Let me say at the outset: I think our young people should go on missions.
But, I also recognize that our vaunted missionary program needs help, particularly now that more and more young men are rushing directly from high school graduation to the mission field, with no opportunity to experience the joys and challenges of living away from home.
My concerns were heightened recently by the experience of my nephew, a very sensitive, spiritually pure 18-year-old, who left on his mission to Brazil a month after graduating from high school this past spring. In his mission, anyone could be baptized as long as they attended church twice and obeyed the law of chastity for at least a week. Concerns about retaining the new member after baptism were, for all practical purposes, nonexistent. During his first six months, he had not a single American companion to help him process the culture shock, not mention the social and religious shocks. Complaints about these practices and procedures fell on deaf ears or provoked raised eyebrows or dismissive “get with the program and stop rebelling” reprimands.
No surprise, his sense of isolation led to doubts about everything he’d been taught about love, charity, the spirit and prayer. Depression followed and, sadly, he became suicidal. Beaten down and discouraged, my nephew returned home -temporarily to the mental ward of a local hospital, where he is finally getting the attention he needed and deserves.
True, my nephew may have been a little more fragile and sensitive than most 18 year olds. But, he was also a textbook prospective missionary: a handsome, 6’3” son of a bishop, a standout student, a seminary grad with a profound testimony, star of the high school plays. He was eager, well prepared, dutiful, and worthy.
In hindsight, he was also more susceptible than anyone thought to stress-induced depression.
Yet, did his experience need to be so grueling and, in many ways, brutal? Our missionary age young people have grown up in a connected world, with instant and free communication. Most of them, like my nephew, have also never done anything for themselves prior to leaving on their missions. Injecting them into foreign cultures with little or no training or guidance, requiring them put in exhausting, 15-hour-days with no time allocated to personal needs and diversionary activities is a formula for trouble. Wrapping their heads around once-over-lightly teaching policies and demanding baptism quotas only exacerbates the problems. Counsel to buck-up and endure to the end no matter what is often as misguided and insensitive as it is downright dangerous. Your prospective missionary might be able to cope with it all better than my nephew did, but that doesn’t mean his or her missionary service is no less brutal and grueling.
How did we get to this point? Somehow, the missionary program of the church has taken on a life of its own. It has morphed into a uniquely Mormon mix of bootcamp and monastery, with its own set of bizarre rules and regulations, command structures and mandated deprivations. It has also become more obligation than opportunity, more a marathon test of will than a celebration of the good news.
Are we willing to explore the very real physical and mental challenges of missionary service as we currently conduct it, and the negative side effects? Why, for example, must missionaries never be allowed any time alone (not even an hour a day to exercise or walk, to listen to music, to pray, to just contemplate and reset). If you’re an introvert, this borders on sadistic. Why are our missionaries not allowed to call home, as often as weekly, for some outside-the-mission counsel and needed perspective? Can any of us imagine going off to college, or moving to a new city for a new job, and then never calling home, for two years, except on Mother’s Day? Considering global communication is totally free, what good does this isolation do? And why must a missionary workday be 15 hours of non-stop and often invented busyness? Why not more time for cultural events, physical recreation, study, rest?
And what about our mission leaders? They are most certainly good people, viewed by many as the best of the best. They are willing to serve, to be sure, and it’s hard, thankless work. They sacrifice tremendously. But, are they also equipped? Have mission leaders been trained to spot problems and head them off before they become serious? Do we call nurturing people who might innately have these skills, or, do we more often call business executives with sales and marketing backgrounds? Do we have “around the chain of command” reporting procedures in place that missionaries are encouraged to use if they feel their needs aren’t being addressed by their local leaders? More importantly, do we have adequate responses when some of our mission presidents “go rogue,” with odd incentives to baptize people after a week or two, when these same people who have no understanding of church life? It’s hard on a testimony to be told by a priesthood leader to sell the gospel like insurance.
The current practices of most LDS missions may not break your missionary like they broke my nephew. But I suspect there is a lot more cognitive dissonance and spiritual confusion pulsing through the heads of our current and returned missionaries than we think. It’s not going out on a limb to attribute at least a meaningful portion of this to how we conduct our missions.
Facing challenges is good for the soul, and griping and complaining about one’s challenges isn’t. I believe that as much as I believe anything. Moreover, I know many of our kids rise above the difficulties of our current mission system and that makes them stronger. Facing the challenges, both real and manufactured, of my own mission made me stronger. Life is full of all sorts of challenges and learning to deal with them positively and with faith is life’s central purpose. But does that mean we shouldn’t look hard at the way we’ve organized our missions and be ready to toss what is clearly broken and outdated, no matter how traditional any particular practice is? There are things about our missionary program that haven’t worked for a long time, and we should not be afraid to make the necessary changes to address them. Honorable missionary service has become a nearly indispensable credential in our church, and we ask our young people to go out at a mere 18 years old. Isn’t it more incumbent upon us than ever to be thoughtful and frank about what missions are, how we conduct them, and what what we really require from our young people during their service? Can’t we do a better job to make sure it all makes a little more sense?