What’s the deal with Mormon Missionaries?

Huzzah! Another question in the inbox! This question comes from my friend Nate, who blogs over at Thoughts on the Urban Environment. He’s also one of my co-conspirators at a new website I’ve started but haven’t told anyone about yet: Streets.mn.

Here’s Nate’s question, presented in pieces:

I have a couple questions about the LDS Church missionary system.

Y’all love these questions about Mormons. Luckily, Mormons are one of my favorite things to talk about, so keep ’em coming!

How does it work? Who does it? Are they volunteers? And, if you are from, for example, Minnesota, do you typically do your missionary work elsewhere, such as another state or country? Or, would one stay within their own local community?

Mormon missionaries are volunteers – not only do they not get paid, they mostly have to pay their own way. Missionaries make monthly payments TO the church to pay their own way. The church uses a sort of global sliding scale to determine how much it costs based on where you’re from and your ability to pay. The current cost to be a missionary for people from the US is $400 per month. Since many missionaries serve in poorer countries where expenses are cheap, the church can shift funds around and keep costs low for everyone. The church uses this $400/month to pay all of your expenses, so Missionaries don’t ever have to directly pay for housing, utilities, transportation, supplies, etc. Missionaries receive a small stipend each month (~$150) to pay for groceries, and miscellaneous living expenses, though it is anticipated that much of their food will be provided by members of the church.

Missionaries do not get to choose where they serve. They submit an application to the church headquarters in Salt Lake City, and in a few weeks, they are told where they will be sent. It is not negotiable, except for in special circumstances. Typically only significant medical circumstances would result in a missionary staying in their hometown or state, but staying within the country is typical. The US exports missionaries, though the long-term global goal is to avoid missionaries having to cross national borders.

Most missionaries appear to be young men straight out of high school or college. Do people of other ages do this? Are women involved in the missionary process? Or, do women participate in ways other than door-to-door interactions?

Single men are permitted to serve if they are between the ages of 19 and 25, and are encouraged to serve as soon as possible after turning 19. Single women may serve anytime at age 21 and up. Men serve for 24 months, women for 18 (Do NOT ask why there are different rules for men and women – there is no good reason and it reeks of sexism). Senior couples can also serve after they are retired and no longer have kids at home. They are typically given more administrative roles, which is why you don’t see 70-year-old couples riding mountain bikes around town and wearing backpacks.

Is doing some type of missionary work required by the Church to continue being an active member?

No, although serving a mission for the church is very much a rite-of-passage and the cultural pressure for young men to choose to serve a mission can be extremely great.

Did you spend time doing missionary work? If so, where, and what was your experience like? Did being a missionary, biking around neighborhoods, help cultivate your love of bicycles?

Thanks! I look forward to reading the response.

I was a missionary in Ohio from 2000-2002. Believe it or not, I didn’t touch a bicycle the entire time, although in hindsight, that was clearly a mistake (for several reasons). I had many wonderful experiences as a missionary that I will forever cherish, although I generally consider it to be an emotional low point in my life. I’ve written previously about my decision to serve a mission. Beyond that, I’m happy to leave that chapter of my life in the past, at least as far as this blog goes. I’m happy to talk your ear off about it in person sometime, should we find ourselves with a few hours to kill in an airport or something. Thanks for the question!

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5 thoughts on “What’s the deal with Mormon Missionaries?”

  1. I have a great deal of respect for aspects of the missionary training experience, particularly the language training. What I can’t wrap my mind around is that the church offers no bicycle maintenance classes. I have helped two missionaries in the last year who had broken down on Minneapolis trails and hadn’t a clue as to how to get their bike back in working order. Do you have any thoughts on whether basic bike maintenance classes could be offered as part of the training?

  2. @Peter – lol. I’ve also helped missionaries with bike problems a few times. I see them riding along the Greenway all the time during summer months.

    The church could offer some bike maintenance training, I guess. Better yet, how cool would it be if missionaries were the ones teaching the bike maintenance classes? Imagine a set of missionaries riding up and down the Greenway helping OTHER people put THEIR chains back on! That’s something I could get behind.

  3. Reuben, I’m not so sure about the long-term goal of not having missionaries cross borders. There are some statements that seem to indicate it, but not very certain. Also, not only does the US export missionaries but European countries do too (and I’m guessing many others.) In countries where the gospel is new it’s thought that being sent to the US, for instance, could be leadership training, but that doesn’t explain countries like Finland or Germany where the church has been for a while. I like to think that it just adds to the adventure… and broadens the young person’s horizon… and possibly makes them rely more on God, in the best cases, since they’re in a different culture.

  4. @Tuittu – yea, I’m not sure that’s an official policy, but I’ve heard it enough places that I tend to believe it. I think the church does try to balance the adventure aspect with the church’s desire to keep people in their own country or region. I think certainly in Europe, getting the kids far enough from home will require crossing a national border.

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