(SALT LAKE TRIBUNE) — Whether Latter-day Saints are doing a happy dance or expressing reservations about Friday’s announcement that the faith’s missionaries can now call home weekly may depend on their generation.
Families of recent or currently serving full-time missionaries mostly expressed delight by the possibility that they might hear their kids’ voices on the phone — as well as in video chats or texts — more often than Christmas and Mother’s Day.
“This will be wonderful for our 11-year-old who misses his big brother immensely,” Salt Lake City mom Diana Grant wrote on Facebook. “It’s difficult for him to communicate by email with his brother (serving in the Philippines).”
Véronique Poznanski, who served alongside her husband as he presided over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ mission in Paris from 2011 to 2014, called the move “inspired.”
“It seems like mission presidents have to send home more and more young missionaries who are emotionally fragile,” Poznanski, who is French but lives in Germany, wrote in an email. “Regular communication with parents, especially, could help, as they listen and give loving and reassuring advice and keep tabs on them. … (It also could aid) the families who will feel really involved in their (children’s) service, and mission presidents who can collaborate more with families in specific situations.”
This depends, she said, “on these conversations remaining edifying and of a reasonable length and that the parents don't invite girlfriends (or boyfriends) when they expect the call.”As a therapist, Sara Hughes-Zabawa of Billings, Mont., expects these changes “to reduce the number of missionaries coming home early, while also supporting the positive increase of missionaries’ mental health and overall emotional wellness.”
Disconnection from primary support systems often “increases anxiety and depressive symptoms,” she said. Calling more often “supports healthy connection and increases access to familiar love and support.”
It also provides missionaries another avenue to relay worries about safety, physical health and future plans.
Older members, however, worry that connecting to parents so often — though church leaders say missionaries are not expected to phone their parents every week — might distract the young men and women from their focus on proselytizing the world.
For some of these, a mission is a sacred time to devote all their energies to bringing converts to Christ, free from family dramas and romantic entanglements.
Calling home only twice a year was seen — and defended — as expressing a willingness to withdraw from the world, a noble sacrifice, which some continue to favor.
“We're shifting away from the monastic elements of missionary work,” said Steve Evans, a Salt Lake City attorney and founder of By Common Consent, a popular Latter-day Saint website, who expressed mixed feelings about the change. “I hope we can preserve the contemplative, consecrated nature of mission life.”
Then Evans added, “I'm sure we can.”
At the least, Utahn Peter Asplund hopes the phone calls won’t supplant “the detailed, hilarious and remarkable emails (like the ones I) got from my oldest when he served.”
Those electronic missives, Asplund said, “created a record of his service that will be very meaningful to him in the future.”
Neil Evans of Reston, Va., applauded the new missionary communication policy but wonders if it went too far.
“Twice a year was too little,” Evans said. “Once a week is too often.”
There’s a lot of value in “sitting down and putting your thoughts and feelings in writing,” he said. “I realize that it’s not compulsory (to call weekly,) but something in the middle would have been nice. Once a month. Once every other month.”
He is unsure whether the calls will make missionaries “more or less homesick,” said Evans, who was a missionary in Virginia from 1987 to 1989 and currently has a son serving in Peru and a daughter in Brazil. Still, he is “very grateful that the church is listening and making changes.”,
For their part, Latter-day Saint leaders cited missionary mental health and family involvement as among the reasons for the move.
Still, those young men (who can go out at 18) and women (who can leave at 19) serving full-time missions should “use judgment in determining the length of phone calls and video chats,” the governing First Presidency statement said, “and to be considerate of their companions.”
Family members are asked “not to initiate calls or chats but instead should wait for the missionary to contact them on his or her weekly preparation day,” the leaders said. “If a missionary’s parents live in different locations, he or she may contact each parent separately.”
The church encourages weekly communication with their families “using whatever approved method missionaries decide,” said apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, chairman of the Missionary Executive Council. “This may vary based on their circumstances, locations and schedules for that week. It is not expected that all missionaries will call or video chat with their parents every week. The precise manner of communication is left up to the missionary as he or she decides what will best meet their needs.”
The change also offers the chance to accommodate varied family circumstances, Uchtdorf explained in a news release, as well as better supporting those missionaries who would benefit from increased personal contact with family at home.
Missionaries are encouraged still to call their families on special occasions, Uchtdorf said, such as Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, parents’ birthdays and other culturally significant holidays.
“We love the missionaries and know the Lord values their selfless service,” Uchtdorf said. “We continue to try to find the best ways to support and help them and their families while they serve.”
Russell Stevenson cautions parents that just because their missionary can talk to them on the phone each week, doesn't mean they need to or even want to.
“I was blessed to have parents who knew when to hold off,” wrote Stevenson of East Lansing, Mich., “but not all do.”
(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)