).

Conclusion

What type of community does your local church community have and how can it be improved? Regardless of your perspective, the reality is that each ward and branch can be more intentional about improving its community and making it more charitable, safe, open, inclusive, engaging, and purposeful.

Read Part 4: Moving Forward in a Changing Social Landscape

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/.

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