The Hidden Costs of Missionary Service

I loved my mission. Even though I no longer believe in the church, I still look back on my two years in Canada fondly. I met some amazing people, gained important life experience and grew both mentally and emotionally. There is something incredibly valuable about giving up everything in your life for two years and choosing to focus on other people. Many of my most important insights about life came from my mission, and I doubt that I would be driven to help people in the way that I am now if it weren’t for my time as a missionary.

I also love my mission president and many of my fellow missionaries. They’re good people who are just trying to do their best to do what they feel is right. Anything I say in here is meant to show how the missionary system is flawed rather than bash on individuals. I have no interest in attacking individuals, especially when I deeply respect and love them.

That said, I think that the emphasis on exact obedience has to be thrown out.

I don’t think that obedience is a bad thing, and in an environment where young men and women are being sent out on their own, having guidelines and structure is necessary, but the way in which the church weaponizes obedience against missionaries can be incredibly damaging.

From the outside, an LDS mission has a near fairy-tale essence to it: Two young women (or men) go out to share the gospel with the world, and God miraculously makes everything work out. They stumble on the perfect investigator right before turning around to go home for the night, are miraculously protected from a ravenous dog that chases them for three blocks, flip to the perfect scripture at the exact moment that it is needed to help an investigator, and even manage to eat highly questionable food without consequence.

On the inside things are very different. Even the most perfect investigator can cut off contact with the missionaries for no apparent reason, and if they happen to make it to baptism, their chances of still being active in two years are laughable. Every miracle is proceeded by dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of instances where everything falls flat.

Instead of an environment where missionaries care for the individual, numbers are king. Every week the missionaries have to call their mission leaders and report on their “key indicators” which are then forwarded to church HQ. When I was a missionary these consisted of:

1. Baptisms
2. Investigators with a set baptismal date
3. Investigators who attended sacrament meeting
4. Lessons taught to investigators with a member present
5. New investigators

There were other key indicators, but my understanding was that these were the only statistics that church HQ looked at, so they were the only ones we reported.

I was surprised to find that my mission ran more like a business than a service organization. In hindsight, I realize that I shouldn’t have found this shocking (Lindsay Hansen Park often remarks that outside of this particular branch of Mormonism the church is often referred as “The Corporate Church,”) but at the time it was rather startling to me. No matter how my mission leaders tried to explain it away with mental gymnastics, everything was about numbers.

The second thing that struck me about life as a missionary was just how strongly obedience was stressed. Obedience was king, and if I had a dollar for everytime “exact obedience” was mentioned I’d be able to pay for the entire two years. We were expected to read out of the missionary handbook (the rulebook for LDS missionaries) every day. We weren’t even allowed to call it the “white bible” or “white handbook,” as some have called it. It was the “Missionary Handbook” and nothing else. My mission leaders continually stressed that nothing short of perfect adherence to the rules was acceptable.

These two things created an interesting dynamic that deeply impacted the culture in my mission: Success became equated with obedience and failure with disobedience. My mission leaders taught me that the only way I would see success was if I was exactly obedient. My mission president got up and testified to us that as soon as we became exactly obedient, the Lord would bless us with so much success that we would hardly have time to manage it all.

The most successful missionaries in my mission were usually the ones who were most charismatic, and as a result of their success were raised up as examples for the rest of the mission to see. Over time I became aware that a lot of these successful missionaries weren’t always obedient, they were just better at influencing people and utilizing high-pressure sales tactics. They knew how to work the system to get good numbers while appearing to be obedient.

I hold no quarrel against most of these missionaries. I honestly believe that most of them saw nothing wrong with their actions. When you believe that you’re doing the work of God, things that would normally seem inappropriate suddenly become acceptable.
I saw investigators baptized who had only quit smoking a few days earlier and were under the impression that they didn’t have to stop permanently. Other times I saw missionaries going door-to-door and forcing people to set up a return appointment when the person at the door clearly wasn’t interested. Some missionaries were fun to hang out with and used their social skills to maintain a pool of investigators. Most prominent were missionaries who were worn out and simply made up numbers each week to avoid critique.

I don’t recall ever trying any of the high-pressure sales tactics employed by the successful missionaries in my mission. Instead, I just decided to give everything my best shot and be as reasonably obedient as I could. I never subscribed to the idea of “exact” obedience, because the whole thing was too utopian for my taste, but I did believe that God would reward me for my honest work. Too many missionaries (and to an extent, my mission president) would take the mission rules and fall prey to the slippery-slope fallacy by endlessly extrapolating the rules with such vigor that even the stoutest Pharisee would stand in awe.

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to the “obediences leads to success” rhetoric (if a light side even exists). About halfway through my mission, my mission president moved me to a small town with a branch of about thirty members. When I first arrived, I found moderate success with a baptism and a few new investigators, but after a month everything dried up: We had nobody on date for baptism, our investigator pool shriveled, and despite our best efforts we couldn’t find any new people to teach.

In my heart, I was okay with this, because I knew I was giving it my best shot. Things were different with the mission leadership though. Every Sunday when I called to report our numbers, my zone leaders would drill me with questions about our work. They’d ask how many hours we were tracting, our commitment to wake up by 6:30 every morning (because waking up at 6:30 was technically against the rules), and two questions that I grew to hate with a fiery passion:

1. “What will you do differently next week?”
This question bothered me because at this particular point of my mission I was at my apex for pursuing creative ways to find new people to teach. My companion and I organized firesides, performed service, went to public social events, cooked for the members (something I loved to do), and spent hours each week serving at a blood bank. Any extra time we had was spent either knocking doors or contacting people on the streets. When you’re using every available means you can think of to meet new people there isn’t much that you can do “differently” except to give up entirely.

2. “What can we do to help you achieve the standard of excellence?”
The second question was even more frustrating to me because it was always the question that my zone leaders asked when they didn’t know what else to ask. It’s a convenient question because it assumed that something was wrong that was within my ability to fix.

I came to dread Sundays as a missionary. For me, it was a constant reminder that I wasn’t good enough. Inside I felt that I was working as hard as I could, but my mission leaders consistently implied that I should see success and that any lack of progress was somehow my fault. The Lord was perfect, and I was not, so when my area didn’t measure up, the blame was mine

In retrospect, I realize that this caused me a lot of problems. I was likely struggling with depression and anxiety as a result of the rhetoric being used by my leaders. I lost a lot of self-confidence and began to blame myself for everything that went wrong. I had seen so much success in my first year as a missionary, and when it all started to go south, I figured that I must be the one at fault. My mission president was confident that God was about to grow the church in that area to a staggering degree that hadn’t been seen since the early days of the church, and my area didn’t fit that mold. I felt that I was somehow at fault for this, even though I knew that I couldn’t control the choices of other people.

Everything came to a head for me at a zone conference toward the end of my mission. My mission president (who I still love and respect greatly) was talking to us about exact obedience again when he made a claim that troubled me deeply:

“If the Lord chooses to guide his chosen few out of your path as a result of your disobedience, he will hold you accountable for their sins at the last day.”

I immediately dismissed the entire concept because it made a complete mockery of the atonement and it didn’t sit right with me. I knew my mission president meant well, but he was letting his emotions get the better of him and taking it in the wrong direction.

My companion wasn’t so lucky: He already struggled with self-esteem issues and frequently claimed that he had failed as a missionary for a variety of reasons that he claimed were past the power of the atonement to fix, and this pushed him over the edge. Even his smallest stumbles with the rules made him feel bad, which only pushed him further into a downward spiral of shame (similar to my shame spiral over porn, which you can read about here.) In the world of Mormon missionary work (and to a lesser extent, the entire LDS church) there is no such thing as a small sin; all transgressions are equally bad.

We had a female investigator (one of the very few investigators that we had in our time together), and my companion was very attracted to her. When this investigator stopped meeting with us, my companion was distraught. He told me that he knew that God was going to hold him accountable for her sins, simply because he found her attractive.

Being a missionary gives you a real sense of purpose. Never in my life have I had so much purpose. I knew that God had put me in this area to bring people into the church, my job was simply to find them. I knew that God was perfect and that he would hold up his end of the deal, so when I struggled to find people to teach, I felt that I could only blame myself.

If I had to sum everything up in one claim, it would be this: The church needs to stop connecting perfect obedience with success. When missionaries are trying to be obedient and still fail to see success, they turn around and blame themselves, which only makes things worse. Real life does not always reward obedience, nor does it punish disobedience, and it’s foolish for the church to preach that narrative when it has a high likelihood of hurting people who are simply just trying their best.

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4 Thoughts

  1. Oh, man. This brings back the mission memories. I have two, soon to be three, and maybe four nieces/nephews on missions right now. I hope things are different these days, but I think it might be a vain hope. Mission culture may have been one of my most damaging Mormon experiences, for all the reasons you are saying. The idea that perfect obedience would bring success was also drilled into our heads. Added to that, my patriarchal blessing said I’d be a powerful missionary who would lead many to baptism. I sure tried my hardest, but I was not successful by any measure (I should NOT work in sales, haha). I felt that my failure was my fault. I alternated between feeling like a failure and fearing the church wasn’t true. I was in a deep depression over this for half my mission, and in varying degrees of depression for many years afterwards. I hope my nieces and nephews have a better experience.

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    1. My mission was almost eight years ago. It’s entirely possible that things are changing for the better but I doubt it. The rules in my mission became more demanding the longer that I was out. I definitely felt that I was singlehandedly responsible for the salvation of the thousands of people in my area, and it really messed me up.

      I didn’t do a very good job at being a religious salesman either, which is probably why I never became more than a District Leader.

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      1. Same here, on just about all points, haha! I tried to figure out why my obedience did not produce success- perhaps my faith wasn’t strong enough? I certainly had doubts. Perhaps it was my past sins. Maybe I hadn’t repented fully enough. That one made me miserable. Like you, I saw that the successful missionaries weren’t the obedient ones, and it confused the heck out of me. The successful ones were the happy ones- they were the ones for whom their religion was working. They actually had something to share that made them happier. A lot of them didn’t take rules too seriously, but generally tried to do a good job and love people. Since they were happy, more people were willing to listen. Between my doubts, undeserved self condemnation, and lack of persuasive ability, I think I was driving myself insane. No one wants to take advice from a miserable, conflicted person. I think they could tell.

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