Missionary Safety: Brainstorming

A recent Tribune article talked about issues with sexual assault among missionaries.

I have a lot of opinions on this. First of all, let me just say that when I was a missionary, I was as guilty as anyone for being cavalier about my safety or thinking I would be protected. I think part of that is just being young, feeling invincible. Young people often feel they are safer than they are because they don’t have life experience yet. I was also in a relatively safe place, the Canary Islands, which is basically the Hawaii of Europe. The only things that happened to me were:
1) two companions who were robbed, neither involving weapons, although both were physically assaulted by their attackers.

2) many instances of frottage on public transportation

3) being flashed by a guy who asked me “What do you think of that?” (indicating his penis). My response was “It looks like a penis, only smaller.”

4) the disturbing presence of a naked man who routinely set up camp along our deserted route. Once he followed us (this time he was clothed) as we walked between two dark villages. We got away. Locals said he was deranged but probably harmless.

I did a post on these issues a year ago here. There was one area I worked, with pretty strong success, that was full of heroin addicts. That was the place my comp got robbed (the first time), but I never felt unsafe there. My parents came at the end of my mission, and when we walked through that area to see some of my families, for the first time saw that place as a civilian and did not feel that it was a safe area for them, as we gingerly stepped over discarded needles.

The elders in my mission were definitely in worse places than we were, consistently. The Tribune article focused on the risks of sexual assault that are more of an issue for sisters on the whole, but men are also exposed to plenty of dangerous situations, including some sexual assault. From the article:

At the 2018 training seminar for new mission presidents, church President Russell M. Nelson said that if missionaries are obedient, “they will be protected, both physically and spiritually,” according to the Church News. “Teach them that in spite of their ever-present risks, they will be much safer than will be their classmates and colleagues who were not called on missions — a mission is the safest place on the earth for them at this time.”

I’m sure it’s statistically valid that missionaries are generally safer than, I dunno, drunken college students attending frat parties who dive into the wrong end of swimming pools. Granted. But when applied to missionaries as a group, safety is not really about obedience. God doesn’t say “Sister X, you didn’t read your scriptures today, so you will now be sexually assaulted.” We have this magical mindset that missionaries are going to be physically safe in dangerous situations if they do completely unrelated things [1]. But the fact is that missionaries are often in unsafe situations beyond their control, and no, they are not always protected even when they are obedient.

I do believe you can feel spiritual warnings to avoid situations or get out of a place, but that doesn’t mean that nothing will ever happen to you or that you are at fault if something does. It doesn’t mean you are disobedient or a bad missionary, or that those who aren’t assaulted are somehow better. When we say this, it’s a weird twist on the prosperity gospel: if you are righteous, you will prosper; therefore if you prosper, you were righteous. Ergo, bad things only happen to disobedient people, or in other words, bad things only happen to bad people. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  • Missionaries are often young enough to still believe they are immortal.
  • Missionaries are often religious enough to think martyrdom is a good outcome.
  • Missionaries are often naive enough to miss social cues that they have entered a dangerous situation.
  • Missionaries are often sexually innocent enough that they don’t comprehend the sexual motives of those people around them who may target them.
  • Missionaries are often from stable, affluent backgrounds and haven’t been exposed to the risks of poverty, political instability, corrupt police forces, or violent threats.
  • In addition to these types of external threats, missionaries are often exposed to risks from those who are mentally ill: the public, investigators, and even other missionaries. Very few missionaries have the life experience to know what to do in these situations.

In light of these risks, the article talks about the Church Missionary Department working on policies, procedures and training for Mission Presidents to handle these situations better in future.

The church needs to:

  1. Quit telling missionaries not to talk to family members about safety concerns. [2]
  2. Require more oversight of dangerous areas–maybe force MPs to justify their decisions of where to put missionaries when the area is designated as high risk. There should be frequent risk meetings to assess situations. People who work for the State Department have to do one “hardship” assignment in a more volatile country (out of their first three assignments). These embassies have completely different protocols than regular assignments, and so should missions in these areas. Honestly, we should probably be working more closely with the embassies in general. Lots of Mormons work in the State Department anyway.
  3. Revert to age 19 for elders, at least in some of the more risky locations. Even if being a year younger doesn’t put those individuals at risk, the dynamics Presidents are managing today must be substantially more fraught than they were when I served. [3] Or, conversely, make missions smaller so that Mission Presidents can provide better oversight of risks.
  4. Involve EXPERTS more in creating procedures and provide EXPERT counseling. In particular, engaging women to counsel women would be helpful.
  5. Let missionaries who are victims of crime make their own decisions about whether they will go home, with no pressure either way, and with support from a professional counselor and family.
  6. Provide far better information about risks–to the missionaries–in areas missionaries are assigned to, and keep that information updated.
  7. Involve women with expertise in assault in the creation of procedures and training materials as well as mission governance.
  8. Missions should have an assigned professional counselor who is local to assist with missionary mental health issues including trauma, but also anxiety and depression, and should provide regular training to the missionaries directly, not just to Mission Presidents.
  9. We should lift the restrictions on calling home. Allow contact with home. Instead of training the missionaries to keep their mouths shut about things, train the parents to be a good support network.
  10. We need more women overseeing missionary work in an official capacity. There is no formal leadership role for women over missionaries–and yes, I mean over both men and women serving. This is an issue that needs to be solved including the insights women provide, not just male thinking. [4] Too often, men in the church see women as something to be protected, not empowered and trusted. That mindset creates danger for women in myriad ways: it fosters dependence on unreliable and absent oversight, it keeps them in the dark about risks, it creates resentment against women as a “special case,” and it creates anxiety in women about sharing information. And let’s be honest, occasionally, the threats to missionary safety originate with the Mission President.

What do you think?

  • What suggestions would you add to this list?
  • Do you think the mission age change has shifted risks?
  • Are risks to missionaries generally overstated (too cautious) or understated (not cautious enough)?

Discuss.

[1]  Likewise so many teach that if you are “obedient” you’ll have baptisms when baptisms are dependent on other people’s decisions, not your unrelated actions. You can’t actually obey others into choosing to join the church.

[2] Although, let’s be honest, some parents can’t handle the truth or are culturally unaware or would like to encase their children in bubble wrap.

[3] Then: 135 men aged 20-21 years of age and 15 women aged 22 on average vs. Now: 100 men aged 19 average and 50 women aged 19 average.

[4] I don’t give a crap what you call them or if you have to do something dumb like add “ette” or “ess” to their title so you don’t forget they don’t have a penis. This is the kind of thing men often have blind spots about, particularly men who have been raised in a highly gendered way.

Comments

  1. I want to echo the empowering women as leaders point. I know we all saw it with #MeToo, but it can’t be emphasized enough just how DIFFERENT adult women’s and adult men’s experiences of the same societal dynamics are.

    It’s like that meme/advertisement a couple of years ago, that said “Women: Walk like three men are behind you.” The men who wrote the ad intended it as, and assumed everyone would take it as, “Women, you are powerful and should strut your sexy stuff to call attention to yourself since clearly you want that.” The women (including me) who actually read the ad immediately thought “THAT’S TERRIFYING RUN.”

    I’ve had too many conversations with men about late nights and dark alleys and rowdy, seedy areas that boil down to vast disparities of what men and women even IMAGINE the ‘worse case scenarios’ to be.

    Men: Eh, maybe a drunk will punch me or try to grab my wallet. I’ll push him over. Or run away. Or harness the jeers of the crowd in my favor. Or call the police.

    Women: The drunk will punch me, pin me to the wall, lift up my skirt, and penetrate me while his friends cheer him on and then take their own turn, oh and if I resist they’ll kill me.

  2. When it comes to missionary safety, magical thinking is a lot easier and cheaper than a detailed and effective (and costly) 10-step plan as you outlined at the end of the post. My only question is whether the senior leadership chooses the magical thinking option because they actually practice magical thinking or just because it is cheaper and easier?

  3. Somebody in the Missionary Department should hire Angela, stat.

  4. nobody, really says:

    “Well, maybe you need to learn to listen to the Spirit when He tells you not to go into a certain area.”
    -Mission President, 1990, counseling a missionary who had been assaulted in Washington DC

  5. Seems a lot of this is more actually protecting missionaries, not just their reputations. Requiring that they not visit with women when there isn’t a man present is weak protection that does more harm than good.

  6. I think these are great ideas. Even if safety weren’t an issue, your thought on smaller missions or more oversight is something the church should honestly be thinking about. My father was a mission president and the daily stress of being the only “manager” to deal with these teenagers was all consuming. The mission presidency should all be called as full time missionaries. Then the mission presidency would be able to divide duties and responsibilities in order to best serve the missionaries. Maybe one couple that gets called, the wife is set apart as the leader of sister missionaries, similar to a relief society president and bishop work had on hand. My wife served in Washington DC and they had 2 AP sisters, due to the large number of sister missionaries.

  7. Kristine, amen!

    Angela, powerful and practical post. The only thing remotely hard about implementing it would be going against the inertia that the current system has, and we’ve seen that the church leadership seems willing to challenge inertia (see, e.g., the church’s name thing). I honestly can’t remember how dangerous my mission was, in part because I was precisely that middle-class, oblivious white American you describe, and partly because my experience as a guy would clearly have differed from women’s experience. I especially like the idea of providing counselors and no pressure about staying. And the calling home thing shouldn’t be stretch—as I understand it, missionaries are currently allowed to email, which is like half a step away.

    So thanks for this!

  8. Angela, your point about the Spirit and the prosperity gospel is an important one. Hear enough “thank goodness I listened to the Spirit so X didn’t happen” and you’ll begin to think every bad thing that’s happened to you is a result of your own spiritual inadequacies. I rather think the role of the Spirit is broader than to rescue us from the very experience we were sent here to have.
    The longer I live the more I believe that God generally does not intervene to rescue us from the bad things, but rather asks to use our agency, gifts, and intelligence to navigate through them.

    To point #10 of the OP, I would like to see less dependence on the catch-all “Call the Elders” solution. Stop early patterns of spiritual and physical dependence and empower missionaries through safe, official channels of support.

    While many examples of late have shown that missionary risks are understated, there are plenty of examples of overstated risk. None of the 25+ widows in our ward can feed the Elders without another male present. Such a risk is overstated, but not unexpected as you see broader patterns of the church constructing rules and programs that are designed to protect and support men, often to the detriment of women.

  9. When the announcement for the age change occurred, I had real concerns regarding safety. 1) I was concerned about the safety of the sisters because of the massive increase in missionaries, there would be challenges in preparing them and keeping them safe (organizational stressors), and 2) I was worried about the safety of the elders because if the sisters would get priority for safe areas, the elders would get pushed deeper into risky areas.

    The reporting on the Peace Corps shortly after the age change did not reassure me.

    We do need additional female voices to set policies and women train to oversee women. I remember talking to my husband years ago about personal safety, I rattled off the typical list: don’t wear headphones, vary your route and schedule, never carry groceries/items in both hands, etc.. He sat there with his mouth hanging open. He had no idea that girls and women are trained in this way from the time they are very young. Few men have the same perspective or understanding of risks to women.

  10. That RMN quote sounds eerily like Franklin D. Richards’ promise to the late 1856 handcart companies that they would go through in safety if they trusted in the Lord and did their duty to him.

  11. I served a foreign mission in Europe, & had the fewest problems when partnered with a sister from Detroit Michigan. I was from Ohio, & between the two of us, we could recognize trouble coming. My personal opinion is that we need to stop teaching “ignorance” to our daughters under the guise of “innocence”, and actually teach them sexual safety through their teen years. The ability to recognize trouble coming before a knife is at your throat improves your survival rate & that of your companion as well. Our daughters can remain innocent without being completely ignorant of sexual dangers, or remaining naive to the point of stupidity.

  12. Regarding the suggestion that the President’s wife be called over the sisters, it’s a “kill two birds with one stone” approach with some merit, but still concerning for one main reason: couples act like couples. You are are really getting two of the same thing (or very similar) rather than two different viewpoints. They tend to have philosophical alignment and listen to one another, coming up with a version of the truth that is similar rather than bringing two wholly different viewpoints. Also, quite a few MP wives have led sheltered lives and may not bring a lot to the table; it really depends on the individuals.

    SJ: Yes, that is exactly what I mean. Men seem clueless that women are trained from a young age to take these measures to defend ourselves. Whenever I’m walking alone to my car at night, I always lace the keys between my fingers, in case I need to jam them into the eyes, neck or genitals of an attacker. I am quite sure the men I know don’t do that, but I almost don’t even think about it anymore. One of the places I learned that is in Young Women’s. Our leaders had a professional come in to teach us some basic self-defense so we would feel empowered if we were ever in danger. I had assumed this was standard in YW, but I’ve discovered that isn’t the case. Certainly we could set aside time for this as a rule in YW–and further, in the MTC–to practice self-defense. I suggest we scrap the “make a modest wedding dress out of toilet paper” activity and replace it with this.

  13. Jack Hughes says:

    -Get rid of the folklore/magical thinking about missionaries having “special protection”, or any kind of mindset that privileges a missionary’s life as being more valuable than anyone else’s. This feeds into spiritual elitism which can stay with a missionary for the rest of his or her life.
    -Get rid of tracting, street contacting and other traditional forms of proselytizing that often draw antagonism and hostility from the local populace. Replace it with meaningful community service, which instead builds goodwill with the locals, and makes missionaries less likely to be targeted.
    -Better training for missionaries, specific to countries and areas of service, in addition to the general broad-brush training provided in the MTC and the white handbook. This should include lessons on ongoing political and social issues and potential for unrest, cultural sensitivity, history, where not to go, etc. Don’t rely on the spirit alone to warn of danger.
    -Train missionaries in operational risk management, as they do in the military. They do this precisely because 18-year-olds often lack common sense and take unnecessary risks without considering the possible outcomes.
    -Missionaries should also get professionally trained in Mental Health First Aid or ASIST (suicide intervention) or something similar. They end up interfacing with a lot of mentally unstable people and should know how to deal with them effectively and compassionately. As a bonus, companions will also be able to recognize potential mental health problems in each other and provide early intervention if necessary.
    -Actually listen to State Dept. advisories and warnings. MPs in dangerous countries should have regular communication with the embassy and respective security office. These people do threat assessments for a living, so why ignore them? Also let the missionaries themselves provide input in threat assessments. As the “boots on the ground”, they often have a better read of the local atmospherics than a cloistered MP in his affluent surroundings.

  14. I would add stop pressuring all YM/YW to serve a mission. Publicize and provide other types of opportunities-with varying lengths and types of commitments.
    Missions aren’t for everybody and can sometimes exacerbate existing issues. I know some who stopped attending church altogether and one factor was the pressure to go on a mission. In some areas you are made to feel like a loser (or sinner) if you don’t go. Sometimes YM/YW unsuited for missionary work make the work unbearable for their companions. I know of one young man who struggled with a health issue, (which would’ve made a proselyting mission especially difficult) went on a mission, came home early, became addicted to drugs and died some years later from an accidental overdose. Very sad.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    ATTENTION: To the COB flunkie assigned to monitor BCC (assuming such a person exists).

    Please forward this thread to your contacts in the Missionary Department. STAT!

  16. I love the list. I would add:

    1- Have a hard and fast rule to heed State Department warnings at all times. If the state dept says don’t go, don’t go. Pull out all of the missionaries including those who were born in that area.

    2- Scrap any official or unofficial urgings to stay out later to catch fathers at home. This directly lead to the assault of a sister companionship in the article.

    3-Call two couples to work as Mission Presidents. One male president from one couple, one female president from the other to oversee the male and female missionaries. This doubles the oversight and support at the top – the MP spouse has enough to do without doubling up official duties.

    As a side note, after reading the article my husband and I agreed we would not financially support our kids missions if they are going somewhere the State Dept says is too dangerous to travel. Can’t stop an adult agreeing to serve, but we’re not subsidizing the church’s idiotic decision to have kids serve there.

  17. Another thought that I think is helpful along with what Cathy said above. Our “risk assessment” personnel seem to be legal minds from Kirton-McConkie rather than people with overseas experience who understand the types of risks missionaries are really facing as outlined above. Protected the organization from missionary stupidity isn’t the same thing as protecting American teens from an unpredictable public.

  18. A man from our town is currently serving a security mission for the church. His career in law enforcement made him very familiar with the seamy underside of things. His job specifically concerns missionary safety and security so I suspect the church does more than we know. He and I served in the same mission and I know he appreciates potential dangers more than most because we’ve discussed the three missionaries that were murdered shortly before I joined that mission. He knew them all.

  19. These kinds of changes are really needed!! Two more suggestions:

    1) Mandatory safety training sessions that address both general and area-specific risk management. Maybe this exists already, but the overrarching message shouldn’t be that it is possible to avoid all harm through obedience to rules or to spiritual promptings, but rather that missionaries need to know how to react when bad things do happen. This training should also address the possibility of exploitative, abusive, or otherwise inappropriate behavior by local members, fellow missionaries, and mission presidents. There should be a protocol for missionaries to report concerning incidents and for leaders to respond to them empathetically and productively. Missionaries should be allowed and encouraged to report, even when something may not seem like a “big deal” (like a ward member’s creepy vibe or undercooked chicken dinner) or when it implicates the missionary in rule-breaking (like getting groped while coming home late).

    2) There really ought to be a hotline that missionaries can call or email if, for any reason, reporting and dealing with an issue through standard channels isn’t comfortable, or doesn’t make sense. (For example, if the mission president is the problem.)

  20. nobody, really says:

    Leo:
    Yes, I believe the Church is working on it. But, for them, it seems to be more important that nobody thinks they can change the Church – that any change in the Church must come wholly independent of any suggestions for change that come from outside the COB.

    And if someone from outside makes a suggestion that the Church may have been working on, that change will be delayed so it doesn’t look like a response.

    My mission boundaries covered two major US cities. The mission president watched the nightly news covering one of those cities. That was the extent of his security briefings. When I was evacuated from the middle of a race riot in the back of a police car one night, the mission president had absolutely no idea that anything was going on, that Louis Farrakhan had been speaking that day, or that local news reports were warning everyone to stay out of the housing projects.

    When one of my brothers got the word that the local Catholic priest was teaching, from the pulpit, that the local Mormon Missionaries were in fact “aswangs”, or limbless Filipino vampires that smell like vinegar and fly around at night eating children, it didn’t come from the mission president. It was when they saw locals cutting wooden stakes and tossing holy water on them that they thought something might be amiss.

    And when a man who called himself “Brother Terminator” started calling the missionaries in Baltimore, specifically identifying each one, their name and appearance, their address, and making threats about how he was going to shoot, stab, and gouge out the eyes of each one, the mission president’s response was to transfer the entire district of blonde elders out and replace them with elders with darker hair.

    Don’t ever assume the Church has your best interests at heart. We’re regularly told in leadership meetings that our primary responsibility is to “protect the good name of the Church”.

  21. 1. Thoughtful common sense—why not always? Why not already?
    2. Most of this could be done by a mission president on his (should be “their”) initiative. I’d like to think that happens already, but maybe I’m too optimistic. On the other hand, as I have come to an age where a really noticeable number of peer group friends are serving as mission presidents, I’d be surprised if they didn’t take this whole list to heart on first reading. (If only because my friends are good people.)
    3. Reading the OP and extrapolating from my decades ago mission experience, I suspect that the greatest gap between what is and what could be has to do with how Sister missionaries are taught and treated. If it were up to me, I would make that the explicit top priority—plans and programs and education and more—for Sister Missionaries, and figure that much of the good I want for all will come along as a natural consequence.

  22. Kevin Barney, please explain why you assume that someone assigned by the COB to monitor BCC is a flunky. I love your posts, but you caught me off guard on this one.

  23. The Trib article mentions a blog that was started by some courageous former sister missionaries. The stories there as well as others I personally am aware of are completely disheartening.

  24. One more observation:

    There needs to be more openness and honesty about what serving a mission is really like beyond the “best 2 years of my life,” so that youth/families can properly assess the challenges.

    Let’s face it. Even Jesus and Joseph Smith felt a sort of abandonment from God when they were at low points in their lives. To give youth the impression/message that they will not be tested beyond what they can endure is malpractice.

  25. When I was a Sister missionary 30 years ago I was very naive and felt that no matter what I would be protected. I was the Lord’s servant! He would never let anything happen to me! I shudder each time I think about the many times that as my companion and I tracted that we were placing ourselves in some highly dangerous situations. One time we were let into an apt full of men. At least 10. These men were from a country where women are not respected and rape is common. I was a bit unnerved, but both my companion and I stayed and taught them. They mainly just mocked us for our Christian belief, but they never disrespected us. That could have turned out to be a horrific experience. Another time we tracted into a single young man that was spooky. Our first indication, that should have told us not to go in there, was how dark his house was and there were different kinds of knives hanging all over the walls. We finally quit teaching him when he just got too creepy. Now 30 years later I’m amazed nothing happened to me. I personally do not think missionaries, especially Sister missionaries, should be tracting at all! It has never shown to be productive and it is just way too dangerous. I live in a fairly safe area in my state, but I worry all the time about the Sisters in our ward. Their area is so small and they have no car, that about all there is for them to do is tract. I especially worry in the winter when they are out walking at night.

  26. Mission offices receive (or at least did 4 years ago) a global daily security bulletin from SLC that incorporates information from sources including the State Department. My mission was very small and so sometimes we read the bulletin to find out about protests that happened 3 days previously. On the few times we had advance warning, the described location was so vague that it covered essentially 3/4 of a city, even though we eventually figured out they always happened in just 2-3 neighborhoods. Do all mission presidents read it? Probably not since I believe it is only in English. Do mission presidents assume that it contains all of the security information that they should know about? Probably some and that’s scary.

    My mission president got a call from church HQ right at the end of my service that we needed to bump up our schedule to be in an hour earlier every night because of…. some terrorist/gang/other threat. I’m sure he was told what it was, but that was never precisely communicated down to the general missionaries and so a lot of missionaries didn’t take it seriously. I honestly don’t know why we weren’t told, but because of it we weren’t able to be on the lookout against whatever was so serious to mandate a schedule change.

    One of the things that amazed me when comparing my mission to my siblings was how holidays were treated. My brother in NYC would turn in very early on all big holidays, while for me everything was game. Even the national day of Voodoo (meaningful for where I served) was a full day of lessons and door knocking.

    I suspect that an unfortunate irony of mission presidents is that the ones in locations where they need greater focus on keeping their missionaries safe are also the ones where the church is younger and still organized with districts rather than just stakes. These fall under his responsibility as well, and can suck up quite a bit of his time.

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    My flunky comment was meant to be a joke, a humorous way of saying this is a great post and the Church would to well to pay attention to these ideas.

  28. We actually had a Mission Shrink where/when I served (Boise, 06/07). I know that they have since changed the policy on how much therapy you can do before they send you home, which is a shame because plenty of good missionaries didn’t get the help they needed before they left home.

  29. I will second the comment about church security; I worked in the department for several years and many of them are former FBI, State Dept, etc. They had good relationships with embassies, State, etc. But as to how much the missionary department applies their info/advice…

  30. Happy Hubby says:

    Kristine. I disagree with the missionary department hiring Angela. She should lead it.

    Jack Hughes – I couldn’t agree more on making missions service focused. I knocked on doors my entire mission with no results. I remember one area I could recall the 5 previous times I had knocked on doors on that street (I had a much better memory back then). One of my memorable times was when we painted someone’s house so they wouldn’t have to pay rent for 1 month and they could get on their feet. I remember we had to lie about our stats that week because we spent 7 hours that day doing the painting. That was more than the allotted 4 hours of “Christian Service” allowed per month.

  31. I would possibly consider allowing my son to serve a mission with these changes. Thank you Angela, on point as usual!

  32. Angela, a thought-provoking post, and one that strikes close to my own experiences.

    I served in a US Urban area and we covered both affluent neighborhoods and high crime neighborhoods. We had no direction on what areas to avoid or take caution in. We had to figure it out on our own. (No sisters were in this district.) While we thought we were savvy, we were chased by would-be muggers one night after a 9pm appointment and literally ran for our lives. It was jarring. Had a bus driver not saw us as we were running and stopped in the middle of the street, calling to us to jump in, I don’t know how it would have ended. Another missionary was mugged and stabbed in the leg on the edge of this same high crime area. While there was much concern for his treatment and recovery, I don’t recall our being briefed or cautioned by the mission following the event. Everyone hoped he recovered well and that was about it. Looking back, the lack of direction after that incident leaves me breathless. Mission safety is on my mind because I have children coming of age to serve missions, daughters among them.

    1 – Yes, no question.
    2 – Agree completely.
    3 – I’m not sure I would use age as a dependent variable here. And while I’m not a security expert, it seems to me you don’t want to make security matters to be subject to individual attributes. You want a designed process that is applied to assess security risk, create policies for movement, personal exposure, living arrangements, transportation and self-defense that can be uniformly employed regardless of who is in the area.
    4 – Yes! But for some reason, our church struggles to engage experts unless it is regarding matters of finance and law. In those areas, the institutional church has the best on the task, but when it comes to many other areas of church operations there seems to be no requirements for professional credentials. This has always bothered me.
    5 – It seems the church continues to really struggle to get these things right, whether it is handling sexual assault at the BYU’s or knowing what to do when missionaries have suffered from assault. I’m confused why this seems to be such an institutional blind spot. Other than I will refer to Christian Kimball’s point #3 as the basis for and solution to the problem here.
    6 – As a parent I will demand it. If my children serve, which I expect some will, I may become the parent from hell for the missionary department and my stake president. How can I not? We know the idea that missionaries will be protected just because they are serving is a fallacy, unless—to your prosperity point—we also believe they did something to deserve being assaulted, and that is absurd and an idea we all ought to be outspoken against.
    7 – Involve women here and in every other level of church administration and governance at local and general levels. Doing so would solve a lot of problems.
    8 – Every mission should have a trained, licensed counselor (or one assigned to cover multiple missions in more highly concentrated areas). I estimate around 18% of missionaries within my mission suffered from ailments that could not be addressed by spiritual counseling from our mission president. We had several who suffered from anxiety, depression and even spectrum disorders, undiagnosed and untreated. From my observations, their mission experience was a nightmare for them personally and to no fault of their own. Even for missionaries who are healthy, serving in a dangerous area takes a heavy toll. I know it did on us. The stress at times was almost unbearable. (We were verbally threatened and assaulted outside our apartment’s main door on one occasion. It was emotionally shocking, physically draining and mentally harming. We struggled to process the stress of our area. We coped by violating mission rules and driving outside of our district boundaries on P-Day just to get out of the city and into the more peaceful suburbs…and then we had to cope with the guilt of doing that and keeping it a secret.)
    9 – Amen.
    10 – The honest truth is this: the sisters in my mission out-performed their male counterparts in every category, and they were much lower maintenance (to use time-period specific language). The conventional wisdom about sister missionaries in my time was flat out wrong. The mission would have done much better if these sisters could have been given assignments to be district and zone leaders or assistants. I endorse your point here completely. It makes no sense to exclude half of the church’s talent pool from these important administrative and leadership positions. We only make ourselves less effective by doing so.

  33. Geoff - Aus says:

    I served in the Irish mission 68 to70 when there was a civil war between the catholics and protestants. Apart from go home if you hear gunfire, ther was not any security advice. We just tracted from 9 in the morning to 9 at night. 2 missionaries were killed by a car mowing them down, either while I was there or just before.
    On the related women subordinate to men. I have a daughter who is a federal police officer specialising in bomb aprasial, who in her spare time is a smokejumper. At church there is a notice that in an emergency the first thing to do is tell a priesthood holder. She finds this rediculous for some reason. She would be more qualified to deal with any emergency than any priesthood holder in our stake.

  34. “Quit telling missionaries not to talk to family members about safety concerns. [2]”

    Your state department advises their personnel, “If you feel certain information might worry a loved one, be selective. ”
    They specifically say not to lie, but it’s clear what the intent is. Don’t share information that will cause people to worry because there’s not much they can do about it.

    “Require more oversight of dangerous areas…, we should probably be working more closely with the embassies in general. Lots of Mormons work in the State Department anyway.”

    This isn’t a US state department run church anyway. But maybe American assumptions about safety aren’t always accurate? “More oversight” isn’t very clear – by whom? Who oversees the overseers? Does the US State get to have the final say in a global church? But in general asking leaders to assess safety more regularly is good. Let’s do that.

    “Revert to age 19 for elders, at least in some of the more risky locations. ..”

    18 year olds can join the military and become paramedics. Changing the age to 19 isn’t effective. Maybe 35 or 40 could bring some benefits in both safety and effectiveness…

    “Involve EXPERTS more in creating procedures and provide EXPERT counseling. In particular, engaging women to counsel women would be helpful.”

    If you all caps it, do they become more QUALIFIED? Wow, that does look fancier. I think you should have italicized the word engaging too.

    “Let missionaries who are victims of crime make their own decisions …”

    They don’t have the ability to make the decision now? I also like the metrics used in these suggestions – more oversight and far better info. You can always get more and better, but far better! Is that like a AAA Rating? Or does it just involve more all caps?

    “Involve women with expertise in assault in the creation of procedures and training materials as well as mission governance.”

    One does not follow the other. Surely you realize that a room of 10 experts can argue against even things they agree with in order to be the smartest expert in the room. We should probably just have some EXPERT counselors (italics) translate (enditalics) the scriptures for us as well to make sure they are representing the most updated psychologically sound advice on a regular basis. With more oversight. And far better procedures! You realize your list is overflowing with indentity politics? You realize it never ends? Your list can easily be morally suoerceeded with one sensitive not to gender but race. Then nationality. Then sexuality and intersexuality. You are just as insensitive as you perceive others to be. In the world of moral preening, there’s always a more moral fish.

    “Missions should have an assigned professional counselor who is local to assist with missionary mental health issues…”

    This is nice. Appropriate human resources permitting. There are plenty of counselors around the world I’d prefer not to send my kids to – especially many in America. I’d trust just about any mission president in history over the first 10 post authors/commentators on BCC to give advice to my kids.

    “We should lift the restrictions on calling home. ..”

    Calls home aren’t necessary, but a modern day placebo to a deeper problem of emotional dependency. All of humanity has existed without calls to home. If they want to communicate from afar let them do it with interpretive dance or the skillful use of a turndun as their ancestors.

    “We need more women overseeing missionary work in an official capacity. … And let’s be honest, occasionally, the threats to missionary safety originate with the Mission President.”

    More! Let’s be honest as well, we need more men teaching in the schools because occasionally, it’s the women who assault the students.

    But in general a formal leadership role isn’t more (!) needed in the mission field or in church admin more than it’s needed in the home. That’s the competing reality. Sadly, fortunately for this agenda, family is increasingly less important to both genders, so we have more women available who can go and do a great job by and large. But they’ll bring a different set of pathologies to inflict on the poor helpless 18-19yr olds with them. Those innocent kids who want the right to vote, drink alcohol, operate dangerous machinery, fight wars, have sex, get abortions, reassign their gender, protest complex civil rights issues, but can’t handle a mission and mission president without more oversight.

  35. Wow, COB Flunky. I feel bad for your coworkers during brainstorming sessions. You can disagree and not be an a**hole about it.

  36. An element of missionary life that I don’t think has been explicitly discussed here is that missionaries are systematically isolated. Mission rules severely restrict the contact that missionaries (especially young missionaries) are permitted to have with family and friends who have always been the pillars of their social and spiritual support. The effect of isolation is not just psychological. It’s harder to solve all kinds of personal, practical, and spiritual problems when your support system is constricted. I don’t believe there’s anything sinister in the reasons for these rules–for many young missionaries these rules are a healthy challenge–but we should never forget that this isolation is probably the defining feature of missionary life.

    Obedience to these restrictions varies widely. Especially in missions where communication is easy, it is pretty common to find missionaries who either reject the restrictions or shave the sharpest edges off of these rules. The reasons for that also vary widely. Some of these choices to disregard rules are reckless, but others are wise. It depends.

    Here is the core issue: the missionaries who are most obedient to restrictive rules are also the most vulnerable to the risks of isolation. This is that fact that should deprive an honest, clear-eyed mission president of a good night’s sleep for three years running.

    One of my concerns about the way the missionary program is run is that the risks that missionaries take are almost never discussed in terms of the dangers of social, psychological, and geographic isolation. Too many people in the church take it for granted that isolation is all good because of the resourcefulness that it teaches. For such people, the natural response to problems is that missionaries should just suck it up or pray more or be more obedient. Wise mission presidents have always known that this is a stupid attitude. The Missionary Department is nuanced about this, but not entirely smart either. What we need, in addition to many of the changes discussed in the Trib articles and Angela’s post, is more honest discussion about the challenges of mission life.

  37. One more thought: in the last ten to fifteen years, the church has established more demanding medical and psychological qualifications for prospective missionaries. This is good, and it reflects a greater appreciation of some of the issues that I mentioned in my previous comment. But we still have too much magical thinking about missionary life in many of the church’s statements for broad consumption.

  38. I served my mission during this event: https://exmormon.org/d6/drupal/Mormon-Missionary-Murdered-by-his-Comanion
    Not every day a missionary murders his companion.

  39. Missionaries could be locked and loaded in some places. Two hours twice a week at the shooting range along with scripture study. (Might be useful in persuading investigators in addition to being for protection).I think old Hebe Grant preached in Japan that it was easier to kill some people and baptize them for the dead than convert them. With all the guns and ammo laying around in Utah they could probably get them all donated and not spend a cent on any of it.

    Envision this: Oh my heck, comp- look what my crazy uncle sent me instead of a lame box of cookies! A fetching automatic AK 747 !!! Yeh. Ra tat tat tat.. Oops, sorry about that.

    Another idea is to encourage missionaries to keep as pets attack dogs. Lord knows how many dogs have chased and bitten His anointed. Let’s turn this problem in the other direction.

    Of course training would be crucial, for dogs and missionaries alike.

  40. Billy Possum says:

    One missionary’s magic is another missionary’s miracle. Our theology – and the way we protect our missionaries – is natural, not secular. Otherwise, we’re merely a poorly run 501(C)(3).

    Not everything’s a miracle, but neither is everything in heaven and Earth dreamt of in BCC’s philosophy.

  41. I was a full-time missionary, and I experienced miraculous interventions that protected my physical safety during that time. I know what a miracle is. I also know that it’s stupid to plan on miracles. We plead for miracles, we ask God to prepare our hearts for miracles, but unless we’re idiots we don’t rely on miracles to replace what we ought to do for ourselves.

    The church’s missionary program is really without parallel among the church’s other activities in this respect: thousands of missionaries are sent into potentially dangerous situations every day. The fact is that miracles don’t always come, and even missionaries who are prepared are not always protected from harm. We should demand of ourselves the highest degree of vigilance and continuous improvement in protecting missionaries’ safety. We should be absolutely hard-headed and honest about the risks. And whenever we find anyone in the church using the promise of miracles to cover for a lack of preparation or an unwillingness to speak forthrightly, that’s when we pass into the realm of magic.

    So no. One missionary’s magic is most definitely not another missionary’s miracle.

  42. “I’m sure it’s statistically valid that missionaries are generally safer than, I dunno, drunken college students attending frat parties who dive into the wrong end of swimming pools.”

    True. But the leaders don’t site that as their measuring stick. Are missionaries safer than LDS college-aged youth who adhere to the WoW and don’t serve a mission? Some years ago I learned of a missionary who committed suicide while on his mission. Another one went missing never to be found again. And one who got mugged. Occasionally DN will report on a missionary’s death in the field.

    At a minimum, we ought not give our youth the wrong impression that God will protect them from harm if they are obedient. Bad things happen to “obedient” people too.

  43. COB Flunky: “Every solution is a ticket to a new problem” Henry Kissinger, who then bombed Cambodia back into the stone age. Certainly, I agree that anything we do will create different problems, but we do have existing problems to mitigate as detailed in the articles. A Mission President immediately assigning two new sisters into an area where the previous companionship was sexually assaulted days before seems like a serious lapse.

    So, yes, I concede that allowing missionaries to talk to home can create different problems, as pointed out in the footnote. Personally, had I ever called home during my mission, I would have probably felt supported and encouraged by that, but I’m sure plenty of missionaries would have a different experience, and some new negative outcomes.

    The age change suggestion wasn’t because a 19-year old is so much older and wiser than an 18-year old, but because of the dynamics shift in the entire group and the amount of oversight necessary. 20-year olds generally will need less oversight than 18 year olds. As it is now, there are very few elders who are 20. When I served, most of the elders were 20-21 with a few greenies who were 19. Obviously, the women serving were all over 21.

    The argument against engaging women who have expertise is a conservative trope. If we engage women, then what minority group is next?? Other races? People from different regions? People with different colored eyes? What about dogs? Should we get canine experts?Then the cats will feel left out. Where does it end? Women are more than half the church, and more than a third of missionaries serving now. On my mission photo card, I was one woman on a page of 32 missionaries. It was a completely different situation. As women, we were a rarity. That’s no longer the case. As the article pointed out, women are specifically targeted by some criminals, and good men have serious blind spots about women’s safety when they are focused on protecting women and not on empowering them.

    And of course the point about which experts is a valid question for those directing the mission program to determine. So long as experts aren’t dismissed for their expertise, we are probably heading down a good path. There is a long church history, dating back to Brigham Young at least, of deliberately ignoring experts in favor of uneducated priesthood decision-making, which is fine if there really is inspiration, and not just arrogance and hubris.

  44. I think our mindset about missionaries is stuck in the early days of the church when full grown men -married men-seniors too, would serve. Wilford Woodruff, the 15 year old missionary, was an anomaly and would have at least been in a group with adults. Missionaries were responsible for their own safety, but were not at the time, cloistered by rules such as not watching the news!

    Now we have younger young adults serving in dangerous areas- cloistered (from news, politics, family, each other, etc.) and managed by a hierarchy while living with little or sparse communication, in dangerous areas.

    All the while, we think of these kids as being as empowered, as adult, as Parley, Brigham, Heber, John Taylor. They aren’t. They are sheltered, young, naive, kids who won’t look at information. Recipe for disaster.

    By the way, St. Louis is one of the most dangerous cities in the world in terms of per capita crime. Chicago and other areas of the US report more murder than countries flagged by the state department. Just saying….stateside doesn’t mean safe.

  45. “Also, quite a few MP wives have led sheltered lives and may not bring a lot to the table”
    Probably the most dissapointing thing I’ve read from you. I’m with you in some things. I’m definitely not a fan of automatically turning to the wife. I’m in a ward where the bishop completely respects his wife’s opinion over the RS president. He feels he’s “valuing the womens voices” yet completely ignores the voices of any other woman including those who have been called. I think that happens a lot, a male leader consults with his wife and hear her opinion (as he should) but then checks off the box of consulting the womens voice. I would love to read a post about that someday. But seriously what you just said about the MP’s wives is the exact mentality women are trying to fight in the world right now. “That we don’t have a lot to bring to the table” All women have something to bring to the table even those who have led “sheltered lives”.

  46. Connie, I don’t love it either, and it’s certainly fair to point out that it’s not a good thing. I based my comment in large part on my own MP’s wife, as well as stories from others. Many MP’s wives are not remotely interested in being involved or learning the language, and that’s simply what I’ve observed. The majority have never served a mission themselves (due to the era in which they came of age) and they may not wish to put themselves out there. The upside is that this is certainly changing with successive generations. I find it disappointing, too, but accurate.

  47. Connie, I’m with Angela. There are posts elsewhere on the bloggernacle about the seismic shift that occurred in the calling of MPs and Temple Ps when President Hinckley passed away and President Monson became Prophet. Within 3 months the biographical blurbs published in Deseret News showed a noticeable shift toward the calling of strictly SAHMs rather than professionally experienced women or women with both family and professional experience. Under Hinckley, we saw MPs/TPs who were dual doctors- teachers- professors- attorneys, etc. I used to cheer seeing sisters like Cheiko Okasaki who were principals and superintendents, or librarians, health care professionals or counselors. The contrast (percentage wise) of SAHMs called in 2008 was striking, although there were exceptions. Not long after this trend emerged, wives’ professional/ family backgrounds were removed from the DN blurbs altogether- leaving us with only two clues to her background- her parents’ names and the number of children she had.

    I want to say that callings are purely a red-phone call from God (ie divine revelation), and thoroughly believe that some callings are, but am realistic enough to see that sometimes they are our best attempts and we are blessed for trying. There are patterns- clear patterns in qualifications that are rarely strayed from- a type of rigidity that I don’t believe happens when God uses the red phone. Part of that pattern in 2008 became finding women from upper-middle class backgrounds who live in sheltered multi-generational Mormon families and communities. They are older- from an era when women more proportionally lived as homemakers. I would trust them with many things in their sphere of experience, but street smarts and missionary safety don’t make that list.

    Listen, I want to see women recognized for their contributions and abilities just as much as you do Connie, and believe there is a way, but not at the expense of facts. I don’t think these upper-middle class- women who would have spent the majority of their time homemaking in Mormon corridor suburbs, serving in church callings like super Saturday coordinator or den mother, etc have invested the time or energy to navigate this particular challenge. I don’t believe they are any less capable, just less experienced and knowledgeable. And no, I wouldn’t trust them to miraculously have the answers without any effort any more than I would trust someone with no musical training to hit all the keys and foot pedals right on an organ to be a stake or Tabernacle organist, or for someone to consistently and fluently speak a language without any memorization (barring those miraculous and brief miracles of speaking in tongues- now extremely rare.) So no- womenfrom these backgrounds – and men for that matter don’t get a free pass.

  48. Thank you Mortimer for saying something so well that I have often thought. To me it’s cringe-inducing to see church leaders/institutions try to promote “the script” for how women should supposedly live their lives by elevating women who are not prepared for roles requiring management and leadership to those roles. It sets them up to fail. Being a Mom does not actually give someone the skills needed to advise re health needs, safety, or mental illness.

  49. E,
    Thanks! Good news though- women are rotated out of such callings rapidly- so they don’t really have time to fail or succeed. They certainly can’t earn any seniority or learn to navigate the system and screw social capital. Yes, I agree with you!

  50. Ack! My apologies for the typo- the sentence above should read “and accrue social capital”.

  51. Lol, yep.

  52. Mortimer

    I do take a bit of umbrage at saying that a librarian or school superintendent would be any more capable of being a mission president than a SAHM. Being a SAHM is actually a career and a very hard one. You learn a lot. How to navigate our complex healthcare system, school system, even legal system for some of us. I have tough kids who I have to counsel through tough issues.

    I don’t really know why even a doctor would be more qualified to be a mission president than a SAHM. I mean, he would certainly be more qualified to be a mission doctor. I think talents and empathy go a lot further than any job title or credential.

    Many SAHMs also had degrees and professional training before staying home with children, and once they went to school pieced together a lot of volunteer and professional endeavors. Even if they didn’t reach the upper echelons of the career world, their life experience is still valuable and applicable. Possibly more so than many other professions.

    Unless someone is going to professional mission president school, it’s really more about personality than work experience. Some mission presidents go in with horrible experience learned in the career field and fail when they try an use it on missionaries. If career people were wonderful at being mission presidents just based on what they learned in the working world, we wouldn’t all be here complaining about their lack of skill and care.

  53. Mormom is right. There are plenty of SAHMs who develop skills that would translate very well into a mission presidency. There’s no reason why the on-the-job training of an RS or YW President isn’t every bit as effective as that of bishops and stake presidents. A progression of job titles or an increasingly large salary are not particularly meaningful measures of skill development.

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