It has been a tough couple of months for LDS missionaries (see here and here and here). In response, Elder Ballard met with members of the media on Friday to discuss the topic of missionary safety, as reported in an online Deseret News article Safety of Missionaries is Priority, LDS Leader Says. We all sympathize, of course, with family and friends of these (or any) missionaries who die or are injured while serving in the field. Few tragedies go deeper than the death of a loved one, whatever the circumstances. But this post is about the policy side of the issue, not the personal side. How exactly does LDS policy treat the issue of missionary safety?
Elder Ballard said, “An accident is an accident, and we have to accept it for that.” I’m not sure we really have to accept fatal accidents as inevitable. We get very upset if an executive of, for example, a mining company reacts to a workplace accident that results in the death of workers with a statement like “Accidents happen.” I would be much happier if he had said something like this: “We regard the death of any missionary as a serious issue as well as a personal tragedy. We accept responsibility for the health and safety of missionaries serving under the direction and supervision of LDS leaders, and we thoroughly investigate each and every death or serious injury. We change our procedures to whatever extent necessary to avoid similar recurrences in the future, including changing personnel where that is required to keep missionary safety our highest priority. Not all accidents are preventable, but we do everything in our power to prevent avoidable accidents.” I didn’t really sense that level of concern in the statements quoted in the article. There’s a difference, I think, between saying missionary safety is a priority and saying it is the highest priority.
Other statements in the article include: “The safest place in the world for 19-to-21-year-old men is in the service of the Lord.” That sounds like: “We don’t really have a safety issue here.” If you call a news conference to talk about missionary safety, you have a safety issue. That’s certainly evident from the spate of recent news stories on the issue.
The article mentioned the following as safety policies of the Church: (1) “A mission president and his wife are assigned to each mission to instruct missionaries how to take care of themselves and supervise their proselytizing.” (2) “In the church’s missionary training centers around the world, missionaries learn basic safety precautions, such as staying with their assigned companions at all times.” (3) “Mission presidents meet every four to six weeks with missionaries in zone conferences to discuss concerns.”
A related article appeared in the Deseret News last week, giving summarized information regarding 17 missionary deaths over the last seven years (unfortunately, it would now be up to 19). The majority of the incidents involved auto accidents, not violent crime. Interestingly, all the information was based on the Deseret News archives; no information was provided by the Church, apparently. I’m sure the Church maintains such information, which likely includes some incidents not found in the Deseret News archives.
The second article included this statement: “The Utah-based LDS Church declined, however, to comment for this story about what steps [to protect missionaries] it takes.” Elder Ballard’s statements to the media are a step in the right direction but leave some questions unanswered. It would be nice if additional information were forthcoming on this sadly relevant topic.