Each week we send, via traditional mail, a one page, hard-copy newsletter to all of our missionaries. The front page consists of a 1,300-word essay that I write each Monday (or sometimes Tuesday). The back page consists of mission news, progress updates, announcements, etc. We also publish the weekly essay on our sister blog (www.sicklethruster.blogspot.com) for parents or others who are interested in learning what their sons and daughters are learning.
Occasionally these essays pertain to the training of our missionaries, based entirely on principles and methods taught in Preach My Gospel (www.lds.org/library/display/0,4945,8057-1-4424-1,00.html). When taken out of context – or when read with a disappointed or wounded eye – these instructions can seem overly mechanical and uninspired.
I recently received the following response from one such blog posting. It was sent by an unidentified writer. I have not edited or changed anything in this response. You are encouraged to read it in its entirety and then see my response. I am grateful for this candid input and am pleased to include it in this posting, for it affords me the opportunity to share some of what I’ve learned over the past 28 months while serving as a mission president.
It is said that perception is reality. You will see two very different perceptions of what we do and why we do it.
Blog Response by Unidentified Writer:
“Following the mission president's advice [from this essay] results in three failures: (1) the missionaries, (2) the recent investigator/church member; and (3) the local ward or branch.
When a mission president places such physiological pressure on a missionary, the missionary will either internalize the failure, or go to extreme measures to convince or coerce someone to be baptized. If the failure is internalized, the missionary will become depressed, and begin to blame himself or herself for failures not within their control. If the missionary succumbs to pressure and coercion, by following the mission president's example, the young man or woman will learn the wrong lesson about dealing with others- she or he will learn that God's will means using guilt, pressure and duress to accomplish one's righteous goals. In either event, both paths will lead to dysfunctional approaches to problem solving.
The recent investigator, now church member, hasn't really overcome deep seated habits like alcohol use, pornography or tobacco use in a week. Nor has the investigator bonded with anyone at church in as little as two weeks attendance. So, after a fifteen minute baptism interview, the investigator will be baptized without really understanding what will be expected of him or her. Within a few days, the old habits have returned. Instead of understanding and help, the now new member will be judged as unworthy, shunned, and left to quickly go inactive - happens ALL the time.
The ward or branch is already pre-programmed to watch investigators fail in being a good Mormon. In fact, they are so used to it, they will wait for a few months to see if the investigator has what it takes to make it. There won't be any real friendshiping or efforts made when the investigators begin smoking and drinking again. And now the ward has one more inactive person to add to an already overwhelming list of inactives. And the stake leaders will insist that the person be visited every year, be contacted, be given new member lessons, be given a calling. The new member will become nothing more than a burden to an already overburdened ward leadership struggling with known and active member's problems.
The only benefit which results is that the LDS church can place one more notch in its membership pistol, and leave the resulting problems to missionaries not doing enough, wards which aren't following the program, and investigators not taught with enough Spirit or fellowshipped adequately - and blame the local leadership twice a year at least at stake leadership training meetings.
The LDS church's agenda is totally exposed in the blog - SUPERFICIAL growth at whatever cost.”
The writer makes a number of very good points which require our honest “look in the mirror” analysis. Done for the wrong reasons, missionary work and anything of a religious nature can do more harm than good. History is full of examples: Abortion clinic bombings; the Aum Shinrikyo poisonings; Aztec religious sacrifices; the Branch Davidian conflict in Waco, Texas; the Catholic/Protestant conflict in Ireland; the Heaven's Gate cult suicide; the Huguenots and the French Wars of Religion; the Inquisition; the Indian/Pakistani conflict; the Ku Klux Klan; the Sunni/Shi'ite conflicts in Iraq, the Tamil/Sinhalese conflict in Sri Lanka; the Thirty Years War; witch trials; and the Missouri Mormon War of 1838.
But missionary work done for the right reason can do so much good. For this reason I am responding to the writer’s comments.
My motives, methods and goals are completely different than those alleged by the writer. To completely uproot one’s life, livelihood and family for three years simply to add a few notches to the church’s growth belt belittles my integrity, diminishes the value I place on my own time, and denigrates the sacred joy I find in the personal practice of my religion. Believe me, being a mission president is not a walk in the park!
I am against placing any form of psychological pressure on a missionary, an investigator or a member. The intent of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to “set one free” – not to imprison. Most of us carry enough self-imposed baggage from our past that we need no one else to impose additional false burdens on us.
As such, I invite – over and over again – each of our missionaries to gain a personal knowledge, testimony and love of Jesus Christ. I invite them to “come unto Christ” in thought, word and deed. I encourage them to study the words and teachings of Christ found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament in and 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon. I ask them to ponder these words and then to build their lives upon them. I ask them to study the many references in the Book of Mormon that invite one to “come unto Him” and to “come unto Christ”. I ask them to contemplate the purpose and power of Christ’s Atonement – that he took upon himself the sins, pains and afflictions of all mankind. And then I ask them to employ this Atonement in their own lives. I ask them to completely let go of their old selves and allow God to remake them into the wonderful young men and women they are capable of being. We frequently say in our mission, “Let go and let God.”
It is my hope that the primary, guiding motivation for each of our missionaries is his or her love of God and of Jesus Christ. This should fuel all that he or she does. This love and charity develop as we understand, internalize and utilize the teachings of Christ and of His great sacrifice for us.
The same principles and expectations apply to every person we meet and every person we teach. There can be no coercion. There can be no manipulation. There can be no sleight of hand or disingenuous efforts. Our desires, our intents and our hearts must be pure. We must insist that each investigator exercise his or her own agency regarding the opportunity to join the Church.
The lives of many investigators are full of loss, failure, disappointment and confusion. Their unhealthy habits, of thought and action, developed over a lifetime obscure the tender mercies of a loving God. And yet they often “feel something” when the missionaries teach them. This feeling awakens them to a desire for change and self-improvement, how ever unlikely a prospect they might be! Indeed, the light of Christ is an inherent characteristic of being a child of God. It is literally a God-given birthright. This “feeling” is authentic and it is connected to our eternal nature.
It is unrealistic to think that a person can turnaround 20-30 years of bad living in 3-4 weeks. However, it is not unrealistic to think that one can respond to a heaven sent wake-up call and turn one’s life in a new direction. There is an old saying from Asian cultures: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Baptism is the “coming out party” for one who is “coming out” to Christ. It is a celebration of a new beginning. It is the first step. The Church is not a hotel for the righteous, but a hospital for sinners. And I, like so many others, are patients.
This opportunity to change is the call to repentance offered by Christ and His prophets throughout all scriptures. Men are invited to turn away from their old lives and to embrace a fresh, new Christ-centered life. We replace our fear of change with new-found faith and trust that God will truly help us in our efforts. And work it will be. It may take months, years and even decades to discard old ways of living.
But the price is well worth the effort – for the reward is all that Heavenly Father has: “And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him,” (D&C 84:38). Not only can old habits be discarded, but personalities can be made over, all for the betterment and joy of life.
I agree completely with the writer that many members are casual and ignorant about the realities faced by investigators and recent converts. The culture of the church needs to change in this regard. We are too busy with too many activities and we have lost understanding and empathy for the challenges of coming unto Christ and staying with Christ. I hope that the work we’re doing with our missionaries will lead, in some small part, to a change within the next generation of adults and leaders in the Church. In our mission we are making some progress on this. One measure is that on any given Sunday, over 60% of those baptized in the most recent six months are attending Church! This attendance is greater than that of many “active” LDS members, and certainly greater than average church attendance in other denominations.
Our missionaries strive to involve members in our teaching efforts all the time. We ask members and leaders to know, love and serve our investigators and recent converts. We place great emphasis on the development of recent converts and on the challenges they face in their social transition in the LDS culture and life-style. We find that many recent converts require at least 6-12 months of consistent love, help, coaching, and friendship before their new way of life becomes a secure way of life.
As a convert myself, I am particularly energized by this issue!
Placing another “notch” in a belt is a highly charged indictment that suggests we have put the cart before the horse. And in our admitted weakness, we may occasionally be guilty of such. The goodness of the gospel can be overwhelmed by the clumsiness and zeal of eager young missionaries to baptize those they meet. For this I accept full responsibility. Who can criticize a young man who has an over-powering desire to share the most important thing in his life with a person who could greatly benefit from it?
However, as a mission president, I have never felt pressure to get more baptisms nor have I ever succumbed to the thought that success in a mission is measured by the number of baptisms. Such thinking sullies the sacred nature of the work. On the other hand, I am highly motivated to bring our message – which I believe leads to the best of all lives – to as many as we possibly can. I am guided by these words from President Gordon B. Hinckley, “This work is concerned with people, each a son or daughter of God. In describing its achievements we speak in terms of numbers, but all of our efforts must be dedicated to the development of the individual,” (Ensign, May 1995).
How then does one lead and guide an ever-changing band of 140 young missionaries to do this work for the right reasons and in the right way? Many of our missionaries come to us full of 19-year-old immaturity, pride, undeveloped work habits, laziness, teenage cynicism, poor reading and study skills and lack of gospel knowledge. It is therefore reasonable that we employ a system, with rules and structure, that will accelerate the spiritual, emotional and intellectual develop of our missionaries, while at the same time introducing many, many people to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 8 of Preach My Gospel describes this system and teaches us how to use it. We use this system – and remind our missionaries of it. The blog posting to which the writer responded dealt with this specific topic. Having been a business executive for many years, I can attest that the tools of the mission are NOT a sales management system. But a system it is nonetheless, and it is quite effective in helping young adults learn how to set goals, stick to a plan, measure their efforts and work hard. A random approach to this work would yield chaos. We have learned through our experience that discipline (whether self or organizational) sets one free.
A mission president must resist the temptation to hurry the process in order to get better “results”. I have seen in my own life and the life of many others the true benefit of coming unto Christ and living as He has taught. I have seen in my own life and the life of many others the very real blessings of the Atonement. This includes forgiveness of sin, the removal of great burdens and healings of all kinds. Such change and forward movement is inherently personal and always positive. It is neither institutional nor programmatic. It involves the Holy Ghost, repentance, and lots of prayer, introspection and effort. The fruit of such effort is love and truth. And this yields joy and freedom. It allows one to “look to God and live”.
I have personally observed this process taking place in many of our missionaries, most demonstrably during the last 8-10 months of their mission. It is with reverence and gratitude to God that I am allowed to witness the magnificence, purity and power of many missionaries as they conclude their missions and prepare to embark homeward. A mission, properly embraced, is the best personal development program on the planet. It creates the most powerful toolkit of faith, habits and patterns for a successful life.
I’ve seen similar changes in the lives of converts. And I’ve observed bishops and stake presidents who have come unto Christ and are working tirelessly – behind the scenes for no money and no glory – to lift, sustain and literally save the lives of investigators, recent converts and long-time members. And I’ve seen this in my association with the senior leaders of this Church at the highest level. Even with our many weaknesses, there is a river of goodness in this Church that is unsurpassed.
I love the following quote from Joseph Smith, “Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.”
I hope the writer will give us a second or third chance. I’m so sorry for our failures on his/her part. I hope that the writer will think back on a time when the purity of the doctrine trumped the weaknesses of those who delivered it. As President Hinckley said in the 2003 General Conference, “Each of us has to face the matter – either the Church is true or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and the kingdom of God, or it is nothing.”
The boldness of this statement takes my breath away. I will try harder to be my best and to do my best … warts and all.