An Ensign Is Not A Roadmap

April 15, 2013 | 40 comments
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Goal-setting is a perennial, and for some perennially frustrating, part of Mormonism. I count myself among the frustrated. I have been setting weekly goals for myself since I was a teenager, and I don’t think I’ve ever achieved them all for a single week. I’m getting closer, however.

Although I believe that goals are positive and necessary, the costs–especially if expectations are misaligned–can be high. Something to keep in mind is that Church leaders of our generation are selected from a group of very high-achieving professionals. Add to this the willing Mormon tendency towards hagiography, and it’s easy to see how, despite their protestation that goals ought to be realistic, there’s a tendency for members to overreach.

Goal-setting is not just a common theme in counsel from the leaders, however, it is also embedded in our institutions. The entire church program seems designed around shuttling children (especially boys) from baptism to a temple marriage through a series of regular milestones: Deacon; Teacher; Priest; Elder; Missionary; Husband. And then… what?

After a lifetime spent working to achieve one concrete objective after another, the sudden absence of predetermined goals is disorienting to say the least. I think this is why so many of Mormon guy friends–young marrieds in the 20s and 30s–are casting about desperately for some kind of external achievement. They start companies, start PhD programs, start books, and start climbing the corporate ladder. I’ve done all four, and I’ve felt myself flailing for that familiar feeling of having a focus provided. Meanwhile, lurking beneath it all, there’s the perpetual temptation to treat leadership positions as the next merit badges to earn.

I know this is having a corrosive effect on Mormon men, and I can’t imagine that Mormon women are immune. I wonder if some of the desire for women to have the priesthood is a tragic attempt to hop onto the same fail train that Mormon men can’t get off of.

This may all sound very critical, but that’s not my intent. I think there are problems with Mormon culture in this regard, but one of the biggest problems is the tendency to lay everything always at the feet of the leaders, and I don’t intend to perpetuate that.

Our leaders are not all-knowing avatars of spiritual enlightenment. They are not sterile conduits to divine knowledge. Although of course they have access to special revelation in the fulfillment of their callings, they are fundamentally human beings. The things they know–and more importantly how they know them–are formed by their particular life experiences. It would be foolish to expect them to be able to provide detailed directions to all of the many varied kinds of people in the Church of Jesus Christ on how to set relatively realistic goals.

What’s more: I don’t think that that is really their job. Our leaders are watchmen on towers, they are not life-coaches. The Church is an ensign to all nations, but but an ensign indicates where a destination is located. It is not a roadmap to help you get there. Although they certainly point the way and provide some needed help and assistance, neither the Church as an institution nor its leaders can or should try to take away from us the obligation to make our own journey.

So: goals are important, but the leaders might not have the best capacity to help us learn how to set them. What are we to do?

For me, at least, the key has been a concept not frequently discussed over the pulpit: acceptance. The reality is that the reason that I keep over-setting my goals is that I’m unwilling to accept the gap between my self-image and the reality. In short: pride. Humility is more familiar terrain, of course, but the fact that I’ve gotten better at goal-setting to the extent that I’ve been lowering my standards isn’t exactly the stuff of an Ensign story.

The tricky part of acceptance is learning to accept who you are without settling for it. Nothing about lowering standards is obviously commensurate with an ideal of eternal progression. Based on a reading of Matthew 5:48 (“be ye therefore perfect”), it would seem that I’m headed in exactly the wrong direction.

In practice, however, it seems to be working.

40 Responses to An Ensign Is Not A Roadmap

  1. Robert C. on April 15, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Nice, Nathaniel. You’ve nicely expressed why I’ve long been a fan of Philippians 4:11: Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”

    (BTW, fatherhood is the logical next step in the Mormon chronology of roles and achievements, after husband….)

  2. Peter LLC on April 15, 2013 at 10:42 am

    there’s the perpetual temptation to treat leadership positions as the next merit badges to earn. I know this is having a corrosive effect on Mormon men

    Speaking as one who has yet to start a company, PhD program, book or corporate ladder, I suspect this is a cross the subset of high-achieving professionals bear rather than Mormon men in general.

  3. Dave on April 15, 2013 at 11:32 am

    What would a correlated life coach tell a male Mormon 30-something who has hit the standard milestones? A path of increasing church service, ending with a sequence of senior missions until death or incapacity, whichever strikes first. Of course, a correlated life coach would also tell our male Mormon 30-something they don’t need a life coach, just do what you’re told in Conference, etc.

    And how would that be different from what a secular life coach would tell a male Mormon 30-something who has hit the standard milestones? No doubt service to church and community would be one category, but so would family time and leisure time, travel (hey, it broadens the mind), self-improvement, and worthwhile projects or hobbies not directly related to work, church, or family. I think the secular view of the ideal life is broader and less structured than the correlated view of the ideal life. It’s a question of ethics in the broadest sense. I think Mormons do have to struggle with the question of how much deference must be given to the (mythical) correlated life coach and how much latitude there is to chart one’s own path.

  4. whizzbang on April 15, 2013 at 11:52 am

    As a 30 something active, Mormon male I can tell you that my life has gone well until I came home from the mission. My PB tells all kinds of things, none of which has ever come true despite my trying to achieve them. I have failed at pretty much everything!,marriage, various careers, schooling. Following local priesthood advice has worked wonders for me dot dot dot.At some point you either just say the heck with everything or strike off on your own (this could be what the scriptures say about every man walking after his own way) because walking after ‘God’s’ way hasn’t worked out despite promises of doing so. So, I am here 34 and unemployed with a 10 yr old in tow tryng to do what God wants me to do but I don’t know so much anymore!

  5. jsg on April 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    As a mormon 30-something, I have found that a higher, harder law of goal-setting prevails after the obvious milestones have been reached–sort of like Christ’s New Testament replacing the Law of Moses. This higher law requires daily discipline punctuated by creative bursts of accomplishment coming in the form of community/church service, and home/family-related projects. Without the daily discipline, though, the motivation for the bigger projects is frustratingly low. I’ve been flossing for eleven days straight. In that short time, flossing has become an allegory for the other things that should be happening daily, and things are coming together for me. So this whole issue really comes down to flossing.

  6. jsg on April 15, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Sorry whizzbang, my rather whimsical comment was not a response to your #4. Your general feeling of estrangement (from God) is one that I think a lot of us experience more acutely at this stage of life. When I feel tempted to walk after my own way, I just dig my heels in and insist on being stubbornly faithful. Sometimes I get the family together for late-night scripture time through gritted teeth, and it doesn’t seem to go very well even as we read these sublime passages of scripture…but then the morning comes, and the results of the previous day’s experiment start to reveal themselves in small but real ways: clarity, optimism, energy, and faith less forced. The purpose of life is to be separated from God, and then to discover how to find Him. Not an easy task, especially as this test seems to repeat itself over and over, forgetful people that we are.

  7. whizzbang on April 15, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    jsg-awesome! haha!

  8. whizzbang on April 15, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    jsg-it’s okay! I didn’t read it as such! it’s hard sometimes to see God’s hand in things when things you felt inspired to do or just plain told to do don’t work out and your left holding the bag saying, um now what? and who do I believe?

  9. jsg on April 15, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Tough questions. I would only say that we can’t be too hasty to judge what has and hasn’t worked–in the long run, I mean. When my 6 year-old volunteers to bless the food at dinnertime this evening, I’ll make sure to tell her to remember Whizzbang in her prayer.

  10. whizzbang on April 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    jsg-thank you! I appreciate it!

  11. Marcus on April 15, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Is it just me, or has the preaching of goal-setting lost some steam as of late? I mean, when I was a teenager, in the 70s, we never heard the end of it. It was of course sometimes the predominant theme in missionary meetings. But I still think that preaching the gospel of Christ more routinely has helped subordinate and subdue a false hope in what seemed to me, in my youth, a false gospel. A counterfeit gospel.

  12. MC on April 15, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Of course, the doctrine of eternal progression has something to do with all this.

    A weight lifter who achieves his goal of lifting 250 lbs will immediately set a goal of 300. I don’t think it’s so bad.

  13. CaryCrawford on April 15, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Setting and achieving goals is a mentality that, along with self-improvement and self-reliance, are borrowed from the progressive movement of the early 20th century or more recently from the corporate world of the self-help industry. Achieving goals is not a scriptural mandate. Focusing on goals is a way to emphasize external behavior and it can be harmful and counterproductive. The gospel stresses the notion of “pressing forward” toward Christ, giving our will over to Him, yielding control to Him, and letting Him change who we are from the inside out. Eternal progression is not about setting goals and working hard to accomplish them. It is about losing our lives in Christ and letting the power of the atonement change us.

  14. MC on April 15, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    “Eternal progression is not about setting goals and working hard to accomplish them. It is about losing our lives in Christ and letting the power of the atonement change us.”

    I think this is too passive a view. The God who created worlds without number doesn’t seem too averse to grand ambition. And if hard work is not a principle of the Restored Gospel, then we may as well cancel Pioneer Day.

  15. dave on April 15, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    i’d love to cancel pioneer day!

  16. MC on April 15, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    “i’d love to cancel pioneer day!”

    Sure, I mean, what’d the Pioneers ever do that’s worth celebrating?

  17. CaryCrawford on April 15, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    #14: It is anything but passive. If our lives are transformed through the atonement, we wear ourselves out in service. But we do it not to accomplish some personal goal or for self improvement or to meet the Church’s expectations, but because we love the Savior. As Paul writes, we work “as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6.6). Goals and resolutions focus on behavior and the self which is why they are so rarely accomplished (and why guilt accompanies their non-completion or why it drives their completion). The gospel focuses on others and the work grows out of faith and from the heart. Someone who is truly converted doesn’t need goals, they work for the glory of God and for others because they are new people, children of Christ.

    To quote a friend: “A wish, written down, is merely a goal.”

  18. MC on April 15, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    “Goals and resolutions focus on behavior and the self which is why they are so rarely accomplished”

    The same could be said for “following commandments, i.e, that commandments focus on behavior and are never perfectly fulfilled, resulting in guilt. Since I doubt you reject the notion of following commandments, it seems like your argument proves too much.

    “Someone who is truly converted doesn’t need goals, they work for the glory of God and for others because they are new people, children of Christ.”

    Goals are a Law of Moses. We set a goal to read scriptures every night. Maybe if we were perfectly converted, we wouldn’t need the goal, but empirical evidence suggests we do need the goal. And then we fail in the goal. But if our kids remember any snippets of scripture, or how they felt for those first few weeks in January when they read together as a family, you can thank goals for that.

    If I’m not perfectly converted, what do I do to get there? Would there be a prescribed course of action I could follow to become converted? Should I choose to follow that course of action? Wouldn’t my commitment to take those actions be kind of like….setting a goal?

  19. Steve Smith on April 15, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    While I think goal-setting is important, so is goal-revising. Creating goals that are within our capabilities and that match our true desires (also hard to determine sometimes) is not an easy task that we can expect to accomplish in one fell swoop. I think that the church continues to try to create milestones for its members past the age of 21, but these milestones are more broad and general. The main ones are marriage, children, continued service in the church, continued worthiness for temple recommend, and missionary service. The hard thing is that none of these can be accomplished simply by waiting to turn a certain age. They require effort.

    I also think it is hard for many LDS to come to the realization that the LDS church is simply a voluntary organization that tends to not give as much reward as it does require service. Of course it wants its members to believe that their reward for unrelenting service is salvation in the hereafter. But it is hard for people to generate that motivation themselves.

  20. DP on April 15, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    I just listened last night to this great podcast that addresses this issue of trying to reach something and never measuring up, with Adam Miller. It’s a fascinating listen.

    http://athoughtfulfaith.org/2013/04/08/039-040-adam-miller-on-grace/

  21. Eric Facer on April 15, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    Nathaniel, I think on a certain level the problem isn’t “setting” goals, its “selecting” goals.

    In our adolescence and well into early adulthood, our parents, the Church and our employers tell us what THEY think we should strive for. To some extent, that is to be expected. But at some point we have to stand up and say: “I don’t care what so-and-so thinks is best for me, I personally do not want [insert: leadership positions/partnership in law firm/five children/an advanced degree/the approval of ultra-orthodox members].

    In other words, allowing others to exercise undue influence over our “selection” of goals is a recipe for unhappiness. Decide what YOU want first. Then set a goal.

  22. Cameron N on April 15, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Nathaniel, have you read the goal chapter in PMG recently?

  23. CaryCrawford on April 16, 2013 at 8:48 am

    MC, read Romans 7. Paul says it much better than I could. The chapter is essentially a response to your comment.

  24. Nathaniel Givens on April 16, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Nathaniel, have you read the goal chapter in PMG recently?

    Nope. Never, in fact. PMG was after my time. (There’s some unresolved bitterness associated with that…)

    Why?

  25. Nathaniel Givens on April 16, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Eric-

    In other words, allowing others to exercise undue influence over our “selection” of goals is a recipe for unhappiness. Decide what YOU want first. Then set a goal.

    In terms of taking responsibility for your own journey: I’m right with you.

    But in terms of the verb “want” you’ve totally lost me. A lot of the times I know what I want, but I don’t know what activities will help me get it. Sometimes I have meta-wants. I don’t want to do service, but I want to want to do service. And what does it even mean to want something, anyway, if it’s not reflected in what you do. Isn’t what you choose, by definition, what you want? Or at least what you wanted at the time? Seems to me that a pretty big chunk of the Gospel is learning to do what you don’t want to do until you can cultivate the right desires, or be blessed with a change of heart.

    It’s not that I think “do what you want” is bad advice. I just honestly have no idea what it really means.

  26. Nathaniel Givens on April 16, 2013 at 10:59 am

    DP-

    Thanks for the link there. Grace, to me, seems like the ultimate bridge between my favorite philosophers: the existentialists and the romantics.

    Anyway, I’ll hold off on more comments until I’ve actually listened to the podcast. Thanks.

  27. MC on April 16, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    CaryCrawford,

    Sorry, I don’t accept condescending reading assignments from random people on the internet. Maybe you can quote a relevant portion and “liken” it unto us.

  28. Adam G. on April 16, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    “Eternal progression is not about setting goals and working hard to accomplish them. It is about losing our lives in Christ and letting the power of the atonement change us.”

    I think this is too passive a view. The God who created worlds without number doesn’t seem too averse to grand ambition. And if hard work is not a principle of the Restored Gospel, then we may as well cancel Pioneer Day.

    I don’t really envision the Almighty God with a checklist of goals he’s trying to accomplish. (Although I could be wrong, there’s stuff in the scriptures about record-keeping that I wouldn’t really envision the Almighty God doing either but that nonetheless seems to be part of the economy of heaven.) On the other hand, He does appear to have aims. He’s not just self-existing or reveling in his perfect indwelling love with the Son and the Holy Ghost or whatever other static conceptions one may have. In addition to those things, He is also doing things and accomplishing things, and those things are even quantifiable. The idea of God having goals seems crude and mortal and unspiritual. Yet this is a crude gospel, crude the way bodies are crude. Heaven probably isn’t ethereal.

    Let’s synthesize the two perspectives. It’s true that in exaltation we probably don’t have outside goals that we impose on our selves and struggle to accomplish, and we probably don’t use metrics to push ourselves harder. But that’s not because objectives and goals have gone away, its because they’ve succeeded. Through grace we’ve internalized them enough that they are part of who we are, so we don’t need goals not because we’ve moved beyond accomplishment but because accomplishment is now part of the fabric of who we are.

  29. Eric Facer on April 16, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    “Decide what YOU want first.”

    Nathaniel, I knew I was leaving myself open to the criticism you expressed, and you are correct: figuring out exactly what we want out of life is far from easy; our wants/desires naturally change over time and there is a necessary element of trial and error involved in the process. Acknowledging the dangers inherent in relying excessively upon others—no matter how well intentioned they may be—to influence the important decisions was the principal point I was trying to make.

    How many return missionaries have succumbed to the pressure to marry quickly only to later regret their decision? The temple divorce records of the church are littered with thousands of broken marriages that can be traced back to a hasty decision that was motivated, in part, by a desire to conform to a priesthood edict.

    C.S. Lewis wrote a masterful commencement address called “The Inner Ring,” where he warned the graduates that they will, at some point in their lives, be pressured by most every organization they join to compromise their values in order to please their peers and superiors, who will entice them with membership in the “inner ring.” Wise counsel.

  30. Adam Greenwood on April 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    C.S. Lewis’ advice on the Inner Ring had nothing to do with counseling people to shrug off the shackles of tradition and institutions to find their own true self. Lewis was many things, but he never was a new age life coach.

  31. CaryCrawford on April 17, 2013 at 12:41 am

    Apologies, MC. That last reply does come across as condescending. I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you it had more to do with the fact I was late for a meeting than that I lacked respect for you or your ideas. Please allow me to give a more careful response.

    In your previous comment you equated goals with the law of Moses and with commandments. Paul speaks of the deadness of the law, arguing that even with the law (or goal) always present before him, he cannot do it: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do” (Rom 7.18,19). Earlier in the same chapter, he says it is because of the law (or lofty goals) that he sins (v. 7). The solution? Deliverance through Jesus Christ. “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son” (Rom. 8.3).

    2 Ne. 4 is perhaps even clearer. Nephi laments, like Paul, that he is a “wretched man” (Rom. 7.24; 2 Ne. 4.17). Even though he knows the law he yields to sin and gives way to temptation (2 Ne. 4.27). When he shifts away from the pronoun “I” to the pronoun “thou” (the Lord), his weakness and failures become secondary: “O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul? Wilt thou deliver me…? Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin” (v. 31). In other words, instead of trying to live the law himself, to work really hard to achieve something, he puts his life in God’s hands, trusts in God to change him and turn him into a new creature.

    The Doctrine and Covenants speaks of improving to “a fullness” by progressing from “grace to grace” (93.13). In other words, eternal progression is not about me making myself better, it’s about God making me better through Christ. Accomplishment is no longer an end in itself, it has become part of me (to paraphrase Adam G.) through grace.

    I admit that all this is in an ideal world. Goals, mantras, self-talk, etc. can be of practical help in the real world. My ultimate goal would be to turn my life over to the most powerful being in the universe, and to lose myself serving God and my neighbor instead of trying to improve myself by myself.

  32. Bookslinger on April 17, 2013 at 10:54 am

    From The Game of Work — How to Enjoy Work As Much As Play by Charles A. Coonradt:

    “In the absence of clearly defined goals, we are forced to concentrate on activity and ultimately become enslaved by it.”

  33. MC on April 17, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    CaryCrawford,

    Apology accepted. I don’t think most Mormons think of spiritual goals as something they do on their own without God’s help. I think of President Hinckley setting the goal for 1,000,000 baptisms. Did that show a lack of faith on President Hinckley’s part, or great faith that the Lord could work miracles through us?

  34. whizzbang on April 17, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    @33- There is this account shared by President Dalton of the Hawaii Mission, FWIW

    “I’ve been told that in a meeting just before President Hinckley died, consisting of the first presidency, all of the twelve, and all the general authorities that were assigned to Salt Lake City. President Packer was conducting the meeting and it was opened up for a question and answer period. One of the general authorities asked this question, I wouldn’t have done it, but he did, he said, “President Packer, President Hinckley said, that by the year two thousand we would have one-hundred operating temples and we do, but President Hinckley also said in 1995 in his great missionary discourse that with concerted effort, recognition of our duty, and sincere prayer, we could double the baptisms of this church, and we’re not even close, could you respond to that President Packer?”  President Hinckley bounded up out of his chair, from what I understand, and stood right next to President Packer and said “President would you mind if I answered that question?”  and this is all that President Hinckley in his amicable style and directness said, “When the faith of the members and leaders of this church matches the vision of this prophet we’ll double baptisms.”  And his sat down. I don’t think there were any other questions posed regarding missionary work after that moment.”
    Pres. John C. Dalton
    BYUH Devotional
    http://devotional.byuh.edu/media111108

  35. MC on April 17, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    34,

    Ah, yes, it was doubling baptisms, not 1,000,000 baptisms. But that anecdote goes to show that faith in God and setting goals can go together quite well.

  36. Chet on April 20, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    “…there’s the perpetual temptation to treat leadership positions as the next merit badges to earn….
    I know this is having a corrosive effect on Mormon men, and I can’t imagine that Mormon women are immune. I wonder if some of the desire for women to have the priesthood is a tragic attempt to hop onto the same fail train that Mormon men can’t get off of.”

    Amen and amen.

  37. jennifer rueben on April 23, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    although the desire of some LDS women to have the priesthood may indeed be an attempt to ‘hop on the same train as Mormon men” were leadership positions are seen as another merit badges I see this attitude expressed already by some LDS women. Relief Society president trumps all other calling, followed by young women’s and primary president. Having these calling on the stake level adds importance and to have served in any calling on the general church level is very desirable. These calling either past or present somehow add authority to whatever opinion the sister expresses. “working with the brethren” is one I hear a lot in our area. This meaning that the individual, male or female, is employed by the church and somehow that gives them authority to comment, share stories, and counsel other members. amen and amen to your insightful statement that this is a fail train. please note that I have used the word “some” throughout my comment. I have also meet sincere delightful motived sisters magnifying their callings.

  38. Chet on April 23, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    We moved into a new ward recently and I was reluctant to answer the bishopric’s question of which callings I have held previously. Seemed like a catch 22.

  39. Eric Facer on April 23, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    Anyone who allows their own self worth to be measured by the church callings they have received, or worse—by the importance attached by others to church callings, needs professional counseling or a different church.

  40. jennifer rueben on April 24, 2013 at 12:55 am

    question: what calling have you had recently
    answer I have had a variety of callings(indicates activity and willingness to serve)

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