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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Perils of Setting Baptismal Goals 

by Aaron B
I am a lousy journal writer. Always have been. Yes, I kept a journal as a young child at my parents’ insistence and it is fun to go back and visit those juvenile entries once in a blue moon. But ever since I was seven, I have only made diary entries on rare occasion. Even as a missionary, I couldn’t bring myself to write regularly. I always felt like there was no obvious method for selecting what I should include and exclude from my daily drama, so rather than having to make judgment calls as to what would be important to put on paper, it was easier just to bag the whole project.

This evening, while I was perusing through some old files, I happened upon a mini-essay I penned as a missionary, written on a piece of paper stuck between two pages of my (nearly empty) missionary journal. The essay is undated, though I believe I wrote it about half way through the mission. I have fixed some of the punctuation and translated the occasional Spanish word into English, but otherwise, I resisted the temptation to give it an edit (which it desperately needs). Here it is:

Why I do not have and will not have a mission baptismal goal

When I first arrived in the mission field, I arrived at my first area at the same time as my trainer, and we basically opened the area. There had been 2 missionaries working there immediately before us, but they had not been working like they should, so they were removed, leaving us with basically nothing to start with. Within the first 7 weeks I was there, my comp Elder Zacarias and I had 13 baptisms. Needless to say, that was the highest number of baptisms performed by a companionship in the mission that month, and was the highest the mission had seen in quite some time. We became rather famous in the mission for a short time, and of course reveled in the praises and respect given us by our mission president, as well as fellow missionaries.

Let it be stated that I was just a greenie at the time, who often felt he was just being taken along for the ride, but Elder Zacarias was an experienced elder who had had somewhat similar experiences throughout his mission. Elder Zacarias had set a baptismal goal of 100 baptisms in his mission, and I do believe, if I’m not mistaken, that he reached it. Needless to say, he left the Mission Trelew with one of the highest number of baptisms for a missionary ever achieved in the mission. I’m sure he returned home at the end of his 2-year stay quite content with his work, and felt that his mission had been a complete success. . . . but from my point of view, in many ways, Zacarias’ mission was a complete DISASTER.

What the rest of the mission didn’t see (and what I believe the president chose not to see) was the real, behind-the-scenes story behind the numbers Zacarias was pulling in, a story I fully lived as his companion for two months. The truth was, although Zacarias admittedly had many excellent qualities as a missionary (his ability to animate members and investigators, build social trust, leave spiritual impressions, and work unceasingly were among the best I’ve ever seen in the mission field), he was driven by a burning lust for high numbers and personal recognition, and nothing was more important to him than this. Because of this, Zacarias left behind him a legacy of baptized drunks, and instant inactives … inactives not because of the many unforeseeable motives that might drive people inactive (indeed, we as missionaries cannot always blame ourselves for the choices of our investigators, saying it was wrong to baptize them. But in these cases, the responsibilities of the missionary to ensure preparedness and appropriate baptismal motives were not fulfilled, and that is definitely deserving of blame), but because of the simple fact they were unprepared (many never had any church attendance) or had never gained testimonies (some had never read almost any of the Book of Mormon).

So what’s my point? What this all boils down to, I think, is a dilemma that not only I have had to face during my mission, but one that I think all missionaries have to face at one time or another. . . The eternal struggle between QUALITY and QUANTITY. Theoretically, it goes without saying that everybody wants the maximum quality and maximum quantity out of their baptisms. But the simple, mathematical reality is that less quality inevitably leads to more quantity and vs. versa. Every missionary learns that the line between the two has to be drawn somewhere, and each missionary has to make the decision for himself/herself as to where he/she chooses to do it. And working within a system (such as the mission) that is so numbers-oriented (or appears to be becoming so), it is very easy to take the Zacarias option and make a “run for the glory.” Needless to say, many do. And then we foolishly ask ourselves why we have a 70% inactivity rate in South America.

I will repeat. . . missionaries cannot blame themselves every time a baptism goes inactive. Inactivity is the free agency of every individual. But if we have not done all that we can to prepare our baptisms. . . if we have not ensured that our investigators have gained adequate testimonies of the gospel, then we are at least partially at fault for their failures.

So why don’t I set a number as a baptismal goal? I choose not to because I don’t want to risk becoming another Zacarias. Not even a little bit. Instead, my goal in the mission is to work as hard as I can, to the best of my ability to bring about as many baptisms as I can, be that 10 or 1000. My baptismal success depends upon many things (the personal choices of my investigators, my teaching ability, the openness of the people, their reception to the Spirit, God’s will, my faith, etc.), but in the end, at least I will know that I’ve done my best, and I’ve done it for the right reasons. I see no reason to cloud my judgment by tempting myself with inappropriate motives.


It is fun to read the thoughts of a much younger me. I get to relive some of the frustrations and other emotions that I felt all those years ago. But what I want to know from you all is … did the 20-year old Aaron Brown have a point, or was he just blowing smoke?

I assume my observation as to the inevitable tradeoff between “quality” converts and high numbers of baptisms is a true, and perhaps obvious, one. (But feel free to disagree if you’re so inclined). More interesting to me is the question of setting goals, per se. Does the very act of setting a numerical baptismal goal increase the chances of one’s cutting corners in preparing investigators, obsessing inappropriately about numbers, overfocusing on outward, meaningless benchmarks of success and viewing potential converts as mere means to a selfish end? Wouldn’t missionaries be better off making sure their hearts are in the right place, their motives are pure, and that they are working hard, leaving the Lord to take care of the numbers? Or was I wrong to identify the act of goal-setting, per se, as the source of Elder Zacarias’ problems? Are there virtues to the goal-setting process that more than offset any of the negatives I mentioned? Or is goal-setting itself not the source of the problem at all, contrary to my essay, and I was engaging in a serious misdiagnosis? A penny for your thoughts …

Aaron B

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