Missionary Program Reforms I’d Like to See

Missionaries are coming home early at higher rates than ever before, and fewer are choosing to serve in the first place. I’ve heard explanations for this that suggest kids these days, “addicted to their devices” have gone soft. The implication is that the missionary coming home is defective in some way–weak, uncommitted, and perhaps even mentally ill. 

But what if the problem wasn’t the missionaries, but the missionary program? Even raising this possibility feels taboo. Missionary work is full of sacred cows–the white shirts and black name tags, the smiling baptismal pictures, the homecoming talk with the “best two years” claim. These images are often steeped in nostalgia and tradition, and the pressure to align with this narrative is immense. 

What doesn’t make it into the homecoming talk is the sense of futility and tedium that often permeate mission life. After P-day, the full, empty week stretches ahead. If you are lucky, there is an appointment here and there. Someone showed mild interest and agreed to a visit, but they will become unavailable, never home, calls unreturned. Then there are those “eternal investigators” on the outskirts of town, eccentric and a little bit crazy. They love to talk but never commit. You should drop them from your list, but at least they are an open door and a friendly face. So you will visit them again and again. Goals remain unmet and numbers remain unsatisfactory. Perhaps if only you were more obedient, more worthy, more brave. If only you could “forget yourself” and “open your mouth.”     

Obviously there has been plenty of success in the missionary program. Perhaps some reading this will want to point out that the church is, after all, a worldwide church with millions of members. Many missionaries have truly joyful, transformative experiences. And many new converts find joy and new direction in their life because they were found by missionaries. 

But only pointing to success and insisting on “positivity” rather than “criticism” is a convenient way to ignore problems. The missionaries who come home early, the thousands who secretly wish they could, and those choosing not to go in the first place, deserve more consideration. 

I propose here a few reforms that I believe could help improve the missionary experience. 

Flexible Terms of Service

Is there any reason missions have to last two years for men and 18 months for women? Why should serving anything less than this require some claim to mental illness? Senior missionaries are allowed flexibility in determining the length of time they serve (and even location). Why couldn’t this same flexibility be extended to young missionaries? For one missionary, maybe a year is appropriate, for another, 18 months, and another, 24 months or even more. How many more youth, currently on the fence about a mission, would choose to serve if these kinds of options were available? Maybe they would even get into the work so much that they would extend beyond their initial proposed term of service. Maybe others would come home a little earlier than planned. But it wouldn’t be “early” with all the stigma that goes with that word. It would simply be a change in the term of service. 

More Humanitarian Service 

What if, rather than selling a message to a reluctant audience, people were drawn to the church and the missionaries because of the amazing, beautiful works of service that were performed on a local level? What if every time someone saw the “Mormon missionaries,” they didn’t hide and pretend to not be home, but witnessed them opening soup kitchens, fixing up broken houses for the homeless, picking up litter from the streets, or helping villages get clean water? What if investigators were drawn to the light upon a hill rather than being chased down by it? One can imagine the conversations that might start from such humanitarian work performed by missionaries. Who are you guys and why are you doing these good works? 

How many youth currently on the fence about a proselytizing mission would jump at the chance for a more humanitarian focused mission? Yes, I know there are already service missions, but these are culturally understood as “special needs” missions, a perception that would change if most missionary work shifted significantly (but not necessarily entirely) toward humanitarianism and service. 

More Discipleship, less salesmanship

I often felt like a used car salesman on my mission. Goals, weekly reports, discussions given, souls baptized–the numbers were published for all the missionaries to see, and one felt shame or pride accordingly. Those who produced the best numbers were “promoted” to leadership positions. 

A recent article in the Church News spoke to this issue, admonishing missionaries to not have a “corporate ladder” mentality. But young people will respond to the type of incentives they are given. It’s not surprising that a corporate mission structure (often led by former business executives) results in a culture of corporate climbing. (As an aside, the outdated white shirt, tie, and name tag plays into a 1950s corporate sales ethos as well. How many avoid the missionaries because of their awkward appearance?)  

Many missionaries no doubt love what they are doing. The program and structure fits their temperament. But many suffer silently, believing that the problem is entirely within them, not daring to point to the structural problems within the program itself. The cultural and religious environment have changed significantly in the past couple decades, yet the missionary experience remains largely stagnant. Revitalizing missionary work will require more than appeals to duty or attachment to tradition. It will require reform worthy of an “ongoing restoration.”  

5 thoughts on “Missionary Program Reforms I’d Like to See

  1. I would love to see more than just two types of missions, proselytizing and humanitarian. There are some different kind of missions, but they aren’t common. A friend of my daughter’s will be doing a performing mission because of his unique musical gifts and acting talents. The church specifically called him to this type of mission. It seems like the options for seniors might need to be the next step for our young adult missionaries. Or it could be cool to have your mission time scheduled out by type of work. For instance, you go on a two-year mission and the first 6 months is humanitarian service, the next 6 months is preaching, the next 6 months is temple service or something and the last 6 months is like working with youth or family history or whatever. And it could be at the discretion of the collaboration between missionary and mission president. This might actually give us a better chance at creating more member missionaries once the missionaries come home; they’ve spent two years learning all the ways you can be a disciple and share the gospel that isn’t always direct preaching. I enjoyed this read. Thank you.

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    • Anna, yes, I agree! There are a lot of possibilities. I like the idea of a mixed bag where different chunks of time can be dedicated to different modes. The one-size-fits-all needs to go.

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  2. I’ve just discovered your blog and love it. This one particularly rings true to me. I served my mission from 78-80. One time a companion and I were harshly taken to task by the mission president for breaking mission rules by doing service, helping someone clear their yards of weeds (one afternoon only). I was befuddled because I always knew the Saviour to about serving others and as a convert of about two years it made sense to do something like that when we couldn’t get anyone to listen to a lesson. With that and other similar experiences I nearly came home early but didn’t because of the shame attached.
    I managed to stay active and serve in many callings including bishop. Church activity is always an adventure in human interactions. PS loved your post on EQ, A Quorum of Strangers. Still looking for answers on that one.

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    • Terry, thank you for your comment. I think things have loosened up since then but your experience perfectly illustrates the disfunction. Thank you for stopping by the blog!

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