Monday, March 27, 2006

Bullying People into Baptism

Or, Ned's Unethical Post about Unethical Missionaries.

I'm not a big fan of Randy Cohen, the self-styled "Ethicist" of the New York Times. I think too often he misses the forest of common sense for the ethical trees. Also, I doubt he'd approve of this post.

An acquaintance of mine recently forwarded me several pictures of a wedding in an email. Apparently, she forgot to delete a couple emails between her and a friend that were attached. Her friend is currently serving as a sister missionary in the south of Argentina. As neither my acquaintance nor her friend speak English or read the bloggernacle, I think it will be safe if I transcribe (and translate) a disturbing paragraph from the sister missionary's letter. Sure, it may not be 100% ethical, but I think it's interesting enough (and harmless enough) to post.

Here is the relevant passage. I have translated with my rapidly atrophying Spanish skills, so I will gladly post the original in Spanish if anyone wants to clarify any subtleties I may have smudged over in my translation.

"Another thing going on is an investigator that we have; the elders taught him years ago, and later sisters, and now I have taught him since I arrived. He is not too old but he suffers from paralysis, walks with a cane, is incorrigible, and has extremely young children. He is 70 years old, and lives alone with his kids.

"The fact that he can't stop smoking is a big problem. We tried everything; we made him do the Seven Day Program
[Ned's note: I assume this is some sort of mission program] with no success, with the result that now the Elders are teaching him. They cleaned out his house which was a nest of rats, and smelled like grime. He doesn't even bathe, but he is so nice, and he makes us laugh so much with all his stories. The Elders even cut his hair, and made him smoke a cigarette soaked in milk, which is disgusting, but nothing works.

"We went to his house and I saw him through the window and he was smoking. One of the Elders was really angry, and we were all sad too. The Elder threw a picture on the floor and told him to step on it.
[Ned's note: she doesn't say what picture, but I assume it had to be the Del Parsons' Jesus, the Temple or Joseph Smith. Missionaries don't carry around too many other pictures or laminas.] He said he wouldn't do it and the Elder bore his testimony so strongly that it made me cry. We chastised him a ton, but I didn't say anything because I felt so bad. We all felt a little sorry when we left for all the things we had said, but that man needed it, and Sunday he showed up at the church alone."

Perhaps some people will think I'm making too much of this, but is this what missionary work has come to? Challenging people to step on Jesus to make a point about smoking? Sure, from a strictly medical viewpoint, this guy needs to quit smoking for his children's sake, but is this the way to do it? I harassed so many people on my mission, took away so many packs of cigarettes after the fourth discussion, but did anyone ever quit?

I remember one cranky guy I met on my mission who had a wife and two teenage daughters. His first daughter was baptized before I arrived, we baptized his second daughter, and his wife was taking the discussions after that. We were stalled on the fourth discussion for quite a while because she just couldn't quit smoking. The husband never had any interest in us, but he became really angry one day because we were making his wife feel so bad about her smoking. He didn't care what we did if we were making his family happier, but he wouldn't allow us to hurt his wife.

Looking back on it, we're probably lucky he didn't smack us around (though I'm sure he was tempted). There's nothing wrong with some positive encouragement, but let's not bully people into making the right life choices. As much as I don't like Del Parson's art, I think stomping on it is a bit much.


Anonymous said...

This, for me, is one of the weaknesses of having teenagers and young adults as an evangelical force.

It's sad that the youngest "adults" with the least life experience are called on to badger (generally) older people with their own life habits and hardships about giving up smoking in exchange for church membership.

It's appalling that they should be charged with the task of prying into people's personal lives-- a la "have you ever had an abortion?" Do you masturbate? Are you going to marry the mother of your four children?"

I think the missionary system as it currently exists is a detriment to the church.

Hellmut said...

I have actually seen people who stopped smoking to get baptized.

Your friend's friend has a fine sense of propriety. I hope that she won't take damage on her mission.

If we focused on people instead of numbers a lot of that stuff would disappear. The problem is that mission presidents get rewarded for good stats. The incentive system needs to be adjusted.

The best way to do that is to separate the baptism interview from the mission organization. When mission presidents are responsible for quality control then corners will be cut. The missionaries will target psychiatric patients, refugees, the very old and the very young. Behavioral standards will be fudged. Friendship becomes a commodity.

A lot of these problems would go away if Bishops were to determine who is ready to get baptized. Bishops are well aware of that. They have an incentive to make sure that converts are properly taught and join for the right reasons. Otherwise, the local congregations have to deal with a huge number of inactives.

As it is, the missionary program benefts Utah Mormons much more than the Church. After three years mission presidents go home with bragging rights and the locals have to sort out the mess Rocky Mountain Mormons have left behind.

D-Train said...

I think this is a place where our baptism standards are just too high. In other areas, they're pathetically low, but here, we're insisting on a standard for baptism that wouldn't ever get anyone out of the Church that had already joined. Cut the guy a break and baptize him!

Obviously, he needs to stop smoking. But this sort of pressure is precisely the result of missionaries not knowing how to handle a real world problem and standards being inflexible.

I think Hellmut's idea about bishops doing the interviewing is probably a quite good one. I doubt that it would solve this situation, but it has lots of potential benefits.

Capt Jack said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Capt Jack said...

Ned, sounds like they've got a real couple of lunatic missies there. I'd like to see the original email, if you don't mind. Why don't you PM me over on the New Order Mormon board with it?

Did anyone in your mission ever make their investigators tobacco tea to get them to quit smoking? You take a pack of cigarrettes, empty the tobacco into a teapot, make tea out of it, filter the tobacco and serve. It's supposed to make them so violently ill they never want to smoke again. We had one guy who did it and swore by it. Always sounded dangerous to me.

Anonymous said...

hellmut lotz:
i've never heard of an incentive program for mission presidents. it doesn't surprise me, but i'd just never heard of it. do you have any specifics or examples?

my MP pushed baptism numbers VERY hard, with little focus on quality of conversion (in my subjective opinion). i thought he was being a bit pushy, but if he was receiving some kind of incentive, it would make more sense to me anyway. (i was in mexico, so it was pretty easy to get people in the water; much harder to ever see them in a chapel again, generally speaking)

Hellmut said...

It's probably more of a cultural practice. If you have bragging rights about stats then you are more likely to get called on committees and as general authority.

LDS leaders would not collect all those numbers if they did not use them.

I have been at several conferences where seventies were introduced with reference to their mission president success. It was always quantified such as: "As a mission president, Elder ABC doubled the number of baptisms in Australia."

NFlanders said...

Anon1-- I totally agree. The idea that I had anything to teach people as a 19-year-old missionary is laughable.

Hellmut-- Allowing bishops to interview baptismal candidates makes a lot more sense than a twenty-year-old American who has never attended and will never attend that ward. I think a big part of it is that the Church doesn't trust a lot of its local leaders in the mission field.

I am ashamed to say that during my mission, we had a branch president beg us not to baptize a semi-crazy lady. Our Zone Leader told us that as long as she understood what she was doing, that the BP couldn't stop us and we should baptize her regardless. We baptized her, and I'm sure she went inactive.

D-Train-- I like your idea of lowering the smoking baptismal standards. I think we should probably raise the attendance requirement at the same time.

Capt. Jack-- I've never heard of tobacco tea, but it sounds positively lethal. I also don't see how the taste of cigarette tea would cure you of the urge to smoke.

Anon2-- I think it would be funny if MPs got points for each baptism, that they could trade in for leather triples, visits from GAs, or GBH memorabilia.

anon2 said...

yeah, hellmut, i guess i would just classify it as jockeying for a good position later (as opposed to incentive mechanism), but i definitely know what you mean. i hope many MP's have relatively pure motives, but i really don't think mine be expected though, given his excellent big time business management credentials. and you're right, my MP got a pretty decent position with the church upon his return.

Ned: too funny. if you could trade in baptisms for GA visits, good grief, i can only imagine the pressure that would have been put on us!!!

White Man Retarded said...

Hey Ned. That's pretty wild. It seems you can never take the human element out of the Church...many are called but few are chosen...

Hellmut said...

Actually, there is a lot you can do, Pat. The question what kind of behavior an institution rewards.

If we designed the mission program such that it maximized the benefits of converts and local Latter-day Saints instead of Rocky Mountain Mormons then a lot of these behaviors would vanish.

The Church would be better off for it. There is a reason why retention has collapsed. The priorities of foreign decision makers who don't have to live with the consequences of their decisions play a role.

Anonymous said...


If you can take correction from a dumb 19 year old, you can take any humiliation life has coming to you.

Just look at young missionaries as a metaphor for us all, and you're all set.

Seth R.