No, this isn’t about that obnoxious missionary companion you had. “Mission creep” is a relatively new term that, according to the Internet, originally meant “a gradual shift in objectives during the course of a military campaign, often resulting in an unplanned long-term commitment.” Over time, the term broadened to include businesses and nonprofits, so it now includes “the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization” and “the gradual addition of new tasks or activities to a project so that the original purpose or idea begins to be lost.” I’m going to offer a few possible examples from LDS history and current activities. There is lots of LDS mission creep. You can chime in with your own examples. It might be a long list.
Fast Sunday. Let’s start with an easy one. Originally there were fast and testimony meetings during the week. From LDS.org: “For half a century, beginning in the 1830s, fast and testimony meetings convened on Thursday, following a practice approved by the Prophet Joseph Smith.” The Encyclopedia of Mormonism tells us “Since 1896 these meetings have usually been held on Sunday.” So it became part of the Sunday meeting cycle. Somehow money became part of the process, so “fast offerings” are requested and collected. Until about forty years ago, each ward had its own bank account and the bishop sort of balanced contributions with expenditures to benefit those in need, possibly with some lending and sharing between wards. Presently, all the money goes into one big centralized LDS account, and individual ward expenditures are funded by that account. Financially, that’s probably a better system and allows for richer wards and stakes to subsidize needy ones.
So you can see the expanding objectives. At first the testimony meeting was for the spiritual benefit of the individual members and strengthening the faith of all. Fasting just made everyone more spiritual (that’s the theory anyway). Then it became part of the Sunday meeting cycle, with the new benefit to local leaders of a meeting they don’t have to plan! No speakers to arrange, no topics to choose and assign. Then it became integrated with the LDS welfare system, both at the local level (fast offerings and expenditures) and the Church level (bishop’s storehouses and that whole organization). Note that, in relation to mission creep, I’m not saying these developments are necessarily bad things. But it’s like with a government program: once it gets started, it just keeps growing in both size and scope.
LDS Missionary Program. Once upon a time, it was primarily about proselyting. In the early days, married men, sometimes with their wives, as well as single men were sent out. About the turn of the 20th century, single LDS women were eligible to serve as proselyting missionaries (which is an interesting development, as missionary work was previously a priesthood function of the office of a seventy, so women got the function without getting the priesthood office, which would be sort of like telling LDS young women they could now bless the sacrament but hey it’s really just a prayer so we’re not going to ordain you as priests). Foreign language instruction prior to entering the mission field started in the 1960s, and a separate Missionary Training Center was established in Provo in 1978. Up until the 1970s, serving a mission was more or less optional, but President Kimball issued the directive that “every able, worthy young man should serve a mission.” (I’m pulling that quote and some of the material from a Newsroom essay on the history of LDS missionary work.)
I’m sure you’ve noticed some shift in emphasis in recent years from proselyting success to LDS character development for the missionaries themselves. As the age of eligibility has continued to drop (now down to 18 for young men and 19 for young women), that “convert the missionary” angle has taken on new importance. It’s like serving an LDS mission is now part of the LDS youth program, which might actually sound fairly reasonable but is a significant departure from how the missionary program ran until recently. Also, as the service component of missionary service has increased, the proselyting focus has decreased. It hasn’t been abandoned, but it’s not like knocking on doors produces converts anymore. These days, there just aren’t very many people waiting for a knock on the door or an invitation from a friend or neighbor to find Jesus, much less join the Mormons (who aren’t even called Mormons anymore, which no doubt confuses a lot of folks who talk with LDS missionaries).
Think about this. One response to declining proselyting opportunities would be to limit the number of missionaries serving or shorten the term of service. We just don’t need close to a hundred thousand young LDS missionaries trying to find people to talk to and teach. Most missionaries struggle to find something to do with their time. But no — the program sort of runs itself and produces its own justifications. Proselyting doesn’t work so well anymore? Service! The young missionaries learn discipline, it contributes to future job success! They maybe learn a foreign language! Returned missionaries stay active in the Church! That’s all mission creep.
The Mission of the Church as a Whole. Let’s tackle the big picture. Joseph Smith’s original mission (read the D&C) was to translate and publish the Book of Mormon. Then that expanded to founding a church, which happened in 1830. An active proselyting program kicked in almost immediately, with the founding and missionary work melding together as “establishing Zion” at a shifting set of locations, ending up in Utah. There was a strong millennialist element that became joined to that project, with a sincere expectation that Jesus would return before the close of the 19th century.
Temples entered the picture, first in Kirtland, 1836, then in Nauvoo. To the physical establishment of a temple (a house holy enough for the Lord to come visit here on planet Earth) was added the temple ordinances to join families together, another mission for the Church. Then along came polygamy, which as a flashpoint of controversy with the rest of American Christendom and the US government became a loyalty test for Mormons. In a practical day-to-day sense, defending and practicing plural marriage became the most important mission of the Church for the second half of the 19th century.
Moving along, normalizing the status of the Church became the focus during the first half of the 20th century — yes we’re Mormons, but we’re good patriotic Americans, too. In the 1960s and 1970s, missionary work and success once again became the primary mission of the Church as convert baptisms skyrocketed: “every young man should serve a mission” and lots of talk about the stone cut from the mountain that will roll forth to the whole world. As missionary success and Church growth have waned over the last generation, there’s a new shift happening. Building temples everywhere, lots of temple talks in Conference, a lot more emphasis on getting youth groups to the temple for baptisms, and of course constant encouragement to pay your tithing so you can get or keep your temple recommend so you, too, can go to the temple. That’s my sense of the replacement mission of the Church now that missionary work just isn’t working anymore. At least that’s what the leadership seems to be trying to do. It’s possible that the harsh truth is that the Church doesn’t really have a mission anymore. We just go to meetings once a week, give checks to the bishop, who forwards them to Salt Lake, where they use it to make payroll, pay the bills, build more temples, and use the excess to buy more land in Florida and grow the $100 Billion Fund. Maybe there’s no real mission anymore, just a well-funded organization that’s running on autopilot.
Some Background. It’s usually in the first paragraph that I talk about how I stumbled on the topic for my weekly post, but better late than never. I’m reading The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (Simon & Schuster, 2021) by Craig Whitlock, a Washington Post reporter. One thing I’ve learned: just about everything the US government said publicly about the war in Afghanistan over twenty years, from Presidents to Secretaries of State and Defense to generals, was a lie. The other big lesson is mission creep. Initially there were narrow and specific aims for the incursion into Afghanistan (identify and eliminate Al Qaeda and its bases in Afghanistan, punish the Taliban for supporting and protecting them) but it quickly morphed into occupation and nation-building. As that floundered, the strategic aim for remaining there sort of withered away and the generals and troops there just muddled through, achieving certain local, tactical aims and trying not to get killed or wounded. So that’s where I got the idea for the post. [And let me quickly note to any reader who served in Afghanistan or who has a family member who served there — thank you for your service and your sacrifice. Some good was certainly accomplished.]
Not all mission creep is bad. Sometimes it is responsibly altering the focus of the organization or war to meet new developments or challenges. But often there is an organizational bias towards growth and expansion that moves forward without any particular need or even in the face of obvious failure. Organizations are good at creating justifications for their own growth, some of which are flimsy or simply false. This pitfall looms for churches and businesses as well as governments and armies.
How has the Church done? One of the challenges of good senior managers is to avoid that kind of mission creep and organizational bloat. How has the Church done? It does manage to kill a program from time to time, Scouting being a recent example, and home teaching being another. Pageants are now a thing of the past. But other programs just seem to be out of control. Temple building. Correlation. Sunday School is on life support but just won’t die. What do you think?