LDS Church Growth, Member Activity, and Convert Retention: Review and Analysis
III-13: Privacy and Confidentiality
The study of LDS Church growth poses difficulties which sometimes can put transparency and documentary rigor at odds with privacy. This is because in the study of LDS missions, mere geographic and chronologic localization are often sufficient to identify specific leaders. If it is stated, for instance, that research was conducted in the a city of the Novosibirsk, Russia mission, or in a city of the Philippines during a certain year, one can immediately determine who the mission president was at the time, as this is a matter of public record.
Church membership rolls are private and proprietary, and cannot be used for independent research. Independent researchers must therefore rely upon population-based studies or observational case studies, whereas institutional research is subject to potential conflict of interest and lack of transparency.
Considerable concern exists among mission leaders about publicly releasing any information that transcends filtered public relations releases. Over the years, I have interviewed many mission presidents; most have requested guarantees of confidentiality or anonymity which have been honored. These concerns understandable, yet nonetheless pose significant difficulties for independent researchers. I have found it particularly challenging when mission leaders have implemented specific programs achieving excellent results that can be objectively documented, yet request anonymity. Some such data may be able to be disclosed with appropriate permissions in future years or from independent sources, but this trend significantly limits researchers' ability to document successful results. By standards of methodological rigor, data from anonymous or undisclosed sources must be considered to be merely anecdotal, and appropriately so. Even high quality, methodologically rigorous research therefore does not always result in a research product which can be transparently disclosed with robust documentation. These limitations are not of the researchers' own choosing, but are intrinsic to the institutional missionary program.
Independent missiologic researchers are often faced with a no-win Catch-22 dilemma between transparency and privacy. Failure to provide exhaustive documentation of every point can lead to charges of inadequate methodological rigor, whereas others deem disclosures to be inappropriate when robust documentation is provided regarding case studies by which individual leaders can be identified. For instance, my book Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work, was criticized by BYU Studies reviewer Margie Holmes in favorable overall review for lack of documentary rigor regarding certain research findings, even though she acknowledged that the book on the whole was well-referenced. As I explained in the book's preface in comments which were apparently overlooked, I felt that it would be inappropriate to put individuals and leaders in most case studies on the spot by publicly documenting names, dates, and locations, especially when trends were documented which were unfavorable. Anonymous case studies would prove nothing, whereas providing information that could be used to identify individuals would be intrusive. Another respondent complained that he felt it was inappropriate that I documented as much as I did in putting certain leaders, particularly Elder Henry Moyle, on the spot for his role in the development of the quick-baptize protocols that have become part of the standardized missionary program, even though this is a well-documented matter of public record which to my knowledge is not disputed. In compiling the book from a vast file amount of research data, I had to walk a difficult tightrope between providing exhaustive documentation and respecting others' rights to privacy, while keeping the work concise and accessible to a lay audience.
Concerns of study transparency and participant privacy are not always at odds. For instance, medical privacy laws and ethical codes are very strict, and yet good quality, level of evidence I studies continue to be regularly published. Good planning, research integrity, and adequate oversight are necessary to simultaneously satisfy the demands of both transparency and participant privacy. Yet it is much easier to achieve anonymity within the framework of medical studies than in the studies of church growth for several reasons. First, most medical research is location independent, as it is based upon human physiology rather than upon specific local practices and results. The study of church growth is by definition highly location dependent: human beings are physiologically similar everywhere, whereas the circumstances of the local church very dramatically from region to region. Second, it is relatively easy to achieve anonymity of study subjects in medical research due to the vast potential pool, where his anonymity may be significantly more difficult in the study of church growth, as dates and locations alone are often sufficient to identify certain individuals. Third, the confidential and proprietary nature of church membership rolls, and the predominant desire of mission presidents and others who are not officially designated spokesmen for the church to remain anonymous or not to speak at all, often preclude the kind of rigorous study design that can more readily be obtained in medicine.
Questions remain over the kind of consent and disclosure needed in sociological research on church growth also merits consideration. News reporting organizations and historians have wide freedom to interview individuals and document their statements without any formal consent. Anyone is free to document anecdotal observations. Political pollsters to do phone or door-to-door interviews of respondents typically do not require signed consent forms from respondents. Studies of church growth are generally non-interventional and thus typically offer no risk to observed cohorts.
The systematic study of church growth, I believe, requires the highest possible standards of consent and disclosure that can reasonably be achieved. I recommend submission of study protocol to academic IRBs (Institutional Review Boards) for approval prior to implementation. Any interventional study should require the informed consent of participants, and consent should also be obtained when possible even for observational studies. Personally identifying information about study participants must be carefully guarded when it is collected at all, and published research should not disclose the identity of study participants without their express permission.