Research Project, what is the best retention model for Mormonism?

May 2, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 12:12 pm   Category: Life

Ok, as may be apparent by some of my previous posts, I am very interested in retention in the LDS church. In scholarly research, there have been studies done on employee volunteer retention, student retention, member or participant retention, patient retention. There have even been studies of church retention. Which do you think applies to Mormonism?

In other words, what is the Church? Is it a Church like other Churches? Is it a Volunteer organization with it’s vast unpaid clergy? Is it a therapy session where we are all patients? Is it a school where we are students? Is it a club where we’re all members? Perhaps it is all of the above depending on the individual? Perhaps it is none of the above? What do you think?

Personally, I hypothesize that there are multiple distinct groups within Mormonism, with either Volunteer, member, student, or patient mentalities, depending on the situation. Thus I hypothesize that the most effective retention program in the LDS church is going to be an amalgam which seeks to identify members into these groups, retain them at their needs level, and also to run larger more generalized retention processes as well.

Lastly, if you know of any really good impactful retention studies in any field, I’d be interested in them.


  1. Matt:
    I assume that you will explore each of the points identified in the articles you mentioned and point out correlations (official and unofficial) within the church, no?

    Comment by Mondo Cool — May 2, 2007 @ 1:19 pm

  2. That’s the eventual ambition. I am hoping to work on it between semesters of school.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 2, 2007 @ 1:23 pm

  3. I guess my question is what the specific goal of member retention is. It might seem obvious but I’m not so sure it is… There are surely some theological assumptions driving most of our desires for retention but what is not clear is exactly what those assumption are and if the same assumptions are shared among all of us.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 2, 2007 @ 4:35 pm

  4. Here is an interesting Powerpoint on the subject.

    Why People Leave the LDS Church, and what family/friends/community can do about it. By John P. Dehlin.

    Comment by Howard — May 2, 2007 @ 6:28 pm

  5. As a former Org Behavior student, I would add employee retention to the list of models to consider. Lots to Google! :)

    Comment by m&m — May 2, 2007 @ 10:21 pm

  6. GeoffJ: The Specific Goal I have for member retention I was planning on considering is simply butts in pews on sunday. While I am aware that does not directly translate necasarrily to souls saved in the kingdom of heaven, I think it’s a fairly good place to start. But maybe you are right, perhaps that is short sighted on my part. What do you suggest?

    Howard: I think John is mainly trying to work with those who have becoming intellectually disaffected with the church. That is definitely one segment of the population. I actually believe that some of these intellectual issues can be alleviated by these other retention models, as we improve our culture of retention) within the church now. (communication, expectations, etc.)

    m&m: I had assumed that volunteer retention would be the sub-category of employee reternion I should go for. Is there something I missed?

    Comment by Matt W. — May 3, 2007 @ 7:48 am

  7. I think that the church is all of the above and problems arise because what it should be and what it is are sometimes not in alignment.

    I think if we look at the threefold mission of the church that tells us clearly what the purpose of it is. I can’t remember the exactly wording but I am talking about proclaiming the gospel, perfecting the saints, and redeeming the dead. I see the church as the vehicle for maintaining priesthood on the earth and as the structure for providing us with saving ordinances. Ideally, it should also be a support system where we can all fellowship and strengthen each other. Unfortunately, due to human weakness, that is where we often fall into trouble.

    I am a convert and I can honestly say I have not had any significant intellectual challenges in accepting the gospel and remaining active. The simple doctrines of the church have always resonated well with me. Furthermore, when I hear and see the prophet speak, I have no doubts in my mind and heart that he is indeed a man of God.
    My biggest challenge(and it IS big) is in dealing with the popular culture that surrounds the church. This fall will mark my thirtieth year as a church member and I am still dealing with issues of separating culture from the religion. There is a lot of pressure to conform to expectations that are not necessarily essential gospel requirements. It wasn’t until I had been a member for several years, that I realized I could retain my individuality and still live the gospel. It is a continuing struggle for me to find my place within the system of the church. I had a powerful experience with the Spirit during my conversion and that has been the anchor that has kept me active through many trials. I believe that a true spiritual conversion by the power of the Holy Ghost is the one and only key to rentention.

    Comment by AJ — May 3, 2007 @ 9:09 am

  8. AJ:
    As a fellow convert (and a younger one, just 9 years this fall.) I can say that there are definitely some cultural aspects that have been hard to differentiate from the true core of the Gospel. When I was initially a member, I found my self engaged in a lot of debate with people about this issue. It has been m experience that the truth has generally overcome the ignorance. Of course, there are areas where we just don’t know all the details, and often cultural answers have sought to fill in those gaps. I am probably as guilty of that as the next person, being human and all, but I try to keep an open mind to all the alternatives.

    As a matter of curiosity, what aspects of the popular culture do you find challenging still, after 13 years?

    Comment by Matt W. — May 3, 2007 @ 9:26 am

  9. Matt:
    In my 40+ years since converting to the church, I have broken down “conversions” into three categories: 1) the social / emotional conversion; 2) the rational / practical conversion; and 3) the spiritual conversion. I feel all three are important and there are aspects of all 3 in most conversions, but only the spiritual conversion is indispensible in the eternal view.

    For S/E – people join because they were raised in the church society and have a deep emotional bond to it or they are attracted to the church because Mormons are generally a very happy people who genuinely care about others. FT missionaries are very good at projecting that, as they should be. And, I feel this is the major component & source of most convert baptisms.
    However, if one’s testimony is based on the culture or on a relationship, that testimony may very well crumble when the convert finds out we are human and have chinks in our culture.

    For R/P – people join because we have a rational theology; we have answers that satisfy the intellect and provide good, sound principles for living our everyday lives, even if those principles challenge and require us to change from our weaknesses.
    Sometimes, however, faith requires us to go beyond our reason and practicality. Just ask Abraham on his way to Moriah.
    For S – people join because the Holy Ghost rests upon them and testifies to their souls that the prime components of our message (Jesus is the Christ and loves us; Jospeh Smith is the Prophet of the Restoration; and the authority of heaven resides with us) are true and essential to their salvation and exaltation.

    Given that, I feel retention efforts should guide people towards obtaining that true spiritual conversion (just as AJ mentions above). And, it should be obvious that _all_ of our efforts in the church should be towards that goal. Therefore, the study of retention efforts from “other disciplines” might very well prove useful in guiding our fellow members along the path.

    Comment by Mondo Cool — May 3, 2007 @ 11:23 am

  10. Matt,
    I haven’t given it much thought, but I am thinking that there might be something in general concepts of employee relations (not just applying to volunteers) that might be worth considering. I understand why you narrowed it to volunteers, because of the lay nature of the church, but I still wonder if a broader look at models might glean some interesting thoughts. I may be way off on what you are thinking about, though.

    I also suspect that there will be another dimension that comes into play that may not show up in other models, given the intrinsic motivators there for many people — they are there simply by virtue of the fact that they have a testimony. Don’t know how that would factor into what you are thinking, but….

    Comment by m&m — May 3, 2007 @ 11:53 am

  11. As a matter of curiosity, what aspects of the popular culture do you find challenging still, after 13 years?

    Actually it will be 30 years in Sept!

    I have been mulling over how to answer your question all day long. There is way too much for me to say and I don’t want my answer to turn into a novel. I could write volumes on my experiences and all the varying insights and conclusions I have reached. I also don’t want to come across too negatively. I am in a great ward full of wonderful people and I know I should be grateful. I think for now, I will just settle for sharing one small example where common practice appears to become akin to doctrine.

    A few weeks ago, our bishop had his sixteen year old son come to the front of the congregation in order to announce his priesthood advancement. He made mention of the fact that his son was not yet driving though, on account of his not having completed his Eagle award as of yet. His remark was intended to be humorous and the ward members all chuckled in unison. It got me to reflect on how many times I have heard of families making Eagle awards a prerequisite to driving. In fact, I once heard Marie Osmond say that her eldest was not going to date OR drive until he got his. Anyway, I have absolutely NO problem at all with individual family decisions. I like to keep my nose out of other people’s parenting and hope they will give me that same courtesy. However, sometimes it seems that decisions such as that one can become so commonplace that it is almost taken for granted as the thing everyone should be doing. It’s as if it almost becomes official church policy due to its own popularity. The Eagle Award is great, but I think it is something that should have meaning to the scout and be a goal that he himself truly wants. My dad(nonmember) was an Eagle Scout and I know he is pleased with that accomplishment. I also know that he would never suggest it is essential to landing a good job.(I hear that one all the time) Neither would it enter his mind to consider that award made him or anyone else superior to the next guy. My brother was a scout but just did it for fun. It was no big deal either way in my family of origin. I think scouting is a great program and I believe the church was inspired to adopt it as a program in the church. I don’t believe that means it is a proper fit for every single boy growing up in the church. We are individuals and as individuals we have differing needs. Even if something is great for 90% there is still that 10% to consider. In my mind, it’s the saving ordinances that are the only things that we all need alike.

    That is just one culture clash I have experienced in raising my family. I don’t understand when I hear people say that their daughter is being taught to marry only a returned missionary AND a Eagle scout in the temple. That is the kind of thinking that makes me feel like a square peg trying to mush my way into a round hole. I think scouts is great and I applaud anyone who sets a goal and achieves it. I don’t see any value in an achievement that is forced or where the majority of the work is done by the parents. Scouting didn’t work for my family and I am at peace with that.

    I hope I didn’t offend anyone with this. I do think the whole scouting/Eagle thing in the church is a good example of where church culture can collide with the actual gospel of Jesus Christ. Clashes on attitudes and opinions can and do create hurt feelings which is a reason why some people leave the church. That’s why (going back to the original purpose of this thread) it is so important that one has a spiritual testimony of the gospel that is separate from one’s social experiences at church.

    Comment by AJ — May 3, 2007 @ 4:01 pm

  12. You want people to stay? Make it finacially beneficial for them to do so. Give folks the hope of an improved temporal situation and they’re more likely to stick around.

    Comment by Jack — May 3, 2007 @ 6:24 pm

  13. Matt W. wrote:

    In other words, what is the Church?

    It is a world wide organization, which probably means something quite different as you move from one culture to another.

    In thinking about this question I am reminded of Matthew 18:20

    For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

    Jesus Christ is the head and the key to attendance, retention etc. is whether or not you feel the Spirit.

    Comment by Howard — May 3, 2007 @ 9:22 pm

  14. Mondo Cool and Howard:
    Feeling the spirit is extremely important. If it were not for personal experiences with God, I wouldn’t be who I am today. However, I think there is a balance. After all, I had spiritual experiences when I was in High School, but I was rationally converted to Catholicism (my religion at the time.) and I left that religion. Further, my social circle at the time (as most teen and young college age circles do) pushed hard for me to abandon religious faith. Due to that perspective, I would say that social/emotional bonding, and intellectual/rational committment are equally imperative to retention as spiritual experience. Henry B. Eyring recently stated something to the affect that spiritual experiences have a short shelf-life.

    Also,I have personally seen other people join the church after having a very real very personal and very spiritual experience, who only later fell away because they stopped believing in that experience. I don’t think we can say that people in that circumstance never really felt the spirit to begin with. Often they just deny the reality of that experience through either self-deception or genuine confusion.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 4, 2007 @ 7:54 am

  15. Jack, I actually agree, but I would expand it to the need to make it economically beneficial. In Finance, we are after getting the most money. In Economics we areafter getting the most utility (sometimes slighted as merely satisfaction or happiness, but I think it is more than that.)

    The conversion process to the church, while being about what is true, is also equally about selling the values that the church has as the desirable values that one would want.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 4, 2007 @ 7:57 am

  16. m&m:
    I guess an interesting question would be what one ought to have a testimony of. I mean are you more likely to go to church if you have a testimony that going to church is good for you, or if going to church is what you should do.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 4, 2007 @ 8:01 am

  17. AJ: I got my eagle award when I was Catholic, and I would agree. I only have girls, so I probably won’t personally have to deal with this, but I am the troop comittee chair in my ward, and I can say that my experience has been that little cultural influences like that differ greatly between wards as to what is normative. In my ward, Scouts is not very well supported by many of the adults and thus is typically something the kids look forward to abandoning when they become a teacher.

    I can honestly say I want my daughters to marry men who have a temple recommend and I want them to marry in the temple. I also want those men to have a burning hot testimony of giving service in the Church. While being an RM or an eagle Scout may be a good key indicator of this, I am not so sure that It’s smart to put all the eggs in that basket. Tal Bachman is an RM after all…

    Of course my girls are 3 years old and 1 month old respectively, so just contemplating them grown up and married is nauseating..

    Comment by Matt W. — May 4, 2007 @ 8:12 am

  18. Matt W. wrote:

    I would say that social/emotional bonding, and intellectual/rational committment are equally imperative to retention as spiritual experience.

    Sure, in my experience social/emotional bonding, and intellectual/rational commitment are important back ups that certainly merit attention.

    Comment by Howard — May 4, 2007 @ 11:42 am

  19. I totally agree as well. Even though I see spiritual conversion as imperative, I also cannot discount the need for the other factors. For me, the spiritual conversion was most effective because for some reason I am not the type who can talk myself out of it. There have been times when I thought it might be easier if I could. I have always related to Joseph’s Smith first vision where he states “For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.” Although I can’t claim to have seen a vision, that is exactly the way I felt about the experience I did receive.
    My husband had a diffent experience. He was converted to the Book of Mormon but when cultural and family pressures set in, he cancelled his baptism, later claiming that his testimony experience must have been due to psychological reasons. He eventually did join the church, but not until he was good and ready and had worked out the conflicts. I think his eventual true conversion and committment WAS a result of all three components mentioned in this blog. I guess because we are all different, we might have differing needs in each category. Obviously, what worked for me was the spiritual conversion. I feel that is why Heavenly Father gave me such a strong experience. He knew it had to be strong or I would never last the challenges I face in the social/emotional bonding areas. My husband probably needs a balance of all three components, and over time he has been able to experience them to the degree he needed.
    What would be nice is to be able to identify the greatest need of each new convert and try and strengthen them in that area. Sorry if that was already mentioned, but I do think it would be great if it could be done.

    Comment by AJ — May 4, 2007 @ 1:41 pm

  20. Matt W.

    My eldest daughter actually did marry an RM in the temple who just also happens to be an Eagle. That’s not why I love him, though. He is a friendly and supportive brother/son in law and he treats my daughter like a queen. It seems his greatest joy is in making her happy. Who could ask for more? But yeah, it IS weird when they grow up and get married. I have a hard time facing the reality that I am (dread word!) a mother-in-law…..and now I am going to be a grandma! Sheesh!

    Comment by AJ — May 4, 2007 @ 2:33 pm

  21. AJ wrote:

    Although I can’t claim to have seen a vision, that is exactly the way I felt about the experience I did receive.

    I could have written that same line AJ.

    I recently returned after an excommunication and a 35 year absence. My experience was spontaneous and intensely spiritual. Like you, “I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it…”

    I was led by promptings and personal revelation back to Jesus Christ. I was baptized a Christian and soon after the Spirit basically said “There’s more, are you interested?”

    I faced the High Council and the was re-baptized. Today I cannot imagine being without the Spirit.

    Comment by Howard — May 4, 2007 @ 7:20 pm

  22. Welcome back Howard!

    AJ — I’m with you on the Eagle thing. Scouts is fine but it really ain’t my thang and never has been.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 4, 2007 @ 10:17 pm

  23. Howard,

    Wow! I am really glad you found your way back. Even with a strong testimony, coming back after 35 years takes a lot of guts. Congrats!

    Comment by AJ — May 5, 2007 @ 7:26 am

  24. Howard, welcome back. It makes me so grateful to know you’ve returned. It gives me hope for others I know who have not yet done that.

    AJ, I could say the same about your husband.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 5, 2007 @ 7:28 am

  25. Thanks everyone, it’s great to be back!

    It was difficult to face into the idea of returning but the Spirit eased the way. I was nurtured through 18 months of repentance and delivered to the front door of the church “baptism ready”. The warm members helped make the rest of the journey an easy one.

    Current instructions from the Spirit = “stay the course”.

    Comment by Howard — May 5, 2007 @ 9:12 am

  26. AJ:
    What a “pearl of great price” you hold –

    I could retain my individuality and still live the gospel

    . For me that epitomizes the perfect combination of the 3 conversions.
    I will again say that all 3 are essential. It is very difficult to go to church alone. It is very difficult to have no intellectual or everyday benefit from one’s belief. And, I truly believe at the final judgment we will find ourselves sorely lacking without confidence in things spiritual.

    Comment by Mondo Cool — May 7, 2007 @ 7:49 am