A guest post by Mette Harrison
My nineteen year-old son just finished his first year in college at Boston University. He was valedictorian of his high school, graduated with a 4.0 and a 35 on the ACT, took 15 AP tests (and passed them) and got a full ride scholarship. A few weeks before he graduated, he completed his first Ironman race in Texas with his father (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) and he gave a stirring speech about the importance of facing failure and figuring out how to move to Plan B.
I am so proud of him I can hardly express it. But since he graduated from high school and decided not to serve a mission for the Mormon church, there doesn’t seem to be a place for him in the religion I love.
The mission age for young men changed from nineteen to eighteen in 2012 (and from twenty-one to nineteen for young women). My oldest daughter sent in her papers almost immediately after her nineteenth birthday, a few months after the age change, and served in Texas (where she, coincidentally, got to volunteer at a bike aid station for her father and brother as part of her mission work). A mission was wonderful for her. She keeps in close contact with many of her companions and touched the lives of many of the people she worked with. I am so glad that she interrupted college to take the time to serve in the church.
And yet, I do not think that a mission is the right thing for every young teen who believes in Mormonism. I don’t think it’s the right thing for my son right now. He hasn’t felt inspired to go.
I admit, he has some doubts about the “one true church” claim of Mormonism. But he also has some anxiety problems that make serving a mission daunting to say the least. He’s on medication for his anxiety currently but it’s not yet under control to the point that I would feel comfortable sending him on a mission for two years where I wouldn’t be able to observe him (and yes, college seems different since I can call him or text him when I need to).
Yet he isn’t so disabled that people around him easily accept that he shouldn’t go on a mission. On the contrary, he is constantly being asked when he will get his papers in, why he isn’t doing that, all of which raises his anxieties and his certainty about his own unworthiness even further.
I understand that a mission is a standard rite of passage for many young Mormon men. I understand that it is a way to teach leadership and that for many, it can solidify a testimony of Mormonism even in those who doubted seriously before they went. Faith-building missionary stories are the bread and butter of Mormon Sacrament meetings, where we hear about the golden convert who was behind the last door someone knocked on, or the investigator who finally got baptized after five years of taking lessons off and on. The farewell and return of missionaries is part of the rhythm of Mormon life and part of the way we socialize and pass on lessons of the past to the future.
But we are in danger of throwing away a group of young Mormon men who do not go on missions for a variety of reasons, making them feel like second-class citizens or worse.
In my view, this is the flip side of the problems of patriarchy. Young women can often feel unneeded in the church as they watch their male counterparts be ordained to the priesthood, pass the Sacrament, collect fast offerings, and even do baptisms of younger siblings. Lowering the mission age was wonderful for young women, though I think we need to do more to help them learn leadership and service skills and to feel a vital part of the church in their youth.
But the authoritarian, patriarchal structure means that it often feels that there is only one right way to be a Mormon man, including serving a mission, marrying young, getting a good paying job to pay for a quick succession of children.
There appears to be a statistical reality that the Mormon church is losing more young men than young women, which leads to an imbalance in older single adults available for marriage. The pressure to serve a mission and the institutional and social disapproval placed on young men who do not is one cause of this imbalance.
We can do better at being more welcoming and inviting. The temporary increase in mission numbers did not add to the number of converts. Perhaps we have already reached the saturation level for countries open to missionary work. Perhaps it’s time for us to make missions more of an option for those who are would be most useful to the cause. And perhaps it’s time to make sure that everyone in our church feels like their contribution is an important one.
- More Mormon men are leaving the Church, say researchers—but especially in Utah
- Mormon missionaries, mental illness, and coming home early
- Mormon mission failure
ALSO BY GUEST BLOGGER METTE HARRISON:
- My daughter isn’t Mormon anymore
- A letter to my daughter’s seminary teacher
- Can Mormons be more green?
Mette Harrison is a regular guest blogger at Flunking Sainthood and also at the Huffington Post. She is the author of many acclaimed novels, most recently the Linda Wallheim mysteries The Bishop’s Wife and His Right Hand.