Ethics and Mormon missionary work: what memoirs tell us

They are still teenagers, 18 or 19, and are sent out to change the lives of adults. The boys dress up like CIA-agents, the girls like old-school women. They typically have no clue about the national, regional, social, cultural, religious, or familial identities of the people they try to interest in their alien sect. They pretend they are only adding to the truth people already have but have no idea which truths these people have. They work within a compelling frame of rules, goals, figures, and reports. Therefore they would do anything to drag a non-member to church on Sunday, even a drunk on the bus or a weirdo met on the way to church. If need be, they break up families to reach their goal, flippantly calling it getting wet, getting white, dunking, plunging, splashing, or putting on the Elvis suit—even if they know in their heart the candidate is not ready.

They call their targets “investigators”—often loners or messed up people who let the missionaries in and who loosely acquiesce to lessons they vaguely understand. These targets are precious souls, ailing, but no patients for inexperienced teenagers. When genuine seekers or religious enquirers are eager to chat with the missionaries, the dissonance is awkward. The teenagers use testimony to dodge reasonable questions and objections. They repel the more thoughtful investigators by prematurely requiring commitments to baptism. They see Satan in the critic. It’s “us versus them.” They have no time to waste on tangential topics because the weekly report is due with figures for various categories—”contacts made,” “discussions given,” “attended sacrament meeting,” “have a baptismal date,” and “baptized.” From a few hundred for the first category to perhaps 1 for the last, but much more often zero.

Between them they play roles to survive, comply, or impress. They sometimes go through hell with companions. They find out that the promises tied to strict obedience and intense work are idle rhetoric (worse: the easy-going and disobedient ones are more successful). Hierarchy, junior, seniors, trainers, transfers, secret crushes, and the Mission President are very much on their mind. Some hide their ambitions but display the expected signs to become DL, ZL, or even AP. Their moods alternate between dark and light. Even if discouraged and depressed, they still teach lessons on faith and happiness. They often wonder what they are doing here. Some discover their own religion.

But occasionally they also experience unexplainable spiritual climaxes, revelation, and the power of grace. They develop resilience and compassion. They learn to sustain each other. They gather gripping life stories and magnify trivialities to major events. They mature, make lifelong friends, and dig into themselves to make sense of it all. They may discover humanity and love among and towards the few strangers they finally get to know well. They bond with the country, even if it’s only for the national desserts. And when they look back after many years, they conclude or convince themselves they don’t regret the experience. Which does not mean they always approve of what they were sent to do.

All the above elements, candidly told as such, and more, are found in the autoethnographic genre or Mormon Missionary Memoirs.[1]

By Common Consent Press published two recent ones, both valuable for their contribution to the genre: Angela Clayton’s The Legend of Hermana Plunge about her mission on the Canary Islands in 1989–1990 and Roger Terry’s Bruder: The Perplexingly Spiritual Life and Not Entirely Unexpected Death of a Mormon Missionary about his mission in Germany in 1975–1977. That means they were slightly older than the average missionary now. First I’ll review these two books and from there expand to ethics and missionary work.

 

Hermana and Bruder

Both Clayton (Hermana Plunge) and Terry (Bruder Terry) think their story is kind of “atypical”—Clayton because she knows her mission on the tropical Canary islands, without much supervision among a pretty loose local populace, was totally different than tightly-controlled missions in colder countries; Terry mainly because of his candid self-analysis and the disconnect he feels between the missionary he was and the person he is now. But their basic experiences are quite similar, just as they are in other memoirs. Both went on their mission because somehow it belonged to the natural order of things in their family and community. The anticipation of a stay abroad and of social capital upon return (RM!) play an obvious role. Absent from their descriptions: a deep desire to “bring people to Christ.” The rest of the plotline follows typically, from the coziness of pre-mission life to entering the MTC (or still LTM for Terry), the giant leap into a strictly structured life, the bewildering arrival in the field, the totally unrealistic goal-setting by the mission president or leading missionaries, the challenges of the junior status, the bizarre investigators, the uneasiness over the pushy approach (testify, challenge, and baptize promptly), the inter-missionary camaraderie, rivalry, and conflicts, the gossip and the rumors, the highs and lows, the concerns about goals and numbers, and the final reflections on pros and cons.

Clayton still worked with the Alvin-Dyer approach of the 1960s and Terry experimented with it. The later Preach My Gospel is not too far from it with its emphasis on short lessons, testimony, Spirit, and prompt commitments. Both missionaries felt uneasy about this approach. One Dyer-principle is that “the Lord knows who He wants in the Church. This has been determined beforehand and there isn’t much that you and I can do to destroy that” (Clayton, 27, quoting Dyer). It is the concept of the blood of Israel, the elect from the pre-existence who will recognize the voice. For the missionaries in the Canary Islands it meant: “You didn’t have to prepare new Church members, just find them, ready-made. If they didn’t progress, you’d find someone else … In practice, this meant that, as missionaries, we were off the hook for what happened after baptism” (Clayton, 29). Terry from his side wonders about the lack of response of the people: “If this really is God’s only true church, you’d think he could do a better job of either making it more attractive or communicating this fact to his children” (p. 228).

Clayton and Terry also have in common that they wanted to write a mission memoir, driven not only by rich reminiscences they want to tell, but also by a desire to sort out what it all meant and to revisit those with whom they shared emotional moments. Both are surprised when rereading their missionary journals, by what they perceived then, and how their outlook and even memories have changed since. They both struggle to write diplomatically about weird mission leaders and companions they had. Where needed, names are changed, of course. Above all, they mature: they discover that, when it comes to rules and obedience, humanity and common sense trump hypocrisy and idiocy.

Clayton as well as Terry made a calculation of their investment. Clayton (16 months in the field) taught 814 discussions, had 69 investigators at church, and contributed to 20 baptisms. If that sounds successful, first read the details about the lifestyle of local Canarians. Terry (22 months in the field) talked to some 40,000 contacts and taught “between 900 and 1,000 discussions.” Of all his investigators, 13 joined the church, with Terry getting credit for two baptisms—a lonely older lady and an Osmond-fan. Practically all converts, both from Clayton and Terry, turned inactive after their baptism. “It’s as if they were never Mormons, other than to temporarily pad the inflated statistics the Church publishes” (Terry, 230). Still, both our returned missionaries kept in touch, through mail or visits, with some of the people they had known. “While the church may have introduced us all, it didn’t define or limit the relationships we formed” (Clayton, 225). Clayton and Terry cared, enough to give a prominent place to locals in their writings, which deserves a lot of praise.

But each memoir is also distinctive. Professionally Angela Clayton became a business executive. Her memoir shows she was already in that disposition early on–”very judgmental of Molly Mormon types” (p. 6). As a self-conscious woman she is aware of her emancipated status and of the missionaries’ gender, age, and leadership imbalances (certainly still in 1989). She undergoes the frustrations of being commanded and reprimanded by authoritarian males younger than herself. But she remains wise and lucid about it all. Her tale is basically good-humored and her personality jesting and self-affirming—hence the nickname “Plunge” she gave herself as the “legend” who outclassed the male missionaries in bringing in baptisms, but ending as a “wise and jaded has-been” (cover). Her writing style makes the book pretty entertaining.

Roger Terry is a product of the humanities—precisely “not the corporate type” (p. viii). His later career took the literary and editorial direction, moreover deeply embedded in Mormonism, working as an editor for the Liahona and the Ensign, and finally as editorial director of BYU Studies. He knows the Church to be “one of the most complex conundrums you could find” (p. x). It is from that perspective that he looks back with the intensity of a meticulous and sometimes grim quest. When I review a book I highlight the sentences that strike me as important. With Terry’s book I ended up highlighting about one third on many pages. He writes with non-members or uninformed members in mind, explaining church history, organization, and doctrine, intricacies and contradictions included. Understanding dogmas, faith, and spiritual feelings and struggling with inadequacy are recurring themes, sometimes expressed intellectually, sometimes lyrically. But the basic tone remains constructive.

 

Ethics

To what extent is Mormon missionary work ethical? The missionary memoirs provide material that illuminates this question in the field of applied ethics. I define ethics here as “a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sentient creatures.”[2] In other words: to what extent does Mormon missionary work help or harm? I list here a number of issues that I have developed in greater detail in Dutch here (for those interested, requesting online English translation should enable a fairly understandable text). It should also be clear that I address the topic from the viewpoint of the church “in the peripheries,” the locale of the memoirs, outside of Mormon strongholds.

  • Ethics toward the convert

The 2008 financial crisis revealed how crucial it is for bank clients to receive correct information about the risks involved in major decisions. Nowadays financial institutions are pressured to act more ethically: assess clients’ profiles, inform them fully, and protect them against rash and irresponsible decisions. Should not the same apply when people make major religious decisions that are meant to affect the rest of their life and even eternity?

However, most Mormon converts are baptized without realizing what will come next. Preach My Gospel, the missionary handbook, foresees five lessons to be given to investigators. The first four cover essentials: Godhead, restoration, Book of Mormon (lesson 1); plan of salvation from pre-existence to exaltation (lesson 2); first principles and ordinances (lesson 3); prayer, Scriptures study, Sabbath, chastity, word of wisdom, and tithing (lesson 4). Timing for all this? “Rarely should a lesson go over 45 minutes” (p. vii). For these four lessons together, maximum 3 hours. But each lesson can also be given as a “short lesson” of 3 to 5 minutes (p. 41). For all four lessons together, minimum 12 minutes. If the candidate agrees with the commitments the missionary is pressing on, he or she is ready for baptism.

Lesson 5, however, is to “be taught to new members soon after they are baptized and confirmed” (p. 82). That lesson covers most of the rest that is expected: priesthood, missionary service, family home evening, eternal marriage, temple work, family history, service in the Church, and teaching and learning. Sure, says the handbook, “You may begin teaching them about these laws and ordinances between their baptism and confirmation or even before baptism. Baptismal candidates should at least be aware of these laws and ordinances before baptism” (p. 82, italics added). Missionaries who do not want to scare off their investigators will not be eager to mention all these expectations. One may also wonder what “at least be aware of” means if each of the first four lessons lasts between minimum 3 minutes and maximum 45 minutes. Of course, thoughtful investigators will seldom accept baptism after only three hours of teaching, but missionaries will pressure to keep the preparation time as short as possible.

The result is obvious: quick inactivity after baptism. The loss within the first year is staggering.[3] Elder Oaks remarked: “Among those converts who fall away, the attrition is steepest in the two months after baptism.” In their memoirs, both Clayton and Terry mention the high number of “inactives,” sometimes more than 90%. So, is it ethical to baptize people who cannot yet properly assess the implications of membership? President Hinckley warned:

“What does it profit the missionary to baptize someone who leaves the Church within six months? Nothing is accomplished; in fact, damage is done. We have pulled them away from their old moorings and brought them into the Church, only to have them drift away.”[4]

Elsewhere he stressed: “There is absolutely no point in doing missionary work unless we hold on to the fruits of that effort. The two must be inseparable.”

Not only social damage is done, but if we take our religion seriously, we let converts make covenants they are unlikely to keep. In their memoirs, both Clayton and Terry struggle with that dilemma. “A lot of what I did was ultimately pointless,” says Clayton (p. ix). Terry digs deeper into this “soteriological problem” to conclude that missionary work “just doesn’t add up”: based on Latter-day doctrines, it would be much better that people hear about the gospel in the afterlife in order to be practically sure of their redemption (p. 232–233). The topic has become even more acute by a recent conference talk by president Russell M. Nelson where he weeps for those who decline the invitation to be baptized, namely all those who “have chosen not to make covenants with God. They have not received the ordinances that will exalt them with their families and bind them together forever.”[5] Speaking of a friend of his, who was taught by the missionaries but not willing to commit, president Nelson even doubts “the efficacy of proxy temple work for a man who had the opportunity to be baptized in this life—to be ordained to the priesthood and receive temple blessings while here in mortality—but who made the conscious decision to reject that course.” If that is so, the millions taught by missionaries but who declined to be baptized, will regret ever letting them in their house, since, according to presidents Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow, all those who never heard the fullness of the gospel on earth, will gladly and easily accept it in the spirit world.[6]

  • Ethics toward the family

Terry is frank from what he saw: “As committed to family as Mormons advertise themselves to be, from the beginning they have nevertheless been quite adept at breaking families apart” (p. 140). Indeed, missionaries trigger tensions, conflicts, and sometimes devastating breaches between converts and other members of their family. The memoirs regularly mention such cases. Terry tells how one of his companions, a convert himself, was kicked out of his house, and his mother, when he decided to go on a mission, “vowed never to speak to him again” (p. 181). But that missionary is now causing the same drama elsewhere.

Mormon missionaries are not only totally unprepared to deal with these conflicts, but also taught to ignore them. Preach My Gospel mentions the topic three times. (1) An example is given of a Brother Snider who is “deeply concerned about how his family would react to his joining another church.” It suffices that the elders have him read 3 Nephi 11 and the man decides that “I had better do what He wants me to do” (p. 113). Problem solved. (2) The handbook suggests that missionaries “share ideas” about the following situation: Investigator Steve is ready for baptism, but “his family members are devout Catholics and do not approve of his meetings with the missionaries” (p. 153). The “ideas” to solve the problem are left to the imagination of inexperienced teenagers who are driven by one goal: to baptize. (3) The handbook mentions that “investigators might fear opposition from family members if they join the Church.” The advice is: “Determine whether the concern has come up because the person does not have a spiritual confirmation of the truth of the Restoration or whether the person does not want to commit to living a true principle.” (p. 187). The issue is thus not only not addressed, but the cause of the concern is imputed solely to a lack of faith or to a refusal to commit to one of the commandments.

As a result, Preach My Gospel seems indifferent to the heartbreak of others. The handbook does not help the missionaries to understand and handle the turmoil they can trigger in families and in the surrounding society. On the contrary: it convinces them that averse family members are nuisances. Is it ethical to allow immature and keyed up young people to upset lives in faraway families—in sometimes hurtful ways that may take years, even decades, to heal, if the wounds ever heal? That question surfaces in the memoirs.

  • Ethics toward the community

The communities where Clayton and Terry worked, respectively in the Canary Islands and in Germany, did not feel threatened by the Mormon missionaries. In many developed and democratic countries, in particular those with tolerant religious pluralism, proselytizing is considered annoying but not menacing. Americans in particular are accustomed to religious marketing—”Shopping for Jesus.”[7] It is considered part of religious freedom. Such is not the case in other communities or countries. Though Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948) guarantees “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights added a limitation as article 18.3: “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The same wording is in other international declarations. The reasons for the addition were obvious: religious freedom to proselytize is not unlimited if it causes harm. I focus here on the part “public safety and order.”

Of course, the Church does not intend to disturb safety and order. It is very careful to work within the laws of each country. The issue here is how in certain countries people view proselytizers and what reactions this may provoke. The origin of the limitations, which the UN Covenant mentions, is found in their history: these nations have been torn apart by religious strife, and many still are being torn apart. Millions of individuals view their religion as part of their core identity, such as gender or consanguinity. One does not try to change that. As Gandhi said: “Proselytization will mean no peace in the world.” The Catholic Church and the hundreds of churches affiliated with the World Council of Churches have agreed to enter into more responsible relationships and recognize each other’s baptism, rather than hostilely proselytize among each other. For them, the “common witness” of Jesus precludes competition.[8] In countries where several religions co-exist in a delicate balance, conversion is considered treason. Proselytism by a foreign entity can be perceived as assaulting the very character of a nation or of an ethnic group. Missionaries are then viewed as religious intruders who try to drive a wedge in the social fabric.

As Mormons we state that we come only to bring “more truth” to individuals and offer them a happier life, reassuring the government that we meticulously obey the laws. In reality, according to our own literature, we aspire to much more: change persons thoroughly, untie them from their original milieu, and involve them deeply in church life. In democratic countries with free religious pluralism, this aim is perfectly acceptable. In other countries, not so, and if the law prohibits forms of proselytism, the Church accepts those limitations. Moreover, the church may come across as politically ambitious, which is undeniable from its own founding texts: the “Kingdom of God” is meant to overpower all other nations and establish Christ’s rule on earth. We may explain it differently, but outsiders read what’s in our own texts. Some countries know all too well from history that every domineering religion once started in a tiny place before expansionism made it a conqueror. Hence, a deep distrust of proselytizers.

If needed, the Church accepts the limitations. When BYU wanted to build its Jerusalem center, orthodox forces within Israel reacted passionately and aggresively out of fear for proselytism. It became a major political issue. The Church finally signed a declaration it would not proselytize in Israel and gave strict orders to its faculty and students never to do so. .

W. Cole Durham, arguing from an explicit Mormon perspective, defends the thesis that “normal efforts to engage in religious persuasion—even fairly activist efforts” should always be protected.[9] But he does not define “normal,” nor does he consider the potentially harrowing consequences of even “normal” proselytism on individuals, families, or the community in certain settings. Western approaches to “persuade,” do not apply equally all over the world. Even within Europe, where freedom to preach exists, the Church has at present guidelines to restrict the teaching of Muslims, both for their safety and for the safety of missionaries and members

The trouble the church is experiencing in Russia and other ex-communist nations invites us to try to see it from their side. Here are countries that experienced a massive upheaval in the 1990s. Each went through a difficult process to rebuild a national identity, reconcile internal divisive forces, and allow the domestic church, which greatly suffered under communism, to regain strength—a difficult process which is still ongoing. But the process had barely started before American churches, with massive means, “invaded” the country to make converts, profiting from the disarray and the open doors. Was this ethical? No wonder Russia later on enacted laws to curb such incursions that could disrupt social harmony. Again, trying to see it from their side: they may fear that a sect of American origin may spread quickly and create a major subversive presence in the country. Many Mormons reacted similarly when Protestant missionaries set up missions in Utah (Territory) between 1865 and the early 1900s.[10]

  • Ethics and human rights

Back to Article 18.3 of the UN Covenant: “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” That latter part pertains to the protection of the rights of those who are the target of proselytism. In his thorough analysis of proselytism versus rights, Tad Stahnke, in an excellent assessment in the BYU Law Review, analyzes the rights to preach, but also the rights of people “to be protected from injury to their religious feelings and to maintain their religious identity.”[11] Indeed, almost inevitably, proselytism implies criticism of other religions, since one religion is touted as the better one. Such criticism is, in most countries, protected by free speech. However, it can also offend believers to such a degree that it injures their religious feelings and their rights to respect are being violated. In many countries and cultures so-called blasphemy laws condemn such irreverence toward one’s religion, comparable to the unacceptability of racist utterances. The media have shown us to what kind of public outrage the mocking of one’s religion can lead, in particular the name of God or his prophet.

The account of the First Vision contains the declaration, attributed to Christ, that other churches “were all wrong” and “all their creeds were an abomination.” No matter how we try to soften the harshness of this condemnation or interpret the words somewhat differently, the missionaries are instructed to teach that other churches do “not have the fullness of truth or the priesthood authority to baptize and perform other saving ordinances” (Preach My Gospel, p. 37). Such a message can be highly offensive, if not blasphemous, to people of other faiths.

It is interesting to note that President Nelson raised a similar awareness of offensiveness when speaking about the name of the Church:

“Thus, the name of the Church is not negotiable. When the Savior clearly states what the name of His Church should be and even precedes His declaration with, ‘Thus shall my church be called,’ He is serious. And if we allow nicknames to be used or adopt or even sponsor those nicknames ourselves, He is offended … To remove the Lord’s name from the Lord’s Church is a major victory for Satan.”

With such strong admonition, with even the Savior being offended, faithful church members should be deeply offended with the blasphemy of the phrase “Mormon church.” We can look to Pakistan to see how ardent believers react to blasphemy.

 

A question of statistics?

These various ethical considerations cannot deny the fact that missionary work can bring great joy and satisfaction to converts. In most wards there are converts who, even after decades of membership, will testify how much the church has been a blessing for them and their family. But how representative are they? To a certain extent it boils down to statistics. How many converts have been helped and how many have been harmed? If one considers being inactive as “harmed,” as President Hinckley mentioned, then the vast majority is harmed. Of course, many inactive members themselves do not feel “harmed” by their passage in Mormonism, and some may even retain good memories from the experience, but many others have suffered greatly in exiting and deeply regret the day they let the missionaries in.

Based on more than half a century of observations in Europe, I deduct that perhaps one out of a hundred members (including those born in the church) reaches life’s end as a still convinced and fulfilled latter-day saint. It could be gauged by the number of Mormon funerals measured against the church membership in a country over a longer period. And even those who reach that final point as active members may have experienced multiple conflicts and frustrations during their life in the church, the falling away of family members, the “crucible of doubt,” the repulsion over the fight against same-sex marriage and LGBT- policies, or the realization—as one dying member once told me—that his decades of tithing could have left his surviving wife with a pension and a little home of her own.

Not all ethical issues have been covered in the above. How ethical is it to send out teenagers to perhaps bless but more often mess up the lives of others? How ethical is marketing religion? How ethical are mission presidents who push for numbers but don’t follow up on retention?

President Hinckley told mission presidents: “Your missionaries must be sure that conversion is real, that it is life-changing, that it is something that is to last forever and go on through generations. Nobody gains when there is baptism without retention.”

When missionaries cannot give that certainty, what should we conclude?

What are ways that would make Mormon missionary work more ethical?

 

Footnotes

[1]     See, for example, Craig Harline, Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary (Eerdmans, 2014); William Shunn, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary (Sinister Regard, 2015); John K. Williams, Heaven Up Here (Lulu, 2011); Jacob P. Young, Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary (Semevent Books, 2010).

[2]     Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Thinker’s Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning (Foundation for Critical Thinking Free Press, 2009).

[3]     See, for example, Seth L. Bryant, Henri Gooren, Rick Phillips, and David G. Stewart Jr., “Conversion and Retention in Mormonism,” In Lewis R. Rambo & Charles E. Farhadian (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 756–785 (771); David G. Stewart, The Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work (Henderson, NV: Cumorah Foundation, 2007), 37.

[4]     Gordon B. Hinckley, “Conference talk at Woods Cross Utah Regional Conference,” January 10, 1998. Quoted in David G. Stewart, Jr., The Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work (Henderson, NV: Cumorah Foundation, 2007), 244.

[5]     Russell M. Nelson, “Come, Follow Me”, Conference address, April 7, 2019.

[6]     See quotes in Introduction to Family History Student Manual (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012), Chapter 9: The Spirit World and the Redemption of the Dead.

[7]     Dominic Janes (ed.), Shopping for Jesus: Faith in Marketing in the USA (New Academia, 2008).

[8]     Monica Cooney, “Towards Common Witness: A Call to Adopt Responsible Relationships in Mission and to Avoid Proselytism,” International Review of Mission 85, no. 337 (1996): 283–289. See also John C. Haughey, “The Complex Accusation of Sheep-Stealing: Proselytism and Ethics,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35, no. 2 (1998): 257–268; John Witte, Jr., “A Primer on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism,” Fides et Libertas: The Journal of the International Religious Liberty Association (2000): 12–16.

[9]     W. Cole Durham Jr., “The Impact of Secularization on Proselytism in Europe: A Minority Religion Perspective,” in Reid L. Neilson (ed.), Global Mormonism in the 21st Century (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 114–133.

[10]   Thomas Edgar Lyon, “Evangelical Protestant Missionary Activities in Mormon Dominated Areas: 1865-1900,” PhD diss. (University of Utah, 1962); Charles Randall Paul, Converting the Saints: A Study of Religious Rivalry in America (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2018); Jana K. Riess, “Heathen in Our Fair Land: Anti-polygamy and Protestant Women’s Missions to Utah, 1869-1910,” PhD diss. (Columbia University, 2000).

[11]   Tad Stahnke, “Proselytism and the Freedom to Change Religion in International Human Rights Law,” Brigham Young University Law Review, 1999: 251–350 (254).

71 comments for “Ethics and Mormon missionary work: what memoirs tell us

  1. Faith
    April 16, 2019 at 6:30 am

    Wow! These are great summaries of the mess of mormon missiions. My mission ruined me. I hope the 15 are going to listen of the train wrecks they are causing throughout their system in the name of God. Missions need to ditch their fake.numbers and create a system of useful service

  2. JR
    April 16, 2019 at 7:05 am

    Wilfried, Thank you for the analysis and the questions to which I have no good answers. Reading the recent memoirs,I was surprised by the recycling of the Alvin-Dyer approach. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised given the cultural context of western American Mormon missionaries and mission presidents. But that approach seemed well known in my mid to late 60s European mission experience to be a disastrous failure for the long-term functioning of local wards and branches as well as a failure for real conversion. To my memory of my then observations as one of an over-population of baby boomer missionaries, we were not “inexperienced teenagers who [were] driven by one goal: to baptize”. Instead, we were mostly inexperienced teenagers who quickly became driven by one primary goal: to survive psychologically/emotionally, and in some cases spiritually, until we could go home. Of course, some were driven by a goal to become district leader or to obtain an even more “exalted” position, but that was, I think, merely one mode of survival. Baptisms were so rare they were not even a consideration for most. And yet, for many things beyond favorite national desserts, it was an extraordinarily valuable experience for me. I hope I didn’t mess up many others’ lives in the process.

  3. Ardis E. Parshall
    April 16, 2019 at 7:12 am

    Do you approve of any facet of the Great Commission, Wilfried? Or are we all evil all the time? Egads, man.

  4. Wilfried
    April 16, 2019 at 7:52 am

    Thanks for the first comments. Faith and JR voice the disparity of the mission experience. Faith candidly views missions as train wrecks; JR remembers his mission as an “extraordinarily valuable experience” for himself, but recognizes the survival mode a mission puts inexperienced teenagers in. These are indeed the conundrums that the memoirs reveal.

    Ardis, yes, I approve of all aspects of the Great Commission. One main question raised in the memoirs is how missionary approaches and results match with the Great Commission.

  5. Clark Goble
    April 16, 2019 at 8:36 am

    I always worry about memoirs like this written years or decades after the events. I’m such a different person now. Almost certainly more jaded. My perceptions of my mission now are patchy just by the nature of memory. Certain events remembered and transfigured with each recall. Am I even able to evaluate my mission now? I always wonder if we took the person from the mission and put them in dialog with the person who wrote the book what would happen.

    Numbers always make me think. At my year mark my MTC companion was the top baptizing missionary in mission history. I hadn’t had one baptism yet. I was sick to my stomach at the time. Without throwing shade on him though, most of his converts were inactive within weeks. With the exception of one semi active family where I baptized their children (and felt uncomfortable with knowing the likely outcome) all mine are still active with huge changes in their lives. I worry about how people blame the mission for a focus on numbers. It’s one of those things you have to figure out yourself, but I am not sure blaming the mission’s focus makes much sense.

  6. JR
    April 16, 2019 at 8:53 am

    Clark, “Bruder” may be as close as we can get to a dialog between the person from the mission and the person who wrote the book. It is not simply based on memory. It explicitly attempts that dialogue.

    Blaming the mission’s focus on numbers makes perfect sense under some mission presidents. Others not so much. At least as various mission presidents’ tactics or leadership (quite a wide range actually) were anecdotally reported to me by scores of missionaries returned from different missions in the late 60s/early 70s. I doubt the variation has changed much, but I’m also not going to do another spate of such “interviews.” But yes, ultimately one must figure it out individually.

  7. Craig H.
    April 16, 2019 at 9:16 am

    Thanks Wilfried, very interesting. I’m reading the diary right now of a Dutch/Belgian missionary from 1946-49, whom the mission president regularly praised for his diligence, to the point that the president said “I wish I had 100 more like you!” Yet I chuckle on almost every page at things that seem so at odds with later missionary culture: the regular refusal to baptize certain people who didn’t seem ready (no way!), the push by the mission president to get everybody to tract 18 hours a week at least, the community approach to baptism (thus baptisms were done by district, equivalent to a modern zone, and the missionaries all took turns performing it to emphasize it was always a joint effort; asking a particular missionary to baptize was even heavily discouraged), the regular attending of shows (movies) especially when evening appointments fell through, the regular staying-in-to-study when it was too cold or rainy, the regular social events with members and missionaries, missionaries often working alone when the companion didn’t want to go out, and more, but especially the absence in their minds of a strong connection between following even the tiniest rule and whether they made converts–as one example: three days after a remarkable spiritual experience that’s at the heart of this fellow’s story, he and several other missionaries traveling through Brussels wrote matter-of-factly that they made a trip through the red-light district, like it was just another must-see tourist site, then continued on their way to their missionary conference that turned out to be a wonderful meeting for him. Missionary life was a little more like everyday life, is the impression, yet their mission converted a lot more people than mine did (for various reasons, not just a different approach by missionaries). It wasn’t night and day from the present: some missionaries seemed traumatized then too, and some fit very easily into then-current mission culture. But overall it seemed comparatively calmer.

  8. JR
    April 16, 2019 at 9:26 am

    Craig H., Thanks for the report on the ’46-’49 diary. Here I had thought I might have been the only one to go tracting by myself for weeks (in the 60s) because my companion wouldn’t (and would have made it something of a disaster if he had).

  9. Jonathan Green
    April 16, 2019 at 10:15 am

    Wilfried, treating the persecution of religious minorities in Putin’s Russia as an understandable process of strengthening national identity and the national church naively takes authoritarian propaganda at face value. That’s literally the party line, courtesy of Russia Today, so frequently quoted by the alt right. I don’t agree with your other points, but I want to have as little to do with this post as possible, so I’ll leave it at that.

  10. Wilfried
    April 16, 2019 at 10:41 am

    Clark and JR, the evolving perceptions of missionary life after years or decades are indeed a theme of the memoirs, escpecially in Bruder. It’s also interesting to see how (the critique of) the focus on numbers remains a constant topic. It is true that there is now much more concern about retention (especially since President Hinckley emphasized it). It’s highlighted in the Mission President’s Handbook, but in practice it often remains at the level of lip service: yearly baptism goals are set for the mission, weekly reports with figures still dominate, missionaries are still eager to baptize (which is normal) and the mission leaves the follow-up of converts entirely to the ward. So in terms of ethics toward the convert, the problem remains.

    Craig, thanks for this looking back at earlier years. I remember how still in the early 1960s, at least in Belgium, missionaries had a much more relaxed atmosphere. Fewer hours of tracting, going to the movies, sightseeing and intense social life with converts and members were part of the experience. But the ethical issues were present too, such as I experienced it in the deep disruption missionary work caused in my own family.

    Jonathan, I respect your opinion. I recognize matters are complex.

  11. Craig H.
    April 16, 2019 at 11:29 am

    You’re right Wilfried, about continuing tensions that every conversion might cause in some part of the family, close or extended, in the ancient world and from the Reformation to the present: because of what I’ve been reading, I was struck mostly by the comparison of the general tenor of missionizing, but the issue of your post is of course ethics. In my time, one way of acknowledging family stress was to get the permission of parents if baptizing a minor, or the permission of a husband before baptizing his wife (which has its own problems). But I’m not sure how strictly these were observed, or if formal observance and permission actually mitigated stress. The common position of determined convert and converter was Jesus’s saying about whosoever won’t leave father or mother or brother or sister for his sake, which seemed to triumph over any other questions, for the convert or those encouraging the convert. And which seemed to pretty much ignore Gandhi.

  12. Clark Goble
    April 16, 2019 at 12:09 pm

    Wilfried, I guess what I’m saying it’s that I’m not sure the focus on numbers is the boogeyman some make it out to be. Yes, you can try and reach your numbers in an inauthentic and ultimately counterproductive fashion. But one can also do it in a good way.

    My sense is that with young people there’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. If you don’t push people they do a minimal amount for a variety of reasons – shyness, not knowing or understanding their capabilities, or just feeling overwhelmed. People just naturally tend towards the easiest options. If you do push people then there are those who feel overwhelmed who get much worse, you get people who again look for the easy solution of baptisms through socializing not conversion and so forth.

    There’s no easy answer but the common view of many that eliminating focus on the numbers and so forth is the answer seems dubious. I understand the drive, but I’m not sure it’ll have the effect people think. (Better conversions)

    I should add that I think all of this is compounded by sending people out who are young. If statistics are to be believed (and I’m not sure how much I believe them here) there’s a significant increase of mental illness and feeling overwhelmed combined with demonstrable less effectiveness in conversion.

    The ideal situation, preached by the Church for decades but never successfully really implemented, is to have the missionaries as an aid for the members with the bulk of missionary work done by the members in a ward. That’s hard though for a variety of reasons. Typically the members who could likely do the best job, particularly outside of the Mormon corridor, are already needed for callings keeping the ward running. Throw in kids and it’s already hard to even find time for socializing let alone missionary work.

  13. Angela C
    April 16, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    Fascinating discussion, Wilfried. Glad if my memoir helped spur some of this type of reflection. The missionary program is undergoing significant leadership changes and hopefully, essays like this will help the Church’s system improve.

    Regarding Craig’s comment about “permission of husbands” to teach wives (a practice we ignored), my experience was that many women in abusive relationships or with cheating husbands were eager to talk to us and seeking something–empathy, support, a change of community (often their own families were absent or their community was content to whisper about them and not embrace them for some reason). We were clearly inadequate to the task of handling domestic violence victims, but I would fight anyone who thinks it’s appropriate to ask a husband’s permission. We didn’t seek to fan the flames, but our presence and emotional support doubtless helped a few on their inevitable path to divorce, and the men in these situations were neither interested in nor suited to our message at that time. The sooner these wives got away from their oppression, the better. In non-abusive situations, we declined to pressure those who were breaking with their families because of the ethical consideration, but as your essay points out, that is not really how the program is run.

    It seems to me that the power of missionaries to disrupt the community is not very substantial, though, because we existed on the fringe and mostly worked with people who were likewise on the fringes (at least at that time). We never baptized a priest or even a devout widow ensconced in her happy multi-generational Catholic life. We mostly taught people who were tenuously connected to the community for whatever reasons (e.g. prostitutes, drug addicts, the poor) or who were undergoing some sort of trial that the community wasn’t adequate to support.

    You can say we (or the Church, in seeking to convert them) used them, yes, but they used us, too. We were sought out by these types of people. It was mutual. We filled a temporary role in a lot of cases, providing some kind of positive catalyst for them. It might last, or it might not. Many branches struggled to help them fit, but they usually tried. One of the locals I talk about at length in my book was a teen heroin addict. We all loved him so much, the missionaries and our president. We worked with his parents to get him into a recovery program which didn’t take. I was convinced he had perhaps died of an overdose since then, but thanks to the book, a fellow missionary found him, and he’s doing well, and still living in the house he grew up in, although his parents have passed on. My daughter asked if he still goes to church, and I had to honestly say it didn’t even occur to me to ask. I was just so happy he’s had a good life, and that we are back in touch! (Tearing up just thinking about it again).

  14. Wilfried
    April 16, 2019 at 12:41 pm

    Indeed, Craig. the passage about “whosoever won’t leave father or mother or brother or sister for My sake …” is often quoted as justification for breaking up families through conversions. And also “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother… “ The irony is that nowadays we basically apply those texts to Christians trying to dislodge one Christian from another Christian church. The discord that Jesus is talking about also fills centuries of competitive missionizing and mutual excommunications between Christians since the early times of Christianity.

    Moreover, those two Scriptural passages are at odds with all other statements by Jesus. His fundamental message is the Sermon on the Mount, where every verse focuses on peace and tolerance. Sure, Jesus acknowledges that the meek and peacemakers cannot always count on understanding. People, often out of guilt, are irritated when someone else wants to be “better”. And converts too may behave fanatically and provocatively in the enthusiasm of their new faith. The discord then comes from what people do to each other, not from what Jesus expects them do in his name.

    Family unity is one of the most emphasized principles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So at one point it seems incongruous to use Jesus’ words to validate family disruption.

  15. Craig H.
    April 16, 2019 at 1:00 pm

    Right, Wilfried. It also reminds me of parents trying to persuade minor children not to convert: they rely upon the commandment to obey father and mother… So people do tend to choose which ones resonate with them. And to be arguably at odds with what seems to be the fundamental, or overarching, message.

  16. ASDF
    April 16, 2019 at 1:48 pm

    Wilfred, your description of the mission experience, especially in the first section of the post, is absolutely devastating in its honesty. I disagree with Clark: the focus on numbers is at the very heart of the problem, and there is no way to authentically minister when numbers are being tracked in the way we do. What you track is what you will get. Exhibit #1: Ministering vs. Home Teaching. The words from President Hinckley quoted in the post are so important, but they were directed at the wrong audience: those words need to be said directly to every missionary, often, and writ large in every handbook. And they should not be phrased as instruction but as a command: Thou shalt not baptize anyone who is not actively participating in the local ward or branch already. Baptism must follow activity in the church, not preceed it. Baptism is not a hurdle to be overcome, it is not glue that will bind someone to the church, and it has no saving value for a person who does not endeavor to keep the covenant he or she has made. Those are hard truths, but when we disregard them, we cheapen the ordinance and make our faith a lie. Not to mention the wasting of so, so much time in the lives of our youth who are so eager to do good in the world. I look my mission seriously, and much good has come of it for myself and some I interacted with, but it was also a protracted exercise in futility. While we did some good, we could have done immeasurably more good if we had accepted the reality of the situation and adapting to it rather than pretending that obedience could make the world the way we wanted it to be.

  17. Wilfried
    April 16, 2019 at 1:57 pm

    Thank you, Clark, excellent nuances. You are right as to the challenges for members to do missionary work. Not only are the ones best suited for missionary work already overwhelmed with their ward or stake callings, but quite often they already have exhausted their pool of potential outside contacts.

    Another way to look at it, and perhaps the most ethical, is that any initiative to learn more about the church comes only from the interested person. Neither missionary nor member initiates the contact. In fact the Church is moving in that direction by reducing traditional street tracting and contacting, and investing more in informative campaigns over the internet (web missionaries). People are then free to request information. It is also more in line with privacy regulations and the prohibition of person-to-person proselytizing in some countries. The interested person can remain anonymous and safely “unreachable”, but at some point can also decide to invite the missionaries or to attend a church service. It makes quite a difference if people act from their own free will rather than being pushed prematurely.

    Meanwhile, working on next comments to respond to. Thanks for your patience.

  18. Kevin Barney
    April 16, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    I enjoyed both the recent memoirs (and Craig’s before these). I especially related to Angela’s experience because my first MP was a Dyer disciple and our mission culture was very similar. For a glimpse at the baptize at all costs ethos of my mission, see this old post of mine:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2010/10/30/a-scandalous-baptism/

    I remember when GBH tried to put the brakes on the baptize at all costs approach, and I really respected him for trying. But it was just too engrained and he was unable to effect any lasting change. The notion that a quick baptism of someone who promptly falls away somehow strengthens the Church is absurd, but for whatever reason the church has been unable to move away from over reliance on the almighty baptism statistic. And I frankly have no clue how to fix that.

  19. Owen Witesman
    April 16, 2019 at 3:06 pm

    Kevin, I don’t think it’s a complete mystery. A good start would be for missionaries not to report any numbers. New baptisms are already recorded in MLS, so church headquarters can still track membership statistics without involving the missionaries. Perhaps changing the underlying attitudes is more difficult, but if you take away the toys of the numbers-obsessed DLs and ZLs and APs and MPs, there would be so much more breathing room for missionaries who are interested in ministering. I will never forget my ZL, who was a great guy otherwise, who proposed a goal of 10 baptisms for our zone one month despite the fact that we were barely teaching anyone. If only we all gritted our teeth and squeezed our eyes shut tight enough, and perhaps clicked our heels three times, it would happen! I can only imagine his consternation when I entered the zone and promptly dropped all three investigators we had who were supposedly committed for baptism, since, you know, they weren’t even a little bit interested in joining the church or were mentally incompetent wards of the state. To be fair to the elders involved, their language skills weren’t sufficient for them to realize what they were dealing with in any of those cases. We did have one person ask to be baptized during the month of the 10-baptism goal–he was having an affair with the wife of the ward clerk in a nearby ward and wanted to make an honest woman of her!

    I should say that I believe in the missionary program of the church. We just have a lot of room for improvement in fulfilling our commission.

  20. Ptylerdactly
    April 16, 2019 at 3:30 pm

    Fascinating article, and it caused me to do a lot of reflection on my mission experience. I was in Brazil in the early 2000’s. My time of service essentially straddled the period of transition between the discontinuation of memorized discussions and the beginning of the Preach My Gospel program so we didn’t have as much in the way of solid teaching approaches for most of my time. But numbers were always tracked and emphasized, goals were set, and there was even a push to focus on getting more men baptized (because apparently they are the only ones who qualify to run the church). And, as an extreme example of the potential problem with this approach, I learned shorty after my trainer was transferred to another city that he and the other senior missionary in the ward, (that particular ward had four missionaries), had gotten into a heated argument in front of a family that was preparing for baptism over who would get to baptize them (and therefore get the credit). The family lived on the border between their two areas and they backed out of the whole deal.
    Independent of that knowledge, I always struggled with the focus on numbers and a higher emphasis on getting men baptized on principle. But I have a tendency to silently stick to my guns when given a directive that doesn’t feel right, so I didn’t let the pressure of it push me to do anything too stupid. Yet I did see other missionaries who were all business that ate it all up and it made me sad.
    As for breaking families up, while I didn’t feel comfortable pushing too much when a family member was particularly against the idea of their loved one joining the ‘Mormons, I have to admit that I did play right into the culture of spiritual superiority and was never particularly concerned with how it would affect that person’s relationships outside of the church.
    I do find myself hoping that the church will eventually decide to let these young missionaries go out as full service missionaries, and if people show interest, then they can teach them. But the whole idea of sending them out to be part of a baptism factory is truly wasteful.

  21. Wilfried
    April 16, 2019 at 4:49 pm

    Angela, you’re especially welcome here of course. Thank you for your valuable contribution. As you mention in your book, your situation on the Canary Islands, among the less privileged local population, including prostitutes and addicts, was pretty peculiar compared to other missions. Moreover, with your background and charisma you were not the typical missionary either! In such a context sister missionaries can render service to women in need that no elders can provide. The way you state it — “We were sought out by these types of people. It was mutual. We filled a temporary role in a lot of cases, providing some kind of positive catalyst for them” — illustrates what the gospel is all about.

    As to the power of missionaries to disrupt the larger community, I agree it does not happen in western democracies where religious pluralism and tolerance prevail. In other countries and cultures it is different, though the disruption is not the missionaries’ doing as such, but the way the community, or rather its leaders, react to the missionary “threat” (and may misuse it for political reasons). Greece used to be good example of such a situation, and at present some former communist countries. Many Islamic countries consider any form of Christian proselytism as potential disruption. The way the Church had to work with the Israeli’s to get the BYU Jerusalem Center approved is another example of how outsiders perceive the “Mormon menace”. From their viewpoint, it becomes an ethical issue.

  22. Clark Goble
    April 16, 2019 at 6:03 pm

    Owen I’ll fully agree that somewhat naive and ignorant missionaries are not always terribly good at assigning goals. Likewise many mission presidents don’t have the experience people assume they have. (I think of my own mission president who had been a successful executive but had only become reactivated ten years earlier and had never been on a mission) However just because many people make bad goals should mean that we throw away the idea of goals or stretching ourselves. There is an effective middle ground I think.

    ASDF, I think I’d put it that when people focus on numbers to the exclusion of their actual aims bad things happen. But again that doesn’t mean goals are bad. What goes wrong is when people confuse the intermediate goal for the aim. So numbers become a substitute for conversion. They become ends of themselves rather than a means to the end. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The solution is to find ways we can measurably improve ourselves while simultaneously keeping our eyes on our real goal.

    A good example might be attempting to lose weight with no goals. Some people can do that. Perhaps for a few people they do better than way. But the rest of us have to weigh ourselves regularly and make specific goals about what we eat and how we exercise. Throw the average person into a weigh loss situation with no tangible goals and they usually don’t lose weight. In the same way take the average naive kid who doesn’t really understand what they can do, and they’ll do what’s easiest not necessarily what’s most effective.

    But it also takes real training by missionaries who are successful and mission president followup as well. If a mission president forgets the aim is conversion not numbers then typically they take the whole mission with them. However a mission president who knows the goal is true conversion also knows that finding people is something that is effective combined with tangible goals.

  23. Angela C
    April 16, 2019 at 6:14 pm

    Wilfried: I agree that in a culture where religious freedom is not a feature, proselyting could be disruptive (or put investigators in the cross-hairs of an unfriendly regime). Specifically, there are concerns in theocratic countries and former communist countries, although that’s why the church is barred. We spent some time on a family vacation in Vietnam and met with a family in their home (part of our tour). He was explaining the ancestral shrine and telling me about his revered ancestors with great respect and tears in his eyes. When I told about this experience at church in a council on family history, a Relief Society sister said enthusiastically how great it was that the Lord was preparing the Vietnamese people for the gospel by getting them interested in their ancestors (!). Uhm, no, ancestral worship is a practice that is 8000 years old. Unless the Lord is really playing a long game here, it’s unrelated to our delusional tendency toward Mormon exceptionalism. I’m still shaking my head over that one. But some missionaries had these types of attitudes as well, thinking as Roger Terry put it in his book, that we in our Mormon bubble could solve all the problems of the world.

  24. Dsc
    April 16, 2019 at 6:27 pm

    It should be noted that Lesson 5 is now required to be taught prior to baptism.

    Also, I am skeptical of all memoirs, as memory is a notoriously fickle thing, but I am especially skeptical of mission memoirs, because they so rarely resemble anything of my own experience. I don’t think that the kind of people who write memoirs are representative of missionaries generally.

    I am also skeptical of statements like this: “Based on more than half a century of observations in Europe, I deduct that perhaps one out of a hundred members (including those born in the church) reaches life’s end as a still convinced and fulfilled latter-day saint.” Surely there is a way to measure this, and if there is, why not measure it? And that number seems totally implausible. The baptism rate would have to be astronomically high in order to sustain membership growth over any period of time if that were true.

    The concept that proselytism is a violation of human rights is one of the most damaging concepts to world religious liberty today. I am truly shocked to see that cited here seemingly approvingly.

  25. ji
    April 16, 2019 at 7:33 pm

    Perhaps part of the problem is that we don’t do it the way the Lord told us to do it. See D&C 20:68:

    The duty of the members after they are received by baptism—The elders or priests are to have a sufficient time to expound all things concerning the church of Christ to their understanding, previous to their partaking of the sacrament and being confirmed by the laying on of the hands of the elders, so that all things may be done in order.

    The Lord wants us to separate baptism and confirmation. But we don’t do it.

  26. Jared
    April 16, 2019 at 10:33 pm

    I’m leaving for my fourth mission at the end of this month. I’m in the 4th quarter life. I hope to serve Heavenly Father on more missions before leaving mortality. I’ve been able to make friends with the Savior because He left the ninety and nine and found me far from the flock.

  27. April 17, 2019 at 12:10 am

    “I am skeptical of all memoirs, as memory is a notoriously fickle thing, but I am especially skeptical of mission memoirs, because they so rarely resemble anything of my own experience.”

    You are skeptical of the memories others have about their experiences because they do not accord with the memories you have about your experiences? This sounds like a less than useful metric.

    “The baptism rate would have to be astronomically high in order to sustain membership growth over any period of time if that were true.”

    It depends on how the church ultimately defines growth, which I suspect is “records aded to MLS less those removed.”

  28. ASDF
    April 17, 2019 at 12:13 am

    Clark, in my experience, the number always takes on a life of its own. That isn’t a flaw, it’s a feature.

    You talk of “successful” missionaries. I have no idea what that even means. It certainly can’t be measured in baptisms, and I can vividly remember knowing as a missionary that many who looked successful in terms of what we were measuring were full of bull puckey, and no one higher up realized it.

    There are really big questions to be answered and problems to be solved in our missionary effort. For decades we have tried to address those issue through tracking numbers and goal setting. That hasn’t worked. We’re failing at the charge we have been given. We need to do something different.

    Jared, good for you. But Wilfred is telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to hear. What he describes is exactly what I saw as a missionary and exactly what everyone I have ever talked to about missions has reported. It’s also what I’ve seen as a member missionary for the twenty years since my full-time mission. If you care about our missionary effort, you should listen very carefully to the concerns Wilfred raises.

  29. Wilfried
    April 17, 2019 at 2:19 am

    Sorry for delays in responding: time zone difference. I need to catch up on quite a few.

    The issue of the focus on numbers is indeed a central one that keeps coming up. Thank you, ASDF, Kevin, Clark, Owen, and Ptylerdactly for your contributions to the discussion. I understand that goals need an incentive, hence, numbers are for many missionaries a way to be focused on goals. The danger is that the numbers easily become the goal, not the conversion. The best balance between the two is a matter of different viewpoints, but overall numbers tend to take precedence.

    Over the years, however, I have become more and more convinced that perhaps there should be no goals at all, at least not in its strict meaning of us wanting to convert a certain number of people. The interest and desire should come as much as possible from the potential converts themselves based on information that has reached them through the media, literature, an interfaith event, a church video, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (yes, Mormon, with its reference to an internationally recognizable name so they would at least find the church). There are many examples of people who found the church “on their own” and then came asking, even begging for more. Think of people in African countries pre-1978.

    We could compare it with conversion to Judaism: Jews don’t proselytize, but a lot of information on the various groups, their beliefs, way of living, rituals, and traditions is available. People who want to convert to Judaism must take active steps, they will even be discouraged by the local rabbi to convert, as he wants to make sure the desire to convert is real. The candidates will have to pass through a long period of study and preparation, often including intense participation in a host family. In Orthodox Judaism, the process may take up to six years. I do not mean to say such a long preparation would be needed for us, but when the initiative and the drive comes from the candidate, the whole perspective of conversion is changed. Sure, we would baptize much less, but retention would be high.

  30. Wilfried
    April 17, 2019 at 7:44 am

    Angela, that was a moving example from Vietnam. Yes, the rhetoric is well-known: some members tend to see any event in the framework of the Lord preparing people to join the church. It leads to strange historical distortions. About every revolution and war since the 1840s has been interpreted that way in prophetic fashion. Many of us remember the Mormon rhetoric when the Communist Bloc collapsed. We should be aware of how such triumphant rhetoric can be experienced as threatening to others.

    One item about religious freedom. Many countries have religious freedom, which means one is free to have a certain religion and to manifest it in private and public. But it does not include the freedom to proselytize and try to change your neighbor’s religion or beliefs. In Israel and most Islamic countries our church is free to hold meetings for its members, but strictly forbidden to proselytize. It’s a major distinction that we often overlook. The distinction is at the heart of quite a few legal battles, among which Kokkinakis vs Greece was a landmark case before the European Court of Human Rights in 1993.

  31. Wilfried
    April 17, 2019 at 8:38 am

    Dsc, thank you for participating in the discussion. You raise several issues.

    As to the extent to which missionary memoirs are representative for the majority, I don’t know. No doubt your experience and those from others were totally different. Still, the published memoirs are candid, genuine, and therefore not necessarily “negative”, on the contrary. Most of them reflect on many aspects of missionary work, focus on people, celebrate the highlights too, and help us see where things could be improved.

    You drew attention to my estimate that in Europe “perhaps one out of a hundred members (including those born in the church) reaches life’s end as a still convinced and fulfilled latter-day saint”. Yes, there should be a way to measure this accurately, but the church does not make the relevant statistical information available. What we know is that 70 to 80% of the members are inactive after a few years. Among many of the remaining, activity slowly dwindles over the years. Among the oldest members, in particular when they become single, many are taken care of by non-Mormon family members and contact is not kept up. LDS funerals are rare, compared to the total membership on record. But, agreed, it’s an estimate. But even if you raise it to “ten out of a hundred” (and that is definitely too high), it’s still a dramatic loss of 90%, “the greatest tragedy”, which President Hinckley talks about.

    You mentioned: “The concept that proselytism is a violation of human rights is one of the most damaging concepts to world religious liberty today.” I don’t think it helps to be so radical. Please do not view it only from the perspective of Western democracies used to free religious pluralism. In the rest of the world the topic has to do with cultural integrity, with peace and protection of religious minorities. I recommend to read Tad Stahnke’s article (see footnote 11), but also:
    • Ryan T. Cragun and Joseph H. Hammer, “’One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: What Terminology Tells Us about Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion,” Humanity & Society 35, no. 1-2 (2011): 149–175;
    • John C. Haughey, “The Complex Accusation of Sheep-Stealing: Proselytism and Ethics,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35, no. 2 (1998): 257–268;
    • John Witte Jr,. “A Primer on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism,” Cumberland Law Review 31 (2001): 619–629.

  32. Jared
    April 17, 2019 at 9:12 am

    ASDF wrote: “Jared, good for you. But Wilfred is telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to hear.”

    The “truth” requires the whole truth. A dystopian view of missionary work as presented here, doesn’t tell the whole truth about LDS missionary work. It is easy to find fault when one looks closely at missionary work. This piece points out many examples. However, nothing is said about the successes. It is easy find successes. The author is a convert. Obviously, missionary work was successful for him.

    Missionary work was successful for me, and for millions of other church members. There have been well over a million missionaries sent to the world and this effort has resulted in a 16 million plus church membership. Of course, not all are active.

    Instead of an apocalyptic view of missionary work, present one that is a dreamland or Utopian. Neither of them would tell the truth. Better yet, present a balanced piece, one that tells the whole truth.

  33. Wilfried
    April 17, 2019 at 9:52 am

    Jared, it is most commendable that you want to highlight the positive aspects of missionary work. Thank you for it. It seems, however, that you misread the main line of the post and miss the nuances. For one, the post also contains this:

    “These various ethical considerations cannot deny the fact that missionary work can bring great joy and satisfaction to converts. In most wards there are converts who, even after decades of membership, will testify how much the church has been a blessing for them and their family.”

    Sure, this post draws attention to challenges, among which the loss of converts is a main one. President Hinckley said: “I have come to feel that the greatest tragedy in the Church is the loss of those who join the Church and then fall away.” Indeed, we’re talking about some 10 to 12 million “inactive” members, most of whom fell away shortly after their baptism. These challenges need to be talked about, even if it makes some members uncomfortable.

    Let’s focus on the way we can meet those challenges, among which the ethical issues are a main part.

  34. Bruce Forbes
    April 17, 2019 at 11:58 am

    Wow. My mission experience was nothing like what is being presented here.
    — We were taught the culture in the Language Training Mission and as we reached the mission area. We were taught how to act in the culture we were being sent to. I wish we had been taught more, but we were taught.
    — Sure, we had goals, but we weren’t punished when we didn’t achieve them as we would explain in our weekly report why a certain goal wasn’t met, and our mission president was usually satisfied that we’d done our part. He taught us that “Goals are like stars: we set our course by them and let them lead us in the right direction.”
    — We didn’t break up families — we were taught to respect families and for the investigator to carefully consider what joining the church might do to their family. In fact, we were taught that if at all possible we should be teaching families and not just singles. One of the goals was to baptize families. If an investigator was being given grief by family, we would often ask the family if we could come and teach the family just so they would be hearing from us what we believed and what we were teaching. Many gained at least an appreciation and readily gave consent for the family member to be baptized after such meetings. it often made the difference in gaining the family’s support in their joining the church.
    — Baptism challenges after the first few lessons were very common, but no one was baptized until all the lessons on the commandments had been taught and they committed to live the commandments. Bishops and branch presidents would reiterate the commandments during baptism interviews. They were not baptized until they could express why they wished to be baptized and expressed the strong beginnings of a testimony. Sometimes we jokingly referred to the interview as the ‘baptismal test’.
    — I do not know percentages of retention in our mission, but I do remember that in our mission fellowshipping new members was a very high priority that the members fulfilled incredibly. I really would like to know the retention percentages for my mission for the time period I was there, because the members worked hard on this.
    I know that the issues that have been raised in this article exist, but, meanwhile, I believe many more young men and women have been uplifted and made better by serving missions than what this article hints at.

  35. Jared
    April 17, 2019 at 12:30 pm

    For those who believe the scriptures are the word of God and use them accordingly, understand some important revelations that impact missionary work:

    34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
    35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
    36 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.
    37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Matthew 10:34-37

    28 He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things.

    39 And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers. D&C 93:28-39

    Both of these scriptures are relevant to this post, but not mentioned. It is true, families can be divided because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Savior knows this and still sends out missionaries.

    The second scripture gives some insight into the reasons why some new and seasoned members fall away altogether or become cultural only members; active in the church but not the gospel.

  36. JR
    April 17, 2019 at 1:59 pm

    Wow, Bruce Forbes seems to have had a great mission president and mission culture and field in which to work. I wonder where it was. What he describes would have been impossible in the European mission I served in the mid-late 60s. By current memory of teenage observation it would have been possible in the US Pacific Northwest mission in the early 60s. It seems in appropriate to generalize from one or a few mission experiences or memoirs.

  37. Clark Goble
    April 17, 2019 at 2:29 pm

    ASDF, of course you’re right that success can be viewed through various metrics. I think it clear that right now the Apostles don’t see success in terms of converts. My guess is that they are trying to increase retention of missionaries after their missions. (Although I have no idea if they’re being successful) What I meant was more converts who are committed to the Church long term. So I agree with everyone who notes that the “conversions” who rapidly fall away aren’t successful. And I fully agree that particularly in the 80’s and early 90’s there were many who unfortunately judged success by numbers. Further I’m speaking of the Church in general since in Europe getting one solid conversion is unusual whereas there are other areas where getting 15 isn’t. So you can’t compare areas due to the very different cultures and readiness.

    My point is ultimately I think people are just taking some bad experiences with numbers and goals and extending it farther than can be justified in the least. I think looking at other endeavors it’s clear that realistic obtainable goals are important for doing what one is capable.

  38. Dsc
    April 17, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    Wilfried,

    I still don’t see how even a 10% lifetime retention can be squared with growth statistics given what we know about baptism rates in Europe. True, growth rates in Europe aren’t very good, but a 10% lifetime retention rate would indicate a rapid decline, rather than stagnation (which is what we see in the data) unless the Church were very good at attracting converts, which in Europe, it isn’t.

    Also, I’m very familiar with the arguments for and against proselytism with respect to human rights. I spent a summer researching that and related issues, and although it’s been long enough that I can’t cite papers on the subject off the top of my head, I know the arguments. The problem is that religious pluralism is not a “Western” philosophy. Western civilizations have gone long periods without any concept of it, and non-Western civilizations have gone long periods embracing it. In practice, blasphemy laws are always oppressive. Throughout history, they have most often been employed by societies that claim the right to spread their religion but deny that same right to other religions. Occasionally, laws will be framed as blasphemy laws, when in reality they are laws against incitement to violence or discrimination, which could, with minor modifications, be applied to other characteristics, but I wouldn’t classify those as blasphemy laws. I can also get behind laws and philosophies that circumscribe the methods of proselytism. But I stand by my statement , with possibly one additional caveat “The concept that proselytism [per se] is a violation of human rights is one of the most damaging concepts to world religious liberty today.”

  39. April 17, 2019 at 2:49 pm

    Let’s not confuse statements for the logical converses. Just because sometimes people doing the right thing (like following truth they’ve found) causes trauma to those around them doesn’t mean that because we are causing trauma we are doing the right thing. Most of the time, I would venture, we are not.

    I found this post to be very engaging, thought provoking, and mostly sensible. Thank you for it, Wilifred. If we can’t honestly look at our collective mission experiences with the objectivity needed to ferret out our own ethical dilemmas, then we don’t know enough about them to defend them either.

  40. Bruce Forbes
    April 17, 2019 at 2:55 pm

    NOTE TO JR — I served in Japan 1974-76. And from speaking with friends who served in Europe, yes — we had very different experiences. Shortly after my time there was a mission president in Japan that is still, shall we say, not very well remembered or respected by former missionaries or members. But when I was there, it was a good country to serve in.

  41. Dsc
    April 17, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    One other point of clarification that I should have included in my last reply: I don’t think memoirs are representative, but I do think they have plenty of merit as catalysts for thinking about one’s own experiences and identifying potential trends. I just don’t think they are very good evidence of those trends.

  42. ASDF
    April 17, 2019 at 4:51 pm

    As a parent and an Elders Quorum president, I do a lot of the same kind of work I did as a missionary. And in both arenas, I can think of ways to measure “success,” but what I would measure would be different for each child or member of the quorum and would change over time. Certainly there are milestones I would like everyone under my stewardship to hit, for example receiving temple ordinances, but when those things happen will vary, and focusing on those milestones to the exclusion of other pathways for development would be harmful and ultimately undermine long-term progress on the covenant path. In the same way, yes there are always things that missionaries could measure and set goals about in order to keep themselves active and engaged. But to systematize that across the entire church or even across a mission? The impossibility of doing that in a way that doesn’t just turn souls into widgets is exactly why we just ditched the Home Teaching program. What spreading the Good News means varies tremendously across places and individuals, but the numbers we record don’t allow much leeway for circumstances that don’t fit the mold of contact-teach-baptize-reactivate-reactivate-reactivate.

    For me, perhaps the most telling thing is that missionaries are so loath to give up performing baptisms themselves and only very, very rarely maintain meaningful contact with the people they teach once they leave an area. Fortunately social media has made that easier, but we don’t exactly have a great track record of making good on the promise that the relationships we build with people are genuine. A true minister would treat each person who receives him as a lifelong friend, whereas a salesman simply moves on to the next target in hopes of driving up his numbers. The proliferation of door-to-door sales companies in Utah Valley should trouble us just as much as the proliferation of MLM scams (I know, that’s redundant), since both would seem to reveal uncomfortable truths about the culture we have created in the church.

    Perhaps my root problem with the numbers game is personal: I served in a mission where we did very little teaching and practically no baptizing. The numbers we were asked to report and the goals we were forced to set served absolutely no purpose and only caused depression and lying. We could have done so much more good if we’d just accepted that the good we could do was much more preliminary to teaching lessons than we would have liked. If we’d begun the work of making ourselves known for our good works 20 years ago, we would have long since shaken off the reputation of just being the annoying, weird Amish people who knock on people’s doors. There would have been a period of no reportable “numbers,” but that would have eventually passed as people saw goodness in us that they wanted to participate in. But instead, the missionaries have continued to spend most of their time annoying people, with only abortive efforts at anything else, since at the end of the day, you have to have some numbers to report. And yeah, as noted above, the good-hearted missionaries who nevertheless ignored a lot of the rules and developed genuine relationships with people always seemed to leave more true conversions and good will toward the church in their wakes.

    Here’s another telling suggestion: Try floating the idea to missionaries of doubling the number of times someone has to attend church meetings before being baptized. For example, three months of full activity. For a person who has experienced a genuine, if preliminary conversion, this shouldn’t be an issue. So why will missionaries always resist it? Because they want the number more than they want people to keep the covenants they make. And if they try to give you some mumbo-jumbo explanation that people need the gift of the Holy Ghost to help them overcome obstacles to attending one meeting on Sunday despite their ability to show up to work and all sorts of other obligations every day…well…the retention numbers are there for anyone to see.

  43. AM
    April 17, 2019 at 5:14 pm

    Bruce Forbes said something interesting to me:
    “Bishops and branch presidents would reiterate the commandments during baptism interviews.” Having bishops and branch presidents perform baptismal interviews again would do a lot to improve missions, in my opinion. When missionaries are both rewarded for baptisms and deciding whether someone is ready for baptism, conflicts of interest are inevitable.

  44. Wilfried
    April 17, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    Dsc, thank you for asking to clarify figures. I should go in greater detail with more figures, but bear with me. Official church figures list all members on record, even if in a certain country only 20% are active (usually measured as attending at least one sacrament meeting a month). The church does not release activity rates, but cumorah.org gives estimates per country. In European countries retention rates vary between 10 and 30%. In 2011, official European membership (East and West) stood at 486,000, in 2019 at 494,000. Very little increase, though the way totals are counted is not always clear. Taking 20% activity as average in a certain year, experience shows that from that group half to two-thirds will also be inactive toward life’s end. Meanwhile, however, people are being baptized, of which about half remain active during the first year. The figure of growth compensates for the loss in retention. If more people become inactive than those joining, we have a reduction in retention rate. If otherwise, we have a better retention rate. However, thousands of members are also unaccounted for and they are only taken off the records at age 110. It means the real number of living members is quite lower than published. Overall, looking at the number of consolidations of wards and stakes in the past five years, the church in Europe is in decline. I can see it in my own region, Flanders. Attendance at stake conference now is close to half what our district conference, for even a smaller area, had 40 years ago. But the total number of members on record has been growing during all these years. Retention rate within the older group is constantly declining.

  45. Wilfried
    April 17, 2019 at 5:34 pm

    Thank you, Bruce Forbes, for your report of positive mission experiences in Japan in 1974-1976. Many excellent aspects. At the same time it also shows how missionaries can perceive things from the outside, over a relatively short period, while overall the problems of retention are just as real as elsewhere. Jiro Numano published several articles on the church in Japan. In a 1996 article (“Mormonism in modern Japan.” Dialogue 29 (1996): 223-235), he mentions for the period 1947 to 1992:

    “As recently as 1992, after forty-five years of postwar missionary effort, only 20,000 members could be counted as active out of a total membership of more than 87,000, or about 23 percent” …
    “… although 50,000 people were baptized from 1978 through 1990 (including some children of members), the increase in active membership was only 10,000, with virtually no growth in Melchizedek priesthood holders. Since 1981, furthermore, attendance at sacrament meetings, priesthood meetings, and Relief Society meetings has all remained fairly level, despite thousands of new convert baptisms.”

    See also his more recent article: “Perseverance Amid Paradox: The Struggle of the LDS Church in Japan Today”, Dialogue 39, no. 4 (2006): 138–155.

  46. SDS
    April 17, 2019 at 7:52 pm

    For me, this is a fascinating conversation. It’s important to acknowledge and discuss these concerns, I think, but also to try to maintain some perspective.

    In my mission (Brazil, 1971-1973), I witnessed all of the problems discussed here first-hand and in severe form: oppressive use of goals and numbers, high pressure proselytizing and very little preparation (it was common to teach the first lesson on Thursday for a Sunday baptism), very high rates of almost immediate inactivity, treatment of Elders that truly amounted to serious emotional abuse, etc. A lot went on, with the encouragement of the mission president, that I can’t help regarding as simply unconscionable, or as the desecration of sacred things (like baptism, and human beings). I doubt that such a regime would be permitted today.

    And yet . . . the church did grow, people’s lives were blessed by the Gospel, God’s work was done. I myself have not experienced a period as miserable as the first half of my mission – I used to think it would be worth incurring some crippling illness just to be able to go home without shame– and yet through it all my faith did grow and I was able to associate with some wonderful people. In a sort of torturous way, I believe, the experience did bring me closer to the Savior. I’m thankful not just for having served, but for having served in that mission.

    God works in mysterious ways . . . .

  47. GEOFF -AUS
    April 18, 2019 at 3:29 am

    I served my mission in Ireland in the late 60s. The mission home was in Redhill in Belfast. For some reason we took very poor people to the mission home which wss a mansion. There was effectively a shooting and bombing war between the IRA (catholics) and protestants supported by the british armey.
    There had been a dynamic mission president leave just before I got there Paul H Dunne or similar. My mission pres was reputedly a sheep farmer called on a mission to reactivate him.
    I spent 6 weeks in 2 different areas but was moved 40 times in 2 years. I was involved in the baptism of 1 university student, in Dublin and 1 young family in Ulster. Don’t know if any remained active.
    We had vast numbers on the record of baseball baptism, most were not aware they were members, and didn’t want to be.
    People lived in suburbs by religion, so in a catholic suburb the kerbstones were green and white, and in a protestand suburb the kerbstones were red white and blue. The catholic children went to catholic schools, the protestant children went to state schools. These suburbs occasionally had battles, if you were a mormon living in a catholic area you fought with the catholics or risked having your house fire bombed. So we had catholic mormons and protestant mormons, and they could not be seen together.The mission pres did not seem to understand this dynamic so he did not have parralel wards, so if a catholic BP was called, the protestants could not come.
    We had very little contact with the MP, don’t remember ever having an interview with him.
    It was a positive experience for me in the sense that it was a transition to manhood, I was married 6 weeks after I returned home, and I returned home 2 weeks early. There was a talk from the Prophet in conference telling returned missionaries to get married ASAP.. I must have beem obedient then.
    I do believe your missionary experience affects your world view.

    I did not keep a journal so these are my memories, and I went back a couple of years ago, and could not recognise much, so?

  48. Wilfried
    April 18, 2019 at 5:47 am

    Mathdads, what you said about causing trauma, I can totally agree with. Trauma means harm, hence, it is an ethical issue, whatever the initial motive. We need to adjust approaches to minimize harm.

    ASDF, thank you for the extensive contribution with quite a few important principles. Yes, we need to recognize the wide variety of places and individuals. Yes, missionaries who don’t keep contact with their converts show how the system itself trivialized their work (compare how President Hinckley kept lifelong contact with the one young man he baptized on his mission, but who quickly turned inactive). Yes, our missionaries often continue to implant an odd image of themselves, while it could be much different. Yes, people need a minimum of three months of full activity before baptism (as in most Protestant denominations; the Catholic church requires at least a year; Judaism up to six years).

    SDS and Geoff-Aus, yours are the memoirs that other memoirs confirm: eerie experiences, absurd situations, converts who never were converts, but at the same time, at the end “the experience did bring me closer to the Savior” (SDS) and “your missionary experience affects your world view” (Geoff).

    When I read these reminiscences of those who were on their missions in the 1960s and 70s, I wonder how present-day missionaries, age 18-19, will remember their missions fifty years from now. Would going on a mission when around 20, or slightly older as were many in the 1960s, make a difference in the way impressions are stored and memory works? I mean, missionaries of decades ago had already had post-high school experiences, in college or in jobs, before leaving on their mission. They already had an in-between layer in personality development. Now nearly all our male missionaries leave right after high school, with a post-2000 upbringing, and it is their first deeply disorienting experience. We hear a lot about homesickness and depression. How would all that affect their recollections decades later?

  49. JR
    April 18, 2019 at 6:07 am

    Incidentally and as I have reported elsewhere, with respect to 18 year old missionaries, one of the 70 told me at a dinner/training meeting that the Brethren (not sure which) were disappointed in the culture of pressuring young men to go out of high school at age 18. That the age-eligibility change was intended as an option for those for whom it was appropriate not as something to be expected. Of course, if that were a general feeling among the Brethren, one of them could long since have addressed it in general conference, and/or criticism of the culture could be published in the Ensign or by First Presidency letter to be read in sacrament meetings. I suspect lack of unanimity among the Brethren on this as well as some other things.

  50. April 18, 2019 at 9:27 am

    I can’t believe I wrote Wilifred instead of Wilfried. My apologies.

  51. Wilfried
    April 18, 2019 at 9:35 am

    No apologies needed, mathdads. For non-Dutch speakers I have a name prone to creative variants.

  52. John F. Cannon
    April 18, 2019 at 7:54 pm

    An article starting with the “boys dress up like CIA-agents, the girls like old-school women” does not fill me with confidence that this is an unbiased view of the ethics of missionary work. But I’m going to read it anyway, perhaps I’ll be surprised.

  53. John F Cannon
    April 18, 2019 at 8:54 pm

    OK, I was somewhat surprised. While the bulk of the article is pretty much one-sided criticism of the Church’s missionary program, there are a few remarks that admit there is some merit to missionary work, such as “These various ethical considerations cannot deny the fact that missionary work can bring great joy and satisfaction to converts. In most wards there are converts who, even after decades of membership, will testify how much the church has been a blessing for them and their family.” My wife is a convert and that’s how she feels about her conversion 66 years ago. So the article is not without some redeeming qualities. Also I realize that much of the criticism leveled certainly happens. I was a missionary in the early 1960s and I’m confident I could have done a better job than I did. But the implication that most missionaries and mission presidents are just out for the numbers without regard to the convert’s welfare is, I believe, misplaced. Apparently Brother Decoo believes that President Hinckley’s instruction to mission presidents that he quotes in the last 4 lines of his blog (“Your missionaries must be sure that conversion is real, that it is life-changing, that it is something that is to last forever and go on through generations. Nobody gains when there is baptism without retention.”) is largely ignored.

  54. Wilfried
    April 19, 2019 at 8:30 am

    JR, the lowering of the age to 18, leaves us, indeed, with the impression it was not meant to become a norm. It allows some thoughts on announcements by Church leaders, with implications for our topic of retention.

    Announcements over the pulpit, brought with some zest and immediately amplified by the press and social media, can trigger massive excitement with unwanted consequences. It seems that was the case with the age change. Besides the numerical upsurge and later drop, the consequences include the decrease in converts per missionary, the emotional toll on many, the burden on mission presidents, the increase in early returns, and remedies such as the new regulations for allowed weekly familial support. We should acknowledge that church leaders are well aware of these challenges and seek for solutions. But going back to age 19 or older would, I believe, lead to a decline in willingness to go on a mission, and from there even more inactivity among young adults.

    Conversely, major announcements and appeals may fall flat though they were intended to elicit major changes. Since the 1970s the First Presidency has expressed again and again its concern “over the demands made upon the people of the Church in carrying forward its many programs” (see Elder Packer’s talk in 1990).

    “Reduction and simplification” has been their constant plea, but to little avail. Finally, the past few years they have made drastic organizational reductions. In the 2018 October conference, President Nelson announced as main message that we need to move away from “thinking of ‘church’ as something that happens in our meetinghouses … It is time for a home-centered Church”. But we saw no massive excitement over it. Activities and pressure to participate continue to abound in most wards.

    I am convinced the Brethren want this change too to help stop the loss of converts: many converts become inactive because of the heavy time demands placed on members. People convert in the first place to the gospel, not to the church. A home-centered church would allow them to feel “active”, without being judged by the overzealous who turn their ward and stake into a demanding “Club Mormon”.

  55. Clark Goble
    April 19, 2019 at 10:09 am

    Wilfried, that’s an important observation. For those of us who are long term members used to Church we may not appreciate just how big a commitment it is. It really does take up much if not most of our time. On the one hand I think that’s why we’ve had such high retention over the years. On the other it can be deeply intimidating to new members – especially when the ward doesn’t fellowship with them and integrate with them.

    I agree with you that perhaps too many have neglected the thrust of Pres. Nelson’s attempted changes too. Arguably over the years many have attempted this, but culturally we like things organized rather than making a community on our own.

  56. JR
    April 19, 2019 at 10:46 am

    Wilfried, One of the recent results of the 2-hour block is that we have about as many (30-35) adults socializing in the hallways during Sunday School as there are in the Gospel Doctrine class. There are at least two reasons for this. First, we cannot fit 60-70 people in any room in the building other than the chapel (in use by another ward) and the “cultural hall” (extremely noisy, hard to hear, discourages participation, uncomfortable seats). Second, what our people need is an opportunity to socialize, get to know each other, and become a community without the demand that they all participate. Many churches accomplish this with a social hour (with snacks and beverages) before or after worship services. A “home-centered” church but for 2 Sunday hours will have the unfortunate result, at least in places where ward members are not your immediate neighbors, of contributing the the further decline of any sense of community among the ward “family.” Yes, heavy time demands are a problem. Why not make opportunities for community building that are not demands, but invitations? (Because we have overlapping 2-hour blocks that prevent using the buildings in that way?) The notion that “active” means mandatory participation in everything the church sponsored wasn’t healthy in 70 years ago and is less healthy now. Time demands are a significant problem. So is the lack of a supportive church community in a ward of mere acquaintances.

  57. Wilfried
    April 19, 2019 at 1:28 pm

    Thank you for being at least “somewhat surprised”, John F. Cannon. I appreciate your willingness to read the post. Allow me to clarify a little.

    – First, all the elements in the first part of the post come directly from mission memoirs. As I said at the end of the first part: “All the above elements, told as such, and more, are to be found in the autoethnographic genre or Mormon Missionary Memoirs”. Yes, included that the boys dress up like CIA-agents (mentioned in various memoirs). I realize now, however, that the opening part could indeed give an immediate wrong impression without that context from the onset. Memoirs have a particular style, mixing candor, wit, and reflections on the pros and cons of the mission experience. The first part of the post tried to render that.

    – Second, yes, I concede that the post is meant to be critical of various aspects of missionary work. I also realize that many readers are put off by such an approach because as church members we’re prone to be defensive when church facets are being criticized. But I also believe critical exploration is useful if the obvious aim is to analyze with an eye to reflection and possible improvements. The critic can pay a painful price for it, but many changes that occur in the church have been at least partially triggered by critical voices. I’ve seen it happen over and over, because we are indeed a living church with listening general authorities willing to assess, discuss, pray, and decide, in whatever direction they feel is best.

    If our top leaders continue to speak so often about retention, it means we haven’t solved the problem yet. Far from, if we look at the figures.

  58. KLC
    April 19, 2019 at 3:49 pm

    JR I’m so glad to hear someone else articulate what I’ve been thinking the last 6 months. If our answer to everything is The Home and Family then I wonder how long it will be before many members just conclude that church isn’t what it used to be and just stay Home? And I’m certain there are many bishops that are trying to follow Elder Holland’s last GC talk with exactness and are trying to suppress any socializing before sacrament meeting, which just makes any church ties even more tenuous.

  59. Clark Goble
    April 19, 2019 at 5:01 pm

    KLC, I think balancing reverence and meditation with the social nature of Church is tricky. I’d like to see more meet and greets after Church in the parking lot or like. Especially now that temperatures are increasing. You’re completely right that some peoples ties to Church are already tenuous and the social nature is important. Indeed it’s those social ties that frequently are why many new members quickly go inactive. Others of us perhaps either due to exhaustion or being less social just focus more on the personal aspect. We come to Church primarily for the sacrament and those 15 minutes.

    The worry I have with the two hour shift and move to doing more at home is that those who are more marginal for whatever reason will lose a lot they gained at Church. For those of us who do personal study, Church is frequently pretty boring. However a lot of kids in particular get what little religious education they receive at Church and not at home. I worry that in 8 years we’ll see an even bigger dip in retention because for so many kids Church is sacrament and a brief lesson. A big part of me wishes they cut at least 15 minutes off sacrament and added it to lesson time.

  60. Bruce Forbes
    April 19, 2019 at 5:14 pm

    Comments for JR and KLC —
    I must comment on JR’s last post and the comments about the home-based gospel learning. I do not live where my neighbors are ward members; the closest one is maybe six blocks away. My ward is 20 miles long and 10 miles wide at its widest point. We average 100 people in Sacrament Meeting. And so far this home-based gospel learning is having a wonderful effect for ward fellowship. We have taken the suggestion of forming study groups, and several ward members are in a different study group each week of the month. Refreshments are getting elaborate, and fellowshipping is going on. As I serve in Primary, I have no clue as to how many people are standing around in the hallways during the second hour. I will note that there is only one ward in our building, so the adult classes are free to use the chapel during the second hour. This is actually doing better than the Ministering, at least among the men. The Sisters organized their ministering and are running like a fine-tuned race car, but the men are still figuring out what to do — at least, if they ARE doing something, word hasn’t reached us four men who serve in Primary.

    KLC — Elder Holland isn’t trying to suppress socializing before Sacrament Meeting — he’s trying to get us to be reverent in the chapel. Socializing, as it has been taught all of my 60+ years in the church, has always supposed to have been done outside the chapel. We arrive early for the specific reason of socializing in the foyer, and then we enter the chapel. After our meetings, ward members are known to linger for up to 45 minutes, socializing. We are in a one-ward meetinghouse, so this doesn’t add confusion to a second or third or even a fourth ward trying to run their meetings. (I NEVER want to return to a multiple-ward building!)

  61. Bruce Forbes
    April 19, 2019 at 5:19 pm

    CLARK GOBLE — As a Primary teacher, I’m nodding with your worries about the future and children not trained. I’m fortunate to have a class where most of the children are learning at home, but I worry about how long it’s going to last. When the newness wears off, what’s going to happen? I am one of those who wishes we were still in the 3-hour block, but at the same time I trust that the leaders were guided with these decisions. I pray that parents really catch the vision of the home-based gospel learning.

  62. Clark Goble
    April 19, 2019 at 9:27 pm

    Bruce, the problem Elder Holland didn’t address is that in most meetinghouses multiple wards meet. So if you talk in the hallways you’re typically disrupting other classes or even their Sacrament. That’s why you need a place to do it and it’s why many do it in Sacrament. I agree with Elder Holland we need to keep reverence but that means we need an other channel to do it.

  63. Wilfried
    April 20, 2019 at 8:33 am

    The last comments, from Bruce, Clark, JR, and KLC, focus on the topic of the “home-centered church” versus the community-church or “ward family”. I had drawn attention to the topic as an example of a momentous announcement by president Nelson in October 2018, but which did not elicit much public reaction, compared to the rather restrained announcement of the change in missionary age in October 2012, but which triggered a massive worldwide response.

    It is a useful topic for my post as we tie it to the problem of retention. I had mentioned my conviction that “the Brethren want this change [towards a home-centered church] also to help stop the loss of converts: many converts become inactive because of the heavy time demands placed on members. People convert in the first place to the gospel, not to the church. A home-centered church would allow them to feel “active”, without being judged by the overzealous who turn their ward and stake into a demanding ‘Club Mormon’.”

    As I read the previous comments, I recognize their validity from your situation and traditions of wards in regions with two wards in one chapel, where community building and socializing is a huge part of the church experience, etc. Bruce nuanced it from his situation — “my ward is 20 miles long and 10 miles wide at its widest point” — but also in his (I presume American) ward socializing before and after meetings seems equally important. I understand we naturally focus on our personal experience and preferences.

    However, I think we may not yet have grasped the perspective that the Brethren envision. President Nelson announced it this way:

    “In recent years, we in the presiding councils of the Church have wrestled with a fundamental question: how can we take the gospel in its simple purity and the ordinances with their eternal efficacy to all of God’s children? As Latter-day Saints, we have become accustomed to thinking of “church” as something that happens in our meetinghouses, supported by what happens at home. We need an adjustment to this pattern. It is time for a home-centered Church, supported by what takes place inside our branch, ward, and stake buildings.

    As the Church continues to expand throughout the world, many members live where we have no chapels—and may not for the foreseeable future. I remember a family who, because of such circumstances, was required to meet in their home. I asked the mother how she liked going to church in her own home. She replied, “I like it! My husband uses better language at home now, knowing that he will bless the sacrament here each Sunday.”

    So, this is about something much, much more drastic, from a worldwide perspective.

    I wonder if this fundamental change has also something to do with negative results with the “consolidations” of the past decade, where hundreds of units have been closed to create “centers of strength,” but thousands of good members have becoming “inactive” (in terms of attendance) because distances have become too hard and too expensive (like travelling 2 to 3 hours either way to attend church). The “centers of strength” may be wonderful for the better-off families owning a car, but what about the others, multiplied in less affluent countries? The past two years, since the harsh consolidation from 9 units to 4 in Flanders, I have seen what a heartbreak it became for some members.

    Another element: “socializing” and “community building” may be attractive for many of the deep-rooted members, but it is also the cause for many converts to become “inactive”, simply because they may not feel welcome in the entrenched social circle of the most active members (How many times did church leaders hammer on that problem!). Conversely, in many cultures, privacy and limited friendships are well-guarded realms and some converts may simply not like the way “ministering” outsiders invade their life. A shift to a home-centered church provides answers.

    For those who have been happy with the way things were, I realize how changes to deep-seated traditions are unsettling. No doubt the Brethren “have wrestled” with all the preceding considerations, and still struggle as some members are now dissatisfied with recent changes.

    Well, perhaps all this should constitute a new post on itself.

  64. JR
    April 20, 2019 at 10:11 am

    Yes, “A home-centered church would allow [those who cannot participate at church regularly] to feel “active”, without being judged by the overzealous who turn their ward and stake into a demanding ‘Club Mormon’.” That may contribute to their “retention.” The absence of opportunities to build social connections with a church community will also contribute to not retaining some others. There is no perfect solution.

  65. Brian G
    April 20, 2019 at 10:21 am

    Why can’t we make all missions 20-40 hours a week service missions? My first companion was considered kind of a “bad” missionary, but we worked in the hospital, taught PE at a grade school, worked with members at their homes – I helped butcher hogs, made tamales, tortillas, sausage, and soups. We were busy all day working and volunteering and teaching seemed to be a side gig. My later companions were appalled at our schedule and tried to cut all of our service jobs. They felt like we needed to spend all of our time tracting instead. I think missions would do a lot more good for the missionaries and their areas if we spent more time serving and less time being stressed about time teaching.

    We actually baptized the most in my first area. But it would have felt like a success either way because we were anxiously engaged in a good cause.

  66. Wilfried
    April 20, 2019 at 11:26 am

    JR, indeed, it seems no perfect solution for all. However, the Brethren do not speak of an either/or situation, as if a home-centered church excludes a community. President Nelson speaks of “an adjustment” in emphasis, “a home-centered Church, supported by what takes place inside our branch, ward, and stake buildings.”

    So, a home-centered church does not mean “the absence of opportunities to build social connections with a church community” as you fear. Members living in the vicinity, forming small study groups, and correspondence, phone calls, and social media will still allow to foster a small or large community of “gospel friends”. In many cases, attendance at weekly meetings will still be possible, or, if distances are great, a few times a year, for example for conferences.

    Also, I think we need to revise the connotation of “activity”. It’s a church term that became fashionable in the early 1900s when church leaders started to emphasize attendance at sacrament meetings (which was very low, less than 15%; reaching 17% in 1915; only 5% of the wards held priesthood meetings). It took a few decades of pushing to raise those figures, with as result that many now consider attendance on Sunday as a main exterior proof of “being active”. However, there are many Latter-day Saints whom we seldom or never see in church, but who could be more “gospel-active” than we imagine. A “home-centered church” would hopefully foster being more “gospel-active”. President Nelson suggests it, when speaking of the father who blesses the sacrament at home.

    I’ve seen and experienced those variants over the years.

  67. KLC
    April 20, 2019 at 1:19 pm

    Bruce Forbes, I don’t think Elder Holland was trying to suppress socializing before sacrament meeting either. But my comment wasn’t about Elder Holland, it was about earnest yet misguided bishops who will take Elder Holland’s comments and then build 6 hedges around them. There are undoubtedly bishops out there right now who are trying as hard as they can to turn the time before sacrament meeting into a funeral because they believe they are following an apostle. And that active policing has a chilling effect on a ward community.

    But I can’t agree with your 60+ year assessment about chapels. I also have 60+ years in the church and I have never personally experienced a ward where socializing is done only in the foyer and then people file reverently into the quiet chapel. I’ve heard about that second hand, and it is usually accompanied by the weird idea that women in pants cannot enter into a chapel, they must be in dresses. The chapel is just a room, not the holy of holies. Sacred things can happen there but it’s not because of the room, it’s because of what happens in it. Our chapel was renovated and for six months we met in the gym. I couldn’t discern any effect that had on me or our ward. The gym is just as good as a room with an organ and pews. It’s what happens in the room that matters, not the room itself.

  68. JR
    April 20, 2019 at 5:19 pm

    Wilfried, what is allowed is not the issue. Many things on that list will not happen for some people (new members, introverts) etc. because the established ward members do not know who they are (in the absence of opportunities to get acquainted at church activities) or see no need to expand their pre-existing family or other study groups, etc., or are just overwhelmed.

    This is not a 2-hour block problem. It is a problem wherever there is a a ward chapel serving 3-4 scattered wards with leadership that doesn’t want to have or sponsor activities at which people would actually get to know each other. Bruce’s experience works because they have a one-ward church and a group of people working to make it work. In a 3-4 ward building only the ward meeting last could hang around for 45 minutes after the 2-hour block and they are generally late enough in the afternoon that they don’t want to.

    This is very different from many European experiences — and probably others — though even where I served as a missionary in Europe decades ago, many single sister converts fell away (and I don’t mean stopped coming to church) because they were not included in small social/study groups and were not “ministered” to. One reported to me that while essentially bed-ridden for a year-long recovery, she did not even once have a visit from a home teacher or from the bishop or from any other member. That was after attending that ward’s meetings and activities regularly for several years. Though the ward was widespread geographically, she and the bishop and numerous priesthood holders lived in the same small city with very thorough public transportation.

    The fewer social connections within a ward or branch, the more likely it becomes that such non-retention will occur. Yes, “activity” as defined by “Club Mormon” wards (attending weekly meetings and all church-sponsored events) is a non-functional concept. So is “allowing” other sorts of contacts if they are not in fact taking place. Should the burden be entirely on the new member or the new move-in to initiate such contacts or to push themselves into study groups to which they are not invited, etc.? Of course not. Being “home-centered” doesn’t solve the problem for singles, for introverts, or for persons new to the church who need more than being told to study and work it out for themselves. Wherever they are not included by “[m]embers living in the vicinity” or in “small study groups” or by correspondence, phone calls, and social media there will be a retention problem.

  69. Wilfried
    April 21, 2019 at 11:18 am

    Brian G, I appreciate your drawing attention to the aspect of plain service by missionaries. I understand it’s something that is already being done more and more in some missions, though no doubt more could be done.

    KLC, indeed, any directive or counsel can easily be radicalized by well-meaning leaders. We often see how a needed correction turns into overcorrection. To bring us back to our topic of ethics of missionary work, it is frequently the twisting of sound principles that moves us into the unethical. Bringing people to Christ is one thing, pushing them to baptism while breaking up families is something else.

    JR, I think we are in agreement. We both recognize the multiple divergences in the size of branches and wards, in distances, in public transportation, in singles versus families, in needs for intense social contact or not, and more. So, indeed, flexibility and adapted forms of interaction. Also, there is a need to broaden the concept of “being active”, as I mentioned earlier: many of us still tend to judge “retention” in terms of attendance at weekly meetings. Over the years a few general authorities, among them Elder Packer, have pointed at the difference between “being gospel-active” versus “being church-active”. I think the emphasis on a home-centered church makes “being active in the gospel” also more central. It would also make a difference for converts: you’re converting to the gospel, more than to church activities.

    I think we have pretty much reached the end of the exchanges. Comments on the essence of the post, the ethics of missionary work, are still welcome (yes, let’s keep the focus). In the post I also added a few clarifications pertaining to ethics and the community I noticed how some people misread what was in the text.

  70. jzhess
    April 21, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    You lost me in your opening paragraphs, brother. I’ve rarely heard a more sardonic, dispiriting depiction of missionary aspirations and actual practice.

    It’s nothing what my experience was – and so far from the joy and power of many of our experiences that it’s hard to fathom. With all due respect, those opening paragraphs feel to me like commentary on missionary work from someone despising the message and Church they represent.

    Clearly you have some intensely critical feelings – that in my view are significantly influencing what you are seeing. If we are going to have a productive, even critical inquiry about missionary work, it might require a bit more generosity and respect. -Jacob Hess, Ph.D. Unthinkable.cc

  71. Wilfried
    April 21, 2019 at 2:29 pm

    jzhess, thank you for your candor. As I have mentioned in a previous comment, I can understand such reaction and I should have clarified the opening better. The point is that the opening paragraphs tried to render what is typically in the Missionary Memoirs, the often witty, self-deprecatory, blunt, but also deeply authentic rendering of the emotional roller coaster many missionaries go through. Most sentences come directly from the Memoirs, and none of the Memoirs is against the church or missionary work, quite the contrary.

    Please also notice the last paragraph of the opening section, all of which is also part of the Memoirs — “the spiritual climaxes, revelation, and the power of grace”, the development of resilience and compassion, the maturing, the lifelong friends, the discovery of oneself, the bonding with the country, and the experience of “humanity and love among and towards the few strangers they finally get to know well.”

    As it says at the end of the opening section: “All the above elements, told as such, and more, are found in the autoethnographic genre or Mormon Missionary Memoirs”.

    Please also see the main concern of the whole post: retention.

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