Most organizations want to be admired, to be the best at what they do, but also to dominate their field and grow. Churches likewise feel a mandate to be the stone cut from the mountain that fills the whole earth. In the case of Mormonism, we want to go from 6 people meeting in 1830 to millions of Church members in 2022, and to retain what’s unique and special about us while appealing to a broader audience over time. We want to be different (better) than other Christian sects, but also recognized by them and part of them. It’s hard to be in competition with a group while also wanting that group to admit you as one of their own. The tension is real between being who you are and being accepted; there is a great pull to sacrifice uniqueness to fit in.
The musical [Title of Show] is about 4 theater friends writing and submitting a musical for a festival, they talk about whether they want the show to be broadly popular or more appealing to fewer people. They conclude they’d rather be “nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth favorite thing.” They see broad popularity as the road to mediocrity and being forgotten amid so many similar musicals, but doing something truly unique may mean they achieve greatness that is just less appreciated, but still fresh.
Susan sings about being nine years old in Ohio, entering a baking contest against all the fancy cakes. She makes rice krispie treats instead, and while her offering is rejected by almost all the judges, one lone judge picks her rice krispie treats. She sings “Let our show be the rice krispie treats.” I was one of those nine people, seeing it on Broadway twice during its run. And rice krispie treats are pretty amazing.
Whenever an organization scales up to attract more people, a shift toward mediocrity will be one byproduct. There will be less variation: fewer disasters, but fewer moments of greatness. When you go to McDonald’s, you know what you are going to get. It’s the same wherever you go. The brand makes sure that it conforms to the McDonald’s recipe, packaging, hiring, and rough pricing model. If you go to a local burger restaurant, you might find a much higher quality meal, usually at higher prices, and probably with a better dining experience on the whole. If you take that successful niche restaurant and turn it into a chain, you may be better known and have more audience and make more money, but you will give up some of what makes you special in the process. The people running it will be more indifferent, the more people you add. The food quality may change as you make more of it. There might be less impact from a single bad incident, so quality control may go down as the output increases.
Another feature of scaling up is that what makes it so successful as a single business doesn’t always work across multiple locations. As you grow, chinks in the armor are revealed–flaws in the model get bigger and more problematic. Scaling up reveals the types of weaknesses that are hidden or compensated for in a smaller group. You might have to change suppliers or processes to receive supplies. You have to change your model, and in the process, you might lose what worked well and replace it with something not quite as good, but more practical for a large scale operation.
Most readers of the bloggernacle will immediately see a parallel with the correlation movement in the Church. As the Church grew, there was a lot of consternation over organizations having too much autonomy and not being consistent, particularly in terms of their vision for their organization and the content of teaching manuals and publications. In the process of correlating, we lost a lot of the best content, but settled on something much more bland. Maybe that’s necessary as you grow.
When evaluating the success of a scaled-up model, it’s important to consider the role of both the chef and the ingredients. We’ve all seen movies in which a great chef makes something simple like an omelette, and the critic or customer takes an ecstatic bite of this simple meal, rolling their eyes up in their head in pleasure, illustrating that the chef is fantastique. *chef’s kiss*
Those who enjoy watching chef competition shows will be familiar with the idea that these top notch chefs are often given unusual or unexciting ingredients that they have to incorporate into their recipe to make something good. On one show, a contestant had to include pop-tarts in the fancy dessert he was making, and the result wasn’t great. It was overpowering, too sweet, cloying, and had a weird texture. A great chef can’t always make bad ingredients into something delicious.
Within the Church, this question of the chef vs. the ingredients is just as salient. We started out with chefs who were charismatic enough to make a meal out of polygamy (at least the men found it delicious) and moving across the country. They literally had people drinking swamp water, straining it through their teeth, and calling it a life-changing spiritual experience! We’ve had plenty of leaders since then who have been less successful in making a meal out of unpalatable ingredients. We’ve also had some chefs who relied too much on certain ingredients that have been a turn off for some of the diners.
- What do you think are the weaknesses in Church structure that were revealed as we got bigger?
- What are the best ingredients the Church has available? The worst?
- Who have been the best chefs we’ve had as a Church? The worst?
- Which is more important to the Church’s scalability: the chef or the ingredients?