In the early 2000s, there was a push in corporate America for every company to act as if Disney was its competitor. That’s kind of a tall order since most of us see going to Disneyland and going to work as very different experiences. At Disneyland, we are the customer, paying them for an experience of family fun. No, wait, we are the GUEST, a neat little trick Disney does to make us (and their own team members) forget that we are paying customers and instead focus on the idea that they are inviting us and hosting us, entertaining us. And that trick does seem to work. Contrast your experience at any other amusement park with its bored and indifferent teenage employees vs. how Disney works on average. At a job, we are an employee; they have to pay us to be there because we wouldn’t be if they weren’t. But even that is different at Disney, because if you work there, you are a Cast Member! You are an aspiring actor, putting on a show. Nobody asks you to be a cast member in corporate America.

A friend recently reached out to me asking for some help with her resume in her job search. One problem she was having is that her job duties line up with the positions she seeks, but her job titles are unique to the companies she has worked at, making it harder for potential employers to translate her skills for their company. It’s a common problem, and pretty easy to fix, but it got me thinking about this idea that how we envision our customers and our employees can shift how we interact in the workplace.

American Express, where I worked for over a decade, pioneered the idea of credit card customers being “members,” using their “member since” slogan. In doing this, they implied that card holders belonged to an elite club with special privileges, a group one could aspire to join. This tactic eroded the commodification that was common to the credit card industry at the time, creating an alternate way of viewing customers, er, members.

Which brings us back to Church membership. “Member” is the term we most often use to describe our fellow congregants, but different people in the organization see members differently. Here are a few I was able to brainstorm based on memory. These are not the names we use to describe the role of “member,” but they are attitudes some hold about what the body of Saints comprises.

Employees. This is a direct byproduct of a lay clergy, and it’s so common in the Mormon church that we forget that other congregations are not like this at all! If you are assigned to teach a class, you have to get coverage. If you don’t, it’s like job abandonment. Some, particularly bishops who have callings to staff, see the members as their work force. When a member is unwilling or unable to take callings or lacks interpersonal skills or creates conflict or is otherwise making waves, they view them as trouble. They have a problem to solve, and they feel like they own the members as a resource pool to solve that problem. But still, they are mid-level functionaries who aren’t freelancing; they don’t create the structure or the job descriptions for the most part, and they have to report to the stake and area authorities. And for the most part, they can only change people’s assignments; they can’t fire them from the ward for doing a bad job in a calling.

Hostages. Occasionally, rather than seeing the members as individuals with free will, some leaders consider them hostages who can be compelled to do whatever they want. These are the leaders who “voluntell” people rather than asking them to do things. They expect compliance as if their orders came from Jesus Himself. These aren’t the norm, but they are certainly not super rare either. Often they view their own participation similarly, and assume that anyone who doesn’t is just not living up to their covenants and probably going to hell. After all, they hold all the cards. If you don’t do what they say, you don’t get salvation or exaltation. If they see you as making waves, they feel free to shoot the hostage.

Ward Family. A lot of church members view their ward as a sort of family, including besties, fellow parents, and also weird or off-putting uncles, racist grandparents, and a bunch of kids to add some fun and chaos to the mix. They expect to be able to rely on this kooky family if they get sick or married or need to put on a funeral or need a babysitter. They see the building as partly theirs, just as we might view our childhood home. It’s very common to hear members refer to the local church as their “ward family.” Similar to families, though, they can let you down. You sometimes have to hold your tongue. And coming out is a risky big deal.

Revenue Stream. This isn’t one I fully buy (accidental pun). While it’s a common refrain in exMo spaces, that feels backward to me. It’s galling to former (and some current) church members that the church requires tithing for temple attendance which makes it a pay to play arrangement, and of course, tithing is a regressive tax so it creates a bigger burden on the poor (who have little to no discretionary income) than on the wealthy. But those facts don’t mean that the Church sees members primarily as a revenue stream. We’ve learned that at present the Church has enough wealth that its wealth is now creating wealth. When former members say they are going to “stick it to the Church” by not paying tithing, it may feel satisfying as a form of revenge, but IMO the Church doesn’t really care about individual members’ tithing enough for this to register. I don’t personally think this is really how the Church views members, but you might disagree.

Voting Bloc. Politically minded leaders and members certainly have at times viewed the Church this way, dating back to one of the original frictions between the Mormon community and its surrounding non-Mormon neighbors. During the Prop 8 campaign, the Church literally treated members in California as their own personal voting bloc, strong-arming members into grassroots organizing and donating money in their fight against gay marriage. This one is tricky because, while they won their California battle, they lost the war, and it did a ton of damage to the Church’s reputation. Compared to other right wing churches, we are usually less comfortable mixing politics and religion openly, instead hoping to appear at least more neutral and inviting of people of various political views.

Students. Those who view Church members as students tend to say things like “the temple is like God’s classroom, teaching us how to become more like god.” Unlike most other churches, we do have more focus on “education” through the seminary program for teens, and our second hour of “instruction” at Church. There’s always some question between where education ends and indoctrination begins, and many don’t really know or see a difference between the two concepts.

Products. This may sound like a weird way to look at Church members, but particularly in a missionary minded Church, the members are an illustration of how well the Church “works.” When surveys show that a higher percentage of church members achieve secondary education and/or are wealthier, this makes the Church look successful and attractive to converts. When Church members do things that make the Church look bad, like storm the capitol or commit murders, they are deficient products. From this perspective, every member is either making the Church look better or worse at any given moment, and it is unfortunately somewhat subjective based on what the “judger” deems a good look.

Ambassadors. This is similar to the “product” viewpoint but combines it with the “student” viewpoint. Rather than seeing members as products alone, they are seen as individuals who are being taught how to represent the Church. There’s also some crossover with the employee mindset here, but specifically the sales role only.

Anyway, that’s a quick list of ways that Church members might be viewed by the Church. How Church members view themselves is another matter.

  • How do you think Church members are viewed by the Church or by leadership?
  • Have you had local leaders who saw members in any of these ways? How did it alter interactions with that leader?
  • Are there ways of viewing members not listed here that you think apply?
  • Do other churches view members the same way or differently than the Mormon Church does? How does this play out?