Building rationalist communities: lessons from the Latter-day Saints

by calcsam 2 min read9th May 201172 comments


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.’[1]

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.

Examples include:

-       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.[2]

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.

It works

-       The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fourth-largest church organization in America.[3]

-       It’s also around fourth in growth rates, depending on how you measure growth.[4]

-       It’s fairly new, only starting in 1830. It has achieved this growth while receiving the disdain of mainstream Christianity.[5]

-       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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.


[4] 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.

[5] 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.