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?
And to compound the problem, teen age boys are shamed for masturbating and fear having sex because it will send them straight to hell. Then out of HS to a mission when they are at their sexual peak and forbidden to even be alone with a girl. All the while the girls are wanting to marry such righteous young men. Then my 20 year nephew old gets home from his mission and he is told by his stake president to "Get Married". No college, no job, no idea about life. The church truly fears these ticking time bombs will go sex crazy now they are turned loose. They have to get married to have sex. My nephew had dated one girl who waited for him to return. She was not the best match for him and his parents wanted him to go to school and date. Turns out he prayed about it and the only girl he really knew was a sister missionary he had at least talked to and felt a spiritual connection with. She is from Brazil from a family living in the jungle in a hut. They got engaged on skype and are deeply involved in getting her to the US. He wants to return to Brazil to get married in the temple to ease her green card. What can go wrong? Their first kiss my actually be over the alter in the temple. What can go wrong??
I think missionary work should be more focused on community sevice, like a full-time “Mormons Helping Hands” or Peace Corps experience. I realize that this is happening to some degree as missionaries spontaneously stop by someone’s house to rake leaves or help unload a moving van. Giving practical service would give a morale boost to the missionaries, in contrast to having door slammed in their face all day long.
My own son came home early from his mission because he couldn’t stand the pressure to baptize, baptize, baptize at whatever cost. He was disgusted that missionaries would meet people on Tuesday and baptize them on Saturday. He couldn’t believe that the mission president was fully on board with this abomination, but he was and encouraged it. I have since heard this practice was not confined to his mission but this rot is now all through out the missions. Is it any wonder that so many missionaries come home and raise the middle finger to the Church? Oh…and what happened to his mission president for promoting this crap? He got his red chair and is now a General Authority.
So I disagree with you. Our young men and women should NOT go on missions. They will be destroyed emotionally. My niece just came home early because she was emotionally distraught. I have nothing but pity for anyone foolish enough to go on a mission these days. Sin is waste. And going on a mission for the Church is a waste of young manhood and womanhood. Our leaders disgust me because of this crap.
Blind obedience is foolishness
Thank you for this real and truthful post. The only way I could agree more with your well-articulated words is if I wrote them myself. I, too, speak from experience, having sent six missionaries out from our home over 20 years. So, bless you and thank you. Again.
My 20 year old son came home recently only after 10 days in the MTC. He is outgoing, funny, and full of a desire to serve God and went on a mission completely on his own volition. He made the mistake of revealing to the Bogota MTC Pres. he had some doubts about the Plan of Salvation. To make a long story short, the MTC President managed to make him feel like he was a Satan worshiper by telling him all his doubts were coming from Satan. When the idea of coming home was expressed the Pres. told him he would feel like a failure to his family, friends and associates for the rest of his life. This brought suicidal thoughts, which scared him and he realized he needed to get out of there. We were in full support of him coming home early. (He left with that understanding, as well)
He came home with the label of mentally ill. I refused to let this “stick” and have only said to various leaders (local and headquarters) that it is the problem of the way missions are executed, not the missionaries. I think its vital we insist on this approach, it saves the mental health of our young and willing missionaries. The “mental illness” label is only a label to cover for their corrupt ways of exercising their authority. My son is doing well being it was only a short period of time. I cannot imagine the damage that could be done over a longer period of time. I’m not positive we would still have our son. I’m so grateful to have him home.
Part of the complexity is that missions and more so mission presidents vary widely. The often mentioned “Leader Roulette”, but unlike a bishop or stake president – the mission president is in control of almost every part of your life and you have to live by it 24×7. Many missionaries love every second of their mission. It seems more like a pressure cooker where the majority come out “stronger” and that drives the onward continuation of some of the practices and culture that really need to stop. Those that fail are a undesired by-product, but the majority having a positive outcome overrides any critical evaluation of the methods and practices.
And this hits home hard with me. I have a son that really dislikes the mission president. He feels he is really out of touch and just “all about the numbers.” He even was in the office for 6 months, so he knows the president. On top of that he has had to have companions that bullied and ridiculed him and some that even gave continual death threats.
I had the sweetest mission president in the world and my mission was still an absolutely brutal experience. And much of the brutality was artificial, manufactured.
Never being alone–I nearly wept with joy when, after a year in the field, I was allowed to ride up an elevator by myself.
Not consuming any media beyond the “approved” set–I not only couldn’t watch t.v., I couldn’t read, use the internet for anything except weekly email (including perfectly innocent things like finding recipes to feed myself with), or even write or daydream.
When I headed into the MTC, my father spent the drive giving me advice of things to do around Provo on P-Day. “Dad,” I said, “I can’t leave the MTC on P-Day. I get sent home if I leave it except for weekly temple sessions. I get sent home if I order a pizza and have it delivered to the MTC.”
He thought I was exaggerating. Turns out I wasn’t.
Why does my mission need to be so much stricter than my father’s? What is the benefit of total psychological isolation, beyond the short-term goal of producing unthinking and absolute obedience? Why couldn’t I have a mission I could look back on with fondness and not resentment?