Do not convert exchange students

When I was counselor in the Belgium-Netherlands mission presidency, the mission president asked me one day to handle the following. He had received a letter from a Utah family informing him that they had hosted a Belgian student as part of a high school exchange program. The family was “super excited” to tell the mission president that they had succeeded in converting the girl to the church. She had been baptized! But now that the girl was about to return home, it appeared that her Belgian parents were “very upset”. So, would the mission president please make sure that the girl would be welcomed in her new ward in Belgium since she “might face some opposition at home”?

It was not the first time I was confronted with such a situation. My reaction was plain: this girl should never have been baptized during the time she was in the exchange program even if she was of legal age (18) to make her own decision.

The reasons are obvious.

Toward the student’s family abroad, a host family should realize the devastating dimension of trying to change the religion of a young person entrusted to their care. Imagine the effect on Mormon parents if their teenage son or daughter, sent away for what is meant as a safe intercultural experience, is being maneuvered by the host family to reject Mormonism and to become, for example, an evangelical, a scientologist, or an atheist. The choice and value of the religion or ideology as such is not the issue here. In the eyes of the student’s parents, the issue is luring teenagers into betraying their family’s cultural heritage and identity while they are in a vulnerable situation, isolated from home, and unable to objectively assess the consequences of their decision.

That is why strict rules govern secondary school student exchange programs in order to protect the physical, cultural, and emotional integrity of the participants who are, in most cases, between 15 and 18 years of age. The U.S. Department of State has a long set of criteria  for such programs. Information to be collected from host family candidates includes their willingness to disclose their religious affiliation and to respect the religious affiliation of the exchange student. The regulation under Appendix F adds this note: “A host family may want the exchange visitor to attend one or more religious services or programs with the family. The exchange visitor cannot be required to do so, but may decide to experience this facet of U.S. culture at his or her discretion.” Most exchange programs are particularly sensitive to this issue, as they are well aware of the conflicts that may arise over religion, and have therefore the explicit rule that religious conversion is prohibited during the stay, even with parental permission and even if the student is of legal age.

If the exchange student wants to “experience this [religious] facet of U.S. culture” and decides to participate to a certain extent in the Mormon religious lifestyle (attending church or youth conferences, join in Scripture reading and prayer…), that is certainly commendable, but there is no reason to see this as a proselytizing opportunity.

Of course, even without proselytizing aims, there is a chance the student will be impressed and at one point feel the spirit in one way or another. But we must realize that Mormon life in a well-organized ward, with plenty of youth, experienced youth leaders, and smoothly running programs, is usually a far cry from what the church can offer in the student’s home country. Over the years I have seen several cases where an exchange student, converted to this “exciting” Mormonism while being in the U.S., could not adapt to the reality of the local, small and struggling church unit and drifted away, with renewed tensions during the process, adding to the emotional turmoil.

A disturbing fact is that the church gives the impression not to have problems with the conversion of an exchange student baptized while being abroad, even against the will of her parents, as told in this Ensign story.  In that case it was “a fellow student”, not a host family, who showed the way to the Mormon church. Even so, she was baptized while being abroad and against her parents’ wish. The narrator uses the argument of Matthew 19:29 – to forsake father and mother for my name’s sake – to justify the decision. Can this scripture be used in this context? It seems disingenuous for a church that promotes family unity. The Ensign story, as can be expected, turns out well in the long run, but does that validate the initial process? I am sure more such “success stories” can be told. But untold in our publications remain the cases where the conversion of an exchange student led to lasting familial tragedy or where inactivity in the church was the painful outcome.

Mormon families who feel driven by the rhetoric of “every member a missionary” should realize there are also boundaries of appropriateness and respect. It seems much more effective if an exchange student, accepted in a Mormon family, can return home with the memories of a fun, normal, and tolerant family. No doubt numerous Mormon families profile themselves that way. I would hope the overzealous are the exception. But every exception is one too much.

All of the preceding is not to say that living in a host family should avoid the experience of difference. Indeed, the main rationale of an exchange program is to broaden the horizon, step into a different culture, and learn to appreciate how other people live – within the set boundaries.

All of the preceding is neither to say that later conversion to the church is prohibited. But the step to do so must come from the student personally once back in his or her home country and after adequate preparation to also understand the circumstances of the local church unit. If he or she is still a minor, parental permission to teach and to baptize must first be obtained. Moreover, trying to gently involve the parents in the process, even if it takes more time, could be much more rewarding for all involved.

Perhaps it would be helpful (and legally protective for the church) if the Handbook of Instructions could say something like:

Mormon families hosting non-Mormon exchange students should not try to convert them, even if they are of legal age. Exchange students cannot be required to attend religious services or programs. If students show interest in the church, neutral information can be given since one of the aims of exchange programs is to learn about other cultures. The missionaries should not be involved.

If exchange students want to join the church, this should not take place during the time of their stay. After they return to their home country, these students are free to contact the church, but the initiative to do so is solely theirs. The host family should not inform church members in that country nor the missionaries of the name and address of the student.

62 comments for “Do not convert exchange students

  1. “My reaction was plain: this girl should never have been baptized during the time she was in the exchange program even if she was of legal age (18) to make her own decision.”

    I acknowledge the challenges you discussed in your post, and still disagree wholeheartedly with the above quote. If an exchange student is of legal age to make their own decision, that’s the end of the story as far as I’m concerned. Their parents have no say in the matter (they can object, of course, but they have no right to delay or stop the conversion and baptism). They can be encouraged, but not coerced, to learn more about the gospel, and if they so choose, they can and should be baptized.

    You raise the example of a Mormon “being maneuvered by the host family to reject Mormonism and to become, for example, an evangelical, a scientologist, or an atheist.” If my child is at least 18 years old and there’s no coercion, they have the right to convert to any religion they choose. They are young, but they are not children any more. They can choose for themselves.

    “The issue is luring teenagers into betraying their family’s cultural heritage and identity while they are in a vulnerable situation, isolated from home, and unable to objectively assess the consequences of their decision.” As long as the “luring” is with love and eternal truth, and not with coercion or deceit, I do not object to the “luring.”

    I appreciate your desire to respect a person’s culture, but what if it is God’s will that an 18-year-old convert to the gospel and you deny them that opportunity based on a blanket policy of not converting exchange students. I say, prayerfully consider if it is the right thing to do, and follow your heart.

  2. Adam, I think the point is that there is necessarily coercion when someone young is out of their own culture, living in someone else’s home, pretty completely dependent on them, etc.

    There’s nothing wrong with planting some seeds with an exchange student. But I think a very good case has been made that the baptism itself should only happen once the student returns home. Not just to avoid irritating the student’s parents, but so the student will have a feel for what the Church is like in their own country.

    I also suspect that if this happened with any regularity, it would be the end of allowing LDS families to be hosts.

  3. I understand your reaction, Adam, but I did not say the student could not be baptized. The point is the timing.

    I assume you speak from an American perspective with its long tradition of respect for agency and individual decisions. These are important values. But our exchange students mostly come from cultures where family and community traditions are hallowed. We cannot expect from these families and community the same immediate leniency and understanding. At least postponing the baptism until the return of the student to his or her home country and working on mending relations with the parents and involving them in the process seem a wiser course.

    Another aspect to consider is the following: encouraging the conversion of exchange students while being abroad is to reduce the chances of Mormon families to be considered as an appropriate host family. There are quite a few examples of parents of exchange students who have expressed great concern or who have refused their child to be placed with a Mormon family because of reported negative experiences with the conversion zeal of church members.

  4. While a policy approach is good and all, baptism is a personal decision. The family that wrote you was perfectly within their rights to inform you about a person who had recently been baptized and needed the help of the mission. I see no problem here but fear of a mission counselor not wanting to take on additional burden.

    Sure, Mormon families may be less likely candidates in the future of the Belgian family raises some cain, for a time. But that one soul has been baptized.

    Matthew 19:29 is an apt justification. The gospel does occasionally cause familial rifts–and we, as members, should be prepared to support those to whom the rift occurs.

  5. How common is it for exchange students to be over 18? I have met people who converted as exchange students but were not baptized until they went home (I think because they weren’t 18 yet). One who I know pretty well took a couple of year after he got home.

  6. Good question, Steve. Quite a few exchange students take the last year of high school as the exchange year. Hence they are 17 or 18, or turn 18 while being abroad. Seldom (or never?) will they be “over 18” if that means 19…

  7. My parents took in a Japanese foreign exchange student in an emergency situation because their neighbor had been trying to convert the girl. The neighbor, having successfully converted a South Korean student, was taking in more students to do the same thing. She forced them to attend early morning seminary, read scriptures, attend church, FHE, etc. because those were ”family rules”.

    It would’ve been really nice to have some official statement discouraging such aggressive proselyting.

  8. I question the counter arguments that baptising one soul is more important than looking at the larger picture of that soul. Yes, baptizing that one soul, but is that soul being set on a path that will allow them to make and keep further covenants that are required for celestial exaltation? Conversion isn’t just a black and white baptism or purgatory situation. Now, not being G*d, I cannot judge whether or not baptism of a particular exchange student in a particular situation is a wise decision, but there is wisdom in advising members that the purpose of exchange programs is not to convert and that any minor (as defined by their home country and in ours) should not be baptized without parental consent and home-ward involvement prior to conversion.

  9. I’ve never had an experience like this with a foreign exchange student, but on my mission I did have several experiences with young college students as investigators and, in one case, a convert. In my opinion, even though they were in their home country, many of these people faced the challenges that the exchange students you mention face: isolation, confusion, separation from family, and so forth. Not to mention that they could get baptized into one church situation and go home to another: the college convert I knew left the university a few months later to continue his education in his hometown – where the nearest LDS meetinghouse was four hours away by bus!

    I’m just wondering how we could effectively differentiate between “college-age people” and “foreign exchange students.” It’s not necessarily the placement in an LDS family, though that is significant; it can’t necessarily be the discrepancy between the baptizing unit and the student’s home unit, because such could happen even in one’s own country. Is crossing the border where such conversions cross the line? Or is it simply a group of situations viewed together that make the practice objectionable?

  10. If a 8 year old child is emotionally mature enough to make a lifetime commitment to a religion then clearly a 18 year old exchange student has the maturity do to the same.

  11. Wilfried,
    I agree with everything you said. My family hosted a number of exchange students and I knew a few at my school. I remember my mother having to keep the missionaries at bay from one exchange student. She had to explain to them that this was someone else’s child and trying to give her the discussions was not appropriate. I remember hearing one German student stating that he felt pressure to convert from his LDS family. I think he had a good experience overall, but he shouldn’t have been made to feel that way. While on my mission to a European country a former exchange student went to the press with his LDS host family horror story which included undo pressure to go to church. People we tracted into told us about it. Sure there are two sides to a story, but clearly this family crossed a line.

    LDS families that wish to host an exchange student should never host a student in hopes of converting them. They can invite them to activities and they can share how they feel about the gospel with others, but conversion should not be their goal.

    If an exchange student is interested in possibly being baptized it should be done only after they have returned home. That way they will have a better perspective “count the cost” as Jesus said in a parable. Make no mistake about it, being a member in Europe and other places has a much higher social cost than here in the US. Those who have spent their whole life in Mormonville must see it in order to fully appreciate it.

    I have personally known several exchange students who converted a couple of years after returning home. They may have waited, but they fully understood what they were doing. To my knowledge they are still active in the church.

    The parents in the story in the original post have every right to be upset about this. This teens parents trusted the family and that trust was breached. I would personally find this family very sneaky.

  12. Thank you, Kevin (5), Trevor (8), and J (9) for adding your voice and personal experience to the issue. I respect the “dissenting” voices of Adam (1) and Nebulati (4), but again want to stress the point is not to refuse baptism, only to recognize the circumstances and the appropriateness of timing.

    Michael (10), college students form indeed a different group. Sometimes missionaries focus in particular on college students as these are often more easily to reach and willing to listen. Also, the age bracket between 20 and 30 is known to be a fertile period for life-changing decisions and to adopt a new life-style. Some of the issues raised (conflict with parents, distant church once back home) are similar to those of high school students, but older college students, already used to the challenges of more independence, would be able to better cope with them.

    Jake D. (11), indeed, and in the Catholic church even a baby is able to make that lifetime decision. :)

    rk (12), you mention: “While on my mission to a European country a former exchange student went to the press with his LDS host family horror story which included undo pressure to go to church.” Indeed, such Mormon horror stories of exchange students can also be found on anti-cult websites. True, there are always two sides to a story and exchange students can misuse the religious aspect to express their general displeasure with the host family. But it seems some Mormon host families do not understand that “family rules” do not apply to obligatory attending church or participating in religious activities. State and/or program regulations are clear on that.

  13. So, just as clarification, do you mean that the significant difference between high school exchange students and college students their age/maturity, judged by whether they are in secondary or tertiary educational levels?

  14. I completely understand where this is coming from. I’m able to look at the church and our activities through this same sensitivity, and see how others really can be (or feel) marginalized by the weight of the church (members, programs, etc).

    However, I think if I try to have this same principled outlook and apply it to life, the answer would be, “just don’t be born in the first place.”

    Certainly, there is a thing as tact, and we need to act with compassion and understanding toward one another. We don’t just go around brazenly attempting to convert every person we meet.

    But there are some eternal truths at work, and life is hard and filled with difficult choices. If we have the truth, we should not cover it up and be ashamed of it, or seek to discount it and place it on the level with other philosophies.

    It’s only when I step back and diminish the importance of the church and place it at the same level as every other choice in a world of choices do I come to a conclusion that exchange students should not be converted.

    Again, I’m speaking to that bold, specific pronouncement. I’m not suggesting we abandon all tact, and careful approaches in the matter though.

  15. Wilfried, I find myself troubled by your assertions that “every exception is one too much” and that a blanket policy would be “legally protective for the church.”

    I’m all for cultural and situational sensitivity, but the legality of adults making decisions of religious conscience is thoroughly established, and recent revisions to the handbook have tended toward teaching correct principles and encouraging self-governance rather than toward commanding in all things.

    This strikes me as a worthy topic for discussion–less worthy a topic for formal regulation.

  16. Tales of overly aggressive proselyting by a host family are appalling. And to split hairs over whether the student is 18 or not is totally missing the point. It should not be done, period. It is abusive, possibly coercive, and a betrayal of the trust that student and his or her parents has placed with the host family when their child comes to live with them. Show them what a wonderful, loving, faithful LDS family is like, yes, make then want to investigate on their own, yes, but to proselyte them even in a non-aggressive manner smacks of baseball baptisms to me.

  17. Thanks, Michael (14), chris (15), and Kenneth (16). All three comments revolve around the aspects of age and appropriateness. Let me first state that there is no doubt in my mind about the necessity to “preach the gospel”. There is no question of covering up what we believe in or be ashamed for it.

    But in the case of recognized high school student exchange programs we are dealing with formal rules as defined by State agencies and organizations, because of the age of the students (nearly all minors). I already referred to the U.S. Department of State in my post. Many organizations will specify the rules, such as here: Students will not be permitted to make life-changing decisions, including but not limited to marriage, religious conversion, and other decisions with legal, political, religious, and/or social ramifications.
    So it is also a question of respecting the law and the rules that have been set.

    We must also understand the many challenges and problems student exchange programs face when it comes to the safety of the students. To give an idea, check out the multilingual Hence, in the opinion of many, the need for a formal approach with a legalistic undertone.

  18. At our last youth temple day, I met a spunky Swiss girl exchange student. She wasn’t a member but wanted to get baptized when she got back home. We have a very long conversation about her experience. Her host family had been low key but had supported her in her investigation of the church once she decided to do it.

    I definitely think her waiting until she got back was the right idea. But I also definitely think that her family was right to cooperate with her in her exposure to the church.

    Travel is supposed to broaden the mind.

  19. Still, though I’m obviously not on board with W. Decoo’s proposal, I do hope Mormon host families get exposed to the points he’s making. The imperative to share the gospel does not override all moral obligations. For instance, if I am given money in trust in my professional capacity, I cannot morally donate it to the Missionary fund. Similarly, a host family has obligations to the program and to the parents of the exchange student that are not consonant with an organized effort to convert.

  20. Wilfried,
    I would find very aggravating to have that family in Utah expect you to clean up a mess that they made. This family, the bishop and the missionaries did not follow the U.S. State Department rules or the rules of the exchange program. What are you supposed to do? It would be a very different thing if the family had written the mission president saying, “This girl has gained a testimony and expressed interest in being baptized. Could you follow up with her?”

  21. I was serving in a remote part of Canada and received a referral from missionaries in Wyoming who had been teaching a college-age foreign exchange student. In the referral, the sister missionaries described how they had time to teach all but the last discussion before the exchange program was over and the young lady would be travelling back to her family. They informed us that this individual was “really enthusiastic and ready to go!” and that we should hurry up to finish the final lesson so we could go ahead and baptize her.

    When we finally met this young lady, however, and asked her about what she’s learned and how she felt about it, it became very clear that she had been rushed through the discussions after some spiritual event with the host family. She had serious concerns about all points of doctrine (priesthood, word of wisdom, law of chastity, tithing, etc) and had not read a page of the Book of Mormon. The only interest the young woman had shown was some sensitivity to the feelings of the spirit. That can certainly lead to a testimony, but the state-side missionaries saw no problem with rushing through the whole process so they could “beat the deadline” as it were when the student would return home to her nonreligious family.

    I see no problem in a host family leaving their religion on display for an exchange student, but I do see a problem with over zealous missionaries trying to “force” a testimony on someone who is about to head back to a home with no member support (especially when they have concerns with fundamental doctrines). In this story, the young lady’s priorities changed and decided not to pursue it any further. It probably would have been more appropriate in this case if the host family had maintained long term contact, and possibly inviting the young lady to attend a ward or branch near her home town.

    Ultimately I think an 18 year old can make his or her own decisions about being baptized, but host families definitely need to back off from this method of urgent proselytizing.

  22. I agree, host families should not go the full nine yards of baptism and church membership with the exchange students. It does more harm than good. The host families can certainly influence the exchange student to make that decision. But they should at least tell the exchange student to wait until after s/he returns home to get baptized.

    Also what is the rush in getting baptized? The idea that we need to rush that on people lest an evil influence come over them and dissuade them is ridiculous. Membership in the LDS church is a lifelong process not a snapshot event. And baptism or the gift of the holy ghost doesn’t give people more fortification from evil influences. The activity rate of the church as a whole is around 20-25%. And according to some estimates it is even lower than that.

  23. Adam (1) and Jake (11), you are attaching too much importance to age. This issue goes beyond that. The fact of the matter is that parents of the children on exchange programs are emotionally, and often financially, invested in the welfare of that child. And it doesn’t reflect well on the exchange program if your child converts to the religion of the host family while away. It will make other parents and students steer clear of the exchange program. Also it does not reflect well on the LDS church either.

  24. In fairness, one should note that the Ensign story you cite is the experience of the converted, not the converter. And the person who invited the author to church was a fellow exchange student, not a host family. Not such a case of coersion. And the author did contact her family prior to her baptism, and then made an informed choice after learning their (negative) reaction. I don’t think the Ensign story describes the condition you set out in your OP.

    As a missionary, I taught two people who came very close to baptism while visiting my area. One, an American young man, was leaving to enter the army and he decided to wait until he got to Ft. Campbell, where he finally did join the church with a congregation who could shepherd him for his time there. The other, a German woman, waited until she returned home from her months-long recuperative retreat in our city to what would be her home ward. In both cases it was appropriate for them to be baptized where they would receive continuing support following their baptism, rather than rushing them into the water in our city before they left.

    I was an exchange student in Germany during high school, and was grateful for a faithful and tolerant Catholic family with whom I lived who allowed me to practice my Mormon faith, and even transported me to my meetings (inconveniently located quite a distance away). I did join them for their religious obsservance in their home, but was never ever made to feel I had to participate, much less convert. That’s an appropriate approach in my view, and is consistent with the guidelines you cite from various exchange programs (though mine did not have such guidelines that I was aware of).

  25. Yeah, I always step in and stop the conversion process whenever possible. It is so coercive. Okay, my sarcasm is now out of the way!

    Does anyone reading this really believe that if a young legal adult receives a witness from the Holy Ghost, that then an LDS host family or the Church should stop or hinder them from joining the Church? It is somehow the business of the Church to slow down that process? Why?

    Steve (#24), ALL good parents are invested in the welfare of their children. No one flips that switch off… ever. Is a conversion going to confuse and hurt them? Yes. But that should never stand in the way of an young adult’s religious liberty.

    I think one thing at the bottom of this is the modern concept that all issues are capable of compromise. I don’t think that is true. When God calls, we should answer. I have seen too many examples of new members willing to sacrifice everything, even parental relationships, for entrance into the Kingdom, and there is a much larger family tree that has been blessed by their devoted membership in the Church.

  26. I know of a case where an exchange student was baptized as a teenager after being introduced to the church by the host family in a Mormon stronghold. Her conversion story is moving. The member has returned home and is active but it is interesting to note that the member prefers to attend the international ward rather than one of several local wards and is taking steps to get back to Zion. I’m all for whatever works, but it would seem that integration is difficult when, let’s face it, the church back home bears little resemblance to the well-populated wards of the western United States.

  27. Suleiman, if you would revisit the OP, I think you would discover that no one is advocating for host families to hinder anyone’s conversion. Rather, they should refrain from applying pressure to convert, however well-meaning they might be. Note the world of difference between hearing and heeding God’s call and that of your host family.

  28. Adam G. (19, 20), thanks for the comments. Great to be on common ground, at least partly :)

    rk (21), yes, indeed, the Utah family meant well, but left the issue to be cleaned up elsewhere. In that particular case, the girl quickly lost all of the excitement of being Mormon when it appeared the local church unit had no families to take her on tours and no girls her age. As you said in (12), the “cost” to be a member in certain countries is very different. Converts should know that before taking such an important step.

    Donald (22) and Steve (23) you raise an important and delicate question, namely the perspective of missionaries eager to baptize (sometimes out of a selfish motive of personal success or under pressure to get the numbers) and the reality. Bishops and branch presidents all over the world can testify to the tensions this causes. Rushing people into baptism without them even well understanding some of the basics nor the dimension of the commitment they make is certainly problematic. It does not mean there should always be a longer time frame, but missionaries are not always able nor willing to assess the readiness of candidates.

    Paul (25), and also Adam G (29), thank you for having read the Ensign article. I did clearly mention in my post it was a fellow student who initiated the student’s contact with the church, not the host family. Indeed, as Paul remarked, the girl “made an informed choice after learning their [= her parents] (negative) reaction”. Next, as I wrote, “she was baptized while being abroad and against her parents’ wish.” That is the problem we highlight. I don’t think we have a different reading on the essence of the story. Thank you also, Paul, for relating extra information on converts you have taught and where you felt it “appropriate for them to be baptized where they would receive continuing support following their baptism, rather than rushing them into the water”. Your experience as a Mormon exchange student in a Catholic family is worth rereading! Exemplary.

    Suleiman (26), thank you also for your comment. But again, as has been said repeatedly in this thread, it is never a question for us to “stop or hinder them from joining the Church”. It is a question of appropriate timing and, when applicable in student exchange programs, of obedience to laws and regulations. Thanks, Peter LLC (28) for confirming that.

    Also, Peter LLC (27), you raise a valid aspect which I have seen myself in Belgium more than once. Our two international wards with lots of American families regularly attracted young local Belgians who had lived in the States. It was much more pleasant in those experienced wards than in small struggling units, moreover with the hope of marrying a young American. Understandable, but it does not help to build the local church.

  29. Pres. Hinckley shared a story in General Conference about a Military man who was in the US for training, who accepted the gospel while here, and who was returning home to a family and life that would shun him and a loss of promotional opportunities in his nation’s military. Pres Hinckley asked him why he was willing to make those sacrifices for the Gospel/church. The man answered, “It’s true isn’t it. Then what else matters.”

    Exchange students likewise might be returning home to families mad about their baptism and to wards/branches lacking the fun and society of LDS wards in the US/Utah. But is IS true, so what else does matter?

  30. “Students will not be permitted to make life-changing decisions, including but not limited to marriage, religious conversion, and other decisions with legal, political, religious, and/or social ramifications.”

    I like the juxtaposition here of marriage and religious conversion. If an exchange student falls in love and wants to get married, the appropriate action would be to finish out the exchange program and only then go ahead with any marriage plans. It would not be appropriate to get married (or even formally engaged) during the exchange program, and especially not without the parents’ consent or knowledge.

  31. I couldn’t agree more with this, Wilfried, and with rk’s comments. The costs are so different in different places. There will be plenty of time later for an exchange student to make a more informed decision and for the ward/branch that will be responsible for supporting that new member to be part of the process.

  32. My wife and I have hosted exchange students. It never would have crossed our minds to push for or allow baptism to occur, even if the desire had happened through no pressure of our own. It simply isn’t part of the program and is directly against the rules. In fact, one of the reasons we stopped participating in one program was that the evangelical administrator wanted us to stop sending a Hispanic, Catholic student to church with some Catholic friends of ours because “she should learn about Christianity while she’s here”. That is total disregard for the rules at the top local level of the program, and it’s wrong. If he had said it about one of our kids in an evangelical home, I wonder how everyone here would react.

    Age doesn’t matter in this situation. The situation itself matters – and I would be irate if one of my children was involved in a **high school** foreign exchange program and converted religions while out of the country, regardless of his or her age as a high school student. In college? Their choice completely. In high school? No way.

  33. Haven’t read the comments, but AMEN.

    Also, please don’t convert visiting students who risk their lives in their home countries should their families find out.

  34. I’m conflicted about this topic. In my youth, my family hosted exchange students multiple times and certainly never advocated for conversion to any faith (my mother is a member of the church, while my grandparents are Baptist). I completely understand the desire to respect the parents of students, avoid coercion, and obey the rules and regulations of the program. And certainly the church has to work under certain constraints if the person is a minor. But certain statements strike me negatively.

    “Students will not be permitted to make life-changing decisions, including but not limited to marriage, religious conversion, and other decisions with legal, political, religious, and/or social ramifications.”

    You can say it’s the American in me, but anytime I see “will not be permitted” in conjunction with religious conversion, it trips my internal alarms. While I hope that the intent is only to prevent coercion and potential legal issues, I’m very against preventing someone from exercising their right to choose what religious affiliation to have. That’s a dangerous path. (Also, their decisions can’t have any social ramifications? Please. Of course there will be social ramifications as a direct result of participating in the exchange program. Isn’t that part of the point?)

    The title of the post “Do not convert exchange students.”

    Here’s the thing, though, and there’s really no getting around this: We don’t convert people. The Spirit does. And no, I’m not just being a jerk and playing a semantics game. My point is if the person is over 18 and chooses to convert, they can be counseled to wait, they can be asked to wait, they can be strongly urged to wait until they return home before being baptized, but the host family is certainly not responsible for a student’s decision unless they are attempting to exert pressure contrary to the guidelines of the program (which would be unrighteous and likely would not lead to a true spiritual conversion).

    If, however, the host family simply lives their lives righteously and the student sees that, investigates it, feels the Spirit of the Lord and chooses to convert, that really is their decision and they are accountable for it. Social and even parental ramifications are theirs to bear. That is not something I say lightly and, yes, there are many “social” or “cultural” conversions that occur and often those converts do fall away. But to issue a blanket statement to not convert exchange students simply goes too far and assumes too much in my opinion. Not proselyting is one thing and I can understand that. Standing between someone and the Lord’s church is something else. Who are we to deny them those blessings?

  35. Joseph S. (33), you were right to remark the connection that rules make between marriage and religious conversion. These are life-altering decisions with familial implications. We tend to see conversion as an individual issue, which may be so in individualistic cultures, but in communal cultures religion is as interpersonal as marriage: you don’t marry to yourself, and you don’t convert in an individual void. In fact, Mormonism also sees religion as a fundamental familial, even marital experience. No exaltation without celestial marriage.

    Amira (34), thanks for the support! We must indeed stress the problem of “costs” of membership. Armand Mauss wrote an interesting article about this.

    Ray (35), I agree. The difference between high school and college age is a main factor. The example you give of the evangelical administrator of the exchange program tells it all.

    Amanda in France (36), bienvenue comme toujours. It’s good to hear voices from abroad who have more experience with the challenges and consequences of missionary work outside the U.S.

    J. Town (37), you raise an important issue. I touched upon it at the beginning of this comment when I drew the attention to the difference between individualistic and communal cultures. You said:

    You can say it’s the American in me, but anytime I see “will not be permitted” in conjunction with religious conversion, it trips my internal alarms. While I hope that the intent is only to prevent coercion and potential legal issues, I’m very against preventing someone from exercising their right to choose what religious affiliation to have. That’s a dangerous path.

    A lot could be said about this and it may become a topic for a separate post. Yes, I think you are right to feel it is “the American” (or, broader, Western society) in you, and that is in se valuable and commendable. Individual freedom is a hallowed principle. But there are cultures that do not share that same system of values because the communal good comes first. They see the individualistic course as the “dangerous path” because it can tear up families and communities in dissension and even bloody conflict. Are they wrong? Yes and no. But, let’s try to leave this discussion for a new post.

  36. I find President Hinckley’s story (comment 31) inspiring, but not necessarily a guide for any kind of policy. In my mission in Germany, we often taught people from predominantly Muslim countries, but we were not allowed to invite them to baptism without specific permission from the area presidency. It was generally understood that permission was unlikely to be granted if there was a sense that it would be dangerous for the potential convert to return to their home country after conversion.

  37. I agree that students should not change religions during a high school foreign exchange year, but I tend to see this as a responsibility of the hosting agency as it screens host families and sets expectations for both families and students. Like other commenters, I have a negative reaction to the idea of a church policy that places unnecessary restrictions on who is allowed to receive saving ordinances.

    I was an exchange student myself in high school, and I have continued to volunteer to support foreign exchange students being hosted in Utah. We make it clear to both our students and their (often Mormon) host families that students are not allowed to convert to another religion during their exchange year, although I absolutely encourage students hosted in Utah to participate in church activities with their host family, since this is such an important part of social and community life in this area.

    We also strongly encourage students to return to their home country at the end of the year and not to return to their host country for at least a year afterwards. After being so fully immersed in a culture, there are some students who are inclined to adopt it fully by emigrating or converting. It is better for students to have a chance to readjust to their own culture before deciding which elements of their host culture they would like to adopt for themselves.

  38. Thank you, Carole (39 and 40) for your comments. Good to bring up the Islamic issue. We have had the same Church rule in Belgium: no baptism of a Muslim without special permission and as far as I know that permission has never been granted for a Muslim who is still immersed in his culture. To all those who advocate “no restrictions whatsoever” to preaching and to conversion, I remind them of the very strict policy of the Church in Israel: no proselytizing in any form, not even a semblance of showing off what Mormonism stands for.

    Your suggestion to expect students to return to their home country for at least a year is also excellent.

  39. Unfortunately, Wilfried, the same cannot be said for your dear neighbors to the south. We really worry about one young girl in particular who ended up having to go home to her predominantly Muslim country, even though she hadn’t planned to.

    The big issue here are the numerous Chinese baptisms for people who aren’t legal. They meet the missionaries and get baptised, intending to stay, then are usually shipped home at one point or another where, unfortunately, they are unlikely to find a ward nearby. That, I think, is one of the reasons your situation was so upsetting to you: in Utah,(or in the States in general) the exchange student is integrated in a ward and well surrounded by Church culture and Church members, then goes home to Europe (in this case), where there just isn’t the same community. I live in a country that is particularly sparse in Church members and the youth are always the only members in their high schools/universities. Even with supportive parents, it’s hard to maintain a new lifestyle when you are the only one living it.

    Thanks for this post! Hope you caught the recent stuff on TV in France about us!

  40. Like other commenters, I have a negative reaction to the idea of a church policy that places unnecessary restrictions on who is allowed to receive saving ordinances.

    The thing is, we do this (sans “unnecessary”) all the time. I’ve never been in a ward that didn’t (generally) fight against baptizing the 11-year-old son of an inactive member. Because the 11-year-old likely won’t have parental support and won’t be able to get himself to Church unless his parents are willing to put in the work. (It may be that, in some areas, the ward could provide the necessary support, but in my neck of the woods, only two families in a ward have more than one car, many have no car, and most cars are full already every Sunday when they arrive at the parking lot. Oh, and our church building is not in a convenient public transportation part of Chicago.)

    Heck, we don’t let perfectly mature kids who are 17 and have their own car get baptized without parental support until they turn 18. We put all sorts of obstacles in the path of baptism, with good reason: we recognize that baptism isn’t the end of it, and try to make sure that converts will have the ability to keep coming.

    Not allowing high school exchange students to get baptized—even if they’re already 18—seems like a perfectly logical policy choice, especially where that policy comports with the norms of hosting an exchange student and the expectation of the parents. That’s not to say a Mormon host family shouldn’t practice their faith and set an example that the exchange student wants to emulate. But I know for a fact that there are missionaries and LDS congregations in Belgium, and if a kid can’t handle waiting 3 months, she’s likely not truly converted. IMHO.

  41. Amanda (42), yes, the occasional Muslim conversions, sometimes pushed by irresponsible missionaries, are a source of major concern. Few people in the U.S. seem to understand what the consequences can be for these converts. To convert (or to help convert “through the spirit”) exchange students from, e.g., an orthodox Jewish or an Islamic background, and then sent them back to their family, is most probably inflicting horror on these young people. It’s easy to tell a “fantastic” story of conversion of such persons, but next we let them return to a life of terror where we can’t do anything for them anymore. Somewhere there is a problem with such good-feeling vicarious sacrifice stories.

    “Hope you caught the recent stuff on TV in France about us!” No, I didn’t. Tell more.

    Sam (43), interesting comments concerning the reticence to baptize people without minimal guarantees for proper follow-up. Church leaders do it more than some would like to admit, and they do it for good reason. Otherwise the sacredness of the baptismal covenant would be in free fall. Jan (17) reminded us of the era of the infamous baseball baptisms.

    I like your statement “if a kid can’t handle waiting 3 months, she’s likely not truly converted”. Indeed. The problem here sits more with the host family, or the missionaries, who want to enjoy the (selfish) pleasure of witnessing the baptism and getting the “credit” for it. Sometimes also a lack of trust: if we don’t baptize her here and now, she may not want to be baptized anymore in her home country. As if baptism is a kind of game that can only be won on speed.

    All this, again, should not be interpreted as a refusal to baptize or as the establishment of unnecessary hurdles. Let’s avoid that polarization. We DO want converts.

  42. This topic strikes me as euro-centric. What about exchange students from parts of the world where the church is strong (ie certain parts of the Southern American hemisphere, the Philippines, etc)?

    We had an exchange student from Brazil when I was in high school. He came to church probably once a month with us (he liked to sleep in so usually we just let him, though sometimes he would tell us to wake him up for church the next day), he attended youth activities with me and my sister, and he even went to scout camp with me. He was also going to go to EFY with me but then cancelled because his sister came into town that week for a visit. These invites were more social than religious for our family, and we wanted him to feel like he could attend whatever he wanted. He did not convert, and we did not push it. He also never once asked for a ride to a Catholic church, the church of his heritage.

    But. Suppose he had wanted baptism, his parents were ok with it, and the home ward was a good place (I’d imagine it’s possible, given that his home city has a temple in it). Should we really deny him? Whatever happened to setting principles for the Saints and letting us figure things out on our own?

    While I agree it’s good to tread lightly, I disagree that this simply should not happen ever. There are lots of examples of when this would be appropriate, even if they are outnumbered by the examples of when this would not be appropriate.

  43. Excellent, Chadwick (45) to bring this up. Yes, we’ve been euro-centric, though commenters also mentioned similar (and worse) problems in China and all Islamic nations, and that’s a lot more territory than tiny Europe. But, I agree, if the home country of the exchange student, and the city he or she is from, has a thriving Mormon population, with stakes and even a temple, plus a tolerant multireligious environment, the situation is certainly different than the one we have been talking about in this thread.

    But, even so, the principles we discussed would still be valid. First, what are the rules under which the exchange program operates? If U.S. State Department rules apply and specific “no religious conversion” in the program, even not with parental permission as stated in some regulations, we cannot deliberately ignore these rules.

    Second, suppose these rules are not applicable (because of the host country or the program), would it be in the best interest of the students to baptize them during the exchange program or have it take place in their home town, with their parents perhaps present (who could also be prepared for the event) and local youth fellowshipping first? These are just questions and the answer may well be to baptize the student as soon as possible. But, as J (9) said, we must look at “the larger picture of that soul”.

  44. I am very late to this discussion and have read most of the comments. I pretty much agree with what you say here, Wilfried.

    My wife and I have hosted many foreign students for short periods of time in our home. We were one of many host families for a small English language school in California that helps foreign students study and pass the TOEFL test, as well as “vacation” students that come for 4 to 8 weeks just to experience California and learn some English at the same time. Students would come from all over South America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

    We never once attempted to convert or force some sort of experience on the students that stayed with us. We felt that by letting the student live with and see an actual Mormon family– that we don’t have horns on our heads or that we are brainwashed automatons– would go a long, long way in and of itself in changing attitudes about church members and, perhaps, plant good seeds that can grow when they get back to their own country and approached by missionaries or local members.

  45. One thing that may have been lost in this discussion is the fact that being a host family is, like being an employer, an essentially coercive position. You control the exchange student’s immediate source of food, transportation, shelter and probably other things. Even when the host family is trying to act without coercion, it is possible that the exchange student might feel that coercion.

    I think this is very similar to the employee-employer relationship. The employer is in a coercive position. What looks like a simple invitation to the employer, can easily be seen as a “you must do this” to the employee. Any Mormon employer has to know the pitfalls that come when your religion is mixed with your position as employer. For those in Utah or with Utah experience, how often have you heard non-member employees of Mormons or Mormon-owned businesses complain about religious bias in the workplace?

    When you are the employer (and even more so as the host family, where your power over the exchange student is greater, and the student is less mature and able to deal with it) you can coerce without even knowing that you are doing so.

    Its too easy for “would you like to come to church” to be perceived as “you must attend church” when it comes from those with significant power in a relationship.

    [Funny, this seems a lot like the lesson that Republicans were trying to teach Bill Clinton years ago — something about an intern if I remember correctly….]

  46. Wilfried, TF1 did a piece last Tuesday (le Journal de 20h, disponible sur replay), on Wednesday, they did a one-hour segment on C dans l’air on France 5, which I haven’t seen yet, and next week Canal+ is supposed to do something on Le Matinal, I’ll keep you posted. All this thanks to Romney and the Republican Convention. The journalists were all very nice, for once, but despite my dirtiest looks, I ended up being filmed anyway… Vivement la fin des élections!

  47. Sonny (47), yes, it’s this general impression of normality we leave on students that does the most good. We cannot underestimate the prejudices and even fear some students may have when they are placed with a Mormon family.

    Kent (48), you are absolutely right to bring up the point of employer-employee relationship. I would extend it to the concept of “power distance” in intercultural relations, something Geert Hofstede has studied to a great extent. The semantics of “inviting to do something” are different in various cultures. In American culture, with its ingrained individualism, it is still easier to turn down an invitation and make your own wishes known (but even there, as you said, not always evident). In other cultures, however, with a distant superior-inferior relation, the slightest hint can be understood as an order. We should indeed ask ourselves if exchange students from certain cultures, when gently “invited” to participate in Scripture reading or to come to church, do not feel this as an order. The next, more serious question is if the invitation to learn more about the gospel, to take the missionary discussions, and even to be baptized, is not understood as injunctions to be followed. I have seen more than once in the mission field that investigators from certain cultures always answer “yes” to the missionary questions, because it would be impolite to say “no” or to hesitate. And the missionaries, in turn, are ecstatic that they found such a “receptive” family to baptize… We should not be surprised to see the abysmal rate of inactivity afterward. Again (I already feel the need to hedge against criticism!), this does not mean that we cannot have many genuine and well-considered conversions among people of such cultures.

    Amanda (49), good to know about the media coverage in France. We are so used to all the negative reporting, that it’s a relief to see some positive items. The media are directly related to our topic of exchange students. The cult image the media have been spreading on Mormonism over so many years — FLDS, Big Love, interviews with ex-mo’s, anti-cult websites –- has an impact on how students’ families often think about us. That’s why families may refuse to have their child placed in a Mormon family. And that’s why it is so important that Mormon host families would give no reason to confirm the fears.

  48. When I was a student at BYU in 1983 (yes 1983 I’m old), there was a man from the middle east who was itching to get baptized but because he would be beheaded when he returned to his country it was not permitted. A bit of a threadjack but points to the safety of these students when returning home.

  49. We had 5 foreign exchange students when I was growing up. Almost all of the students were Catholic, but only one was observant. That student was with us when I was 14. He and I went to Mass in the morning, and most afternoons he went with us to church. My parents left it up to the students to decide what activities to participate in.

    There was one family in our ward who had stepped over the line, and he stayed with us, and the other exchange student, until it was time to go home. That family was only able to have LDS students after that.

    I absolutely agree that baptism can happen when a young person gets home. Did I miss the change to the Articles of Faith about honoring and obeying the laws of the land? Even by itself, that would be reason enough to not baptize an exchange student. All the other reasons are even more of a reason to make sure this law is strictly followed!

  50. It is insane and arrogant to think that the American host family should have any design whatsoever to change the religion of a child entrusted in their care. If anything, the host should make every effort to take the child to his or her own church should they so desire (usually they won’t). It is wrong not only to try to convert, but even to try to even impress on the child that your social and religious ways are any bit better than the child’s own.

    Hosts who try to make a religious impression on a foreign student by inflicting the whole family home evening schtick and making them fast when you fast and go to church when you go to church actually do more lasting harm than good and the tendency is to make Mormonism, and therefore America, look even more goofy, more backward, and more provincial. Many of the exchange kids I have known have been from decidedly progressive, modern, First World countries. It’s unlikely that any kid coming from, say, Sweden, is going to be all that impressed with American life, anyway. To try to inflict Mormonism or Evangelicalism on the poor kid is just going to send them back with a sour American experience. And–let’s not forget–it’s against the rules of the organization under which the host family is working.

  51. Henry (51), Julia (52) and tweedmeister (53), thanks for your contributions to this thread. You help convince those who tend to advocate ‘no restrictions’ whatsoever in our missionary efforts, that the picture is broader and more complex. The fact that the church itself restricts missionary work toward Muslims and Jews in a number of situations illustrates this wise approach. It also reminds me of the church advice not to do active missionary work toward visitors during the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake. At the same time, we know that just being good examples and showing tolerance and respect has led to the later conversion of many.

  52. Wilfried- I see the Elders in our Family Ward act in a rather irresponsible manner. One, they really rush discussions, because they want to get foreign students baptised as soon as possible. I think that they seem to be totally oblivious to the problems that trying to convert African or Middle eastern or folks from the Indian sub-continent who are Islamic. Most Missionaries, and also the Mission Presidents seem to be generally totally clueless about the prospects of converting them. Students from Mainland China – that is another group – students seem to rush through to Baptism, without understand anything- they can barely speak English, but they do it hoping that by becoming a Mormon will help them gain residency in the USA. But, the Elders, the Ward Missionaries, and members seem to not care about all the problems they create both for the Church, and for the people they try to, or actually convert.

  53. (updated comment)

    Daniel (55), that is indeed a challenging situation that we face all over the world, this tension between the missionaries’ eagerness and the reality of the individual conversion process with all its implications. Usually, experienced local members, and certainly the bishopric, will try to slow down the rush because they know what the consequences can be in terms of converts’ unfamiliarity with expectations and next rapid inactivity. Rare seem the mission presidents that will side with those members. Not only are mission presidents also under pressure to achieve convert numbers, but it is difficult for them to disappoint missionaries who view the baptism as their ultimate reward. Of course, in well organized units, there should be a trusting cooperation between missionaries and members. One of the problems, however, is the frequent turnover of missionaries, hampering continuity.

    The Islamic issue is even much more serious. In the case of rushed teaching and baptism of exchange students from problematic countries, where they risk their life by having changed religion, the blind eagerness to baptize them is almost criminal. But, as far as I know, at least in Europe, the Area Presidency has prohibited the baptisms in such cases.

    It’s also a deep preparation issue: missionaries are totally unprepared to understand the turmoil conversion entails, and to assess familial implications and the potential dramatic social consequences. “Preach my gospel” is silent on those aspects. Just read the blogspots of many missionaries in the field to see where their focus lies and where their level of maturity sits. There is a lot of work to do on these issues. We can only hope for a growing sensitivity between the various actors and for improved programs.

    All this, again, is not to say that we cannot have quick and succesful conversions nor that we do not have quite mature missionaries and mission presidents.

  54. This thread may have run its course, but during this discussion I have been reminded of an experience my family had with one exchange student. After the graduation ceremony this exchange student wanted to go “camping with friends.” He was furious when my parents gave him a firm “No,” This kid probably believed that we were trying to impose our religion on him because there would inevitably be alcohol involved (although he tried to cover up that fact). My parents just didn’t want his mother to get a call informing her that her son had been killed or injured in an alcohol-related accident. Hopefully as an adult he understood that my parents were looking out for his well being.

  55. Thanks, rk (57), for the additional information. I agree that the responsibility of host parents is significant, akin to a babysitter, even if the students hate the babysitting mentality. Mormon host parents should understand that this responsibility also extends to the protection of the student’s own religion and ideology, as they would do for his or her physical safety.

  56. My sister-in-law and also my former elders quorum president were both converted as exchange students visiting Utah from Germany. Their parents were not thrilled, and they had to make some significant sacrifices to remain active, but they are pretty glad their hosts shared the gospel with them.

  57. Lets flip this around (sorry is someone else already brought up this thought experiment). You send your 17/18 year-old Mormon daughter off to an exchange program in say India. Your child comes back having converted to Islam and wearing a head scarf as a now practicing Muslim. What is your response? A kind letter back to the host family thanking them for furthering the spiritual development of your child? Telling your 18 year-old daughter you think it is great she has found such a wonderful new path? A sincere investigation into your child’s new religion so you can better understand and support them? Hey maybe you may convert yourself! If you can sincerely say that you would have no problem with this as the parents in the scenario and would have no trepidations about sending your next daughter to be hosted by a practicing Muslim/Jehovah’s Witness family then Matthew 19 it is.

    Somehow I am doubting this is how 90% of Mormons would react and especially Mormons who are baptizing their exchange students. I am pretty open-minded about other religions being good paths to God and I would still be upset at the exchange parents for letting this happen. Hence, I don’t see how I could possibly justify supporting this as a host parent. The OP makes lots and lots of sense.

  58. Thanks, Tyler (59) and rah (60), for adding your experiences to this thread. As I said in the post, both success and tragedy can be told as examples. But whatever the situation and the outcome, the principles and regulations should be followed.

  59. Just a comment. I do not believe in converting anyone to a certain religion, but after having a Dutch high school student and watching him evolve and change, it was been very rewarding. He came here with condoms and use to no supervision. Bars, getting drunk, smoking, foul language, and next to zero respect for anyone over the age of 18. He said to me after being in our house, with rules, accountability, not getting drunk, no smoking (he quit when he got on the plane), making him be responsible for his grades, and we decided to implement a NO DATING or supporting any girl friendships since he was so sexually experienced and promiscuous . As a result, he said he enjoyed having a clear head, is instead observing girls and looking for what he wants in a girlfriend, instead of the quickly. He was so superficial when he first got here, I thought we were going to go nuts. ALl he could talk about was beer, sex and how he is never supervised and is allowed to stay out and get drunk all night. Now, he is focusing on getting fit (made him join sports) he is on the track team. He joined the Cross country ski team and at first hung out with the party boys and did not take it seriously. So I decided to start showing up to practices and signed him up for races. Kicked his Dutch butt! But it taught him something. You will get out of life what you put into it, and he is seeing the value in putting something into his life. This has been a challenge,and it has been very rewarding.
    I will be sad and happy when he goes. I want to see if he has the character to remain changed and true to his health and overall well being, or if he is going to get sucked into the bad habits again once he is home. So while I don’t believe in shoving religion down their throat, I think there is nothing wrong with showing them that habits such as our student came with are not cool.

Comments are closed.