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Lessons for Mormon Leaders (Part 6 of 6)

What are the biggest takeaways leaders of the Mormon Church can take away from the largest public survey of Mormon attitudes?  Dr. Jana Riess and Dr. Ben Knoll will give their answers.

GT:  Let’s just pretend that the brethren are here, and you can tell them anything. What would you tell them?

Jana:  You have to have equal representation of women.  You cannot continue having meetings in which decisions are made that affect women’s lives directly without a woman in the room, at least one woman in the room. And not just a little token woman who like, in the leaked video that I was talking about, at the very end, like in the last two-minute Hail Mary pass of the meeting, someone asks for Sister Beck’s opinion.  She gives it. The meeting breaks up, no one even responds to what she said. I mean, it’s entire tokenism to have her there, to ask her opinion and then totally disregard it. So yes, that’s hugely important. It’s important to women.

There are a couple of different narratives that I think we need to keep in mind. The narrative that the church wants us to believe, is what Gordon B Hinckley said, which is “Mormon women are happy, and they’re happy with their role.” Statistically, he’s right. Because most Mormon women who are still in the church don’t seem to have a problem. Younger women are a bit different. But the majority of Mormon women are fairly satisfied, apparently, with their roles in the church. The other part of the story, though, the other narrative that needs to also be told is that women’s roles ranked as the third most common reason for leaving for all women. So, for some women, this was an important enough issue that it was a catalyst to their departure, and we need to keep that in mind as well. We can’t just say that Mormon women are happy with the way things are, because if you weren’t happy, you’re gone.  What would you say?

Benjamin:  So I suppose in addition to that which I agree with, would be that all humans are subject to our cognitive biases and the way we see the world. We tend to take our experience as the norm and project it on to everyone else’s experience. Good faith people who are in leadership positions, of course, don’t intend to do that, but often times do it. And I’m just as guilty like everyone, that’s what we do, right? That’s what human beings do. One thing that this research offers is an opportunity to hear about what the experience is like from people who don’t match your own experience. And that’s really hard, and I like that some church leaders, like Patrick Mason wrote in his book Planted, he’s like, “I get it.” Right? From a leadership position, this worked for you your whole life. You’ve always felt happy here. Why could anyone possibly be upset? Or why would they not want to be here?

There’s just a lack of awareness on their part, not through anyone’s fault, but just simply because we all have different lived experiences. Could we take things from here and incorporate those kinds of messages, and carefully consider them non-defensively and think, “Okay, my experience might not be this, but this is experience that maybe not a majority, but that a critical mass of membership are experiencing. What could we do to create spaces where they feel like they’re fitting in better, even if that means that we perhaps need to change what we emphasize, or give greater room for those kinds of voices to be represented in both decision making, as well as scriptural interpretation? Or how we’re applying the stories about what it means to be a Mormon in today’s world or Latter-day Saints, etc.”  Things like that, that would be one of the pieces of advice I could humbly and constructively offer.

Find out what else they had to say, and find out who our next interview is with!  Check out our conversation….

Dr Jana Riess & Dr. Ben Knoll discuss their beliefs opinions about things Mormon leaders can do to improve.

Don’t miss our other conversations with Jana and Ben!

300: Why Mormons Leave

299: Out of the Box Mormons

298: Comparing Mormons by Generations

297: Surprising Mormon Responses

296: How to Randomly Sample Mormons

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Out of the Box Mormons (Part 4 of 6)

There has been a slowdown in growth for the LDS Church recently.  I asked Dr. Jana Riess what the Church can do to halt the slide, and I was a bit surprised at her answer.  Is there a problem with “out of the box” Mormons?

GT : Is there anything in your book that you think that leaders can use to keep people in?

Jana:  Yes, and no. {Chuckling} So that’s my wishy-washy answer. The Yes, part is yes, there are things. For example, backing away on LGBT issues can only help. It certainly would help if the church did a better job of incorporating more Millennials into things that they care about, rather than indexing genealogy or things that the church cares about, but that are not necessarily driving attendance for people in their 20’s. There are a lot of things like that.  We could have better architecture. I have a whole list of those things.

Jana:  But the no side, which I think is just as important, and I’m speaking here as a historian. When we look at the bigger picture of what’s going on in American religion, more generally, Mormons and ex-Mormons are so tunnel-focused on what the Church is, or is not doing, that is driving this problem that they miss the bigger picture that Mormonism is not an island. We have, throughout our history, been buffeted by the tides of whatever is going on in American religion. In the 1950s and 60s, when religion was thriving in the United States, we were also thriving. And in the 70s, and 80s, when conservative religions, in particular, were thriving the United States, we were thriving.  Now we’re in a period where everyone is suffering, we are also suffering. So in that context, particularly because we are less than 2% of the population, there’s not a lot we can do.

Mormonism is really good for nuclear families, but it can be a tough place for singles, divorced, LGBT, widowed, or other members who may not have the ideal Mormon family.  In our next conversation with Dr. Jana Riess and Dr. Ben Knoll, we’ll talk about non-traditional families, and how we can make church culture better for others.

Jana: There is one area where I see church leaders really trying to change this outcome. And it’s in the hammering of marriage and having children. Recent talks by certain church leaders have emphasized this. And that’s not to say it hasn’t been an emphasis all along, but the stakes are much higher. We’re looking at a scenario where married church members, according to the church’s own leaked statistics, married church members in their 20s are twice as likely to be active, as single church members in their 20s of the same age. So, the Church says, “Well, let’s just get everybody married,” right? And the people who are most active in the church are the people who have children of school age and are in those programs right now. “Well, let’s get people to have children,” right?  And of course, that plays into the eternal message of the gospel, that marriage and children are part of your exaltation forever. So, it’s not like this is just a cynical, sociological move that we need to up our activity rates. They truly, I think, earnestly believe that this is also contributing to people’s eternal salvation, but they have got to be worried about marriage among Millennials as a whole in this nation. Millennials are delaying marriage Millennials are having fewer children or not having children at all. And in terms of religiosity that is a concern, not just for Mormons, but for all organized religions. Because those young parents are the mainstay. They are the bread and butter of religious activity and tithing and programs, the success of the programs. So that’s where you’re going to see them trying to change that narrative.

GT:  To be more friendly to singles, is that what you’re saying?

Jana:  No. I’m afraid not.

GT:  That’s too bad.

Jana:  To be telling singles, “Just get married already,” which seems to be the message that comes up again and again.

Do you agree?  Check out our conversation….

What can LDS Leaders do to encourage “out of the box” Mormons to stop leaving the Church?

Don’t miss out other conversations with Jana and Ben!

298: Comparing Mormons by Generations

297: Surprising Mormon Response

296: How to Randomly Sample Mormons

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Surprising Mormon Responses (Part 2 of 6)

Dr. Jana Riess and Dr. Ben Knoll surveyed Mormons to find out their attitudes about church teachings and practices.  What were some of the surprising Mormon responses?  Do people really adhere to the Word of Wisdom, which forbids coffee, alcohol, and tobacco?

Jana:  There were several big surprises, one of which was how many current Mormons, apparently, especially younger ones are drinking coffee. Ben actually emailed me that day when we were both analyzing data separately. He’s said, “Have you seen this?” So that was interesting. Basically, it was four out of 10.

GT:  And these are not just everyday Mormons, but these are active, temple going Mormons, right?

Jana:  Sort of, when you tease that out by age, it’s very interesting what happens because for older Mormons who said that they had coffee, for example, in the last six months, it’s primarily people who are less active in the church and don’t hold a temple recommend. But for younger Mormons, there was some overlap in those categories. Even people who said that they were very active, or who did hold a temple recommend, sometimes apparently are drinking coffee or alcohol.

Among other surprises were that there are more single men, than single women in the church!

Jana:  Another thing that surprised me, completely unrelated, is that I think many people in the Mormon experience, have the understanding that single women in the church are outnumbering single men by a factor of two, or even a factor of three. And actually, statistically, single men in the church have a slight edge over single women. And I looked at that, and I thought that is very surprising.

GT:  There are more single men than single women?

Jana:  Proportionally, which, I know, it sounds very surprising. So…

GT:  Well, in a way it doesn’t because the men get hammered pretty hard on, “Hey, go get married.”

Jana:  Well, that may be true. I cannot ascertain causation simply from that. But what’s interesting though, is that nationally that’s the case that there are fewer men proportionally who have married than women who have married at some point in their lives. So, Mormons are not actually that different than what’s going on nationally. Then looking at the previous work that’s been done on Mormons, single men outnumber single women in the Pew study, also in the 2016, PRRI study about religion in America. So, ours is the third national study in which single men have the slight edge over single women in Mormonism. And you would never guess that, just sitting in a young single adult fireside, for example. But statistically, that does appear to be the case. What do you think?

Benjamin:  I’d want to follow up with that, and I think we did at some point, I just don’t remember off the top my head of those who attend weekly. What was the breakdown with those ones? That would be fun to look at.

Jana:  Right, well, and I find that very interesting, too. Because there is a difference, right? There is a difference. But we found in terms of breaking down orthodoxy by marital category, that single men had the lowest levels of belief and adherent behavior of any marital category. So single women, or married men, married women.

Benjamin:  That may explain why we see more women at the firesides.

We also discussed an interesting concept of self-identification.

Jana:  There is the general question that’s asked on a lot of surveys about religion. “Are you a person who comes more than once a week, weekly, couple times a month,” etc.? In that we had a very nice presentation from Mormons of all ages. When we asked though, in the Sabbath question, “Have you been to church in the last 30 days?” For Millennials, and particularly for younger men, that gap between the people who say that they attend weekly, and who actually have been in the last 30 days was wider. So that’s interesting.

Benjamin:  And that’s not uncommon with survey research, either. People tend to over report behaviors that people see is desirable….Sociology and religion research has shown the similar things with, for example, religious service attendance. People don’t want to say to the person at the end of the other end of the phone, “Nah, I don’t go all that often,” right? Because I mean, that’s getting less and less to be the case. But historically speaking, that’s been seen as a normatively desirable thing to say that you do in American society.

GT:  So you go to church, but you haven’t been in the last 30 days?

Jana:  Right. And that is a question that kind of gets at how we view ourselves. We want to see ourselves in a particular way.

Benjamin:  We know from other statistical research that’s been done in the Church that estimates of activity amongst church members from the Church’s perspective is somewhere around like one-third, 40% , right, of the people who are on the records, who are there showing up every Sunday and active and doing things there.  In our survey, that was much, much, much higher.  There was a solid 85% of the people who identify as a Latter-day Saint are saying, “Yes, I’m there. I’m active, I attend church, etc., etc.”

Benjamin  26:08  So, what that implies to us then, is that the rest that the church is saying aren’t active, the remaining 50 to 60%, when asked on a public opinion survey, don’t even identify as LDS. So that’s an important thing to look at.  Amongst a variety of different religions, there is a space where you can say, “Yeah, I’m a Catholic, but I never go.” Or “Yes, I identify with this, but I haven’t darkened the doorway of a church for 30 years.” But, you know, that’s still part of the identity. It seems like this is suggestive to us that there’s less of a space for that within the LDS community. If you’re not actively going, people tend to just not identify as such. And I think that’s an interesting question worth pursuing. Why would that be? And what is it about the LDS community that leads to it being, “If I’m not actively doing the stuff, then I’m not even identifying, either. I don’t feel comfortable identifying.” I think that’s interesting.

What do you think of these contradictory findings?  Are you surprised that people say they are active, but haven’t been to church in the last 30 days?  Were you surprised about the Word of Wisdom question?

Check out our conversation, and check out our previous conversation with Jana and Ben on How to Randomly Sample Mormons.

Dr. Jana Riess and Dr. Benjamin Knoll detail a few surprises in their research on Mormon attitudes and practices.