ET Phoned Home: Why Can’t Missionaries?

We’ve been counseled that questions are good.  That questions help us develop faith.  That questions can even invite change where it is appropriate.

So I’ve got a question.

Why are missionaries discouraged from calling home?

It’s been a long time since I served my mission, but I remember being struck almost immediately about how the mission experience was different from what I perceived, what I expected, and what people talked about.  I was always told that it was the “best two years” of a person’s life, and there were plenty of heart warming conversion stories to back up that claim.  Trouble is, that wasn’t quite the mission I served.  Once I hit the MTC, and for the next two years after that, I learned that missions are about uplifting experiences, but they also include disappointment, injuries and illnesses, unreasonable and sometimes uncharitable church members, companions that you loathe, and rules and expectations that made you scratch your head.   They also sometimes involve danger.  Very real, very frightening danger.  Learned that one on the wrong end of a loaded .38.

The one rule that has been of particular interest, and sometimes irritation, for me, is that missionaries are not supposed to call home except for twice a year.  I understand in general terms why that rule is in place:  We want our missionaries focused on where they are and what they are doing, rather than pining about life before their missions or mooning over what they will do once they get home.  Limiting calls home to twice a year certainly can help with that.

But then you hear these allegations about Joseph Bishop, former president of the Provo Missionary Training Center, and you have to wonder whether insulation merits some second thinking.

The story (and I don’t know if it is true, but it early indications are very concerning) is that a former sister missionary alleges that in 1984 she was sexually abused or assaulted by President Bishop at the MTC.  The Church has released a statement indicating that at some point they learned of the allegations and turned the matter over to law enforcement when Bishop (who is called “Mr. Bishop” in the official statement, with more than a little implied disdain) denied doing anything wrong.  (I’ll withhold any judgment on how the Church handled this…it was 1984, they same year that sexual harassment was recognized as unlawful.  Everyone still had a lot of learning to do).  I have no idea what the dynamics of the situation really were, but my first thought when I herd this is that I would have wanted to hear from my daughter immediately.  But such a call would be a violation of mission rules and would have to have been approved by the mission president.  Fat chance.

Then I reflected on some of the other odd things I have known about where things happened to missionaries that probably shouldn’t have waited for a weekly letter or email.  A daughter of a good friend was discouraged by a mission president to let her family know she had broken her leg.  They only found out when local members contacted them.  My own daughter was required to travel alone during a transfer in a foreign country, including waiting for a ride that didn’t arrive on a dark corner in a sketchy neighborhood.  It was quite some time before I found out about it, and resulted in several discussions with the mission president and the Area Authority to make sure it didn’t happen again.  I’ve personally known missionaries who were encouraged not to report “bad news” back home and instead focus on the positive.   Bad news makes people worry.

Again, I get the motive, but in practice it comes off a little weird.  Missionaries don’t sign up to join a monastery, and parents often are concerned about the welfare of children serving in harm’s way.  We essentially abdicate the parenting role (and, yes, there is a parenting role with your kids even after they turn 18) to a mission president and his wife with whom our only communication is often form letters at the beginning and end of our kids’ missions.

I suspect that some of my concern about open communication is alleviated by email.  Don’t know about anyone else, but I made sure to schedule my week so that I was at the computer when my daughter was emailing home on her p-days.  Those often turned into chat sessions by email that she and I both enjoyed immensely.  That back-and-forth gave us a chance to communicate a little less formally and gave me more insight into what she was doing, the conditions she was serving under, and her dynamics with her companion, other missionaries, and her mission president.  All of those things were helpful for me to know, and it gave me an opportunity to provide counsel on specific issues she was facing instead of generic encouragement to work hard, pray always, and wear clean socks.  When she was struggling and I could provide a little help…those were the moments during her mission that meant a lot to me.

I also think that the nature of email makes it a little more likely that missionaries will be willing to reach out to their family if they need to.  Especially if you have a tablet available to you, it is unlikely to feel like a significant rule violation.  (And maybe it isn’t one…like I said, it has been a long time, and we were still rocking rotary phones when I served).

I’m not trying to be a naysayer, nor am I organizing my own version of “Ordain Women” in order to force the “telephone issue.”  I just think that missionaries need to be able to get immediate counsel from their mom or dad more than twice a year.  And, Heaven forbid, if they need help, they should be able to reach out for it without worrying about getting in trouble with their mission presidents.  Of the challenges facing our missionaries, I imagine that open communication is pretty far down the list.

Now let’s talk about those haircuts…

Advertisements