Will the Church Need Me / Will the Heathen Heed Me / When I’m Sixty-Four?

October 18, 2004 | 20 comments
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Ok, so it doesn’t work as well as the Lennon/McCartney original. Still.

Consider this a more or less open thread on the topic of serving “senior missions” (has the church settled on a specific nomenclature yet?). Some months ago, after listening to a talk at a stake conference, or perhaps a general conference address, it suddenly hit me: by the time I am retirement age (sometime in the 2030s), serving a mission with one’s spouse as a senior couple will be nearly as expected, and perhaps even nearly as common, as is it for young men to serve missions today. My track record with predictions is spectacularly poor; still, given the continual and increasing emphasis the church leadership has placed on such missionary work, it seems inevitable that the numbers of those who serve will only increase, and with it an increase in expectations. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but let me kick things off with some preliminary thoughts:

1. No matter how much religious fervor and social urgency may be generated by the push for senior missionaries, the rate of service probably won’t ever match that of nineteen-year-olds, for the simple reason that a grown person, with family and work and a history in a community, is a whole lot more susceptible to peer pressure than a teen-ager. Not that Mormon missionaries serve primarily or even significantly simply as a response to peer pressure, but it’s crazy to deny that the calculus isn’t there: the social difficulty, if not impossibility, of fitting comfortably into mainstream Mormon culture and ward units as a young man who chose not to serve a mission definitely looms large in the decisionmaking of many. (I’m speaking of those raised in the church here; recent converts are a different story.) I don’t see how such concerns could loom large in the thinking of two sixty-five-year-old lifetime members. Of course, should it essentially be made into a commandment–as in “the Lord expects every worthy older couple to serve a mission”–then that would be one thing…but even then, I expect that as many seniors as respond to such in the affirmative there would still be a large percentage that wouldn’t; definitely larger than the number of young men who say no.

2. As the expectation to serve a senior mission grows, won’t it have incidental, almost unconcious effects on the lifestyle and occupational choices of many members? My dad has been a businessman and entrepreneur for decades; he’s made a lot of money, but he also has a lot of debts and more than a few ongoing lawsuits. He won’t be called on a mission with all that hanging over his head, the same that, generally speaking, a young man who has a lot of consumer debt and unpaid credit cards won’t be called on a mission. We subtlely shape and encourage prospective missionaries in numerous ways, so that they’ll be able to serve when the call comes: their dating and social habits, most expecially, but also in terms of their education and professional plans. (A young man in our ward recently accepted a basketball scholarship to a lesser university rather than his preferred one, because the former school wouldn’t allow him to defer his scholarship for a couple of years, while the latter one did.) Will the expectation of senior service have consequences for how Mormons prepare for retirement, choose where they’re going to live or how big a mortgage to take one, and decide on their career. My dad loves the give and take of the business world, but I also know he’s tired of the constant debt negotiations and lawsuits, and wishes he could extricate himself somehow; unfortunately, he can’t anytime soon without substantially losing the family’s and several others’ collective shirts. If he’d been taught ever since he was young that he and his wife needed to be able to pick up and go once they hit their mid-60s, would he have made the same choices he has? Probably not.

3. I confess: the idea of serving another mission just turns me off. For reasons that had far more to do with myself than my environment, my mission was more unhappy and crisis-inducing than happy and fulfilling; I really don’t want to go and do anything like that kind of work again. Of course, everyone knows that senior missionaries very rarely do any actual proselyting, but still the fear is there, and I’m sure I’m not alone. But perhaps this just all depends on how the “second time around” is presented to the church membership. If serving a senior mission really does become both common and expected, then that old canard about the mission being “the best two years of your life,” or all that rhetoric about how the mission is the apex/proving-ground/fundamental-test for one’s whole subsequent spiritual life, will have to be retired; in its place we’d perhaps have the claim that the senior mission is the superior mission, the one conducted with all the benefit of hindsight and years of experience, the one where you’re trusted enough to work alongside your beloved spouse rather than some randomly picked schmoe, the one where you can “fulfill” (or, dare I say it, “redeem”?) all the work (or lack thereof) from 40 years before. Put it that way, and I can think of more than a few reluctant former missionaries who might really be sold on the idea.

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20 Responses to Will the Church Need Me / Will the Heathen Heed Me / When I’m Sixty-Four?

  1. Bryce I on October 18, 2004 at 1:34 pm

    Russell: on point 3, I don’t think the party line is that a mission is the best two (or 1.5) years of your entire life, future included, but that it should be the best two years of your life so far.

    I’m sure pretty much 99% of returned missionaries have had that dream/nightmare where they are called to a second mission. I have, and it gives me the creeps. I really liked my mission — I’m just at a different point in my life now.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on October 18, 2004 at 1:44 pm

    “I don’t think the party line is that a mission is the best two (or 1.5) years of your entire life, future included, but that it should be the best two years of your life so far.”

    Depends on who is saying it; I’ve heard it both ways. Though admittedly, I don’t think it is nearly as often communicated to young people today as it was as recently as 15 years ago, so that might be taken as evidence that the prospect of serving additional missions–alongside President Hinckley’s “raising the bar” on missionary work–is complicating what once was assumed to be a fairly straightfoward, one-time-only, do-it-right-and-get-it-done, right of passage for young men in the church.

  3. Mark B on October 18, 2004 at 2:22 pm

    Having seen the wonderful help that senior couples can be in small branches–serving as leaders, teachers, mentors–I only hope that the day will come when the numbers of senior missionaries are 10 or 100 times what they are today.

  4. Jonathan Green on October 18, 2004 at 2:23 pm

    Another complication that occurs to me:
    Often, when I talk to another RM and compare stories, it’s pretty clear that the other person and I had fundamentally different experiences, and that there’s a good chance we would have despised each other if we had been in the same mission, let alone companions. But that doesn’t matter in the least, since we were not and are not. But what if my wife (mission in Chile) and I (Germany) end up as senior missionaries only to discover, 45 years after the fact, that we were each planning reruns of entirely different episodes of our respective missions? That could get awkward.

  5. Bryce I on October 18, 2004 at 2:30 pm

    Jonathan —

    I would suspect that most senior missionaries have been married long enough to work out potential problems like that before they crop up, or to deal with them when they do.

    Of course, I married a sister missionary from my mission, so what do I know?

  6. Rosalynde Welch on October 18, 2004 at 2:44 pm

    Bryce wrote, “I’m sure pretty much 99% of returned missionaries have had that dream/nightmare where they are called to a second mission. I have, and it gives me the creeps. I really liked my mission – I’m just at a different point in my life now.”

    How funny! I have a recurring nightmare of having volunteered to return to Portugal, but I had no idea that other ex-missionaries had the same experience.

  7. Ivan Wolfe on October 18, 2004 at 3:22 pm

    Yep _ i have a recurring nightmare where the Church decides that I was suppossed to serve a two and a half year mission, and so I am forced to leave college and my family to serve another six months.

    It’s horrid and I have that dream about once a month.

  8. John Mansfield on October 18, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    Casual observation indicates to me that the saints are producing fewer children. Otherwise strong wards team up to create cub scout dens, for example. The call for more old missionaries may be required because the source of the young ones is not as plentiful as we once knew.

    Sometimes, I have wondered about placing proselyting service at the margins of our financially productive years. The alternative I ponder is periodic calls of several weeks or a few months throughout a man’s life, as was more the pattern in early days of the restoration. But then, I am unclear why missionaries are sent to stakes.

  9. JosephN on October 18, 2004 at 3:52 pm

    :-O

    That is SO weird! I’ve literally had the same dream where the Church called me away from my wife to send me back to my mission. I’m going to have to ask my brother if he has had the dream too….

  10. cooper on October 18, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    Russell, I have a business, a whole lot of debt and thankfully no lawsuits…

    I and my husband have just been called on a mission. We are serving now as CES service missionaires. We will act as missionaries to the YSA crowd and hope to get as many of them attending institute as possible. We are in a state other than Utah, however still in the US. Our mission is for 18 months.

    I think most “senior” (ugh! I am not even close to a discount age) missions will be spent doing service type or training type missions. I do realize the are proselyting missions but there are far more opportunites to share our knowledge and experience with the world.

    One of the reasons for our call was given as “your daughters have been such great examples of the gospel, we know that you had a hand in their choices, that we feel you could help other young people see the vision of who they really are” kind of talk. It was quite revealing that our daughters had come under such scrutiny.

  11. Greg on October 18, 2004 at 4:47 pm

    Russell,

    Building a bit upon your #1, might not it be the case that mature couples believe that they can do as much good, or even more, by staying at home rather than leaving? They may have family that needs spiritual and material assistance; they might be in a struggling ward or branch; they might be serving their communities in other ways, and be doing so effectively because they are native members of that community. I suspect that this is the case, and that they might sometimes be right to stay. By contrast, I think that there is very little that a 19-21 could be doing that would be more valuable than working as a missionary.

  12. Russell Arben Fox on October 18, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    Greg, you’re right; that’s a good expansion upon point #1. The range of plausible (and presumably righteous) life options is so much greater for an older couple than it is for a 19-year-old boy that fending off an expectation to serve will likely come easily to many senior missionaries, and justifiably so. Nonetheless, I still suspect the expectation will increasingly be there, and will have to be “negotiated” by the likes of you and I in 30-odd years to a greater degree than is the case today.

  13. Kevin Barney on October 18, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    I could see going on a senior mission; whether I do or not will depend on a lot of factors, like whether my wife wants to when the time comes, our health and our financial situation. (As a lawyer I don’t get a pension, and my 401(k) still hasn’t recovered to where it was four or five years ago, and that is even with maximum annual contribuitons.)

    I’ve always thought that if I did do this, I would like to be a tour guide at Nauvoo or some other historic site.

    As a senior missionary, I would be far less malleable than I was as a teenager. I’m not going to do stupid or uncomfortable things just for the sake of the “numbers,” I’m not going to bow at the feet of the bureaucracy, and I’m not going to let some twerp ZL push me around. So maybe the Church would just as soon I stay home.

  14. greenfrog on October 18, 2004 at 9:59 pm

    I wonder if one of the reasons that older couple missionaries don’t typically serve proselytizing missions is that they are less malleable when it comes to beliefs and doctrines than 19-21 years olds.

  15. obi-wan on October 19, 2004 at 12:34 am

    I would suspect that most senior missionaries have been married long enough to work out potential problems like that before they crop up, or to deal with them when they do.

    Actually, probably not. I had a discussion about this with one of the psych counselors at the Provo MTC some time back; he told me that they have far more trouble between the senior couples than between the nineteen year olds companionships — the couples, he pointed out, have not spent 24/7 together for the last 25 or 30 years, and the adjustment is something of a shock. He said he heads off several divorces a week . . .

  16. Mark N. on October 19, 2004 at 3:42 am

    I’m sure pretty much 99% of returned missionaries have had that dream/nightmare where they are called to a second mission.

    I’ve had that one so many times that when I do have the dream again, I’ve become quite resigned to it. “Again? Oh, all right, I guess if I’ve gotta go, I’ve gotta go…”

    Fortunately, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had that one. Maybe it’s finally out of my system.

  17. John Mansfield on October 19, 2004 at 7:44 am

    Regarding comment 14, a more obvious factor is that retired old people don’t have the vitality that young men offer. The idea that a typical retired couple would be up to the continual exertions of the young proselyting missionaries is silly and a bit insulting. The stability offered by a few older proselyting couples goes a long way. It would be sad to see that stability expanded into lethargy.

  18. cje on October 19, 2004 at 9:21 am

    I had the missionary mightmare again last night, this time though all the other missionaries thought I was so cool and knowledgable they especially liked the fact that I was married with kids–all the same it was a nightmare.

    I still sigh with relief evrytime I think about the fact that I am NOT on a mission.

    cje

  19. cje on October 19, 2004 at 9:22 am

    I had the missionary mightmare again last night, this time though all the other missionaries thought I was so cool and knowledgable they especially liked the fact that I was married with kids–all the same it was a nightmare.

    I still sigh with relief evrytime I think about the fact that I am NOT on a mission.

    cje

  20. Yeechang Lee on October 20, 2004 at 11:07 am

    I had a discussion about this with one of the psych counselors at the Provo MTC some time back; he told me that they have far more trouble between the senior couples than between the nineteen year olds companionships – the couples, he pointed out, have not spent 24/7 together for the last 25 or 30 years, and the adjustment is something of a shock.

    This is consistent with what a senior sister who worked in my mission’s office with me once mentioned in conversation. (She was companions with her sister, both widows; by my time they had served I believe three or four full-time missions around the world with each other.)