More missionaries going home?

July 25, 2014

Interesting article from Russell Arben Fox (his writing is always thoughtful and well-written, so I highly recommend him):

Are More Missionaries Returning Early?

I have no idea if more missionaries are coming home early or not, as I’m not really plugged into the culture anymore. My nephew is on a mission in Europe and has not suffered from any of the issues Fox mentions; of course, he left at age 19. I have a few friends and acquaintances with sons on missions, and I haven’t heard anything from them that would suggest higher numbers of missionaries going home early, but for this discussion, it doesn’t really matter. (I should note that my wife and I have good friends whose daughters returned early from their missions for reasons similar to those Fox describes, but he’s specifically talking about young men, so I’ll stick with that.)

When the church announced the change in age, my first thought was that the church must have seen increasing numbers of young men abandoning mission plans in the year or so between high school graduation and reaching age 19. That was just a guess, as I have no evidence, not even anecdotal, to support that initial impression. But it stands to reason that the cultural pressure to serve a mission combined with living under their parents’ supervision would increase the odds that a boy would choose to serve a mission. I have said before that I thought the numbers of young men leaving on missions would spike the first couple of years after the change and then fall back to a number that is still higher than it was before the change; the main increase will be in young women deciding to serve.

Not long after the announcement, my parents visited us, and they mentioned that one of the young men from their ward in California was heading out on a mission within weeks of high school graduation, and this got them talking about the age change. (I should mention that my mother is a very devout member of the LDS church, and my father is perhaps less an orthodox believer than most members, but he is nevertheless a believer.)

Both of my parents said that they thought their bishop had acted irresponsibly in approving this boy for a mission, as he was quite immature and very dependent on his parents for emotional and financial support. They also said they thought that boys needed that year away from home to, in my dad’s words, “figure out how to live as an independent adult.” Without that year, they said, boys would be unprepared for missionary life. (To be fair, they tend to see LDS missions through the lens of my missionary experience in Bolivia, which of course is not the norm.) They predicted that a lot of these unprepared missionaries would return home early for the same types of reasons Fox mentions. I was probably too shocked at their opinions to really say much, so I don’t think I did.

I’m not sure what to believe about this. I look back on my own life and wonder if the 18 months I had between high school graduation (I was 17 at the time) and the MTC made much of a difference in my preparation. I think the main benefit of that time was that I learned to take care of myself and my responsibilities without being able to depend on anyone else. I couldn’t leave my laundry for my mom to wash, and no one was there to remind me to do my homework. I was responsible for myself. That said, my parents were paying my school and living expenses, so I just had to learn to live within the budget I had, though I knew I could count on them if I had a financial emergency.

These were important lessons for me, as on my mission I was equally responsible for taking care of my responsibilities as a missionary and my personal needs. I remember early on realizing that my companion and I were alone in a small town in the altiplano, and the only time we had any contact with other missionaries was at our weekly zone meetings. We had no phone or any other way of being contacted, unless the zone leaders decided to take the bus out to our town and visit us in person. I thought at the time that we could have done whatever we wanted, and no one would know. We could have faked our numbers (hours worked, discussions taught, and so on), and no one would have been the wiser. I thought it said something about me and my companion that we didn’t do anything like that. We worked hard, and we were disciplined, even when no one was watching.

Would I have done the same had I not had that 18th-month interval? Probably. So, as Fox mentions, it’s not sin, financial reasons, or disobedience that I learned to avoid during that period. I’m left to wonder if being on my own got the homesickness and the inability to handle stress out of the way before I served my mission. I don’t know, honestly. I had companions who had not had a year away from home before their missions, and they didn’t seem much different from me.

The other possibility, it seems to me, is that the numbers of kids coming home early is higher simply because the number of missionaries going out is higher. Only the church’s Missionary Department knows whether the rate of early returns is higher or not. I’ll simply say that I agree with my parents that a year of “adulthood,” such as it is, is almost always beneficial for a young man (or young woman) before committing to something as stressful as a mission, and the current practice probably does mean that boys are going out who are not prepared to live on their own, let alone deal with the stress of a mission.

I am happy to hear that these kids are coming home without the social stigma that was attached to leaving early when I was a missionary. Fox describes it pretty well:

Still, I suppose I can’t quite shake the attitude which shaped my own understanding of being a missionary as I grew up in the 70s and 80s, that understanding basically being summed up as “Come home honorably or come home in a coffin.” (I don’t remember every being told that in exactly those words, but I do recall my mother telling me quite straightforwardly that she wouldn’t acknowledge any son of hers returning early, since of course such a person would have to be an imposter–her real children would never give up.)

My parents never said anything like that to me, and I knew that my parents would have supported me had I come home early for any reason; in fact, my father was quite shocked when I decided to extend my 18-month mission to 24 months. When I called home to ask for their support, he said, “Why would you want to do something like that?” So, it wouldn’t have been bad for me among my family members, but I understood that, socially speaking, it would have been much worse to come home from a mission early than it would have been not to serve a mission in the first place. I will simply echo Fox in saying that if this new acceptance is a trend, I’m delighted. The last thing these kids need is to feel bad about recognizing that they weren’t a “good fit,” as Fox puts it. Perhaps this more accepting attitude means that a lot of members understand that many younger boys aren’t ready for missions and shouldn’t be judged harshly for it.

It will be interesting to see what Fox’s readers report about what they see in their wards and stakes.


Perspective

July 10, 2014

I found out yesterday that a friend of mine was killed in a car accident. We weren’t extremely close, but we’d had an ongoing friendship for several years. In some ways I could completely relate to him, as our experiences had been similar: large family, high-tech career, and a painful struggle to figure out how to proceed in the aftermath of the collapse of our faith. That was how we connected in the first place, as we were both in a tough place in our lives; he helped me with his support and kindness, and I hope I was able to help him in a small way.

But in other respects he was way out of my league in terms of accomplishments. He was absolutely brilliant, had earned several degrees–one at Oxford–and was legal counsel at one of the most successful corporations in the world. In short, he was the kind of guy that inspired a sort of awe in me.

And yet he was as down to earth as anyone I know and never talked down to me or anyone else. That, I think, is what defined him: as well-read and accomplished as he was, he was always just himself, with no pretense and no need to remind people of how much more he had done in a relatively short life than most of the rest of us ever will.

Sometimes I think I want to go out and accomplish something big, and maybe I will someday, but really, yesterday’s news reminds me that the best thing you can do with your life is just to be a good, kind person with a loving heart.  The world lost someone who did just that yesterday.


Decision been made for you, LDS feminists

June 26, 2014

My good friend Bridget Jack Jeffries has a thoughtful and important piece in the Salt Lake Tribune:

Decision been made for you, LDS feminists

In case you don’t know her, Bridget is an Evangelical Christian who graduated from LDS-owned Brigham Young University and is currently studying church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I have always appreciated her insight and perspective into LDS issues.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard a lot of ad hoc rationalizations of why LDS women cannot have priesthood authority, from “men get the priesthood because women have to endure the pain of childbirth” (I’m not making that up) to “that’s just how it is.” Bridget’s piece asks a telling question: If not being able to exercise priesthood authority doesn’t make women inferior, why is it a punishment for men not to be able exercise priesthood authority?


Name Change?

June 19, 2014

So, I was listening to church PR spokesperson Ally Isom’s RadioWest interview with Doug Fabrizio, and I was intrigued by her suggestion that the problem with “Ordain Women” is that it was in the imperative mood, as if Kate Kelly and her colleagues were dictating to the Brethren what the church should do. Apparently, things would have gone much differently for Ms. Kelly had she used a different grammatical construction. Perhaps, “It might possibly be a good idea to ordain women, maybe.  I don’t know. I could be wrong, Whatever you want to do. I’m good.” Or maybe like Jeopardy it could have been put in the form of a question: “What is, Ordaining Women?”

Now I find that it’s not just Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, and Rock Waterman who are getting hauled in by their bishops and stake presidents. Jana Riess and a woman known only as “Dana” have been summoned to meet with their priesthood leaders on account of their online posting. Meanwhile, I keep checking my email, and nothing’s happening. When I go out to my mailbox, I’m finding pizza coupons and unimportant stuff like my son’s report card. What the hell does a guy have to do to get a disciplinary council?

Then it hit me: My blog name isn’t commanding enough. It doesn’t pop. Ally Isom isn’t going to read “Runtu’s Rincon” and think, “That dude’s got it in for the Brethren.” So, maybe it’s time for a change. I’ve thought of a few possibilities:

Follow Runtu. He knows the way!
Choose the Runtu!
Preach my Runtu
Praise to the Runtu
Return with Runtu
Any criticism of Runtu is wrong, even if it’s true
Beware the Runtu behind the smiling eyes

A friend came up with these:
#BecauseofRuntu
Come, Come Ye Runtu
Hold to the Runtu!
Oh, Be Runtu!
Bow Your Heads and Say Runtu
Raise Your Runtu to the Square

 


Top Ten Hints for Polygamy Apologists

June 18, 2014

1. A person’s consent does not make any action toward that person right.

2. A person in a position of authority has an unequal relationship with his or her subordinates. The consent of a subordinate to something they otherwise would not do does not indicate that the authority figure has not abused his or her authority.

3. It is not OK to conceal extramarital sex from one’s spouse to spare the spouse’s feelings.

4. Telling someone after the fact that you have done something deeply affecting them does not change the fact that you have done something deeply affecting them without their prior knowledge or consent.

5. A person’s acceptance after the fact of an action done without their knowledge or consent does not make the action right.

6. Threatening to destroy someone’s reputation if they reveal that you’ve made sexual advances on them is not acceptable.

7. Publicly trashing someone’s reputation after they have revealed your sexual advances is unacceptable.

8. It is impossible for a child to give free and informed consent to an adult authority figure when she is told that her consent will guarantee exaltation for her family.

9. Concealing something from one’s spouse and others is a good sign that you are afraid of the consequences of getting caught. People tend not to be afraid of the consequences of getting caught performing “dynastic” rituals that have nothing to do with sex.

10. Absence of offspring is not solid evidence that someone has not had sex.


Moderation in All Things

June 16, 2014

I’ve been writing this blog off and on for about 6 years, and I had a different blog for a couple of years before that. One thing I decided early on was that I would leave the comments section open to anyone who wants to comment. Very rarely have I regretted that policy. My thinking was that most of the comments are aimed at me, and I have a pretty thick skin these days. I’ve had one commenter who spends a lot of time making little digs at my character and abilities, and it really doesn’t bother me. I figured that people like him are a good reminder of what things could be like if I were of a different mind. I don’t tend to engage in vitriol against any person or organization, so when readers throw such things against me or anyone else, it tends to show by contrast who is being civil and reasonable. (Mind you, I have had lapses in civility and reason on occasion, too.)

Recently, the situation with Kate Kelly has elicited some comments that I consider to be attacks on her character and demeaning to women in general. I have done some soul-searching, and I realize that I can’t let such things stand, so I have set up a moderation queue for the first time since starting the blog. WordPress automatically puts your first comment in the queue to avoid spam comments, but once the first comment is approved, you’re good to go. But any commenter who uses demeaning language or engages in personal attacks will be given a warning, and if that doesn’t resolve the problem, their posts will have to be moderated.

I don’t like this, and I’m sure some people will be unhappy with me for doing this, but I feel it’s the right thing to do.


Everything Has Chains

June 13, 2014

Given the subjects of a lot of my posts, some people are surprised to find that I am not technically a former Mormon. Yep, I’m still on the records of the LDS church, I’m still a high priest, and, at least according to the church, the terms of my covenants remain in effect.

I have noticed in the last two days a number of people are saying that the situation with John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, and Rock Waterman has them upset enough to formally resign from the LDS church. Here’s a sample of what’s been said:

A mother: “I’m thinking it’s about time I resign this narrow-minded church that has taken so much from me.”

A returned missionary: “I’ve just been too lazy to do it, but this has motivated me. I have also had contact with a couple families that were on the fence (friends/roommates from BYU) but have decided it may be best to just resign and get their families out. This might be an interesting catalyst.”

A high priest: “If I am going to resign, and I am definitely considering it seriously, I would like it to be something where it is directly linked with this latest action taken by the Church of Jesus Christ of North Korea.”

A non-Mormon married to a Mormon: “I may have my children’s names removed from the records of the church over this. They were unlikely to ever choose to be baptized LDS as it is, but if the church wants to treat feminists this way, then it can stop counting my children as part of that membership tally that it’s so fond of.”

As I’ve said before, I understand how these people feel. A lot of people I know held out hope that the church was becoming more inclusive and tolerant, and more open about its past, but really, nothing has changed. The church is the same today as it was last week before any of us knew about the pending disciplinary action. As Kate Kelly was reminded, disagreement with official policies and teachings is tolerated only if it is never expressed publicly. I remember being told multiple times that I was free to believe whatever I wanted to believe, as long as I kept it to myself. Even when I had checked out of the LDS church almost entirely, I was told I shouldn’t tell anyone about my beliefs or about the things I had learned about the church. I was even told that I should not share my thoughts and beliefs about the church with my own children, as if leaving the church had nullified my rights and responsibilities as a parent.

Make no mistake about it: the LDS church is an authoritarian institution that tolerates no dissent. I have long believed that the institutional culture–the personality of the church, if you will–is a direct reflection of Joseph Smith’s personality. If you have read anything about Joseph Smith (well, outside official publications), you know he could not accept challenges to his authority, direct or indirect. He was at the top of the structure, and he expected those subordinate to him to do what they were told. When anyone stood up to him, Joseph Smith became angry and sometimes violent. There are numerous accounts of him physically attacking people who stood up to him. Benjamin Johnson wrote:

Criticisms, even by his associates, were rarely acceptable. Contradictions would arouse in him the lion at once. By no one of his fellows would he be superceded. In the early days at Kirtland, and elsewhere, one or another of his associates were more than once, for their impudence, helped from the congregation by his foot.

And there’s an account from my own family history describing his completely losing his temper and shouting at my ancestor, who physically ejected Smith from his home when Smith became violent.

It’s hard to think of any incident in the life of Joseph Smith in which he accepted correction from a subordinate or ever acknowledged being in the wrong, let alone needing forgiveness. I’m reminded of the loss of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon translation, but what you see there is that he acknowledges wrongdoing only in the sense that he gave in to the cajoling of a subordinate, in this case Martin Harris. Even when caught quite literally with his pants down in a barn with Fanny Alger,  Joseph said he would not confess to adultery or anything else. When men became upset at his advances on their wives and daughters, he denied everything and publicly denounced the women as liars and whores. In his speeches and writings, including scripture, Joseph reserved the harshest denunciations for dissenters and apostates, and those attitudes have persisted to this day, as members are still taught that “dissenters [are] base traitors and sycophants.”

I’m convinced that this inability to take correction or instruction from anyone beneath Joseph Smith is what shaped the office of President of the Church after his death. Brigham Young, aptly called “Old Boss” by his subordinates, assumed nearly absolute authority over the church and Utah Territory, even to the point that, when he ordered that someone be “used up,” that person was sure not to be alive for very long. I’m pretty sure that Brigham’s forceful personality explains a lot of this, and the autocratic rule seems to have diminished after his death. But what remains is still a belief that dissent from the ranks is not to be tolerated at all.

Most Mormons are familiar with recent teachings about dissent. Dallin Oaks, for example, has taught that “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.” Russell Ballard has said:

In the Lord’s Church there is no such thing as a “loyal opposition.” One is either for the kingdom of God and stands in defense of God’s prophets and apostles, or one stands opposed.

None of this is new. The church has never tolerated dissent, even polite and respectful dissent, so no one should be surprised by the events of the last week.

What I think is happening is that people who supported John and the Ordain Women movement allowed themselves to believe that things were different, that things had changed. If nothing else, we’ve been given a reminder that institutions do not change in an instant, or even in the 21 years since the last coordinated purging of dissent.

Is it possible for the church to change? Perhaps, but it’s a big ship, and it takes time and effort to turn a ship, especially one essentially chained to its past by an inability to question its own authority. As Eddie Vedder put it, “Everything has chains” holding it back from growth, and too often you find that  “absolutely nothing’s changed.”

In the meantime, the big danger to the church is that they are likely to alienate a lot of people who love the gospel but recognize that the church is an extremely conservative institution run by fallible men. As long as people like Dehlin, Kelly, and Waterman were in the church, those who didn’t necessarily accept the “official” version of the church’s history, origins, and practices could believe they weren’t alone. The three of them seemed to show kindred spirits that it was OK to be different and still participate in the church. Many times I’ve had conversations with Mormons in which they sort of nervously give the party line, but once they know it’s “safe” to speak openly with me, they relax and talk about what they really think and believe. Dehlin, Kelly, and Waterman were symbols that there were such people still in the church, that it was safe to talk about your beliefs and hopes and dreams, even if they didn’t exactly coincide with the church’s program for your life. With the recent moves, the church has made it abundantly clear that it’s not OK to think differently, unless you keep your thoughts to yourself, and there are likely to be far fewer people with whom it is safe to share your thoughts.

And that is the problem. Any institution that requires you to swallow who you are and what you think on penalty of expulsion is not a healthy organization. What I hear from people considering leaving is that they don’t believe the church is capable of becoming healthy again, and they wonder if staying in an unhealthy organization is healthy for them as individuals. I can’t answer that question for anyone but myself. And beats the hell out of me what I’m going to do.


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