Taking the Plunge for All It Is Worth (Which Is a Lot)

BCC welcomes this guest review by Roger Terry, editorial director at BYU Studies and the author of Bruder: The Perplexingly Spiritual Life and Not Entirely Unexpected Death of a Mormon Missionary, published in 2019 by BCC Press.

BCC Press has recently released two missionary memoirs, and Michael and Steve thought it would be fun to have the two authors review each other’s book. In my own memoir, I made the following observation up front: “One thing you need to know is that in spite of the stultifying sameness of dress imposed upon male Mormon missionaries (females get cut a little slack in this department), no two missionaries are alike. Beyond this, there is another level of diversity: between missions. . . . My youngest son recently returned from serving in Ukraine. At the same time, his cousin was serving in Florida.

Reading their weekly emails was an exercise in head scratching. You never would have known they were doing anything remotely similar. Their experiences were as different as a root canal and a birthday party. And when the cousin’s brother was sent to Uruguay, the sense of disconnect seemed to triple. So any mission memoir is going to be a very, very, very idiosyncratic narrative.” Reading Angela Liscom Clayton’s memoir did nothing to convince me my observation was wrong.

To say the least, The Legend of Hermana Plunge repeatedly astonished me. Her experience was so vastly different from mine, in every way imaginable, that reading it was like visiting another planet, or perhaps another dimension. Even my niece’s adventure in Florida was only vaguely similar to Sister Liscom’s sixteen months in the Canary Islands. And my wife’s mission to southern Chile, though it too was Spanish-speaking, didn’t much resemble Angela’s romp in “Europe’s Hawaii.”

I suppose the biggest shock for me was the behavior of the missionaries, as described by Angela. In northern Germany in the 1970s, the missionaries I knew were, by and large, hardworking, obedient, mature beyond their years, circumspect, and yet fun-loving and even goofy at times. So I was surprised at the number of ingenious ways the missionaries in the Canary Islands a decade later found to break the rules. I was disappointed at the “leadership” mentality and tactics, the raw aspiring to power and position, the encouraged competition, the vulgarity and occasional profanity, and the open flirting that Angela describes.

I suppose the culture of a mission is the consequence of several factors, but two of the primary determinants seem to be the leadership capacity and style of the mission president followed closely by the culture of the native population. I was especially surprised that any mission in the 1980s would be using Alvin R. Dyer’s controversial “challenge investigators for baptism on the first visit” program. I had a zone leader who got hold of Dyer’s book and tried this approach on his own, and my companion and I followed suit for about a week. But it was a disaster, so we gave it up. When I later saw membership records for one ward in Berlin, I noted that almost all of the inactives (and they were numerous) were baptized during the years Dyer presided over the European Mission. So, I can only guess that Angela’s mission president may have used this program when he was a missionary.

Another eye-opener for me in Hermana Plunge was simply being privy to the daily life of sister missionaries. As mentioned above, my wife served a mission, so I’ve heard a bit second-hand, but my own experience with sister missionaries is practically nil. My mission had very few sisters, and for whatever reason, I never served in a district with sisters, except for a brief time when my companion and I were in the zone leaders’ district along with two sisters. But the three companionships were all in different cities, and we never had a district meeting. Most of my mission was spent in “small” towns where my companion and I were the only missionaries. So, reading about the drama and crises Angela and her companions encountered (or created) was enlightening.

If this memoir has a theme, it would have to be the intricate and often disconcerting relationships between the missionaries, both within companionships and with other elders and sisters. Angela does not pull many punches when describing the weaknesses (and occasional strengths) of her fellow missionaries. Often the picture is not pretty, and I was left to wonder how these kids managed to bring anyone into the Church. But the Lord works with dull tools most of the time, and the harvest in Germany certainly wasn’t anything to brag about.

If I have one criticism of The Legend of Hermana Plunge, it would be the lack of any substantial payoff at the end. Throughout the book, I hoped for more evaluation of deeper questions and issues—regarding both missionary work and the Church—but for the most part this account skips over the top of most such concerns. So, as I neared the conclusion of the story, I anticipated that I would perhaps find some reflection on the overall experience. But when the mission ended, the only summation was a bit of statistical analysis. Perhaps this is appropriate, though, because numbers seemed to be a significant focus of Angela’s mission.

All in all, The Legend of Hermana Plunge is an enlightening read, showing in minute detail what it is like to serve in a place markedly different from other fields of labor. It is indeed a very idiosyncratic narrative.


Comments

  1. What Roger Terry criticizes is actually why I liked the book: I’m tired and skeptical of the many missionary stories of any length that end with “And they all lived happily ever after,” regardless of whether it’s phrased exactly like that. I appreciate that this story seemed completely honest. I might have been shocked if this was my *only* exposure to missionary culture ever, but even though I didn’t serve a mission, there is no shortage of missionary stories from which to glean some sense of what the general missionary experience is. “Hermana Plunge” is outside that norm, certainly, but so are many of the other missionary stories I’ve heard told in situations other than over the General Conference pulpit. These are the stories that help humanize missionaries and missions for me. I loved “The Legend of Hermana Plunge,” and was engaged from start to finish.

  2. I can definitely vouch for the aggressive use of Dyer’s “Testifying, Challenging Missionary” model in early 1990’s France. In retrospect I’ve had to come to terms with my active participation in what verged on priestcraft as applied in some circumstances but at the time seemed like a miracle: we actually got baptisms in Europe.

    One thing it has helped me recognize is the wisdom of the church’s usual small “c” conservative approach. For any changes to the missionary program, I try to imagine the worst that could happen in the hands of young elders and then times it by 10. We might hear some interesting stories in the coming years in the aftermath of a lot of the recent changes (lower ages, closer ages for sisters and elders, calls home, etc.). Give it ten years and BCC should have a fresh crop of fun mission memoirs!

  3. In Argentina in 2008, my second mission president (unsurprisingly a businessman; my first had been a teacher) instituted the “challenge investigators for baptism on the first visit.” Indeed, he had us begin to report the number of baptismal challenges we issued to people — investigators, first lesson-listeners, and even street contacts — every week. Obedient as I was trying to be, I complied. I wish I’d been less worried about mission rules and had been able to recognize when I could justifiably bend them aside from the most ridiculous examples (see: “missionaries shall not attend post-baptism refreshments because they need to be out finding more people”).

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Angela’s book, I suppose in part because I could relate to it so well. I served in Colorado in the late 70s, and my first MP was a Dyer disciple. (Dyer’s book The Challenge was a required purchase of every new missionary, but the mission office happened to be out when i came, so I never bought it or read it. The other required volumes were Dress for Success and How to Win Friends and Influence People.) My mission’s culture was very similar; I would describe it as “baptize hard, play hard.” My first MP didn’t believe in tracting, so we didn’t knock doors, but mostly worked with and through members (which was only possible because, did I mention it was Colorado?). My second MP tried to get the missionaries to tract at least a little bit, like just an hour a day, but the old timers were so engrained in the old anti-tracting ways they wouldn’t do it. My first year the mish had great numbers and was usually neck and neck with Washington for the highest baptizing domestic (non-Utah) mission, but under the new non-Dyer guy the numbers went down (and he took a lot of heat for it from his superiors; I always felt bad about that, because in my view it simply wasn’t his fault.) Anyway, the Dyer-infused culture of Angela’s mission was a lot like mine, and it was fascinating to me to see it play out halfway around the world in an island paradise a decade later and from a sister’s perspective. I highly recommend the book.

  5. Jenny G: I even kept out some of the more outrageous stories because they weren’t specifically mine, but I had only a tiny twinge of regret at not including “the Jarvis Toilet” and the story about one of the ZLs, later a bishop, who was collecting women’s undergarments. So, while it may have seemed shocking at times, I was holding back.

    Like you, I am skeptical of some of the mission memoirs out there that opine too much, and I preferred showing to telling, but it’s possible I could have spent more time on reflection. It just seems that all that reflection ends up feeling the same. I think Bruder did a great job at making that reflection unique from other memoirs, particularly with the infusion of Star Trek that I’m so fond of, but I just didn’t feel like that was the story I wanted to tell. I’m OK with that.

    The numbers part was definitely something I wanted to address because serving a mission really did bring out my business-mindedness and contributed to my selection of career. I found the actual management and organization and politics of mission life interesting from a sociological perspective. That surprised me as I had always considered myself a future starving artist, and my life took a completely different turn as a result of my experiences and newfound self-knowledge.

  6. My mission was what I would consider a “rebellious” one, with more disobedient missionaries than not. One of my companions had to go through all her pictures and hide all the ones she never wanted her parents to see. I had a lot of anger toward the other missionaries in general because of the strong peer pressure to act in ways that I felt were not appropriate for missionaries. Ours was also a mission with high pressure to baptize and many baptisms that never should have taken place. I experienced a lot of guilt over not being strong enough to stand up against this. I was very cynical about missions in general afterward until I talked to several roommates whose missions were *not* like that. I had a couple of experiences post-mission that helped me heal. One was a priesthood blessing given several years later by a bishop who knew nothing about my mission but blessed me with instructions to stop feeling guilty over things that weren’t within my control. Another was having the opportunity to VT a sister in a ward a number of years later. She had served in my mission several years after me, and apparently not much had changed. She had been one of the “rebellious” missionaries and confided to me that she dealt with MASSIVE guilt over her behavior. It really touched me and helped me see these other missionaries in a more human way and helped me get over my resentment. In general I feel that my mission president was a very ineffective leader, which surprised me as he was a highly successful businessman and surely had lots of management experience. I have difficult feelings about missions in general. I have a son coming up on mission age soon, and while I outwardly encourage him to serve (and he wants to), inwardly I struggle wondering what his experience will be like. I never want to serve a proselyting mission again, not even with my husband. I think people who know me would be shocked to know I feel that way.

  7. Ryan Mullen says:

    Lisa, My mission was what I would consider “strict” and I’ve struggled with that in the years since. I grappled with major guilt over what I would now consider minor infractions. I carried this unhealthy emphasis on obedience home with me. In addition, we were taught to commit for baptism during the first discussion (what I am now learning is the Dyer method), allowed/encouraged to baptize kids whose parents were not, and weekly reports praised the highest baptizing companionships. Looking back all of these things make me uncomfortable, but your comment helps me see my mission with a bit more grace. Thanks.

    Angela, I look forward to reading your memoir.

  8. Rockwell says:

    I loved this book and, with the exception of the Dyer method and high number of baptisms, find the experience to be remarkably similar to my own. It was a pleasure to read.

  9. RioNorteMissionary says:

    I’m curious if things have changed a bit to stop with the obsessive focus on numbers missionaries truly have no control over (e.g. baptisms) and focus more on numbers they do (e.g. hours spent studying, how many attempts at a street contact, how many hours working)? There are not a small number of people in this thread and friends I’ve talked with over the years who feel tremendous guilt over the emphasis on baptism numbers and the weird things that come about because of that.
    I served in Rio in the mid 90s and the MP prior to mine was excommunicated for a variety of reasons but which left him truly in a “amen to the priesthood” situation and he had little control over the mission. I heard lots of rumors, many of which are hard to verify but when I had random people approach me on the street and tell me XYZ thing had happened to them regarding the missionaries and random people in entirely different cities approach me and tell me identical XYZ stories, well, #twoorthreewitnesses.

    I, too, worry for how my children’s missions will play out. I’m trying to share general stories about my mission and help them see the positives about it and yet arm them with confidence to put their trust and faith in the Lord and push back when leaders might be getting, shall we say, over-enthusiastic.

    It’s important to remember that the purpose of a mission isn’t necessarily to baptize but rather to bring souls closer to Christ, starting with the missionary. And if someone rejects baptism, well, challenge her to be a better Catholic/Baptist/Methodist/whatever.

  10. Angela C says:

    Rio: I think to accomplish that, you have to truly drop all numbers entirely. There were a lot of missions to the north of us in Europe that were racking up hours and tracking that. Every skipped p-day was supposed to bring more blessings. If a 10-hour workday was good, then a 12-hour was great! That’s no better than focusing on results. I think the times that were really effective are when we talked about the actual people we were teaching: their lives, their needs, their families, their struggles. Just talking about how we could help them. That’s a simple thing, but cuts to the heart of missionary work in a way that counting discussions, baptisms, hours worked, books given away, etc., just don’t do.

  11. Roger Terry says:

    I ought to clarify my one criticism of the book. I know from reading lots of her blog posts that Angela has interesting thoughts about an inexhaustible array of topics. I just wished that she had taken more time to examine her whole mission experience and its implications in some sort of summary at the end. Overall, I found her account fascinating and instructive, although it was radically different from anything I experienced in cold, circumspect northern Germany. It just shows how different missions, and missionaries, can be. If you are interested in learning about a variety of mission experiences, definitely put this book on your reading list.

  12. Roger Hansen says:

    I served in Belgium and France in the mid-1960s. It was a 2-1/2 year mission. Church activity rates were about 10 percent. Most of our effort was put into unproductive tracting. Realistically you could only tract so much, and still keep your sanity. I so wish that we would have been encouraged to do service-orient activities. Volunteer work with no strings attached, particularly with the Algerians in France and the Congolese in Belgium. I occasionally wonder if my 2-1/2 years might have been better spent participating in the Civil Rights movement.

    I think Church leaders need to look at the function of the missionary program. We need to make sure our young adults aren’t wasting their time on unproductive activities.