Say No to the Mission Call and the Pressure Builds

Salt Lake Tribune/March 10, 2001
By Peggy Fletcher Stack

For most of his life, David tried to be a perfect Mormon.

He didn't smoke or drink, attended church regularly, read scriptures and prayed nightly. He set aside savings he planned to use to join the church's missionary movement when he was old enough.

"The church was the foundation of my life," David says.

But when most of his friends and several close cousins in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left for their two-year missions at age 19, the Salt Lake City teen decided not to go.

Niggling doubts about the church and its teachings had percolated in his mind since he was 12, he says. As he matured, they bubbled to the top.

"I believed if I went, I wouldn't be true to myself or to God," says David, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of embarrassing his family.

He continued to go to church with his family for a while, but was constantly pestered about a mission by well-meaning friends and neighbors.

"If you go on a mission, you get noticed for a week," he says, referring to a missionary "farewell," a send-off worship service spotlighting the departing youth. "If you don't go, you get noticed for a year -- or more."

Such social pressure may be part of the reason the vast majority of available young men from active Mormon homes become missionaries. Some young women also serve 18-month missions at age 21, but it is not expected.

On the other hand, young men like David are inculcated from earliest childhood for church service. As tots, they sing "I Hope They Call Me on a Mission." Throughout childhood, they witness the honor paid teens in a steady stream of missionary farewells and "homecomings" during church services. As teen-agers participating in the church's lay priesthood, they are constantly lectured about the importance of serving a mission.

And in their first year of college, particularly at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, the expectation that they will serve a mission is ubiquitous.

On the BYU campus, there are virtually no 19-year old males as a result of the compulsion for mission service. Word has it that few of the school's 6,051 19- to 20-year old female students will consider dating the 284 males of the same age. They prefer the 21-year-old returned missionaries.

Utah Valley State College (UVSC) in Orem is about 90 percent LDS and male students who don't go on missions "are often treated with suspicion and disdain," says Brian Birch, associate director for religious studies at the school, who himself served an LDS mission. "The social penalty is so great, in many cases, that one cannot ignore the importance of this in the decision-making process."

It is a point of pride for many LDS families to send their sons on missions.

"It is such a miraculous time of growth for them" and for the family back home, says Charlotte Jacobsen, a Salt Lake City mother who has sent three sons on missions. "It makes you feel good about yourself that you've raised a son worthy to go."

"You feel a real camaraderie with those who have sons out at the same time," Jacobsen says.

When a fourth son chose not to go, Jacobsen says she "felt left out" of those neighborhood conversations.

Even assuming the best parental motives, young men may feel pressure from their families to go, but some parents go to extreme lengths to make sure their children make the "right" choice.

David Keller, director of the Center for the Study of Ethics at UVSC, was raised in an LDS family in Holladay that was understanding when he chose not to go on a mission. But he remembers Mormon friends who were "bribed" into going.

One set of parents told their son, "If you choose to go, when you come back we'll send you to any university, we'll help you buy a house and a car, but if you choose not to go, you can pack your bags now and we won't support you in any way," Keller recalls.

It wasn't too hard to figure out what his friend ultimately decided to do: He went.

Some families are so chagrined by a child's decision not to go that they avoid acknowledging it publicly. For this reason, none of those interviewed for this story would allow their names to be used.

Many active LDS parents feel "a certain loss that their expectations have not been met," says Salt Lake City psychiatrist Richard Ferre, who is on an advisory committee for the LDS Church's Missionary Department.

"They will have to grieve that loss and worry about their child's spiritual future," Ferre says.

When one Salt Lake City mother heard that her son was not going, she says she "nearly died."

"I have cried for two years," says the mother of five sons and daughters. "He's a good boy. He wasn't doing drugs or anything weird at the time. But I was left wondering, 'What? What is it?' "

The worst part, she says, is "seeing a wonderful feast out there and your child won't eat."

Her son isn't angry at the church, she says. "He hasn't left the church, but I think he'll slide away eventually."

There are many reasons a young man might choose not to go, says Elaine Engelhardt, who teaches ethics at UVSC and has sent a son on a mission.

Like David, they may question the church's teachings or practices. Or they may want to signal alienation and rebellion against their parents and Mormon officials. They might be deeply involved in a romantic relationship or have valuable education opportunities they are loath to give up.

"Or they may just have bought a new car and gotten a new job," Englehardt says. "They may want the car and job and money more than they want to sacrifice it all for the church."

It is only in the past 20 years that the church has expected all young men to serve missions. Previously, it recognized that some were too poor to support themselves on missions. Others had military obligations (during World War II, for example) that took precedence over church service.

Of the top 15 men in the church's governing First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles, eight men (including President Gordon B. Hinckley and his second counselor, James E. Faust) went on missions, while seven (including First Counselor Thomas S. Monson) did not.

Singer Donny Osmond didn't serve a two-year mission, nor did former Phoenix Suns Coach Danny Ainge. Neither did several of BYU's greatest quarterbacks, including Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson and Steve Young. None of these men has suffered a loss of status within the church for skipping a mission.

"Steve went to visit with the brethren [LDS apostles] and they told him, 'Athletics is your mission,' " says Shirley Johnson, secretary in BYU's athletics department.

LaVell Edwards, BYU's football coach for nearly 40 years, didn't serve an LDS mission, either.

"There was a quota on missionaries back then, and I got married while I was in college," Edwards says.

Though he doesn't regret the decision, Edwards does feel he missed out on something important.

"There's nothing like the individual satisfaction of serving the church. It's something I still want to do, and I plan to do," says Edwards, who retired from coaching last season.

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