Missionary Communication Rules: How Folk Theology Works (and Doesn’t Work).

 

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The church announced today that effective immediately, missionaries can text, call, instant message, and video chat with their families at home on their preparation day, repealing the old rule that missionaries were only allowed to call home twice a year (Christmas and Mother’s Day), and were otherwise only allowed to email (and before sometime in the early 2000s, only write letters).

I imagine that this change is motivated at least in part by a concern for the emotional and mental health of missionaries. As long-distance communication has become cheaper and more ubiquitous, the world has become more and more interconnected. This is a double-edged sword: it makes long-distance and online friendships easier, but a side effect of that is that many people find it easier to primarily make friends with people online which means that IRL connection and friendship get harder. It can also be even more isolating when you grow up using online communication to make and maintain friendships, and then the ability to have online and log-distance connection is suddenly taken away. I’m no expert, but I suspect that this has a lot to do with the fact that many missionaries today find the mission experience, as rewarding and fulfilling as it is, to be seriously challenging to their emotional and mental health. And at some point, we have to ask ourselves whether that challenge is a necessary or worthwhile one. The church has now decided that it’s not. I think this is a very good thing.

There is a lot that could be said about this change. In this short post, though, I want to look at it as an example of a pattern of folk theology developing around practices or policies in the church whose purpose or origin is not readily apparent. You see this same pattern in the way the church and its members have responded over the years to the church’s past practice of excluding black members from the priesthood and from the blessings of the temple. But I think the example of missionary communication rules is a particularly useful example to look at this pattern because the stakes are lower and opinions are probably less fiercely held.

If you have any non-member friends, and if you’ve ever talked to them about missions, you’ve probably been asked why the heck the church keeps missionaries from calling their families. Even if you don’t have any non-member friends, you may have asked yourself that, especially if you’ve served a mission recently. And if so, you’ve probably said or heard some version of the following folk theology of not calling home more than twice a year as a missionary: missionaries are expected to give up things that would distract them from the work, so calling home only twice a year is a way they’re asked to demonstrate their dedication.

Now, I’m not a historian of mission rules, but I question whether that was really the origin of the old rule. I imagine that the old rule limiting missionary phone calls to Christmas and Mother’s Day had a very practical origin having to do with the formerly much higher cost of long distance phone calls. When it was a lot more expensive to call home from foreign countries, it made good sense to limit missionaries from doing so.  And it also wasn’t very weird, because when it was more expensive to make long distance calls, most people didn’t do so, and when they did, they kept those calls pretty short. I still remember how when I would talk to my Grandma (who died a few years ago in her 80s), she rarely spent more than 2-3 minutes on the phone with me, because she had grown up with the idea that long distance phone calls are an expensive luxury.

But as phone calls got cheaper and easier–and not just phone calls, but voice and video calls over the internet, as well as things like messaging and texting–the old rule didn’t make practical sense anymore. And as long-distance communication became more common, the old rule became weirder. But the rule didn’t change. I’m going to suggest that at least at first, the reason the rule didn’t change was simple bureaucratic inertia. Others have quipped that trying to change the church or the missionary department is like turning an aircraft carrier: it doesn’t happen on a dime.

But we human being are meaning-making creatures. God makes meaning out of the unorganized matter of the universe, and because we are his sons and his daughters, we make meaning in imitatio dei, in our own broken way, out of the unorganized matter of our lives (Tolkien’s poem, Mythopoeia, is, in my opinion, one of the most beautifully expressed explanations of this truth). Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too an unexplained policy or practice hates remaining unexplained. Especially in an organization that claims, like we do, to be guided by revelation, unexplained policies cry out not just for an explanation, but a explanation based in revelation, a theological justification. So when a theological justification for an unexplained policy doesn’t exist, it has to be created.

I’m calling these post-hoc theological justifications folk theologies because I see it as an analogue to the process of folk etymology, by which a word that sounds like another word is assumed to be derived from that word even though the real story may be different: sometimes more complex and interesting than the folk etymology, and sometimes more mundane. I don’t necessarily mean it as a pejorative, but it also recalls Elder Holland’s use of the phrase “folk doctrines” to describe various false doctrinal inventions that the church and its members came up with for the past policy to exclude black members from the priesthood and the temple, which is an example of folk theologies.

And the thing about Christian scriptures and teachings, including Latter-day Saint scriptures and teachings, is that they are highly diverse, and sometimes even at tension with one another. So it really isn’t very hard to create a folk theology out of those raw materials for a wide variety of competing positions. As an example: if from the beginning, the policy had been that missionaries should call home often to stay in close contact with their families at home, the reasoning would be easy: we believe in eternal families, so that doctrine is reflected in our efforts to stay close and tight-knit with families. Or, as the church’s announcement explaining the change says: “Regular communication with their families is an important part of a missionary’s service,” and “[o]ne of the major purposes of this [new rule] is to encourage families to be more involved in their missionary’s efforts and experiences.”

But since the policy used to be different, the folk theology members often gave for it was different: a mission is a time of sacrifice, dedication, and consecration, so we temporarily give up things that might distract us from our mission of preaching the gospel during that time. It’s not hard to find support in restoration scripture for principles of sacrifice and consecration. And Jesus even says things about rejecting one’s own family for the gospel’s sake. All these sources are convenient in constructing a folk theology of not calling home more than twice a year as a missionary.

The thing about folk theologies is that they can sound persuasive, and sometimes they’re even right. So sometimes they can even be elevated to actual theology, at least de facto actual theology, if not actual canon. And as the actual origin of the practice for which the folk theology becomes more forgotten, and the folk theology becomes more widely accepted, the practice can become more and more cemented, even though the original justification may no longer have any application, simply because it’s The Way Things Are, because that’s The Rules, even just the Unwritten Rules. Now, in many cases, following an outdated rule may be totally harmless. And in truth, there really is something to be said for the act of learning discipline as itself an inherent good. There’s a reason ascetism is A Thing, though it is taken to unhealthy extremes. Self-denial is a good discipline; masochism is an unhealthy fetish.

But the other thing about folk theologies is that, though they may proceed from an extrapolation of revelation (or from an extrapolation of an extrapolation, etc., of revelation), they are not revelation. So if you adopt a folk theology and nurture a burning belief in it as though it were revelation, you might blur or even become blind to the boundary between the folk theology and revelation. And if the folk theology is later proven wrong, or even just abandoned and replaced, without being definitively disavowed, that can rock your faith even in actual revelation. It’s even worse if you have valiantly defended the folk theology, in your belief that it was revelation or akin to revelation, and you’ve done so with snark or ridicule, because then you suddenly find that you acted unkindly for the sake of something that was false.

This is why it’s essential to maintain the distinction between revelation and folk theology. Not all folk theologies are bad. Some are good. Some might even be The Truth. And the act of creating them can be an act of worship. But they aren’t reliable. Learned Hand, one of the most quoted U.S. judges, gave a famous speech once where he said that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right” because it is through open-mindedness that we preserve our ability to increase in light and knowledge.

But how do we reconcile that truth with the teaching that we are encouraged to have faith, to believe and not doubt? (see D&C 6:36). Well, I say this a lot, and I probably make myself annoying to other people by doing so, but I’m going to say it again: it is not everything that we are supposed to have unshaken faith in. It is not our folk theologies that we’re supposed to have unshaken faith in. It is Jesus that we are to have unshaken faith in, and those few things that he calls “my gospel” or “my doctrine” in the Book of Mormon: the reality of the fall and the need for a savior, his divine mission as the son of God, his ability to save and forgive us, his ability to give us the holy ghost to sanctify us, and the resulting need to repent and come unto him and be born again, so we can be sanctified by the sprit.

Now whatever you might think about the various changes that President Nelson has made since stepping into his role as the President of the Church, I personally very much appreciate his willingness to reconsider things, to not be bound by folk theologies, and to be willing to question them. I don’t know if I will personally like every change he makes, but I like that he is not afraid to make them.

 

Comments

  1. Woke President Nelson strikes again!

    I imagine that for a lot of missionaries, this rule change could mean the difference between finishing their missions and going home.

  2. Very true, RJ. Here I am bloviating about the implications of this on abstract theological notions, but it’s important to remember it will likely be a huge blessing right now in the lives of real people.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Agreed.

    I had to smile about the explanation of long distance calls. My mother to this day won’t stay on the phone for more than about a minute. No amount of explanation will change that.

  4. I love how you unpacked this folk theology. It’s always been blatantly obvious to me that the policy stemmed from the exorbitant rates of Ma Bell monopolies, and then the next two decades of a pre-cell-phone world. But in a world when missionaries are encouraged to carry iPads and text their investigators, being forbidden from texting family is jarring. I know many missionaries who were so desperate for love and support they “slipped up” — and then were racked with eternal guilt for disobeying mission rules by being so weak as to text their sister on her wedding day. It’s a recipe for mental disaster. I’m so glad it’s fixed.

  5. Fascinating essay! Really appreciated this post – having studied both theology and folklore (I’m clergy/non Mormon) I found this post so interesting – and so applicable!

  6. Happy Hubby says:

    I wonder how much of this might have been spurred by Elder Uchtdorf in his new calling. I there are more changes like this, I will trade that for a few less oh so refreshing conference addresses from him. This has real impact.

  7. “Now whatever you might think about the various changes that President Nelson has made since stepping into his role as the President of the Church, I personally very much appreciate his willingness to reconsider things, to not be bound by folk theologies, and to be willing to question them.”

    I share this sentiment, though I believe it would be helpful if the church refrain from attributing each such change as the result of direct revelation from on high. For my part, I am much more comfortable, and considerably more inclined to support, a leader who says: “Listen, we studied the existing policy and felt that it should be modified/reversed for reasons X, Y & Z. We prayed about it and felt good about our decision, so we decided to give it a shot.” Such an approach contains a dose of humility—something typically not found in edicts emanating from Salt Lake—and gives the church the flexibility to retreat from, or modify, the new policy as circumstances may warrant.

  8. Also in the mission-related folk theologies is the idea that I heard often growing up that missionaries aren’t allowed to swim because of Doctrine and Covenants Section 61. That explanation always seemed suspicious, which was confirmed when I was in the MTC and someone from the missionary department pointed out that it was a simple matter of missionary safety based on practical realities. Water activities carry an unusually high risk compared to other recreational activities. When the Church implemented a no-swimming policy, injuries and deaths dropped dramatically. (All of that according to my own recollection of a presentation many years ago, so take that for what it’s worth).

  9. Seconded, FarSide, as hard as I possibly can.

    Also, Ben Parks wrote a thread on Twitter that gets at some of Pres. Nelson’s approach to changing things even as he is pretty staunchly conservative on other issues. https://twitter.com/BenjaminEPark/status/1096472199358222338

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Great write-up JKC. It will be really interesting to see how this changes mission culture moving forward. The only downside as I see it is that correspondence, which has been an extremely important archival source on missions, will essentially now by absent moving forward. And that is just the historian in me speaking. The human is all for it.

  11. In 1989-90, I was an exchange student for a year in Europe. All our materials strongly discouraged us from calling home more than a few times in the course of the year, on the grounds that kids who called home all the time had a more difficult time overcoming homesickness, immersing themselves in a new culture, and focusing on the adventure they had signed up for. So we wrote a lot of letters and mostly called home on Christmas and birthdays. I always assumed the rationale for missionaries was the same, and my RM husband also thought so.
    We have a new generation of kids now, who are used to constant contact, and probably it will be better for them to be able to text and call more frequently. But I would also think that we’ll see some missionaries who have difficulty detaching from their home lives enough to focus on their work.

  12. Boom. So well thought-out written and well written. Thanks for this.

  13. “…essential to maintain the distinction between revelation and folk theology.” AMEN. AMEN. and AMEN!! This is a recurring theme lately that I’ve found myself discussing with friends and family regarding several random policies in the church that are not doctrinal, they are simply policies. We should avoid trying to explain them, or attach doctrinal reasons to them! We should try to see them as they are. Changeable. Temporary. Many are often based on a knee jerk reaction, or an unfounded fear, or an old-fashioned bias that has been in place so long no one even knows why – until, eventually someone in the COB says “hey, is this thing still necessary?!”. Some policies hang on much longer than others. The good news is that there’s been so much change happening in the past 13 months I have all kinds of hope we are in a new season as a Church, and there are many more exciting changes ahead that will make us breathe a sigh of relief (hello 2 hr church and pants for sisters on non-Sundays!!… still working their way through that last little repressive caveat!)  

    Just a side note: My understanding is that missionaries can only text or call on P-days. There will be time limits and other rules set into place. missionaries that abuse the privilege will have the privilege suspended. Video chatting is still reserved for Mothers-day and Christmas. Also, it should be noted that parents are being asked to NOT try to contact the missionaries. They should always wait for the missionary to contact them (let’s see how that works out). The church giveth policy, and they taketh away… so, I’m waiting to see how it all plays out over time. I’m sure there will be pros and cons moving forward.   As usual, a thought-provoking post. Cheers!

  14. bharper529 says:

    Your explanation makes perfect sense! Cost and availability dictated the old policy. Those are mostly handled, so why not loosen the restriction?

    Already saw a comment on another site that said missionaries would be more righteous and get more baptisms if they refrained from taking advantage of this new policy. We need to stop confusing policy/culture with doctrine!

  15. My dad was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in his 50s, shortly before I left on my mission. During my mission, he no longer had he motor skills to write. I very much would have appreciated calling him because by the time I got home, he didn’t have the motor skills to talk well.

    As a sister missionary in the 2000s, I felt very isolate and hated my mission. I wanted to come home during my first transfer, so I got permission to call my dad. The advice my dad gave me during that conversation saved me from leaving my mission. It changed the course of how I approached the next 16 months.

    His mom died while he was on his mission and he could only briefly call home, not even attend the funeral.

    I’m grateful for the changes they’re making, especially the changes for sister missionaries. I’m glad they’re treating 20-somethings more like adults.

  16. I find that this is admitting to missionaries are too immature after the age lowering to 18. This is a way to have guilt trip their kids into keeping on with something they don’t want to be doing. I suspect that this will reduce the amount of growth that one goes through on a mission. It will probably contribute to the extending of teenage hood for many LDS teens well into their 20’s.

  17. John Mansfield says:

    One bit to add: back when long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, there wasn’t even a need for a rule regarding calling home. I remember my first missionary companion telling me (in August 1985) that in Argentina mothers’ day was also in the spring, so he called his mother in the United States on both mothers’ day. That was the only time during my mission that I heard anyone bring up the idea of calling home on mothers’ day. I never heard of anyone calling home on Christmas. On the other hand I was with a couple of companions when they called home for ad hoc reasons. The mother of one had had a medical operation, so he wanted to call her. My last companion called his sister in Buenos Aires to arrange me visiting his family on my way out of the mission. When my mother died, it was the end of the year when all of Argentina was calling home, and I was 40 miles from the Magellan Strait, so it took three days of trying before I could get a line through to Buenos Aires, let alone on to the United States.

    Maybe J. Stapley with his collection of mission rule pamphlets could say when prohibitions on calling home came to be, but I don’t remember any codification of that 30-odd years ago. I suspect rules, including the mothers’ day/Christmas scheduled calls, came down a decade later when prices had dropped enough for overuse to be a potential issue. Does anyone else have a sense of when missionaries calling on Christmas and mothers’ day became a thing? The first time I can remember a missionary calling home for Christmas was 1993.

  18. jader3rd, I disagree. I think it demonstrates more trust in missionaries’ ability to use their judgment to not be excessive rather than rely on rules to govern them.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    I saved all my letters and periodically sent them home. But when I got home there was a mountain of them and no way for me to keep them all. Email was not a thing back then.

  20. And if the folk theology is later proven wrong, or even just abandoned and replaced, without being definitively disavowed, that can rock your faith even in actual revelation.

    This is an important point that we should remember whilst we’re celebrating the (long overdue) change. Depending on the way changes are characterized, people can roll with them or start having crises of faith. That sounds a little over-dramatic, but I hope leaders at the top (including Pres Nelson) recognize that the way they talk about the changes, specifically whether or not they acknowledge that some policies were mistakes (or at least that they caused unnecessary pain to certain people) can make a big difference. People resent the sacrifices they made that turn out to be less essential than they were led to believe.

  21. @jader3rd adults call their parents whenever they feel like it. Cutting yourself off from family is not growth, it’s stunting. If the only way a person has not to be debilitated by missing someone else is to forget them, that person has a very shallow relationship indeed and needs professional help. This is a wonderful reversal of a damaging practice.

    One of the cool side effects of this may be that it could break down the culture of silence surrounding how futile much of mission life is, which could focus more minds and spirits on the challenge of making missionary service more meaningful under difficult circumstances.

  22. It’s a complex question here and adding flexibility will certainly be beneficial to many. However, I don’t think jader3rd is necessarily wrong here. I will admit my initial reaction is to think we are succumbing to the least and lowering the bar in ways that demonstrate a question of how far will we bend to accommodate some missionaries who perhaps should not be out in the field?

    Before someone “throws hands at me” as has been threatened in BCC’s Twitter thread, let me expound my thinking here. There is real research on helping those dealing with homesickness cope and overcome the debilitating effects of the disorientation that can result. The sounds, the language, the food, the people, the work, the boredom, the sleepless nights, the anxiety wrenched stomach, the illnesses, the strange environs spent with companions who are constantly hovering over your shoulder or at your side all while trying to sort through the strict rules and the rejection of your message by so many. All of and any of this can directly contribute the very real struggles.

    Even our dear prophet Gordon Hinckley encountered this struggle and found himself questioning whether he truly understood why he was there. It’s worth reading his extended soliloquy from the 1987 Ensign which excerpted his speech at a BYU Symposium celebrating the 150th anniversary of the mission to the British Isles:

    https://www.lds.org/study/ensign/1987/07/taking-the-gospel-to-britain-a-declaration-of-vision-faith-courage-and-truth?lang=eng
    https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/gordon-b-hinckley_church-british-isles-1837-1987/

    I was not well when I arrived. Those first few weeks, because of illness and the opposition which we felt, I was discouraged. I wrote a letter home to my good father and said that I felt I was wasting my time and his money. He was my father and my stake president, and he was a wise and inspired man. He wrote a very short letter to me which said, “Dear Gordon, I have your recent letter. I have only one suggestion: forget yourself and go to work.” Earlier that morning in our scripture class my companion and I had read these words of the Lord: “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” (Mark 8:35.)

    Those words of the Master, followed by my father’s letter with his counsel to forget myself and go to work, went into my very being. With my father’s letter in hand, I went into our bedroom in the house at 15 Wadham Road, where we lived, and got on my knees and made a pledge with the Lord. I covenanted that I would try to forget myself and lose myself in His service.

    That July day in 1933 was my day of decision. A new light came into my life and a new joy into my heart. The fog of England seemed to lift, and I saw the sunlight. I had a rich and wonderful mission experience, for which I shall ever be grateful, laboring in Preston where the work began and in other places where it had moved forward, including the great city of London, where I served the larger part of my mission.

    What’s interesting in the the advice Bryant Hinckley gave his son is that it is exactly what the research on homesickness recommends: immersing yourself further into the environment and focusing not on the differences but the richness that can be found in the new environment that surrounds the missionary. The call is to go forth and serve and allow it to transform you. A seedling does not grow well if we keep pulling it up out of the ground and from the soil that enriches it to see if the roots are getting longer.

    I had a companion who struggled mightily with the language – French stuck in his mouth and did not fit what his brain was trying to say. The food offered by members and those who fed us left him ill because he was used to very simple meat and potatoes and not much else. He was absolutely miserable and asked President repeatedly if he could purchase a ticket to go home. I was not his trainer but his second companion – after 2 months with a French trainer who didn’t really understand his struggles – I worked hard at helping him adapt and keeping us busy so there was little down time to wallow in worry, while a loving grandmother in our Branch adopted him and invited us over daily to offer care with simple foods and help with additional coursework around the language. Eventually, it took months, he overcame and felt he had found his “sea legs.” Would it have been easier if he had weekly access to phone calls with his family? I don’t know. I’m not sure if his parents could have understood what he was going through as no one in his family had traveled very far outside of Idaho. His father had served in SLC as a missionary and he was the oldest child so had no older siblings to guide him.

    I myself encountered the unsettling realities of failure on my mission. I came in with unrealistic expectations of how the French people would respond to me as I was ancestrally one of them and I was coming home to be one with them. 3 months into my mission I received a devastating letter from an old girlfriend telling me she was taking a very different direction in her life – stepping far away from the Church. I thought of how I might be a strong support in her life if I could be there. This wasn’t a dear john and I had no romantic intentions but I felt the struggles of helplessness thinking I was experiencing daily rejection by people I did not know and was prevented from being there for someone I knew so well. Then 5 months in, we finally helped a young woman find a testimony of Jesus Christ and she was baptized. I violated a serious rule by picking up the phone that next morning to call my mother and explain to her that I was sitting next to dripping wet whites drying in our bathroom. We rejoiced together that prayers had been heard, that a tender mercy from the Lord had allowed me to be the one who helped this young woman make covenants with our Savior. Mine was a hard mission, though we helped many into the waters of baptism, and I reached out to my parents on 2 other occasions – one late in my mission – when I really needed to talk, purchasing a phone card with spare money from our monthly allotment I had saved for just such occasions, and plugging it in and standing in a phone booth to bare my soul and seek advice for a few moments while my companion patiently waited outside. I never asked permission, I did what I thought was necessary to help me cope with a moment of struggle to which I felt inspired there was an answer over the phone lines.

    So I think it’s a double edged sword in a time where adolescents are constantly connected and finding ways to disconnect and find themselves is essential. I think connecting with family can absolutely help, but I also watch helicopter parents I know who will without question seek to micromanage their dear children from afar through weekly calls. I am a strong advocate that those want to pursue missions should go spend a year outside of the home either working or pursuing education in order to find their own feet before they go into the mission field. I think it creates a maturity that can be challenging to find if they launch directly into the mission field out of High School.

    That leaves me with the uneasy feeling I’ve expressed as I try to sort through the pluses and minuses of this policy change. I understand President Nelson and I sustain his decision. But it unsettles me at the same time.

  23. Question is can folk theology ever be true?

    J’s favorite is tripartite existence hahaha.

    My favorite folk theology:
    I remember a temple president giving a beautiful explanation of why even an ordained elder who’s unendowed can’t baptize for the dead because the endowment confers keys to work through the vail (seemed to make sense once endowed). Ironically also said “you can’t even pass a towel if not endowed.”

  24. Anon for This says:

    This whole concept of folk theology is a bit insulting to people who took this stuff seriously because it was revelation from Church leaders or mission presidents. A lot of us were conditioned to be obedient and unquestioning to rules like this. We were conditioned to accept this type of thing as inspired counsel from our leaders. So it is kind of insulting to see many here come and wag their fingers at the silly people who took seriously what you now call folk theology.

    This site has really come to reek of this attitude over the past couple of years. The approach to so many topics is basically to say, “You believed Church leaders when they said X? You silly, unsophisticated yokel; you should have looked at it from perspective Y. Of course Church leaders didn’t mean X. Only a doofus would take them at their word.”

    Did you not see the big shindig in Phoenix? Prophetpalooza was in full swing. Cult-of-personality events like that have consequences, and one of those is that people take seriously the messages given at such events. So I think it is disingenuous to sneer at the gullibility of the rubes who don’t perceive the future folk theology today.

  25. Anon, I think you’ve misunderstood me if you percieve this as sneering. I agree with you that creating a cult of personality has negative consequences.

  26. I know what you mean, FarSide. Making an explicit claim to revelation can have the unfortunate effect of making future change harder. It shouldn’t, given what we believe about the nature of continuing revelation, but it does anyway, in practice.

    Still, I also think it’s important to “quench not the spirit,” and to be able to see things with the eye of faith, and not be afraid to call it revelation when the leaders of thr church feel that God has inspired them. The problem is that we too often think revelation means something like a dictation verbatim from god’s own mouth. But that’s not usually how it works.

  27. Abu Casey, thanks for linking to Ben’s thread. Ben is great and that’s an insightful discussion.

  28. reaneypark says:

    There have been so many times when I have wished I could have a simple back and forth conversation with my children on missions so I could find out if they have enough money, if a package arrived or if a problem they wrote about had been solved. This is a great step forward because of advances in technology and I am grateful for it.

  29. Gg, that story is heartbreaking. I agree with you that this demonstrates a lot more trust for missionaries, or as you say, treating them like adults.

  30. I think this is similar to the thoughts around fasting. Although the misconceptions there are of greater doctrinal import.

    There’s no doubt that a positive side effect of youth not calling increases the time they can focus on the work. It also can reduce some strengthening they’d otherwise be a part of. Apparently the cost benefit has changed. Hohum. Just make sure we don’t lose something with our gain.

    The self denial of phone calls is similar to the self denial of fasting, in one respect. We deny ourselves for the benefit of service to others.

    Next you’ll tell me that I should eat while fasting as long as I make a generous offering.

    The reality is, both concepts do have a direct connection to Christlike atonement. As disciples we represent him and do much after that pattern. It doesn’t mean that we don’t adjust the methods for all kinds of reasons though.

  31. Call me crazy, DirkT, but I seriously doubt that taking a few minutes away from playing basketball over every few weeks or months is going to realistically decrease the amount of time available to spend on proselytizing.

    I don’t think you intended it, but your comment is a perfect example of a folk theology.

  32. My sister dated a young man who when on a mission to Japan in the mid 1970’s. I remember he’d send a cassette tape he’d recorded of himself talking about his mission and what was happening and we’d make a tape and send it back. We’d play the piano, everyone in the family would say something to him, etc. Then she got a letter from his saying that the mission president decided that tapes could no longer be sent as it made some missionaries too homesick. Maybe phone calls were similar – a mission president started the rule for a reasonable reason and others joined in until it became a universal thing. While it may be true that it helped some be less homesick I know there were others with the opposite result. Now, this change will also likely help many while also making things more difficult for others. That’s kind of the nature of rules isn’t it? They aim to help the majority but we understand that they’re not always ideal for everyone because it’s rare that one size truly fits all.

  33. In my humble opinion mission rules typically aren’t made to help the majority, which are often inconvenienced by them, they are crafted because of the 1 percent of missionaries who do something stupid making the blanket rule necessary in the mind of a mission president.

  34. I think that’s often true, reaneypark. And I understand that it’s sometimes necessary, but I think the impulse to make rules as a solution to problems is one that should be resisted more.

  35. Lily Darais says:

    I loved this post and learned a new, very helpful term: “folk theology.” I hadn’t ever thought through these concepts before and am so glad you did. We now have a clearer, more articulate framework for examining ongoing questions about “what is doctrine.” Thank you!

  36. On one hand, I should be all for this; because generally I feel that missions have been way out of step with how society has evolved for a while now. An example being that the only young professional who dress in white shirts and ties, work in the church headquarters building. Being able to communicate how you want to lines up with what’s possible and what’s realistic.
    And this will help keep greater numbers of missionaries out on their mission; but I do feel that it will obstruct a certain percentage who are on their missions to be mentally “on their missions.”
    My dad believes that it has little to do with the missionaries and everything to do with younger siblings\relatives back home. It’s a way to get them exposed to what their older sibling is doing.
    I certainly don’t think that the old policy was decreed revelation on high. It probably came from mission presidents seeing certain missionaries who mentally couldn’t mentally get away from home before rules like that were implemented. That and a combination of having the mission be an opportunity for missionaries to let go of their mothers apron strings and start standing on their own feet; and it probably works for the personality types that became leaders, and leaders never thought that it didn’t work for most of their stewardship.
    I certainly don’t think that one will be more righteous and be blessed more to live with the old rules.
    I’ve never heard an active member complaining about missionaries calling only twice a year. In no conversation with a non member did they ever talk about it being unreasonable, or a form of torture. I can only think of two people who talked negatively of it, and both were inactive members.
    There used to be a stereotype of 18 year olds dying to get out of their parents house, and then their parents would rarely hear from them once they did. Because at 18 they became independent adults. Whereas in the last 15 years or so, I more have heard anecdotes of parents being pleasantly surprised at how their college age kids kept in contact with them. So it’s probable that the old policy was trying to enforce “this is what worked for me” on people for whom it doesn’t work.
    It will be interesting to see if parents get counseled to stop helicopter parenting their missionaries.
    This is just a policy change. I don’t think that it’s for the better. There are positives, but I don’t think that they out weigh the negatives. And I could be wrong.

  37. I always think about the global church, and I have to wonder if the timing of the rule change doesn’t also have an equity component. Had this rule existed on my mission, it would have been a complete game-changer for me. My mission (in Europe) was a terribly isolating and difficult experience. That said, I’m glad it wasn’t. Because I had a companion from Africa whose family didn’t have a telephone. It was a big deal for them to organize a phone call for Christmas. I wonder if a big part of the change isn’t the fact that cell phones have leapfrogged past landlines and now people living in all but the most remote locations have access to cell phones and texting. This way, it’s not just rich Americans who get to talk to their families once a week, but all missionaries.

  38. The term folk theology is itself folk theology.

  39. FtP: And?

  40. We are not a cult. And now we are doing one less cult-like thing. Plenty of non-Mormons adjust to adulthood without being banned from speaking to their families for much of 18 months/2 years. I am also a missionary dad. I resent the church a bit less now.

  41. FtP: To be more clear, it’s not, because a term is not a theology. Those words mean different things. But let’s assume you’re right that the concept of folk theology is itself folk theology (it’s not, because it’s simply a description of a process, not an attempt to create a spiritual explanation for something, but let’s just go with it). So what? What’s your point?

  42. “I’ve never heard an active member complaining about missionaries calling only twice a year. In no conversation with a non member did they ever talk about it being unreasonable, or a form of torture. I can only think of two people who talked negatively of it, and both were inactive members.”

    I am active. My son is on a full-time mission in South America. I haven’t complained, but I hated it. My son is putting off New York University to serve. I don’t fit-in in the church, but I appreciate a less cruel church, even if jader will miss it. I talk about my son all the time with neighbors, colleagues, and students (I live in the east). When people hear that we are not allowed to call, I get weird looks. I am fine being weird. I don’t drink. I wear garments. But forbidden communication is not weird. It is cult-like.

    That said, my son is a well-adjusted human being. I can’t speak for other Mormons. But I will have a child out on a mission for much of the next decade. I am very grateful for this change. Less for me son. But for me. I am too fragile,

  43. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    One of the benefits of this change (recognizing that not all is positive) is the potential for there to now be a check on some of the absurd, ridiculous, or even outright abusive stuff that happens in missions. During weekly calls home, I probably would have revealed more of the crap I was having to deal with that was frustrating, wrong, or dangerous than I would include in the laborious letters I wrote home. That can now allow more immediate feedback from outside adults with the perspective to recognize those activities as having more serious implications than I could see at the time. In cases of abusive behavior by mission leaders, missionaries may now feel less isolated, and be able to communicate with people who can facilitate help. While I imagine Mission Presidents may now get plenty of calls from mothers complaining that their children aren’t being fed enough by members, there will also be calls asking “what the hell is going on in your mission!?” That’s not a bad thing.

  44. Turtle, Thanks, I was wondering when someone would bring up the possible check on the craziness of some trainers and of some (hopefully now fewer) mission presidents. There are plenty of examples in comments to earlier posts (and elsewhere).

  45. J. Stapley says:

    On the use of the term “folk,” some might get bent out of shape because we have tended to denigrate “folklore” (as opposed to true “doctrine” I guess?). Here is a thing that might be useful for those that get stuck on the usage:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2012/10/24/folk-belief/amp/

  46. I could really use a grain-based mild drink right now.

    But seriously, more and more I wonder if there might be a different method to fulfill the divine commission to preach the gospel, as opposed to the current one borne on the backs of youth in a world vastly different from that of 1830.

  47. Jared: Well done. I found this helpful and insightful on many levels. Thank you.

  48. In no particular order:

    1. Cheers for the idea of downplaying folk theology. It’s a continuous effort. Folk theology will never go away.

    2. To that point, there is almost instantly sprouting folk theology about the change. FWIW, my college campus brain trust tells me counseling calls for depression and anxiety are increasing, even while communication with home is also increasing.

    3. As an amateur Church “kremlinologist” I find it interesting to track statements that this is from the First Presidency, that it was approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum, that this is another President Nelson innovation/revelation/modernization, that the letter is from the Missionary Committee, that most of the talking is from Elder Uchtdorf as Chairman of the Missionary Executive Council. In fact I am developing the impression that one of President Nelson’s “innovations” is to reduce the requirement of consultation and unanimity, and to green-light initiatives that make sense even without a long deliberative process and total consensus.

    4. I am most curious why this couldn’t always have been a mission president call, and why it can’t be now? A simple directive to mission presidents to make missionary by missionary (or even “all mission”) decisions with a wide scope of authority would have gone a very long way toward all the good that will come of this practice change.

  49. 5. Maybe mission presidents are also subject to folk theology explanations, and only a declaration from the top could change that in less than a generation?

  50. This article was one of the best I have ever read here (and I’ve read some great ones) and I agree with the author completely. As we continue to see (or not see) many changes in the Church, it is helpful if we remember that doctrine is NOT changing. The Gospel is what it has always been. But what IS changing is policy / procedures / programs and eventually LDS culture. Now, one could argue that out of all the changes we’ve seen in the last 13 months, the temple changes are the hardest to dismiss as p/p/p. But to me, what the temple changes illustrate is that most of what we see, hear, and do in the Church is not really the Gospel per se. It’s the p/p/p. The Gospel is much more personal and applicable to the individual in his or her relationship with Christ, not the Church.

  51. Jack Hughes says:

    I think public image may be a factor in this change, because in 2019 any organization that places such severe artificial restrictions of the communications of grown adults can easily be accused of being a cult, fairly or unfairly. Using folk doctrine to defend such policies only gives credence to those accusations.

  52. it's a series of tubes says:

    Turtle, I suspect that the point you make may end up being one of the most positive effects of this change. Sunlight can be the best disinfectant.

  53. josh h,

    Thanks for your kinds words about the post. I’m not sure I totally agree with you that doctrine never changes. I’m familiar with the argument, but I just don’t find it a very helpful or useful one, because sometimes the church does teach as doctrine things that later turn out to be false. My preference would be to reserve the word doctrine for the atonement and the gospel of Christ (in the narrow Book of Mormon sense), but there’s no question that the church uses it to mean the official teachings of the church, and that does change from time to time. I think we tie ourselves into knots insisting that doctrine doesn’t change, and therefore having to explain changes by retconning what used to be doctrine into just policy, even though we all treated it as doctrine at the time. And I think it’s unnecessary because I don’t think the notion that doctrine can’t change is something we need to insist on in the first place, unless we’re also defining doctrine very narrowly.

    Doctrine/policy can be a useful distinction when it’s made from the perspective of the way a given teaching or practice was presented or understood at the time. I don’t think it’s very useful when we make arguments that things that were presented as doctrine were not really doctrine, instead of just admitting that they changed or were wrong. I also find these distinctions to often be as useful or more useful: canon/homiletics, and official doctrine/folk theology.

  54. Thanks for your comments, Christian. I’m especially intrigued by your 4 and 5. My take on it is that mission president is truly one of the most autonomous callings in the church, but that mission presidents are not always willing to exercise that autonomy, especially in ways that might cut against the grain of received cultural wisdom. But I also am not sure that this change really precludes making rules about communication a missionary-specific things that mission presidents can make decisions about. Missionaries are authorized, but I could imagine a situation where a mission president might counsel a missionary to make calls less frequently for a number of reasons. I guess the difference is that now it will be missionary-specific counsel rather than missionary-specific rules. I think that’s a good thing, but I freely admit that my bias is against creating more rules.

  55. Generally, I appreciate the thought behind Christian’s 4 and 5. However, no. 4 would have no effect on those [few] mission presidents who refuse to believe that a missionary is ill rather than malingering, who greet sister missionaries with phrases like “I don’t like you” or “Oh, no, I told Salt Lake not to send me any more sister missionaries,” or who do not bother to get to know the missionaries and make decisions solely on the basis of reported numbers (however obtained or invented), or who refuse to let a missionary go home (until ETB forced him to), etc. [The missionary “saved” by ETB was ultimately able to finish his mission in another location.] I’m with Tubes on thinking that sunlight can be a good disinfectant.

  56. JKC: when I say “doctrine hasn’t changed”, I am defining doctrine in a very narrow sense (the Gospel of Jesus Christ / the Atonement). But I very much recognize that many others, including official Church sources, use the term to include Church teachings. I reject that definition because it has been so abused. Teachings seem to change. My testimony is strong because I dwell on the fact that the doctrine (the way I define it) has not changed. Otherwise, we are making it all up as we go along. And this is why I am comfortable with all these changes in the Church. To me it’s all programs / procedures / policies. Just don’t touch the Gospel basics and I’m good

  57. Maybe things have changed since I was young but I always believed the restrictions on calling home were meant to help the missionary mature by becoming an independent adult, independent both from his or her parents and from the influence of friends and romantic partners. To develop their own testimony by being required to seek God on their own.
    I realize this comes with some extreme hazards because young people can be asked to face situations they really are not capable of handling. (I had some roommate problems at college such as a dying roommate and roommates who were later diagnosed as bipolar that I simply lacked both practical, emotional and spiritual experience to cope with. No one was calling home since the cost of long distance was so high, but we really needed advice from older people. We just thought we had sufficient knowledge to cope well. And the mistakes we made had repercussions that still haunt our lives.) So I can certainly see wisdom in letting younger people have access to people who care about them and can recognize that something bad is happening that needs outside intervention.
    But the downside is the same one I watched young people stumble over when they came home for Christmas after going away to college during their freshman year. A number did not return to college because they saw their friends’ social interactions continuing without them and were afraid of being left out. Or they were afraid of losing the high school girlfriend while they were away. This is less a risk if your social circle is LDS with most of your friends also leaving to serve but not if your friends are not LDS or if your family members say the wrong things in more frequent phone calls. And I have known some manipulative parents who would sabotage their child’s mission for their own ends.
    So two edged sword with possible good and possible bad coming from it depending on the people involved.
    My personal complaint: I wish mission presidents and their wives were put through a multi-day training on recognizing the symptoms of mental illness, especially severe mental illnesses. Many of them become visible during the years young people are out. Other young missionaries are not qualified to recognize and cope with these. Parents trust their young people to the Church. Church leaders need to know what to look for and how to respond.

  58. Wendy – you propose a remedy less drastic than my comment on Feb 17 but I agree with you nonetheless (stated as a parent familiar with these issues).