19 And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted unto Alma that he might establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla; and gave him power to ordain priests and teachers over every church.
20 Now this was done because there were so many people that they could not all be governed by one teacher; neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly;
21 Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their teachers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma.
22 And thus, notwithstanding there being many churches they were all one church, yea, even the church of God; for there was nothing preached in all the churches except it were repentance and faith in God.
A common question in business when a process or a team is unusually successful is: “Will it scale?” Some practices work really well in a small tight-knit team but are completely ineffective in a larger group. Leaders face the challenge of maintaining the vitality, creativity, and shared sense of ownership which often characterizes a small team but which can fade as the organization grows in size and complexity.
Alma learned how to organize and lead the church through a series of experiences:
- As a priest of the wicked King Noah, he saw firsthand what not to do. Specifically, he learned the hazard of separating the priests from the people, supporting them financially and allowing them to live a life of idleness (Mosiah 11:5-11).
- As a spiritual leader in exile, he learned to minister to individuals and small groups who sought him out (Mosiah 18:1-3).
- After baptizing 204 people, he formally organized them into a church and ordained priests to help him teach and lead (Mosiah 18:16-17).
- When they had more than doubled in size, to 450, he led them into the wilderness, where they built a city, fell into bondage together, and ultimately were miraculously delivered from their oppressors (Mosiah 18:34-35, 23, 24).
- After arriving in Zarahemla, Alma earned the admiration of Mosiah, king over the Nephites and the Mulekites. Mosiah was so impressed with Alma’s success in establishing the church on a small scale that he encouraged him to establish the church throughout his kingdom. Alma recognized that he couldn’t lead such a large number of people the way he had led his smaller church. There were too many: “they could not all be governed by one teacher; neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly.” So, he organized a number of different churches, each with their own leaders. These churches all operated in the same way and all taught the same doctrine, so even though there were many churches, they were also, in a very real sense, “all one church.”
In 1995, after announcing a change in organizational structure to accommodate the growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Gordon B. Hinckley reminded us that, no matter how large the Church may grow, its essential functions must happen on a small scale:
The Church is becoming a very large and complex organization. We now have members in more than 150 nations. There are nine million of us, and we are growing at the approximate rate of a million each three and a half years….
[As of 2018, 23 years later, there are more than 16 million members.]
We are becoming a great global society. But our interest and concern must always be with the individual…. There must continue to be an intimate pastoral relationship of every member with a wise and caring bishop or branch president. These are the shepherds of the flock whose responsibility it is to look after the people in relatively small numbers so that none is forgotten, overlooked, or neglected.
Jesus was the true shepherd who reached out to those in distress, one at a time, bestowing an individual blessing upon them.
President Lee told us on more than one occasion to survey large fields and cultivate small ones. He was saying that we must know the big picture and then assiduously work on the particular niche assigned to each of us, and that in doing so we concentrate on the needs of the individual (“This Work Is Concerned with People,” General Conference, April 1995).
Today, I will remember that the work of salvation happens on an individual level. The work can only “scale” as more and more individuals learn to serve as the Savior did, one person at a time. I will be grateful for my membership in a large global church. As President Harold B. Lee taught, I will “survey large fields.” But I will “cultivate small ones.” I will remember that the most important work I do happens on a very small scale, as I minister to members of my congregation, to my family, and to individuals I interact with every day.