Crazy Mission Stories, Part II

Huzzah! New question in the inbox! This one comes from someone identifying themselves as “Elder Smith”.

Will you share some of your mission stories with us? We are trying to collect and publish a collection of great LDS mission stories.

Ok, now wait a minute. Does this question sound familiar to anyone? It should, because just over a year ago, my internet friend Joey asked a very similar question. Joey asked if I had any great mission stories to tell. I felt like kind of an ass, because my answer was more or less, “No. Mission stories are dumb and I don’t want to talk about it.” I felt bad, because I get that people who aren’t Mormons probably think Missionaries come home with a zillion great stories, and I felt like I was giving Joey the brush-off.

But it’s true. Missionaries have great experience – meaningful and important experiences – but they make terrible stories. And you know you are in for a particularly terrible story when  it starts with “This one time on my mission…”

Just to set the stage, I’ll quote myself from my post a year ago:

After a while, you get a little bit jaded. Now, if I’m sitting in Sunday School and some dude raises his hand and says, “Well this one time on my mission…”, I just roll my eyes.

“Oh great,” I say, nudging the guy next to me. “It’s Mission Story Guy.”

But like the fulfillment of prophecy, guess what Elder Smith’s website is called where he’s publishing a bunch of mission stories. It’s called This One Time on my Mission. And if anyone needs any further proof or convincing that the vast majority of mission stories are dumb, please click through to the website and read a dozen of them or so.

I don’t want to be a downer about mission stories. I’m glad “Elder Smith” has this website thing going on. Good for him. I hope it’s a successful venture and that everyone has a few laughs, but I’ll sit this one out. Well, if anyone out there has a great mission story, don’t share it here – send it over to This One Time on my Mission.

Any More Questions?
Ask Me Anything!!!

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!

Any More Questions?
Ask Me Anything!!!

How Did You Handle Questions on Your Mission?

New question in the inbox!  Huzzah!  This one’s anonymous!  Here it is:

You seem to take issue with some aspects of the LDS religion. I remember that you served a mission, and I’m wondering what you did while on it when someone would ask you questions about some of these things.

Great question!  Boy y’all sure like to ask questions about Mormonism, eh?  Well, turns out it’s one of my favorite topics.  I like talking about Mormonism here on this blog because I don’t get too many opportunities to talk about it in real life.

Anyway, on to answering the question:  Yes, my spiritual path is sometimes at odds with the teachings of the LDS church.  Many of the things that feel right in my heart are not always aligned with church doctrines or policies.  I feel that it’s important for us to trust ourselves, our experiences, and our judgement.  One of my favorite LDS teachings is the idea that each of us has the ability to receive direct instruction and guidance from God.  Yes, it’s painful when that guidance doesn’t seem to correlate with the teachings of my chosen faith community.  It was a long and painful process that led me to a spiritual place where I am now entirely comfortable disagreeing with the church on some things.

However, I was in a much different spiritual place than I am now while I was a missionary.  I could sum my 19-year-old spiritual beliefs up pretty well by saying I had no idea what I did or didn’t believe.  That posed an obvious problem for an LDS missionary.  However, while this meant that I was never fully committed to all of the ideas within Mormonism, it also meant that I was never committed to any ideas outside Mormonism either.  I saw any differences between my shaky personal beliefs and the churches teachings not as a clashing of ideas, but as a profound lack of worthiness and faith on my part.  When there was disagreement, the church was always right, and I was always wrong – and I was doing everything I knew how to bring myself in line with church teachings.  This proved to be a depressing and unhealthy way to approach God and religion.

 As a missionary, I was taking the proverbial step into the dark tunnel, with faith that my foot would land on solid ground – the same basic message I was asking those I was teaching about Mormonism to embrace.  I chose to become a missionary, in part, as an act of faith.  I studied and taught Mormonism for two years as an act of faith.  I remain an active member of the church today, despite my disagreements, as an act of faith.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the difference between dishonesty and speaking in faith with a great hope that it was true. Since returning home from my mission, I have spent a great deal of time trying to decide if I returned home with my integrity intact.  I’m still trying to figure it out.

Sorry this post was such a downer (frown)!

Ask Me Anything!!!

On Missionary Work

Let’s get one thing straight.  I don’t really care if you want to come to my church or not, ok?  I mean, I like my church and it makes me happy.  But I don’t really care if you’re not interested.  I don’t want to sound mean or unfriendly.  On the contrary, I’d like to be your friend regardless of what you think of my church.  I still like to invite people to come to my church.  In fact, consider this post an official invitation from yours truly to check out my church.

But I’m not going to go out of my way to get you to come to my church – not because I don’t like you, but because

That’s all fine and dandy, except for one thing: I belong to the Mormon Church.  The church whose most publicly recognized feature is our zealous missionary work.  The church that expects every male member of the church to spend two full years of their lives devoted to nothing but new-member recruitment.  The church that continually reiterates to its members how critical it is that we find new people to join the church.

So I often sit through sunday school lessons about the importance of missionary work

Let me be clear about one thing: the LDS church has a lot to offer a lot of people.  I firmly believe that it is a fantastic faith community and am committed to the church as my spiritual home.

I don’t care if you think I’m Christian, & I don’t care if you think I’m going to HELL.

Why I Became a Mormon Missionary

From June 2000 to July 2002, I served a full-time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Ohio Cleveland Mission. I’m supposed to say that I served an LDS mission because I loved the gospel and because the prophet commanded me to serve. Or because I prayed about it & received inspiration that God wanted me to serve. Or because I wanted other people to know the same joy I felt because of my participation in the LDS Church. But none of that was true. I felt indifferent at best about the LDS church and I had more questions about the gospel than I had answers. I had prayed numerous times to know if I should become a missionary, but had never received anything I could recognize as an answer. I had a sincere desire to help people, but I had serious doubts that convincing them to join my church was the best way to do it.

So why did I go?

I know a lot of Mormons who felt an incredible amount of pressure to serve a mission from parents or relatives. I knew my mother wanted me to become a missionary, but it wouldn’t be fair to say she pressured me – at least not explicitly. In fact, I can’t recall a single time where she so much as encouraged me to serve.

However, there is an incredible amount of institutional pressure within the LDS church to serve a mission. From a young age, all male Mormons are taught that they WILL serve missions when they are older. Primary kids age 3+ are taught songs with lyrics like “I hope the call me on a mission, when I have grown a foot or two.” A significant goal of the Young Men’s organization for boys ages 12-17 is to prepare them to serve missions. Certainly, serving a mission in the LDS church is a right-of-passage, even though the leaders of the church have taught that it shouldn’t be. Many youth programs judge their successfulness by how many of their young men serve missions. Even the Young Women are sometimes encouraged only to marry men that successfully complete an LDS mission. Indeed, all to often 19-year-old Mormon men feel like they have only two options: 1. Become a missionary 2. Leave the church entirely.

If family wards provide institutional pressure, singles wards & BYU provide the social pressure. BYU is the only college campus in the world where you won’t find males age 19 or 20 because they’re nearly ALL off being missionaries. And since every 18 year old freshman male on campus is expected to go, it’s a fequent topic of conversation. Sacrament meetings each week are marked by announcements of who will be serving where for the next two years. Romantic relationships evolve around the common understanding that any male age 18 will be MIA for the next two years – so don’t get attached. When you meet someone new on campus who is obviously not a freshman, after the obigatory, “Where are you from?” get-to-know-you question, the next question is often “Where did you serve?” Nobody wants to answer, “I didn’t.”

So why did I serve? To argue that I was immune to the insitutional and social pressures overestimates my integrity. I served a mission because I was too much of a coward to stay home. I didn’t want to be a missionary, but staying home didn’t seem like a viable option. I didn’t want to disappoint my family or friends, & I didn’t want to carry around the social stigma of not serving.  I didn’t even give serious consideration to the idea of staying home. Because everyone goes, so I did, too.  I became a missionary for the LDS church.

My decision to become a missionary for the LDS church was easy, but it was far from painless.  Although the outcome of becoming an LDS missionary was inevitable, I still navigated a process of convincing myself that it was a good idea – or trying anyway.  Like many prospective missionaries, I was scared & naive – completely unaware of what I was signing up for.  But I was not faithless.

I had faith in God – that he would accept my efforts, despite my doubts & fears regarding Him – I had faith that he knew me, my heart, my intentions. I had faith in myself – that I could accomplish anything I set out to do – including serving an LDS mission. I had faith in prayer – despite God’s apparent unwillingness to answer mine.

I left on my mission unsure if I was doing the right thing, but I knew I was doing something in God’s name – whether He wanted it or not.  I was terrified by the prospect of becoming a missionary – but just as terrified of choosing to stay home.  At worst, I knew it would be a trivial exercise of performing acts for a God who didn’t want them in the first place.  I wasn’t sure God wanted me to be a missionary, but I wasn’t sure he didn’t want me to be a missionary either.

I believe that having faith can be a courageous act – that believing in things not seen is a gift from God – something to be urgently sought after and cherished – that taking additional steps forward before seeing where your feet will land is part of God’s glorious plan.  But I believe that faith can also be an excuse to avoid answering difficult questions – that sometimes it’s easier to follow the crowd into the dark than wait for God’s light to shine.  I became a missionary for the LDS church as an act of faith, I’m just not sure which type of faith.