Dead Works – When Goals Undermine Objectives


Goal-setting has often received emphasis in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and with good reason. We are an industrious, action-oriented people. Our ancestors were motivated by their faith to cross oceans and mountains, drain swamps, tame deserts, and build kingdoms.

Goal-setting can be a helpful way to organize effort and to prioritize our use of time by identifying activities and steps that are meant to move us toward a desired objective. It is often a valuable tool.

But this kind of goal-setting can also be dangerous.

In his 1992 address on how our strengths can become our downfall, Elder Oaks warned that “We cannot be so concerned about our goals that we overlook the necessity of using righteous methods to attain them.

I would like to expose an additional danger of goal-setting. There is often a temptation to reduce complex objectives into a collection of simpler, easily measurable steps and then to assume that the sum of these steps is equal to the objective as a whole.

In many cases it is possible to check off every goal in the list without ever attaining the real purpose for which it was intended. This process exposes us to the danger of substituting superficial measurements for more essential endeavors and abstract attributes.

I sometimes see this problem in my work as a software engineer. Computer programming involves complex problem-solving and creativity. Measuring the productivity of a programmer can be difficult, especially for managers who are not as technical as the people they manage. So sometimes companies try to break projects down into simpler concepts that are easier to define and measure.

But these easily measurable items can inadvertently provide a false sense of information. The key principle at work is this: You will get more of whatever it is you measure.

If you use the number of lines of code a programmer writes as a measure of productivity, you will get lots of lines of code. Whether those lines of code are the best way to solve the problem or are just bloated code and extra padding is a different question.

If you measure the amount of time programmers are at their desks, you will get programmers at their desks for lots of time. Whether the time spent there is productive or not is a different question.

These kinds of superficial but easily measured goals can become misleading substitutes to which we turn because our real objectives are complex and difficult to measure.

And we can do the same kinds of things in the church.

Take scripture reading for example. Yes, we should read the scriptes frequently and regularly. But the objective isn’t merely to be able to say you have read the Bible and the Book of Mormon by a certain date or with a certain degree of regularity. The objective is to learn, understand, and believe the Gospel of Jesus and to become familiar with the Spirit of God that attends the words and teachings contained in the scriptures.

Or missionary work. Yes missionaries should work to teach and baptize new members. But the objective isn’t merely to teach a certain number of lessons within a measurable time period, or to jump prospective members through oversimplified hoops involving the number of times they have attended church or number of days they have abstained from coffee before rushing them into the water. The objective is to help every person who will listen to the missionaries to develop a foundation of faith in Jesus Christ and his Atonement, to believe in the Restoration of the Gospel and the Priesthood through Joseph Smith, to repent of their sins, to enter into a solemn covenant with God by submitting to His living representatives and being baptized under the binding authority He has given them, and to receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost under their hands.

Being truly converted to the restored Gospel is less tangible and more difficult to measure. So we sometimes try to substitute oversimplified measurements as a proxy for our real objective.

Repentance is another example. We sometimes break repentance down into measurable steps: acknowledging the sin, feeling sorrow, confessing to proper authorities, asking for forgiveness, making restitution, &c. These are all true parts of the process of repentance. But it is possible to oversimplify these steps into a superficial formula through which a person can pass without really ever achieving the real repentance of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

Now, I’m not saying that gospel activity that is primarily habitual or goal-oriented is bad. Reading the scriptures every day or by a certain date increases our regular exposure to the teachings of Jesus and his prophets and apostles and clearly contributes to the larger objective of understanding and believing the Gospel. It establishes a safety-net of routine. Routine and consistency can help smooth out the natural fluctuations in our lives.

But we must be vigilant and be careful not to replace our objectives with superficial goals just because they are easier to measure. The intermediate, measurable goals are necessary. But if we lose sight of the ultimate objective then we may find that we have completed all our steps and still not accomplished our ultimate goal.

And since all of us fall into this trap now and then, it is important to regularly evaluate whether our goals are still in harmony with their objectives and re-calibrate.

This concept of substituting measurable actions for more complex principles was discussed in the April 2012 conference of the church by Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Presidency of the Seventy:

“Some have come to think of activity in the Church as the ultimate goal. Therein lies a danger. It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel. Let me stress: activity in the Church is a highly desirable goal; however, it is insufficient. Activity in the Church is an outward indication of our spiritual desire. If we attend our meetings, hold and fulfill Church responsibilities, and serve others, it is publicly observed. By contrast, the things of the gospel are usually less visible and more difficult to measure, but they are of greater eternal importance.”

Additionally, this danger of goals undermining objectives can sometimes manifest itself as an effort to manufacture spiritual feelings and experiences through manipulation. Instead of inviting the Holy Spirit (a real, spiritual being) to be present with us, we try to manufacture spiritual feelings through the way we talk and move or through an emotion-inspiring ambiance.

When that happens, it is easy to mistake strong human feelings for the Holy Spirit. But even though the Holy Ghost does communicate through our feelings, not every emotional experience constitutes “feeling the spirit”. Experiencing authentic spiritual communication from the Holy Ghost is not the same thing as being emotionally moved by beauty or impressed and inspired by human resilience, even though those feelings may be felt simultaneously with the feelings of the Spirit.

Our desire to create spiritual experiences can undermine our objective of receiving real divine communications. It is crucial that we learn to distinguish between the Holy Ghost and these other kinds of strong emotion.


All of these observations lead me to the main point I want to make:

In recent years it has become very common for agitators and dissident groups within the church to construe their questionable actions in terms of “helping people stay in the church” or “helping people to not leave the church” and to accuse their critics of “driving people out of the church“.

On the surface, keeping people in the church seems like an unquestionably worthy goal.

But remember, you get more of what you measure. If the thing we measure is the number names on the membership rolls or bodies in the pews, then we will get more names on the rolls or bodies in the pews. Whether or not those people have testimonies of the Gospel and the Restoration &c. is a different question.

Staying in the church is an essential part of attaining the spiritual objectives of building Zion and God’s plan to save and exalt us. Keeping people from leaving the church is a worthwhile goal when it serves these greater objectives of the church and the gospel.

But keeping people in the church who reject the core tenets and claims of the church, who tear down the faith of others, and who use their claim to be “active” members of the church as a smokescreen to gain the trust of others so that they can influence them contrary to the direction of the Lord’s appointed leaders, undermines these real objectives of the church.

Of course we don’t want people to leave the church. We don’t want people to be excommunicated. We want them to stay and participate. But we want them to stay because we hope that by continued involvement they will come to believe, repent, and be converted.

There are times when excommunication or disfellowship serve the moral and spiritual objectives of the church better than keeping people in the church. It would be foolish to treat “keeping people from leaving the church” as an ultimate end in and of itself to which all other objectives must bend and break.

But that seems to be the way in which these dissident groups invoke “keeping people from leaving the church”– as if that alone justifies their actions.

It doesn’t.

The goal of keeping people in the church must always be in the service of the work of salvation as defined by God through his servants.

So the fact that these individuals and groups proclaim that their teachings, doctrines, and actions keep people from leaving the church is virtually meaningless. It isn’t enough to declare that you are preventing people from leaving the church. We have to ask if the objective of their encouraging people to stay is consistent with the the purpose, doctrines, and objectives of the church and the gospel?

The actions and teachings of these groups must be evaluated based on their doctrinal merit and cumulative effect upon the church as a whole, not on manipulative, emotionally-charged threats to leave unless demands at met.

Let’s not let the goal of keeping people in the church undermine the doctrine of the church and the work of salvation.

For you cannot enter in at the strait gate … by your dead works.

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall stay in the church, and lose his own soul. Or for what shall it profit the church, if it retain all its members, and lose its own soul.

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