I served a two year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1997 to 1999. I was in former Eastern Germany for those two years, and they remain some of the most impactful years of my life, continuing to influence who I am and how I think to this day. I was just exposed to so many different people, who each viewed the world differently, and because almost all of my conversations focused on religion, it was a chance to have some very deep discussions with all those different people.
As has been the custom for as long as I can remember, missionaries were only allowed to call home two times a year: on Christmas and Mothers Day. (Though my mission president allowed us to call home on Fathers Day as well, because fathers are also important.) Other than that, we were restricted to writing letters home once a week, and at the end of my mission, I was allowed to write emails, since I was in the office, and we had a computer and internet. The reasoning behind this was always that it allowed missionaries to focus on where they were, as opposed to where they had been. I never really questioned that reasoning. I know being away from my family and friends was difficult, but I also know it seemed to make sense at the time, and I got through it all without any traumatic experiences.
A few days ago, that communications ban was lifted. Missionaries are now allowed to call or teleconference with their families once a week. (Still just families, not friends.) I am 100% behind the change, for a variety of reasons:
- I believe today’s youth are much more accustomed to being “plugged in” to their family and friends than they were in the past. The addition of the internet, social media, and smart phones has fundamentally changed how people think and behave. I’m not one who rails against those changes. I accept that they will happen, and that some of that change will be good and some of it will be bad. For missionaries going away for two years, I’ve wondered if yanking that support structure out from under them has been doing more harm than good. When you’re on a mission, you have a lot of contact with your companion, some contact with a few other missionaries in your district, limited contact with missionaries in your zone, and rare contact with your mission president. If your companion is a bonehead, it can be a rough time. Also, you’re sometimes told things that just aren’t true. Mission presidents can be boneheads as well, after all. Being able to turn to your parents for advice and support would be invaluable. (Though of course I can also see the potential for helicopter parenting stepping in, but that was true already. This just increases the immediacy of the contact.)
- It’s not a requirement. We had the sister missionaries over for dinner last night. They’re a trio at the moment, and we asked them what they thought of the change. One wasn’t sure, one was very much in favor of it (she’s been out for a week), and one had called her parents once but didn’t think she’d call again (she goes home in two months). And that’s fine. If the missionaries want the support, they can have it. Parents still aren’t supposed to be initiating the phone calls.
- It costs almost nothing. When I was on my mission, an international phone call home was very expensive. These days you can Skype whenever you want for free if you have a device and an internet connection. Missionaries are provided with tablet computers, and all churches have internet, so there you go. There may still be areas where it’s not possible, but that’s the exception, not the rule, and I see no reason to limit all communication just because it’s not universally available.
- It further involves the family in the missionary effort, inspiring people to grow stronger in the faith. That’s a big plus, in my book.
But what about the infamous “lack of focus” these phone calls are supposed to threaten? If a missionary could lose focus when I was on my mission, can’t they do the same now?
Sure they can. But people forget one simple fact: missionaries break rules. Not all of them, but plenty of them. And these days, it’s so cheap to call home that missionaries who really want to would find a way. Then they’d feel guilty about it . . . Better to avoid the whole rigamarole.
I believe missionaries are called to serve in specific places for specific reasons, typically because of who they are. Their strengths and weaknesses make them able to fill roles in places where other missionaries with different strengths and weaknesses might fail. And part of who a missionary is is their family. I’ve never liked the idea that missionaries need to forget who they were in order to succeed. I think they need to do the opposite: be the best “them” they can be.
Anyway. My two cents on the matter. I’m looking forward to being able to talk to all of my kids when they’re out serving missions. Really, the only downside to all of this I can think of (as a whole, not counting exceptions like when you have overbearing parents or something) is that phone calls will mean no more letters to hold onto to be able to document your mission. I guess that will make journaling even more important. (Not that I ever read those letters or those journals these days, but it’s nice that I know I *could* read them, if I wanted to . . .)
What do you think of the change?
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