I recently joined the board for a professional association. We just had a regional meeting where we discussed how to grow membership. This was not unlike hundreds of church-related meetings that I have been a part of on how to grow and strengthen our wards.

But, what fascinated me about this situation was that while there is a lot of similarity between the professional association and the church (e.g., lay leadership, desire for membership growth), what the association focused on to grow and strengthen was very different, and in my opinion more effective, than what we typically focus on in the Church.

From this, I learned that church leaders can do a better job of strengthening and growing their community if they will be open to changing their traditional focus.

To effectively discuss rethinking how we grow and strengthen our wards, we need to cover three topics:

  • What the Church says our focus should be
  • What ward leaders typically focus on
  • What ward leaders should focus on

What the Church Says Our Focus Should Be

In 1999, President Hinckley gave a landmark address entitled, “Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” that was focused on growing and strengthening our Church and individual wards. In this address, he said that every new convert needs three things (and I might venture to say every member needs these three things):

  1. A friend
  2. An assignment
  3. Nourished by the good word of God

At this point, one of the things that I want you to note is the order of these foci. Also, consider the following questions:

  • On a scale from 1-10, with 10 being “Excellent,” how good of a job does your ward do in:
    • Helping facilitate friendships
    • Providing responsibilities to everyone
    • Nourishing people with the good word of God?
  • Whatever your ratings, do you consider that level to be something your ward should be proud of?
  • Out of these three, where does your ward struggle the most?

What Ward Leaders Typically Focus On

From my experience, when it comes to growing and strengthening wards through conversion or activation, most local church leaders seem to focus on: Helping others better see the benefits of what we are already providing. We seem to think that if we can only communicate to people all of the great and wonderful things about our current church experience, people would flock to the baptismal font or back into our pews.

But, this approach implies several major assumptions:

  1. What we are already providing benefits others
  2. The primary reason why more people aren’t joining with us (either as new converts or as those within our rolls that do not regularly attend) is because they do not understand the benefits of what our ward provides
  3. What we are already providing should be seen as being of benefit to those who do not attend

But, do we ever consider the idea that more people do not attend because what we are providing is not benefitting them or will not benefit them?

What Ward Leaders Should Focus On

Based upon the research that has been done by the professional association that I am associated with, they have found three primary reasons why people join and participate in the association. And they occur in the following order:

  1. High-quality content
  2. Beneficial networking
  3. Having a responsibility

Again, notice the order. How does that differ from what President Hinckley discussed? The last on President Hinckley’s list is the first associated with professional association.

Right or wrong, I think there is value in this order. Let me explain why.

High-Quality Content

In order for a member to believe that they are receiving high-quality content from any group they join, they have got to feel like the content is meeting their needs. Thus, this puts the onus on the organization to understand what its members needs are and deliver upon their needs.

This leads to two questions to consider:

  • Do your ward leaders have clarity on what the needs of the members are?
  • Is there any strategy for providing content that meets those needs?

Traditionally, because of both the structure and the culture of the Church, there has been very little wiggle room for the content covered in our meetings. Lessons are often assigned from high up in the Church and sacrament meeting talks are commonly about General Conference talks; which, only if we are lucky, do they address the local needs of the congregation.

Also, we need to consider how the content is being presented. Do people feel like they need a gospel doctrine teacher that lectures them for 45 minutes? Or, do they need a platform to ask questions, discuss topics that they are struggling with, and gather the perspectives of many as they seek to best navigate the journey we call life? Consider, which of these two options is more “nourishing?”

Beneficial Networking

In professional associations, it is a priority to facilitate connections between people that will lead to beneficial relationships.

Let me give you an example. About six months ago, I attended my first professional association meeting for a particular association. Recognizing that I was new, one of the association leaders introduced himself and asked what help I was looking for from the association. After telling him that I was looking for someone who could help me edit and improve the book I am writing, he then took the time to introduce me to two people who he thought could help me. I ended up hiring one of these individuals and the guidance I have been given has been invaluable. I couldn’t be more grateful for that connection.

How good of a job do we do in our wards at facilitating meaningful relationships like this?

To me, it seems like our typical approach to networking within the Church revolves around ministering assignments. And even further, I have yet to be in a ward where these assignments have been made with a committed focus of trying to connect people with others that would help them with their particular needs. For example, if someone is experiencing a faith crisis, do we ask ourselves: “Who in the ward has been through a faith crisis?” And then proceed to make the connection. Or, if someone is starting their own business, do we match them up with a successful entrepreneur? Or, do we just assume these connections will be made naturally?

I believe that the more intentional we can be with facilitating beneficial connections, the more members are going to gain value from their time spent at church and/or in church activities.

Having a Responsibility

Most professional associations operate similar to the Church, in that they operate because people are donating their time and efforts. But, in professional associations, most of the people that benefit from the association do not have a responsibility with the association. This differs from our wards, where most active members have some form of responsibility.

This makes a big difference in how they operate. In professional associations, this means that they have more pressure to provide high-quality content and networking because if they don’t, people will not show up.

In our wards, because so many people have responsibilities that essentially require them to attend, we feel less pressure to provide high-quality content and networking, because we assume people will show up regardless of the quality.

This leads me to wonder: what are most members’ motivation for attending church week in and week out: Because they want to, or because they feel like they ought to (to fulfill their responsibilities)?

Subsequently, we should ask ourselves: Who do you think is going to be more engaged in the community, those who want to attend or those who feel they ought to attend?

This brings us back to the value and importance of providing high-quality content and beneficial networking.

Summary

For decades, our Church and our local leaders have focused on how to grow and strengthen our wards. Given the time and energy we collectively put toward this, I assumed that we were approaching such growth and strengthening in an effective manner. But it wasn’t until I attended a regional meeting for a professional association that focused on growing and strengthening its membership that I realized that our typical approach for this in the Church may not be the most effective.

I think all of us want to grow and strengthen our wards, largely because we believe that a greater infusion of the gospel of Jesus Christ into the lives of those who currently don’t worship with us will improve their lives temporally and eternally.

But, the reality is that if we want to grow and strengthen our wards we have got to provide meetings that others want to attend. This should lead us to focus on primarily providing:

  1. Higher-quality content (which includes both the degree to which the content meets the needs of those in attendance and how that content is presented), and
  2. Beneficial networking.

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 the 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. https://www.ryangottfredson.com/

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