I’ve actually been working on this post for a long time, but I just read a blogger who listed his own reasons for wanting to serve a mission and so it got me re-interested in finishing it. I do respect and understand the desires of that young man, the blogger who wants to serve a mission. But my main comment for him was that I don’t think an actual LDS mission is anywhere close to what he imagines it to be.
When the time actually comes, I’ll have little to no say on whether or not my son ever serves an LDS mission or not. His indoctrination right now at 13 is pretty well set and firm. It took me 40 years to figure things out myself, and only then after my strong LDS mother was 6 feet under. I certainly don’t expect a much earlier epiphany out of my own children whose mother is an even greater indomitable force.
To start off, I both hated and loved my mission with the full depth of emotion on both sides of that spectrum. On the positive side, I learned a lot. I grew a lot in positive ways and the experience is forever a part of my character and soul. I can’t imagine Brazil not being part of me.
So, why wouldn’t I want my own children to have such a life-changing experience of their own?
The truth is that I would, if the positive side were the overwhelming dominant factor of the mission experience. I would if there weren’t other safer, healthier, more honest and more effective methods of growing, growing up, showing service and compassion to others or achieving those same ends.
I firmly believe that you can create meaning and growth from almost any experience in life, but I do not believe in the pop culture idea that since I got something good out of a mission that it was “meant to be” or that that’s what was “supposed to happen.” Meaning is derived by how you react or approach experiences, not in the experiences themselves.
I’ve read and heard presentations from war and holocaust survivors who are able to detail clear life-changing benefits from their horrible experiences. They wisely derived meaning from it. Events like that are obviously life-changing and character-building. Survivors often come out on the other end with significant strengths (and/or wounds) after having experienced trauma. But that doesn’t mean one should volunteer for them or that meaning exists in the trauma itself.
Life will happen either way. We don’t need to place ourselves into precarious positions in order to experience it.
My Dad is fond of recalling his challenging times, “I’m glad I went through that, but I’d never want to do it again.” As a father myself, I feel like I’m completely consistent in saying that I’m grateful for my mission experience but that I’d never want my son or daughter to go through it.
So, while I fully expect that possibly more than one of my children will one day elect to serve a mission, here are the reasons as a father that I hope they don’t.
Keep in mind that I served a mission to Brazil in the early 80’s and worked in the MTC in the late 80’s. Some things may have changed, but I don’t believe a mission is THAT different at the core now than it was for me. I also know everyone’s mission experience is unique and different (stateside vs abroad, Asia vs Europe vs South America, etc), but I have talked with a great number of returned missionaries to supplement the perceptions I have of my experiences. Here are my impressions:
This is #1 on my list for a reason. My mission in particular was incredibly unsanitary. I’d never want a child of mine to live in the conditions I lived in. There was zero concern or care for our living conditions on my mission. I arrived in Brazil with little ability to communicate in order to do anything about it on my own such as change apartments, or hire a maid.
By the time I could communicate, I was well aware that hygiene was 100% my own issue and I needed to basically do my best with the circumstances I was given. My initial depression upon arriving in Brazil was in large part due to the extreme shock of my living conditions. There is no reason that proper housing and hygiene shouldn’t and couldn’t be a top priority for mission leadership. My experience is that the top Salt Lake City brass thinks it is, but that doesn’t trickle down at all.
There are many, many missionaries who serve in 3rd world countries that return home with chronic health problems. I know this is true because I experienced it and I heard it admitted in a leadership meeting when I worked in the MTC.
Now lest anyone think this is a slam on Brazil, it’s not. The unsanitary conditions of most of my lodgings have more to do with a complete and utter lack of concern for our health by the church and mission leadership not on local customs. I visited very clean Brazilian homes even in poor neighborhoods. I believe that a majority of missionary housing world-wide is substandard. I believe that that is inexcusable. If I am to send (and pay for!) a son or daughter to work for your organization, this had better be your MAIN concern, not just a footnote in a training manual.
For example, by the time I made it to my second assignment I had a few advantages. My companion had been the financial clerk in the mission home and he knew how to finagle the administration to actually get us some needed supplies. We bought beds. We also hired a maid to clean, do our laundry and cook which is common there. One day we went to the bus station to pick up a fresh missionary from the MTC who had been assigned to be the 4th missionary in our home. On the taxi ride back to the house we bragged about how we had the best living conditions on the mission, so we set his expectations high. I’ll never forget, however, the look on his face when he walked in the front door. I’m certain he wanted to sob as he whimpered, “THIS is the best house in the mission?”
Lack of boundaries
I believe there are certain inalienable personal boundaries which are proper and necessary for an individual to maintain his/her identity. The LDS Church itself already violates many of these boundaries, but a mission crosses the line even further.
If you are a sincere Mormon working towards obtaining the “Celestial Kingdom” you are advised or regulated in your underwear, finances, volunteer positions, sexual behavior, choice of congregation and in much of your free time. On a mission, you are further regulated in your outer clothing, grooming, your name, your “companions” and every last minute of your day, week and year. There literally is no personal space on a mission… figuratively and literally. You are never alone.
While an employer or volunteer organization may have an employee manual just like the missionaries have the white bible , there are usually clear boundaries in the real world between professional behavior at work and personal behavior on down time. This boundary doesn’t exist on a Mormon mission. Yet, I believe this is a time in a young person’s life when they should have that personal space.
Mormon missions are organized into a firm hierarchy with a older male president as leader. The nature of the missionaries’ relationship with that president is an ever present force in a missionary’s life. It’s really the luck of the draw whether you get a power hungry dictator or a kind, understanding father figure. But even in the most idealistic circumstances missionaries are treated as servants, and followers. Yes, I’ll even say it…they are treated as cult members not volunteers or even employees.
In Mormonism, a leader is followed, not questioned. There is no such thing as checks and balances in any Mormon organization, especially not a Mormon mission. The assigned leader leads and it is assumed that he is behaving on God’s will. There’s not even a chance to select or apply for assignments or leadership positions. Everything is selected for you. There are a few assigned leadership positions for a select few missionaries to supervise and instruct their peers. Yet, because of this inherent lack of checks and balances or respect for the individual these chosen missionaries often inherit power that they are unprepared or unqualified for, but which sets the standard for the rest of their lives.
Mormons missions teach leadership, but it’s a leadership style for little dictators with the best of intentions. Even more importantly Mormon missions teach unquestioning following for everyone else.
One size fits all
There is no autonomy or ability to form the mission experience into something that meets individual strengths goals and abilities. This wasn’t always the case as I understand it. Formerly, missionaries could create sports teams, performing troups and language classes that enabled them to interact with the local community using their talents. But with church-wide correlation came a more homogenized experience for proselyting missionaries. On my mission you taught. Period.
When there is down time, you can go out and do door approaches, street contacts and collect referrals from local members but there is very little to no ability for creativity or straying from the determined formula of those activities in each mission.
Even on Preparation Days (P-Day) missionaries are still required to stay together and so their “down time” activities follow the rigid pattern of the interests of a 19 year old boy from Utah…basketball or some activity that I was rarely interested in or good at.
Sanity & Indoctrination
When all your personal control is taken away as I described above, it is unnerving. When you can’t communicate with friends or family, you often feel like you are losing you mind. It’s a form of torture to never allow someone to be alone, to not allow an individual to call family or friends even on birthdays or holidays. What’s worse is the guilt and shame piled on when a missionary does reach out or tries to develop some semblance of autonomy and connection to the outside world. The isolation it creates is the perfect breeding ground for the depression and fanaticism that so often follow a missionary’s service.
It breaks down an individual’s sense of self and as a Mormon that would be considered a good thing, but I know that it literally takes years for that to ever wear off. Again… that’s the whole purpose from the Mormon perspective, but from a father’s perspective I see my children’s individuality as already perfect. Becoming more isolated, more devout and indeed more fanatic is not a plus in my worldview.
You will hear a lot of returned missionaries describe how a mission taught them self discipline and study habits that they otherwise never would have learned. It helped them learn to live alone and away from Mom and Dad for the first time. Often, these are people who floundered in high school. For some people I agree that a mission’s hard-core training can do this, but I found such testimonials odd. I was already a great student before I went on a mission. I was on scholarship at a well-known East Coast University and had plenty of experience successfully living on my own. Like the military, I suppose a Mormon missionary can save aimless and wandering youth from themselves. But like me, my children are showing every sign of being able to navigate their world, to establish goals which they work hard to achieve without the babysitting required of a mission.Furthermore, for students who have already learned life skills college is the right place at this time – not on a proselyting mission. Missionaries return behind their college peers in almost every way. After the mission, when you place the immediate Mormon pressure to get married and start a family on top of their already paused education it’s a recipe for financial hardship. And unfortunately the family spent all their money for the mission so there’s very little left for a returned missionary to study properly.
Plain and simple, 19 -21 year olds should be experimenting with relationships, career decisions and wrestling with life philosophies not in a restrictive indoctrination camp where their every move is regulated. Yes, they should be developing life-long skills and behaviors that help them serve others too, but not at the expense of EVERYTHING else.
There are other better ways to gather life experiences that match or exceed the results of an LDS mission…. Study abroad, Peace Corps, Foreign Service, volunteer vacations, teaching abroad, volunteering in the local community. In fact, it’s much easier to travel to a far off land and tell yourself that you are serving humanity, when every move of yours is actually serving an insular organization and helping nobody in particular in any particular concrete way.
It’s much tougher to do it at home; THAT would actually be a life skill worth developing… service to humanity while going about a daily routine.
There’s very little actual service to fellow man going on during a Mormon proselyting mission. Everything has one end in mind and that is to convert others to Mormonism. Of course Mormons will tell themselves that that in itself does make the world a better place, but I’d disagree. There are better ways. From an outside perspective, someone converting to Mormonism has very little impact on the larger community. There are far too many concrete opportunities for service right at home.
Most of the 19 – 21 year olds who serve an LDS mission would never consider questioning their own parents’ beliefs, yet they are planning on spending 2 years of their lives asking others to reconsider the faith of their fathers. Likewise, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Mormon missionary (including myself) who has really studied his/her own religion to any significant extent let alone another faith. What most of them know about their own religion and the religion of others is only what is taught in Sunday School and Seminary classes. It’s hypocritical to sit in front of adults and ask them to seriously consider and search for truth outside their faith, when the extent of their own searching has been to pray as directed to know that the LDS Church is true (not “if”).
I don’t believe I could support a child of mine on an LDS mission until I witnessed the kind of searching that leads to alternative sources of material and honest questions.