Or: How I Learned Everything I Know About Group Organization By Spending Two Years on a Mormon Mission in India.
The official name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You may know us as ‘Mormons.’ We like to call ourselves ‘Latter-day Saints.’
If you’re a Less Wrongian and trying to organize a rationalist community, you should be interested in the Latter-day Saint organizational model for four reasons:
- it’s a nonprofit, but franchise-based and designed to propagate itself,
- everyone has a responsibility,
- no one is paid, and
- it works.
This is an introductory post. I'm not trying to persuade you to join, but rather that there’s something to learn here.
Here, I will give you some basic details about what the LDS Church is. In later posts, I will explain more how it works. A series overview is here.
A franchise model
The Church has about 55,000 missionaries worldwide, all of whom follow the same basic dress code and go about in pairs, basically recruiting people to join the organization. For men, white shirt and ‘conservative’ tie, suitjacket if it’s cold. Clean-shaven. No chewing gum in public. Short hair. And so forth.
Church buildings are selected from a basic set of designs. Each congregation unit has about 150 people each week at Sunday services. The internal organization is the same for each congregation, albeit with procedures for simplification in smaller units. Everyone has a responsibility, from the congregation head down to the teenage boys who prepare and serve the ‘sacrament.’
And nobody is paid.
Everyone has a responsibility
The Church is an organization, but members also comprise a distinct culture. Within the culture, there is an expectation that church members accept a ‘calling’ or specific unpaid organizational responsibility.
Callings are assigned by the head of the local congregation. You can privately decline, but there is an expectation is to accept the responsibility.
- visiting specific church member families monthly (“home teacher”)
- helping local unemployed church members find jobs
- teaching a class every week in church
- presiding over the congregation.
As you see, some roles are more time-intensive than others.
(My current responsibility is to co-chair a committee that organizes weekly social events on Monday nights, to which around 40-50 young single adults come.)
Probably about 70% of church members with a calling fulfill that calling.
No one is paid
This holds to three decimal places but not to four. The exceptions are:
- A few people have jobs in church headquarters writing curricula.
- Local members who are paid to organize weekday adult religious education programs. In California, there is about one for every ~15 congregations.
- A paid ‘General Authority’ to oversee every ~150 congregations. (One congregation has about 150 attending every Sunday.)
So I would approximate that for every 2000-3000 active church members, of which 1000-1500 are helping to run the church for no salary, there is one paid church worker.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fourth-largest church organization in America.
- It’s also around fourth in growth rates, depending on how you measure growth.
- It’s fairly new, only starting in 1830. It has achieved this growth while receiving the disdain of mainstream Christianity.
- It’s basically the only church that doesn't pay local leadership. Google “unpaid clergy” and you get only Mormon links.
You might be wondering what Less Wrongians possibly have to learn from some…weird religious organization?
Simply put: because the Church has figured out how to construct an organization and cultural identity that works and spreads without almost anyone being paid.
That’s what Less Wrong-ians are trying to do, right?
Here is the next part, a series overview.
 Sacrament is roughly equivalent to communion; a ritual where bread and water are served individually to each member of the congregation in memory of Christ.
 My estimate. Of course, there is a gradation of effort possible. You can improvise a Sunday lesson on the spot, or carefully prepare it over the preceding week, for example.
 I would classify growth as ‘percentage growth rate of a church organization for a fairly large and well-established church.’ If you have one church and you open three more, you don’t count. Data is here and here . The main faster-growing churches are Assemblies of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Catholics are just growing in America because of Hispanic immigration.
 Latter-day Saints, including church leadership, is sometimes rather unrealistically enthusiastic about the rates of church growth. However, that there is an underlying success is hard to dispute.
The book "The Rise of Christianity" by Rodney Stark was an interesting discussion of the rapid growth of the LDS.
The main point was that the LDS like most religions, propagated via relatives and friends. People tend to "convert" when a preponderance of their friends and relatives have converted. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable to resist.
I suspect that atheism is benefiting from this syndrome at the moment.
Missionary work, including LDS, has a phenomenally low success rate. I don't recall it, but from memory a missionary might convert 1-2 people per year based on cold calls. I suspect that missionary work is done, not so much to get converts, as to reinforce the group identity of the missionaries.
A one year doubling or tripling time doesn't strike me as "phenomenally low".
Confirmed; "volunteer clergy" brings up specific situations (hospitals, prisons) where clergy might volunteer; "unpaid priest" brings up a less focused mixture of results.
I hope not to model LW after churches. The big difference is the monopolism of faith for the believing member. It would need some serious problems to make people fork of the current main line, but it does happen. Otherwise the one true church is a monopoly. It might be interesting to explore the success rates of those who were not born into the church but choose it on their own.
For rationalist communities the barrier to fork of is pretty low. It will happen at some point, or maybe it already did. But the measurement of use is not the number of members, but... (read more)
I might have phrased it badly. I think I would enjoy a fork to some degree. The more obvious one being a rationalist group without all the 'crazy' transhuman and AI stuff. Or maybe around some base disagreement.
Sadly limited thought power can lead to all kinds of destructive purposes. But eitherway we should not assume that LW is already the best place there is.
Although drawing some ideas from the LDS church may work, and I will be trying a few of them in my community building efforts, I am going to shy away from a lot of the more intrusive practices. I'm ex-Mormon, and I'm not going to be implementing anything that makes me uncomfortable.
The problem with everyone having a responsibility is that there must be a structure of authority to delegate the responsibility. We don't have or want a divine authority. We absolutely don't want to use something web-based for this either; something like karma is a bad metric... (read more)
In a recent discussion about taking the SoCal meetup group to the next level, I explicitly refered to the Mormons as a model of what an effective community could accomplish. Keep this series coming. Actionable advice is very appreciated.
I'm familiar with Jehovah's Witnesses and your description of how LDS is organized is very similar to how JW's are organized and operate.
Since they are one of the groups that are faster growing than the LDS, it seems plausible that the method of organization is one of the leading causes of the growth of both.
That being said, I have to expend a modicum of mental effort overcoming the fact that the offered advice comes from a religon!
While I'm sure there are specific lessons we could learn from LDS organizational structure, I don't think there is an overall model we could adopt. Membership growth is not what we should be optimizing, even if adopting LDS-like practice would do that. It's also not apparent that relying on unpaid teachers or leadership is a sign of success. Giving everyone responsibilities and teaching opportunities is a good way to build skills, but that's a slightly different issue.
One area the LDS church excels is with social accountability and social support. Maybe th... (read more)
A lot of organizational models "succeed" in the sense that they grow and spread, but they do so at a terrible cost to their rank and file members. It's like the memetic equivalent of a terrible plague. Just because it grows and spreads doesn't mean you want to catch it. LDS is right up there with Scientolology and criminal street gangs. You demonstrate your commitment to the group by metaphorically cutting off your own feet, and then you stay because you can't run away any more.
Doesn't it matter a lot that Mormon doctrine is false from beginning to end? Am I wrong in thinking that it's bad when a cause so obviously wants to be a cult ?
This is very interesting but doesn't seem to have enough content for a full post. The title is also misleading, since this post essentially serves only as an overview of the structure of the LDS church and you don't actually get into the material that has to do with rationalist communities here.
When was the last time the Church reviewed the procedures of its door to door PR campaign for effectiveness?
I have heard it said (here, even, I think) that the main point of the door to door stuff and overseas missionary work is to inculcate an extremer faith in the Mormons doing them - a sort of cognitive dissonance/brainwash-yourself strategy. Strategies which result in more conversions may result in fewer zealots, and as Jesus tells us, zealots are more valuable than the lukewarm.
I believe that some religious prescriptions are useful for many people, and that the community aspects of religion improve a lot of people's quality of life. But this is an entirely different matter from gaining a better understanding of the religions in question.
When I was a teenager, I was part of an online community based on a shared interest in fantasy and fantasy creatures. There was a strong community spirit, and a lot of close relationships among the members. There were also a lot of members who actually believed in the existence of said fantasy creatures, in a literal or spiritual sense, and some believed that they were themselves fantasy creatures, in a spiritual sense.
If a member of that community improved their life through the bonds with other members, and thus strengthened their own spiritual beliefs, do you think it would be fair to say that they gained a better understanding of fantasy creatures?
Framing the improvement in quality of life as an improvement in understanding of the belief system is either a falsehood, or, at best, a misuse of words.
I have to wonder if this is really optimal. I've often heard people poke fun at LDS missionaries for exactly this image. Possibly it exudes respectability on a level that people who aren't receptive don't want to acknowledge, but has the church ever... (read more)
I'm pretty sure people would make fun of any consistent look adopted by Mormon missionaries.
Yup, even a business shirt and tie. But I think the point is that it's the consistency which creates the vulnerability. Suppose we took the look of anyone in our organization, including say Lukeprog, and duplicated it on all the members...
Eliezer uses the word 'vulnerability'. I think this is close to what they are trying to signal, which is 'harmless'. It is a good strategy to have a very disciplined dress code, and build a brand as having a 'dorky', squeaky-clean manner, so that people feel comfortable allowing the missionaries in their home. In my home town anyway, they went door to door and I had no qualms about inviting them in, knowing that any odd behavior would be newsworthy, and quickly become widely known, exactly because the branding is so strong.
What I've read of the psychology literature generally indicates that mirroring the dress sense and behavior of your target audience gets you further than adhering to some codified notion of respectability when you're trying to sell something, and that this remains true when your product is a religion.
When what you're trying to sell is status-linked, it can be useful to act one or two status levels above your target audience. But there's no clear link to status here, so I'd imagine the Mormon uniform has more to do either with intra-group signaling or with an attempt at mirroring a large cross-section of potential recruits that became fossilized sometime in the past.
This strikes me as a feature. Outside of hacker culture, recruiting people who wear collared shirts and not recruiting those that don't is a very strong strategy.
Is this actually optimal? The whole volunteer thing.
It seems to me like it might work to, rather than have most of your members spend a few hours a week volunteering for the Church have all of your members work an extra hour at their jobs in order to hire a professional to attend to those duties.
On the oth... (read more)