An Anecdote on Obedience

Can y’all stomach a mission story right now?

My mission president (Japan Tokyo South Mission) was a wonderful man, and whenever I would meet with him, the challenges I had felt up to my eyeballs in would suddenly shrink down to about knee-high. He would listen understandingly, then give me just enough advice to restore my confidence. I never felt lectured. He showed trust in the missionaries’ judgment; for example he left it to us to judge what music it was appropriate for us to listen to. Young contrarian that I was, I needed a mission president like him.

At one mission conference he told us that we elders should be careful not to be too friendly with sisters in the ward. In particular, we should not learn their first names. I was surprised and resisted this advice. Were we supposed to approach the women we worked with as though they were hazards? How could that be consistent with the spirit of fellowship we should maintain in the church? I wrote to him about my concerns. Sweet man that he was, he acknowledged my concern and even said perhaps he had gone too far in saying we should not learn first names.

Months passed, the work went ahead, I transferred a few times. Then one day a former investigator told me she was in love with me. Ouch! I’d had no idea. I’d never treated her any differently from everyone else we taught, man or woman. Still, men and women interact differently in Japan than they do in my native USA. Some Japanese enjoy being friends with Americans because, well, they are so friendly, especially missionaries. That’s part of our job, but evidently my idea of appropriate friendliness was a bit off in her case. I wished I had thought more carefully about what reasons my pres. had had for the advice he gave. I wished I’d been more humble about how much I had to learn about Japanese culture. I wished I’d been more willing to try an experiment on his words.

22 comments for “An Anecdote on Obedience

  1. February 4, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    Interesting story, Ben. If you had asked your mission president why he gave that advice do you think he could have given you a good answer? It seems like going into these sort of situations with an attitude like “ok, I’ll do it, but can you explain why?” can help. Often the leader can explain why but nobody bothers to ask. Of course some Church leaders will come back with the equivalent to “because I said so”… that’s when following the counsel gets really tough.

  2. Matt Jacobsen
    February 4, 2005 at 3:45 pm

    So what was her first name?

    Even though you didn’t go into specifics, I’m assuming that you did not follow your mission president’s advice in being less friendly to the sisters. It’s good advice in general (especially with single younger sisters), but the concerns you raised are real ones when considering the balance between friendly and business-like missionary behavior. My problem on my mission would have been being all business — I think my work suffered as a result. But I certainly did not want to be like the missionaries that spent their Sundays flirting with the young women in the ward.

    I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself. There may have been little that you could have done to prevent this sister from falling in love with you. While I was on my mission in Germany, an inactive married member received a vision that he was supposed to leave his wife and marry one of the sister missionaries serving in our ward. From my perspective she did nothing more than be cute and nice while visiting his family once.

  3. Rosalynde
    February 4, 2005 at 3:49 pm

    I like this story, Ben. I had some difficulty with instruction we were given to focus our proselyting efforts almost exclusively on men (not least because this would mean that we would have to spend all our time contacting, since we weren’t allowed to teach men!). It took me a few months to realize how sorely priesthood leadership lacked in most areas, and the instruction made more sense in that light.

    About mission romances… I saw one or two pretty ugly situations early on with elders getting involved with girls in the branches, and I confess to harboring some judgmental feelings about those elders. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that my zone leader and I were becoming fond of one another! We tried to do the right things–immediately stopping collaborative work, telling the mission president–and I was transferred to a new area. Our mission president was a kind and wise man, and did not chastise us but was very understanding. (We hadn’t broken any rules, so we didn’t deserve reproof.) A few months later, both the elder and I found ourselves in extremely trying circumstances–I with a mentally ill companion, and he with a very troubled zone–and our president actually suggested that we write to each other to offer mutual support. It was an inspired arrangement, and we were able to help each other through the most difficult periods of our missions. We were released at the same time, and dated once or twice when we got home, but we each ended up married to our pre-mission love interest . Still, though, I’m so grateful that we did all the right things at the beginning so that things didn’t sour later when we could really help each other.

  4. February 4, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    While I agree with obedience, I think it is also a good policy to explain the “why” behind policy. Asking people to obey blindly, whether they should or not, is simply not that effective.

  5. Bryce I
    February 4, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    Little known bloggernacle fact: I replaced Ben in his first mission area. also, my wife informs me that they were in the MTC together.

    Was that Pres. Walker or Pres. Rowe, Ben? Pres. Walker was great I never had the opportunity of serving under Pres. Rowe, but Kristen really liked him a lot too.

  6. February 4, 2005 at 4:30 pm


    Sounds like something that happened in my German mission- only in reverse!

    A missionary was convinced he’d had a vision to leave his mission and marry one of the local sisters in his ward, which he did!

    The spirit is sure strong out there in Germany…

  7. David King Landrith
    February 4, 2005 at 4:35 pm

    The only instruction I ever received regarding the opposite sex on my mission was that I needed to stop calling the Marriot chicks in the cafeteria “babe” and “gorgious.” I did.

  8. Jim Richins
    February 4, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Interesting, Ben. I served in Japan Sapporo, and my MP was as far removed from how you describe yours as you can get. He was an FBI special agent before accepting a position as head of Church security – the people who protect the Prophet just like the Secret Service. He used to tell of how strange it was in the beginning to not close his eyes for prayers during conference in the tabernacle, since he had to continously scan the congregation for threats.

    Under his tutelage, I learned to be strictly, even blindly, obedient. He was a wonderful president, very caring and very wise, but very, very strict….

    very strict….

    very, very, very…. strict.

    Which is probably part of the reason why he reacted negatively at first when he found out that my wife and I had fallen in love – Chika being the senior companion for the sister missionaries in our zone (coincidence Rosalynde – I was also the zone leader). Of course, nothing inappropriate happened in Obihiro, only to really discover our attraction after we both returned home with honor. He was (understandably) suspicious when he found out, however, and investigated just like you might expect an FBI agent would.

    But, we are on good terms now. He came to our wedding in the Salt Lake Temple, and I still see him fairly often.

  9. Wilfried
    February 4, 2005 at 5:10 pm

    Interesting story, Ben. This is the kind of post that seems to trigger a lot of personal memories from missionaries… But basically the point you make has to do with intercultural (mis)understandings. The golden rule to be friendly and welcoming in Church sometimes has its drawbacks when it does not take into account cultural traditions of privacy and interpretation of signals, in particular in the relation man-woman. It also has bearing on home teaching and visiting teaching. These well meant and useful Church programs may sometimes, unwittingly, trigger relational problems, and even tragedies, especially when both the visitors and the persons visited are fairly new members with little Mormon experience. More sensitivity to those issues would be welcome, not only in the circle of the missionaries.

  10. Derek
    February 4, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    In response to Bryce’s question, Walker was the one that let you listen to whatever you thought was appropriate, so he would have been the one Ben described. (Under Rowe’s administration, we were restricted to classical and church music.)

    There was a female investigator in one of my areas who insisted on calling me by my first name (despite the mission rules which she wasn’t bound by). So I made up one.

  11. Chad Too
    February 4, 2005 at 6:51 pm

    Funny, I had the same experience in the same mission. My female investigator 18-year-old wrote me of her undying love about 3 weeks after I got back to the States. I never answered her back…

  12. February 4, 2005 at 6:51 pm

    So I made up one.

    Somewhere in Japan there is a sister thinking “I wonder how Thor is doing now that he’s been released from his mission..”

  13. Mark B.
    February 4, 2005 at 7:05 pm

    Funny, I didn’t realize women in Japan had first names.

    Well, not exactly. There were three sisters in one branch–I mean, real, share the same earthly parents sisters–and I did know their given names. And, you sort of had to learn the names in order to baptize/confirm them.

    Otherwise, I never heard any of the Japanese call anybody but family members and small children by first names (and even that was rare–ne-san or ni-san was more likely for an older sister/brother.)

    Have the Japanese become more “given name” friendly?

  14. Bryce I
    February 4, 2005 at 7:58 pm

    DKL —

    See? Who says people can’t change?

  15. David King Landrith
    February 4, 2005 at 8:10 pm

    Not so fast, Bryce. I got sent home about 5 days later. My mission was the best two weeks of my life. The good news is that my girlfriend waited for me. In fact, she didn’t so much as go on a date!

  16. Bryce I
    February 4, 2005 at 8:27 pm

    President Walker was one of the most effective leaders I’ve ever known. His leadership style, as I experienced it, was based on two often quoted statements: “I teach them correct principles and they
    govern themselves” and “Reproving betimes with sharpness when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy”.

    Early in my mission we had relatively few established rules. As the months progressed, various rules were implemented in response to the poor judgment of certain missionaries: “No shirtless sunbathing on P-Day” sticks out in my mind as a particularly silly kind of rule that had a story behind it. But overall, we were given the opportunity to act responsibly. In short, we had our mission president’s trust.

    When we violated that trust, individually or collectively, President Walker would let us know in no uncertain terms. Most devastating was when he would confront us with that fact, letting us know that we had really screwed up. It wasn’t the particular action that seemed to upset him, it was the sense that he had been betrayed.

    If a missionary screwed up, he or she was given opportunities to regain that trust (at least it seemed to me, as I never had any individual problems that required direct mission president attention). I learned a lot about effective leadership on my mission. I’m tempermentally ill-suited for President Walker’s particular style, but I’m grateful for the lessons I was able to learn from him.

  17. Ben H
    February 4, 2005 at 9:21 pm

    Yes, of course it was President Walker I was referring to, although Pres. Rowe was also a wonderful man, and oddly enough, I had exactly the same experience with him that I had had with Pres. Walker, where all my overwhelming problems suddenly felt manageable when I met with him, before we even talked about them.

    I thought I recognized your wife, Bryce, in the picture on M* : )
    What kind of stories did my trainer tell about me Bryce? I was not an easy greenie to train!

    Matt, I do remember her first name. I did call her by it, like I did the other young folks, male or female. Yeah, I didn’t follow the advice about the names. I did intentionally wear unattractive glasses, though, to deflect attention!

    Pres. Walker was not a “because I said so” kind of guy. He was just the kind of president I needed at the time, because I was just so opinionated and attached to my autonomy. I did follow the rules, but I insisted on coming up with reasons for them. It made for a fair bit of unnecessary stress : ) it would have been much easier to just follow the rules and not fret over the reasons. It would have been very hard for me if Pres. W. had not been willing to talk about why we did things the way we did. Luckily by the time Pres. Rowe, who had a different style, came along, I was pretty well acclimated to missionary life already, so we got along fine.

  18. danithew
    February 4, 2005 at 9:53 pm

    I tried pretty hard to be obedient during the mission. Sometimes rules seem arbitrary and stupid but I tried to obey them anyway because that was what I had been taught to do. There was one time my desire to be obedient was tried pretty sorely.

    We were forbidden as companions to ride alone in a car with a woman and our female investigator was running late for her baptism. She wanted us to go with in her car and I refused due to the rules. Both she and my companion were angry at me and expressed themselves verbally. In fact she told me if I didn’t get in the car she would choose not to get baptised at all. I knew that one exception to a rule might not make a difference but I also knew that two missionaries alone in the car with a woman (she was in her late teens) could inspire gossip amongst the locals … so I stuck to my guns.

    I’m not sure how I would have responded to this situation if I hadn’t perceived a logical reason for the rule.

    In the end everything worked out and she was baptized about 20 minutes later than had planned. It just meant the three of us were late to the baptism. If I recall correctly the three of us walked together to the chapel. Again, it seemed slightly odd that we could walk together on the street but not ride together.

    I still kind of look back at the mission as a very difficult experience. Following the rules was kind of painful and would sometimes create situations that seemed unseemly or even rude. But I did my best overall to follow them.

    Because I was a stickler for rules in the mission, my president often placed chronic rule-breakers with me. That meant I chafed a number of my companions with my approach to things and they would argue with me and get upset about it. But I noticed in most cases that they had positive things to say about me to the companions they had afterwards. We usually did pretty good work and there was nothing to be ashamed of afterwards. So I think that good feeling often washed away the irritation they felt. But still, I wish I had been more clever or intelligent about handling these things. Some people are smoother and better at that sort of thing.

  19. February 4, 2005 at 11:00 pm

    Nice comment Danithew.

    I was a stickler for the rules on my mission too. I decided somewhere along the way the reason it was important to be a stickler was not because God cared if we had our coats on at 69 degrees F but not at 70 degrees — it was because by being strict in my observance of those rules gave me much greater confidence when I turned to God for a miracle. I’m convinced that the additional faith and confidence such strict obedience gave me allowed for miracles to be granted that I could never have seen otherwise — and missionary work is pretty fruitless without miracles.

  20. Brett McKay
    February 5, 2005 at 12:15 am

    I had a very strict mission president in Tijuana, Mexico. He only has 4 more months left of service and he’ll be done. What I found facinating was how the man changed the rules constantly. He went through cycles of being super strict and and being lax. For example there was one time in our mission when we could listen to classical music or soundtracks from epic movies like “Braveheart”, but Elders began to abuse this rule and started listening to the Spider Man soundtrack because, hey, it was a soundtrack. After the MP found out about this practice we were only allowed to listen to church hymns. EFY wasn’t even acceptable. But i few months later the rule was laxed and so began the cycle of missionaries abusing it again.

    I was pretty obedient on my mission, especially the first part of it. I tried to be perfect in everyway and I was miserable. On top of that I didn’t baptize. I tried really had to keep the formal relation between me and the rest of the world well marked. I think that was a big part of my lack of success. I was a robot. Cold and mechanical. My first year I relaxed a bit and let my personality shine through and the success came.

    I think in the mission the rules can get in the way of an Elder having success as well. For example, we had this rule that you needed to carry around a bottle of water to avoid dehydration in the hot Baja California climate. Elders began to think that if they didn’t have a bottle of water with them, they wouldn’t baptize.It was as if the bottled water had some sort of magic power. The idea was just to avoid sickness. If you’re not sick, you can work and are more likely to baptize. Another example was if you left the house just one minute late. I was always pretty punctual getting out at 9:30AM on the dot, but somedays it just didn’t happen for some unforseen reason. I remember having companions who would freak out about leaving just a little late saying things like we didn’t have the Spirit and that our day would be horrible. Their attitude was a self fulfilling prophesy. We usually did have a crummy day because they made it that way.

  21. Ben H
    February 5, 2005 at 12:21 am

    Great comment, danithew.

    Matt, for my level of cultural awareness I think I did pretty well in how I treated women. I certainly wasn’t flirting, and when I sensed someone was flirting with me, which sometimes happened, I would make some distance. I was definitely not just disregarding the president’s point about not being too intimate. But in retrospect it probably would have been better, rather than treating men and women the same, to be more stand-off-ish with the women. Or maybe I just say that because I was so embarrassed when that woman confessed her love. Maybe there’s nothing I could have done. But I don’t know. That experience made it clear to me I didn’t know, which suggests more caution would have been in order.

    I just re-watched a few parts of “The Village”, since some friends were watching it in the living room, and I am struck by the very subtle ways people signaled their affection. There’s something beautiful about that.

    Mark, I’m a little surprised at your experience because people used first names a lot at church, among young folks. Not just the first names; usually it was “(first name)-san” or “(first name)-chan”. I felt a little odd sometimes because we would call people by their first names, and then insist they call us by our last names: “Huff-choro”. But some of our investigators would call me just “Huff”, which was a little more familiar, and I didn’t protest.

    I think we have serious culture gap problems here in the States, honestly. I am becoming convinced that lots of people join the church without anything like the idea long-time members have of what that is supposed to mean. The missionaries don’t even realize how differently the person is approaching it, because they are so used to being insiders. In Japan, of course, it was a huge decision to join the church. You were going from being Buddhist like everyone I mean everyone in Japan to becoming this serious Christian. And people in Japan are really good at picking up on expectations. They take longer to get baptized, and by the time they do, they know pretty much what the church is really about I think. That doesn’t mean they always stay with it, but I think here in the States there are pre-existing ideas that are never entirely dealt with because everyone’s already in a vaguely Christian context, and so joining the church seems a lot simpler and like less of a change than it really is supposed to be.

  22. Floyd the Wonder Dog
    February 8, 2005 at 3:31 pm

    We have one missionary from our ward that had an investigator tell him that she had a vision that they were supposed to get married. So, he quit his mission and they got hitched. His family was supportive of the decision. He’s inactive now. Go figure.

    I’ve had to chastise a bishop for giving a sister rides home unaccompanied. She is about 10 years his junior. One of the other ward members could certainly have given her a ride, but he wanted to do it. After ignoring council several times, I met with the sister and explained to her why she could not ride home with him unaccompanied. She did not realize that the bishop had been advised several times not to do it. I’m sure that it was completely innocent. But the gossips don’t seem to care.

    My mission president was too busy setting up a mission home football (American style) to bother much with the peon missionaries out in the hinterland. Not that I cared. He was chewed out several times by the GA’s (including Elder Hinkley).

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