I just finished watching the HBO series “The Wire“. It is a VERY NSFW police drama, with more F and N words/min that any show in the history of television! One theme of the show was what the rank and file police called “Juking the Stats”. This involved manipulating the crime statistics in such a way that show a reduction of crime.
While listening to a podcast this week where a former church employee dishes on what happens behind the scenes, I realized that the Church also “jukes the stats”. In the podcast, he listed ten things he learned after his first year of working for the church. Each one could be a Bishop Bill post, but the one that jumped out to me was this one: “The operational church (paid employees) must always spin things positive to the ecclesiastical church (Area/General Authorities)”. He relates a story where he was in a meeting and asked a question by an Area Authority. He thought he was suppose to answer honestly, but he learned he was not. He was trying to let this Area Authority know the reality of something that happened over the past year, and after the meeting his boss told him that he was not to share anything negative, and he needed to spin things like that in a positive manner.
Another of his ten points that is related is: “Statistical data tells us what we want to believe is true” The statistics would be manipulated until they showed what they wanted them to show. He talked about a recent graph in his work that showed a trend, and they removed the numbers so it just showed the trend without measurable numbers. Just like the police juking the stats so that it would show a decrease in crime even though crime was going up.
I saw both of these as the local level, and I was usually the only Bishop that spoke out with bad news in our monthly Bishop’s council meetings (all the Bishops in the stake meet with the SP). After I was released, a Bishop from another ward told me the meetings were just not the same without me!
How can the Church ever get better if this is going on at every level, which one could imagine it is. The Bishop spins it for the SP, the SP spins it for the Area Authority, Area Authority spins it for the 70, the 70 spins it for the Q12, and the Q12 spins it for the First Presidency. All is well in Zion.
What has been your experience in the Church with “juking the stats”.
What would need to change in the church for the truth to be told?
After I was called a EQ Pres, I was admonished by the Stake Presidency for decreased home teaching numbers.
I told them that actually home teaching numbers had improved and that the prior EQ presidency was “guessing” each month.
Reality was the prior EQ cooked the books, then he was called as a Bishop and is now in the Stake Presidency. He gave them stats of what they wanted to hear, not the truth.
I know that a neighboring stake president is cooking the books on indexing numbers for his stake. He is hoping to be called a 70.
Good morning to all.
B. Bill, Amen, Amen, Amen.
This is exactly what I experienced in the LDS church. Even in ward/stake leadership meetings I used the words “Not all is well in Zion”. That accelerated my isolation and demotion. In the church, I thought I was a part of, or in my head I thought people are more important than programs. Not so ! The church wants you, not what is best for you. It wants your time, talents, money, but not your opinion or what your inner self expresses.
The church HAD so much potential. Their wounds are self inflicted and there will be no long term progress, precisely
due to this mentality. I really do not understand the systemic dysfunction, either. One has to ask, do they have integrity? Is leadership just full of ladder climbers? Where is Christ ? Do they understand the scriptures or even read them?
My faith transition, initially, was not due to the LDS history opaqueness, it is the “lying for the Lord” mentality that exists throughout the entire church. That is why the broken programs and systems are passed on from generation to generation. The answer comes from learning the true source of this culture and systemic illness. The church will only change with more people walking out the door. However, they have accepted to allow the 1/3 of open minded/truth telling members to leave and to conserve “the grandmothers in Sanpete County” TBM’s who pay $ and do not question the Q15.
These were my initial doubts. Why did I have the MP from Hell and so number oriented? Why have 5:30 AM seminary? Why nepotism so pervasive? Ongoing racism feeling in wards? Then I found and spend hours in the bloggernacle and all my questions have been answered.
I have recently learned a lot about Dartmouth College in 1815-1925. It is essential to understand the origins of LDS history. Combined with JS treasure digging history, these are the foundations of the lies, damned lies, and statistics.
I think in some cases this “positive spin” behavior is done because it is seen or felt to be a manifestation of faith. I see this in my ward, that problems are not acknowledged but instead sort of re-imagined in a way that frames the situation in a positive light. I don’t enjoy this cultural habit but I can see how framing everything in as positive a light as possible (rather than negative) appeals to many people. It isn’t always “lying”.
I was a ward financial clerk for a couple years. I can tell you that, at least from where I sat, there is no room for spin or book-cooking on the financial side of things in the Church. 100% accuracy and truthful reporting is the only way to pass a financial audit (which happen at least bi-annually at the ward level). There are lots of controls and safeguards in place. Any inconsistencies in the financial record are addressed, corrected and followed up on. Grievous errors will result in a clerk or bishop being punitively released, possibly with criminal charges to follow. This is an interesting contrast to most other areas of the Church where the culture not only tolerates, but pretty much demands massaging of the numbers and positive spin. Sadly, it also shows where the institutional priorities are.
Yes Jack Hughes, I can attest to the financial side of things. I was a Stake Auditor for about 5 years. Every penny needed to be accounted for.
I honestly think that as long as we continue to announce 15 or so new temples each General Conference most of the TBM membership won’t care about any other LDS statistic.
An emphasis on positive stats was what led to the murals in the Salt Lake Temple being destroyed. With that tactless announcement emphasizing numbers, growth, and frequency, it was abundantly clear what was being prioritized. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t on preserving over 130 years of craftsmanship and dedication of earlier Saints.
Believe it or not, there were some members who said, “isn’t it wonderful? Now we get to do even more sessions! The work is progressing!!” They were openly celebrating the destruction of a historic temple because they stressed numbers above all else. The fact that the “quantity over quality” mindset has become dominant within the Church is really depressing. Replacing the immersive 4-stage progressive endowment rooms with stale stationary rooms just adds insult to injury.
I’ve been through the endowment in the Salt Lake Temple dozens of times. The rooms……..were never……..full. They were barely even a quarter full at times. Though there were a few full sessions during some weekends, that was not the norm. So IDK how they can justify making radical changes to the interior……..unless the stats for temple attendance were padded.
We know that Church membership numbers are grossly inflated. I suspect the real number is closer to $8M. It would be interesting to know: (1) number of self-declared full tithe payers, (2) number of current TR holders, and (3) average number of SM attendees. These stats would present a more accurate understanding of how the Church is doing.
Roger Hansen: Your typo (putting a $ sign in front of the membership number) was an ironic one. Because so much of what keeps the Church going statistically is the $$$$$$$$
josh h, oops. 🥴
Bishop Bill, I think an important point in the podcast is that the Church doesn’t worry about the efficiency of its volunteers. I would enjoy a post on this subject. I spent 2-1/2 years spinning my wheels in France in the 1960s when I could have been doing something productive. Yet the Church leadership has made few improvement in their intervening 55+ years. Sorry, this is off topic.
On topic, Prez Oaks reported that the Church spent nearly $1B on humanitarian assistance last year. But given the Church’s loosey goosey relations with stats, we don’t really know what that actually entails without more background info. Is this a juggling of stats, or is the Church actually doing a lot more. I certainly hope it is the latter.
Noticing that us women don’t have anything to say because we’re never in such positions to keep or fudge numbers except perhaps RS ministering numbers. Funny but not funny.
Apparently, quarterly sacrament meeting attendance numbers that were reported to the church, are, or at least used to be based on the last month of the quarter. My ward would stack the summer mission farewells in June. This padded the stats by at least 100 every week with all the friends and family.
My father told me this is why they held my farewell a month early and had a double farewell with my friend the last week of June. For the numbers and to help the ward budget.
This was in the early 2000s.
Along these lines, is what is not talked about. The behind closed doors comparison of wards, stakes, missions, etc.
Many mission Presidents are in competition with each other over the numbers or with the prior Presidents.
Since the church is ran by excessive people from the business world, it is ran like a business. Imagine if professional teachers, counselors, clergy, liberal art majors, were in charge; a whole new set of issues……but not the statistics and $.
Another problem with putting positive spin on everything is the lack of any real problems being reported up the chain of command. We are assured that we don’t need to write directly to general authorities because if we talk to our bishop, any real problem we bring up will be reported up the chain of command. But the fact that anything unpleasant is censored, means no problems will ever be passed through five or six layers of leadership to actually make it to higher up.
If you want those at the top of the church to know of a problem, your only option to be heard is to go to the press. Bad press seems to be the only way church leaders find out about problems at lower levels. So, while the church whines about people exposing the church’s dirty laundry to the public, it is their own fault.
What they should do is what politicians do, and encourage letters, then have secretaries, tally them by subject and position. So, the report getting back to the general authority might be 45 letters saying the church should stop discriminating against LGBT, 2 saying we should crack down on liberals at BYU, 14 saying to get rid of “I Believe in Christ” from the hymn book. Surely they can afford extra secretaries to count letters, unless the truth is they don’t give a crap what members think or need.
Experiences obviously vary widely. I was membership clerk in our ward for several years. I never saw anything but honesty from the bishoprics I worked under. I don’t think it would have occurred to them to do anything else. Of course they were unambitious men trying their best. This is why I love the church on the local level and try to ignore the church on the institutional level. It’s when you want to “move up” that the temptation to cook the books may rear its ugly head. Years ago I was also secretary to my mission president. He was also a good man to whom it would never have occurred to be anything but honest about what was going on. I helped prepare the reports on mission activity and they always reflected the messy reality of success mingled with failure. It doesn’t surprise me that number tinkering goes on in the Church but I don’t believe it’s as widespread as one might think.
My dear friend whose husband serves in a stake presidency was recently at a luncheon with one of the apostles. He sat at the table with her, her husband and kids. At one point he leaned across the table and asked her, “Tell me about the blessings of your husband’s service?” She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs that she hates it all – that he’s gone all the time, missing her teenagers growing up, constantly distracted, disconnection with home ward etc… but she politely responded with something generic about their being more spirit in their home. I can’t stop thinking about the way the apostle asked that question – there was only one acceptable response – he didn’t want the truth.
She should have said, “The best part is that I win every argument by default since he’s not there to engage in it.”
On the subject of juking statistics:
1. As a full-time missionary in the 70s, I had many arguments with companions about “ausleging the Bericht,” which meant stretching the definitions of the terms to our advantage. The competition among mission presidents in Europe was brutal, so I got no support from above.
2. As stake mission secretary in the 90s, the only statistic the stake presidency cared about was retention rates. They got accurate data from me and I got no pushback. (As an aside, I found a strong correlation between retaining converts–defined as having been baptized in the last 18 months–and those converts remaining in the same ward for the whole period in which we tracked them.)
3. As HP group leader in the 10s, we were instructed to count good faith efforts to contact people in their homes (even by text) as successful home teaching visits. My sense was that they were more interested in knowing how hard the home teachers were trying rather than actually improving the welfare of the home teachees. That wasn’t’ my priority–we had a good quorum that had a floor of 70 percent of those willing to be visited actually getting a visit. I would have preferred to report on the quality of those visits (if I had had some way of measuring that). But I figured the leaders had the right to get the information they found most useful, so the effort is what we reported. (There was one month in which the pressure to report 100% was enormous. I witnessed the EQ president having his arm twisted to interpret some lame effort as a countable visit, which he succumbed to and they reported 100%. But no such one-on-one arm-twisting was applied to me and we reported slightly less than 100%.)
4. Serving now as a financial clerk and having previously been an auditor, I concur with the above comments on the soundness of the financial data. I have stated elsewhere, and repeat now, that the reason for the big jump in charitable giving is that they included fast offerings this time, but have not included them in past estimates.
Did the apostle ask your friend and her husband about the blessings that have come through HER service in the church, as opposed to just being an appendage to her husband? I’m willing to bet the entirety of last month’s tithing payment on the answer.
Anybody who has served a mission should be intimately familiar with manipulating stats. In my mission, it felt like half of our zone/mission conferences were just trainings from the AP’s and Mission President on how to inflate the number of lessons (have a prayer on a doorstep to count as a lesson), and baptismal commitments (get a soft yes, so you can count it).
Listened to the podcast… I’m saddened that there is not more transparency regarding the PEF. It seems that there could be significant input from experts in the field to help make the educational efforts of the church more effective. But I suppose that would entail looking at data which fails to confirm what we want to believe!.
Juking the stats is pervasive in basically anything you measure, which is why organizations that openly encourage juking the stats are demonstrating weak leadership. If you have leaders who want to be told “all is well in Zion,” well, there you go. Ladder climbers are only too happy to give you happy talk to get the attaboys they crave.
Missions are a microcosm of this mentality. My mission was incredibly successful by the numbers, and they poured missionaries into it. Were we more successful than other European missions? Yes, somewhat, as an island mission people were more open-minded and friendly than in some parts of Europe for sure. But were we as successful as we looked? Uh, not even close. Retention rates were terrible. Many missionaries were trolling the port to baptize Ghanian workers who literally didn’t even live in our mission but just had a stop off on the ship they worked on. I wasn’t aware of any of the baseball baptism excesses they had in South America, but we had our own methods: baptizing the mentally ill, drunks, people who just wanted welfare, etc. They didn’t have to attend Church more than the Sunday they were baptized either. You could just say that getting baptized was a part of the church service. In our mission, if a missionary didn’t have an investigator with them, they were barred from attending church. So basically, if you had a baptism, you were back to zero again. We were basically inactive. It was kind of nuts.
Any leader worth a damn knows that whatever you measure always has the potential to be gamed, and that you have to be vigilant to look at the stats that reveal the underlying gaming of the system. Another contributing problem with leaders in the Church is that they are constantly on a quest to acquire faith-promoting stories, so you can see why they only want to hear those, not to spend time identifying and fixing problems. Eventually, that’s gonna bite you in the butt as a leader, though.
When my husband was bishop, a few times I found an old forgotten tithing envelope in his suit coat inner pocket. Not too hard to figure out how an unscrupulous bishop (or bishop’s wife) could exploit that.
Some people mail their tithing, which comes to the bishop’s home. Anyone in the family can bring it in the house.
One time there was no record from the ward of a tithing check I’d paid. The bank showed it as cashed. I don’t know what they eventually found on the ward end, but I was credited, which is what I thought mattered at the time.
Church finances are as strong as the weakest link. Online payments probably help.
Rodger Hanson re: efficiency of its volunteers, I plan on doing a post on that in the coming weeks. Lots to explore there.
Funny story – a long long time ago when the church actually hired janitors my husband was financial clerk in a small branch. He didn’t have a clue about the forms he needed to file to Canada Revenue Agency (different name back then) and the little church branch got audited. Hubs met with the fellow from CRA at the church and when the auditor discovered hubby was a sports writer they had a great old time chatting sports and he sorted out the problem and showed him what to do going forward. There’s a reason I’ve always taken care of the books at home 🥴
Apologies for reposting a comment I made elsewhere (a bcc post on allowing yw to pass the sacrament), but the comment spoke less to that particular idea and more to bishop bill’s topic here.
Main point: one problem with the juking-the-stats approach is the stifling of GOOD ideas, in addition to the suppression of “bad news”…
Fantastic and well articulated OP and many comments. Bravo. It’s fascinating to me how one can see things a certain way (because, tradition) until someone insightful, like the OP author’s daughter, asks an insightful question. Well put and well articulated and as many here have observed: no real convincing case for the status quo, once it’s put this way. Total agreement.
But i wanted to shift away from the specifics for a minute and comment on some of the ‘meta’ observations here. Some of the comments (as is often the case) surface a larger issue: that of the role of dissent, or ideas, or non-correlation, or innovation, in the modern church’s practices. True blues resist and default to “follow the prophet” rhetoric, and we see some of that illustrated perfectly in a few comments here; the corollary is that dissenters are viewed as fringe progmos who chirp from the sidelines. Around and around we go. But all this is just so much venting, one way or the other.
Which points to something structural, and obvious: one real problem here is that there’s no feedback mechanism for the SLC church leaders. There’s literally not one. No forum whatsoever. No possible way to convey any innovative, constructive, dissenting opinions – whether on the topic of this post, or any other for that matter. And as a result, the Q15 are structurally insulated from even a basic awareness of issues like this, despite how obvious the observations are to many of us. Rising up the ranks tends to weed out noncompliance and promote cheerful orthodoxy – – creating a system in which the leaders’ natural social circles are unlikely to yield insights like these in any natural or organic way to begin with; those close to the leaders will self censor. In that context, the lack of any “tip line” or metaphorical “we want your ideas” box means that any feedback or ideas like this simply don’t get transmitted or received at all. In other words, Elder Holland might really truly actually believe that the big ‘problem’ at BYU is increasing liberalness, since the donors who socially have his ear apparently possess that opinion. But he’s less likely to hear how much the student body LIKED it when the Y was lit up in a rainbow, because that felt inclusive. So the bias is structurally reinforced since there’s literally no way to “get a message” to the brethren from down here in the trenches. At all. (Which is why the only way to get their attention is to take a “whistle blower” role and go to the wider press. And this doesn’t have to just tackle big existential issues; I’m reminded of the LDS mom in Idaho a few years ago who went public in the NY Times about poor temple undergarment design, in which she explicitly said that she hoped this would get leaders’ attention, since there was no other way to convey the ideas through inner channels. And it did!)
This state of affairs is bonkers in the modern world. I get that the church isn’t a democracy – – we don’t all get to vote on policies etc, nor would the brethren be required to listen to any feedback, and could simply choose to ignore it – – but it seems incredibly shortsighted that there doesn’t exist mechanisms for the brethren to even get information from the ranks at all.
I completely agree. There is simply no avenue for getting even simple issues addressed. People with concerns go to local leaders (Stake President) and there is either no feedback or your worthiness is brought into question. Recently, my wife and I were called into the Stake President’s office for a calling. We raised a concern the Stake President wanted to take up the ladder… but the calling was never extended. The Stake President stated it wasn’t a question of worthiness… but it was. People who ask questions are automatically viewed with suspicion.
Now I recount my experience for two reasons. First, it reinforces your point that there is no mechanism for members to give feedback or ask questions. Second, if one wants to avoid a stake calling, just ask a difficult question at the commencement of the interview. You’ll immediately be relegated to the ranks at lightning speed, soldier! But be careful, some of us are fine with that, while others among us will experience a great deal of pain in social exile.
Seems like members’ general aversion of all things confrontational and their propensity to unquestioningly accept what their priesthood leader decides may indirectly perpetuate this “junking the stats” problem too. Many members have been conditioned to feel super uncomfortable with any kind of open dispute or disagreement because it is “contention,” which is “of the devil.” If you are one of those people and your first experience reporting stats to a particular leader is met with some sort of derision, then even if it really bothered you personally, the next time you report the likelihood of the numbers being what was originally expected probably increases dramatically. Similarly, if you are the type that believes once the prophet has spoken the need to think for yourself has ceased (Hi Elder Renlund!), then when your priesthood leader indicates that stats should be gathered in a way that seems inaccurate/dishonest to you, you are most likely going to defer to the leader rather than stick to what you would do otherwise. I do not think the level of this kind of deference toward local leaders is anywhere near the level people give higher-ranking leaders, but it still happens often. The official/unofficial treatment of decisions of church leaders as infallible seems to be a contributing factor, if not the primary factor, in a lot of what is wrong with the church.
For an example of church leaders only wanting positive information and ignoring problems, I give you CES and seminary:
I am a former early morning seminary teacher and feel like the early morning program desperately needs a major rethink. Pushing families and their teenagers to get up early every morning and get them to the church so they can sleepwalk through a gospel lesson is not productive. I don’t know of a single youth — including those who were happy to attend other church youth events such as Sunday School, youth conferences, etc. — who genuinely liked seminary. It was always something to be endured. Some of them hated it but were pressured to attend anyway.
And yet, this summer, CES sent the following request for feedback around the stakes:
[CES person] has requested a few stories (and pictures) representing successes, miracles, and otherwise positive outcomes of seminary and institute in the North America Northeast Area. This will be a part of a presentation [CES] has been asked to make to the Executive Committee of the Board of Education (First Presidency, members of the Quorum of the Twelve, etc.)
What the Executive Committee should hear are some serious proposals to revamp early morning seminary and make it more palatable for teens and their families. Instead, they will just hear happy talk about how great seminary is. Sigh.
East Coast Guy, can you imagine an CES request like this: [CES person] has requested a few stories representing problems with the seminary and institute in the North America Northeast Area. This will be part of a presentation CES has been asked to make to the Executive Committee of the Board of Education (First Presidency, members of the Quorum of the Twelve, etc.) to look for ways to improve the experience for our youth.
Bishop Bill, I actually can’t imagine that, but it sure would be nice. And far more useful. That said, maybe I am jumping to conclusions. Maybe CES really is presenting some serious alternative seminary proposals to the Board and just wants the success/miracle stories to pad their presentation. But I doubt it.
That was certainly my experience as a missionary and a bishop and a high counselor. We don’t want the truth We only want edifying stories even if they are lies Not so much different than the Russian system it seems
I personally have never seen “junking the stats”, as a B, SP, MP. That is not to say it has not and does not happen. Bit I have certainly see the aftermath and damage. As MP in South America, I lived the results and heard the stories of people who lived through the periods of excess. I won’t give detail but they were heart breaking. Here is the problem. The message from the top is and has been VERY clear for at least 30 years. Honesty in numbers and sincerity in ministry. I’ve listened to over 20 years of mission president seminars and they are remarkably consistent. In fact an overarching point of that training is “don’t do missionary work like you did 30 years ago, pay attention to the direction today.” Yet despite the counsel and warning, the ancient history of individual MPs will often be the de facto approach in a mission.
Pres. Hinckley got wind mostly from letters and concerns from parents and missionaries relating the excesses in Latin America. He traveled to SA to get a look and said to the missionaries and their MPs, “stop baptising people that come in the front door and leave through the back.” He then commissioned Preach My Gospel, to end the extremes and excesses.And don’t think Elders Holland and Oaks took their 2 year assignments as a sabbatical to see the world. But still even today after 20 years in to PMG, some MPs still view missionary work through the lense of their experience. It takes so long for wrong traditions, attitudes, and practices to die. Local leadership gets whipsawed from one MP to the next and it results in distrust from local leaders.
I know the top leadership works really hard to get it right but as one of the Sr. Brethren told me once, “the Church is like a large battleship, it takes a long time to change direction.” It is so true.
As to the “suck up ” issue. Sadly, it is human nature. However, I can say it is rare that that behavior is not identified for what it is. As an A70 there were occasions in reorganizing a stake that it would come out and was easy to spot. It was the fastest way for someone to be dropped from consideration. My experiences with the Sr. Brethren is they spot it pretty easily. Quick story. One of the Q12 was assigned to a stake conference. After all the meetings the SP took him to his home where he was to spend the night. As they walked in all the adult children and family were there and the SP declared, “Oh we’ve arrived just in time for family prayer, would you like to join us.” The large group knelt down and the SP offered a flowery prayer. A young child knelt next to the apostle and looked up at him and said, “Hey mister, can you tell me what’s going on here.” The Brethren come back from their assignments with lots of stories. As long as humans are involved in the administration of churches, humanity and the “natural man” will be forces to reckon with.