Our Moribund Missionary Department?


We used to have a guy in our ward (since moved to another state), a great person, young father, taught seminary and the kids loved him. He had studied business at BYU (I think including an MBA) and he does a lot of recruiting for his employer. One time we were talking, and I asked him about what they look for in new hires, and he explained to me the process and the exercises they put potential new hires through to test their ability to think on their feet, to problem solve, to think creatively, to get things done. Although I can’t recall the details, I do recall being deeply impressed by this young man and his business and organizational acumen, and thinking that if I ran a business and needed someone like him I would have hired him on the spot. I’m sure there are lots of people in the Church like that with various educational backgrounds who have similar kinds of training and abilities.

I don’t know why, but for some reason the thought occurred to me this morning that if we could have a team of people like my friend  (young, energetic, personable, creative go-getters) be in charge and do an overhaul of our missionary efforts, I truly believe they could be a powerful force for good and greatly improve how we go about doing missionary work now. But that will never happen. Because the Missionary Department is part of Church Headquarters culture, which means it’s hierarchical, top-down, has elements of a “yes man” culture, where people are concerned more about pleasing their superiors than actually doing what needs to be done out in the field. (I have no personal knowledge whatsoever, this is just my impression from what I have seen come out of the Missionary Department, so I welcome rebuttals to this impression in the comments.)

Two years ago, our own John F. posted this fantastic set of suggestions for the missionary program. I do believe the Church has made some good faith efforts to go in this direction, but the result has been sluggish at best.I cannot help but think what a team of people like my friend could do with such a set of suggestions. They would vet them thoroughly, cast aside ideas that wouldn’t work for various reasons, improve upon the suggestions, think through the logistics of implementing them, and ultimately make a final proposal for approval. I don’t get the impression that this type of vetting of good ideas is going on, or if it is it is getting swallowed up in the bureaucracy of the Department.

Instead, we get things like posting missionaries in church buildings to give public tours. Great idea–if your building is in an urban area with significant passing foot traffic. But 99% plus of our buildings are in remote suburban locations you have to get to by car. So you’re left with bored missionaries sitting around a building doing absolutely nothing. My hypothetical team of young and sharp organizational minds would have seen this problem immediately and made adjustments to account for it.

I guess I’m just frustrated that I see so much that needs to change in order to make missionary work more effective, and so little productive change from the late Jurassic when I was a missionary myself. We still worship the almighty baptism statistic and use that as the ultimate measurement of the success of missions and missionaries, apparently without fully realizing the perverse side effects and motivations that result from such a simplistic (and I would argue misleading) metric. My hypothetical swat team of young, creative problem solvers would do something about that, I’m sure.

So what do you think? Am I being too pessimistic about what goes on in the Misisonary Department? Or are there worthwhile changes to be made that just aren’t being made due to organizational brick walls? Does anyone have any insider insight to the dynamics of the Missionary Department and why it seems so slow to make meaningful change and improvements to the missionary effort? And while we’re at it, what ideas do you have to improve the missionary effort? [1]

[1] Here’s one to get you started. Instead of having people in the Missionary Department work out of the Church Office Building, maybe have them work remotely and live in less heavily Mormon areas. In Utah these people can go all week and never interact with a non-LDS person. Away from headquarters they would actually get to know and become friends with non-LDS people, join the Rotary Club or whatever, learn to talk to them as flesh and blood people and peers, and perhaps begin to understand why their penchant for the hard sell at historic sites, for example, is counterproductive.




  1. They could start by raising the bar on missionaries themselves, instead of letting every 18-year-old Elder without a life plan start out by going into the mission.

  2. Interesting take. My father actually works in the Missionary Department and I see a lot of the characteristics you are describing among his colleagues, and even some of the ideas you have are floating around there. I think it is hard to change something as big as the missionary program, especially one that has over 150 years of experience and tradition. “Preach My Gospel”, from a perspective within the department, was a monumental paradigm shift that happened at a pace almost unheard of in any organization that size. And there are other programs being piloted, and the managers and directors do travel A LOT, mainly in the US but I know they’ve traveled through Europe and Africa. Anyways, in summary, I think if you looked inside you’d see both the things you are wishing for and the things that are holding it back.

  3. “The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart! …

  4. There are several issues in play: 1) Effectiveness, 2) Impact on Church’s reputation and 3) Impact on missionaries.

    The reputation one is often overlooked. Simply put, missionaries are a joke to most non-Mormons (The Book of Mormon musical is successful because most Americans already believe that). They intrude into people’s personal space and are pushy. Most figure out how to avoid them. They dress like an IBM salesman from the 1950s. They are neither considered professional nor admired. How do you fix those aspects?

  5. Yesterday I had a conversation with a fellow ward member about his two missionary children. He mentioned one of them having a companion who had become used to going to movies with her previous companion. I was a little surprised, although I shouldn’t have been–why would I think things had really changed all that much from when I was a missionary? Of course there would still be plenty of missionaries screwing around and wasting their time.

    Which leads me to one of the biggest changes I would love to see–a maturing of the missionary program in which it is made unequivocally clear that if you don’t have a testimony or are wasting your time for some other reason, you should grow a pair and either fix the situation or go home and do something productive with your life. Along with this goes not baptizing people who don’t already have a habit of church attendance (i.e. taking the baptismal covenant seriously), addressing uncomfortable questions from investigators directly, not bothering people who ask to be left alone, etc. In other words, just generally taking sacred covenants seriously and acting like adults.

    I do believe progress has been made, with generally more sensitive triggers to sending people home, but some of the change is illusory. For example, most of us believe that teaching under Preach my Gospel is very different from the old memorized discussions, but it really isn’t. The missionaries jump around more now from topic to topic, but there is still a set script they are delivering with scant room for discussion outside of it. Whether that is a good or bad thing, I don’t know. These kids really aren’t equipped to engage in free-ranging conversations on any topic, including the gospel. There has been some attempt at shifting to a model in which missionaries are just a teaching resource used by the ward mission program, which is really in charge of the work and providing the depth beyond the discussions, but in my observation that hasn’t really gotten off the ground. Even when the ward mission is very active, the parallel structure with the mission Pres at the top trumps any conflicting local influence. Ward initiatives are often overrun by whatever new random thing the full-time structure decides to do, and we are never informed about what is going on in that structure.

  6. Just as a counter-point to Owen above. I was in one of the test missions for Preach My Gospel before it came out and was still in the field when it officially came out. Both during the test phase and afterwards great emphasis was placed on us being empowered to come up with individualized lesson plans for the people we were teaching and to not stick strictly to the outlines in the 5 lessons. I loved it at the time.

    I don’t know if that aspect has atrophied away in the 10+ years since. We certainly never memorized or recited the opening “My Purpose” paragraph as I’ve noticed the missionaries doing the past few years, so I can easily imagine that the way they are teaching how to use Preach My Gospel has changed significantly since I was in the field.

  7. My suggestion is inertia and patience. Simply wait for some “Disruptive Innovation” to come along that demands an immediate paradigm shift because survival will depend on it. Or become irrelevant. Not that I’m a fan of false dichotomies, but economies are now moving at near light speed. Good luck.

  8. Last Lemming says:

    You could swap in the FamilySearch leadership. Not everything they try works, but they certainly have no fear of change.

  9. I know that they are testing things out in various areas. Here, we’re subject to the “North American Central Initiative”, and it’s hard to come up with a less inspiring new program. Each auxiliary organization in the ward has to come up with a list of 5 investigators, inactive members, or part-member families on whom they will focus their efforts. This takes up at least 25 minutes of each ward council meeting, with a spreadsheet to track the people on the list and the efforts made in each direction. We’re continually told how inspired the program is, but we’re not seeing any results out of it. The people the missionaries and auxiliaries put down on the list are the same people who weren’t interested 10 years ago and they aren’t interested now. The same people who were baptized as eight year olds on Grandpa’s farm back in the 60s, who now have adult children who have never been to an LDS chapel, and the same people who were baptized as teens during the Nixon administration and who now don’t consider themselves to be LDS at all and don’t even care enough to have their names removed from the records.

    Worse yet, the people responsible for implementing this initiative are the same ones who have five kids on eight sports teams, who spend weekends cleaning the church and raising money for Scout camp, and who are owners/operators of their own businesses and practices. A thirty hour per week Church calling doesn’t leave a lot of time to go visit the same lady who told the EQP last year that she works on Sunday, and nothing has changed.

    In economics, there are sunk costs. Don’t go spending more money on a bad project that has little chance of every paying off. But, because the missionary department views member time as a free, unlimited resource, they feel they can chase fruitless efforts with ever more fruitless efforts, and if they don’t pay off, it’s because those local members just don’t have the vision of Missionary Work. Well, guess what? No success in the ward mission plan can compensate for failure in the home.

  10. I served my mission from 2010 – ’12. My first mission president looooved high baptism numbers. However, my second mission president would have the office elders put together a graph every month showing two things: baptisms and confirmations. You could always tell when guys were just dunking kids because there would be a huge difference between the two. The “coverts” weren’t even showing up THE NEXT DAY for church! This second president really emphasized true conversion (with one of the metrics being lots of church attendance) before baptism. It made a big difference. We had less overall baptisms, but more actual converts. I think a bare minimum of one full month of church attendance before baptism should be required across the board.

  11. Mark Brown says:

    I have a brilliant idea! Let’s put the missionaries on Facebook!

  12. My suggestion – Close up the missionary project. I almost laughed out loud when our ward trotted out the new goals for the year. The minute the Bishop opened his mouth everyone found something else to look at. Some clever little plan was explained, a couple of people made comments. An unenthusiastic sustaining took place and we left. We will wash, rinse and repeat next year.

  13. I have a litany of problems with the missionary department that stem from watching my father crossing swords with them over clearly stupid directives and a lack of support while he was a visitor center director. Dealing with lower level administrative people who wanted to impose changes that were clearly counterproductive, that were only shut down when they were specifically reminded of their place as support and not superior. One director of a major Center even quit, returning only after intervention from far up the food chain, in absolute frustration.

    That said, I think one thing that is lost in the above discussion is that missions, while certainly desiring to bring new people into the church, are really about building the skills and testimonies of the individual missionary. Particularly today, where so many are falling away, missions are a place to give youth a place to develop. The idea of every missionary having to have a fully developed testimony prior to their mission completely misses the point that a mission is there TO develop testimonies.

    Return missionaries all have stories of apostate missionaries, but that is as much a function of mission culture and the Mission President’s involvement as it is of the missionary themselves. There are missions where that kind of behavior is rare and not accepted amongst the rank and file. They didn’t just happen to get better missionaries, they got better Mission Presidents. I also postulate there are far fewer than one might think as these are events that stick out relative to the generally hard working masses who on occasion show their immaturity and youth.

    Don’t get me wrong. There are some kids who never should have gone that did. I just think they are the exception, and a highly engaged and effective Mission President who leads with The Spirit, energy, organization, love, compassion and is completely engaged, can make all the difference in the world for all of these youth. In my experience, denial of a mission to one who wishes to go is a sentence to inactivity for the youth, and often the family.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    There are inherent limitations to using people just out of high school. Just the shift from 19 to 18 makes things even harder for the missionary department. It’s fine to imagine a system much more adaptive. However let’s be honest. Would the body of the Church be willing to dedicate the time and resources to do that? Would we be willing to go back to the model of the early 20th century and earlier when more mature people were going on missions? I can’t see it.

    Honestly the Church has been pushing every member a missionary. The fact that we the membership prefer to have young people with little experience do it instead is our problem. We can rail against the missionary program all we want. But we get this because we as a people refuse the better alternatives.

    That said, there’s also clearly bureaucratic problems as well. But again, figuring out how to change that is much harder than I think people are willing to admit.

  15. I do know that the Hill Cumorah Pageant enjoyed a period of success, increasing attendance, referrals and QUALITY of referrals every year from about 1988-97. Then Steve Allen of the Missionary Department wrested control of the Pageant and immediately began to dictate changes. They lost most of the non-Mormon audience within three years and then the LDS audience began to disappear. Attendance in 1997 (real numbers) 73,000 of which non-members made of over 35,000. Attendance over the past 5 to 10 years has struggled between 25-30,000 with only about 10% (3,000 tops) non-Mormons attending. It was changed, by Brother Allen, from a professional production to a homespun Mormon destination production. The quality plunged, the audience left. And this is what the Missionary Department did for what had been one of the best missionary tools for the Church in the North East.

  16. From my limited perspective the missionary program appears to be the unholy union between what I can “first responder pedagogy” and “eternal time share salesmanship”. An example from a far different field:

    “Much of what passes for an undergraduate education, both in the U.S. and in Europe, seems to be little more than an unwitting conspiracy between the teacher and the student to defraud whoever is paying the fees. The teacher pretends to teach, and the student pretends to learn, material that both know in their hearts is so emasculated that it cannot possibly be properly understood in the form in which it is presented. Even the weaker students grow tired of such a diet of predigested pap. They understand perfectly well that “appreciating the concepts” is getting them nowhere except nearer to a piece of paper that entitles them to write letters after their names. But MOST STUDENTS WANT MORE THAN THIS. They want to learn things PROPERLY so that they are in a position to feel that they can defend what they have been taught without having to resort to the authority of their teachers or the textbook. Of course, learning things properly can be hard work. But my experience is that students seldom protest at being worked hard provided that their program of study is organized so that they quickly see that their efforts are producing tangible dividends. HOWEVER, it is one thing to see that our system of education could be improved, but quite another to do something about it” (Fun And Games: A Text On Game Theory, Ken Binmore page xxvi)

  17. The greatest fix to the missionary program, would not be to the missionary program itself, but to the “product” they are selling.

    I recent attended an “experience” (they don’t call them services) at a super popular megachurch in town, that has several dozen “campuses” (they don’t call them churches) across the country. The experience was overwhelming, disconcerting, and impressive all at the same time. You wear t-shirts and jeans. The kids go off to various age-segregated classes during the hour-long service, complete with jupiter jumps and a rock climbing wall. There’s a snack bar where you can grab water, coffee, and snacks. The auditorium looks like a rock venue, complete with laser lights, smoke, and giant jumbotrons that flash well-done graphics. The music is rockin’ (you can grab some ear plugs on the way in), and the sermon was surprisingly really quite good. And yeah, it’s all over in an hour.

    The feeling it induces is “why not?” “Why not go to church? It’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour — get the kids off our hands for a bit and take in a show.” The people who attend are ebullient and love going to church (who wouldn’t?)

    This makes it incredibly easy to invite people to come. My sister invited me. Her husband, who I think is agnostic, happily goes and enjoys it.

    My son then invited his cousin to come to our church. My sister wasn’t so sure about coming. “It’s 3 hours? You have to dress up and will stick out if you don’t? The kids are with you during the service? You sing hymns and sit in class? Well…maybe. Oh, it’s from 1-4? Well, sorry that ‘s right during his nap time, so we won’t be able to come.”

    I certainly don’t think we need to become just like the megachurches. Their way of doing things makes sense with their view of salvation — you just have to accept Christ once and you’re saved. Thus anything you can do to get people in the doors and making that decision can be justified (The motto of the church I went to is “We will do anything, short of sin, to bring people to Christ.”)

    In our view of salvation as a transformative, unending process, the easy, consumeristic bent of the megachurch would never do. But, we have to realize what we’re competing against these days. 50 years ago, the church experience of other denominations was not wildly different from our own — pews and hymns and whatnot. Now the gap is positively yawning. We have not really made any fundamental changes to our services (rather than consolidating them) in, what, a century?

    Our services then are truly one of the most enormous stumbling blocks to missionary work. Even the most faithful members I know really don’t like coming. How many members do you know who love going to church? Love it so much they want to ask everyone to come with them?

    I don’t know any. In the ten years I’ve been in my current ward, I can count on my hand the number of times someone has invited a non-member to come to church with them. I know I can’t imagine asking non-members if they’d like to come with me.

    (Very!) long story short, the biggest stumbling block to missionary work in my opinion is our services. If people enjoyed coming to church, they’d be more apt to share the gospel with their friends, and missionaries would have plenty of referrals to teach and things to do.

  18. “My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. Scully flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings.”

    “It’s easy to throw stones at Microsoft. They’ve clearly fallen from their dominance. They’ve become mostly irrelevant. And yet I appreciate what they did and how hard it was. They were very good at the business side of things. They were never as ambitious product wise as they should have been. Bill likes to portray himself as a man of the product, but he’s really not. He’s a businessperson. Winning business was more important than making great products. He ended up the wealthiest guy around, and if that was his goal, then he achieved it. But it’s never been my goal, and I wonder, in the end, if it was his goal. ”

    “I have my own theory about why decline happens at companies like IBM or Microsoft. The company does a great job, innovates, and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company. John Akers at IBM was a smart, eloquent, fantastic salesperson, but he didn’t know anything about product. The same thing happened at Xerox. When the sales guys run the company the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off. It happened at Apple when Scully came in and it happened when Ballmer took over at Microsoft. ”

    “I hate it when people call themselves “entrepreneurs” when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That’s how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. ”

    Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson page 567

  19. The product my dear friends of any religion and especially ours is people. And not just any kind of people, but dieties in embryo. Figure out what you want those people to look like first, then everything else follows.

  20. I think members–being themselves–can be the best missionaries. I’ve never been a fan of forced, awkward gospel conversations or the practice of befriending people primarily for the purpose of evangelizing them. I hate the “set a date” program (every year or so a set of missionaries proposes this as though it’s a new idea) and I don’t like cheesy passive-aggressive methods, either.

    But when my friends and coworkers have questions, I’m happy to have a conversatio. Unfortunately, lately those questions have been along the lines of, “I read in the NYT that your church is banning kids of gay couples. What’s that about?” Let’s just say I don’t expect major results from our missionary program anytime soon.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    natedub9, thanks, I was hoping for a bit of insider perspective. I know for a fact that they’re trying to implement at least some of the suggestions that have been widely made, including particularly emphasizing more service, but the rollout has been very slow and haphazard, which is perhaps unavoidable in any bureaucracy as large as that one.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Steve, I appreciate you highlighting reputation. I don’t think our leaders clearly grasp how our missionaries on the street are perceived; the 1950’s IBM uniform does not convey the sense of professionalism in 2016 that I imagine they’re going for (especially when it’s coupled with shot sleeved shirts, too short ties, and a backpack.) I really like John F.’s suggestion of polos and khakis. Further, I dont think the Church quite appreciates how much goodwill is lost by the continued insistence on tracting. The other night at about 9:00 p.m. someone knocked on our door, and my wife was pretty freaked out about it. It turns out it was a guy pushing a candidate for state senate, but we ddin’t appreciate a stranger knockiing on our door late at night, and that is just how people feel about those weird Mormon missionaries. Goodwill may be an intangible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important and valuable to an organization, and tracting is a continual goodwill drain.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Owen, I agree it would be a good thing if we could take our foot off the gas of the cultural pressure we place on our children to go on missions. A big part of the reason I went was I was convinced that no LDS girl would ever marry me if I didn’t. Looking back on it that seems like a ridiculous assumption, but that was part of the culture and I had internalized it.

    And I agree that ideally missionaries should have the capacity to hold wide ranging conversations about the Church, but that’s an awful lot to ask of your average 18 or 19-year old. When I got into the field and quickly realized I simply didn’t know enough about the Church to talk about it with people outside the four walls of the discussions, that was when I became motivated to learn more so I might have a fighting chance of actually answering people’s questions.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Jeff, I kind of like your disruptive innovation idea.At some point the Church may be forced to make substantive changes, ready or not.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    Michael, that’s a great example. We’ve all experienced the kind of program you describe (each auxiliary come up with a list of five people to work on, spreadsheets and reporting, etc.). Yet any Mormon with any experience knows that that won’t work and also knows exactly why it won’t work, as you explain. But we keep doing it anyway. Because we feel we have to do SOMETHING. And I like your observation that we can only get away with keeping up with failed ideas like that because the Church views the members’ time as an inexhaustible, free resource. Which is really unfair to the members.

  26. Jared vdH says:

    I’ll have to disagree on the polos and khakis. Then the missionaries will just look like ISP installers or delivery people, or worse, frat boys. Missionary dress standards could stand to be modernized a bit, but please, not polos and khakis.

  27. Like Jared earlier in the thread, I served in a mission that tested out early versions of Preach My Gospel, and we were trained the same as he described it: we were supposed to individualize lessons and use Preach My Gospel as inspiration and instruction, but NOT as a series of lessons that must be taught verbatim and in order. This was a fun challenge, especially in a second language, and while we didn’t see any more baptisms than usual (I served in a part of Japan where baptisms were few and far between), we did feel like we were able to pay better attention to our investigators’ unique questions and concerns. By the time I returned home, Preach My Gospel was ubiquitous throughout the church, and I remember being surprised by how quickly it had become new dogma that everyone (missionary or not) were to study daily and never stray from.

    Our mission also tried out the new missionary schedule which included study time basically until lunch. The idea was that if we hit the streets at 9am, we would never become better missionaries because there was no time to study the gospel or our language. The result, from my experience, was an interesting blend of sacred study time (I truly loved learning the language and reading the scriptures) and incredible GUILT about not leaving the house until after lunch. The members saw our work as lazy—they didn’t understand the new schedule and often suggested we ignore it and hit the streets. There was a lot of pressure. In retrospect, I also wish that the missionary library had been more open to other texts and books. The missionary library alone did not really prepare me to answer my investigators’ (and my own) questions honestly, something I did not realize until years after I returned.

    I guess changing the missionary program is hard in a church that takes things so dogmatically. You can’t experiment or test things out without people thinking that this is the new thing that can never be questioned. Or, worse yet, you have to deal with people holding on to past regimens that they still think can never be questioned. When the new missionary age was declared to be 18 for boys, it was heavily stressed that you didn’t HAVE to leave that early. My take on what I see around me is that it has already become pretty taboo to not leave right at 18. We are a peculiar people. We like being told what to do, because this keeps us from deciding what is right for our unique and individual situations, regions, and personalities.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Daniel, the Church isn’t stupid, it has got to KNOW that relying on baptism statistics alone is deeply problematic. Those statistics can be gamed and they do not in and of themselves represent a new committed member of the Church. When the missionaries baptize someone who never comes to Church again, the missionary and the mission get a notch on their belts, but the wards and stakes are left to hold the bag. Having to try to minister to someone who doesn’t self-identify as Mormon and wants to be left alone in my view represents a substantial weakiening of the Church, not a strengthening. And I’m sure the Church knows all this, but they still judge missions by baptixm numbers, Which to me seems crazy.

  29. Kevin Barney says:

    Mary Brown, great example. The Facebook idea reflected a lack of understanding of how Facebook works. I would get friend requests from missionaries, and I never accepted any of them. I don’t do Church stuff on my wall, and the last thing I need is some random kid from Paysom spamming my wall with Church come ons.

  30. reaneypark says:

    I’m convinced that providing meaningful service to the communities they are called to will do a world of good. It worked for Ammon.

  31. Kevin Barney says:

    wonko6x9, yes, as important as convert baptisms are, an even more important purpose of a mission is the conversion of the elder or sister him or herself. And I think we tend to forget that and do a poor job of it. On my mission I had several companions who were so racked by guilt over trifling rules that it was debilitating for them. I’d like to see us treat missions as more of an invesement in the missionaries themselves.

  32. Kevin Barney says:

    Jerry, the Hill Cumorah Pageant is a great example; I’ve heard about that as well. Thanks for mentioning it. Historic sites in general have had problems from attempts to leverage them for missionary work in ways that are guaranteed to be a turn-off to non-LDS visitors. It’s like whoever comes up with these bright ideas doesn’t actually have any non-LDS friends or something.

  33. I think the problems with the missionary program (and a number of programs in the church) is an inability to accept that people and cultures change in completely acceptable ways, and that things need to be tailored to fit those changes. Obviously, the missionary dress code has been horribly inappropriate for many years now. It was relaxed a few years ago, but is still a bit too formal for most contexts

    Now, there is NOTHING sacred about dress code – it is 100% cultural. As such, it needs to be adapted to cultural changes. Is it? Of course not.

    I think the same thing is true with so many parts of the missionary program. Tracting is a relic from a bygone era – not only is it now viewed as creepier than it once was, it is also fairly useless, as people aren’t in their homes as much as they used to be.

    Not only does the church need a team of good business leaders (which they may have, although from what I know of working at Church headquarters, that seems unlikely), but they probably need a team of anthropologists to inform necessary cultural adjustments. Unfortunately, there are way to many sacred cows in the missionary program for ever evolve well.

  34. I think we just don’t know enough about the missionary department and its procedures to say all that many sensible things about how it works and what the people running it are like. Pretty much everything we say here is going to be based on anecdotal observation and conjecture (with a
    high risk of being dumb).

  35. As I am recovering from an afternoon Stake Mission Correlation meeting, this may or may not be good timing to comment. Anyways…Our stake shares two companionships between our 12 wards. As such, a high councilor has been assigned to oversee the work. This high councilor is a previous mission president. As such, much of his guidance and stake metrics he pushes are informed from his work done in 2006-2009 when PMG was just released.

    Now 7 years later, his guidance is found inapplicable, and contradictory to the guidance our mission president has given. I continue to hope mission presidents are given complete freedom, to develop proselytizing and community programs as they see fit. Which is great. If not, that needs to happen. This would happen much more if we kicked the door-to-door mentality to the curb. The high councilor has effectively pushed us back 10 year because he is out of touch with social realities and major missionary program changes.

    There’s a way to go in the evolution of our missionary program. I ideally see our chapels turning into community and homeless centers, overseen by missionaries. Yes, they still proselyte. All of their proselytizing is done through social media and community programs. IE community gardens, soup kitchens, service centers, pick-up games, genealogy centers, places to go on walks in the winter, music concerts, language classes. Heaven forbid we actually provide a sanctuary to the public.

    If we are really interested in opening our doors and hearts to our neighbors, we should actually open up our doors. And we’ve got a ton of people to do it.

  36. pconnornc says:

    Kevin – I’m all for the idea of innovation/improvement in the missionary dept. The church does move very slowly, but in the past 30 years (dating myself!) there have been significant changes (very memorized to theme based discussions, use of media, more focus on service, integration of missionaries into ward councils, raising the bar, lowering the age for women, proselyting on social media). I would love to see a more systematic integration w/ the HT/VT ministering in the wards, even more “service”, increased focus on “life plans”/preparedness and better balancing of missionaries to where the work is.

    For those who say to most non-Mormon’s that missionaries are a joke, I see just the opposite. I’m a small sample size, but having had 2 kids serve, the response from co-workers, neighbors and their friends parents has been overwhelmingly positive. They praise the experience, service and growth.

    Those who think the discussions are still based on memorized scripts, we’ve had 8 different families/individuals in our home over the past 4 years for multiple discussions and even the weakest did not fall into the memorized discussion category. In fact most have been very sincere, quick on their feet and personal in their teaching.

    Lastly, it was funny to hear the experience in someone’s recent ward council re: missionary goals. We had just the opposite discussion yesterday as we dove into what would make up a number and what kind of proselyting and ministering would need to occur.

    Not refuting the need to improve, but Kevin asked “So what do you think?” ;-)

  37. At the end of October on Trippswag dot com, there appeared an article entitled “Summer Sellouts – Exposing The Vivint Culture” (link no longer active, but probably accessible by way back machines). Details may very well have been dubious, wrong, or flat out fabricated, but the point is this: Vivint clearly has a PR problem with their sales techniques. And they do dress in khaki shorts and polo shirts. I’m guessing the missionary department would like to avoid this kind of public images, but given their training techniques, it appears it really is the desired end result. And that’s a problem.

  38. Kevin Barney says:

    Katie M., great point about the “product” we are selling. Willow Creek is in my ward boundaries, and I’ve attended several times, so I know exactly what you mean. We love our lay ministry (and being Mormon I love it as well). But whenever I go to another church, I’m reminded of what a difference it is to hear a sermon from a professional minister. On some level we’ll never be able to compete experientially.

  39. The missionary program as it is seems to be struggling with two goals that are, at times, conflicting. First to bring others to the gospel, and the other to act as a rite of passage for young people. If we could separate these goals we could make real progress. For example, send young people on service missions, in parts of the world that really need it. That would not only help people temporally all over the world, it would also teach valuable life skills to the missionaries. With an emphasis on relying on God during their missions, it would be a faith building time too.

    For bringing people to the Gospel, center work on contacting people the way most organizations do, make the product (church services) so good that members don’t mind talking about it, and spend money on advertising. A much smaller contingent of missionaries could be used to teach lessons help the transition to church membership.

  40. Kevin Barney says:

    Bonjo, I agree that members just being themslves and interacting with friends and neighbors naturally (withot forcing anything) is the most likely to stir some kind of a potentially interested respose.

  41. A Happy Hubby says:

    Interesting topic. I served my mission decades ago in the US and I enjoyed it, but the vast majority of the time felt like a waste of time and that I was bothering people all day long. Alll we did was tract. I did a rough calculation and figured that I probably knocked for >3,000 hours.

    Looking back I think we could have been more effective if we were allowed to have the ward find us service projects for us to perform for easily half that time. I would have felt better and the reputation of the church would be better (missionaries seen as people willing to help, not just pests).

    I saw not too long ago that the Pew research poll that is done once a decade showed for the first time that the % of US population identifying as being Mormon was down. It was very small and within the margin of error, but I can’t believe that in another 8 or 9 years that this is going to be the first undeniable decrease. The “surge” of missionaries didn’t hardly change the convert rate.

    Something has to be done, but like you say – it seems that the church is very “corporatized” and very much against any feedback from below with the mistaken belief that this is counter to priesthood authority. I am so tired of corporate America that I have to deal with all my working days and then to come home and go to many meetings that feel so limited due to church governance it makes me want to go look for some type of volunteer organization that can feel like I am helping someone with my time and effort.

    I feel for my kids that are on missions now. I see them struggling not just with language and bad companions (and boy – the bar has not been lifted world-wide and many places seem to still have “he is not doing too well, but if we can JUST get him on a mission that will fix everything). I see them getting bits and pieces of the story on the policy change and being very confused on, “Did that REALLY get said by one of the apostles? REALLY? That makes no sense!!”

  42. Kevin Barney says:

    Jared vdH, what would you suggest for missionary dress? Maybe allow colored shirts and going jacketless? The current dress code does not convey the professional respect the Church imagines it does.

  43. Jared vdH says:

    Button-down shirts of pretty much any color and slacks without coats or ties would be my initial instinct.

  44. I agree with much that has been said here. My ward in the UK was apparently a while back the highest baptising ward in the area but most of those baptised have disappeared. Some are still around but having investigators attend church for a few Sunday’s before baptism would be good-shows commitment but also allows time for investigators to understand what they are committing too.
    I remember my mission from almost 30 years ago well and being troubled the whole time with the obsession with baptism figures and targets. Even now I struggle with much at church seeming to be corporate like rather than church like and target driven reminds me too much of my job……but that is for another discussion.

  45. Kevin Barney says:

    Kristine, fair enough, let’s just say the Missionary Department is a black box that we cannot meaningfully comment on, and take that out of the equation. But we can comment on the missionary programs and procedures that come down the pike and are instituted in our wards and stakes. Maybe they don’t come from the Missionary Department at all, maybe they derive from a particular mission or even one’s local missionaries. But whatever the source, when such programs (invariably touted as being “inspired”) are themselves dumb, I think that is a judgment and verdict we can render, even if we don’t know the ultimate source for the program. I’ve seen dozens of such programs breathlessly touted over the years, and it amazes me that no one up the chain had the capacity to see that such programs were going to be unworkable for a variety of reasons.

  46. Kevin Barney says:

    pronnornc, I did indeed want to know what people think, so thank you for contributing to the discussion. I do appreciate it.

  47. Kevin Barney says:

    Jared vdH, your dress code suggestion works for me. I think that would be a great improvement.

  48. Interesting discussion. One thing I would like to add is that I have a deep-seated concern about using any more corporate logic to run the church than we already do. As recent management professor and now start up person my first instinct is to use those ideas, skills and techniques to address the Church’s missionary problem, as well. But…it also makes me uncomfortable. So much of the church seems predicated these days on basic management theory. Sometimes it is a warped version that seem stuck in 1950 but it is still approaching the church from that perspective. What if in general our church looked and ran more like….well…a church…than some franchise chain. Honestly, I am not even sure I can imagine what that would look like so steeped am I in both Mormon ways of doing things and the corporo-american business tradition it clearly comes out of. I feel a deep ambivalence about this.

    My understanding of the church bureaucracy is that you do have lots of young, innovative, professional thinker types. Where it all breaks down is when you hit the GA (70 and above level). They are risk averse, not very diverse and it all comes down to whether you can present your idea in a way that they will like and that they in turn don’t feel will get shut down by the upper hierarchy. I am a bit tired of the “blame the top” rhetoric we in the bloggernacle tend to default to, but honestly in this case I think it may just true. There are lots of struggles right now due to just the number of the top leadership that can function full tilt and its about all they can do to keep things chugging along. At the local level we have all been either slapped down enough times or the “everything must come from the leadership, just run the programs” mentality is so deeply embedded that bottom up innovation is just not viable without being able to do it in secret.

    Other commenters have hit on a lot of the other things in play here. Right now I think it is fair to say that the primary purpose of the missionary program is to try and hold on to the youth of the church. Get them transitioned to young adulthood and married because that demographic is the one historically that isn’t leaving. They are counting on the mission experience to do the conversion. We are also limiting our appeal in many areas and will continue to even more so with all the negative press and reputation we are receiving as well as how we have dealt with truth claims and history issues (we are beginning to address this in a better way). This is also depressing members willingness to put themselves out there (well at least the feckless, timid and worldly ones of us who care about not looking like we dislike gay people or aren’t trying to hide sexist attitudes). Add all this to the overall drag of secularization and we are entering a very difficult area for missionary work and we are doing so with our least qualified and credible mission force. Oh and our church meetings….I had a few years with awesome SS teachers and EQ teachers. Those were quite good but that was because we refused to use the church curriculum (basically) and simply created our own from the ground up (while hiding it from the stake). I think our youth activity programming is often good though in many wards.

    I have no solution I trust. This seems like a big hill to climb. I hope we can do it.

  49. FWIW, the mission department recently reached out to one of the nation’s top consulting firms to get ideas on how to improve the effectiveness of the missionary program (They see the same numbers as the public, namely more missionaries and the same level of convert baptisms). I don’t know if any of the suggested changes were really that good, or if they will be implemented, but at the very least there is an attempt at expanding the pool of ideas beyond the walls of church hq.

  50. When I talk with the young men in my ward I stress that the reason for a mission is to teach the gospel, bring people to Christ, serve, that kind of stuff. The personal development of the missionary is a happy by-product, but when that becomes the focus for their preparation, they are going for the wrong reason. I cringe when a visitor comes to the ward or stake and tells the youth all the wonderful things a mission will do for them and omits anything related to the people they will meet.
    I agree with Scott that the two goals of service and personal growth are often in conflict, because we emphasize the second goal (get those boys invested before they go inactive) at the expense of the first. Not many 18-year olds recognize that their spiritual growth is dependent on working towards that first goal. Separating the proselyting from temporal service is wonderful idea. A young man or woman can develop maturity working to help others. They can see the tangible results of their labors and get outside of their own selfish interests. After, when they have that maturity, they can teach strangers about Jesus.
    Otherwise, we are just putting more salesmen in the field with little understanding or appreciation for the product they are selling. I don’t think Jesus was a salesman. I think he was a teacher.

  51. As someone who took the missionary discussions when I was around the same age as the elders themselves, I actually really endorse the suit and tie get-up. I don’t think we can underestimate the effect the suit has in making them seem older, more mature, and giving them a mantle of authority–making them seem more like they might legitimately be emissaries with a special message rather than awkward adolescents fresh from high school. I think the oddness sets them apart in a good way, and that the psychological effect probably works the other way too — they feel more different and mature when they put on the “uniform.” A polo and khakis would make them seem like Best Buy employees or pest control salesmen. Dress shirts and slacks might be a little better but lack the same grativas.

    As folks mentioned in John F.’s post that is linked to, the JustServe program that’s slowly being rolled out holds a lot of potential for having the missionaries do more community service, which I agree would be hugely positively. The idea really sounds great, though like all things, the implementation is going slow. My husband and I are in charge of rolling it out in our stake, and so far it’s taken a month to get us administrative access. The lumbering bureaucracy rolls on…

  52. Clark Goble says:

    Katie M (12:37) I think there’s a lot of truth in what you say. On the other hand a big problem with megachurches and that style of evangelicalism is a very superficial connection to the gospel. (Something my Evangelical friends are quite willing to be upfront about) I’m not saying our services aren’t a problem. They really are and it’s much harder to maintain interest particularly with the young. But when church becomes judged in terms of entertainment then something is fundamentally lost.

    Kevin (1:09) Why is the bureaucracy so large? I guess that is what confuses me somewhat. It’s not at all clear to me that there has to be so much “management” beyond the Mission Presidents and Area Presidents.

    Kevin (1:16) I think there are some generational gaps here. What worked in the 70’s or 80’s is viewed quite differently today. That said, typically missionaries tract because they don’t have anything else to do. And no matter how bad it is, you do find people that way. Most of my baptisms (many of whom are still active) came that way. So it’s inefficient and sometimes counterproductive but is often still better than the alternatives offered to the missionaries. Of course the real alternatives are members sharing the gospel more but few want to do that.

    Kevin (1:26) At the rate society is changing I think the Church will make structural changes. They’ve certainly done it in the past. I’m not that old, yet I remember Sunday School and Priesthood early on Sunday morning with Sacrament meeting late at 6:00 PM. Very difficult when the church was a long drive across a bridge. Change does happen.

    We should also note that while we are struggling in some ways, we’re still dong quite well compared to most religions. Part of the problem is that while most of us know things need to change exactly how to change it isn’t always clear. (Even people with strong opinions on things like many of us here have to acknowledge there are downsides with our views)

    Kevin (1:37) the issue of numbers is a difficult one in general as we’ve seen in recent years with attempts to figure out how to improve education or health care by measuring success. The problem always is that without some number it’s pretty difficult to argue for people to change. You need some criteria to judge success. Again I can see the problem, but the alternatives are not at all clear.

    Mike (1:54) The problem with giving Mission Presidents complete freedom is it works great for great Mission Presidents. Sadly most aren’t like that. Left to their own devices we’d have even more problems than now. Being a Mission President is really unlike most corporate management jobs and certainly unlike being a Bishop or Stake President. Some people seem natural at it. Others struggle in many ways.

    Happy Hubby (2:14) The Pew data on Mormon self-identification (which for various reasons I distrust somewhat – they have ridiculously high rates of meeting attendance, tithe paying and more) has us being fairly consistent. I did a recent writeup on the latest data a week ago. The ARIS data is almost certainly better. It has us at a slightly lower rate than Pew (1.4% vs. 1.6%) but also has us being fairly consistent other than a dip at the end of the 90’s most likely due to a high rate of immigration into the US.

  53. Clark Goble says:

    To add to my comments, I think we are actually all things considered doing quite well in the US. Especially considering the rate of growth of the Nones (people who don’t want formal religion). To my maybe somewhat ignorant eyes, the real problem is in the international church. For instance Evangelicals seem to be growing at a fast rate in Asia while we are doing quite poor.

    While it’s fair to criticize US missionary work, we also have to be upfront that people might just not want the gospel. And even those who might be accepting probably aren’t going to be interested by contacts with strangers. There’s no getting around that there may be a natural maximum in our society for convert baptism. Merely sending more missionaries or even making them better prepared may well not be able to improve those numbers.

  54. Martin James says:

    Here are a few points to add to the conversation. The core to the issue to me is that the church is a “bundle” that goes up against a variety of other options. Furthermore that “bundle” is tied to a lot of legacy features and slow to adapt. But this has upsides as well as downsides. As Clark points out, it is something that only a small minority of people are interested in. I think once there is a recognition that almost everyone isn’t interested, then the approach to use and what “success” is looks different. To use the business language of choice Elder Nelson made the “pivot” speech when he said being LDS is going to be less popular. Approaches that are based on making the church more attractive and popular are not going to work because they aren’t consistent with the direction of the church.
    The people who are going to feel this change the strongest are those that are doing well in the world that requires a certain tolerant blandness in business matters. Being hated is not usually good for business but the prophet just told us that hate is coming our way. If you are uncomfortable saying in a public setting that the forces of Satan are everywhere and attacking our church, the church is going to be a more and more uncomfortable place to be.
    So, back to the bundle. Off the the top of my head, I would say that the bundle consists of a faith, an identity and a set of practices.
    Most of the comments here are focusing either on the practices (from the innovators or the obedience people) or on the faith (from the “it’s all about Jesus” people) perspective. But I think the identity perspective is one that can’t be ignored. To become a mormon is to become part of community that sees itself as being a chosen people with a particular history and a particular Millenial vision. Again, Elder Nelson went right at this. We are God’s people in the Latter Days and Satan is out to get us and you are either for us or you are against God’s work.
    The inherent conflict is that we have a 1950’s corporate culture leading an anti-establishment apocalyptic community movement. That is the brand that we are going back to in my opinion even if is shrinks the church to a small core of the devout because that is what the church is.
    That group has a clear purpose. There will be change but the church can’t be all things to all people. There is plenty of room for service and for new uniforms and for new services, but there is not much room for being popular and attractive. This will be missionary work for the needle in the haystack that is looking for a faith and a people and a set of strict practices.
    As some have pointed out, people in Utah are under the delusion that the rest of the world is just like Utah and that this is “normal”. It is not normal and won’t be normal for a very, very long time.
    it is just fundamental to Mormonism that is based on a vision of the destruction of the world and the salvation of the few that are persecuted. Institutionally and as a people this will be very, very painful as we see every day and every week at church.

  55. Martin, what happens when the end of the world does not occur? Early saints thought it was imminent in the 19th century. I was growing up in the last century when everyone thought that the Cold War would turn into a hot war at any time. Who can forget the year 2000 or 2012? Maybe it is time to dump that whole bit.

  56. Martin

    I really, really hope that is not where the church is going. Part of this is selfish. I personally have no spiritual resonance with “the end is nigh” “small persecuted band of awesomes” gospel. I get that others may find this appealing and it can resonate with them spiritually. Its just not me. The Mormonism that speaks to me is the optimistic, more universalist mormonism where God is trying to help all his children, where we all get a a chance to grow toward something amazing and teaching a set of eternal, cosmic principles that help along the way. You don’t need any of that for “we are special, hunker down against the evil world” versions. That all feels like what I associate with those Bible thumping, hell-preaching evangelicals. Again that is just me but also a lot of other Mormons I know. I agree Nelson absolutely hit all those notes. I think you are right that such a focus will inevitably create a shrinking church number wise. It will also ultimately shoulder me out and is. It doesn’t feel true and seems to be replay of early Mormonism where they were all completely certain Christ was coming to smite the evil US and they were going to see the end of days. How long can a religion live hunkered down in imminent anticipation and fear? It doesn’t feel spiritually sustainable to me personally or as an institution. I think from a missionary perspective “the Good News” beats the “the Scary News” all day long.

  57. Gilgamesh says:

    My two cents – one area that has made things more difficult is the removal of the activities committee. Without an actual calling, most wards in my stake have maybe one or two activities a year. If the sociality we have on earth is the same in the next life, I will rarely spend time with any members except for three hours a week. We are social beings and the church can make up for boring meetings by encouraging more social gatherings during the week. Have a monthly ward activity and cancel all other meetings (RS, YM/YW and presidency) and habe fun together. Then members will have something to invite their friends to.

    Also, we really need to embrace our unique doctrines more. We present ourselves as just a little different than your Christian neighbor. We believe we can become gods and create along side our own Father in Heaven. We believe in a Mother in Heaven. Those are cool and muted in all of our official promotional materials.

  58. I would scream this from the top of the COB, but those floors reserved for security take the screaming “seriously” in the wrong way, and by that I mean “seriously escorted out of the building and asked not to return”. Or so I’ve been told. More than once.

    The product is people. The missionary program is the gathering of raw materials to make the people. The church programs are those tools used to shape the people. Decide what kind of people you want first, THEN fix everything else. And seriously, no secret meetings of sociologists trying to cobble together their version of a peculiar people.

    Otherwise you wind up with one of these projects and it’s too late. Everyone else will fly circles around you.


  59. whizzbang says:

    In this Canadian mission they recently upped their standards. Now, every companionship has to have 2 baptismal commits at all times. That’s one thing if you are in the cities but small areas like Swift Current, Sask or Selkirk, MB? and they eliminated to a large extent p-day activities with elders and sisters and lunches and things. What do they think will happen? the missionaries having sex with other at the Church? The local stake here the High Councilor over Missionary work and has been so for at least 3 years attends the Catholic Church and couldn’t care less about the Church and the missionaries. He yells at them, hangs up on them among other things. Their are 6 wards in the city with 5 of them have a WML. All but one of them are joke. The leadership needs to change and revamp the whole thing, just get rid of all of them, the High Councilor guy can go to his church. It seems the missionaries have lost confidence in the local leaders and I feel for them, I really do. It seems the WML’s just don’t care about their calling and it sucks for the missionaries asking for help and not getting it.

  60. Kevin Barney says:

    Gilgamesh, I agree on both counts. The dearth of social activities is a real problem. And if we’re just like every other Christian Church, then what’s the motivation for people to join?

  61. Kevin Barney says:

    whizzbang, I hate the whole concept of baptismal goals. Since people have their free agency, such a goal is not within your control. That to me is something the Church should do away with across the board. (Also, such goals lead to the phenomenon of competitive public goal setting at zone conferences. Ugh.)

  62. Brother Sky says:

    I think I’m with Rah on this. The part of our rhetoric that talks about how awesomely “peculiar” we are and how we’re some sort of valiant, persecuted minority holding on to both the “original” version of Christ’s church and the last shreds of religious freedom is a much more politicized (and not terribly resonant) version of the gospel. The difficulty, of course, is that in order to both survive and “sell” itself, every organization must distinguish itself from other, similar (competing) organizations. I think that approach to talking about ourselves and selling ourselves tends to fall flat. Far better, I think, if we spoke to people about community, commonalities, the bible instead of the B of M so much, etc. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

  63. Martin James says:

    Steve, I don’t think you can dump the whole bit and have a church left. It is like thinking a new paint job will make a car better. If it is not the Latter Days, then the church should disband not reform.

    Rah, I don’t think the two are incompatible completely, it is just that the best news only applies to those that accept the ordinances. Nelson’s version was hardly doom and gloom it was triumphalist.

    Bro. Sky, better to fall flat at what it is than to try to become something it isn’t. What I think has fallen flat has been the attempts to make things “spiritual” in a way that reduced the uniqueness of the Mormon theology and identity. As one church among many it doesn’t make sense. It only makes sense given its high commitment if it is the one true church. If it is not then it should die and die quickly as a fraud. There is not a middle way.

  64. I read your link to improving missionary service, one comment. I believe that missionaries stop at 9:00pm because that’s pretty much the cut-off by law for most soliciting, even telemarketers are not allowed to call after 9:00pm. You knock on my door at 9:45pm set my dogs off, wake my grade school age children and obliterate my kids sleep you will be on my list of “groups I will never ever say anything nice about for at least the next 15 years”. 9:00pm is bad enough but 10 and your name is mud, I will trumpet how inconsiderate and abusive this is. Not only that but I would spend what ever time I had to, to make sure that my community created laws to stop this crap.

  65. John Mansfield says:

    The president of the Washington D.C. Mission and his family reside in my ward. Usually we don’t see much of a mission president and his wife, but the current pair, who have been here two and half years, have children in the home, so they have been part of the ward and the community. Nine days ago, the president’s wife and I were timing at a high school swim meet, and I brought up something that caused her to remark that the Missionary Department is the best bureaucracy a person could ever wish to work with, full of people who care about their jobs, with vast collective experience, prepared for everything that comes up, and very responsive. Her husband was an army general and the Democratic candidate for Utah governor, and she had been Assistant U.S. Attorney in Utah, had served on the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, and was Director of the Utah State Sentencing Commission, so she’s seen and worked with more than a few bureaucracies. Perhaps the Missionary Department is short on blogger wisdom, but it is not moribund.

    What I brought up, that turned the mission president’s wife’s mind to what a wonderful bureaucracy the Missionary Department is, was my wife’s uncle’s recent assignment. Lewis had been serving as an LDS missionary in Saigon, nine months into it when the mission president directed him and the other eight missionaries to leave in April 1975. Over the past twenty-five years he has returned to Vietnam several times in his role as a medical doctor to spend weeks at a time teaching doctors and nurses there. A side benefit of that humanitarian work was keeping the LDS church up-to-date on conditions in the country. He and his wife have been in Vietnam since May, called by the LDS church as co-directors of the LDS Charities Office of Welfare and Humanitarian Services in Hanoi. Earlier this month the LDS church announced creation of the Vietnam Hanoi Mission.

  66. I am the bishop of a ward on the U.S. East Coast. We have 341 members with average sacrament attendance of 160. Home teaching averages 40%, which is high for our stake. We are scattered over 30 municipalities, 7 regional high schools, 400+ square miles, and a population of 140,000 neighbors (about the size and population of Utah’s Cache Valley). We baptize 4-7 people a year. Retention is better than 75%. But we are stuck, the surge didn’t do anything for us. We’ve gone from having a senior missionary couple, two sets of elders, and a set of sisters down to now just a trio of sisters. The sisters have a teaching pool of maybe 3 people and maybe 1 progressing investigator.

    We have a great mission president and a stake president who is extremely missionary minded. I was the ward mission leader before being put in as bishop 2.5 years ago, so it is a big focus of mine as well. We have a lot of freedom to innovate. I don’t see the missionary department as driving most of our innovation or limitations here, it seems to mostly be on us in the ward (and to some degree the stake and mission).

    So what will work here? What’s holding us back?

    A couple observations. Ward activities–when I moved into the ward there were a handful of ward activities a year. As ward mission leader I proposed that we have monthly activities–mostly dinners, but also holiday parties and service projects. We’ve had some great activities, with lots of part member family and inactive members participating–a few people have come back to church regularly from this, but I can’t point to them having brought anyone new in to the church. So activities the relationship between activities and reactivation and bringing in investigators is not clear. At least there isn’t an automatic correlation.

    Service–the mission and our ward is trying to do more service in our communities. The JustServe.org program is rolling out here, but slowly. Ideally our missionaries would spend several hours a day at regularly scheduled service opportunities in various communities in our ward, with periodic organized involvement from ward members at each service site. We’ve had missionaries doing service here for the past three years on a smaller capacity, and so far it hasn’t resulted in any investigators let alone converts. So we will have to see if we can make this work better.

    Member missionary work–most members probably engage in occasional gospel conversations with neighbors, though my perception is that most members are not comfortable or maybe don’t know how to invite friends and acquaintances to investigate the gospel. That said, we’ve changed the focus of our BYC to discussing how to youth can invite members to their activities and charting their efforts. Each month our youth are inviting several dozen friends to activities. We occasionally baptize the boyfriend of young women in our ward, but it isn’t a regular thing (2 in the past 4 years). What can we do to help the members share the gospel? What is hanging them up? Are they too busy “doing their callings” and having a life outside of church to focus on reaching out to others, or are there other barriers?

    Church services–we have generally very good sacrament meeting talks, but even then looking out on the congregation I see a lot of blank stares or downcast looks sometimes. I think a 45 minute sacrament meeting with only one youth and one adult speaker would probably be better, but that’s not in my ability to really change. So barring a schedule change, what more can we do with sacrament meeting to make it the kind of experience that people would invite everyone they know to? Until the members feel that way about church, I suspect there will be few invitations. We’ve instituted weekly cottage meetings in several of our communities, but most are not well supported by the members yet, though most of our recent converts were taught in these settings and it has been great for their fellowshipping. I believe this is a way to go (“house churches”) but it goes against the traditions and busy schedules of most of our traditional members.

    Missionary limitations–in our ward the sisters are limited to 1700 miles in their car. They could easily use up more than double that in our far-flung ward. As it it, they don’t actually cover more than 20% of our geography. And they can’t drive on Thursdays. So they either have to walk the small community where there apartment is, or get rides elsewhere. Their study schedule keeps them at home most of the morning, so half the “work day” is shot by the time they get going. And then they have nowhere to go. The service opportunities should help that. We hope. But they are teaching so few people, and so few lessons, that to be honest if I were the mission president I would pull them out of my ward until we had more for them to do. They stop by and visit less active families, but they are the same mix of long-term inactives that were mentioned above. That said, we’ve had a few come back after decades away, so we don’t stop reaching out. But the missionaries are bored. I had one elder start his mission in our ward, stay here 6 months, have no baptisms–only later to have 22 baptisms in the last 10 months of his mission. This is very high for our mission. He was a great missionary. Just didn’t find success in our ward with our people.

    Sorry this is long, but wanted to add some real info from a real setting. I live and breath this stuff, so open to thoughts. I get to lead the ward council on Sunday in a discussion of ward goals for the year. So this isn’t a mere academic exercise :-)

  67. One more thing–two and a half years after the announcement, our missionaries finally got iPads this past year, but they are still not on social media. I’m working on a social media strategy that will basically involve separate Facebook pages with regular inspirational memes and perhaps weekly invitations to join in discussions about interesting gospel topics targeted to the four main areas of my ward, but there is a lot to work out on how this messaging will be created, posted, and then hopefully shared by members and the rest of the community. We have perhaps the lowest per capita membership in the country in most of my ward areas, and people have almost no idea who Mormons are, so we have a long way to go in the public affairs department, let alone missionary work.

  68. Brother Sky says:

    Martin James, I see your point and understand where you’re coming from. Part of the problem is how to appeal to a larger section of the populace without diluting our unique message too much. I suppose I’d like to see more commonalities discussed/emphasized because I feel like the “uniqueness” of Mormonism is, in many people’s eyes, seen more as polygamy, racism and homophobia than other things. I think we offer much more than that, but our history is complicated and since we don’t really own it and try to fudge/lie about it, I’m not sure most people trust us very much right now. If I were a non-member, I’d certainly not buy what the church is selling, mainly because of its policies/history/dishonesty.

  69. A Happy Hubby says:

    Brother Sky – I think you are hitting on one issue that where I am at is a key (>1,500 miles from Utah in the US). The church is solid here, partially due to many move-ins over the years. There is the issue that I am so busy being a Mormon that keeps me from having any time to volunteer outside of “church stuff” (such as spending 5 hours cleaning our building the other Saturday). But all my non-member friends know much about Mormons. I had even one guy talk for 10 minutes about Hans Mill and the relationship to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I think he knew more about it than your average Mormon. He wasn’t antagonistic.

    But what I see over the last few months is when I mention I am LDS in business and other places I get hit with, “Oh yeah, Mormon’s. The anti-gay people.” I do try and explain that this is an area where the church is wrestling over within it’s ranks. Really makes me want to invite them to come see the wrestling match.

  70. Kevin Barney says:

    John Mansfield, I’m very glad to hear that the MP and his wife feel well supported by the Missionary Department. I was hoping to get some insight into the Department, and I’m glad several people have conveyed some useful perspective to that end.

    (Note that the “moribund” in my title was qualified by the question mark. It sounds like there are some very good people there, but somehow the bureaucracy makes meaningful changes sluggish to implement.)

  71. Kevin Barney says:

    RobF, that was an excellent snapshot of what it’s like in the actual trenches from a bishop’s perspective. Thank you for the outstanding contribution to the discussion.

  72. RobF highlights some problems I observed in one of my former non-UT ward as well:
    Missionary mileage limitations, too long (and boring) sacrament meetings. My pet peeve are the sacrament meetings focused on doing missionary work (and going to the temple). One time a member brought a couple of investigators to church where the topic was missionary work. Needless to say, the investigators left before the closing song, never to return. Another pet peeve is the need to have a month-long theme that every talk must be centered around. What about letting people choose their own topics? Usually talks/speeches are better when the speaker feels passionate about the topic.

    As for me–sales people make me want to run the other way. The only reason I would ever give a missionary 2 seconds of my time is because I would feel sorry for them, and, to put it bluntly, I am loathe to send salesmen to my neighbors or friends, who are quite happy and satisfied in their faith and lives.

    Frankly we no longer attend church activities. We don’t fit the rigid cookie-cutter mold of our current ward/stake. The pressure to conform on our children–BYU–mission–and ignorant statements made by some ward members (to them and us) has permanently or at least temporarily–given them an excuse to no longer attend.

    In my former stake, missionary success was greatest in economically depressed areas. Yet it is a great challenge to meet the needs of the ward members in these areas.

    Finally, the focus on “numbers” (too often overly emphasized) while an easy metric, should not overcome seeing people as individuals.

  73. Here’s the problem as I see it. What is the LDS church selling that’s different than what a person can get any other Christian church while having to give less of their time and autonomy?

    For people who choose to believe in an afterlife most people already believe they will be reunited with their families. Mormon’s have taken the whole “death do you part” thing a little more literally than I think most Christians do. So trying to tell a Christian “good news if you join you get to be with your family!(if they also join)” is kind of like saying if you choose to believe in our church instead of being with your family for sure, now you are only with your family maybe because its now contingent on others also accepting LDS teachings.

    As for the modern day prophets sell, what are the prophets actually doing that helps people that is any different than what a pastor at a church already does? They aren’t exactly coming up with new scripture on a regular basis. And when they come up with “revelation” like “The Policy” that’s not really moving forward with new guidance its actually retrenching in old teachings. So what draw do prophets have for outsiders?

    Ultimately it seems like the big difference between being Christian and being LDS is that LDS believe that they can be more than “saved” they can be “exalted” and become gods with their own worlds, etc, etc… But we don’t even highlight that – see the Hinckley Larry King interview to see how even the prophet downplays that idea. And that is probably because for many Christians this belief is considered heretical and is why they don’t believe that mormons are actually christian. Why would people be interested in such a demanding religion when the main difference is you are saying they have to work harder to get what they already believed they were getting to begin with?

  74. Gilgamesh, well said. The elimination of the ward activity committee and former welfare committee are two serious mistakes that affect wards negatively, unless your unit is “golden”.

  75. Preston McPatrick says:

    Unfortunately, the real estate in Heaven reflects the age of the Church. The Orthodox and Roman Catholics initially settled in closest proximity to God. They co-existed at first but eventually bakeries dispersed and the Orthodox migrated to the outskirts of the Kingdom were leavened bread was abundant. A few centuries later the Orthodox were again disturbed by Lutherans and Anglicans. By the time the Baptists arrived the Orthodox we so complexed they returned closer to the center among Catholics exhibiting tolerance. The periphery of Heaven continued to expand upon the arrival of the Episcopalians, Methodists, and Unitarians. By the time we Mormons appeared we had to settle in the industrial sections neighborhoods near the sewing factories.

  76. Martin James says:

    Using a framework or faith beliefs, identity and practices, I think you are right that there are relatively small differences in the faith beliefs component. There may be small differences in practices also, but I think there are differences. If you want to be a part of a community that is wholeheartedly opposed to alcohol and sex outside of marriage the LDS religion has something extra to offer.
    It also seems to me that the LDS church will offer the most to people who want relative uniformity across different locations. If someone relocates frequently the LDS congregations may be more similar across them.
    It is just the flip side of what people complain about with boring meetings. If you are a person that likes structure and predictability and consistency, then the church will appeal to you. This is part of the reason that the church can appeal to immigrants and that have problems. It offers the comfort of a fixed structure and some competence.
    it is somewhat similar to people that go into the army to get structure and get their life in order. It is not for everyone. I just think the culture of growth has been the part of the problem. Selling no sex before marriage, no drinking, 10% of your income and weekly responsibilities is a niche market.

  77. Martin James says:


    And the Jews?

  78. This is a really interesting discussion. I think if the institution bore the costs of missionary labor (having to pay salaries, lodging, and food costs of the missionaries rather than those costs being born by the missionaries and their families), there is no way they would continue with the existing model, as it would be outrageously expensive and inefficient. So much of missionary work is trying desperately to be productive while having nothing to do and no one who wants to buy your product. There has to be a better way.

    I think the Church should effectively end proselyting. Focus on the product you are selling. Make meetings engaging, spiritually uplifting, put money back into ward budgets so they can hold activities and build strong communities, maybe create more individualized mission programs, like music missionaries touring the country or more pageants for kids to participate. Make service the focus of missionary work, rather than a tool to lead to baptisms (no more crappy, bait-and-switch English lessons). If the product is good, people will naturally gravitate towards it. Then you have a small core of missionary teachers who give lessons to people who request them.

    And instead of using missions to try to stop young people from leaving the church, why not focus on what is wrong with church for young single adults that causes so many of them to leave, and fix that.

  79. What Joel said. Get rid of full time missionaries in proselyting roles and appeal to the youth at a church level

  80. Jack Hughes says:

    I have often thought that the best source of innovative change in missionary work should come from the missionaries themselves. The folks with boots on the ground tend to have a better feel for their local target audience and their circumstances, as well as having a better grasp on their own needs and limitations, much better than the managers in SLC who come up with blanket worldwide programs and standards, each one more ineffective than the last. And by utilizing young adults as the bulk of the force, we could be taking advantage of their unique generational values and perspective, rather than forcing them into the prescribed social norms established by the baby boomers who are running the Church. They could using the mission experience to train the innovative problem solvers of tomorrow.

    But they won’t. The problem with this approach is that the “exact obedience” drumbeat discourages missionaries from being innovative. Total loyalty and adherence to the prescribed program is expected, while initiative is punished.

  81. Martin James “If you are a person that likes structure and predictability and consistency, then the church will appeal to you.”

    If one likes structure and consistency then the Catholic church should be even more appealing. The mass is ordered the same and the readings are the same church wide. The order, (stand)opening hymn, sign of the cross, greeting from priest, penitence(set prayers), The Gloria(set prayer), (sit)first reading from the bible, sung psalm, second reading from the bible, (stand)the Alleluia, reading from the gospels, (sit)the homily, (stand)the creed, prayers of the faithful, (sit)presentation/preparation and thanksgiving for the gifts, (stand/kneel/stand)set prayers for the Eucharist, (stand)Lord’s Prayer, sign of peace, breaking the bread(set prayer) communion(another set prayer), communion song while communion is given(kneel afterwards), (sit)period of silence, (stand)prayer after communion, announcements, greeting, blessing, dismissal. It’s the same order all over, there maybe a different prayer at a given point but only from a list of select prayers. For instance during the creed the Nicene Creed is the usual on Sundays but the Apostles Creed maybe substituted in certain circumstances.

    Really I doubt you could find much that is more structured and predicable than a Catholic Mass, though I bet Orthodox Divine Liturgy would give it a run for it’s money. LDS services are far more unpredictable in comparison. In Catholic mass the only place to go off the rails is the homily and that is a small part of the whole thing, and is generally supposed to tie into the biblical readings assigned to the day

  82. Martin James says:

    I agree but they are coke and we are sprite. If only they would have kept it in Latin everything would have been fine. But that is only the services. Plus they drink wine. Ick.

  83. Why does there have to be a “uniform” for missionaries? If we trust all these teenagers enough to be “representatives of Jesus Christ,” then why can’t we trust them enough to pick out their own clothes? And let’s get real here, if we can’t trust these young people to pick out their clothes, then why do we trust them to be representatives of our faith at all?

    Why does it fall to me to feed these missionaries– many of whom have crazy health restrictions (gluten sensitivities that manifest as depression, aversion to water because it tastes bad, hamburgers, only hamburgers)? Why does it fall to me to find people for them to teach? If I had a friend who wanted to know more about my church, why couldn’t I just teach them? Why do I need to now think up service for these young people to do? Why do I have to go out on Sunday afternoons and try to find the people that the missionaries baptized 10 years ago–long before I ever lived here? Why do I have to contribute to the missionary fund? Why?

    God bless the commenter who pointed out that the church views my time and my spouse’s time as a free and unlimited resource. There is only so much goodwill we can burn through. And whoa have we burned through a lot of it with terrible policy changes that despite revisions STILL target innocent children. I, a life long member, have only so much goodwill. And this church of mine, with it’s surge of obnoxious, demanding missionaries, it’s old, dirty buildings that (despite hours of cleaning every Saturday) smell like urine, it’s obsession with meetings, meetings, and longer meetings, and empty rhetoric about families being important while it constantly puts more responsibilities and work on the parents in these families, has all but exhausted my supply.

    I believe in Jesus Christ. I have my doubts if this is still HIS church. These doubts grow when my priesthood leaders say things like, “I often wonder how Jesus would conduct a sacrament meeting. I often wonder how he would introduce the speakers. What hymns he would chose for opening and closing? Would he end on time?” Like there is something divinely inspired by our business like structured worship that Jesus himself would adhear to it?! Forget that. If Jesus were sitting on the stand you better believe I would bullrush my way into his arms! I need Jesus. My need for his words and his love is so desperate some Sundays that I openly cry throughout all the stupid Ward business this and Stake business that and all the ridiculous and unfortunate nonsense that takes three hours of my Sunday–one of only two days I have to spend with all my family.

    And the tragedy is we try so hard. We get thrown into time intensive callings that have really nothing to do with Jesus (SCOUTS). That cannot sustain us, take us from our families, and take us from the book we wanted to read or the music we wanted to practice. But we still try so hard because the problem is always us–lack of faith, lack of cheerfulness, lack of perspective. If we only try harder, feed the elders one more time, pray more, study more, we wouldn’t feel this way…

  84. A Happy Hubby says:

    I have seen things like the previous CEO of Jet Blue (who is LDS) would take one day a month and go work a job in the company – all the way down to the baggage handler or a ticket agent.

    When the church was restored, the apostles were essentially missionaries. I would LOVE to see the apostles (the ones that are physically able) to do likewise and also take on their role as missionaries and go serve as a missionary for say 2 weeks every few years. And do it in a well to do ward like the one I live in. I think it would do wonders for them to see what it is like – including living on the $ allotted and mile limitations on their car. I think one reason they don’t is that I think they will find that they don’t have a 1/2 dozen converts and some will gasp and say, “All missionaries are told that the number of baptisms you ‘get’ is a mathematical equation based on your obedience – so Elder Bednar either isn’t obedient or the formula isn’t true!”

    If they were to take such a step, no matter what the outcome, they would have a whole lot more street creds in my book. Both for the effort, but also the stepping down off the pedestal.

  85. I *love* your suggestion, Happy Hubby!

  86. RobF said “. I think a 45 minute sacrament meeting with only one youth and one adult speaker would probably be better, but that’s not in my ability to really change.”

    There are 2 sacrament meetings a year that most active members will definitely attend: the Primary Program sacrament meeting, and the Christmas sacrament meeting. Why are these two so well attended, not only by ward members, but by visitors as well? I feel that the answer to this question is the key to undoing the boring sacrament meeting.
    Both programs have much more music, and more children participation. Who can resist the children when they sing or say their rehearsed parts? It enlivens the meetings with their sweet spirits. Just a thought, because as much as I love my ward members, I too am sometimes less than riveted to the rehashed conference issue talks.

  87. Amy I have read your comment and I feel worried for you. I can relate to your struggles and I Know we are told we are told we shouldn’t say no to callings but you sound like you are running on empty and need time for you. I can’t tell you what to do but I think you need to do something before you totally burn out. I hope I haven’t offended you in any way and I hope this message is private but since I have never replied to a comment like this before I am not sure.

  88. They could just stop proselyting missions all together. Could you imagine what 80,000 people providing needed service could do for the world? what they are doing now isn’t raising numbers for the church and for sure isn’t providing a service to anyone.

  89. BlueRidgeMormon says:

    Great discussion. Just a comment on “Preach My Gospel” as evidence of a nimble, innovative organization.

    Is it just me that’s underwhelmed by Preach my Gospel? Is it just me that sees it mostly as old wine (i.e. the Missionary Guide) in new bottles?

    Part of the problem is the same problem that’s common in secular organizations: new leadership often equals new “programs” … but often there’s very little NEW in those programs.

    Also: it seems correct to me that it’s increasingly difficult to “sell” the social aspects of church to nonmembers, as many commentators have pointed out.

    Also: taking a different (non-social, more theological) approach seems equally fraught, what with the increased emphasis on ponderizing and proof texting.

    What to do to revitalize missionary efforts? Not a clue.

  90. I certainly think it would have been fun to go on a service missions. But I can’t think of what kinds of service missions you could have 18-19 year olds do other than musical ones (I would have loved to be a pianist or something somewhere) and manual labor.

    With senior missionaries don’t they have some options for doctors and other medical professions?

    Not sure how we could translate that to youngins

  91. Clark Goble says:

    Josh, it seems undeniable that missionary work, while not as effective as in the past, is converting people. In the US the stable relative position of the church means that those who leave the church are made up by converts relative to the growth of the country overall.

    Gene, I confess I don’t see numbers following that pattern. I’d be loath to draw a general pattern across the church like that. I’d want to see real aggregate data.

    Amy, I don’t think we do trust the missionaries to be representatives without oversight. And for good reason. There’s a funny quip J. Golden Kimball gave years ago. “The Church must be true or the missionaries would have destroyed it long ago.” That’s not to disparage them. Simply to acknowledge their individual weaknesses and limits. I like to think of myself as a strong member but I was in no position at 19 to make those judgments you outline. Maybe a few are. But all of them?

    Joel, no one wants the product? I think you exaggerate a great deal given the growth of the Church just in the US.

    Delina, certainly most people follow lay beliefs that don’t necessarily follow the theological traditions of the sects they follow. I think most of us recognize this. I think many young missionaries (myself included at the time) don’t realize the degree to which regular lay people actually believe a lot of things Mormons believe, albeit without the authority requirements. What we have that others don’t is ultimately authority. Yet I think a big issue for missionaries is that for many people authority is kind of irrelevant. (Even in the strict Protestant tradition you have the priesthood of all believers for instance) So while I think we have to teach authority what ultimately matters is convincing people of the truth of the Book of Mormon and then teaching them these other things that do matter.

    In terms of theological longing, I certainly agree that we don’t have a product as compelling as say it was during the Great Awakening or at various periods in the past. I’d go farther and say that’s true of religion in general. Thus the swift rise of the Nones in the US and the overwhelming secularism in Europe (outside of immigrants). This is why I’ve long said that those advocating we push religion in terms of what people want will be disappointed. There definitely is something missing in peoples lives but typically they don’t know what it is until they experience it.

  92. A Happy Hubby says:

    Bryan, I can think of lots of things to do. Spend 2 hours a day visiting people in a hospital or even a nursing home. Being their day after day could really help. There is a “school” close to where I live that is for those with mental challenges and gives them structure. They could use a few hours of supervision and helping. What about helping out at local schools? I think if we spent time (and we already are starting the work with JustServe.org). My son spent a week being a translator with a US military hospital ship that went to a Latin America port. He loved it (and worked LONG hours each day).

  93. Martin James says:


    If the church has a higher birth rate than the general population and makes converts and is not growing as a percent of population that means there must be quite a few people leaving the church and is hardly a positive sign. If birth rates drop or conversion rates fall, decline will follow along closely behind. With most things there is a tipping point where decline breeds more decline. It is pretty much a grow or die world.

  94. Some of my opinions on “things that could be done differently” is informed by comments my parents have made after their missions, and my father’s current calling as Bishop. (Again. He quips sometimes, “This is a job for younger men than me.”)

    Mission #1 for them was in China, doing humanitarian work which was co-sponsored by a Chinese NGO. They came home saying the Church MUST streamline bureaucracy before it will ever be successful in that country. Saving face is a significant part of that culture, and when you’ve got seven Church layers that each have veto power over any suggestion given by a Chinese charity….. that’s a problem.

    Mission #2 was Africa. They came home from that mission saying they found it absolutely bizarre that the stats mission presidents are given all have to do with baptisms. Not one statistic about retention. As long as the Church is mainly calling Type-A competitive businessmen from the Mormon Corridor, it needs to channel that competitiveness (“We’re the best mission in the whole world!”) by focusing on retention statistics. Which would work towards minimizing the hard-sell, dunk-em-quick mindset that missionaries are encouraged to have. Saturday baptisms with a Sunday no-show for a confirmation happened all the time in their part of Africa.

    The observation I heard lately from 70yo Dad, who has been in leadership positions for most of the last 40 years, is that every few years the Church rolls out some exciting new missionary program for the members to invite friends…. but it’s really nothing new. And he’s tired of pushing something that just doesn’t work.

  95. And this is a bit off-topic, but I’m throwing it out there anyway.

    I’m surprised at how bitter I’ve felt when reading the comments. My oldest son got home from his mission in Eastern Africa almost a year ago, and we’re still dealing with the fallout. I sent out a faithful, stalwart son who just wanted to be a good missionary, and he came home with PTSD and a bunch of horrific stories, with absolutely no follow-up in terms of Church programs. Frankly, I’m furious. Where I stand, we’re doing absolutely nothing to help these missionaries who served in difficult parts of the world.

    I think the thing that broke my heart the most was when he finally opened up one night and started talking about just how hard it was, he finished up by sobbing, “And the worst part is, nobody knows what it was like.”

    We can’t be the only family struggling with this. Has BCC ever written a post on this subject?

  96. wow, that is a serious issue — so sorry your son and many others are dealing with that.

  97. Clark Goble says:

    Dionne, I had a friend from a wealthy family go to Haiti on a mission and came back quite emotionally and psychologically affected by the poverty. I think all people struggle when they come home and leaders are supposed to help aid the change, but they definitely could do more.

  98. Dionne, LDS Social Services should be able to help you with this. https://providentliving.lds.org/lds-family-services/leader-resources/missionary-services?lang=eng A lot of missionaries come home with serious emotional problems. I think the Church is getting better at realizing this, and there are people in place to assist. Your Bishop needs to be made aware of what’s happening if he’s not already – he may also be aware of local services that can help. I hope your son gets the support he needs, no matter where it comes from.

  99. How about having the missionaries volunteer in the temple once in a while? We got to attend once a month in Hong Kong (on P-Day of all days). I heard they have done away with that. Temples are pretty empty in the middle of the day, and the missionaries could really use the lift (I know I always enjoyed it, even if it meant I had to write letters on the bus and otherwise had to cram in grocery shopping and a quick bball game before it was back to pounding the pavement). Once a week would probably really help them gain perspective from all those tracting rejections.

  100. Clark Goble says:

    We should also not that a lot of emotional or psychological issues start activating more strongly (or at least being more noticed ) between the ages of 18 – 20. So people with a propensity towards depression or other such things may have them trigger on their mission. As Villate mentioned LDS Social Services can help here.

  101. Dionne, Villate, and Clark Goble –

    Referring missionaries to LDS Social Services AFTER the fact misses the point. Missions – by design – are meant to overwhelmingly stressful in the way that boot camp is for military recruits (where in the military, they plainly call it what it is: indoctrination ).

    That so many young missionaries break should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone. If LDS Social Services could offer any advice it would be this: STOP putting teenagers under such extraordinary stress. If that means they don’t go on missions so be it. And if it means they need to take way more than just one P-Day while out in the field so be it. And if they need to go home early, they should without any pressure to stay.

    Perhaps this observation sounds harsh to the powers that be, but consider the status quo. How’s that working for so many young missionaries?

  102. “We can’t be the only family struggling with this.”

    Of course not. I suspect the vast majority of people are afraid or ashamed to talk about it. Which is patently ridiculous. The system is broken, not your children who are being sent out.

  103. Sister Chris says:

    Dionne: My daughter had/has PTSD (to be generous) after a mission to the Russian Far East. it broke her. I sent out a confident, idealistic, hopeful young woman and a devastated broken one returned. The overwhelming despair and misery she confronted every day with *zero* “success” (by missionary measurement) proved to be more than she could process. She went before the age change and had already spent almost a year living in Russia before her mission–it wasn’t enough to prepare her for the awfulness. Her mission president was a wonderful, kind, decent man, but his job was almost impossible. Many of her fellow missionaries had identical or worse experiences. Mental health support from LDS social services was marginal. She ended up spending a year + in private therapy through our insurance. It broke her testimony and it has taken years to mend it–and her faith may never fully regain its hopeful buoyancy. The damage has been massive. I have been cautiously hopeful that things will improve. Elder Greg Schweitzer has remained in charge of missionary medical and he is a genuinely capable physician. He absolutely gets the physical and emotional trauma of missionary work, having witnessed it in person as a mission pres in Ekaterinberg as well as being Europe East area president. In our dealings with him, he was such a healer, but a realist. I have to believe that things can get better. Naive? perhaps.

    Jeff: Yes. it is one of the dirty little secrets of parents of returned missionary children that many of them hated this missions and were damaged by serving them–sometimes by circumstance, sometimes by mission presidents who abuse their authority in too many ways to talk about. You’re right that dealing with it after misses the point. When relatively sheltered idealistic young people are sent out to deal with nightmarish issues many adults find horrifying, MTC indoctrination is inadequate.

    There is so much work that needs to be done with the missionary program if “proclaim the gospel” is to remain one of the missions of the church. Perhaps my age and experience has jaded me, but it feels like an ’80s MBA designed program in a 21st century world of Zuckerbergs.I know there are so many who are hungry for Hope and I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring that hope. I believe the Spirit can bring peace. I believe that through small and simple things–and humble, immature things–can great things come to pass. I believe our missionaries can be successful if they are taught and trained. But I’m not sure their time and energies are utilized as they should be, nor are they being trained to deal with the world as it is–not the world as we wish it would be. There has been a lot of good discussion in this thread. My hope is that we keep discussing and keep wrestling with these issues. It may be the only place we can truly make a difference with the program is in our individual corners of the world.

  104. Kristine A says:

    please….no…..don’t put more MBA types in charge of Church innovation and administration. Isn’t that how we got where we are?

  105. Kevin Barney says:

    Kristine A, the inspiration in the OP happened to have a business background, but that was not my focus, but rather the fact that he was young, creative, and had a strong capacity to be abe to think through things and come up with innovative solutions. Those characteristics can come from all sorts of backgrounds. But I’m not seeing that kind of thought being applied to the missionary program, which seems to be limping along pretty much the same way it has for decades.

  106. Jeff makes a good point that coping after the fact isn’t necessarily going to help people. However, there is really no way to evaluate who is going to have a hard time and who will not. And of those who have a hard time, no one can tell who will be destroyed and who will bounce back. I don’t know whether more “training” would help. In the meantime, at least the Church is recognizing the issue and taking some steps to address it. Maybe that will be helpful for Dionne’s son, though it doesn’t seem to have been for Sister Chris’ daughter and I’m sorry for that. If the missionary program remains similar to the way it is now (I think it will, at least for the foreseeable future), I don’t know what to do. I think the biggest problem in this regard is that the world is just a different place than it was even 20 years ago when I was on my mission, and even more different from 40 years ago when the majority of Missionary Department employees were on their missions. The mission areas themselves are dangerous and threatening in ways they weren’t before, and people are less willing to listen to or comprehend religious solutions, making it harder for missionaries to even share their message on a surface level. Someone mentioned above that the MD folks need to get out there and see what it’s like themselves – that’s very true. I agree that sending 18- and 19-year-olds into the very scary world armed only with their testimonies is a bad idea, and I thought so when the age limit was reduced. The informal sharing of horror stories in the MTC and in the mission field itself can serve as a buffer, but if the missionary internalizes the bad situations he or she is in and considers himself or herself a failure for not being able to help people by getting them baptized or if there are outside pressures from mission culture, companions, etc., even a really resilient person will struggle. I loved my mission and had a very positive experience overall, but what I hear from missionaries when they come to our house for dinner appointments is not the kind of mission I had. I look at how things are done now and I don’t know whether I want my children to go. Right now I’m leaning toward not. Certainly not when they turn 18.

  107. Tim Jones says:

    Missionaries need better professional support while they’re out. I had a companion who couldn’t even get support when he complained about a serious specific health concern to the mission president. How much more difficult is it for a missionary who tries to hide his or her problem out of pride to get help? It’s nice to pretend they’ll get help when they get home (and I’m sure some of them do) but they also need help while they’re out being missionaries.

  108. by mission presidents who abuse their authority in too many ways to talk about

    Sister Chris, it has to be talked about — for some things and this is one of them, discussion and transparency are the only things that will make any difference.

  109. Dionne, Villate, Clark, Sister Chris, Jeff, Tim — a couple of years ago I proposed a few ideas that I believe will actually address these problems faced by missionaries in addition to making our missionary program more successful. Kevin mentioned this in his original post. Here were my suggestions — maybe you’ll agree that missionaries involved in this kind of missionary program would face fewer of the stress and anxiety induced mental health issues that have been mentioned:

    “The following list contains what I think would be the most effective way to adjust the missionary program to accommodate the greater number of missionaries, both enriching the experience for them and providing greater benefit to the communities where they are assigned (and, I firmly believe, resulting in a greater number of baptisms of committed converts worldwide):

    – The description of the missionary program is updated to bring it in line with the updated “Fourth Mission of the Church” — caring for the poor and needy. The primary focus of missionary work and the missionary program remains specifically to preach the Gospel but formal recognition is given to this updated mission of the Church more generally.

    – Reflecting the incorporation of this “Fourth Mission of the Church” into the formal missionary program, missionaries spend daytime hours primarily involved in full time service in activities and venues that provide permanent, reliable succor to the poor and needy worldwide, not limited to one-off and randomly identified service projects like painting a certain person’s house or helping to clean the Church one Saturday.

    – To execute this new approach, companionships in missions worldwide are placed with locally strong and established charities as permanent volunteer workers. For example, some will work on Habitat for Humanity crews, others with the Salvation Army in homeless shelters, others with Red Cross or Red Crescent, OxFam, or other disaster relief organizations. Some companionships will be nested in national or supra-national organizations around the world focused on providing clean water, vaccinations, clean-up, or other charitable services. Some will work as volunteer support staff for Doctors without Borders, Operation Smile, or other such services. Some will support the work of microlending organizations aggregated through and represented by such services as Kiva, Five Talents, or other similar organizations. In each case, it will be within the discretion of the local mission president to place these companionships into such organizations in the various cities and towns scattered across each individual mission, wherever missionaries are stationed.

    – This organized, institutionalized service will be the missionaries’ “job” on business days from approx. 9am to 5pm, i.e. during normal working hours for the society at large in which they are serving. (This is often known as the “dead time” for many or most missionaries anyway because of the fact that these are working hours for the people to whom they would like to preach the Gospel.) Their focus during these business hours will be to serve in these capacities as directed by mission leaders without ulterior motive of winning converts but rather service for the sake of the service itself based on the inherent dignity of those receiving the service, in specific fulfillment of the “Fourth Mission of the Church”.

    – For this full-time charitable service, missionaries (both men and women) will wear a uniform consisting of a clean and tidy polo shirt with Church logo on it and khaki shorts or trousers, possibly tidy jeans, context permitting.

    – At 5:00 pm (or whenever the local mission president has designated that this “workday” as permanent volunteer staff in the various charitable organizations and institutions should end, maybe 3:00 pm or 4:00 pm in some cases), missionaries then make full use of the traditional “prime proselyting time” to find and teach investigators the Gospel using Preach My Gospel and other traditional methods of missionary work (including tracting, if necessary where there are not enough member referrals or referrals generated as a natural consequence of the many relationships created by the missionaries in their daily workday service). Ideally, as has always been the case, the missionaries’ efforts during this prime proselyting time following their daily charitable service as permanent volunteer staff in local charities, will focus on the teaching part of proselytizing.

    – Missionaries might be required to put on the “traditional” missionary uniform of white shirt, tie, and dress slacks for men and “Sunday clothes” for women at the discretion of the local mission president during this prime proselyting time. Either way, traditional name tags will still be worn during the tracting hours from 5 pm to 10 pm (“prime proselyting time” would be extended in most areas to 10 pm as part of this change).

    – My conviction is that through their behavior and Christian living in their work for the charities, they will be able to build relationships of trust with local ward members and others in the community so that those members trust the missionaries enough to help them find people to teach during their allotted teaching time each day.

    – P-Day will be a weekday so that missionaries can spend the full day Saturday finding and teaching people about the Gospel. Sunday will be devoted to Church and having a real day of rest, teaching occasionally if “the ox is in the mire” and an investigator has not been able to schedule a different time, but in the main NOT proselytizing.

    – The result of this adjustment to the missionary program, in an ideal situation, will be that missionaries gain the experience of working a full time job for various charities during their two years or 18 months in full time missionary service (though the job will only be four days a week instead of five because one of the weekdays is P-Day). I am convinced that they will also teach just as much as missionaries have traditionally done (and probably much more because of their new ability to build genuine relationships in the broader community through their work as permanent volunteer staff for local charities). This adjustment has the added benefit of eliminating almost entirely the innumerable “blank” hours of ineffective tracting that have been a central part of most missions since the late nineteenth century, at least.”

    I haven’t ever gotten any sense that this proposal has ever been considered seriously by anyone involved, but I continue to believe it has the potential to solve many of the issues the missionary program currently faces, including the problem each of you have raised about missionaries returning utterly devastated and broken.

  110. The thing that concerns me most about the way the church deals with LGBQT members is that we essentially have nothing to offer them other than the message that they should resolutely suffer, alone, through a lifetime of church that talks endlessly about The Family, but that things will be better when they die. The one life path we endorse is largely unavailable to them. This is totally unacceptable, imo. On the other hand, one of the main reason the service missionaries provide currently is so lame is because the missionaries are transient and don’t really know the communities where they live. What if we had an almost monastic path for gay Mormons who really were serious about living a celibate life, but still wanted to have something substantial to do in this life that was eternally significant. They could provide long term stability to missions. They could really understand the needs of a community, what populations were underserved, where the hurting and needy people were, and they could build relationships with the leaders in the community. They could initiate and follow through with the kinds of long term projects that actually make a difference, beyond picking up trash in neighborhood parks. They would be adults and presumably could handle a little more autonomy and creativity in how to use the talents and time of the younger missionaries passing through. They could be financially supported by the church so it would be possible for them to spend years, maybe decades, of their adult lives building the kingdom. This would require a lot of changes in many paradigms., but I think it could do some amazing things.

  111. Kevin Barney – I apologize for the tangent my second comment provided, but I am grateful for the ensuing conversation. I hope you don’t mind the “postjack.”

    Villate – HIs YSA bishop knows and has been very helpful. The bishop’s brother served in Guatemala 35 years ago and has never been the same, so he has been very understanding of my son’s situation. We also had a conversation a couple of months ago with a friend who is a YSA bishop of the neighboring unit who had a horrific mission experience himself, and he told us “Send him to talk to me. Seriously. I know what he’s going through.” My son will be visiting him this Sunday.

    You’re absolutely right that part of this is because the world is changing, and parts are becoming more violent. I’ve come to the conclusion that here in North America we live in a bit of a bubble, we’re naïve to what some areas of the world are like.

    There is a policy that I’d love to see implemented in the church, and I thought of it because of the experience we had with Son #3 as a baby. He was born with heart defects and seizured at birth from lack of oxygen. He spent his first two months in the NICU, and when he finally came home with the heart problems fixed, we were told he was eligible for something called the “NICU Follow-up Program” at the local rehabilitation hospital. Basically, any baby coming out of the NICU who is considered high-risk for later developmental issues is referred to the program. We went in when he was 6 months, 12 months, and 18 months, each time seeing specialists who would check on his development. At 18 months of age when I was concerned about delayed language, we were immediately put in a program to help. Boom!

    Why can’t we have something like this for missionaries? Something sent home to Stake Presidents that says, “This missionary served honorably, but they were in a violent/extremely poor/traumatic area, and could be considered high risk for adjustment problems. Please keep an eye on them, and provide services if needed.” Why isn’t this being done?

    Sister Chris – one good thing that came out of this mess is that as I’ve talked about my son’s challenges with my family, my sister has finally opened up about what her missions was like in the Ukraine. It was really bad, and she’s admitting she still struggles ten years later. I read a post over at Feminist Mormon Housewives about sexual harassment of sister missionaries, and her stories are far worse than anything I read over there in the comments. It was a daily occurrence when she was out with her companion tracting to have men in the street just drop their pants and start masturbating.

    I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter.

  112. Clark Goble says:

    John F while some of those proposals are good some I think are somewhat problematic. I think for them to work it frankly requires more local support than local members are willing to do. I think if your proposal was put in place conversions would drop significantly. That’s not to deny there are some good ideas.

    One big problem is the time constraints. These simply vary significantly even within the same city. I’ve been in areas where tracting after 5 is a lost cause and I’ve been in areas where tracting before 6 is a lost cause. In one area I broke mission rules and stayed out late because thats the only time people were home to teach.

  113. john f. – thank you for that link. I love those ideas, and think they’d be very helpful. However, if you’ll read below my response to Clark Goble, I think you’ll see that those suggestions aren’t enough for some missions.

    Jeff – it’s not just teenagers who can struggle with this stuff. As I mentioned before, my parents also served in Africa, in the neighboring mission to my son’s. When they came home, it was like they’d aged ten years, and as their kids we’re concerned. My father is far more cynical than before, and my mom has disengaged to an extent from her grandchildren.

    And it’s not that they were naïve going in, either; their first mission together had them in some of the poorest areas of China. They don’t talk about their mission much, but they did tell us about the time an armed gunman got into their compound, and how they hid under the bed for several hours while bullets whizzed through the walls, waiting for policemen that never came.

    Is it any wonder a mentally healthy 18yo can come home from that kind of place a bit worse for the experience?

    Clark Goble – how I wish the issue was just poverty. That in itself can be hard to deal with. But it’s so much more: the violence, the tribalism, the racism, the mob justice, the culture shock, the corruption, the local companions who say, “I’m African. I’m special. I don’t have to follow the rules.”

    My son had guns pointed at him every single day. He never lived mission hours because what’s the point of getting up at 6:30 when your companion won’t wake up before 11:00? It wasn’t a mission where the handbook was even referred to, you were just lucky if your comp wasn’t sleeping with the woman downstairs, or selling black market electronics on the side, or looking at porn during computer time.

    He learned to always be wary of “The Circle,” a phenomenon where people start to gather if something horrible has happened, and usually beat to death the person in the middle if they thought they’d done something wrong. He saw two men rounded up by a village, strapped to tires, doused with gas and lit on fire because they were thought to be thieves. And everyone was *excited* to see them burn. Just a couple of months ago he said to me casually, “Hey, did I ever tell you about the time a bunch of us almost got kidnapped?” and how a bunch of missionaries jumped off a small moving bus to get away.

    The more I learn, the more I am amazed that he didn’t just get on a plane at some point and come home.

    My son is harsher than before he left. Frankly, he’s racist now in a way that worries me. He’s angry. His mission president, who we really respect and are grateful for, was a police chief who worked SWAT for years before he served, so not a sheltered man. And when a mission president like that says, “This is one of the toughest missions in the entire world, and it would break most missionaries,” I take that statement at face value.

  114. Soooo….. you see why I’d love to see a post about this? We need more transparency. We need to be talking about this.

  115. Clark Goble says:

    Dionne, what affects people really varies. For him, perhaps because of his wealth, the abject poverty triggered bad depression. For me I saw a surprising amount of violence in the ghettos and projects in Louisiana during the height of the crack epidemic. Yet what phased me and really devastated me for a time was simply giving it everything I had with nothing working. I remember the key event was having literally tracked out an entire city and having found one golden investigator. It was to have been my first baptism while my MTC companion at this same point (12 months out) was already the top baptizer in mission history. A week before the baptism she came to the door and gave us her Book of Mormon with a note in it bearing her testimony but telling us that her children were going to throw her out on the street if she joined a white church and she couldn’t see us again. That really floored me and I don’t think I can communicate the psychological trauma it gave. Yet I’m sure someone else in that same circumstance wouldn’t have been affected at all.

    My mission president tried to help by frankly transferring me into a place with an easy baptism. But the numbers weren’t what I was after. Fortunately I got myself together but I pretty much just ignored the formal rules after that, tried better to follow the spirit, and became most months the top baptizer in my zone with a lot of success (although other missionaries contributed a lot to that). I had in some ways poor skills for what was demanded of me. Yet in other ways it really affected me a great deal and I stopped writing home about what was going on. (Investigators being murdered, tracking out brothels and crack houses, threats on our lives, gang rapes of most young children in wide areas and worse)

    I guess what I’m saying is that what affects a person really will vary.

  116. Clark Goble says:

    I should add a lot of this has always been common. I mentioned some of the violence I saw or encountered. (Add in a bunch of FBI going in undercover in this area by pretending to be missionaries – that was a joy) Yet a friend from back home in the Philippines on their mission had to shake the door every time they got home otherwise robbers would be waiting. They too had guns pulled on them daily. My teacher at the MTC opened up a bunch of Amazon areas and was told to send all his suits home and buy jungle gear. He spent his time with a machete and had to kill a huge snake once that attacked him with it. So this has always been the case. Which doesn’t diminish it in the least. Just that we should realize that especially 3rd world missions are horribly difficult. And it’s true, much as what soldiers say, sometimes you stop talking about your mission to people who haven’t been through it. And frankly the worst situations are bad companions. I was in a district where the other missionaries were regularly going to bars. There was one missionary who joined the circus. And a huge secret combination of missionaries a few years before I got there. My cousin had gone to Louisiana a few years before I did during the worst of the missionary behavior (our mission president for all his faults completely changed the mission around in a way that none of the previous one – many who became GAs – were unable to). When my cousin found out I was going there he refused to tell me anything about the mission.

  117. Clark, thank you for your reply and sharing your experiences. It sounds like we are actually quite similar in some of our thoughts (comments on a post aren’t the best place to really get nuanced). Because of this experience with my son I’ve been quite open about what he went through, and it’s unnerving how often others open up with awful stories of their own. Now I feel sheepish that I didn’t know that missions could be like this, was I really that clueless?

    For my son as well, the worst part was bad companions. In fact, I forgot to mention earlier the worst event of his mission, the time he fled for his life in the middle of the night because his companion was going to kill him. He still gets nightmares about it.

  118. Clark Goble says:

    The thing to remember – and this gets to the OP – is that this is far more common than I think most people who’ve never been on missions realize. As I said, most people just don’t talk to people about it if they’ve never been on it. Yet I can almost guarantee a lot of people in the missionary department and GAs *have* gone through these things. They might not talk about it, but they know.

  119. Clark Goble says:

    I should also add that I had a similar experience to your son having to flee for my life – but it was a roommate at BYU after neither BYU nor the apartment managers would do anything and wouldn’t release me from my contract. So it’s not just missions. Most of us simply live a very sheltered life in suburbia and imagine the rest of the country and world are somewhat like us. Occasionally we may encounter others at a 711 or grocery store and think it an exception. When you go door to door you encounter all of America in it’s actual makeup. And it’s simply not what people imagine. And the world at wide is even more different. We’re sheltered and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But one thing a mission is great for is preparing you for the real world as it is. I wouldn’t trade all those experiences for a moment. It was worth it and that’s when I really came to know the Lord.

  120. “This is one of the toughest missions in the entire world, and it would break most missionaries.”

    By design, this is really part of the process (madness). Future leaders are forged this way, similar to Navy SEAL training. That so many wash out and are considered collateral damage shouldn’t be surprising viewed from that perspective.

  121. Clark Goble says:


  122. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Is it just me that’s underwhelmed by Preach my Gospel? Is it just me that sees it mostly as old wine (i.e. the Missionary Guide) in new bottles?

    On the plus sided, PMG achieved a churchwide standard for the missionary discussions that is available to missionaries and members alike. I studied the (old) discussions diligently for 2 months at the MTC in a foreign language only to find out (when I got to the field), that the mission had created their own ‘bridging lesson’ that they felt was necessary in teaching people in a non-Christian country. Having to learn ANOTHER lesson–a long one at that–was a big pill to swallow. The uniformity of PMG keeps the MTC training more focused and the field expectations more consistent.

    It was also not easy in the old days for prospective missionaries or members to get copies of the discussions that were given to missionaries in the MTC. I wanted to read them as a teen, but they were primarily in possession of RMs. As a member who can be in on a discussion with a missionary, a knowledge of PMG can provide a member better preparation for that opportunity.

  123. Since the thread has shifted into post-mission issues, I have another one created by the significant and unnecessary barrier the Church imposes between the missionary and his or her family and other loved ones: post-mission separation/distance from formerly close siblings. Our son has been home for 3 years but his younger sisters are nowhere near as close as they all were before his mission. Pre-mission he and his closest sister drove to early morning seminary and then HS together. They had similar friends (they were the only 2 Mormons in their HS) and a good relationship. Two years of strict separation from his sisters except for weekly emails (where he often truncated the emails b/c he was running out of computer time-or so he claimed) nurtured a significant distance and gap that still exists.

    Our son had a good, healthy mission but he left for his mission with a healthy skepticism about “magic” programs and silly promises like strict obedience = absolute success. He baptized a lot of people and probably enjoyed rolling his eyes and ignoring the uber zealous obey, obey, obey missionaries. But, the post mission distance between him and his younger siblings is palpable, even three years later.

    Due to timing he came home and 2.5 weeks later headed off to school on the west coast. (we live on the east coast). While he could text and freely communicate with everyone again, his sisters had kind of moved on without him and he had done the same. Patterns of non-communication had developed over 2 years and they were difficult to change. He wasn’t around to help with high school drama and college applications and other social aspects of growing up. Worse, due to the communication barriers (almost cultish, I might add) required of missionaries, he was not able to meaningfully participate via email, text or other ways kids communicate today. He was simply absent and we all moved on without him.

    I wonder how many other sibling relationships were harmed or negatively affected b/c the missionary is effectively isolated from his or her siblings during teen age years. I’ve mentioned this with other parents. Some have had similar experiences while others considered it a meaningful sacrifice for a mission. I wonder if the moribund missionary program would consider opening additional channels of communication with missionaries while they’re serving.

  124. Problem with the collateral damage idea – we have thousands of young men and women who have been looking forward to this for fifteen years or more. The boys in the Sunbeam class in my ward are issued little tiny “Future Missionary” name tags when they learn about missionaries. They take the missionary prep classes, they work and save and study, build their testimonies, go on splits with the local missionaries when available, and are emotionally invested for years. They are told (or led to believe) that success in marriage and family will be nearly impossible without having served a full and honorable mission. They are told how employers will put their resume in the short pile when they see a mission leadership position in the “Other Achievements” area. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, everyone around them has been pumping this for years and years. It’s that rite of passage that marks a person in Mormon society as having become an adult, now capable of holding down a job and supporting a family. If you’re sent to a third-world country or have any other series of health/psychological issues and come home, you’re damaged goods, viewed like a high school dropout who just couldn’t tough it out. Not enough faith, not enough love for Jesus, parents didn’t teach you right, young mens presidency must have failed you somewhere. I know a guy who was hit on his bike by a drunk driver and nearly died. Blew out both knees, one hip, extensive scarring from road rash, and brain damage. The mission president put him back in a bike area two days after being released from the hospital, and told him “Just work harder and the Lord will heal you.” To this day he has no sense of smell, and can’t do math to save his life. He’d planned on a career in medicine before that.

    I remember the really dark times of my mission – having to put up with an evil companion and feeling like I’d been lied to for two decades about how wonderful the experience was going to be. Years prior to serving a mission, I’d seen a flier advertising a support group for people who had returned from a mission early. I remember thinking what a tragic thing that would be, that a group therapy session for that would be a great thing, and that having that happen could really mess a person up badly. For months, the thought of that flier was the only thing that kept me from calling it quits – that I’d only have one shot at this and the fallout would be devastating. And this was in an area with good church support and once a week access to LDS Social Services counseling.

  125. I wonder if the moribund missionary program would consider opening additional channels of communication with missionaries while they’re serving.

    I certainly support that.

  126. Question
    Clark, Dionne and others,
    How wise is it that when missionaries return all we hear are “it was the best 2 yrs of my life,”
    leaving us to assume it was primarily a positive experience? We hear nothing of the significant trials and challenges. It doesn’t seem fair to those contemplating going on a mission that they don’t have a fuller, more accurate picture of what to expect. There are young men and women who wouldn’t be suited for these challenges and might suffer lifelong damaging physical or psychological effects.

    It isn’t fair for leaders to exert so much pressure to serve a mission on our youth when #1) prospective missionaries aren’t fully informed and #2) the leaders don’t know the prospective missionary’s suitability for such experiences.

  127. Clark Goble says:

    Lois I think we should address trials more and I think only putting out the positive is detrimental. However what I more often hear is focusing on the bad (and never the overcoming) or lowering standards to the point nothing gets done. I think there are lots of reforms that should be done – especially regards to health issues. But overall I think we do a pretty good job and it really does often prepare people better for life.

  128. I’ve lost track of the conversation and this may well have been said, but . . .
    I would make it clear to every mission president that his 100% job is the long-term health (physical, mental, spiritual) and welfare of the missionaries, and that he has the necessary authority (including reducing numbers, securing medical care, changing housing, changing hours and other practices, sending missionaries home or for care, etc.) to make that happen.
    This is not a big ask, nor pie in the sky. A recently returned mission president friend tells me that’s how he understood his assignment and training. (He might admit to a small amount of interpretation . . . I don’t know but I do suspect that there was some element of hearing what you want to hear.)
    Imagine mission presidents being scored or evaluated by a one- or two-year-after-mission assessment by his missionaries. And nothing else.
    This will not solve all the problems, not even close. But it’s a relatively small and obvious move.

  129. I have to preface this by saying that I’m not jaded enough to the point where I think a mission is a terrible idea for everyone. Quite the contrary. I’ve spoken with many people (quite a few no longer active) who can still identify many positive, life changing experiences.

    “It’s that rite of passage that marks a person in Mormon society as having become an adult, now capable of holding down a job and supporting a family. ”

    “How wise is it that when missionaries return all we hear are “it was the best 2 yrs of my life,”
    leaving us to assume it was primarily a positive experience?”

    Parallels and analogies are never perfect but can be occasionally enlightening. A separate discussion from several months ago discussed the under whelming experience some (many? most? Not sure.) people have attending the temple The language used is nearly identical. It’s built up to be the pinnacle spiritual experience, and quite a few leave bewildered, betrayed, confused, and wondering whether or not they belong to a cult. I’m guessing this doesn’t get talked about much in public either.

    When the currency and credentialing of Mormon life revolves around temple attendance and “successful” missions ( successful could mean not getting sent home early, etc ) then a certain class of outsiders is automatically created by those who don’t fit the mold. I suspect that’s a sizable number of members, a portion that continues to grow with the continued insistence on dysfunctional programs.

    Michael, in addition to everything else young people are told, we were told that “we” were part of the “chosen” generation that would witness the return of Christ. President Packer apparently delayed that a few generations.

    Of the three new apostles, two are M.B.A. types which should serve as a reminder that the first business of the church is, well, business. And there’s a lot of it. That there is a physician included gives me a ray of hope. Perhaps the compassionate voices of reason will prevail.

  130. Sister Chris says:

    Our “Moribund” missionary program..I read John F’s post a few years back and have hoped, not so secretly, that someone with the power to do something read it as well. It is brilliant.

    Perhaps one of the ways to revive our moribund missionary program is to figure out how to properly prepare our missionaries (and our mission presidents) to deal with the “real” world outside the hermetically sealed bubble of the MTC. There is a lot of “theory” and “idealism” in the training process, but where’s the reality check? The MTC has perfected the “tear them down;build them up” military like indoctrination, but perhaps part of that preparatory process is training–both factual and psychological–that prepares missionaries to deal with the challenges and struggles they will encounter as they meet and teach people. I believe parents and families are the most crucial in preparing their children to serve missions, but for the sake of this discussion I want to focus on the actual missionary program and those administering it.

    My daughter, during her mission to Russia, dealt with members and investigators who faced domestic violence (a lot), rape, drug abuse, mental illness, investigators who were murderers, mass apostasy in branches, child abuse, human trafficking, and so forth. Sexual harassment directed at her and her companion was a daily experience. Having previously lived in Russia, she understood the socio-economics of the country, but walking into situations where she was looked to as a “leader” or expected to help solve serious problems required a skill-set that few 22-23 year-old adults have. Teaching in a home where a woman is being beaten and realizing that if her husband comes home and he’s angry, he may just attack you too…it isn’t a stretch to imagine how that would wear on a person. Coping with these horrific tragedies when you are far from home, hundreds of miles away from a mission president and potentially helpful resources would challenge most people, even those considered “mentally tough.” How much preparation/support are missionaries being offered to deal with these types of challenges? Everyone I know has stories, regardless of where they served, about the mentally ill companion or the ward mission leader who was having an adulterous relationship and so on. Can you prepare an 18-25 year old to manage that effectively–and if so, how?

    In terms of mission presidents, part of the challenge is that mission presidents are called, but serve more or less voluntarily. They receive limited training and much of it is “on the job.” The laissez faire approach works for some, but others bring their own baggage to the calling and it is often the missionaries who suffer. Some abuse their authority and become tyrannical control freaks. Others bring their personal vision of the gospel to their calling and they expect their missionaries to mimic them–like a mission is a long form Dale Carnegie course. One universal challenge is that too many mission presidents and their wives come poorly prepared to deal with the medical and psychological problems their missionaries will have. A case could be made for more training for mission presidents. I know the church offers language training to those serving missions not in their native language–maybe they need to require more training sessions given by mental health and medical professionals.

    Perhaps, instead of looking at procedures and process, the missionary program needs revisit the core principles of why our church encourages missions and how to make those missions successful–not just statistically. I love what christiankimball says about the focus being the emotional/spiritual/physical welfare of the missionaries being the first priority. To me, if a key goal is to convert and train the rising generation of church members to serve in the church and to function as contributing members of their communities, the program’s components and metrics need to reflect that goal.

    In spite of what my daughter went through, I see a lot of potential benefits from the missionary program for the reasons Clark Goble cites. However I do think that the mission program needs to better reflect pragmatic realities instead of ideals (if you just have faith, you’ll be healed, you’ll get baptisms, your girlfriend won’t dump you while you’re serving etc.). If a young person is told from their diaper days that a mission is one of the most important rites of passage they will experience, it becomes more vital that families–and the church–come up with ways to better prepare young people to grow from their missions instead of be flattened by them. Memorizing PMG and scriptures may be the easiest part.

  131. Tim Jones says:

    “…dealt with members and investigators who faced domestic violence (a lot), rape, drug abuse, mental illness, investigators who were murderers, mass apostasy in branches, child abuse, human trafficking, and so forth.”

    I’m guessing most missionaries deal with almost all of these issues. I served in one of the safest, most civilized countries in the world–and I still dealt with all these things (with the possible exception of human trafficking, although we did have an investigator who was involved in smuggling in illegal immigrants), alongside death threats, an abusive companion, and all kinds of other things I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t have support for. Missionaries need more support on the mission, not just after.

  132. The one dynamic that needs to stop is this: young children, pre-teens, teenagers, young adults, and adults of all ages internalizing the insidiously damaging belief that something is defective with them as individuals because of these experiences.

    Plenty of times the problem (s) may very well lie with the nature of missionary work itself, the mission president, mission companions, outdated temple ceremonies, church doctrine, church policy, church culture, church leaders, etc, etc, etc. Being told repeatedly that any one of the above stated dilemmas will resolve themselves by “working harder, praying harder”, etc. is certainly one of the worst kind of evils that can be perpetrated on individuals.

    Most people over the age of forty seemed shocked at the extraordinary speed with which organizations of all sizes must respond and adopt to changing environments. Even the famously impatient millennials, all of whom appear to want everything to have happened yesterday, have to take a deep breath occasionally from the break neck pace.

    That the original suggestions were made two years ago and ignored is quite telling. Time may very well have been a luxury in decades past. No longer. And good luck.

  133. I imagine some of this has been said already, but two thoughts:

    Get rid of the mission-as-commandment when it comes to 18 year old boys. I don’t hear this preached over the pulpit so much anymore, but the expectation remains. Removing any commandment/expectation means those who know a mission is not for them/don’t have a testimony/whatever don’t feel so much pressure, and those who do end up going are likely motivated and really want to be there. The decision to go could become more of a testimony building/obtaining experience. So much stigma is placed on boys who don’t go or who come home early, and in those formative years, the negative effects can be long lasting.

    A coworker of mine, one of the lower paid positions in the company, was left homeless when her kitchen caught fire and burned down. She had no homeowner’s insurance. A colleague in the same company, who belongs to an off-shoot of the Mennonites, organized the men in his small congregation to help rebuild. He hardly even knew her. They worked with local businesses to get building materials at cost and organized local donations for the rest. Every Saturday they worked on her home. Many had construction experience but where they lacked they found experienced people to donate their time, and the home was rebuilt. Such a Christlike act had far reaching effects in our company and many, myself included, wanted to know more about his religion. It goes very much against how the current program functions, but how amazing would it be if the primary focus of our young missionaries was to seek out, organize, and follow through on true acts of service in coordination with local wards and communities? It would certainly help the reputation of the Church (locally and globally) the personal development of the missionaries themselves, and I believe, if executed correctly and with a true love of Christ by the missionaries themselves, could be very effective in bringing people to the gospel.

  134. Herman Kahn says:

    “Seventy five years ago white slavery was rampant in England. Each year thousands of young girls were forced into brothers and kept there against their will. While some of the victims had been sold by their families, a large proportion were seized and held by force or fraud. The victims were not from the lower classes only; no level of English society was immune to having its daughters seized. Because this practice continued in England for years after it had been largely wiped out across the Continent, thousands of English girls were shipped across the Channel to supply the brothels of Europe. One reason why this lasted as long as it did was that it could not be talked about openly in Victorian England; moral standards as to subjects of discussion made it difficult to arouse the community to necessary action. Moreover, the extreme innocence considered appropriate for English girls made them easy victims, helpless to cope with the situations in which they were trapped. Victorian standards, besides perpetrating the white slave trade, intensified damage to those involved.”

    “Despite the progress in removing barriers in the way of discussing diseases formerly considered shameful, there are doubtless thousands going without vital medical treatment today because of their inhibitions against learning, thinking, or talking about certain diseases. Some will not get treatment because they do not know enough to recognize the symptoms, some because they are consciously ashamed to reveal illness, and some because they refuse to think about their condition – it seems too horrible to think about.”

    Just replace “Victorian England” with “Mormonism” (not much of a stretch, considering Brigham Young actually met Queen Victoria and gave her a Book of Mormon) and replace “white slavery” with whatever malady seems to make sense in that context.

  135. Clark Goble says:

    “That the original suggestions were made two years ago and ignored”

    Yes, because blog posts are always read and if people don’t follow them it’s clearly that they are ignoring them.

  136. Clark,

    In no way am I implying that blog posts, much less the comments section, should be taken seriously and implemented. They’re things I file under “stuff I read on The Interweb of possibly dubious but maybe useful information”.

    What appears to be different is that these problems – which have been around for a very long time under various guises and different severity – are now reaching crisis proportion and are finally being talked about. Also what appears to be very different, is that the old standard of doing business is most definitely not working. As much as the world needs a throughly competent, thoughtful and honest M.B.A. (and AramCo certainly could use a bunch right now), management structure is changing. So much so, most nimble companies don’t even bother to hire them. They find athletes and cross train them.


  137. Missionaries have it repeatedly and consistently pounded into their brains that the white handbook is a book of commandments. Thus scaring missionaries into blind obedience to a set of restrictions that hinder their effectiveness. If they were taught that the white handbook was a book of guidelines, which it is, missionaries could/would be a lot more effective.

  138. “Just work harder and the Lord will heal you.”

    I thought that kind of thinking by Mission Presidents (MP) had gone away. But, I understand that GA’s send letters of complaint about MP’s, by missionaries in the field, back to the MP. So, if a MP wants to restart the old program of missionaries working 18 hour days, with constant 5 hours of sleep nights, what’s to stop them? In more recent times, illegal immigrants were joining the Church like crazy for a time, hoping it would be a foothold to being legal. There’s also the idea that if missionaries are not baptizing, then the missionaries must be lazy, or sinful.

    We also had the Henry D. Moyle program of “baseball baptisms”. That turned out very poorly. Moyle also felt that larger Church buildings would awe people into joining the Church. He felt the COB should be twice as tall as it ended up being. But, many get turned off by such shows of wealth & power.

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