If you are a church leader, it is likely that you have at least considered the idea of setting goals within your sphere of responsibility. Goal setting in the church can be a tricky business. Some principles that are important when setting personal goals may not be as effective when setting goals in a church context. The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the pros and cons associated with goal setting and provide some recommendations for making goal setting successful within a church context.

The direction to set goals at a local level comes from the highest levels of the church. Handbooks 1 and 2 advise the following related to goals:

  • Leaders are encouraged to make long-term plans and goals for their organizations
  • The ward mission plan “should include specific goals and activities to help members of ward priesthood and auxiliary organizations participate in member missionary work, retention, and activation”
  • Bishops should have plans and goals for the progress of (1) investigators, (2) new members, and (3) less-active members; and, these goals should be a topic of discussion for stake presidents with their bishops

Clearly, the purpose of setting goals in the Church context is to achieve the things we want for our organizations. But, while goal-setting is important, I think we need to be careful with how we carry out these instructions. To introduce this point, let me relate a personal story.

Mission Goal

During my mission, I served as a zone leader. Every transfer, the zone leaders and the assistants to the president met at the mission president’s home for a Mission Council Meeting. Up until one particular meeting, our mission had not set any mission-wide goals. In this meeting, one of our objectives was going to be to set a mission-wide goal. As missionaries, we quickly came to the consensus that we wanted to set a mission-wide baptism goal. So, the majority of our discussion revolved around the number of baptisms we wanted shoot for as a mission. Up until that time, our mission averaged just over 20 baptisms a month. So, being the gung-ho missionaries that we were, we set a goal for 50 baptisms during the following month. While I was in favor of setting a more “realistic” goal, we prayed about it and most people in the meeting felt good about the goal we had set.

Over the next transfer, this goal become a huge push across the mission. We were to fast, pray, and work diligently to obtain the goal, knowing that nothing stood in our way but our faith. And, it was my job as a zone leader to ensure that our zone pulled our weight in accomplishing this goal. Thus, every week, my companion and I were going to each district meeting and making lists of those closest to baptism and discussing how the missionaries teaching those people could get those people to be baptized before our goal deadline.

So, how did our mission do in terms of baptisms in relation to our goal? Well, we did not hit our goal of 50, but we did hit a mark that had not been reached in over 5 years, which was 30 baptisms.

One of the things that was initially interesting to me was how the missionaries in our zone responded to our results relative to our goal. While I think we were all a little proud that we outperformed our typical results, I found that some of the missionaries that did not contribute to the goal with a baptism were discourgaged, thinking that their “faith” was not great enough. Even some of the zone leaders and assistants to the president at the following Mission Council Meeting expressed displeasure with our performance. Rather than celebrating our accomplishment, we decided that we wanted to double-down on our goal. So, we set a similar goal for the next month.

Again, we over-performed, relative to our typical averages, but we fell well short of our goal. I saw the same mixture of pride and discouragement amongst the missionaries within our zone.

For the next Mission Council Meeting, I was asked to give a training on goal-setting. I put a lot of thought and effort into the training, and I tried my best to seek the Spirit in preparing. Based upon my experience seeing the discouraged reactions of the missionaries in my zone, I personally felt inspired to slightly alter the topic away from goal setting to “the importance of trying our very best.” In this training, I suggested that we should not judge our success/failure on how we performed relative to our goal, but on whether or not we tried our best. After the training, my mission president, in a very kind way, expressed disapproval with my training, stating that rather than change a topic I was asked to speak on, it would be better for me to tell him I wasn’t comfortable giving a training on that particular topic.

In all honesty, ever since then, goal setting has been a bit of a sensitive subject for me, and one that I have thought about and struggled over. I have learned a lot about goal setting since then, and I would like to share with you some of the pros and cons of goal setting, particularly in a church environment. In doing so, I will point back to this example and the longer-term consequences of our goal setting and actions.

Pros of Goal Setting

Let me first start with the pros of goal setting. There are three primary pros of goals.

First, goals provide focus. Without clear goals, our attention and behaviors get directed to whatever is shiny or urgent at the moment. This usually means that we make small steps in a variety of directions, and often no or little meaningful progress is made. With clear goals, our attention and behaviors get directed toward a single outcome or small set of outcomes. Focusing on a single direction or small set of directions allows the group to make meaningful progress toward the chosen outcome.

Second, goals energize. We do not need goals for everything. But, if we want to accomplish something that is unlikely to come about through natural behaviors, then we need goals. As mentioned previously, goals will provide focus, but they will also provide focused energy. As a quick example, I like to run, but only for about 2.5 miles. Without a goal to run a marathon, I will never run a marathon. But, if I were to set a goal to run a marathon (key here is that I self-select to do so), that will energize me to go beyond what I naturally do.

Third, goals enhance persistence. Goals provide a standard against which people can continually compare their performance. Just having a standard increases the striving to attain the standard. We hate to be seen as failures, and we are likely to go to great lengths to not fail. This enhances persistence.

An essential aspect of effective goal setting, that I briefly mentioned, is the importance of self-selection. In order for a goal to provide focus, energize, and improve persistence, the individuals must own the goal for themselves. One of the best ways to get individuals to own a goal is to involve them in the selection of a goal. However, in my church experience, it is common for one of my auxiliary leaders (e.g., elder’s quorum president) to select a goal for the auxiliary without any discussion with the members of the auxiliary. For example, in one elder’s quorum, the elder’s quorum president set a goal for each member of the quorum to go to the temple once a month. I am sure this was something he discussed with his presidency, but there was no discussion with the general body of the elder’s quorum. In other words, we were given a goal, instead of being able to select a goal. Now, I think the goal is a fine goal, but it did not provide the focus, energy, or persistence that what might have been the case if the members of the elder’s quorum were able to self-select the goal.

Cons of Goal Setting

There is one primary con of goal setting, and it is not to be underestimated, especially within a church context.

One of the primary teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to have an outward focus. But, goals often incentivize us to look inward first and outward second. This means that while we generally set goals around helping others, when it comes to the fulfillment of those goals, we are generally more concerned about whether or not WE accomplish OUR goals than we are about helping others in a way that is best for them.

Let me give you a couple of examples. First, when I was a ward mission leader, we had two missionaries in our ward that were both ending their mission at the same time. So, they set a goal to have a baptism by the time they went home, which at the surface was about blessing someone’s life by helping them make sacred covenants with God. But, what ended up happening is that the missionaries were more concerned about THEMSELVES seeing someone baptized than they were about blessing someone’s life. This led them to pressure a woman to get baptized prior to when she was ready. Although she was approved through the proper channels (which were rushed at the direction of the missionaries), she never returned to church after her confirmation, which was the last Sunday those two missionaries were in the ward.

Second, going back to my mission goal example, we saw very similar things happening. While baptisms were up because of our goal setting, missionaries felt a lot of pressure to get people baptized prior to the goal deadline. This led to (1) most of the baptisms occurring on the last weekend of the goal, and (2) people being baptized prior to them being ready or properly socialized into their wards. Thus, although baptisms were up, retention was very poor.

In each of these instances, while the goals increased the focus, energy, and persistence of the missionaries, they also incentivized the missionaries to do what was best for THEM, and not necessarily what was best for the people they were working with.

This presents a very interesting paradox. On one side, the Church Handbooks suggest that the primary area where we should set goals is related to missionary work, retention, and activation. And, surely it is a positive thing to help people join the church, become more active, and to stay active participants. But, on the other side, goals associated with missionary work, retention, and activation often incentivizes the attention to be on whether or not WE accomplish our goals (i.e., success), and less on the people that we are actually trying to serve and bless.

The Challenge

Thus, the challenge becomes: How do we set goals that direct, energize, and enhance persistence, but at the same time help us to stay outward and do what is best for those we are serving?

From my experience, in order to effectively set goals within a church context, we need to realize that there are tradeoffs between being other-focused, specific, and time-bound. At best, we can have two of these options, and to illustrate the point, we can think of our goals like a clock-face, shown below.

As illustrated in the figure, a goal can be:

  • 12 o’clock: Other-focused, but not specific or time-bound
  • 2 o’clock: Other-focused and specific, but not time-bound
  • 6 o’clock: Specific and time-bound, but not other-focused

Where we run into trouble is when we try to have goals that are other-focused, specific, AND time-bound. This was the problem with our mission goals. We tried to have all three. But, what ended up happening in practice is that the emphasis was on specific and time-bound, and other-focused fell to the wayside.

Thus, when we set goals within a church context, we should realize that we will only be able to successfully achieve two of these characteristics in our goals, and we should shoot for a combination of two of the three options that we consider to be the most important. Because we are in a church setting focused on serving and blessing others, it seems appropriate that we always strive to include being other-focused in our goal-setting. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Other-focused & Specific (2 o’clock)
    • Example: Help 10 individuals return to full activity in the church
      • It is tempting to set a timeframe on a goal such as this. But, the instant we do, it will force other-focused to go out of focus. Instead, it is better to keep working toward the other-focused and specific goal without a timeframe. Then, when you accomplish the goal, whenever that happens to be, celebrate it.
    • Other-focused & Time-bound (10 o’clock)
      • Example: Help at least one individual get baptized by the end of the year
        • This example goal is similar to the “set a date” technique. We identify an other-focused outcome and put a time commitment to it, but we do not place any specifics. We let the specifics work themselves out. The instant we put specifics on it (e.g., five baptisms or a certain person), the other-focus goes out the door and we care less about blessing someone’s life and more about the numbers or our personal accomplishments.

While we could set goals that are specific and time-bound, in practice, it will often create internal conflict in a church context. Let me give you an example:

  • Specific & Time-bound (6 o’clock)
    • Example: Have 80% home teaching by the end of the month
      • While this may be well-intended, it is a goal that becomes clearly about the numbers and not about the people being home-taught (although there may be some benefits there). This makes members feel like “projects,” which is the last thing we want members to feel like. In other words, when we try to make a goal that is other-focused, specific, and time-bound, it is often the “other-focused” aspect of the goal that is neglected.

Conclusion

It is safe to say that church leaders are encouraged to set goals. And, I personally like the idea of goals because they help us focus our attention and make progress toward a positive end result. The alternative is drifting where the winds or sea take the person, group, or ward.

But, and here is a fairly big “but,” if goals are not set appropriately within the church, they can have negative collateral damage for those the goals were originally intended to bless.

Thus, to set proper goals within a church context, it is important to recognize that of the three characteristics of goal-setting discussed here (“other-focused,” “specific,” and “time-bound”), we generally can only effectively fulfill two of the three characteristics. Thus, in a church context, our goals are going to be most beneficial if they are either:

  • Other-focused and specific, or
  • Other-focused and time-bound

If we set goals that involve being specific and time-bound (which is often a recommended practice in the goal-setting community; e.g., SMART goals), such goals will incentivize us to be self-focused, and to engage in practices that may not be the best for those that we are serving.

In all, I hope that this article will help you set goals that truly bless the lives of those you serve.

In the comments, and to further help church leaders and future readers, feel free to share what has worked and what hasn’t worked related to goal setting in your ward or auxiliary.

 

Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and the Assistant Director of the Center for Leadership at the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. His topical expertise is in leadership development, performance management, and organizational topics that include employee engagement, psychological safety, trust, and fairness. He holds a PhD 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.

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