Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mission Call Madness

A recent Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece about Bountiful HS grads who “announced” their mission calls as part of their graduation ceremony got me thinking about the mission call madness presently underway in Mormon culture.

Don’t get me wrong: a mission call is a big deal. And it’s awesome that so many young men and women are willing and able to serve.

But can I say I’m troubled by the increasing attention being paid to the opening of the call?

A thousand years ago when I received my mission call, it didn’t occur to me to wait to open it until my family and friends and neighbors could all be assembled to share in “my missionary moment.” I opened it at the mailbox (my girlfriend was there and she watched me open it; no, she didn’t “wait,” and yes, we did get married). And then I went inside and shared it with my mom. I don’t know if I called my dad at work or we waited until he got home to tell him. And then I probably called my brother and sisters. Others I informed by letter. (This was long before emails and Facebook.)

I remember a young man who was in my priest’s quorum when I was a bishop. He had matriculated to BYU, and received his call there. For the opening of his call, he’d arranged to Skype with his folks at home and had a room full of friends in Utah. He opened his call with the roomful of friends, only to realize he’d forgotten to link in to his home, so they agreed to re-stage the opening once the Skype connection was established for the benefit of the young man’s mother. (This story makes me think of that scene in Broadcast News when William Hurt re-films a news story in order to produce a tear in his news coverage.)

One doesn’t have to go far to find cinematic records of the opening of mission calls. Will these become the wedding videos of the latest generation?

Let’s think about the letter itself: a call to serve, a call issued by prophets, signed by a prophet, to serve the Lord in preaching his gospel. Most callings are extended privately, quietly, preceded by prayer in the best circumstances. But the mission call has become another rite of passage ripe for video post-production with music, subtitles and graphics, just like a wedding reception.

But shouldn’t we celebrate these callings? Shouldn’t we fete these young men and women who are so willing to serve? Shouldn’t we remember these great moments in their lives?

Sure. Celebrate them at home however you like. Open the call together. Congratulate the missionary and his or her parents. Share in the excitement at an exotic location or the relief at not having to learn a foreign language (or soothe the disappointment at a call to a different place than hoped). Share the results with family and friends.

But let’s remember: the significance of missionary service is not the call. It’s the work that follows the call. What’s impressive about a young person’s serving is not the call itself. It’s what that young person does before and after the call comes, the preparation and then the mission itself.

I’m all for celebrating missionary service. I’m all for hearing young missionaries speak before and after their missions (as long as those sacrament talks are appropriate for worship services). But just as we received counsel some time ago to curtail what was becoming sacrament meetings hijacked to fete the departing missionary, it seems we ought to lighten up in our over-the-top celebrations to open an envelope.


  1. Agreed. And if Bountiful grads announced calls with diplomas, that does seem to cross the separation of church and state line just a little, even for predominantly LDS Utah. I was like you, except I was the only member of my family. Opened the letter by myself, then phoned the girl I would eventually marry, and let her know where I was going. With my sons' calls, we gathered close family and a couple of close ward members to open the envelopes. Maybe 10 people besides our immediate family, max. I think that was okay. On the other hand, I attended the opening of another call where, though the family had some family that were members, in reality, the ward family was closer to them. They probably had 50 people packed in and around their home. I can't say which was more appropriate, but as long as the letter opening is done at home, I think it's okay. I do wish they would change the wording in the handbook about farewells. Where we live, young men and women going on mission are the exception, not the rule. Therefore, it has always been a cause of celebration. I know open houses and farewells can get out of hand, but I wish leaders would simply limit farewells from being held at church. We don't try to govern wedding showers and baby showers - why try to dictate what a family does in the privacy of their own home when it comes to a missionary farewell? Anyway, thanks for the thoughts.

    1. The handbook says: "The bishopric usually invites missionaries to speak in sacrament meeting just before they depart and when they return (see Handbook 1, 4.8.1 and 4.10.3). The bishopric makes it clear that this is a regular sacrament meeting and is not to be a missionary farewell or homecoming. The bishopric plans and conducts these meetings. Family members and friends of the missionary are not invited to speak. However, other departing or returning missionaries or other members may be invited to speak."
      Nowhere does it say you aren't allowed to have a goodbye party for the missionary. I think it is fair to ask members not to advertise their parties at church, or announce it from the pulpit. Also, it is in poor taste to hold a party during church hours because of the travelling guests and encourage ward members to skip their meetings to come to your party. That is the way it often played out. But besides that, I think that no family should feel like they can't invite people over to their house for a party so if a leader is telling you it is against the rules to have a private goodbye party for someone they don't really know what they are talking about.

    2. When it comes to "open houses," Handbook 1 says: Members should avoid practices that detract from the sacred nature of a mission call or create unnecessary expense. Such practices include holding open houses for missionaries (except for family gatherings)...... So, technically there are to be no "open houses," only family gatherings. The problem is that some people have huge families, while others (like me 33 years ago) have no family except their "ward" family. I fully agree with the notion that sacrament 'farewells' should not be about the missionary. But it would be nice if the "family gathering" had softer language to say "family and close friends."

    3. Anon, not wanting to split hairs, but it seems at a "family gathering," the family can invite whomever they'd like. What it seems like they probably shouldn't do is ask the bishop to announce it over the pulpit.

  2. When I got my call in ancient times, we had 2 mail deliveries each day. I got my travel orders in the morning telling me what I needed to get done to travel to Spain. In the afternoon delivery I go the letter from Joseph Fielding Smith saying I was called to the Spain Mission. I think I opened it in front of my family (twice). You son knew where is was going for over 2 years but we still were excited about opening the letter from the Stake President and the President of the Family Church History and Headquartes Mission in SLC. He had a situation where he was excused from Full Time Missionary Service but still choose to serve a full time 2 year service mission. The call to my son was even more exciting than my own call.

  3. Hear, Hear! I was alone at my mailbox when the call arrived (40 years ago yesterday, by the way), had it torn open before I got half-way up the driveway, opened the door and yelled to my mom, "I'm going to Japan!" and then I fixed lunch. I don't remember how I let my dad know.

  4. Another reminiscence, almost thirty=five years ago I opened my call and I can't remember who was there at all. I probably opened it when I got home from work or something. I do remember the reaction of friends and others at Young Adults functions: "Where are you going?" "Florida, Tallahassee." "Oh." Versus a young man who answered "Ireland." "Wow, how great!" Is there still that stigma that going foreign is better than domestic? Shall we bring back the days when the call is issued from the pulpit, say in Stake Conference? I certainly agree that the work of a missionary is far more important than the call of said missionary.

  5. I'm with you, although the call-opening celebrations mainly leave me bemused; to each his own, I guess. (However, don't get me started on publicly staged marriage proposals...!)

    I remember getting my call, back in 79. I was living alone, working long hours, so it was late at night when I pulled my letter out of the box. It must have been raining, because my recollection is that said letter was sopping wet. I went up to my apartment, opened it, called Mom & Dad, and went to bed.

    The mission will be a lot of very low-key, low-profile days. I hope these celebratory openings don't set unrealistic expectations.

  6. Anon 1, that must have been weird to have travel papers come in advance of the call! Yikes. All: thanks for those reminiscences of opening your calls. I suppose those are seminal moments, whether public or private.

    Robin, I especially appreciate your thought that there are a lot of low-profile days on one's mission. Part of the best-kept secret...

    Anon 1, I can agree that a child's call IS very exciting, and I'm thrilled your son was able to serve. Good for him. My MIL served in the SLC Family History Library and said that some of the young service missionaries were real life savers to her. :-)

  7. Community is a big part of the religious experience. I think it is great that people want to share highly significant life changing hallmarks of their life. We need more of these community bonding experiences, not less.

  8. I can relate. Recently I discussed this with David. I don't really like it. Awhile ago we were invited to a get-together where a young man was opening his call and he invited everyone he knew. David and I both felt it should be done a bit more privately. I also feel like people are celebrating more where the missionary-to-be is going and not what he/she is really embarking in. I have felt this way because of how people will celebrate once they hear they are leaving the US but if a missionary was called to serve in the Provo mission it's like a bit downer (womp womp womp). Sure it'd be nice to go and see a new country and meet "new people" but I feel that a lot of what really is happening gets lost. Are we celebrating the call to see a new country or the call to serve?

  9. Well, I think I struck a chord (or a nerve) with this post -- lots of page views and comments. Thanks.

    Anonymous, I agree: community, including around the calling of missionaries, does have value. That's why I'm all for providing those opportunities in families and among friends. I'm not sure internet broadcast of post production mission call videos contributes to that community, though.

    As it relates to open houses: Again, my view is that families can do what they want. I agree that inviting people to miss church to eat cake doesn't make a lot of sense. And it's easy to imagine that in an area with lots of LDS members, multiple (and regular) pre-mission open houses might be pretty taxing to the community at large. In areas where there are fewer, though, it might be a great reason to build fellowship.

    Cassie, you raise a great point: let's celebrate the call to serve, not the destination. (We have a niece who served in Provo -- your ward in fact! -- who LOVED serving there. And we have a number of people from our stake who served in SLC over the years.

  10. Paul,
    Email me at and let me know who is your MIL and I'll let my son know. He is an AP and would know everyone. It would be nice to give your MIL an extra hello from someone else. Stranger Danger!! Since we reside in the same area (nearly) we're almost friends certianly Bros. LOL.

  11. My children are getting mission calls in an age where social media make it possible to share the event with lots of people - in ways that were impossible to me when I was there age. I don't begrudge them that connectedness - but I really dislike announcing the locations at a high school graduation ceremony. That crosses a line I believe should not be crossed.

  12. This is something I kept in mind as I opened my call: every missionary receives the same calling! We are all called to serve as full-time missionaries for the Church! We are then assigned an area to labor. The assignments are different, but the calling is the same!

  13. Way to "Catch the Wave" I opened my call this past July and I had invited all my friends, and family I wanted to share this big moment with them. By sharing where these students are going they are simply doing as the Apostles say and are "Catching the Wave" of missionary service before they go out and sacrifice so much to do what is right. All the more reason to be excited and share it with the world. These young men and young women are being sent all over the world to share the gospel so why not start at their school, and close to home.

  14. Anon, congrats on your call. As I said, I think it's great that you had your friends and family to share your call. But I hope that the sharing of the call doesn't overshadow the work of your mission (and I don't mean to suggest it will).

    Why not share in their school? Well, read the post, man.

  15. It seems to me that criticizing and analyzing if everyone is worshiping correctly and appropriately is what fills 90% of members thoughts. Sheesh! What ever happened to letting other people do things differently? Not bad, not sacrilegious, not too loud. different!