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The Psychology of Goal Setting

MCQ - November 16, 2010

As I’ve observed before, Mormons are a goal-setting people.  It’s pretty much unheard of to have an organization in the church which doesn’t have yearly goals and possibly monthly and weekly goals as well.  As a missionary, I learned that goals were practically part of the gospel.  We set goals every month and we were expected to meet them or know the reason why.  I believe in goals, and enjoy setting yearly goals for myself and trying to meet them.  Even if I don’t get there, I like knowing that it’s something I’m working toward, and if I do get there, I really enjoy the feeling of accomplishment I get from that.

But then we had a meeting about ward mission goals.  The other ward missionaries, who have been doing this a lot longer than I have, were very resistant to setting goals.  The stake was asking us to set goals in several different categories, including convert baptisms (presumably, this is in accord with the CHI’s mandate that we have a Ward Mission Plan, which includes specific goals).  Most of the people in attendance thought that was silly, because in a ward in the SLC area, it’s actually fairly unusual that anything the ward missionaries do ever results in convert baptisms in the ward.  So if that’s the case, why set goals?  Isn’t the purpose of the goal to have something to work towards?  But if your work isn’t actually doing anything to make the goal happen, then what’s the point?  One person in attendance even implied that goals are antithetical to the Spirit of God, since if you’re working towards a number, you’re working for the wrong reasons. 

After listening to the discussion among my fellow missionaries for a while, I thought that two things were going on: (1) they simply resented being told that they had to set goals and in what categories they had to set them; and (2) they didn’t like the idea (suggested by the stake) that each goal should be higher than the actual results from last year.  They felt this was setting up an unrealistic expectation, and that we were very likely to fail to achieve such goals, which would just make them all feel bad about their calling.  It made me wonder if there is a better way to go about this.  I think we first need to ask whether goals are even necessary or important in missionary work, and whether such goals should include ward missionaries.  Is the work of ward missionaries so disconnected from convert baptisms that they ought not to set goals in that area?  Should goals ever be imposed from the outside or should they be entirely self-generated?  If you fail to meet a goal, does that make you feel like a failure?  (As an example, the University of Utah football team failed to acheive their goals for this season, but should an 8-2 team ever feel like a failure?)  Let me know what you think.


  1. I’m leery of any goal that depends on someone else’s agency to reach it. One time I tried to explain my concerns about baptism goals to a ZL. I told him I’d gladly set a goal for how many letters I’d write in the next month but what control do I have over how many I’ll receive back? Resistance was futile.

    Comment by KLC — November 16, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

  2. I hate all goals. I make a deliberate effort to not set goals in anything I do. This hatred is a direct result of my experience as a full time missionary.

    Comment by Eric Russell — November 16, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

  3. Resistance was futile.

    No question about that, KLC. There’s no way we’re going to convince the Church to do away with goals, but we may be able to change the process. For example, the CHI says that the WMP should have specific goals, but it doesn’t say what areas the goals should cover, or how you arrive at them. There’s certainly some room for creativity there.

    It seems to me, though, that nearly all goals (at least the ones we set in church organizations) require some element of reliance upon others’ actions in order to acheive them. Are you saying we should never set goals like that?

    Eric, I understand your reaction. Mission goals seem to be almost entirely a numbers game most times. My second MP threw out all number tracking and goal making except in the area of baptisms. He said that was the only number that mattered. I agree with that approach in general, but I also recognize the need for planning how to get to any goal.

    Comment by MCQ — November 16, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

  4. I loathe goals in the Church context, especially related to missionary work. No. 1 is correct, that the biggie is baptism numbers, something over which ultimately we have no control over. Numberism regarding baptisms has been a significant failing of the missionary program, leading to rushed baptisms to meet the goal, which then become inactive deadwood on the ward rolls. So for years regular members have to feel guilty for not home teaching someone who never should have been baptized in the first place. This little dance does not strengthen the Church, in the long run it weakens it. I put the blame for this squarely for those in the hierarchy that think baptism metrics are the same as any other widget.

    Another thing that happens is competition over goal-setting sets in. If one companionship makes a goal for one convert baptism the next month, the next one down the line makes one for two, and by the end of the line people are setting goals to baptize 20 people next month, with no discernible teaching pool whatever. (Reminds me of the Grondahl cartoon, where a companionship was at the end of the line and had set a goal to place a thousand BoMs. As they’re riding down the street on their bikes, with BoMs stacked up all over the place, one companion says sarcastically to the other, “Elder, you’re an inspiration.”

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 16, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

  5. It seems to me, though, that nearly all goals (at least the ones we set in church organizations) require some element of reliance upon others’ actions in order to acheive them.

    I guess you can make a distinction between team goals and individual goals, like a water polo team that sets a goal to win their league championship. But those kind of goals are really more tokens of group solidarity than goals. I think those kinds of tokens are valuable for team spirit and comraderie but I don’t see them as the same as a goal which you definitely can achieve if you work hard enough. Goals that you have control over are the kind that lead to personal growth. You can definitely set a goal to practice x hours each week but what control do you have with a goal that depends on the other team being worse than you are in order to attain it?

    Comment by KLC — November 16, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

  6. Agreed, KLC.

    Does that mean that missionary goals like those in the WMP are valuable only for team building? Should we not take them seriously?

    Kevin: Is there a way to set goals in this context that doesn’t have those problems?

    Comment by MCQ — November 16, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

  7. Absolutely hate goals, especially when the goal area and goal target are forced upon you. Feels like unrighteous dominion to me.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — November 16, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

  8. I would be very interested to know about an article that traced the adoption of numerical or trackable goals into church life. Is this something that started in 1950 or 1900? How did this affect the missionary experience and the experience of our youth?

    Comment by Paul — November 16, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

  9. I totally understand the dilemma and had the same types of experiences as Ward Mission Leader in my singles ward back home in Spokane. I hated making baptismal number goals or other things we had only so much control over so we didn’t. We set goals that were helpful and useful, as well as achievable but were mostly intangible (doing better at our work, more sincere in our visits, etc) However, I think we would have made greater progress with at least some goals that can be achieved and tracked (so yeah, number goals). How to balance all that well is the hard part beyond my own understanding.

    Comment by Bret — November 16, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

  10. Agreed agreed agreed. Hate goals. Hate goal-setting sessions. My mission was the nail in the coffin, but Personal Progress came long before that.

    For the the problem (for me) is motivation. If your motivation to do your calling/missionary work is meeting your goal, that is pretty sorry.

    I would be MUCH more interested in trying to figure out goals to fellowship current and inactive members rather than new baptisms. Finding a convert, or even a boatload, is pretty pointless if your ward is not warm and open to them.

    Comment by ESO — November 17, 2010 @ 9:08 am

  11. Quotes about goal setting in Preach My Gospel seem only to point towards the power of personal goals, which have been the source of my greatest success as a missionary or a college student.
    I see goals made in a more group setting, like with my district as a necessary friendly reminder to set more personal goals, so that I don’t find myself unprepared. My best ward missionary and my best district leaders in the year I’ve been serving have seen it that way.
    While serving as an online missionary, I wouldn’t have been able to gain much familiarity with the internet without some personal goals for going about it. (Before being a missionary, my computer was simply a word processor to me.) Those goals will have an impact in my social life when I return home in the spring.
    As a ward missionary in college I started setting little goals so I could help the full-time missionaries, and for ways to involve recent converts in the things I was doing with my friends. For teaching recent convert lessons, I had to set goals for scripture and Preach My Gospel study. Without goals like that, my calling would be either buried under my schoolwork, or instead overwhelm me force me to neglect schoolwork.

    Comment by Elder Moxley — November 17, 2010 @ 9:09 am

  12. When the end is something you’re interested or involved or committed to doing anyway, short and intermediate goals are simply good planning tools to make sure everything gets done on time. But if the end — the real goal — isn’t something you’re already committed to, no amount of goal setting, or having goals imposed from outside, will accomplish anything but resentment and passive aggression and neglect.

    (Memo to the Powers That Be: If I have a friend who is ready to talk to the missionaries, I’ll arrange for the missionaries to get in touch. It’s not like I’m sitting around waiting for a special invitation, like for you to pass out your stupid slips and your stupid pencils in a Sunday meeting, before I give you my friend’s name. I’ll be giving you my friend’s contact information because I want to help my friend, not because I care about your numerical goals for the year.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 17, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  13. Paul, I agree. Maybe that’s something Ardis can help us with.

    Bret, did you just tell the stake that you weren’t going to set the goals they asked for? How did you get them to back off?

    ESO, I agree with that too, but how do you help your ward to be more open and welcoming, to say nothing of actively getting to know and inviting their neighbors? What do you do if they react the way Ardis has in her second paragraph?

    Elder Moxley, thanks for stopping by, it’s great to see a full time missionary here! I have seen some success from setting personal goals as well.

    I guess the question is whether there is a way to set team goals, especially in a missionary setting, without it being met with resentment and hostility and without the negative effects that Kevin Barney notes above. Numerical goals seem fraught with negative baggage, but is there a way to use them that’s helpful, or should we try to develop non-numerical goals, and if so, what would those look like?

    Comment by MCQ — November 17, 2010 @ 10:59 am

  14. Ardis, with respect to your second paragraph, I think it’s exactly right that church leaders think that members are mostly lazy or disorganized or fearful about discussing the gospel with their non-member friends or neighbors, and that they need a push to do so.

    While that’s probably not true of some people like you, it very well could be true for others, I suspect. I know that, for me, having a program that gives me ideas and pushes me to do something might actually help get me going on doing the missionary work I’ve always meant to do and never done.

    If you’re not in that category, that’s awesome, but I don’t think we stop trying to get members to do missionary work. We probably just need a way to go about it that doesn’t offend people like you. Any ideas on that?

    Comment by MCQ — November 17, 2010 @ 11:10 am

  15. At the risk of being a cliche, I’m going to engage in one mission story.

    When I was a ZL, we were told that the mission goal was to get 100 baptisms in a single month. This was a considerable stretch over what the mission had ever done before, but it came after the MP had scrapped all goals and number tracking except for baptisms, which made our missionary lives (especially as ZLs) tons easier, so we were inclined to buy in.

    As part of this effort toward the magical century number, each zone was asked to set zone goals that (of course) would, when added up, reach to at least 100. After consulting with our DLs (and probably engaging in some of what Kevin is complaining about above) we set a goal of 40 baptisms for the month. Now we were one of 7 or 8 zones. There was absolutely no need whatsoever to set our goal that high, but we wanted to reach for the stars and we thought there was some chance we could make it, so with some trepidation, we set that goal (the APs warned us we were stupid, but we were determined).

    We worked toward that goal throughout the month but at the end of the month, we fell short, as did the whole mission. We didn’t reach the 100 mark. We felt bad about this, and even worse when we went to the mission leadership meeting and got raked over the coals for setting an unrealistic goal which we had missed by 15 baptisms.

    We were feeling suitably penitent and apologetic, until we noticed that our baptisms for that month were double what we had done in any previous month in our zone. Ever. When we pointed that out, there was a long silence, and then the MP just closed the meeting. Two months later, I was called to be an AP.

    Eventually, the mission did reach its 100 mark, the month after I went home.

    Comment by MCQ — November 17, 2010 @ 11:24 am

  16. MCQ, I think the whole process of pushing member missionary work is fatally flawed, at least in the way I’ve seen it implemented in my wards. We had a ward conference a while back where a counselor in the stake presidency spent 30 minutes in Sunday School urging us to list every reason — every NONreason, even — for not doing member missionary work. He kept pressing us for more ideas, listing them on the board, long after anybody had anything else to say. But his insistence that we come up with more, and the usual discomfort about silence, had people coming up with truly bizarre excuses just to fill the void. I’m not kidding about the time, either — he spent a full 30 minutes on it. Then he spent 5 minutes addressing one of those reasons (fear), telling us we should just pull up our socks and get over the fear — no real suggestions on how that could be done, and not a single word aimed at any of the other excuses. I left that meeting with a whole lotta new excuses for not doing missionary work, and not an iota of help in doing it.

    Ditto for passing out the papers and pencils and asking us for referrals — that should come only *after* we’ve had a little help learning how to be member missionaries.

    I don’t know what works. I’ve seen a few things that *don’t* work. I suppose the biggest problem for me is that I’m such a homebody that I simply don’t have contact with many potential investigators — my Jewish landlord? my clients? I talk about Mormonism with them all the time. I’m their go-to person for translating Mormonish to English and vice versa. I can and will and do talk with them about *any* aspect of Mormonism, or religion in general. But it doesn’t translate into names-to-give-to-the-missionaries. I don’t know whether ward missionaries could help with that — they haven’t tried — and their attempts to guilt me into coughing up names of non-existent associates just. doesn’t. work.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 17, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

  17. Thankfully, I never had any pressure from the Stake. Maybe they were more concerned with getting in more families than to worry about us loser singles;)

    Comment by Bret — November 17, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  18. MCQ, your story illustrates that many goal setting exercises in the church and especially on missions are less about determining realistic measures of accomplishment and more about professions of faith.

    Comment by KLC — November 17, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

  19. My comments sound very negative. I suppose they are, because the experiences have been negative — but I am open to member missionary work, theoretically, without knowing how to go about it other than being open to talking about faith when a natural occasion arises. If ward mission leaders could offer suggestions that fit my life circumstances, rather than trying to squeeze the square me into the round holes of their goals, I’d be pleased to participate.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 17, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

  20. Hi MCQ, You didn’t happen to serve in France, did you?

    Comment by Paul — November 17, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

  21. Ardis, I think you’re already doing what I think of as being good member missionary work. People who never talk about the gospel with anyone or who don’t interact with neighbors are those who need a bit of a push, in my view.

    KLC, I’ve been wondering for a long time what that story means. Your summation is as good as any I’ve come up with.

    Comment by MCQ — November 17, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

  22. Paul, no, I served in SoCal. At the time of this story I was a ZL in Newport Beach.

    Comment by MCQ — November 17, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

  23. MCQ’s example is on the right track.

    I too, hate goal setting when the goal relies on the agency of another. That being said, setting a baptism goal can be the right thing to do in a given context.

    Personally, I think a goal like baptisms per month should be made, and kept at the leadership level, and not passed down to the rank and file.

    I’ll go back to when I was a counselor in the stake mission presidency. As a presidency, and with input from the stake president, we made stake baptismal goals. We also never passed those goals down to the ward mission leaders, stake missionaries, or bishops. We kept that goal between our very small group.

    We then broke down what we thought would accomplish that goal. For instance, we looked at past conversion efforts in the stake and determined that certain levels of effort in various activities lead to certain outcomes. For instance, we looked at all the missionary efforts that took place leading up to Brother “A” being baptized. How many years of casual contact he had with members, how many times he was invited to the ward chirstmas party, how many invitations to church before he accepted, was he offered a book of mormon and if so, how many times, etc…

    We did this for as many recent converts as we could and came up with a good idea of what sort of activities lead to their baptism.

    Then we broke that down into things that stake missionaries and ward members could do, i.e. invitations to church, books of mormon offered, service projects performed, etc…

    Then, we based the ward and stake goals on those (every stake missionary should help 5 ward members invite someone to the ward christmas party, every ward should have 20 members offer a book of mormon to a non member, etc…). The beauty of it was that everyone involved could meet their goals because they were things they had control over. They felt success.

    As we tracked missionary efforts and received reports, we measured that against the baptism goal. We didn’t hit the goal, but we saw a vast improvement. The following year, we were refining our goals when the stake mission program was canceled by salt lake. But I’m convinced if we could have carried on, we would have had more success.

    Comment by JM — November 17, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

  24. That souinds like a good approach JM. But if we were following that approach, then the stake should be setting the goals instead of asking us to set them, right?

    Comment by MCQ — November 17, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  25. You may want to check out http://www.GoalsOnTrack.com, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It’s clear, focused, easy to navigate, worth a try.

    Comment by Harry — November 17, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

  26. MCQ,

    That’s what worked in the stake mission program for us at that time.

    I’m not sure I like someone else setting goals for me, but if they were to set a higher level goal and then leave it up to me how I was to accomplish it, I guess that would work.

    Not sure how that would fit into the current missionary program. Since the change from stake mission to ward mission, I’ve been out of the loop.

    Comment by JM — November 18, 2010 @ 8:31 am

  27. I recall getting trained in my mission that we were NOT to set goals that required the agency of other people and that leaders were NOT to set goals for subordinates. Many missionaries cheered, but there was a feeling among some of us that such a tack produced faithless goals.

    I went back and forth, but eventually decided that leaders’ responsibilities include establishing and lifting the vision of those in his stewardship. Treating the goal as a requirement or a quota degrades both the goal and the worker. Inspiring confidence in the goal and the worker makes miracles happen.

    And miracles are what we’re talking about when we set goals requiring the agency of others. We have to trust that baptism is what God wants for these people and that He is preparing them for it. Then we do our best and turn it over to Him.

    When we do that, we may not always see our goals met, but we’ll usually see an improvement. Another important role of a leader is to keep people from dwelling on failure and to illustrate the next big vision around the corner.

    Comment by Thaddeus — December 1, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

  28. That sounds reasonable Thaddeus.

    We had a meeting tonight with the stake where we discussed goals. One of the WMLs said that he has never met a missionary goal in his life. Not as a full-time missionary or a ward missionary. We always set goals that are higher than we can reach, and we always fail to reach them. He found this discouraging.

    The Stake High Councilman that was there said we ought not to care about whether we meet the goals or not, because missionary work is not about meeting goals. He told the story of his niece that just returned from Ukraine without baptizing anyone. She was not discouraged by this because she has a passion for the people and the work that has nothing to do with whether her message is accepted or not. He said as long as we have the spirit and love for the people and the gospel, the goals will take care of themselves.

    With that in mind, I wondered why we even bother setting baptismal goals at all. I didn’t say that, however.

    Comment by MCQ — December 2, 2010 @ 1:32 am

  29. I’ve commented quite a bit about goals and missionary work and nonsense on my blog, I won’t copy and paste here. Basically, it follows most mission experiences shared here–number goals dependent on others’ agency (including investigators, members, mission leaders, and other missionaries) are OUCH.

    I had heard a nasty rumor that all missionary goals were to be independent of others’ agency. You have much more control over how many people you will talk to before noon than you do over whether or not someone will choose to follow Jesus after they’ve heard your testimony 10 times.

    Goals that depend on others’ agency result mostly in that most horrible of missionary emotions: DESPERATION!!!! OH MY!! BUT!! You HAVE to get baptized or I won’t be AP!! The mission president is counting on me! Yeah. You know. You either throw it up or gag on it.

    Group goals? Considering the amount of Spirit and contemplation that go into most, I would say they are usually absolutely worthless–unless they are from those who will do OR
    taught and persuaded from on top, able to be met (which usually means someone will teach others how to do what they are “expected” to do), and accepted by those who will do.

    The missionary program that worked best for me for working with members, twice/ in two different areas, was “How Great Shall Be Your Joy”, slightly modified.
    We would concentrate strictly on what the members could do and did do, and how to improve on that, and never on the results of whether a non-member… or whatever. That means we got rid of the “someone will hear the gospel by mm/dd/year”.
    We added a few more steps, role-played, discussed, etc. Did it help? Absolutely. People would start out with little hope, spirit, enthusiasm, and eight names MAX on their list. These were good members who…
    Yet within a month, those doing it were on fire–much more so than the missionaries… (is that good or bad?). Names on the list passed 40, invitations were being extended daily, testimonies were being borne (and born), lonely depressed old women were talking to everyone, etc. All we had to do was stoke the fire every so often, be consultants, and meet the friends. (I moved in less than a month after the start of each time.)
    Another modification made after my mission was regarding the invitation part–most members were willing to do everything but that, so we made it easy–bring your friend to an activity, and let the missionaries invite. Wonders.

    Comment by grego — December 5, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

  30. A little more insight into missionary goal setting:

    We had another meeting today where our WML wanted our final goals to be set in the five categories chosen by the stake. None of us felt comfortable setting number goals in all these areas, but the WML (who is our previous bishop) after a lot of frustrating discussion finally said, “you know, we just have to set the goals, we don’t have to actually work on them.”

    And you know, I think that’s pretty much how a lot of things work in the Church. People are going to ask things of you that are pretty silly, but if you just give them what they want, you can pretty much run your own calling the way you want.

    This reminds me of a story I once heard from a family friend who was a MP in the Phillipines. He was asked to cut the mission budget and not spend over a certyain amount. He found the amount to be unrealistic and draconian and protested, but the Church administrators he was talking to wouldn’t budge. He wasn’t able to meet the budget cuts and he started getting some very nasty letters from the administrators in the COB, despite the fact that the mission was thriving in all other ways. He was very concerned until one of the nasty letters came with a handwritten note on it from one of the twelve. It read, “just keep doing what you’re doing.” He never worried about the nasty letters from the administrators ever again.

    Comment by MCQ — December 6, 2010 @ 2:15 am

  31. None of us felt comfortable setting number goals in all these areas, but the WML (who is our previous bishop) after a lot of frustrating discussion finally said, “you know, we just have to set the goals, we don’t have to actually work on them.”

    This doesn’t sound like a goal-setting problem. Sounds more like a communication problem.

    The stake needs to do a better job understanding what the ward missionaries are concerned with and what the hang-ups are. The ward missionaries could probably stand to look at the situation from the stake’s point of view (the stake has little means of getting directly involved in missionary work – they want to help in some way).

    Both sides ought to search for direction from Father to ensure they are doing the right things and doing them for the right reasons. This above all will get everyone on the same page.

    Comment by Thaddeus — December 6, 2010 @ 9:25 am

  32. Yeah, I don’t think communication is the problem Thaddeus. We have told the stake of our problems with these goals and they were understanding but said they wanted us to set them anyway. We asked for somne training so we could know what they meant by some of the categories they were asking us to set goals in and they said they would think about it, but to just set the goals for now.

    All of which leads us to believe they don’t really care about the results, they just want us to jump through their hoops.

    I don’t disagree at all that direction from on high will help with this endeavor, but we are all already doing what we can in that regard. Presumably, that direction is what has kept us from just telling the stake where they can stick their goals.

    Comment by MCQ — December 6, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  33. Thaddeus wrote: I recall getting trained in my mission that we were NOT to set goals that required the agency of other people and that leaders were NOT to set goals for subordinates. Many missionaries cheered, but there was a feeling among some of us that such a tack produced faithless goals.

    I went back and forth, but eventually decided that leaders’ responsibilities include establishing and lifting the vision of those in his stewardship. Treating the goal as a requirement or a quota degrades both the goal and the worker. Inspiring confidence in the goal and the worker makes miracles happen.
    First: Thaddeus, do you remember who specifically taught that? (I had heard Elder Nelson, but I would be very interested in knowing more.)

    I agree! I once had a missionary in my district whose goal was to not get kicked off his mission the last two months. At first, I… then I thought a second, nodded yes, and said “Great goal!”

    Thaddeus wrote: This doesn’t sound like a goal-setting problem. Sounds more like a communication problem.

    I think it’s mainly an administration problem, somewhere between committees and the Seventy, or the Seventy and the Presidency of the Seventy. That seems to be where “communication” falls apart.
    “Nasty rumor”–because even though an apostle said/ taught it, no one below him is listening and following it.
    How many MP were doing the “How Great Shall Be Your Joy” program while Elder Ballard was giving talks on it in General Conference? Nowhere where I was…
    How many MP are doing goals that are according to what the missionaries are taught in the MTC? Nowhere where I was…
    While talking to our SP about missionary goals, I was told that they had to have them, and good, or the Seventy would rail on them.
    How far up the ladder that goes, I have no idea, but I don’t believe it goes all the way to all the Twelve.

    Comment by grego — December 8, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

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