Changes to the Mission Programs

There’s been quite an uproar the past day or so over announced changes to the missionary program. First up was the Deseret News story, “LDS Church plans to decrease missions; utilize tech savviness to locate religious-minded people.” Added in were more restrictions via interview questions regarding going on a mission. This includes asking more about not only what we’d call mental illness but things like ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome. We’ve noted here before some of the issues related to the age change of missionaries. These changes definitely show that the Church is rethinking how to do missionary work. That’s a good thing. Whether these particular changes will work out isn’t entirely clear.

I think one way to look at the changes is that the church realizes that increasing the number of missionaries reaches a point of diminishing returns. Doubling the number of missionaries won’t double the number of converts. This in theory will get missionaries back to a better productivity in terms of converts per missionary. It also addresses other issues which may make individual missionaries less effective. Let’s be honest. Not everyone has the social skills, especially at 18, that lead to being a productive missionary.

On the other hand there’s lots of people who might lightly be on the autism spectrum or at least not have great innate social IQ who still have a lot of success on their missions. While I think it would be very useful to put people where their skills may fit better, such as with computers, I truly worry about a one size fits all decision. Honestly this gets back to my question about age.

At 18 I had near zero social IQ. I was extremely shy and insecure. The first year of my mission wasn’t exactly successful despite working ridiculously hard. At my year point my MTC companion was the top baptizer in mission history whereas I’d not yet baptized my first convert. On the other hand, the last 8 months of my mission were extremely successful. While I don’t want to say I had good social IQ, I’d at least developed enough that I was frequently among the top baptizers each month. More significantly the changes in me personally were huge. Not that I didn’t have a long ways to progress, but it at least pointed me in the direction I had to go over the following years.

I suspect I wasn’t alone in that. Maybe other missionaries have different weaknesses, but I worry about undue focus on ADHD (notoriously overdiagnosed) and Autistic like symptoms (which often are just development delays or low innate social IQ that needs developed rather that treated as Asperger’s syndrome). While this may in the short term lead to better missionaries, often people with great social IQ got converts who weren’t as converted to the gospel as they were a certain socialization. I knew many missionaries who baptized many whose investigators quickly went inactive. While I may have baptized far fewer, I am overjoyed how many of those I played a part in their conversion are still active members.

The other worry I have is perhaps optimism of how much can be done by social media. Don’t get me wrong. I think social media has a place. Yet I can also remember near the beginning of my mission being on splits and praying over cards in the old tracting records to find someone to visit. We went to the address listed to find someone who truly wanted our message. I’ve no idea if they ended up being converted, but it strengthened my testimony of the power of prayer and traditional disparaged methods of finding people.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m overjoyed that the Church isn’t assuming old methods will work the same way. Clearly things have changed. But whether these particular changes will lead to more conversions at best seems unclear. I certainly hope they will.

Of course the devil is in the details. The Deseret News story is quite vague. I have faith those in charge will look carefully at what works and what doesn’t and adjust accordingly. I particularly still worry about Asia where I think we need a rethink of how we present our message for the local culture. I’m just a bit skeptical that we can find as many people via social media as some hope.

42 comments for “Changes to the Mission Programs

  1. I’m looking forward to how this conversation develops. I served in Mexico in the pre-Preach My Gospel era, when the old Missionary Guide taught social skills via the “effective/less-effective” models in the margins. I agree with the OP that some of the lack of missionary success is due to the lack of missionary social skills. But I think these skills could be taught to 18-year-olds.

    Over the past 4 years, we’ve had the missionaries over for dinner and a message every month or two. They’ve always been zone leaders, and exceptional young men. But there’s only been two or three individuals in the dozens we’ve welcomed into our home that are capable of adapting the message to the audience (a family with primary age kids).

    Also buried in the news coverage, the Church is making significant upgrades to ensure safe missionary housing. Given my personal experiences in Mexico, this was significant for me.

  2. That’s a really good point about teaching social skills. I think more teaching of missionaries would be extremely helpful particularly in basic social skills.

    But honestly I think as you suggest it’s the “customize the message to people” that’s the real issue. However that just requires a fair bit of social and intellectual experience which 18 year olds are not apt to have.

    The ideal situation is missionaries going on splits with experienced Stake missionaries who are given more responsibility. That’s hard to do though for various reasons. But you get some former RMs who are still young enough to remember their missionary skills but old enough to have experience then that’s a great situation.

  3. One of my siblings entered the missionary field with a mild adhd diagnosis (so mild he wasn’t under any treatment or medication). He came home 18 months later with full on bipolar disorder. None of the new questions would have predicted this. It(and several other disorders) manifest between 19 and 25. The difference now is that my brother would now be sent home much sooner – a good thing.

    My big question on the new procedures is the temple recommend question about supporting those who disagree with the church. The way it is worded made it seem like it could be a way for bishops to filter out kids that support ssm.

  4. My concern is that young men and women spend years preparing for their missions and then may now get turned away in a Bishop’s interview. Young men are taught they have a special obligation to serve missions. This means many will bear life-long burdens of guilt and inadequacy if we botch this. I know of one young man, who is closing in on 18 this year, was turned away, making him the only person of a large “Utah Mormon” extended family not to serve, the pain would be extraordinary.

  5. It may not mean much, but one person I keep in mind is President Howard W. Hunter. He tested LDS assumptions at least twice. He had not served a mission, instead playing in a band on a cruiseship at a missionary age. Then, when he lost his first wife while an apostle, he was single when he became the president/prophet. This told me tradition was separate from doctrine, and personal worthiness ultimately trumped other considerations. While serving a mission is traditional, it is not a determining factor for discipleship or priesthood participation.

    Serving a mission in this day and age is not about a rite of passage for young men, if it ever really was intended to be that, but a specific method of church service that has become high profile enough for the church to be more selective in its candidates.

    I realize there is still a social stigma in not serving a mission, particularly if it wasn’t a worthiness issue. This intentionally or unintentionally puts us other members on trial, metaphorically. Will we be like Job’s friends who blamed him for his trials, or will we attempt a more Christlike approach and withhold our judgement, allowing young men who do not serve missions to show their mettle by other means?

  6. Howard W. Hunter was not single when he became the President of the Church. He was married to his second wife, Inis Stanton in 1990, five years before he became the prophet.

  7. Old Man, I think that was also a concern back when Pres. Hinkley first “raised the bar” on going on a mission back in 2002. There was then tighter focus on mental illness although those with bipolar disorder could, per the Church spokesperson, still go with medication and a stabilized condition. Overall many people didn’t go who likely would have gone in the 1990’s. There really wasn’t any change in the social expectation, especially in the Mormon corridor, that everyone go.

    Changing that expectation is somewhat problematic. I personally don’t think everyone should go. I had companions who clearly didn’t want to be on a mission. I had one who refused to leave the house for two months. That helped ruin my experience, putting a ridiculous amount of stress on me at a time I didn’t really understand such things. I certainly wish that he hand’t gone. On the other hand a second difficult companion I had really wanted to be there but had a few conditions that made it problematic for him. Yet would I have wanted to take that away from them? No.

    Ideally we’d have pressure to get people to go out of their comfort zone and go yet no real penalization for not going. Of course saying that in abstract is easy. Figuring out how to do it in practice is much harder. For instance most girls would ask where you went on a mission. Friends who hadn’t gone were very intimidated by this and further sometimes felt shunned if they hadn’t gone. Yet is this really a bad thing for a young woman to value?

    Jerry, I think there are many people who didn’t go on missions who later serve in leadership. While I understand why those who don’t serve feel like second class sometimes – especially in their early 20’s when dating – I think most people once they really enter into adulthood have the maturity to recognize that the past matters less than the present in terms of service and spirituality. My mission president hadn’t been on a mission for instance. Indeed he’d spent most of his adult life inactive. That made some things hard for him as mission president but perhaps in other ways allowed him to not be held back by expectations.

  8. Steve, thanks for the correction. I was fairly certain I would get that detail wrong, but someone reading the blog would set me right. :)

  9. The released document makes clear the questions bishops should ask and the things the church wants to know about, but it doesn’t actually state which conditions would preclude missionary service, or what level a mental health issue would have to reach before a prospective missionary would be turned away. It’s probably a mistake to read it as saying that any incident of depression, for example, would eliminate someone from consideration. It would be helpful and reassuring, though, if more information was available.

  10. I think the questions on testimony are a significant change. How many prospective missionaries — or long time members of the Church for that matter — can actually voice a testimony of Jesus Christ and how they arrived at it?

  11. I think it is unfortunate that there is so much social pressure for young men to go and be successful. I have several friends ,who should know better who make it clear to their sons that they are absolutely expected to go or else. When I ask them how many of the 15 went on missions they always say” all of course.” The reality is that only slightly more than half served a full time mission. Among those who didn’t go were President Monson ,Elder Nelson, , Elder Oaks and Elder Uchdorff . That means that not only didn’t the present Pres of the church go but depending on life spans it is possible that there will be 3 Presidents in a row that didn’t serve. Not going didn’t harm their rise in the hierarchy. In addition that ubiquitous pressure means many go who don’t really want to . In a neighboring Stake ,( in Arizona) 40 % of their young men come home early . In my ward over the last few years 25% of those getting calls either refuse to actually go after their call was received or came home early .Within that 25% virtually all left the church within 2 years and at least one tragically committed suicide after his return. My wife and I both served ( in my case for 2 1/2 years ) and had great experiences. My older son went and had an ok experience. I don’t expect my younger son ( a BYU student) to go at all. When people ask he simply says” I am following the prophet”. These kind of figures coupled with declining baptismal rates certainly suggest that here needs to be a better approach to this problem

  12. Jonathan that’s a good point and a similar set of concerns accompanied the earlier changes in 2002 that were clarified by the press office. Hopefully we’ll get some clarifications soon.

  13. boo, I would point out that President’s Monson, and the older members of the Twelve, had a military draft with which to contend. I’m certainly not old enough to remember those days, but my understanding has always been that, at least in the U.S. (“and West Germany!” says President Uchtdorf), from the 1940s to the 1970s, the draft had a huge negative impact on the Church’s ability to consistently call large numbers of missionaries. The result, as I understand it, was that the Church and Church culture didn’t place quite as much emphasis on serving a mission as it does today. I was always under the belief that the current push for all men to serve started when President Kimball took office.

    My guess is that missionary service will continue to be a gatekeeping factor well into the future. As you state, many of those who don’t serve or who come home early wind up permanently inactive or semi-active. (someone correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t RMs much, much, much more likely to stay active?) Their inactivity means they simply won’t have the opportunities to rise through the leadership ranks so, to my mind, any lack of non-RMs in leadership is more a result of self-selection than a predilection for RMs.

  14. NV your point is correct that LDS culture has changed over time with respect to missionary service but the two examples you cite are somewhat misleading. Look at Pres Oaks and Russell . There was no such impediment preventing them from serving . Nor Pres Hunter. Pres Monsons situation is historically a little murky but I understand he could have elected to go had he wanted to. He was discharged from the naval reserve after the war was over , then returned to the U of U and graduated. He then elected to be married. and as a result never served a mission. With respect to inactivity rates among RMs they run about 50 % which is better than the rate among the general LDS population which is 66% – 75% depending where you live.

  15. For a long time now, it has struck me as odd (and frustrating) that for as much as we revere the story and missionary success of Ammon, we don’t seem to be interested in actually practicing his technique – service, service, service. Ammon didn’t proselyte. That may be the secret. I wish the church would emphasize good, old-fashioned Christian service for its missionaries more and traditional contacting and proselyting less.

  16. Anonymous–the 14 years helped with the “embed” and “service” aspect of those missions.

  17. It sounds like we are going to have our own ciber (warfare ?) group. Bit concerned that will mean trolls (missionaries) disrupting any and all discussion groups.

  18. When they announced the age change to 18 for young men serving missions, it was also directly stated that 18 wasn’t for everyone and that bishops should counsel with young men about whether 18 was right for them or whether they should wait. Very little of this happened. Instead, 18 became the new 19.

    So how this new approach is actually executed may be different from what was intended. It might have just been intended as guidance to local leaders, formalizing what was already out there in various directives to bishops. As actually executed, it might push bishops to being tougher on prospective missionaries (raising the bar a little higher). It might convince some prospective missionaries to just skip a mission and avoid the whole worthiness gauntlet that has been thrown down. It might normalize not going on a mission, as more decide not to volunteer or get turned away by local leadership. Time will tell.

  19. boo, I believe it’s a bit less cut and dried than you intimate. Oaks served in the Utah National Guard during the Korean War and wasn’t given leave to serve. He then got married at that time so his window for fulltime missionary service closed.

    Nelson got married in 1945 at age 21 (it’s hard to believe he’s that old). The Church wasn’t calling fulltime young male missionaries during World War II so it wasn’t like he simply skipped going on a mission. He simply decided to not put off getting married.

    Trying to analogize their situations to a young man deciding to not serve a mission after the reduction in the age mininum to 19 and the post-Kimball culture change isn’t all that helpful. Had they not served, grown out their hair, gone inactive for ten years, and then slowly made their way back after having a kid or two, then sure, but that’s not what happened. And it seems rather silly to try to justify not serving based on the fact that they didn’t serve.

    If a kid doesn’t want to go, he simply shouldn’t go, but don’t expect the culture to embrace his decision, honorably excused or not. That’s why I really think the Church needs to highlight Church service mission and local mission opportunities in a much bigger and more sustained way than it has.

  20. Perhaps it’s unavoidable with the Church’s emphasis on growth, but I still find the OP references to being “productive” or among the “top-baptizers” disconcerting. On that whole effort, it seems Elder Oaks October 2016 take may be more appropriate: “success in sharing the gospel is inviting people with love and genuine intent to help them, no matter what their response.”

  21. My father was in the Army in World War II. He met my mother – a recent German convert to the church – when he attended the small LDS Branch in Vienna. During the remainder of his war service they courted and he was sent home after the war ended. They parted with a promise? to marry (my mother didn’t really believe that he would come back for her). He was home in Utah for 6 months and then decided to serve a mission – he was sent to Germany on a 2 1/2 year mission. Mom and Dad married directly after his mission ended and then flew back to the States where he started his schooling. Dad was 26 and mom was 27. Dad went on to get a Ph.D (while having 8 children) and taught at a University for his professional life. It wasn’t uncommon for young servicemen to go on missions after the war ended. Many of his companions were returned servicemen. Dad would have had a really good reason not to serve a mission and get married instead. He chose to go on a mission first and then marry afterwards.

    If some of the 12 Apostles decided not to go on missions after their military service then it is fine with me. But their military service shouldn’t be the reason. Many servicemen did fulfill missions after the war. If Monson, Nelson, Oaks, Hales, Eyring, and Uchtdorf didn’t serve missions and decided to get married/go to school/get a job then it is because they decided to get married/go to school/get a job. Do you think that any of the 12 Apostles (from this time forward) will ever NOT have served a mission as a young adult? Not likely.

  22. Anon and Terry H:
    I think Anon’s point is valid. Service is a real key to navigating the cultural and political conflicts we face. We can’t exactly embed young people for 14 years into service-oriented work as individuals, but we can make such a long-term commitment as an institution. And we need ever pair of hands available to do such work.

  23. ” … to help find people interested in religion.”

    Really? There seems to be something inherently wrong with this – or is it just me?

  24. P, I’m not sure what comment the quote is from, but I prefer not to let human choice of vocabulary interfere too much with my personal understanding of their statements. I don’t intend this as a lecture, so please forgive me if it comes across this way.

    I can see how LDS missionaries, including members though not full time, will generally feel that approaching other humans whom they perceive as religious will be less problematic than approaching humans whom they perceive as rejecting religion.

    My personal mission experience gave me a different perspective. I found that my greatest impact in sharing the gospel was with individuals who were not committed to a particular religion though still having religious sentiment.

    This felt consistent to me, as my own parents were converts, and themselves had no particular committment to a body of religion. Does this appear yet as a discernable pattern to anyone? Joseph Smith’s description of his own personal spiritual dilemma resonated with me growing up, as I believe it resonated with my parent’s when it was introduced to them individually. I believe it resonated with those humans my mission companions and I were most successful in helping through their own conversion.

    This resonance reaches across cultural and social boundaries, even to those who thought they were otherwise committed to their religion. This is something my mission experience taught me, though I recognize the irony that my peculiar set of personal baggage would have possibly prevented me from serving such a mission now. I prefer to exercise faith that bishops and upper tiers will continue to make choices as guided by the Spirit, and no one whom the Lord intends to go on a mission will be held back by human hands.

  25. As always Clark, I enjoy the conversations you spark over missionary work and church growth.

    As a church, I’m not sure we always do a good job of thinking ahead and predicting the unintended negative consequence of broad policy changes. The way we approach missionary work has become an increasingly complicated one primarily because of the mandate to grow membership in the face of reduced rates of growth–there has to be a lot of internal pressure here. Secondarily, and perhaps more recently, to serve as a program to keep our young people from leaving the church–and there has to be some desperation here. I am encouraged the church appears to be making changes and adjustments, which suggests experimentation and learning. I find that to be encouraging but wonder how effective it will be.

    If I understand correctly, the expectation that all young men serve a mission didn’t exist prior to the early 1970’s. Qualified young men were invited to meet with their bishop at his pleasure and were called. This is a bit before my time, but didn’t this give rise to the idea among young women and there parents to find a “returned missionary,” an RM, to marry? Being an RM prior to the 1980’s was a real differentiator because serving wasn’t an open invitation to all young men. It also seems to me there was no shame if you weren’t called to serve during this era. All but one of the bishops of my home ward were not returned missionaries until those of the 1970’s came of age. Since around the early 90’s, not one bishop in my home ward hasn’t served a mission. Prior to the era of mandated missionary service, serving seems to have been a more means driven and personal approach without the kind of cultural pressure now associated with it.

    Probably after corporate business methods started to be applied to the way the church administered all of its affairs (late 50’s and 60’s?), did the more familiar “sales force” and metric driven approach to missionary work begin to develop. This certainly would have aligned with the time period when the church began to use methods of corporate finance to manage its assets. I’m guessing the potential missionary force would have been quantified as a human capital resource, as a church asset to be exploited (using the term economically) to achieve optimal outcomes. Alas, “every young man should serve a mission” would be an obvious business conclusion, and became the church’s policy. With this more ends driven approach, consideration for serving would have been placed in front of a more personal question for each young man, is it right for you to serve?

    It seems to me starting in the 80’s, this is why so many went into the mission field than should have, resulting in the famous ‘raising the bar’ moment in time as a response. The unintended consequence of everyone being told to serve had finally caught up.

    Presently, it seems to me regardless of the specific and more stringent way missionaries are evaluated for worthiness to serve, the pressure to serve is still so extreme, and to serve at 18. It worries me and I wonder how many missionaries lie to their bishops if they are not ready or not worthy simply because the social desirability to serve is so great, more so than for personal and spiritual development. Ours is a church of social rewards as much as it is spiritual development. The default assumption for not serving at 18 should not be ‘what’s wrong’ but almost subconsciously and collectively it is. I am also alarmed by how many male and female missionaries have come home early, and how much shame they seem to shoulder, and how desperate they are to explain their predicament despite church statements made on this topic to help lift the embarrassment they feel.

    When I was a missionary in the late 80’s, there were around a dozen missionaries who were older. They arrived on their mission at age 21-24. We all looked up to them. A couple had even graduated from college. They were confident, polished, and extremely effective missionaries. I don’t know what the answer is to the problems we face today. But I wonder when I think about falling convert baptism rates and youth attrition if we haven’t trade one problem for another when the age was moved from 19 to 18, and the mandate that all prepare to serve maintained.

  26. BigSky, the concerns you express are the somewhat secret concerns I have also for the church. Humans operate the church though the Christ is at the head, and humans bring their individual and group biases to everything they get involved in. My faith remains that the Christ is aware and will watch over his church and disciples, and patiently waits for us to “get it” so we can move on to other opportunities He has waiting for us. I guess I want to believe that the Father’s plan of salvation doesn’t allow for the decisions and actions of one or more of His children on earth to screw up things eternally for any other of His children. I think of Joseph Smith’s vision involving his brother Alvin, and how surprised Joseph was that Alvin was with the Father, having died before the LDS chuurch was organized. Or the words of Paul I memorized for my own mission, “why are they then baptized for the dead if the dead rise not at all?”

  27. BigSky, I’ll confess I don’t know the history of the missionary program well. Like you I recall the thrust being in the 70s with Pres. Kimball. But the details I’m a bit ignorant on. I’m not sure it was a bad thrust though. I think prior to the 70’s there was a sense in which many people took the gospel for granted at were a bit loose with commitment. It’s been widely reported for instance that tithe paying is much higher now than then as are many other indicators of commitment. (I’m not sure how much I trust the figures from the 60’s mind you) In any case Pres. Kimball had a clear focus on lengthening our stride and getting us out of our comfort zone that led to pretty significant changes. The end of the priesthood ban was of course tremendously important for missionary work as well. While my own mission was long after that in certain ways it wasn’t long at all.

    One thing to keep in mind is that any change will have unintended consequences. I’m not sure the Church isn’t aware of such matters. For instance I’m pretty sure they knew the risks with the age drop to 18 much as they knew the risks of dropping the length to 18 months a generation earlier. The question ends up being how much ones predictions line up with the actual consequences. Overall I think the Church does a reasonably good job even though we might disagree with the tradeoffs they pick.

    Regarding older missionaries, one thing I’m curious about is why sisters are allowed to go in their 40’s while single men aren’t. We are potentially losing out on a valuable resource. Although again there are reasons to see this as a tradeoff as well.

    Back to the OP it seems to me that, reading between the lines, the Church might be trying to have multiple kinds of missions. There might be cyber-missions, proselytizing missions and service missions. A person who might to great at one might do poorly in an other. It’s possible the Church wants to have more data on people so they can send them to the appropriate mission. Unfortunately the numbers are now so huge that it’s honestly been years since the brethren were able to pray over each missionary submission and put them into a location by pure inspiration. That means they need to adjust things a bit. That alone might improve quality a great deal.

  28. Clark, I like the points you raise about President Kimball and looking at this through a lens that the broader call to serve was about being more focused on intensity around a gospel that should be a the center of our lives. Certainly with the lifting of the priesthood ban and the broader call to serve, President Kimball was a big change agent in the back half of the twentieth century. I fully recognize the good outweighed the bad. I suppose I would like the church to place a bit more focus on the local church culture. Culture is a bear to change, I realize.

    I have to be honest, I really do hope the church broadens what it considers to be ‘full-time’ missionary service to include service missions and cyber-missions.

    We violated the white handbook’s rule on ‘only 4 hours of service’ given weekly and ended up giving around 22 hours (12 hours x 2 missionaries) weekly to a charitable organization. We never directly proselytized by agreement with the agency. We acted now and asked for forgiveness later. At first our mission president frowned at us and was miffed that we were so cavalier, but after we invited him to see the work we were doing and the results it produced, he endorsed the effort and encouraged us to expand it a little by involving another companionship. What it did for the image of the church in our area was profound, and there was a visible, trailing convert effect.

    My personal belief is the church is in a place where it would benefit by having more service missions where young men who are builders, workers in jeans and t-shirts in their abilities, personalities and interests could be called to serve. This in addition to our white shirt and tie proselytizing missionaries. Some of the missionaries who struggled in my mission would have excelled in that kind of roll. (I’m thinking well digging, house building, school teaching, tutoring, etc., branded similarly to ‘Helping Hands.’) The same is true of cyber-missions. The more the church can do to open up ways to serve, the more success I think we’ll see among young men and women who are better suited to those kinds of non-traditional, proselytizing roles. When I served, it was really at the height of ‘one size fits all,’ which made it really difficult for about 20% of our missionaries to “succeed.”

    We also had a couple of autistic elders and while they were committed and very sweet young men, the tax it put on them, their companion and the wards in which they served was very heavy. These elders were brilliant and focused and would have excelled serving in a family history center, for example. But having them proselytize was a disaster and placed so much negative stress on them it was heartbreaking to see.

    More than critical of the church’s missionary efforts, I am excited to see where this all heads.

  29. Clark Goble & Big Sky, you gave me more to add to my swirling well of understanding. I like the idea of specific service missions, kind of like the Peace Corps but without being ostensibly American.

    I remember an LDS couple in my ward growing up where one spouse is Native American, as they met when the other spouse served a mission in the reservation where the first spouse lived.

    Not only does this recollection emind me that LDS missions provide a circumstance for meeting a potential spouse (I have no idea on those statistics), my observations of the male spouse was he looked liked a ranch hand that dressed for church, with denim jeans and a white shirt. I could imagine him on a mission dressed just like that, and fitting in as well as any white man could, lending his hands to whatever chores needed doing.

  30. BigSky, ideally we’d find a way to put people where their skills match the best. I do think there’s a lot of growth that can come from getting far out of ones comfort zone too. However the amount of stress missionaries often face can be unhealthy. Figuring out who it helps and who it hurts seems difficult in the best of cases.

    More or less all I’m saying is we shouldn’t have a one size fits all mission program. I think if we can figure out how to attack the problem from multiple facets, putting people where they’d best be of use that we’d accomplish a lot.

    Jerry, my MTC teacher went to the Amazon for his mission. He was told to send home all his suits and get camouflaged fatigues and jungle ware. He used a machete rather than bike. He had quite the tales about his mission (this likely would have been the mid-80’s for him). I suspect that happens more than people suspect even if the bulk of missionaries go to more urban or suburban areas.

  31. The thought struck as I contemplated this discussion (could be a stroke, not entirely sure) that the real coming of age ritual in the LDS church is not a mission. It’s the Endowment received in the Temple. Not being called to a mission would not preclude receiving the Endowment for men or women, even if they remain single.

    It may be in the church’ past that men (and women) received their Endowment prior to Sealing to a spouse in the Temple, then were called on a mission (sister missionaries were still single, I believe). After settling in Utah, that pattern changed, as young men and women could be sealed in the Temple, or remain single and serve a mission before getting sealed/married. This choice between Temple marriage or mission/Temple marriage would work differently depending on time and place, but Temple marriage was the real social expectation of young men and women no matter where they lived.

    My son followed the pattern of serving a mission then getting married, similar to my own pattern. My daughter did not choose to serve a mission, but did receive her Endowment while remaining single. I believe that the social impact for my daughter was minimal, mostly because of cultural/historical time and place. However, my spouse was somewhat disappointed, especially as my spouse was watching many of the other eligible young women serve missions from our stake.

    In a non-Catholic or non-Protestant Christian culture which is being LDS, it’s easy to see how an LDS mission became an external sign of coming-of-age, an event you could openly share with non-LDS family and friends. The Endowment has limited social currency, espescially if you live where the LDS church is not prominent.

  32. Jerry- More than 20 years ago, Pres. Hunter tried to push Church culture in the direction you advocate. In Feb. 1995, the 1st Ppesidency message includeed this encouragement:

    “Let us prepare every missionary to go to the temple worthily and to make that experience an even greater highlight than receiving the mission call.”

    I think you’re right that part of the issue with making the Endowment the great “coming-of-age” ceremony is that it is so private.

  33. We used to have missionaries called to help build church buildings back in the day. I see no reason we couldn’t call people to explicitly help with reconstruction efforts in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Texas, Florida, India, etc.

  34. I went on a mission 50+ years ago. It was a 2-1/2 year commitment because I had to learn a new language. Only a few people in my Mission area were baptized while I served there. And the few that were baptized were frequently the lonely. Church attendance ran less than 10 percent. And there wasn’t much of a support structure for the few members who were active. We opened new areas (small cities) that shouldn’t have been opened. In some areas, missionaries were branch presidents. Tracting (our principal method of proselytizing) was in large measure a waste of time. Our efforts would have been better served helping immigrants (Algerians, etc.) and other downtrodden groups.

    I remember at that time there were building missionaries who helped with the construction of chapels. We had 3 viable wards/branches in our Mission. These missionaries were assisting with the construction of chapels in the 3 cities.

    The Church is consolidating in Europe. (Something that should happened years ago.) Missionaries are being moved to developing countries, where new members are frequently poor. Soon 1/2 of all members will be in developing countries. These areas would be perfect for service missionaries. But it needs to be service for service sake, and not have ulterior motives.

  35. So Jesus just needs fisherman with powerful faith but the church today needs vetted, social butterflies.

  36. Casey, I laughed out loud at your comment, because I can appreciate someone deflating a dialogue with an apropos needle.

  37. For me the issues are not so much about missionary age or numbers, but about proselytising. Closer study and understanding of how to ‘proselytise in the Saviour’s way’ ought to be the guide. There is no doubt, had he wanted, the Saviour could have baptised as many as he wished, but that was not his focus. Consider in John 6:5 how he draws Philip into His spiritual space, setting aside others advice to send the multitude away (Luke 9):

    When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?

    This is the ‘spirit of Christ’: conscripting involvement in the work of right things.

  38. Dare I say it, mere service doesn’t go far enough. The relational work of recruiting to charitable reflection and works brings the testimony of Christ, a deepened sense of ‘self-understanding’, faith, repentance leading to newness of life. Here is the missionary experience, which, thank God, many have received notwithstanding the best laid plans. And the first step is being there.

  39. SJames, I think that’s right that numbers ought not be the focus. Although Jesus’ work was in some ways preparatory for what the apostles were asked to do after his death. So we have to be careful. Further one might note that ultimately we should be following the spirit. After all what was appropriate in 1835 is different from say 1943 which is different from 1980 and may well be different from today.

    I do worry we create a false dichotomy between service and proselytizing. We can do both I think.

    Cameron, I didn’t know that about service missionaries. Is that true for all service missionaries or just certain types of service? And what counts as a service mission?

  40. The First Presidency letter on this topic has indeed bothered me. I don’t think it addresses the root of the problem. Rather, it’s a bit of a band-aid solution–and, if the guidelines in the letter are truly adopted, one that carries its own set of unintended consequences.

    I do indeed see the need for consistently prepared proselytizing missionaries, a common set of criteria throughout the church. As it is now, not all wards or stakes in the church use the same criteria for recommending young men and women for missionary work. Rather, there are a host of young people who have left to serve missions without the physical, emotional, or spiritual readiness to handle the stress of a full-time proselytizing mission–let alone one involving foreign language, foods, culture, and companions. No doubt too that the age change from a few years ago has only made the problem more acute. Mission presidents (and senior companions) who should be focusing on missionary work are instead spending a good share of their time counseling, coaching, and babysitting.

    One commenter above said that 40% of missionaries in his area have come home early. I’m not surprised it’s that high in some areas. It’s a lot to expect from an 18-year old young man who’s never lived away from home.

    But here’s the thing: this isn’t a problem created by non-standard criteria or insufficient pre-mission questioning on the part of bishops and stake presidents. The cause of ill-prepared missionaries runs much deeper. The current level of ill-prepared missionaries is simply a natural consequence of 6+ decades of admonishment from the pulpit that, “Every male member of the church should serve a mission just as he should pay his tithing, just as he should attend his church meetings.” And “It’s your greatest and most important duty to preach the Gospel.” (Those are President Kimball’s words from just one example talk in 1981). Even our current Aaronic Priesthood manual disparages the reasons for not serving a mission as mere “common excuses.” And as others here have said, our Mormon culture has grabbed onto these prophetic directives and run with them combining to create tremendous pressure on young men to serve.

    This is the source of the problem. With such a heavy push for duty-bound missionary service, it’s natural for young men feel duty-bound to serve–even if they’re not fully physically, emotionally, or spiritually ready to do so. After all, they’ve been taught that missionary service is the most important thing they need to do at that age!

    My concern here with this First Presidency letter and sixteen criteria is that does absolutely nothing to address this root cause, to quell the pressure young people feel to serve a full-time proselytizing mission. In fact, it will quite likely compound the problem: it’ll add a layer of exclusivity or privilege on top of the already duty-bound need to serve. I pity the increase in young men now caught in the middle: feeling a prophetic and cultural duty to serve, but then not being allowed to do so. They’re going to feel shame and may direct that towards disaffection with the church.

  41. Pagan, I believe you’ve come closest to identifying the systemic source of the problem; the social/cultural baggage humans hearing a prophet add on thinking they are following the prophet’s counsel. For myself, this is the very reason any religion has become problematic. Humans demonstrate a tendency to co-opt the word of God for personal or group agendas instead of heeding the word of God.

    That said, I still have faith that a lot of humans, probably more than I myself would count, will make this policy change work to improve proselytizing overall and give LDS young men a better mission experience. I see myself being a resource not for young men going on missions, but for young men who don’t. The LDS church will need its older male members to step up and fill a tutelary role for young men whose work and growth in the church is still necessary, even without specific mission service in their youth.

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