The Great Expectations of Mormonism

2013-06-16 Future MissionaryI’m going to wander a little farther from familiar territory in this post. I hope you’ll willingly entertain some speculation and tentative analysis about the institutional nature of the Church in a changing society and indulge my focus primarily on American culture. I’m interested to see what others make of these ideas.

First, only institutions that develop successful methods for continuously bringing in new members can survive over the long term. Since the Church has survived and thrived in the centuries since its founding, it stands to reason that the Church must have developed reasonably effective recruitment practices. Of course the Church’s missionary practices are well-known, but in this post I’m interested in how the Church contributes to the education and socialization of Mormon children.

Second, I think that Mormon adults who are married and have children are relatively secure in their Church membership relative to younger, single Mormons. Young parents are already heavily invested in the Church as a place where their kids are socialized and cared for with other children and–in any case–often don’t have the energy to consider a seismic change like leaving the Church they have known their whole lives. Parents of older children may have  more latitude, but by this time they are even more deeply enmeshed in the Church.

If this is true, then it would make sense for the Church to focus a great deal of time and energy on shepherding young Mormons through adolescence and into young parenthood. I think this is exactly what happens and–judging from the statistics–the Church has had real and significant success in many (but not all) areas. Mormon adolescents have significantly lower rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, STIs, and other common ills of adolescence in modern society. Mormons also have lower divorce rates (for temple marriages), higher rates of educational attainment (for men and women), and buck the trend by having a positive correlation between educational attainment and religiosity. On the other hand, Utah leads the nation in suicides for men between the ages of 15 and 24.

2013-06-16 Future Missionary OnesieThird: the Church’s primary strategy seems to be placing a high degree of emphasis on a series of important milestones for young men and women beginning with the graduation from primary at age 12. I’m not that familiar with the current class outlines (it’s been a while since I was a teenager, but my kids aren’t teenagers yet), but the overall idea has been to have major milestones at ages 12, 14, 16, and 18. There’s slightly more emphasis for boys, of course, because of the male-only priesthood but in practice there’s a similar emphasis for boys to go from deacon, to teacher to priest and finally elder and for women to go from beehive, to mia maid, to laurel and finally to the Relief Society. In addition, men are expected to go on a mission at 19 (now 18, of course), and then men and women are expected to marry fairly early. Children, historically, have come soon after.

The transition from formal programs for young adults to actual adulthood can be fraught, but the deeper problem seems to be that in order to imbue the significant milestones with enough importance, they have come to be placed on towering pedestals. This is especially true of the culminating milestones: going on a mission and getting married, and that’s my fourth point.

John K. Williams, who has written a memoir called Heaven Up Here, is one of the leading critics of Mormon reticence to speak with candor about their missions. Based on my own experience: he’s on to something. I could never honestly say that my mission was the best 2 years of my life although it was certainly (up to that point), the hardest 2 years. That’s not to say it wasn’t important and meaningful, nor is it to say I wouldn’t go again. I would. It was just painful for reasons and in ways that I still do not fully understand. But when I came home, I didn’t talk about this. I haven’t really spoken of it publicly until now because it was a matter of duty and honor to say good things or nothing at all about my mission, lest I dissuade the rising generations, dishonor my family, and hurt the people I served and worked with on my mission.

The expectations for marriage are even more shockingly unrealistic. One stark example of this is the last book of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight saga: Breaking Dawn. After 3 books of unrelenting, barely repressed sexual tension, Bella and Edward are finally married. And, although the novel goes on for quite some time, that’s basically the end. The wedding means sex, a perfect child, wealth, a perfect home decorated with an unlived lifetime’s worth of mementos, and even an immortal body and an eternal family. All of the promised goals of eternal life that Mormons seek in the next life are collapsed into the wedding itself as though marriage, burdened down with the weight of expectation, had collapsed under the weight of its own gravity and become an existential black hole, sucking the meaning out of everything in its vicinity.

2013-06-16 Bella and Edward's Cottage

Forget the expense of the furnishings, how do you have a lifetime’s worth of decorating and books in your first home if you don’t live together before marriage?

My anecdotal evidence–collected from friends of approximately my own age–is that actual marriages are the complete opposite of this. Virtually every single one of my close, active, Mormon friends has gone through hell in the first couple of years of marriage. Only now, about a decade down the road, do I think most of us could talk about it objectively and calmly, but of course most don’t want to. In addition to reawakening painful memories and, again, the ever-present concern of discouraging younger Mormons, there’s the additional reticence of talking about something as intimate as our marriages. And so, even more so than with missions, we simply don’t talk at all and every rising generation walks blithely into an emotional minefield.

Up until now, however, these twin weak spots have occurred within a relatively short window of vulnerability, but social changes are extending this opening. What was once an Achilles’ Heel is growing into more of an Achilles’ Calf or maybe even Achilles’ Leg.

The first change, beginning decades ago, was the influx of women into the working world. Regardless of political or cultural values, the influx of a large additional quantity of labor had the inescapable economic consequence of lowering wages. If Mormons wish to maintain a standard of living commensurate with dual-income working families while at the same time enacting the Mormon value of a breadwinning father and a homemaking mother, then Mormon men have to earn twice as much as non-Mormon men. The only way to accomplish this is with heavy additional investment in postgraduate education and extreme amount of work early in a career, both of which act to postpone marriage and/or children.

This economic shift, along with larger social trends, has contributed to an even broader and stronger trend towards marrying and having children later. Often called  “prolonged adolescence“, there’s an idea that the 20s are the new teens: a time of exploration and risk-free experimentation. This trend, already on the rise before the economic downturn, was exacerbated by the high unemployment rate that forced many young adults to postpone careers or pick alternative routes–like unpaid internships–to try and elbow their way into the job market.

In practice, this means that the sometimes painful let-down when the expectations for missions or marriages met the reality now have a longer period of time in which they can have an impact. This coincides with my impression that the Mormons most likely to leave the Church are coming from this demographic: highly educated, return missionaries in their 20s  or early 30s who are unmarried or recently married. (There’s probably a considerable lag  between the onset of a decision to leave and execution.)

I know I’ve touched on of sensitive and controversial topics, so I want to try and be clear here at the end. I don’t fault the Church for the emphasis on milestones because we’re all humans struggling to do the best and the emphasis comes primarily out genuine love and concern for our children. Besides, some variation around the Church’s teachings is inevitable, and something like Twlight strikes me as out there on the extreme end of Mormon culture.

I do believe we need to make changes in how we teach our kids, but I’m not advocating for or against any specific policy changes. One of my persistent beliefs is that Mormon members have an obligation not to look to leadership for guidance in every step we take, and that most important changes happen at the individual and family level. Nor should anything I have written be perceived or used to judge or condone the decisions of members who have left the Church or stayed despite struggles. Broad macro trends rarely give insight into individual lives, and this post is not an attempt to formulate  a comprehensive model of Mormon faith participation.  It’s just my thoughts on the changing relationship between how the Church helps raise new Mormons and the social context within which that training takes place.

69 comments for “The Great Expectations of Mormonism

  1. Interesting take. I was with you except for your impression that those who leave the Church tend to be in the highly educated demographic. My own observations are anecdotal, but it seems to me it is those without college degrees to those with no post-graduate education who are more likely to fall away. I can think of only one MD/JD/CPA/PH.D who I’ve ever known who was inactive/less active.

  2. You might be right, Dave. My impression is that those leaving are youngish and college educated, but I didn’t intend to put the emphasis on post-graduate degrees. That goes beyond my own observations.

  3. Nathaniel, could you point us to a source for the Utah suicide rate for men 15-24? I can’t find that age range broken down by state and sex, and what I do find puts Utah around #10.

    I guess I’m also kind of hesitant to become too deeply concerned based on anecdotes about missions, marriage, and Twilight. I don’t think any marriage starts out without any friction, but I know very few who would describe the early years as hellish. These are all issues worth discussing, but by the time one combines impressions about topics A, B, and C with speculation about demographic changes Y and Z, one ends up in a place that’s too hypothetical to lose sleep over.

  4. You say that “Virtually every single one of my close, active, Mormon friends has gone through hell in the first couple of years of marriage.”

    It’s been a long time since I went through my first couple of years of marriage, but my wife and I were active Mormons (but not your friends) back then, and “gone through hell” is almost exactly the opposite of our experience. And I’ve seen four of my children marry, and they know better than to run to me to help sort out marital hell, but viewed from my perspective, those first years of marriage haven’t been hell for them either. It makes me wonder just what kind of people you hang around with.

  5. I think you hit the sweet spot on this one, Nathaniel. Social and demographic changes in broader society affect the LDS population more or less to the same degree they affect the larger US population, and it is opening up gaps in the scripted Mormon life path. It’s harder to get young men on missions, although the age change might fix this; it’s harder to get through college and graduate school; and it’s harder to get married.

    A couple of items you didn’t mention that intensify the membership tensions opened up by these demographic changes: (1) tithing, which pinches harder in a world of stagnating incomes and rising prices; (2) the Internet, which makes criticism of LDS doctrine and history easily accessible; (3) the general US decline in participation with institutional religion, which affects Mormonism just like it affects other Christian denominations.

  6. Jonathan-

    I linked to Deseret News re: the suicide rate. The article is older than I thought (2006), but the general point I wanted to make is simply that Mormon youth stand out on several key indicators, but there may be room for improvement on others. I say “may” because the equivalence of “Utah” with “Mormon” is just one of many bridges to cross in drawing clear causal data from complex social data. Lots of people are experts in that kind of analysis. I’m not, but I thought it was important to at least note that there may be areas of concern along with areas of success.

    I guess I’m also kind of hesitant to become too deeply concerned based on anecdotes about missions, marriage, and Twilight.

    Well, one of the reasons for writing this post was to cast a wider net for input. I think on the subject of Mormon missions in particular there’s reasonable grounds to suspect it’s a fairly widespread issue. In addition to John K. Williams (cited in the post), there’s also Ryan McIlvain and his book “Elders”. Ryan’s been interviewed by Fresh Air and featured in the LA Times and so forth, so perhaps there’s a risk of a vocal minority, but from what I’ve read the general feeling that Mormon mission expectations are significantly different than the reality is fairly widespread.

    As for marriages: like I said, there’s an understandable reticence on the part of most to talk about it. Going back to high school, I’ve always been the kind of person who seems to end up getting confided in a lot. (Sometimes much more than I’d like to have been.) For whatever reason I seemed to accumulate lots more first-hand stories of serious life tragedies (drug addiction, rape, abortion, homelessness, suicide, child abuse, and so on) than most people who traveled in essentially the same circles. So maybe the problem is real, but lies beneath the surface? Or maybe I’ve just got a skewed sample? I don’t know, but I wanted to learn more. Hence today’s post. :-)

  7. Mark B-

    It makes me wonder just what kind of people you hang around with.

    With all due respect, I think you might want to consider that the apparent tone of judgmentalism is one of the reasons people opt not to confide these kinds of problems to you. It’s been my experience that there is significantly more tragedy in apparently ordinary human lives than most would guess just by looking from the outside.

  8. Almost all of the less active under-40 couples in my ward don’t have college degrees. That’s deep inside the Mormon Corridor, but even wards I’ve been in outside the Mormon Corridor tend to have the same issues, the big difference being the influence of the Mormon Corridor culture on young adults marrying and having kids quickly, regardless of whether they’re active LDS or not.

    So our neighbors, many of whom come to church once every two or three months, still get married young and have lots of kids. But they’re less likely to have that college degree than the more active members. They’re also much less likely to have served a mission.

  9. I have six siblings and about fifty first cousins between the ages of 14 and 43. With one notable exception, inactivity in the church directly correlates with lack of education. Except for that single case (and the three not old enough for college) those that are not attending church either did not attend college or did not finish a degree.

    The church must recognize this correlation; hence its spending on education, including the universities, the Perpetual Education Fund, and now the amazing new Pathways program.

  10. I guess there’s a difference between “leaving the church” and just sort of hanging around as a less active, go-to-church-twice-a-year type. The latter tend to be less educated.

    Perhaps those who officially leave the church are more educated.

    We all know RMs who have left the church (officially or not). But the vast majority of people I know who struggle with activity are not RMs.

  11. Nathaniel–

    As I mentioned in my initial comment, you don’t know me. And you obviously misread my attempt at humor as “judgmentalism.” I’m sorry.

  12. I think the best way to stop the prolonging of adolescence is to make our education more time efficient. If a person could get a college and master’s degree in four years, they would be better off. If kids graduated from high school at a younger age, then they could go to college younger. The less time you spend getting the degrees, the more time you can spending making money. I’m not saying we should teach less stuff or lower requirements. I’m saying that we are going to need to make kids work harder when they are younger, so the can be happier when they are older. There will be a demand for these kind of schools soon and we are over due for an educational revolution. Also giving more career advice to pHD students. Many of them end up taking 10 years to get a pHD, with good planning they can reduce it to 2 years depending on the subject.

  13. Tim-

    Almost all of the less active under-40 couples in my ward don’t have college degrees… They’re also much less likely to have served a mission.

    If someone doesn’t serve a mission, then none of my model really applies. Remember, the idea I’m toying with is that it’s a combination of failed expectations and more time for to react to that let-down that leads to exiting the church (not just inactivity). If a person never serves a mission, then they can’t experience that let-down. If a person never gets married, then they can’t experience that let-down. (Not that everyone does, of course. Lots of people love their missions and have great marriages from day 1.)

    So I should have been more clear, that what I’m really talking about is RMs who leave the Church.

  14. If a kids start working hard and getting their GED at 16, they could go to a University get a fast track BS in three years and be out at 19. They could then go on there mission for 2 years and leave when they are 21. They could then go an get a Masters or PhD and leave between ages 23 and 29.

    If the kids gets their GED at 14, they can get a BS and master’s degree and leave at age 19. Go on a mission and be back by 21. They could then either get a job or get a pHD and be out when they are 26.

  15. I’m not an RM but I suspect those who’s spirituality or spiritual experiences peaked during their missions (a common story) would experience let-down at least spiritual let-down as they busy their lives up with all the distractions of living, working, raising a family and all of the church make work activity, where is adequate be still and know that I am God time? We are far too busy acquiring stuff and worshiping the church and it’s rules to actually walk in the Spirit.

  16. Thought-provoking post. On the issue of milestones, I think that part of the problem has to do with the fact that the dating world for young Mormon singles has changed drastically and LDS administrators, if they do actually actually recognize that dating is much different, are at a loss for what to do about it. The fact of the matter is that collective female expectations have changed from what they were in the past. Females now largely see themselves pursuing careers and believe gender roles to not be as distinct as they used to be. Females by and large have greater expectations for a mate and the males, collectively have a difficult time living up to those expectations. One approach has been to harp on men for not taking more initiative and “hanging out” and not dating. Why have they not been taking initiative? Because dating has produced too much rejection for them and makes them think twice. Hanging out has proven to be a safer less risky way of engaging the opposite sex.

    The change in the dating world has made it so that it takes longer for young singles to marry. And the LDS administration doesn’t know how to create post-mission milestones for the young singles, other than marriage and children. The young singles are encouraged to attend singles wards where the leaders, not knowing much of an alternative and used to dealing with teenagers in their family wards, continue to base programs for young single adults on the model of the youth program for the teens. An increasing number of young singles grow tired of the treatment by their local leaders as teens and cultivate new identities outside the rubric of the LDS church programs and seek new environments to validate their identities. Many of them feel that the LDS church does not and cannot speak to their needs in the capacity and with the effectiveness of other more secular models. Anyhow just some more theorizing.

  17. “I can think of only one MD/JD/CPA/PH.D who I’ve ever known who was inactive/less active.”

    Were they married or single? It would seem that if those seeking higher degrees are married, especially with kids, while they seek them, they tend to seek the church for support in their lives and tend to spend time only achieving the degree and not exploring new thought. The unmarried tend to hang around different groups of friends. If they are seeking their degree in a location where there are not many opportunities to date other LDS, they’ll date non-LDS. Then I would think that there would be a greater propensity for them to question/doubt the LDS church’s claims and leave the LDS church. Speaking from my own experience, I know many unmarried seekers of higher degrees who leave; they have more time to reflect, larger non-LDS social circles, and less to lose by leaving.

  18. My husband and I fall into the demographic here – both RMS, both college/post colelge-educated. I can absolutely relate to your description of marriage and I have wondered time and again why we struggle so much when others seem to be perfectly content. I would love if there was more openness about these things (and I agree with your take on your mission – it wasn’t the best 18 months of my life but it was important for me and I am glad I did it. But again, I have often wondered what is wrong with me that it wasn’t the best 18 months of my life).
    So I would love a more candid and helpful discourse about these significant but difficult milestones. My husband and I are active and intend to remain that way but the dissonance between our lived experience and what I hear talked about has made it harder, not easier, for us to work through things.
    And I agree whole-heartedly with this: “there is significantly more tragedy in apparently ordinary human lives than most would guess just by looking from the outside.”

  19. I am not Mormon (Catholic), but found this piece interesting. I’ve seen similar issues crop up in Catholic culture as a result of broad cultural shifts too. I’d also point out that in secular culture, romantic love is practically worshiped. (Check out any number of Rom-Com chick flick). Finding “the one” and getting married is considered at the top of the list of life goal’s for most Americans. This seeps into religious cultures too. A priest from Africa once told me, “You American Catholics are obsessed with marriage. We don’t see single youth crying about being single in Africa! Instead they are crying if they can’t become a priest or nun!” He was sharing this to point out that our priorities and expectations might be a little skewed… and no doubt, this has led to some serious let-downs among those who do marry. (Also, most devout Catholics yearn for kids, often larger families, and that is another cross when/if kids don’t come easily or parenting is far more difficult than expected). Also, I don’t know if my friends are just more transparent or if this is a “Catholic thing” (we love to talk about suffering, haha!) or what, but I’d say that most of my friends have openly shared what you have experienced with marriage – that the first 2 years can be *very hard*.

  20. In my stake there are 3 options for male RMs. Inactivity, stay here or move away-that 1st and 3rd options are sadly the biggies, it’s as if a mission is something you do and not something you become

    as a divorced male active RM, I can say that married and realtively successful is the mold guys have to fit

  21. This is my problem with the OP

    If Mormons wish to maintain a standard of living commensurate with dual-income working families while at the same time enacting the Mormon value of a breadwinning father and a homemaking mother, then Mormon men have to earn twice as much as non-Mormon men.

    I don’t blame the church or think it has to change much. I think the idea that we have to “keep up with the Joneses”, especially the non-Mormon ones, is a MAJOR problem affecting all of society and especially LDS youth.

    LDS leaders like to consider stress on a family when extending calls for significant leadership positions (bishopric, RS/EQ presidency, aux presidencies, or any stake calling) and financial problems are always a leading source of stress. They don’t want to further stress a family that they percieve to have financial problems. Because people with less education usually have less income, they are less likely to get more prominent callings, and therefore less likely to be percieved as very-active, IMO. Conversely, the more educated/better income people are more visible and because of prominent callings are more likely to stay active.

    Because unit leaders are usually considered to be living more righteously, and in my experience among the more wealthy members in a unit, it creates an impression that righteous living=more money/income. I think it is a terrible mistake, but a very common one, to view money/wealth as a symbol that someone is living righteously. I think many young people have a strong desire to have the big house/car/toys and to “keep up with the Joneses” unnecesarily in order to give the impression of wealth and righteousness. IMO that is the change that needs to be made. I think early years of marriage would be much less “hellish” if couples weren’t worried about money and the perception it gives… if we could follow Paul’s sage advice “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” – I think that we’d make huge strides in family happiness. And teaching that to our kids will set them up for more happiness than working them harder/younger.

  22. Funny, as far as marriage goes, my experience has been a lot different. Everyone always told me how hard marriage was and how difficult it is. They would never tell me what exactly is hard about it though… So I got married thinking it would be really hard but rewarding. So far my experience is that it’s not nearly as hard as everyone put on to be, it’s still quite rewarding though.

    (Queue responses saying that’s just my experience and not indicative of the larger trend, to which I reply so is yours.)

  23. The relattive difficulty or ease of marriage is strongly related to the psychological health and maturity of both partners, their match and their attraction for each other.

  24. The relative difficulty or ease of marriage is also strongly related to all kinds pressures from outside the marriage, including support, lack of support, or harassment from extended family, poverty and other money troubles or lack thereof, fertility or lack thereof, job opportunities or lack thereof…

    It’s easy to blame a hard marriage on the participants, and a hard mission on the missionary. But that’s a bit too simplistic.

  25. Jax, I think there is some degree of truth in your critique about keeping up with the Joneses, but I think there are deeper motivations for doing so than just wanting to project righteousness through wealth/success. I think anxiety about children’s futures has more to do with it. The most expensive homes usually feed into the best school districts, after all. And since a middle class childhood now consists of a series of paid activities (dance, soccer, piano, karate, etc.) instead of unstructured free time, living off of only one modest salary can affect children’s ability to even just socialize with peers and build friendships. Not that those developments in modern child-rearing are themselves without critique, but just saying – there are reasons besides vanity for wanting to keep up with the Joneses.

  26. Nathaniel, I had read the article you linked to but missed the line the first time, even when I searched for it. Now I’m curious about their sources. If the Utah male 15-24 suicide rates were similar to the higher frequencies found in the western U.S., as other Utah suicide rates seem to be, that would tell us one thing, while if they were substantially different (as the #1 ranking would suggest), that would tell us something very different.

    There have been exposés of missionary life that play well for a national audience for some time, but I’m reluctant to privilege their perspective as the real truth about missions. It’s true, though, that it can be difficult to talk about missionary experiences with people who weren’t there, as I was reminded recently while helping to teach a missionary prep class to 17- and 18-year olds.

  27. I suppose that I disagree with your idea that Mormonism teaches a fairytale view of mission and marriage (especially of marriage), but like yours my view is based on anecdote.

    All I can say is that in my own personal experience, I was told that the mission was a hugely important and the best time in life, but that I wasn’t given a definition of best. Instead, my mission experience defined best for me–‘best’ turns out to mean trying to live an active spirituality at a pace that painfully and horribly exceeds your capabilities, with miraculous events sporadically and unpredictably taking up the slack by transfiguring you with light and joy. Marriage, it turns out, has been something of the same.

    In my current ward, both the Young Men’s President and the Bishop have a ‘death is lighter than a feather’ attitude towards missions where they are constantly telling the YM based on their own mission experiences how tough missions will be *as an incentive*–go on a mission, earn your scars as a warrior for Christ. But its clear in listening to others’ reactions that their mission experience (and mine) isn’t everybody’s. Quite a few people seem to have had missions that were really spiffy and full of fairly uncomplicated spiritual joy juice, like a two-year long EFY camp.

    My guess is that the lengthening distance between mission and marriage is a problem not because of relentlessly positive preaching about mission and marriage, but for sociological reasons. Having a gap between mission and marriage would be problematic whatever our expectations of marriage were.

  28. Bryan S. No, didn’t go in expecting it to be hard, but expected it to be harder than it has been. I got a great wife who really understood what an eternally-long commitment meant much sooner than I did… so maybe she’d say it was hard to drag me along early on. But I doubt she’d ever say it. But we also had great support from both sides, little harassment from family, and niether of us had money/status as a goal so it didn’t stress us out losing jobs and getting education.

    Jaime, I know you’re right about other factors contributing to desires for money. I was simply focused on money in relation to church activity. More money = more prominent callings in each of the 8 units I’ve been in since I was a teenager. But while the world will always continue to chase after the almight dollar, I don’t think it is a recipe for happiness, even for church members. I do disagree with you on your last sentence “there are reasons besides vanity for wanting to keep up with the Joneses.” I would say they are all vanity. Poor kids have friends, poor kids play sports, poor kids can be happy, any library will give you a good education for almost nothing. People’s vanity make them want to be successful, and in the US success=money.

    If someone says the phrase, “Bob has been very successful”, it doesn’t matter what Bob does, people think Bob has earned a lot of money. We NEED to disconnect success from money, for there are MANY things that are more important to be successful at then at making money. As soon as people start to see that having a great family life is successful then THAT will be when they stop chasing money! And that family life is the goal LDS people should have. That is the focus the Church has tried to press upon people, and should continue, but IMO we’ve become to culturally close to “the world” to leave the rat race and focus ourselves on what is truly important.

  29. Jonathan-

    There have been exposés of missionary life that play well for a national audience for some time, but I’m reluctant to privilege their perspective as the real truth about missions. It’s true, though, that it can be difficult to talk about missionary experiences with people who weren’t there.

    My intention is not to privilege a minority, jaded view. The problem for me is that a lot of what they say about missions rings true to me. And I don’t consider my perspective jaded. My mission was hard, but I am proud that I served and would not change my decision to do so.

    You say that it’s hard to talk about missionary experiences with people who weren’t there, but I find it far easier to talk to folks who haven’t served than to other RMs. There’s just this expectation that you talk about how much you loved your mission, how awesome it was, and so forth. I have a very limited selection of happy stories (but enough for most conversations with non-RMs), and then I can either just fade out of the conversation or start mentioning the stories that aren’t quite as happy. Usually, of course, I just fade out. People don’t like having a wet blanked thrown over the RM reminiscence parade, and I don’t begrudge them that. On the other hand, I actively avoided the missionaries for the 10+ years since my mission because I have such a negative association that I don’t even like being near Elders. Not their fault, of course, but that’s just how I feel.

    Based on my conversations, I definitely think that my perspective is the minority among active Mormons, but I don’t think it’s quite as tiny a minority as some other RMs might believe.

  30. My mission experience was pretty difficult. I went in expecting 2 years’ worth of the “Called to Serve” video. When I left, I think if I were to spread the 30 minutes of that video out over 2 years, it might have been more accurate. My natural introversion and depressive tendencies made tracting my own personal hell – especially when it was not uncommon to tract 8 hours every day and still not even get a single first discussion. (In Bulgaria, joining the Church usually meant that a person lost ALL of their friends, so finding investigators through them was not effective.)

    So, when I came home, I was asked to speak at a Stake Priesthood meeting about how to prepare for a mission. The other recently-returned-missionary gave the standard “my-mission-was-so-awesome-and-I-loved-every-second-of-it” speech about reading your scriptures and praying and all that. My talk was more focused on learning how to work hard and do things you really don’t want to do because my mission was very discouraging in terms of actual success as measured by baptisms. (To be fair, it may have come across as more negative than that). Guess which one of us was asked to accompany high council speakers after that? (No, it wasn’t me.)

    So I think you may be right that we have a tendency to emphasize the highlights and downplay the low points when talking about missionary work. And it’s understandable. After all, you don’t recruit people to join an all-volunteer army by talking about the pain of holding your best friend while he bleeds out or extolling the courage of the people who now are barely functional parts of society due to traumatic brain injury. But it can lead to some very badly disillusioned veterans.

  31. “There’s just this expectation that you talk about how much you loved your mission, how awesome it was, and so forth.”

    Exactly. I remember being over at my in-laws last Christmas and talking on the phone with my brother-in-law. He didn’t talk long since it was mission policy that he limit his time on the phone. After he hung up, I then made a remark of it being a bit austere to limit the missionaries to so little conversation time with their families. My remark, though well-intended and non-confrontational, was a conversation stopper among my in-laws who swiftly changed the subject. It went to show that they believed the mission policies were beyond questioning.

    But, yes there is this tendency to romanticize the mission as the hardest but most fruitful experience that must certainly be one’s best two years up until that point. To reflect on it with even the most minor of constructive criticisms is outright heresy. I certainly had some good experiences on my mission, but I certainly don’t think it was the best two years of my life or that it was the most productive use of my time at that point. It wasn’t terribly hard. I didn’t have to worry about income, food, taking care of a family, and other travails. Learning to take initiative, make decisions, get along with people of different backgrounds, and keep knocking on doors and making street contacts was the hardest thing about it. I have no desire to repeat the experience and will place no expectations on my kids to serve, although I will support them if they desire to do so.

  32. Thanks, Nathaniel (& commenters). Very valuable themes to study. Great insights. I appreciate your admission of a “focus primarily on American culture”. Imagine what the themes in this thread would mean in other countries, where more than half of church members reside in a wide variety of cultures and where Mormons are, in most cases, a tiny minority. What we need, above all, are solid demographical and sociological data through surveys. I don’t think we can seriously tackle many of these issues without clear figures. Researchers, where are you?

  33. Hi Nathaniel. First of all, don’t believe a word my wife says about our first years of marriage. Second, I think expectations and disappointment are/can be huge challenges. We tend to get frustrated, as human beings, when other people or experiences don’t meet our expectations. Mission and marriage can certainly be examples of this, as can missing out on these experiences. Same goes for having children (interesting how the book of Genesis is all about people having a hard time having children), work, creativity, education, and a lot of other things we look forward to but are sometimes (often?) disappointed by. This is especially true about missions and marriages since we put so much emphasis on them as latter-day saints. I think sometimes that the focus is sometimes too much on getting married in the temple rather than having a celestial marriage. Just remember this: you can have unearned money and unearned respect, but there’s no such thing as unearned perspective.

  34. I can honestly say the mission was the most depressing and frustrating two years of my life. That’s not to say I regret it–I don’t–but it’s definitely incredibly difficult for introverts, even social introverts, to tract long hours and to spend 24/7 with an annoying companion.

    I’ve had more depressing times since then–a broken heart, unemployment that stretched on for several months after graduation despite killer grades and a great work history, struggling through the first couple of weeks of marriage (which was strangely the hardest time of our marriage, and the only truly rocky part of our marriage so far). But all of those were relatively short-term trials. The mission isn’t short term.

    My worst experience on the mission was a companion who was emotionally abusive, not to mention arrogant and power-hungry. Instead of taking the issue to the mission president (and honestly, I didn’t have the greatest mission president, and I don’t know if he would’ve done anything) I silently endured the abuse for months.

    And the mission did get better when I was serving with better companions, and when we had enough real work, as opposed to tracting, to spend our time on. Still not at all easy, though.

    I’m sure I suffered some depression there too, although not as severe as some. I had a companion who spent his mission as an undiagnosed narcoleptic (onset of narcolepsy is typically late adolescence) and the mission president’s advice, instead of being at all helpful, consisted of “stand up while you’re studying so you don’t fall asleep.” (The narcolepsy remained completely undiagnosed until after he returned from the 2-year mission.) A good friend serving in the same country ended up going home after about a year due to a mental illness that made missionary life unbearable. Another friend had a mother die during the first few months of his mission, and stayed. Plenty of people have lots of misery on their missions. It’s a shame we don’t discuss it.

    So yes, missions can be incredibly difficult. Still, I developed important friendships, built my testimony, learned to love another culture and had some incredible, life-altering experiences. Those things made it worth it.

  35. “Were they married or single? It would seem that if those seeking higher degrees are married, especially with kids, while they seek them, they tend to seek the church for support in their lives and tend to spend time only achieving the degree and not exploring new thought.”

    That’s a good point. Anecdotal experience is prone to sample bias by definition. I may not be around certain groups. I will say that I’ve never lived in Utah and have been around single adults as well as married adults. Most of the 40+ graduate/professional students I have known were single. The one person I referred to is a dental surgeon who married a nonmember. He’s active now, BTW.

    I’ll say for myself that I had a very difficult but successful mission and I endured what I consider a greater-than-average helping of rejection in the dating scene before I married. I never considered dating outside of the church, however.

  36. Re: 25 & 26
    It’s easy to blame a hard marriage on the participants, and a hard mission on the missionary. But that’s a bit too simplistic. Well I don’t know Tim: introvert, depression, hard luck, abusive companion, bad president. You might want to take a look at the Drama Triangle. Re-framing things often helps especially in stressful situations. When you view yourself as a victim other people often oblige you.

  37. The historical missionary experiences we read about in Sunday School and Seminary include a few of the miraculous (such as Wilford Woodruff and the United Brethren), but they are balanced by the difficult, such as Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball departing from Nauvoo when they were both too sick to stand, leaving behind families in equally poor condition, having to work to pay their passage to England, and encountering all sorts of opposition and difficulty.

    Since missionaries know how other missionaries in the same mission are doing in finding and baptizing people, that tends to be the standard they measure themselves against.

    I was told by my mission president that the First Presidency told him that his first priority was to take care of the physical and spiritual health of the missionaries under his care. When I served, we sent in an individual weekly report, that was not seen by our companions, in which we could report a problem in our companion relationship. The mission president also interviewed us personally every few months, between meetings before the members’ district conferences and visits to our cities (Each district had a city of 200,000 to itself). I would encourage any missionary to tell his or her president about a problem with a senior companion. If your president is non-responsive, you can ask your family to forward a note to the Brethren about it.

  38. With respect to statistical comparisons (including those on mental health, suicide, etc.), when you have fifty different states, measured on any particular scale, one of them will be at the top and one will be at the bottom. My observation is that the difference between the top and bottom in such comparisons is usually fairly small, and the differences among the top 10 or bottom 10 are basically meaningless. Adding in the error factors in such statistical summaries tends to take out a big part of the difference between the top and bottom states in any survey. An additional factor is when surveys are based on inherently small numbers of people. It is one thing to talk about number of families with five or more children, and another to talk about the much more rare incidence of suicide.

    Advocacy groups love to promote comparisons among the states on any issue, because the states at the bottom of the scale always look like they need more funding for whatever it is the advocacy group wants more money spent on. Even if it works, in a couple of years there willl be a new Bottom 10, and THEY will be the most eligible for more funding.

    Suicide, for example, is serious business, but how much less should we do about it if our state is, say, 10% better than the worst state in the country? Does that mean we can quit efforts to help the depressed? For the people in need of help, it doesn’t help to tell them “Hey, fewer of your peers are suicidal than in other states!” and the causes of suicidal depression are so individualized that a massive government program is unlikely to provide the individual support that at risk people need.

  39. In my experience (including 40 years of marriage, and observing those of my kids), there is nothing inherent about marriage that makes the first couple of years a “hellish” experience, but being married to someone who is selfish and immature can make a marriage hellish no matter how long you have been married. Perhaps rather than telling people they need to impose timetables on getting married that assume that the spouse is sort of a generic commodity you buy at a certain time of your life (like your first house), we should tell young adults to focus more on the character of the people they are considering and give more priority to finding a good person to marry rather than arbitrarily saying “It is too early in my life plan to marry” and then when you judge YOU are ready, assuming that the first convenient person who is handy is a suitable life companion. I think we should be willing to marry earlier, or later, than we think WE are ready for marriage, if the person we are focusing on is someone who will–or will NOT–make a good eternal companion.

  40. Is this difference meaningless? 2010 suicide rates: #1 Wyoming = 23.2/100,000, #10 Utah = 17.1/100,000, #50 New York = 8.0/100,000. Utah’s suicide rate is more than twice New York’s.

  41. “Previous studies have used population data to demonstrate an inverse association between suicide rates and religious commitment. This report examines Utah suicide rates for young men aged 15–34 years, stratified by their membership in and commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the predominant religion in Utah. All state death records for males from 1991 to 1995 were obtained and linked to LDS church deceased membership records to obtain a measure of religious commitment that is not self-reported. Religious commitment for LDS church members was determined by age-appropriate priesthood office. Of the 27,738 male deaths reported, 15,555 (56%) linked to an LDS church record using a probabilistic linking program. Using active (high religious commitment) LDS as the reference group, the less-active (low religious commitment) LDS group had relative risks of suicide ranging from 3.28 (ages 15–19 years) to 7.64 (ages 25–29 years); nonmembers of the LDS church had relative risks ranging from 3.43 (ages 15–19 years) to 6.27 (ages 20–24 years). Although the mechanism of the association is unclear, higher levels of religiosity appear to be inversely associated with suicide.”

  42. But New York’s murder rate is 4.0 per 100,000, whereas Utah’s is half that–only 1.9 per 100,000. So, it all evens out in the end.

  43. Suicide rates in Mountain West states are higher than other areas. It’s the altitude. ;-)

    Seriously, I believe there are reasons for this trend. But I doubt it has anything to do with the LDS Church.

    In twenty years, nearly all of the suicides that have occurred in the communities I have worked in have been connected with drug abuse or clinical depression. They are tragedies.

    I am a high school teacher in the Wasatch Front area. The idea that a mission is the “best two years of your life” is seriously downplayed/refuted by local church leaders. Missions are viewed by the youth as challenging, and they are lining up in droves for that challenge.

    I do see marriage problems among LDS couples. But by and large, temple marriages between educated and mature LDS adults are stable and happy, with very few divorces. I do say that with one close friend going through a divorce, but his soon to be ex-wife has mental health issues.

    I really think that the problem of educated adults leaving the Church or having “shaken faith syndrome” is highly exaggerated. Because of my job, I have connections in the BYU, University of Utah and Utah State communities. Are there a few? Sure. But in my experience as a stake missionary, membership clerk and EQ President, most inactive individuals are not highly educated. In my experience, higher education correlates very strongly with life-long activity in the church.

  44. man, in my Canadian stake we have numerous inactives that were Bishops, Branch presidents, high councilors, bishopric councillors, a former member of the stake presidency and even our Stake Patriarch went inactive a few years ago as well. They are all educated and have great jobs. I attribute it to burn out and a not nurturing their testimony-with some few their wives went inactive and so they went as well to keep the peace

  45. I can’t say that the description of marriage fits my experience (all 2 1/2 years of it), but the mission part is spot on. Between my introversion, the surprising focus on numbers, and what I felt were the hard sell tactics we were trained to use, I look back on my mission with an ambiguity that I can only share with a few close friends (and sometimes the internet :P). There were things and people I loved, but I can’t honestly say I loved my mission.

  46. I don’t think the difficult adjustments in marriage can be attributed to selfishness per se. A lot of it is making an adjustment. And sometimes being older at the time of marriage can make it harder, because you have been living on your own and doing things your way for longer.

    I cried out in shock the first time that I wandered into the bathroom in the middle of the night and sat on that cold toilet bowl because the seat had been left up. I don’t think that was selfishness, but learning a new way of doing things.

    And the early years can be so hard because one is making life-changing decisions about children, career, etc. that WILL affect the rest of your life.

    I would not think marriage was so hard either, if I had married a compliant wifey-poo who had been socialized to submit to my every whim, or a guy who asks how high when I tell him to jump. But I married an equal partner, so we do this ongoing constant negotiation and reasoning together, which can be emotionally exhausting.

  47. Also, I think there is a connection between missions and marriage stress in that some LDS families want their children to serve missions because of the personal growth and status, but heaven forbid that they would fall in love with and marry a convert (the product of someone’s mission!), and certainly not a convert who had been sexually active, has a tatoo, or whatever unsavory practice prior to their conversion.

    A lot of the stress early in my marriage was from my husband’s pioneer stock family being so unhappy and convinced that I was not Good Enough for their RM son. Which I would have been willing to dismiss as my own paranoia if they had not apologized later.

  48. Some more anecdata. I think my mission was the most stressful, self-critical time of my life. Valuable? Extremely. “Best two years”? I’d like to know who started that meme, and if they died young, or just lived a bitter and boring life afterwards. It sounds more like PR that is starting to cross that fine line between marketing and fraud. Those Book of Mormon stories we tell about Ammon rarely include the fact that he and others served a 14-yr mission…

    My wife and I wouldn’t describe our early years as “hell.” We had the normal adjustments of getting used to living with someone, sure. On the other hand, we’re outliers, somewhat. 13 years of infertility has created some kinds of stresses (“want kids, don’t have any, but it’s not the end of the world”), while removing others; no dilemma between education/work vs mothering, no cost in sleep/money/emotional trauma in raising children, ability to travel at the drop of a hat, etc.

  49. Our first year or two of marriage was quite happy, incidentally, while my own mission fit your perceptions and some of the descriptions in this thread. Common factor here–bookish introverts?

    We married relatively young, fwiw.

  50. Adam G,

    In what ways do you think Mormonism teaches anything other than a fairy tale version of marriage. “Happily ever after” and “eternal marriage” have a strikingly similar ring.

    Maybe its not fairy tale in terms of means but it is fairy tale in terms of ends.

    I absolutely think Nathaniel is on to something, but I would have thought it would have take longer to get over the “honeymoon period”. My experience, like the rest, is anecdotal, but I’m surprised that at least the first year of marriage would be anything other than complete bliss absent severe sexual incompatibilities. I mean no kids, no baggage, its all new, what’s not to like?

  51. Interesting discussion. A couple of thoughts came to mind:

    Elder Wirthlin once stated that, “The way we react to adversity can be a major factor in how happy and successful we can be in life.” He also taught the principle of compensation, namely, that “The Lord compensates the faithful for every loss.” (Come What May and Love It, “

    Elder Orson F. Whitney also had some encouraging words:

    “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God … and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven. …”

    Our one true hope and consolation is Jesus Christ who endured and understands every affliction that we experience.

  52. Mtnmarty,

    If all you’ve been hearing in “eternal marriage” is a fairy tale, you haven’t been paying attention.

  53. RE #54: One of the biggest hindrances to being able to talk openly and honestly about adversity is that others tend to discount it before we’ve had time to turn it into a development experience. It essentially silences the person who has gone through a difficult experience from being able to share with others. There is process that we need to go through in order to turn what is actually a negative or difficult experience into something that we can learn from, its not automatically the case.

  54. **In what ways do you think Mormonism teaches anything other than a fairy tale version of marriage. “Happily ever after” and “eternal marriage” have a strikingly similar ring.

    Maybe its not fairy tale in terms of means but it is fairy tale in terms of ends.**

    Two possible responses. The first is that the ‘happily ever after’ in fairytale marriage is after the marriage ceremony, whereas Mormons teach that the marriage ceremony is a first step in something that must be achieved. The happy ever after doesn’t begin after the marriage, but after something else, perhaps after moving on to the eternities.

    The second would be that eternal and uncomplicatedly happy are not the same thing and there are pointers in Mormonism that suggest that eternal existence is not always a rollickin’ good time. Witness the Father withdrawing in horror from the crucifixion of his Son, or the other scriptural and doctrinal evidence for the Weeping God of Mormonism. If this life is a preparatory state, utopia does not seem to be what it is preparing us for.

  55. Well said Adam. Leaders have done a great job being honest and frank about such things. I lay the blame soley on misguided members who sugar coat and avoid talking about difficult matters because it requires too much effort.

    Off topic, the title of this post reminded me of the opening line from this talk from a few years ago:

    A few years ago, a recent RM gave a great talk in a Sacrament meeting I attended. He talked about how, on his mission, the Spirit helped him to understand how he could be a good missionary in spite of his current shortcomings, trials, and frustrations, and that made all the difference. My father said it was the best RM talk he had ever heard.

  56. A thotful piece of which kind we need more. Cultural analysis can be helpful to see how institutions tend to distort while fulfilling an important basic function.

    BTW, “regardless” is the right form, rather than “irregardless”.

  57. I was going to post some (naturally) anecdotal evidence of how neither my mission nor marriage fit into the OP, but then I realised that my upbringing is extremely atypical. In a country where in a very good year LDS constitute less than 200 people out of 6 million LDS culture doesn’t take deep root. I had very little exposure to American LDS mass-culture before the MTC, and was very lucky that my father had always been forthright about the difficulties of his mission. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to my mission prep teacher who insisted on my entering the mission with no romantic illusions of those two years. He emphasized how hard they could be. What made it hardest for me to readjust to life after the mission was making the complete switch from proselytising on a daily basis to no proselytising whatsoever.

  58. Hi, thanks for the post – I agree with many of your observations. I have grown up in the church, and been active my whole life – been on a mission, married in the temple and have 3 beautiful children. I have lived 11 years in Utah, 2 in England, 2 in Sweden, ½ in Italy and the rest in Norway. We are indeed colored by the dominant culture no matter where we live, and by our own church culture which is clearly US dominated for good and bad. One part of our culture that is not so positive is our insistent on “white washing” our lives – be it our mission, our church or our marriage. Of course we do not want to focus on the negative, but we need to be aware of the challenges. Most programs in the church have come from the grass roots that have seen a need for focus on challenges we might be overlooking. I wish we were better at suggesting improvements to our leaders – to move the church forward. Here are some suggestions:

    All singles in the church are assigned to an “adopted family” in their ward (being single in the church is very difficult – no matter which age you are).

    We should teach church history with “warts and glory”(church history is more than good enough, we don’t want members to learn about the “warts” from outsiders).

    Missions should focus mainly on preaching the good news and on the conversion of the investigator not the missionary (today the focus is on the missionary).

    Baptismal interviews should be conducted by a local church leader (missionaries get very stressed when focusing on baptisms/ inactive investigators become inactive members/ missions should focus on real growth).

    Mandatory marriage course before marriage (teaching a realistic view of marriage, finances, communication, intimacy and parenting)

    The church should help us improve all important aspects of our life, childhood/spirituality/youth/education/mission/marriage/parenting/old age – and we as a church need to ask the question do we have the right programs in place. I still think we have a lot of room for improvements. We need to see things has they really are.

  59. “If Mormons wish to maintain a standard of living commensurate with dual-income working families while at the same time enacting the Mormon value of a breadwinning father and a homemaking mother, then Mormon men have to earn twice as much as non-Mormon men. The only way to accomplish this is with heavy additional investment in postgraduate education and extreme amount of work early in a career, both of which act to postpone marriage and/or children.”

    Hear hear.

    I think the problem is conflicting commandments. We are told repeatedly that the charge to not delay marriage and to multiply and replenish the earth are still in force today. We are also told to avoid debt. My wife and I personally decided debt is ok for a mortgage. Period. I understand President Hinckley felt differently. In today’s society, particularly in high rent areas like Southern California, there is no way to appease both rules simultaneously.

    Gone are the days of my parents, who raised 5 kids on a disability check and a high school teacher’s salary. But I think too many Mormons look at what their parents have accumulated back before these commandments conflicted and want to follow suit, only to find out very quickly that house prices, food prices, education prices, etc have greatly exceeded the rise in salary.

    As an accountant, I personally think we could stand to have more financial austerity discussions in the church. Maybe one day an accountant will make it into the Twelve, and we’ll see it. BYU certainly cranks out a lot of them.

  60. @63-maybe it’s me but I sense some of the “if I have to do it then so do you” attitude coming from some of the brethren. i.e, get married as quick as possible,kids, job, school, be a bishop, all at the same time. Just because something worked for someone in 1965 US doesn’t mean that it will work for you today in a different economy, country even or involving two different people. I see the mold of the Church for men at least is married and succesfull

  61. Just one more anecdote for your theory here. I too found my mission to fall short of general LDS expectations, but I wasn’t really surprised at this because my father had prepared me. I married in my later 20s, and my marriage started out and has remained wonderful.

    So expectations-wise, I have been fine. Yet I am probably at high risk for exiting. My mission revealed unmitigatable weaknesses in my testimony as well as what I have come to see as incompatibilities between my experiences, beliefs, and official church prescriptions.

    Having relatively low expectations for church experiences is actually what’s helping keep me in, though. Even if I will never be the enthusiastic believer the church wishes me to be.

  62. I don’t think people put on blinders in regards to the ideals of Mormon families. For instance, in this interview a Mormon mother of 9 points out the advantages of large families, but she does not sugar-coat it:

    We should not abandon our ideals because sometimes they don’t work our, or due to some having problems living these goals in Mormonism.

  63. “My wife and I personally decided debt is ok for a mortgage. Period. I understand President Hinckley felt differently.”

    No, he didn’t.

    “I recognize that it may be necessary to borrow for a home, of course. But let us buy a home that we can afford and thus ease the payments which will constantly hang over our heads without mercy or respite for as long as 30 years.”

  64. What a great discussion! So nice to read the comment from our Catholic sister too.

    My first marriage was 4 years of hell. Thank the Lord my second one has been 17 years of bliss (from my point of view anyway. Hopefully my wife says the same).

  65. Given that Utah does not have the risk factors for ‘normal’ suicide – it seems possible that high suicide rates are due to a high rate of SSRI drug usage (the ‘Prozac’ group of ‘antidepressants’).


    Therefore these are probably suicides due to medical treatment, rather than due to the conditions that lead to treatment (because it is only the very depressed who have a high rate of suicide – mainly the people with endogenous or psychotic depression who require hospitalizations).

    The problem of SSRI suicides – especially bizarre, violent, out-of-the blue suicides – needs to be better known; because it is almost entirely preventable.

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