- The unrepentant sinners & the unconverted. The rebellious. There are stories of missionaries who went out because they were essentially bribed with a promised car or job because parents hoped that a mission would “clean them up” or get them back on track from their wayward existence. Anyone who served a mission before the change (like I did) probably knew a few of these guys. If this group used to make up about 3% of the mission population, it has now been eliminated. These guys were probably pretty independent and resilient; cars and jobs are powerful motivators. Of course, the ones I knew were mostly self-serving jerks and not very good missionaries unless their acts did in fact get cleaned up on the course of their missions.
The repentant sinners. In E. Ballard’s original address on Raising the Bar, he said, “The day of the ‘repent and go’ missionary is over.” Eliminating these from the pool probably has some preventive value (shame avoidance is a powerful motivator). My guess is that this used to be a pretty high percentage of missionaries – maybe as high as 25%. Or else I was just in a unique mission.
Although we’ve all heard great stories of hardened sinners who found their souls while serving a mission, I think we can all agree that might not be the best method of conversion. But losing the repentant sinners feels like a loss on a few fronts: 1) everyone is a sinner, and demarking between degrees of sin doesn’t feel quite right to me, 2) I disagree with the implication that they are more likely to slip into those same sins again on their mission (at least that’s not what I saw), 3) who better than the repentant sinner to relate to potential converts, and 4) they are far more likely to have the life experience needed to live independently without going off the deep end.
In practice, if not based on the actual instructions to “raise the bar,” who was left in?
The worthy. Candidates who had no serious (confession-worthy) sins in their past to repent. This group is the long-standing majority of missionaries both before and after the change. I’m going to estimate this constituted 60% before the change, which would put it at 83% after the change. If the goal was a higher percentage “worthy” missionaries, mission accomplished.
The sheltered. Children of helicopter parents. These are the missionaries who have never lived away from home, don’t know how to cook, clean or care for themselves if they get sick, and haven’t had much experience dealing with people (e.g. a companion) outside their own family. I’d ballpark this at 3% of the mission force before the change, but with the change, that boosts it to more like 4.2%. These guys seem slightly higher risk for not making it through a mission.
The mentally unstable. It’s not a sin to have a mental illness, and depending on the mental illness and its treatment or lack thereof, it can prevent one from making missteps that would lead to a repentance issue. However, this same issue could create problems for the missionary, out on his or her own, trying to cope with the stresses of a mission while also coping a mental issue. Before the change, I would have ballparked this at 1% of missionaries, but with the change, this moves to 1.4%. This group should be shrinking, but according to a SLTrib article, it may go unreported due to the stigma of not serving.
Those with health issues. Again, not a worthiness issue at all, but this can impact someone’s ability to complete their mission, especially if they are in an area with unfamiliar climates, foods, exposure to other ailments, and different doctor care. I would have ballparked this one for my pre-bar-raised mission at about 3%, and based on these estimates, probably 4.2% now.
The socially isolated. Those that couldn’t get a date, much less commit sexual sin. Poor social skills. Possibly poor hygiene. Could include extreme introverts. OK, there’s a reason missionaries are occasionally mocked for their dorkiness. I would have pegged this at about 5% of missionaries before the change. With the change (if my original estimates are anywhere near right), that moves this to 6.9%.
In a talk by L. Tom Perry in the 2007 November Ensign, he said: “Full-time missionary service is a privilege for those who are called through inspiration by the President of the Church. Bishops and stake presidents have the serious responsibility to identify worthy, qualified members who are spiritually, physically, and emotionally prepared for this sacred service and who can be recommended without reservation. Those individuals not able to meet the physical, mental, and emotional demands of full-time missionary work are honorably excused and should not be recommended. They may be called to serve in other rewarding capacities.“
- Stigma of not serving. It seems that this idea of honorably excusing those who are not fully prepared is not well understood. Someone who is unprepared emotionally, physically or spiritually is considered damaged goods by the lay membership. Average members often still consider those who don’t serve a mission as unworthy, regardless the reason, not as “honorably excused.”
- Reluctance of local leaders to offend. In some of these cases, a local leader determining that a young man or woman is not ready to serve a mission is an indictment of members’ parenting skills or social skills of the candidate. This can result in hurt feelings and drive people away who are asking to serve.
- Lack of self-awareness. Self-reported social, physical and emotional readiness may be unreliable, especially for young people with little exposure outside their family circle.
- No external assessment. We determine worthiness based on the interview questions, mostly related to confessable sins. But we don’t consistently apply as much scrutiny to issues that are in fact less reliant on self-reporting errors: physical health and mental wellness. Both of these could be assessed in a clear manner through professional instruments and interviews with health care professionals.
What could we do differently? Here are some suggestions (some of which are doubtless being done to varying extents):
- Quit babying the youth. YW and YM leaders should treat the youth who lead the quorums and YW groups to lead those groups, giving them clear opportunities to organize, lead, and instruct others. Parents should push their kids to take on more reponsibility, not less.
- Mainstream viable mission alternatives that are viewed as equal, non-token assignment with no associated stigma. These can’t be populated with just those who are physically or mentally unable to serve a proselyting mission, or the stigma remains.
- Require some minimum time living independently prior to serving (not just in dorms which often act as substitute parents). This one might be a problem for those who don’t have the financial means to make it a reality, but there is something to be said for having to cook your own Ramen noodles and wash your own clothes regularly while living with people who aren’t related to you. Perhaps serving “temporary” field missions would be a good approach; this was done with young members who were not yet old enough to serve missions when I was on my mission.
- Provide better instruction on mission preparation that includes social skills (a bit tough to assess), emotional resilience, independence, and so forth. Use external assessments to assist local leadership in good decision making.
- Ensure better balance in considering all requirements: social skills, emotional resilience, physical health, and worthiness / repentance. Allow the repentant to serve, provided they are clearly ready in all areas, including the spiritual. Technically, the guidelines do allow for this, but the wording of the original talk and instruction was so direct that there seems to be a reluctance to allow for it among local leaders.
Have we lost something by preventing the repentant from going? Or should we cut further to eliminate those who are socially unprepared or coping with mental or other health issues? What are your experiences? Do you disagree with my guesses at percentages above? Do you have any great stories (who doesn’t) about the unconverted, the socially awkward, or the rest?