Salt Lake City, We Have a Problem

August 15, 2014 | 101 comments
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Artist's rendering of a serious problem.

Artist’s rendering of a serious problem.

It has always been the case that some missionaries “come home early,” as the gentle phrasing goes. It turns out that more missionaries are coming home early than ever before. The percentage is now into the double-digits, and it turns out the folks in Salt Lake City are already well aware that we have a problem. This is based on information quietly passed down the priesthood chain, coupled with an urgent request to extend support and guidance to our young men and women as they prepare for and depart on LDS missions. So the leadership recognizes there is a problem and, surprisingly, the young returning missionaries are not being blamed. But acknowledging a problem is only the first step. What is going on and what can be done to improve things? How can we fix the problem?

The Surge

Dropping the eligibility age to 18 for young men and 19 for young women is part of the story, particularly for the young men. That extra year apparently gave some “away from home” experience to the 19-year-olds that some if not all of the 18-year-olds lack, experience that helps struggling missionaries get through the first few difficult months. But the surge of missionaries now serving must also have an effect. First, with an overabundance of missionaries in most missions, a mission president is more likely to support a struggling missionary’s request to return home. Second, with more missionaries serving in each mission, individual missionaries likely get proportionately less attention from their mission president and other senior leaders.

However you slice it, it is fair to conclude (1) that a rising come-home-early rate is a serious problem; and (2) that we largely caused the problem ourselves by lowering the missionary age and, by doing it willy-nilly, creating The Surge. One solution is to simply bump the age back up to 19 for young men but I doubt such a policy reversal is going to happen in this case. How would you explain “unhastening the work”? (Although the 18-month mission for young men was reversed within a year or two of implementation.) We need a different solution. Let’s dip into our Apollo 13 toolkit. “Let’s work the problem people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.

Destigmatization

An ugly word for a beautiful concept. Many who come home early have perfectly legitimate reasons for doing so. A medical challenge. Clinical depression. A catastrophic failure of faith. I have heard that “anxiety” is being cited as the reason for many of the current early returners, which is something of a catch-all term for the inability to cope with the rigors and challenges of missionary life, but doesn’t really explain what is causing the problem. What if we just give them a “home leave” of three or four weeks with an invitation to return to their mission or, if appropriate, be sent to a different mission? Sort of like the home leave that combat troops get. I know a missionary who came home for a month to deal with depression, got some help, then went back much happier and completed his mission. There are some simple changes that can be done to address this problem if we just get out of our policy straightjackets. “Let’s look at this thing from a … um, from a standpoint of status. What do we got on the spacecraft that’s good?” Every missionary who comes home early has many good things to work with, including a desire to serve a mission (why they went in the first place). Build on those good things for a month, then give them a second chance to succeed if they want it. Both we, as members, and they, as missionaries, need to destigmatize the early return — whether they go back and continue to serve or whether they move on with life. Anyone who even tries to serve an LDS mission deserves our respect as church members.

Seriously, What’s Wrong With a Phone Call Home Every Week?

One guess I have heard in connection with these early returning missionaries is that kids these days are so attached to a nonstop feed of Facebook, Twitter, and texting that they go into shock when, as a missionary, they are cut off from all electronic social interaction. I doubt this is generally the case. But why do we still do this? The idea that missionaries need to be or should be cut off from all communication with home and family apart from a weekly letter back home and two phone calls a year seems like a policy that has outlasted its usefulness. Even prisoners get visits and phone calls. Just let missionaries Skype home every Sunday night. You’ll see a lot less anxiety. “I don’t care about what anything was DESIGNED to do, I care about what it CAN do.” Missionary isolation was designed to strengthen and focus young missionaries. Well, that’s not working, folks. Change the procedure.

When three of these guys came home, everyone celebrated.

When three of these guys came home early, everyone celebrated.

New Goal: A Better Experience for Every Missionary

LDS missionaries are called on proselyting missions. Teaching the gospel to interested people and generating a conversion process capped by baptism into the Church has been the primary goal if not the sole goal of the whole enterprise, at least as interpreted and implemented by most mission presidents. Those who have not served a mission simply cannot understand the pressure that young missionaries are under to produce the kind of statistical success that many mission presidents demand in terms of contacts, referrals, teaching, baptismal challenges, and of course baptisms. But as culture has changed in the US (and has been changed for some time in Europe), fewer people are interested in religion. Those who are tend to be looking for a spiritually uplifting and engaging community and Sunday worship experience, not “the true church.” Even for believing and practicing Christians, looking for the true church makes about as much sense as looking for the true car. The Mormon message, as articulated in our proselyting model, really doesn’t match the religious market these days. Rather than pressuring missionaries to produce what the religious market can’t deliver, we need to rethink what we are asking missionaries to do. A mission doesn’t have to be like a root canal.

If 10% or more are coming home early, that probably means 30% wish they could, at least for a time. So we simply need to improve the experience for missionaries. Let me say that again: We need to make the LDS mission a better experience for our missionaries. Like tomorrow. Some ideas you have no doubt heard already and some changes are already being made. Here are a few that spring to mind.

  • Emphasize service over direct proselyting. (Paul the apostle’s approach was to set up his tent-and-leather repair shop in a new town and chat up the customers.)
  • Get them out of business suits, they are not salesmen.
  • Allow more education and culture into the reading and study program. One LDS permablogger who had his mission president’s permission to read more widely in LDS and other religious and theological books said it changed his life.
  • Get them more involved with the ward they serve in. Members love missionaries. Give them a calling teaching in Primary or with the youth. Let them spend more time with members without asking for referrals every visit. How about “take a missionary to work day”?
  • Has anyone thought about an 800 number crisis line missionaries can call when they are depressed or just freaking out? It works for suicidal teens, it will work for depressed or anxious missionaries. Staffed by trained-to-listen therapists who understand confidentiality rather than what-is-your-problem priesthood leaders.

Maybe you have better ideas for helpful changes to make LDS missions a better experience. We need a longer list of ideas. We need to do some test marketing and pilot programs. We need to try something a little different.

Failure Is Not an Option

A shorter mission than planned, but he got them home.

A shorter mission than planned, but he got them home.

We don’t send missionaries out to fail; we send them out to succeed. We shouldn’t define success solely or even primarily in terms of baptisms accomplished (the proselyting imperative). I think we should define success largely in terms of the quality of the missionary experience. Sacrifice and hard work are part of the program, yes, but if one in seven of your missionaries are coming home early, there is a problem with the program.

Here is how Gene Kranz felt about his astronauts: “We’ve never lost an American in space, we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.

That is how we ought to think about our missionaries.

101 Responses to Salt Lake City, We Have a Problem

  1. James Olsen on August 15, 2014 at 8:02 am

    “We shouldn’t define success solely or even primarily in terms of baptisms accomplished (the proselyting imperative). I think we should define success largely in terms of the quality of the missionary experience.”

    Yes. And this can be done at all levels. I enjoyed Elder Rasband’s GC talk describing the experience of calling missionaries to service with Elder Eyring which alluded to the relationship between the missionary and the mission president as being key. Likewise, this ought to be the main relationship between missionaries and ward members, missionaries and the experiences they record in their journals, missionaries and their study of scripture, the focus of mission president training each year, the highlights of homecoming talks, the emphasis in YW & YM mission-prep lessons/activities, etc., etc. – all of which is too often dominated by the first paradigm, even as (occasionally) we give lip service to the latter.

    In addition to learning of or spectating at local cultural events, missionaries ought to be active participants. My grandfather’s missionary journals are filled with such things – in particular singing, building, and basketball.

    I also think it would be great if missionaries were taught more to seek partnerships rather than develop adversarial relationships with other churches. Tension is inevitable. But some of the best experiences I had as a missionary included getting to know the local catholic priest, dinners with a baptist minister and conservative rabbi, attending synagogue, hearing lectures and music at the Hare Krishna temple, and the like. Many of these experiences included a service component, and both our communities were better because of it.

  2. Ben Johnson on August 15, 2014 at 9:44 am

    I served a mission from ’96 – ’98. Some aspects I disliked, some I absolutely cherished. There wasn’t a day that went by I didn’t wish I could somehow ‘honorably’ go home but at the same time my mission was so fulfilling and brought me peace. So it was a struggle and rightly so.
    I think you stated the correct reason so many missionaries come home but are incorrect on some of the solutions. Your proposals would just move the problem downstream instead of fixing at the source.
    As mentioned, missions have been pretty much the same for years and years: get up early, work hard, no contact from the family, face rejection, deal with lonliness, hate your companion, and so on. And yet thousands and thousands have gone through this and come out better for it. What has changed are the people going through these experiences. I truly think the youth of today (“Get off my lawn!”) are more spiritually prepared but woefully ‘underprepared’ physically and mentally. Our culture has taught them there are no failures, no hard times, mom will always bail me out, dad is an older best friend who wouldn’t harsh my good time. Pluck anyone from that environment and put them in a mission and there will be struggles.
    Mission preparation should be a long process, not something friends decide to do on a whim on Friday night at the pizza parlor. And if we ‘dumb down’ one of the processes that can turn them into adults spiritually and socially we might lose more than we bargained for.
    Having said all that, I called home probably two times a week (my parents had a 1-800 number and I figured they ought to get their money’s worth). So maybe allow a little more contact with the family?

  3. Michael Worley on August 15, 2014 at 10:04 am

    I know that our prophets are inspired and will direct us to the best course for us I think the solutions to this are not the ones you stated, but rather the ones taught by Elder Perry in his talk “Raising the Bar:”

    Let me offer a few suggestions about what each of you can do to raise the bar even higher as you prepare for missionary service.

    The minimum physical standard for full-time missionary service refers to a potential missionary’s physical health and strength. For example, one of the questions on the missionary recommendation forms asks if you “can work 12 to 15 hours per day, walk 6 to 8 miles per day, ride a bicycle 10 to 15 miles per day, and climb stairs daily.” Missionary work is hard, and full-time missionaries must be in good physical condition to serve. Raising the bar to a higher physical standard could involve further physical conditioning.

    It also could include improving your physical appearance. A missionary is expected to dress a certain way, projecting a clean-cut appearance that includes an appropriate haircut; being clean shaven; wearing a clean white shirt, a tie, and a well-pressed suit—all the way down to a good shoe shine. Start now to prepare for a full-time mission by adopting the appearance of a full-time missionary.

    Raise the bar higher in your intellectual preparation. Take your schooling seriously. It is important to be able to read, speak, and write with intelligence. Expand your knowledge of the world around you by reading good books. Learn how to study. Then apply your improved study habits to learning the gospel of Jesus Christ. Consistently and regularly read from the Book of Mormon.

    Don’t neglect the opportunity of attending seminary and institute classes. Participate and gain all you can from the scriptures taught in these great religious-education settings. They will prepare you to present the message of the restored gospel to those you have opportunity to meet. Study from Preach My Gospel, emphasizing the basic doctrines taught in chapter 3. Each time you are asked to speak in church or to teach a family home evening lesson, focus on these basic doctrines.

    In Doctrine and Covenants 11:21, the Lord tells us, “Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men.” The pre-missionary age is an ideal time to set the bar higher as you prepare your mind by acquiring the light and truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    You must recognize that missionary service is emotionally demanding. Your support system is going to be withdrawn from you as you leave home and go out into the world. Many of the ways you use now to cope with emotional stress—like hanging out with friends, going off by yourself, playing video games, or listening to music—are not allowed by the rules of missionary conduct. There will be days of rejection and disappointment. Learn now about your emotional limits, and learn how to control your emotions under the circumstances you will face as a missionary. By doing this, you raise the bar to greater heights and, in effect, fortify yourself against emotional challenges during your missionary service.

    While President Hinckley did not mention this, prospective missionaries also must be prepared with the social skills needed to serve a mission. More and more, young people are isolating themselves from others by playing video games; wearing headphones; and interacting through cell phones, e-mail, text messaging, and so on instead of in person. Much of missionary work involves relating face-to-face with people, and unless you set the bar higher in the development of your social skills, you will find yourself underprepared. Let me offer a simple suggestion: get a job that involves interacting with people. As an increased motivation, set a goal to earn enough money from your part- or full-time work to pay for at least a significant part of your mission. I promise great blessings—social, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual blessings—to every young man who pays for a significant part of his mission.

    Personal worthiness is the minimum spiritual standard for serving a mission. This means that you are worthy in every way to make and to keep sacred temple covenants. Do not disqualify yourself from the blessings bestowed on those who serve in this very special calling by committing acts of transgression which will make you ineligible to serve.

  4. Jean @ Howling Frog on August 15, 2014 at 10:05 am

    I’m wondering about the idea to call home more often. Yeah, we could do it more often, maybe 4 times a year? I have a hard time thinking that weekly calls home would be a good plan, but maybe I’m just a dinosaur. Are kids really so different now that they need a *weekly* call home?

    I never served a mission. I did spend a year abroad as an exchange student in my junior year of high school, so I do know a bit about culture shock and isolation and so on. The program I was with couldn’t control how often kids called home, but it emphasized over and over again that calling home a lot was a really bad idea because when you did, you were pulled out of the experience you were living and pulled back into your home environment–it tended to exacerbate homesickness and culture shock if you called home too much.

    I’ll totally agree that an 18yo kid who has never been away from home very much will probably have a really tough time adjusting to mission life. Some experience living on one’s own before a mission is probably a very good idea.

  5. Michael Worley on August 15, 2014 at 10:08 am

    This article, quite simply, is suggesting the bar be lowered to accommodate our culture. Instead, the bar needs to be raised, so missionaries “endowed with power from on High” have the power to change the culture.

  6. Ardis on August 15, 2014 at 10:10 am

    I don’t like revosomg revising missionary service into being so very much centered on the missionary’s personal growth and experience — while there has always been benefit to the missionary in all kinds of ways, the program isn’t about the missionary. It’s about keeping the commandment to warn the world and preaching repentance and all that.

    If the lowered missionary age and the number of missionaries isn’t working, for whatever reason, to whatever extent, the solution probably isn’t “How can we focus more on the individual missionary and guarantee his happiness and wellbeing?” The answer is probably more along the lines of that other bit of the announcement of lowering age: That it wasn’t expected that every boy should leave at 18, ready or not — and evidently many are NOT ready — but that the possibility of going at 18 was available when it was appropriate for an individual missionary who was mature enough, prepared enough, and whose life plans would be benefited by going at 18 rather than 19. Families and bishops shouldn’t be in such an all-fired hurry to ship boys off the day after their 18th birthdays, or girls the minute they turn 19. 18 should be an option, not a rule.

    The focus of temple worship used to be on redeeming the dead; now it’s all about “what’s in it for me?” The same thing has happened to missionary work — the focus is no longer on preaching the gospel but on providing a satisfying gap-year experience for teenagers. Let’s get over ourselves, and catch sight again of the purposes for these practices.

  7. Ardis on August 15, 2014 at 10:11 am

    “revosomg”?? — that’s “revising”

    Admin: fixed

  8. Daniel Ortner on August 15, 2014 at 10:18 am

    I think some of these suggestions could be implemented and not change the missionary program in a negative way (weekly calls home are not much more disruptive than weekly emails for instance), but I emphatically disagree with the idea that we deemphasize proselytizing.

    The missionary purpose is to bring others to Christ through the restored gospel and the sacred ordinances. There are a lot of good things people can do to serve and help people, but only the gospel can help people receive saving ordinances and eternal exaltation. Turning a mission into something akin to the peace corp lite would destroy that sacred purpose.

    My absolute favorite part of Preach my Gospel explains that
    “Baptizing and confirming the people you teach is central to your purpose. Baptism is for the remission of sins, and the gift of the Holy Ghost brings a host of blessings to those who live worthy of it. Through these ordinances people enter the gate and continue on the path to eternal life. Elder Dallin H. Oaks said: “We do not preach and teach in order to ‘bring people into the Church’ or to increase the membership of the Church. We do not preach and teach just to persuade people to live better lives. … We invite all to come unto Christ by repentance and baptism and confirmation in order to open the doors of the celestial kingdom to the sons and daughters of God. No one else can do this” (“The Purpose of Missionary Work,” missionary satellite broadcast, Apr. 1995).”

  9. Pierce on August 15, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Ditto what Michael said in #3. While there are many things that we can change about the missionary program, such as effective service:proselytizing ratios, communication home, etc., I think the real issue is more about how our young men and women are preparing as they leave. Sometimes it’s more about turning in your papers like everyone else, when everyone else does, than i t is making sure the person has prepared physically and emotionally before hand. Can the missionary choose quite study over his phone/video games/friends once in a while? Has he studied the scriptures and Preach My Gospel on his own? Has we gone out with the missionaries? Does he pitch in around the house without being asked? Can he have a good conversation with adults and look them in the eye? Get up at 6:30? Can he meet the physical requirements? Has he had a job?

    These are things that I feel parents and perhaps bishops may be ignoring. Waiting a few months for a potential missionary to demonstrate they can do this is not a bad thing at all–but can ensure that a missionary is ready for the vigor of missionary life.

  10. rogerdhansen on August 15, 2014 at 10:57 am

    “One LDS permablogger had his mission president’s permission to read more widely in LDS and other religious and theological books.” This statement is symptomatic of one big problem. Why should a missionary have to get permission to “read more widely”? This is crazy. Missionaries should be encouraged to enlarge their knowledge base. And should need permission from their MP on what to read.

    In the original post, the first four suggestions for change are great, and I agree 100 percent. However, I don’t see a great deal of value in the 800 numbers and calling home more frequently.

  11. rogerdhansen on August 15, 2014 at 11:00 am

    My previous comment should read: “And shouldn’t need permission from their MP on what to read.”

  12. Steve Fleming on August 15, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Just fyi, I have a friend who works as a counsellor to missionaries who come home with psychological problems (the church gives all of them free counseling) and he says that there has been a spike in psychological problems but that it started long before the age reduction. He felt pretty sure that the age reduction had nothing to do with it. He said he wasn’t sure what the reason was and I mentioned Russell’s argument at BCC about less being demanded of this current generation (wimpier) and he thought that was a possibility.

  13. Ben S. on August 15, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Roger, I think it’s my story Dave is referring to. See http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2013/11/on-missions-books-and-seriously-going-off-the-deep-end-plus-a-paean-to-my-second-mp/

    I can think of several good reasons to have general restrictions on missionary reading material, but I think we’ve over-corrected to be excessively narrow, which is probably counter-productive.

  14. rogerdhansen on August 15, 2014 at 11:15 am

    Hi Ben, Controlling what missionaries read makes us look like a cult. I can understand discouraging missionaries from reading “Playboy.” But I don’t understand having to get permission to read theological, philosophical, scientific, etc. books.

  15. Christian J on August 15, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Because I was far removed from church participation at 19, I felt no expectation to go at that time – in spite of a family full of active members. This allowed me to eventually go at a time when I was able to decide for myself that I was ready. (22) It also ensured that the choice had very little to do with the expectations of others. I’m not sure how you do that for everyone.

    I don’t think its good for there to be no expectations, but some who come home early, may have been able to serve the full term if they left later. My mission was a really fulfilling experience, largely because it was on my own terms.

  16. Steve Smith on August 15, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Great thoughts, Dave. A huge purpose of the mission is to persuade the youth to remain active for a longer period of time. And they seem to do so if they have a good mission experience. Why not try to improve the experience in ways that you suggested.

  17. Christian J on August 15, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Ardis, I really like your comment. But, its pretty common knowledge that members *should* be primarily responsible for proclaiming the gospel right? Sure, there are some areas of the world where that’s not realistic, but it is the ideal. So, what if we all actually did that as members? Would they stop calling full time young men and women? The experience really does shape the next generation and that may be the primary reason for calling them at this point.

  18. Christian J on August 15, 2014 at 11:46 am

    Of course, I agree that “lose yourself” is some monumental advice

  19. Jared vdH on August 15, 2014 at 11:48 am

    I’ve been back for 10 years, and I left on my mission shortly after the “Raising of the Bar” for missionary service, so here’s my perspective for whatever it’s worth.

    I feel like my year at college before my mission was huge for me, and I ended up leaving a couple months before my 20th birthday. No one at the time judged me for it as far as I know. It would be my personal recommendation for anyone to live outside of the home for a year before a mission, but I also know that this is not necessary or beneficial for everybody, so it shouldn’t be a requirement.

    I believe destigmatization already largely exists, at least in my experience. The EQ president in my previous YSA ward is an early returner. He’d been back for about 6 months before his call as EQ president, and no one made a big deal out of it as far as I know. We also had a sister come back early, and it wasn’t a big deal. She’s now engaged to be married.

    As for more phone calls, or communication in general, I don’t know. I feel like I benefited from the lessened communication. I think it really depends on the person. Requiring a weekly Skype call could be burdensome, especially coordinating schedules for families with missionaries on the literal other side of the world, and since some mission presidents required a weekly letter, I can see making Skype the standard could end up with it becoming quasi-mandatory. I can see making the option available to those who want/need it, but I don’t think it should be a widespread occurrence.

    Whether or not we get the men out of business suits, I feel like there still needs to be some kind of uniform. Maybe it’s just me but I was more focused on the work when I was wearing proselyting clothes.

    I do think the Church could do more service missions abroad for younger missionaries. I don’t think every young missionary has to be primarily a proselyting missionary. I think it could even be interesting and beneficial to have mixed missions where some assignments are primarily service oriented and others are primarily proselyting oriented. This could bring some diversity to the mission experience, and bring the missionaries closer to the people. One big barrier to this – I don’t know that the Church wants to invest in broader permanent infrastructure to support long-term service opportunities. I’m thinking here of soup kitchens and homeless shelters and the like.

    “Take a missionary to work day” sounds like a nightmare to me. I would fight getting pressured into this tooth and nail.

    Better and fuller relationships with members is a good idea, but is potentially fraught with peril. I knew a few missionaries whose schedule ended up being little more than rotating between which members’ homes they would hang out at. This could actually be really burdensome and intrusive to some members and “poison the well” more than “prime the pump”.

  20. Ardis on August 15, 2014 at 11:57 am

    Christian J, I think it’s more commonly understood that it’s the calling of missionaries to proclaim the gospel. Members find and fellowship and encourage and introduce and answer questions and in a general sense proclaim by bearing testimony and witnessing through our lives. But proclaiming the gospel in also a specific calling and assignment of an organized priesthood. That isn’t going to go away even if all members did a better job of modeling the gospel through our own lives.

  21. Steve Smith on August 15, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    “This article, quite simply, is suggesting the bar be lowered to accommodate our culture. Instead, the bar needs to be raised, so missionaries “endowed with power from on High” have the power to change the culture.”

    Change the culture to what? Another culture? The LDS church has always made some changes and adjustments to accommodate cultural shifts. The LDS church and culture of today most certainly isn’t what it was in Brigham Young’s day, or David O. McKay’s day, or even ten years ago. In fact, it could be said that the culture of the core LDS membership itself has shaped the LDS church administration and as cultural shifts take place both with the membership and their larger secular communities, change in the culture of the LDS administration has just happened naturally. Nonetheless, there are also church standards and administrative practices that have remained unchanged from the beginning. I don’t see how what Dave is proposing necessarily compromises those core standards and practices. How is increased contact with parents and family while on a mission going to hurt? They can use email now. On my mission I routinely received letters that were well over a month old. Correspondence for an LDS missionary with family during the late 1800s was a much more rare occurrence. What’s wrong with using technology to enhance missionaries’ experiences?

  22. Dave on August 15, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Sounds like there are a lot of different views, which isn’t surprising given how varied the mission experience is for different missionaries.

    Michael (#3), better preparation is always a good thing. But lowering the age to 18 for young men (getting young men who are necessarily going to be less prepared) runs in the opposite direction to “raising the bar” and requiring the long list of qualities of an ideal missionary recounted in the talk you quoted. A mission can’t be all things to all people: If we want a smaller corps of ideal missionaries, then we can raise the bar. If we want every young man (and more young women) to serve, then we lower the age and get them out early (essentially lowering the bar) but then we need to deal with the consequences. I am confident we can address those consequences, but it seems to me you are hitting a nail with a screwdriver.

    Ardis (#6), I’m not throwing proselyting out the window. I’m just suggesting a broader approach that recognizes missionary growth as a primary goal along with the proselyting, then rebalances directed activities in line with a broader view of things.

    Daniel (#8), yes the manual says things like that. But in other places GAs talk about how wonderful missions are for the missionaries, staying active, temple marriage, etc. So there have always been several justifications for missionary service. And I’m not sure why putting some focus on building up the missionaries is depicted as “just for me” or some sort of selfish view (not you that said this). Just about everything we do in the Church is justified by building up and strengthening each other.

    Steve (#12), that is a very interesting observation. If early returns and “anxiety” were becoming a problem well before the age drop, that is a key piece of information for figuring out what is going on. The Church has all the detailed data, of course, but they keep it pretty tightly sealed.

  23. Michael Worley on August 15, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Dave,

    And The church has changed the Young Men’s programs and change how it works so the youth have a 6 year MTC through the new Come Follow Me program. That is raising the bar on all missionaries, regardless of age, even though the age is lowered

  24. Michael Worley on August 15, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    As to service, understanding the doctrine brings life-long service more so than pressured service would (all missionaries should “go about doing good” in between planned proselyting activities. It is the doctrine that can change lives the most, coupled with, not replaced by, inspired service.

  25. symphonyofdissent on August 15, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Dave

    The Development of preach my gospel was a process that intensely involved members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. In some places, parts of the book were dictated verbatim by those we sustain as Prophets, Seers and Revelators. Since then, at the annual conferences for new mission leaders, those same men have time and again reiterated that the missionary purpose is at the core of missionary work. Of course, missionaries benefit and are strengthened. However, this occurs primarily as the spirit bears witness of the truth of the divine doctrines they teach. To lose focus of that mission would be to strip away the very heart and soul of missionary work, its very purpose for existence. Service is very helpful, but it is a means to an end which is helping people come to Christ and ultimately receive the saving ordinances in his Church.

  26. Ben S. on August 15, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    I suspect we’d actually find more people to teach by increasing the amount of formal service. It’s not an either/or.

  27. Pierce on August 15, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Steve Smith,

    I’m guessing change the negative aspects of the culture of the Millenials. I’ll speak plainly and very generally. Millenials are softer. They depend on technology for communication, friendship, and assurances. With phones and computers, they are never alone with their own minds. They lack more in social skills than their predecessors did. I have been witnessing this for the last few years with the missionaries in my area, whom I work with frequently. A majority of them have just been duds during the discussions. What the OP is suggesting, in part, is that we cater to that in order to eliminate “anxiety” by Skyping every week and proselytizing less. Rather, I feel that preparing them before going is more effective and helps with the transition, and would better eliminate anxiety and the “need” to have to video chat with mom and dad every week in order to keep your sanity.

    Part of a mission is growing up, forgetting yourself, and changing who you are. Hopefully, a mission can change the culture of dependency on things and other people to dependency on oneself and the Lord. Reversing that would be a tragedy and ruin the opportunity to develop a key part of character.

  28. anonymous on August 15, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    I always wanted to go on a mission growing up, and I did have some good experiences on it. But on the whole I think it was a bad experience. I was obedient and worked hard, but I was a square peg in the round hole of missionary life. I just want good at it no matter how hard I tried and the rhetoric was always about how the only reason for lack of success was not being obedient enough. I think that world view did real psychological damage to me. I returned honorably and am still active in the church, but I think the mission program has real problems.

    We can talk about how we should focus on how the purpose of a mission is to bring souls to Christ and not on personal growth for a missionary, but the two can go hand in hand. Getting away from hard sell tactics and more to long term relationship building with member and potential converts would result in better outcomes long term. Damaging missionaries only had long term negative consequences for the church. I think that was the reason they lowered the agree. Because they were losing too many during those young years. Maybe the nature of missions is part of the problem and getting kids in early just means they are less psychologically able to handle the abusive aspects of the missionary experience.

  29. queuno on August 15, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Noting that tomorrow is 25 years since I entered the MTC … My mission was basically an exercise in survival, due to serving amid extreme poverty and basic infrastructure gaps. I guess I could have called home every month or so, had it been needed. But it was basically an exercise in “how well can you do without” (even for the native missionaries). I never bought into the “your worthiness is based on numbers” argument, and so I was probably a bad missionary. But being a branch president at age 20 in a foreign country with no standardized budget was probably the key to most of what I learned, not the missionary work itself.

    It was clear, though, even back then, that a missionary’s self-worth and development was more important than everything else. Elder Mickelsen pushed that in zone meetings, etc. And we haven’t relied on hard-sell tactics since my father’s era, have we?

  30. Dave on August 15, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Anonymous (#28), sorry you have a partly bad experience. Missionary experience is such a mixed bag.

    More generally, I think it is simply wrong to harp on Millennials for not being more like their grandparents. Remember, those Millennials, those 18-35s, are the young families we are trying to reach, teach, and convert. If you claim the missionary program doesn’t quite fit “the younger generation,” you are also going to complain about how “the younger generation,” whether members or investigators, won’t sit through three hours of, uh, slow-paced and less than exciting (I’m trying to use terms other than dull and boring) meetings. We can either adapt the missionary program and the church program to “the new generation,” or lose them.

    Look, we set up young single adult branches for young single adults. We set up foreign language units all over the US to be a more welcoming and engaging church experience for various language groups. And it is not just Spanish branches (in Caifornia, Spanish-speaking stakes). I have seen Samoan branches in Seattle, Laotian branches in the Bay Area, and Chinese branches in Texas. It is a firmly established principle that we Mormons will modify our Sunday meetings to be more welcoming to those who want to attend! So yes, we should continue this wise practice and continue to make our meetings and our programs, including he missionary program, more welcoming to those who participate. We should fit programs to people, not the other way around, and let the general principles of the gospel develop Christian discipleship in those who participate rather than hoping that regimented (and often outmoded) programs and rules will do that.

  31. Kristine on August 15, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    There’s some serious and unfortunate conflation of actual mental illness and garden variety psychological challenges in both the OP and the comments. For instance, Dave, if your acquaintance came home _for a month_, it was definitely not to “deal with depression,” at least not if we’re talking about Major Depressive Disorder. It’s really important to be clear about the distinction between needing to buck up and do hard things and actually having a clinically significant mental illness. Destigmatizing actual mental illness is an unalloyed good, while we can debate the merits of being more lenient in cultural norms for those who are mentally healthy but not enjoying the mission experience.

  32. queuno on August 15, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    My father-in-law, who was an MP in Eastern Europe a little over a decade ago, thinks that there’s a massive difference between 18-year-old elders with no experience and 19-year-olds who have been at college for a year. I think he had some 18yos in his mission.

    Our own current SP (who has been a mission president) has said on more than one occasion that the decision as to when a missionary is ready to leave is up to him, as mandated to him as part of his calling. I’m not saying he puts a speed bump in front of 18-year-olds (we’ve got a couple of them out from our ward), but they’d better be ready.

  33. Erik on August 15, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    What’s your source for the percentage of missionaries coming home early being in the double digits?

  34. Craig H. on August 15, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Many interesting comments, but Anonymous yours keeps haunting me. One reason I wrote my book was to give outsiders a more human view of missionaries, to even show what spiritual struggles they might have in common. But another big one was for missionaries who felt like the square peg in the round hole to know they weren’t the only ones feeling that way. Some people fit pretty easily into mission-culture-as-currently-constituted. Some don’t, but they keep trying anyway. Nothing wrong with having to try hard things, and go out of comfort zones, etc. But it’d also be nice if mission culture could bend itself a little as well, so that assorted personalities could feel like they fit too.

  35. Dave on August 15, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Thanks for weighing in, Craig H. (#34). And in case some readers don’t connect the dots, here is a post reviewing Craig’s book recounting his own missionary experience:

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2014/08/book-review-way-below-the-angels/

    Erik (#33), as noted in the first paragraph, it was “information quietly passed down the priesthood chain.” It was a verbal communication from a high councilman who had been directed to pass on the information to the ward high priest group, noting how the early-return rate for our stake is now approaching that for the Church as a whole, which is in the double-digits. The Church no doubt has a great deal of detailed information and could break down the early-returners by age, region, mission assignment, etc.

  36. rk on August 15, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    This is a tricky issue. I’m really glad I am not the one in charge of making decisions in regards to the missionary program. Any decision made is going to have at least some unintended consequence. If I were in charge, I would probably allow missionaries more time to sleep. This was discussed in a post not to long ago.

    Battling perfectionism and guilt is a problem that can drive many a missionary to the edge emotionally. Obedience is pounded into missionaries from day one. On top of that missionaries are given a schedule or expectations of a daily schedule that is nearly impossible to maintain. That was a big source of stress for me personally.

  37. Pierce on August 15, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    Dave, I don’t know that many here would argue that changes can’t be made to make things more efficient. I am of the mind that more actual service can be emphasized and organized in a mission to replace some the “tracting” I spent 2 years doing, and the member visits that the missionaries in my Mormon-populated neighborhood do. So changes can and should happen. However, Kristine was right in the conflated numbers of those who suffer from clinical depression or anxiety. Even if they weren’t, what the heck is the problem with Millenials experiencing this at such higher rates than their predecessors? Why is it wrong to consider the culture of a group of kids and whether or not they are developing in a way that will allow them to be somewhat independent at 19? The examples that you listed don’t really have to do with whether or not we are helping people to function in the real world. Nobody disputes those examples as good policy anyway.

  38. anonymous on August 15, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks Craig.

    Kristine, I think mission life can have negative mental health consequences post mission without falling into the depression category. Just because someone who was bullied doesn’t go into a depressive state doesn’t mean those experiences didn’t leave scars. It isn’t just a matter of not enjoying the mission. People need to feel valued and accepted. Feeling guilty about not being good at being a missionary when you were taught how great the experience would be your entire life can be devastating. It can make someone feel shame for who they are, for not being good at being a Mormon, for not being worthy of God’s love. Why else wouldnt he bless you enough to help you overcome your weakness of sucking at being a missionary? It’s taken a long time to accept that maybe the churches one size fits all mold is what is wrong and not who I am.

  39. Ivy on August 15, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    I understand that missions can be important shaping factors in young missionaries’ development, but I’m confused by some people’s insistence that missions need to be excruciatingly terrible to facilitate said development. I’m similarly confused by the idea that we either serve or convert, that the purpose of a mission is either preaching or keeping young Mormons in the church. I don’t see why we can’t tweak certain aspects of mission culture so that we can have all of these things. The church seems very willing to try new things when it comes to figuring out how to reach out to people in this new age we are all living in, and I don’t find it blasphemous to brainstorm some ideas of what changes might be beneficial.

    What Anonymous and Craig H. said about personalities is important. Some personalities thrive in mission culture and can develop great life skills and connect with their fellow human beings readily in that format. With the broad range of human personalities, however, I think it’s asking too much to expect every person to have a similarly positive experience. Offering some variety of types of mission service, or, as Craig said, making mission culture perhaps a little more flexible, might more fully engage a broader range of personalities, not to mention that it might be a better way of reaching out to a broader range of personalities in potential converts. I understand that this tough because mission rules have essentially been written over the decades to control the very worst of the missionaries, but the price is that it completely suffocates the rest of them who would benefit from more leeway to serve as the spirit directs. I think it’s worth trying some things out.

  40. Erik on August 15, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Dave, thanks for clarifying – should have re-read that first paragraph. I sometimes wish the Church would be more public and transparent about this kind of data, but I can also understand the desire to keep such information private.

    Personally, I had a great mission, but I also went out a couple years later with a couple of years of college behind me. I went back to the country I grew up in so in some ways it didn’t feel as much like being away from home. There were difficult times though. I think it would be good for a lot of young men to take a year of college before the mission instead of going at age 18. I also think more service is a wonderful idea, and am definitely all for allowing missionaries to read beyond the approved missionary library. I still remember my companion calling me out to the mission president for reading through a Seventh-day Adventist book and the MP telling me “that sounds like a good book Elder. You should read it… after the mission!”

  41. Dave on August 15, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Kristine (#31), your point is well taken. Obviously, bona fide mental illness deserves a qualified diagnosis and proper treatment (and Mormons have not always taken mental illness seriously). It may or may not preclude a young man or woman from serving. It is worth distinguishing such conditions from generalized anxiety that is being bandied about in many recent cases. But it’s not like panic attacks or anxiety attacks or related conditions are faked or contrived. All of these are a challenge for a missionary if they happen and all should be taken seriously. And I believe they are, for the most part. Let me repeat what I said in the opening paragraph: I am pleasantly surprised that the communication I received did not leap to the easy conclusion of blaming the young missionaries who encounter difficulties.

    I think I saw the full range on my own mission. I had several outstanding missionary companions, great guys and fine missionaries. But not all. I had one kid who really didn’t want to be there; heard a lot about his girlfriend and his dad’s speedboat and Lake Powell. I had one who at one point made it clear he could just grab a carving knife from the kitchen and stick it through my gut some night; same guy who cycled off to the local market to browse through French porn one afternoon. Yes, he left early. Not mental illness, just a borderline sociopathic personality, I think. Ironically, he now runs a Christian ministry targeting Mormons. Then there was the elder who was a little off the norm in terms of personality (and a little older, a convert in his early 20s) who developed full-blown paranoid schizophrenia a couple of months after I left. That was bona fide mental illness. He went home early too.

  42. Ivy on August 15, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    I do think it’s interesting to think about what has actually changed in the upbringing of Millennials. I don’t think it’s as simple as smartphones and video games. Kids have less freedom to roam and explore independently than they ever have before, for example. My grandpa and my dad, who grew up in the same town I did, had miles and miles of free roaming radius as kids. My grandpa used to camp out in the hills on his own or ride his horse 30 miles to the next town. My roaming radius was considerably smaller–probably less than two miles from my house in any direction, but usually within 1 mile. Children now, though, can’t even play down the street or walk to school by themselves. This isn’t their fault, it’s a deep structural change in how our society raises kids. With changes so fundamental and hard to reverse, I think it’s reasonable that we would run into some problems.

  43. Steve Smith on August 15, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Pierce (27), when you look at the missionaries themselves as among the proselytes and converts, then you get a different picture. I agree that the Millenials are “soft” in many ways (of course we’re all pretty soft compared to people who lived in the 1800s) and that missions can be of social and cultural benefit to them. However, if allowing the missionaries to talk with their families more helps stave off depression and anxiety and gets them to stay the whole time, then why not. It doesn’t necessarily need to be through Skype every week. After all not all missionaries’ family have internet access. But the current rule that imposes such limited contact seems to be quite austere and may be a significant reason that they are leaving early. I went on mission, like most, after having spent a year away from home at college. I found it quite beneficial. The new announcement makes it so that more young men are deciding to go on missions without even having left home ever.

  44. Ben S. on August 15, 2014 at 3:22 pm
  45. Jacob on August 15, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    John’s suggestions look extremely similar, actually. Almost eerily so.

  46. Susan on August 15, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    Roger, I question your comment “that all Missionaries should be encouraged to enlarge their knowledge base. And shouldn’t need permission from their MP on what to read.” While I agree that the MP doesn’t need to give that sort of permission, isn’t it safe to say that a missionary is out for one purpose: to spread the gospel, or proselyte, or do service work, or activate the inactive. Why would a missionary spend their time in reading a variety of books on theology? Why wouldn’t they have either already searched “other” scriptures before leaving on their missions? Certainly a missionary is constantly encouraged to read the scriptures and BofM. But I question a full-time missionary who spends his/her time and/or days on their mission searching other theology and scripture.

  47. rogerdhansen on August 15, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Apostle John A. Widtsoe, a personal hero, was continually stating that learning is a life-long process. And this process needs to go on during a mission. If you are in a foreign mission, you not only need to learn the language, but also the history, culture, and about the other religions in the area. To limit yourself to just a few “Mormon” books is cultish. And, of course, don’t forget the scriptures.

    When I went on a mission in the 1960s, we were expected to do missionary work 10-12 hour per day (much of it tracting), 6-1/2 days per week. I’m not talking about not doing missionary work and reading all day. Take 2 hours a day and study, and “read from the best books.” Doesn’t the gospel include all truth?

  48. Pierce on August 15, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Steve,

    I would probably agree that bumping up a phone call to, say, once a month could be beneficial. My thought was just that it is not a great idea to cater to dependence or insecurity, but to raise them out of that. I left for my mission the summer out of high school–so I didn’t get out to college–and I never got homesick or got struck with anxiety. I definitely see the benefit of doing that, but ultimately I think that a LOT of this can be curbed by parents and bishops qualifying people before they go.

  49. Pierce on August 15, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Susan and Roger,

    I see the merits of both sides of reading material. While we had really, really strict rules about almost everything, there was a loophole in what to read. I loved reading, and read through all of the standard works (yes, including the O.T.) and also other gospel books and articles on the side. I remember reading Gospel Symbolism, Mormon Doctrine, History of the Church, and some other good things. I even printed off articles from FAIR, FARMS, and Jeff Lindsay–so I was way better able to deal with criticisms that people had than my compatriots who did not read. So I benefited immensely from that freedom.

    But I can also see how people would read things that are irrelevant to a missionary, or things that are really just distracting. So I can see why some MP’s want to make sure that time isn’t being wasted on material that won’t ultimately benefit the work. However, I LOATHE those that restrict the reading to the “Missionary Library,” which in it’s current form is absolutely pathetic.

  50. Amanda on August 15, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    I think there are some great ideas in the OP. And I agree with whoever said that lowering the mission age cuts against raising the bar.
    I like this idea of loosening the mission culture to allow it to be more agreeable to more personality types. I felt like I was a round-enough peg to fit in the round hole but I internalized some pretty unhealthy attitudes and beliefs as a missionary. I think that seeing a little more flexibility would have helped me better evaluate what I saw and experienced on the mission.

  51. Dave on August 15, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    Over at Juvenile Instructor, Steve F. just posted a very relevant post relating his personal experience about depression and missionary work. Highly recommended for anyone reading this post or following this comment thread.

    http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/depression-and-missionary-work-confessions-of-a-suicidal-would-be-missionary/

  52. Martin James on August 15, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    Michael,

    One of the reasons the younger generation is softer is that they aren’t forced to deal with as many jerks growing up.

  53. Martin James on August 15, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    Can someone also explain to me how “the option to be recommended for a mission at 18″ became “18 is the new missionary age”?

    Is there a reading between the lines or was there further guidance that made it more explicit?

  54. Martin James on August 15, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    Dave,

    it would be interesting to see how much lowering the age to 18 from 19 increased the percentage of men serving missions. It may be the case that the higher participation at 18 offsets the greater return rate.

    Yes, it would be nice, if more people had complete and successful missions, but the absolute number of completed missions may have gone up despite the greater number of returns.

  55. Steve on August 15, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    It is important to understand that the number of missionaries will shortly fall dramatically, by probably close to 25,000 (because most of the increase came from potential missionaries going a year earlier). If 15-20% come home early, the overall number might actually fall below the level at the age announcement.

  56. Dave on August 15, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    Yes, there might be something of a reckoning after the surge works its way through the system.

  57. PP on August 15, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    Steve & Dave,

    I actually heard that most of the increase came from sisters, since their age requirement decreased so dramatically (from 21–>19). I also have heard that the expect the steady state # of missionaries to decrease, but in a way smaller than you are suggesting. I have heard 70,000 – 75,000 as the anticipated steady state number (below the ~83,000 currently out). This increase in # from the previous baseline of ~60,000 would make sense, because with the lower age of sister missionaries and their dramatically increased participation rate, there are simply more sisters going out now than there used to be.

  58. MagpieLovely on August 16, 2014 at 12:00 am

    I thought the Scouting program was supposed to make our boys men. Be prepared and all that garbage.

  59. Casey on August 16, 2014 at 2:50 am

    Has there ever been a generation in the history of mankind that did not bemoan the sloth and softness of the following one? I just don’t buy the “kids these days” argument as a productive explanation for… well, anything, let alone the struggles of missionary work.

  60. Michelle on August 16, 2014 at 3:45 am

    One thought I had as I read the post was not that the missionary program is problem-free, but that perhaps the stats that are allegedly so “concerning” in this post are simply evidence of growing pains that will always attend significant change and growth. I can hardly think of a time in the Church’s history that significant forward motion didn’t bring a whole host of challenges. God doesn’t measure things as we do, so although stats are one piece to look at, I think we also can and should not be too hasty to revolve all decisions around them and them alone, imo. The Apollo 13 mission was truly life or death. The lowering of the missionary age has its challenges, but it also has presented a lot of amazing blessings for both individuals and the Church.

  61. Owen on August 16, 2014 at 9:47 am

    (#25) says service is a “means to an end”. How sick is that comment in the context of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Why would anyone want to join a church that thinks like that?

  62. Old Man on August 16, 2014 at 11:09 am

    What is our source for the double-digit percentages of early returning missionaries? Anyone? I saw the rate tick up about 15 years ago, but that is anecdotal.

  63. John on August 16, 2014 at 11:41 am

    Several points to consider SLC:

    Are these kids are too young to be out there in the first place?

    What are missionaries supposed to do during the day? The door to door approach doesn’t work, street contacting is mostly miss instead of hit, and for the most part people simply don’t want to hear about religion. So, how do you deal with boredom?

    How about changing the program to a peace core type program? Although Romney isn’t running any more, you can still do disaster relief and other projects. Africa needs a lot more of the water projects type the Church as done in the past.

  64. Steve Smith on August 16, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Pierce (48), I see your point and I’m in agreement. However, I’m not quite so sure that the OP is advocating lowering the bar, as you suggested in your first comment. It appears that is simply trying to come up with a way to more effectively keep missionaries on their missions with the bar that is currently in place. I also don’t think that the church lowered the bar by lowering the age limit. Prospective missionaries are still required to prove that they have been living up to standards well in advance.

  65. Jax on August 16, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    Don’t lay blame soley on missionaries for being weak-willed or socially unprepared. Blame the homes they were raised in and the parents that provided those cell-phones, video games, computers without required real social interactions, mental/physical preparations, and faith building activities. IMO the parents have more responsibility for missionary preparedness than the missionay, because prior to being 18, most of us followed roughly the course laid out for us (or the course we were allowed to wander down) by our parents.

  66. Chad Too on August 16, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    I feared that the lowering of the missionary age, though presented as an option, would become the new normal and it definitely has along the Wasatch front where I live. Though I understand there are people with genuine issues that need addressing, I think too much of this new percentage is 18-yr-old boys who aren’t prepared to go mentally and emotionally but are physically of age and have a testimony that it’s the right thing to do. My now 17-year-old says he wants to do a year of college before service and I rejoiced in that. Parents, if your 18-year-old isn’t mature enough to go serve, he becomes a burden. That doesn’t mean he should serve, it means he shouldn’t serve yet. Test him out: can he do his own laundry? Cook real meals for the family? Lead scripture study? Sew a button back onto a shirt, then iron it? Perhaps most importantly, can he go for a week without TV, computer, phone, internet, etc.? If not, perhaps he’s not ready. Don’t discourage the mission if that is the conclusion; instead work on the life skills he needs to have a successful mission and try again. There’s no shame in not having a mission call at high school graduation. Heeding the call is more than showing up, it’s showing up ready to work. /grumpy soapbox mode off.

  67. Labratmax on August 16, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    This is a really interesting conversation. On one hand, I understand the sentiment here of young men and women needing better preparation and maturity in order to enjoy, be fruitful in their efforts, and have a better mission experience. On the other hand, there just seems to be too much evidence that parts of the system are broken which results in broken young men and women coming home – whether it is ‘early’ or ‘on-time’. Question: How do you take a demographic (young mostly sheltered LDS < 20 yr olds) and get them to learn to not engage in behaviors and cultures that won't harm their spirits for the remainder of their days? Competition, unjustified guilt, unrighteous authority, inexperience in dealing with real life situations, and many, many other challenges can group up one by one or all together to cause psychological harm. I do not know what the answer is… but I do have a suggestion. There MUST be better training all the way up and down the board on all these issues – it's time to take it seriously. Teach missionaries to work hard, lose themselves in the love of the people, study and grow stronger in the gospel, and live a life of obedience. BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, they must also learn not to throw guilt at their companions, to not exercise unrighteous dominion, let go of the memory of past problems that are truly in the past, and to work on having a long-term outlook for their mission and their life. Last, Mission Presidents and their wives need more training – while mission spirit can have it's positives, it can also spawn many negative beliefs and quirks in mission culture. There is oftentimes too much of a 'weed-them-out' mentality among the Sisters and Elders. Being harsh is seldom a good tack to take when dealing with a wavering young man or young woman. My experience with my kids missions is that better counsel by their (in one case absolutely idiotic) Mission President would help them navigate their difficulties and learn more about being valiant and calibrated to the Spirit. No one came home early, but it wasn't all roses; the negative effects of the bad experiences will take a long time for one to put into appropriate perspective.

  68. EFF on August 16, 2014 at 11:34 pm

    You can talk all you want about blaming the parents or the children or the church or society, but that will accomplish very little. Further, it is quite unrealistic to believe that most Mormon families will attempt, let alone, succeed at “raising the bar” for their children. Most are doing the best they can with the resources at their disposal. Simply stated, urging these young people to lengthen their stride will not accelerate their maturation. The new age limits, for both boys and girls—no, they are not men or women—was a mistake.

  69. Seminole Grad on August 16, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Great article, with solid suggestions. Just as the missionaries use technology to make them more efficient (cell phones for example), the church would do well to adapt culturally using suggestions such as these. Many people say that today’s missionaries are more spiritually prepared, but I am struggling to see how. Can any one explain, please?

  70. AZL on August 17, 2014 at 3:30 am

    I highly doubt more missionaries are coming home early due to a lack of life skills. Doing your own laundry and pouring your own bowl of cereal isn’t that difficult. A mission isn’t much more difficult than ordinary life if the missionary truly desires to be one. That desire cant really be tested with parents watching your every move. I suspect one reason for lowering the age limit was that the leadership felt potential missionaries were being lost once moving out of home. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that missionaries who wouldn’t have gone at 19 are now coming home early at 18.

  71. AZL on August 17, 2014 at 3:44 am

    Martin James,
    18 is not the new missionary age. It’s still just an option. Mormons don’t tend to deal well with options however. We view every decision as a reflection of faith and righteousness. Postponing a mission, or not going, is viewed much like paying net tithing, or a mother’s choice to work, or drinking a coke. It’s not wrong, it’s not a sin, but it represents a lack of faith. Remember; good, better, best.

  72. Adam G. on August 17, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Step 1 in creating a ‘better experience’ should be to think about *how* we would determine what a better experience consists of. What Bloggernaclites just *think* a better experience is or ought to be strikes me as a dirt-poor methodology.

  73. jader3rd on August 17, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    #58 Magpielovely

    I thought the Scouting program was supposed to make our boys men. Be prepared and all that garbage.

    That works in non-LDS Scouting programs where the Troop is made up of ~30 11-18 year olds who want to be there. In most Mormon corridor wards there’s roughly 15 12-13 year olds and about 4 adult leaders. Outside of the Mormon corridor you get about 4 12-15 year olds and about 6 adult leaders. Most of the boys and leaders don’t really want to do Scouts, they’re just doing it because the church is true. As a result LDS scouts never get any of that leadership experience because it’s the young fathers getting their leadership experience, because they’re the leaders, and they didn’t get Scouting leadership experience growing up.

  74. kaylayale on August 17, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    I’m shocked at so many of these responses. These men and women are 18 and over and are legally adults. They are also serving at their own time and own expense. They should not have to have anybodies *permission* to call home, to ask what they read, or to have anyone’s permission of when they should terminate this experience.

    This is a time in their lives that they should be learning executive functioning skills, but by not allowing them to make the most simple decisions, these men and women are being kept in an infantile state. If they were at college or working a job, they would be learning skills such as seeking more information, group dynamics, reasoning, functioning independently, maintaining appropriate social skills.

    But instead they are learning group think, following directions, not thinking for themselves. A mission is at the prime time to learn executive functioning, yet it is taking them out of the perfect arena to teach this, i.e. jobs and college. Maybe if these men and women postponed a mission until after college, the experience of a mission would be more satisfying and fulfilling.

  75. Cameron N. on August 17, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    kaylayale, did you serve a mission or are you familiar with what that entails? I think many if not most return missionaries would say their missionary service actually helped those skills, perhaps more than a job or college.

    I personally find a lot of these comments a bit cynical, arrogant, or uninformed, but that’s just me.

  76. maximobarca on August 17, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    For me, this out-of-touch-ness regarding missionaries is just more proof that the leaders are not inspired prophets of god. Yes, I served a mission, and I still love the country I served in. Great experience in some ways, horrible in others. So with more going home, hopefully one major reason is that they are realizing how made-up the whole religion is…. and they’ll get out sooner than later.
    Peace….

  77. kaylayale on August 17, 2014 at 9:41 pm

    Cameron, yes, I did serve a mission and my experience as well as many others is that a mission is a great place to learn group think, not executive functioning skill, hence my response…from personal experience.

  78. kaylayale on August 17, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    Cameron, one more response, your defensive, ad hominem attacks on me would me would also suggest your subconscious may agree with me more than your conscious mind does.

  79. whizzbang on August 17, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    @76- I don’t know if Pres. Monson ever said or anyone else said, but correct me if I am wrong, but this lowering the age wasn’t necessarily a revelation. For all we know they are trying it out like the 18 month missions from back in the day. Maybe they want to see how it works and then go before the Lord and give their data and decision and go from there. I served a mission, ’98-2000 and I don’t know if anything really has changed much except PMG

  80. Seminole Grad on August 17, 2014 at 9:48 pm

    I served in Central America, and many of my ‘native’ companions (both personal and in my zones) were 18, did anyone else find this outside the US?

  81. Cameron N. on August 17, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    I’m sorry for the rash word choice kaylayale. Each mission experience is different, as it seems ours were.

    @whizzbang – I don’t think it was presented as a ‘revelation.’ It was presented as an inspired but vetted change with divine approval that was only meant to increase options for prospective missionaries. Elder Oaks’ comments seems to reinforce this direction as he presented it as a contrast to what a revelation on gender/priesthood would be in his priesthood session talk last April.

    I served in French Polynesia. All but one of my companions was native and 25-26. Maybe one or two were 20-23?

  82. E on August 18, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Could you give your source for the idea more are coming home early? I have not seen this anywhere.

  83. Ben S. on August 18, 2014 at 9:20 am

    “As noted in the first paragraph, it was “information quietly passed down the priesthood chain.” It was a verbal communication from a high councilman who had been directed to pass on the information to the ward high priest group, noting how the early-return rate for our stake is now approaching that for the Church as a whole, which is in the double-digits. The Church no doubt has a great deal of detailed information and could break down the early-returners by age, region, mission assignment, etc.”

  84. whizzbang on August 18, 2014 at 10:36 am

    I do know that a Stake in Alberta had a meeting with parents of potential missionaries to go over matters like this as that Stake had an uptick in missionaries coming home early

  85. Dave on August 18, 2014 at 10:54 am

    E, Ben S is quoting my response in comment #35 to the same question earlier in the thread.

  86. E on August 18, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    Elder Evans of the Missionary Department recently stated that the numbers returning early have increased proportional to the numbers called and that the percentage returning early has not changed. This was just in the last few months. I doubt anything has changed since then.

  87. Segullah on August 19, 2014 at 12:39 am

    E wins. We have a wonderful post and 80+ comments based upon holy rumor? Tell me it isn’t so! Are we not better than this? Hard data, please.

  88. Julie M. Smith on August 19, 2014 at 8:34 am

    “It was a verbal communication from a high councilman who had been directed to pass on the information to the ward high priest group”

    One effect of handling it this way is that no female perspective on the problem or on the solutions will be offered. It also exacerbates the sense that a lot of women have that their contribution is not wanted at church. I’m hoping that this abbreviated version of the story left out the part where the RS Pres. and YW Pres. were informed and consulted.

  89. Naismith on August 19, 2014 at 9:49 am

    What Julie said.

  90. Dave on August 19, 2014 at 10:13 am

    E, I can’t find any statement or report of any statement from Elder Evans of the Missionary Department about the rate of early returns. I did find this post at BCC by RAF posted about a month ago, in which some commenters report no change in the early returnees where they live and some report significant increases. No one reports declines in early returnees.

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2014/07/22/are-more-missionaries-returning-early/

    All the personal reports I have read or heard, taken as a whole, strongly support the claim that the rate of early returns has increased, which supported the official report I heard that the rate had increased.

  91. Dave on August 19, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Julie, I think your concern is valid. In several of the reports I have read, a local priesthood leader notes the problem (not necessarily claiming there is a spike in numbers of early returners) and blames overprotective mothers for reality shock when young missionaries get into the field. (They somehow never blame overprotective fathers and never consider changes in society that affect the experience of kids growing up today as opposed to 20 or 40 or 60 years ago.)

    If the early return rate really is a problem, the folks with accurate data (the Church) ought to make some kind of credible public disclosure of relevant data rather than just hint that there is a problem and let local leaders (bishops, high councilmen, stake presidents, mission presidents) speculate to the membership about the causes of the problem.

  92. Julie M. Smith on August 19, 2014 at 11:57 am

    “blames overprotective mothers”

    Scylla: My most important task on this earth is to see that my children walk in light and truth.

    Charybdis: I will be blamed for missionary failure if I over-parent.

  93. john f. on August 19, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Yes, Seminole Grad:

    The traditional 19 year old policy appears to have been based specifically on the educational system in the United States: you finish high school at 17 or 18, attend a year of university, and then take a leave of absence for two years to complete your mission, returning to university after the mission to finish your studies. The two year deferral for the mission was, of course, a given at universities in Utah and the Mormon Corridor more broadly. Even outside of Mormon country, American universities proved very amenable to allowing such a leave of absence for this purpose. Catering to the needs of your customers has always been a hallmark of American culture. The prospect of a mission did not even function as a bar (in most cases) for considering studies at America’s most elite colleges and universities. . . .

    In late Spring of 2011, a letter went out from Salt Lake City to stake presidents, bishops, and mission presidents that young men could now choose to serve missions at age 18 rather than waiting until age 19 in Germany, the United Kingdom, Albania, Cape Verde, Spain and Italy. Through its spokesman, the Church confirmed that “educational or military requirements in those countries” precipitated the change, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune on August 25, 2011.[7] This was wonderful news for young Mormon men in those countries who wanted to serve missions and also attend their countries’ elite universities to pursue professional careers.

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2013/03/01/mouths-of-babes-does-can-mean-should/

  94. Alison Moore Smith on August 19, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    In Samoa, at least, 18-year-old boys, just out of high school, could serve missions 30 years ago. (Don’t know about girls.) In all the cases I’m aware of, the boys served in Samoa and were not endowed, as there was not temple there at that time.

  95. E on August 19, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    I found the interview with Elder Evans I was thinking of. It is here: http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-expands-use-of-digital-devices-for-missionary-work
    He discussed the early return rate in the segment starting at about 3:22 into the interview.

  96. Dave on August 19, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    Thanks for the link, E. Here is the relevant text from the Newsroom article accompanying the video:

    Mission leaders report that the early return rate for elders and sisters has gone up, but it is very close to the proportional rise in the entire number of the missionary force. “As we have more missionaries, we’re going to have more of everything,” said Elder Evans.

    So the article clearly states that the return *rate* has gone up, although it tries to finesse the point. Actually stating the rates before and after so we could make our own comparison would, apparently, just be giving us too much information.

  97. Jim Cobabe on August 19, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Dave, asserting that the rise is “very close to the proportional” seems to me to imply that early return numbers are greater simply because the missionary force is also greater. He seems to be saying that the increase was to be anticipated. It is not clear to me that Evans is trying to “finesse” or be evasive.

  98. Cameron N. on August 20, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    Dave, the bloggernacle already wastes too much time worrying about other people’s church callings, so why not keep the exact stats internal and prevent more cynical debate about things we likely can’t fully understand?

  99. Dave on August 20, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Jim (#97), let’s just agree that this is an empirical question, easily answered by the data. Except that those who have the actual data won’t disclose it. In general, the kind of data they don’t disclose is data that is in any way negative toward the Church. Which means the current returnee data is bad, or else they would disclose it. I think Elder Evans is exaggerating. My bet is that “a significant increase in the rate of early returning missionaries” would be more accurate. That is certainly more consistent with the personal reports I am seeing about a noticeable increase in early returnees in various local units of the Church.

    Cameron (#98), you seem to accept the “shut up and do what you are told” model of church membership. Personally, I prefer the “anxiously engaged in a good cause and do things of our own free will” approach to church membership, which has the advantage of being scriptural. You are free to follow your own model (there are worse ways of being a Mormon) but there is no reason the rest of us should follow your approach.

  100. john f. on August 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    +1 as to 99. Great comment, Dave.

  101. Dave on August 20, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    That seems like a nice note to end on.

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.