Letting Missionaries Sleep In

Carole Turley Voulgaris is a doctoral candidate in urban planning at UCLA and usually only blogs about transportation planning. She served a full-time mission in the Germany Frankfurt mission from 2003 to 2004. Carole currently lives in Seattle with her husband, who is a late-riser and has convinced her of the virtues of sleeping in.

A few weeks before the end of my mission, I was chatting with a couple other missionaries about what we most looked forward to about life after the mission [fn1]. One elder said, “When I get home, I’m going to head to my room and go to sleep. And when I wake up, it won’t be because my alarm went off. It won’t be because my companion woke me up. It won’t be because I feel guilty. It will be because I’m not tired.”

Wow. The idea of waking up and feeling well rested just sounded so amazing. We missionaries were tired a lot.

I thought of this conversation again the other day as I was looking through some background literature for a paper I’m writing about the effect of teens’ commutes to school on how much sleep they get (spoiler: they get less sleep as they spend more time commuting). Angela C summarized some of the literature on teen sleep deprivation a couple weeks ago, so I won’t spend too much time on it here. Teens need about the same amount of sleep as very young children (which is more than adults need) [fn2]. But, although little kids generally do get as much sleep as they need, teens tend to be chronically sleep deprived [fn3], at least in part because they are shoehorned into an adult’s schedule that has them staying up later than little kids do, but waking up at about the same time [fn4]. To make matters worse, there is pretty good evidence that teens circadian rhythms are offset from those of adults and children by two or three hours, so the early-to-bed, early-to-rise strategy doesn’t fit well with a teenager’s biology [fn5]. The unique sleep needs of adolescents last into a person’s late teens [fn6].

Do you know who’s increasingly in their late teens these days? Missionaries.

The daily schedule for missionaries hasn’t changed much since I was a missionary (when sister missionaries in particular were generally a couple years further into adulthood than they are today). They wake up at 6:30am. Then they have 30 minutes to exercise, 30 minutes to shower and get dressed, 30 minutes for breakfast (pro-tip: if you eat quickly, you can take a longer shower and actually have time to do your hair), one hour for personal study, and one hour for companionship study. So you don’t actually leave your apartment until 10am (later if you aren’t teaching in your native language, in which case you can take 30 to 60 extra minutes for language study in the morning). That’s fine because you’re not going to have much luck scheduling appointments before 10am anyway, much less with knocking doors. Then, you’re out proselyting until 9:00 or 9:30pm. When you get home, you write in your journal, plan for the next day, and get ready for bed. You go to bed at 10:30pm.

Going to bed at 10:30 and waking up at 6:30 does not fit well into the natural sleep pattern for most 19-year-olds.

Mission presidents have a ton of latitude in adapting mission rules as needed, so here’s what I would do if I were a mission president [fn7]: Give missionaries the option of moving some or all of their personal study time to the evening. Their proselyting hours wouldn’t be affected at all, but if both companions were to move all of their study-time to the evening, they could stay up until 12:30am and sleep the next morning until 8:30am. If one companion wanted to take D&C 88:124 really literally, then she could go to bed at 10:30 and wake up at 6:30, but her companion could at least do her personal study at night, from 10:30 until 11:30 and then sleep in until 7:30 while the early-bird does her own personal study. Or you could just move 30 minutes of companionship study time into the evening, do the rest in the morning, and adjust bedtimes and wake-up times accordingly. The possibilities are endless!

I don’t think it’s crazy to think a change like this could be adopted. I was in the middle of my mission when there was a church-wide change to the missionary schedule to allow for 30 minutes of exercise in the morning. So the idea of messing around with missionaries’ schedules in support of their health isn’t unprecedented.

I can think of some side benefits to this idea too, in addition to just having healthier, better-rested, and more mentally alert missionaries. First of all, it would give missionaries a chance to experiment and figure out whether their studying is more effective in the morning or in the evening – a helpful thing to know about yourself if you’re going on to college after the mission.

Also, maybe it would move us away from the idea that waking up early is a virtue in and of itself (D&C 88:124 notwithstanding). There was one sister in my mission who made her companions wake up even earlier than required. If 6:30am was a righteous time to wake up, then 6:00am must be even more righteous! The sacrifice would lead to even more blessings! I ended up serving with a few of her former companions, and when they would suggest that idea to me, I would argue that waking up early is just as much against mission rules as staying up late would be. And also, no thank you, I am not willing to work through lunch either.

Finally, I think a change like this would better recognize the ways in which these missionaries are adults and the ways in which they are still children. Under the current schedule, we treat missionaries like children in the sense that we’re dictating what time they can wake up and go to bed, but in doing so, we’re forcing these adolescents into a schedule that makes more sense for adults. With my proposal, we’re treating them like adults in the sense that we’re giving them a little more autonomy over their own sleep schedules, and in doing so, we’re allowing those that need it to adopt a sleep schedule that’s more appropriate for the adolescents that many of them still are.

Notes

[fn1] I realize that even just admitting to having had this conversation might lead some people to classify me as a bad missionary who wasn’t fully committed to missionarying. They’d be wrong though. I was a terrific missionary :)

[fn2] Teufel, J. A., Brown, S. L., and Birch, D. A. (2007). Sleep among early adolescent students. American Journal of Health Studies, 22(1), 10-17.

[fn3] Wolfson, A. R., & Carskadon, M. A. (1998). Sleep schedules and daytime functioning in adolescents. Child Development, 69(4), 875–887.

[fn4] Wahlstrom, K. (2002). Changing times: Findings from the first longitudinal study of later high school start times. NASSP Bulletin, 86(633), 3–21.

[fn5] Hagenauer, M. H., Perryman, J. I., Lee, T. M., & Carskadon, M. A. (2009). Adolescent changes in the homeostatic and circadian regulation of sleep. Developmental Neuroscience, 31(4), 276–284.

[fn6] Jenni, O. G., & Carskadon, M. A. (2004). Spectral analysis of the sleep electroencephalogram during adolescence. Sleep, 27(4), 774–783.

[fn7] It is unlikely that I will ever be a mission president (because I’m a girl) or even a mission president’s wife (because my husband isn’t Mormon, so that would be weird), which is why I’m sharing my idea here in the hope that a future mission president will read it.

Comments

  1. I like this idea, and think that Mission Presidents should be encouraged to adopt schedules that better reflect the nation’s optimum operating hours, in addition to benefiting the physical and mental well being of the missionaries.

    That being said, I was very rigid about getting up at 6:30. One, because I felt like it was one of the few things I could be perfectly obedient in. Two, I don’t have a particularly hard time waking up (morning person, also – convenient for #1). Three – I guess I felt like it was sort of a sacrifice and if I could show Heavenly Father that I was doing something small that I would be blessed in other ways. Apparently being a full time missionary wasn’t enough in my mind (Mormon Guilt!).

    I do think a better rested missionary force would be a great thing – staying awake during some appointments was brutal!

  2. I don’t know. I woke up at 6:30 every day in elementary and middle school; a bit earlier than that in High School. Getting up at 6:30 on my mission was no big deal and I don’t recall it being a struggle with any of my companions (and I remember a lot of the struggles they had).
    But if missionary age people really do struggle with 6:30, perhaps the church should push back the missionary age until they can handle waking up at 6:30.

  3. Main problem – no mission president would allow one member of a companionship to be awake while the other is asleep. It would be akin to be being without your companion — all manner of evils could befall the awake comp while the other is soundly sleeping (and, thus, unable to protect the other from all those evils).

    Only way this works is if both comps keep the same schedule.

    Other problem, of course, is that most missionpresidents really believe in the idea of having personal study in the AM before going out. Something about it being necessary to be properly spiritually prepared for the day. I’m not saying that that’s correct, necessarily, but it’s a common belief.

  4. jader3rd, good for you. Like Carole says, different people have different circadian rhythms, and if yours worked for waking up early, well, her proposal would allow you to do that!

    There’s a problem, I think, when we defend the way we’ve always done things by arguing, If I could do it, kids need to keep doing it. I mean, that’s why it was so hard to move away from 100-hour residencies, in spite of the fact that they led to bad outcomes for patients. If we’re not willing to change things when we have new information, solely because we want the next generation to experience exactly what we experienced, I have to question our charity. Not to mention our ability to learn and grow.

  5. What Sam said. Pretty much everyone I knew on the mission struggled with waking up early. Just because you are able to drag yourself out of bed at 6:30 doesn’t mean you’re not struggling to do it and falling asleep at a later time.

  6. Any sleep study involving high school students need to control for cell phone and laptop use. It doesn’t matter what time you push back school start times if they’re going to be online later in the evening because of it.

    As for the missionaries, three mission presidents I know (one served in Eastern Europe, one in Japan, one in the US) have all made the case that high-functioning high school students don’t seem to have a problem with 6:30am wakeup — because many of them were playing football or swimming or doing other things early. Are we considering missionaries to just being a subset of high-functioning youth?

    (BTW, I’m all-in on changing mission structures to match the missionaries; we send too many missionaries home due to anxiety so let’s address how to keep them out in the field, and looking at work schedule and expectations is certainly a place to start.)

  7. A wonderful young woman I know had to come home from her mission early because she started having such terrible migraines she couldn’t eat (and she was a twig to begin with). She’d always had issues with migraines but had been able to control them when she had adequate sleep, which wasn’t possible on the mission. By all means, let’s look after the physical needs of these young women and men! Missions are challenging enough as it is.

  8. It does seem odd that missionaries consistently get eight hours of sleep, yet constant tiredness is a prevalent complaint. It was certainly a complaint of mine and is regrettably a prominent memory of my mission. It didn’t help that 5:45 was the mandated wake up time for a few months. A doctor visited my mission and consulted with each missionary about health issues. He recommended 45 minutes of jogging or brisk walking per day. Unfortunately there wasn’t time in our schedules for it, so my president told us to wake up early. I vividly remember running laps around one of my companions as he practically slept walked down the sidewalk. Fortunately the “mandate” part of waking up early faded in a few months and it became more of a personal choice, which actually worked out pretty well.

  9. On my mission (2010-12), I would take naps during lunch time because I literally could not function until 9:30 pm without one. The mission president told us that napping was against the rules and was a waste of time. I was a really obedient missionary, but this was one rule I had to break for my sanity (a lot of missionaries totally snapped on my mission). Well, halfway into my mission, the mission psychologist gave a talk and said that missionaries should do whatever they need to (within reason) for their sanity — including taking naps during lunch! I was so excited!

    Side note, maybe one reason a lot of missionaries snapped was because we weren’t allowed to eat dinner! Yes, really. We were only allowed to eat breakfast and lunch, and we were never ever allowed to eat in members’ homes. That gap between lunch and 9:30 pm was sooooo long without any real food (especially walking in the hot Caribbean sun).

    Mission presidents need to live a full week in the conditions of their missionaries before making up crazy rules.

  10. @davidpulsiper (Are you the same Elder Pulsipher that I knew on my mission? If so, then how nice to hear from you!)

    I think a change like this would still give the opportunity for exact obedience in the sense that missionaries would have to wake up exactly eight hours after they went to bed (and why is it that even morning people think of waking up early as more of a sacrifice than staying up late?), but it would give them a little more flexibility about which eight hours. To be clear, I’m not advocating that missionaries should start breaking the rules; I’m advocating that mission presidents change the rules to be more flexible.

    Another advantage of a more flexible rule is that it’s better preparation for adulthood. A huge part of becoming an Adult Mormon is learning to figure out specifically and individually what obedience looks like. As non-full-time-missionary-adults, we need to keep the sabbath day holy, do family history work, maintain a supply of food storage, keep the word of wisdom, pay a generous fast offering, and all kinds of other things. For each of those rules, we have to figure out —often together with a spouse— what obedience to those rules will look like in our own households. And different very obedient, faithful households will inevitably come to different conclusions. In a lot of ways, negotiating a schedule with a mission companion (within constraints), would be a chance to practice for those negotiations in life-after-the-mission.

  11. Maybe I’m an unusual case, but here’s what I experienced. For the first year of my mission, I got up religiously (pun intended) at 6:30 a.m. and went to bed at 10:30 p.m. And I was tired all the time. So, I had the brilliant idea that maybe I was getting too much sleep. I decided to get up an hour earlier and use that time for study. An interesting thing happened. I got up for that last half of my mission at 5:30 every morning, and I was much less tired during the day. By 10:30, though, I was exhausted, so I probably slept better. I found that waking up earlier worked better for me. Seven hours was enough. And it’s more than I get now.

  12. For 6 blessed weeks I was assigned to an area where our schedule was adjusted by one hour. We woke up at 7:30 am and went to bed at 11:30 pm. It was the only time on my mission when I consistently felt well-rested. Waking up at 7:30 was considerably easier than 6:30, even though I got the same amount of sleep.

  13. I’m surprised we haven’t had any comments about farm life yet.

  14. Some of us are just more productive in the evening than we are in the morning. I consider my mission a good and successful experience, but that had nothing to do with waking up early each morning. Try though I did, I was never good at getting up on time. I can sleep through multiple alarms, sometimes hitting snooze for an hour without realizing it. Interestingly, I just listened to a fascinating piece on public radio this past weekend about genetic markers that essentially govern whether an individual is a “morning person.” This was revelatory to me. To paraphrase the research as I understand it, each of us has an internal 24-hour biological rhythm that is governed not by our brains (and therefore, not by training or conditioning), but by independent mechanisms within our cells. Some of us our morning persons, others are night owls.

  15. EDIT: “Some of us are morning persons; others are night owls.”

  16. I’m actually surprised we haven’t adjusted missionary schedules more to help them be more effective during the time they are most likely to connect with potential converts, especially families–evenings and weekends. Missionaries in our home ward (Upper Midwest) constantly struggle to find people to teach during the day. And even when they do find investigators who can meet during the day it’s a struggle to find members who can accompany them on teaching appointments because most of us have day jobs. Yet we push to schedule daily dinner appointments in members’ homes, removing them from 1-2 hours of the most productive teaching time. It all seems rather counter-productive.

  17. “removing them from 1-2 hours of the most productive teaching time. It all seems rather counter-productive.”

    This assumes that missionaries are routinely filling up the rest of their evening with appointments to teach and are missing opportunities to teach because they are eating dinner instead.

    Dinner time is a good time to teach already made appointments because investigators can easily move dinner up or back an hour to plan around the appointment. In my opinion it is a bad time to tract though and somewhat rude to bother people during their dinner time.

    I would have loved to have the problem of not having enough time in the evening to schedule appointments. But I don’t suspect that most missionaries have that problem. Dinner isn’t taking them away from anything.

  18. @stilesbn My point was that, at least in our neck of the woods, there’s more emphasis placed on feeding the missionaries than on feeding the proverbial sheep by providing referrals and creating opportunities for the missionaries to teach in the evening hours when families tend to be at home. If we changed the emphasis we might have better results. I’m not suggesting the missionaries tract during evening hours, although by doing so they would have considerable more interaction with people, for better or worse, than by knocking on suburban doors during the daytime.

    All I know is the current approach results in very few teaching appointments, most of which are with single, unemployed individuals with no means of transportation. So we end up with all-too-familiar, circular problems of needing members to accompany the missionaries when most members can’t do that during the daytime, baptizing individuals who require significant financial assistance, counseling, transportation, etc. The new converts tend to be unlike the longtime ward members in almost every respect, so they don’t “fit in” easily to the member cliques, so we end up with a low convert retention rate. These problems aren’t unique to the Upper Midwest.

    Q: Do we love our missionaries more than all the potential investigators we’re supposed to help them find and teach? Isn’t it easier to provide meals to missionaries and feel like we’ve done some good than to do the harder thing by sharing the gospel with our friends and neighbors? Is the act of feeding and doting on the missionaries some sort of vicarious substitute for showing affection to our own sons and daughters who are elsewhere in the mission field? Is our practice along these lines another example of an exclusive culture that is more comfortable huddling with our own kind than in letting others in?

  19. I was an assistant to the mission president for a quarter of my mission in the late ’90s. We would regularly need to be up late working with the president on transfers, picking up missionaries and taking them to the airport, etc. It wasn’t unusual for us to be at the mission office until after midnight. On one of these late nights, I asked my mission president for permission to sleep in the next day. He said he would be up on time, but I could do what I needed to do. He said something about how great it was that I in my early 20s was struggling to keep up with a man who was almost 70. I took that as a challenge for a while, then I admitted defeat. I started guiltily sleeping in after late nights. It’s so weird to me now that I felt guilty about it. Missions are hard.

  20. mwolv: That’s a fair point. Though I would like to point out that what you said in your second post is not what you said in your first post. I can go along with your second post though.

    W.J.: I know a number of 65+ people who can’t seem to sleep past 4 AM no matter what.(Disclaimer: this isn’t a generalization of all 65+ folks, just an anecdote of some.) Some how they think that means that no one else needs any sleep either.

  21. Our kids do early morning seminary from age 14. It destroyed one of my kids. For their sanity it was right to stop but also they began to really resent the church for it. I don’t mind mornings, my wife hates them. We are all just different. Our two older kids completed but really struggled with the early starts, falling asleep at school…

  22. EnglishTeacher says:

    I was thrilled when I served a mission in Spain and learned the schedule was adjusted for an hour later because of cultural norms. We went to bed at 11:30 and woke up at 7:30, which was closer to my own sleep schedule before the mission. I’ve always been a night owl, so early morning seminary was particularly difficult as a high schooler. I never understood the glowing spiritual terms my peers ascribed to the experience of “starting the day out right” when my days without seminary always went better because I got an extra couple of hours of sleep before school! A flexible schedule as far as waking up and going to bed, I think, would be tremendously helpful for missionaries.

  23. I woke up at 5:00 a.m. for four years to attend early morning seminary and had worked the graveyard shift for about a year by the time my mission rolled around. Getting up at 6:30 didn’t bother me per se, but when all we did after getting up and at ’em was to spend 12 hours a day outside the apartment doing (tremendously unproductive) first contacting I’m not sure what the rush was.

  24. i don’t really disagree with any of this. That said, I long for the days of prescribed sleep that I got on a mission . . .

  25. As a missionary, I remember waking up refreshed and alert exactly one time. It was a glorious morning.

    As a parent, I can’t remember the last time I woke up refreshed and alert. I’m grateful that my mission taught me to cheerfully work through exhaustion.

  26. The Church isn’t “one size fits all” but it seems that way.

  27. The Other Clark says:

    “Mission presidents need to live a full week in the conditions of their missionaries before making up crazy rules.”

    Best comment in the thread.

    I served in the mid-’90s, when the mission schedule did not include time set aside for exercise, language study, journal writing, etc. The fact that these have been added to the schedule seems to indicate that the mission department is aware of the burdens, and is willing to make reasonable changes to lighten them

  28. While we are at it, can we please reconsider early morning seminary?

  29. My oh my, times have changed.

    I served in the early 1970’s overseas. We had rules but most of us didn’t exactly follow them if they didn’t make sense. We were expected to be adults and were not treated like children. If a good investigator kept us up until midnight we slept in the next day. If a companion was training to be a BYU football star you got up early and exercised for several hours and then did it again that afternoon. If your companion had schizophrenia then you pretty much took it day by day, not following any schedule and limiting the damage he did.

    My most unconventional companion got up at noon, studied the foreign language while soaking in a tub of hot water and watching daytime soap operas for hours every day. We went out during the day and earned money buying and selling jewelry or watches, cameras etc on the black market. So we didn’t have money sent from home. We made dinner dates with cute young female “investigators” and they usually payed the bill. At about 10:00 pm, instead of going home, we hit the bars and stayed up until as late as 3:00 pm. We could do more introductory lessons and place more Books of Mormon in one good night in a bar than in a week or two of conventional tracting. He loved to have deep doctrine discussions or tell me scary ghost stories when we got home. So we still only got less than 8 hours of sleep.

  30. Oops! That would be as late as 3:00 am not 3:00 pm.