The Gospel Checklist: Crowding Out the Spirit?

[T]he Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become. – Dallin H. Oaks[1]

Toward the end of my mission after yet another district meeting in Carson City, Nevada, my district met together for lunch at a member-owned Wienerschnitzel. The conversation turned into a discussion about a relatively new (i.e. the past year) mission quota: 2 hours of door-to-door tracting and 10 street contacts a day. Some of us expressed skepticism toward the effectiveness of this new expectation. It seemed strange that what were considered the two least productive methods of missionary work according to the Church’s own Missionary Handbook were given so much emphasis. Elder Oaks had pointed to studies just prior to my mission that showed the baptismal rate of member-based missionary work was ten times that of missionary efforts (i.e. tracting and contacting).[2] My zone leader countered this skepticism by pointing out that the baptisms and confirmations mission-wide had reportedly been increasing over the past year, the assumption being that this increase correlated with the implementation of the new quota. My zone leader stated as a matter-of-fact that “obedience” to the new quota had brought about the “blessings” of increased baptisms. I countered that a more likely explanation was the increasing percentage of experienced missionaries. The influx of new missionaries at the beginning of my mission was huge, making the Las Vegas West mission overwhelmingly green in a matter of months (I think at one point 60-70% of the missionaries were out only 6 months or less). I was part of several big waves of newbies. During this time, baptisms dropped. However, by the time of our friendly debate, the pendulum had swung the opposite direction. The mission majority now had less than 6 months to go. It seemed more likely to me that the increased experience and talent of missionaries had more to do with increasing success than any quota, especially since (if I remember correctly) very few baptisms were coming from tracting or contacting.

I predicted that the mission would see another downturn in baptismal rates as the veterans went home and the mission became largely green again. I also noted that the reported stats of tracting and contacting were likely unreliable. I knew for a fact that over the past year missionaries had lied about their stats. I had lied about my stats on occasion. I also knew that missionaries stretched the definition of a “contact” (the mission president apparently recognized this too and attempted to define what counted as a contact) in order to boost their numbers. One could say that these missionaries (including me) just didn’t “have the Spirit” with them. Perhaps. One could also say that we were responding to incentives. These numbers supposedly represented our quality as missionaries. In an effort to avoid spiritual shaming and the (unlikely) possibility of being sent home (I’d already been threatened with that for something entirely unrelated), we missionaries fudged our numbers. This meant that the statistics were either based on fabricated numbers or so lacking in quality that they might as well have been. Instead of catching the vision, we were focused solely on making our quota.

This is typical of organizations that overemphasize goals. A few years ago, researchers from Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg, and the University of Arizona argued that goal setting was “overprescribed” and featured “powerful and predictable side effects.”[3] While acknowledging past research demonstrates that “specific goals provide clear, unambiguous, and objective means for evaluating…performance” and thus “motivate performance far better than “do your best” exhortations,” the researchers found that this intensity of focus on goals can lead to tunnel vision and poor, often unethical decisions. Examples include Sears in the early 1990s, whose sales goals for its auto repair staff led to overcharging and unnecessary repairs. Revenue-based rather than profit-based goals at Enron helped lead to the company’s destruction. A challenging goal (a car “under 2,000 pounds and under $2,000”) coupled with a tight deadline at Ford in the late 1960s brought about the easily-combustible Pinto, many deaths and injuries, and expensive lawsuits. Recently it was revealed that a published call featuring a Comcast retention specialist harassing a customer was the product of the company’s training and goals. These narrow goals crowded out not only ethical behavior, but the broader purpose of the goals themselves. Quality, in essence, is often sacrificed for the quantifiable. Short-term gains are pursued rather than long-term health and growth. Furthermore, such narrow goals create “a focus on ends rather than means…[The researchers] postulate that aggressive goal setting within an organization increases the likelihood of creating an organizational climate ripe for unethical behavior.”[4] Narrow goals decrease satisfaction, even with high-quality outcomes, which have negative effects on future behavior. They can also inhibit learning and experimentation with alternative methods, undermine cooperation, and harm intrinsic motivation.[5]

I often worry that Latter-day Saints unintentionally turn the gospel into a checklist; a series of quotas that must be met. This type of thinking pervades our Sunday School classrooms and seeps into our own personal lives. This is, once again, unintentionally fostered by our own Church leaders and classroom materials. For example, chapter 47 in the Gospel Principles manual covers the “requirements for exaltation.” They are listed as follows:

  1. We must be baptized.
  2. We must receive the laying on of hands to be confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ and to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
  3. Brethren must receive the Melchizedek Priesthood and magnify their callings in the priesthood.
  4. We must receive the temple endowment.
  5. We must be married for eternity, either in this life or in the next.

In addition to receiving the required ordinances, the Lord commands all of us to:

  1. Love God and our neighbors.
  2. Keep the commandments.
  3. Repent of our wrongdoings.
  4. Search out our kindred dead and receive the saving ordinances of the gospel for them.
  5. Attend our Church meetings as regularly as possible so we can renew our baptismal covenants by partaking of the sacrament.
  6. Love our family members and strengthen them in the ways of the Lord.
  7. Have family and individual prayers every day.
  8. Teach the gospel to others by word and example.
  9. Study the scriptures.
  10. Listen to and obey the inspired words of the prophets of the Lord.

“Focus on one project at a time,” write journalist John Tierney and psychologist Roy Baumeister. “If you set more than one self-improvement goal, you may succeed for a while by drawing on reserves to power through, but that just leaves you more depleted and more prone to serious mistakes later. When people have to make a big change in their lives, their efforts are undermined if they are trying to make other changes as well.”[6] Mormons are often juggling large lists like the one above, stressing over the lack of personal scripture study or a missed Family Home Evening. This is often accenuated by the prophetic counsel given in the semi-annual General Conference talks. As revealed below, “goals” became more frequently mentioned starting in the 1960s through the 1980s. This correlates fairly well with the development of Edwin Locke’s goal-setting theory in the 1960s and its continual refinement and popularity in the decades following.[7] A few caveats: There appears to be a downward trend since the peak of goal rhetoric in the 1980s. It should also be noted that not every mention of “goals” in these talks is an exhortation to set them. Furthermore, most talks of this nature are ultimately about character development. I think it is our cultural hyper-literalism toward Church leadership counsel that often distorts an otherwise excellent message. Nonetheless, it is easy to see how conference rhetoric may have influenced the setting of salvation goals in Mormon culture.

Evidence collected by searching the "Corpus of General Conference Talks, 1851-2013":

Evidence collected by searching the “Corpus of General Conference Talks, 1851-2013”:

Now this isn’t to say that goal setting or specifics are unimportant. Far from it. The effectiveness of goal setting has decades of empirical research backing it.[8] I’ve also written elsewhere about the need for proper management, objectives, and results. Jesus was often far more specific than we sometimes like to portray. When we review what is actually written in the Gospels, it turns out that “the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus,” battling out specifics of the Mosaic law that would make modern “Christian eyes glaze over…”[9] Matthew’s Jesus arguably engages in building a “fence around the Torah” (a Pharisaic practice) in his Sermon on the Mount, offering an alternative to that of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus said quite a bit more than “all you need is love” and grounded his covenantal love in behavior rather than abstraction. The menial moral tasks of everyday life are in my view the most important.

As a modified version of the Hayek/Keynes rap battle would put it, "Quotas are a means, not the ends in themselves."

As a modified version of the Hayek/Keynes rap battle would put it, “Quotas are a means, not the ends in themselves.”

Nonetheless, goals–or, more accurately in this context, checklists and quotas–can sometimes get in the way of quality by confusing the means for the ends.[10] Psychologist Edwin Locke, the mastermind behind goal setting theory, acknowledged that his theory was based on Aristotle’s “final causality, that is, action caused by a purpose.”[11] For Aristotle, final causality was rooted in the Unmoved Mover. “And this,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “we call God.”[12] Our ultimate purpose should rest in the Divine.[13] By turning the gospel into a long to-do list, we risk crowding out the Spirit and the spiritual innovation (i.e. revelation) that often accompanies it. We risk forgetting the why behind the hows and whats. And most important, we risk an increased chance of failure. “Just as doctors prescribe drugs selectively, mindful of interactions and adverse reactions, so too should [we] carefully prescribe goals.”[14]


1. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Liahona (Jan. 2001):

2. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Role of Members in Conversion,” Ensign (Mar. 2003): This was limited to the United States and Canada and doesn’t necessarily have the same application to other countries. See David Stewart, “Ch. 15: Principles of Finding,” The Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work:

3. Lisa D. Ordonez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, Max H. Bazerman, “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting,” Academy of Management Perspectives 23:1 (2009): 6. See also Max Bazerman, Ann Tenbrunsel, Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011).

4. Ibid.: 10.

5. See Ordonez et al., 2009 in full for details.

6. Tierney, Baumeister, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 38.

7. See Gary P. Latham’s discussion of goal-setting theory in his Work Motivation: History, Theory, Research, and Practice (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2007). The first empirical study of goal-setting was actually in the 1930s.

8. For an overview, see Edwin A. Locke, Gary P. Latham, “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-year Odyssey,” American Psychologist 57 (2002): 705-717.

9. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol. 4: Law and Love (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 7-8.

10. To clear up any confusion, the research states that narrow goals focus on ends with little worry over the means to achieve them. When I speak of “checklists” or “quotas,” I’m referring to these narrow goals. Because these quotas are made into ends, the means often come at whatever cost. The problem is that these narrow goals weren’t ever meant to be ultimate ends in the first place, but simply a measurement tool.

11. Edwin Locke, “Motivation Through Conscious Goal Setting,” Applied & Preventive Psychology 5 (1996): 118.

12. For more on Thomist-Aristotelian metaphysics, see Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008) and Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009). While it is true that Mormonism’s metaphysical understanding of God conflicts with an Aristotelian First Cause, I think Aristotelian metaphysics in general works quite well within a Mormon framework. But that’s another post…one likely written by someone with formal training in philosophy.

13. I’m using “divine” or “divinity” in a fashion similar to Blake T. Ostler’s usage in “Re-vision-ing the Mormon Concept of Deity,” Element 1:1 (Spring 2005):

14. Ordonez et al., 2009: 12.


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