The Dos and Don’ts of Mormon Missionary Life

The newspaper in my town, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, ran an article about Mormon missionaries over the weekend. Along with the article was a revealing companion piece: “Young missionaries live by rigid rules.” Drawn from a “four-page list of rules for male Minnesota missionaries,” the article listed twenty-seven for Star-Tribune readers.

The LDS Church wants its representatives to be recognizable (conform) and above reproach; therefore, many of the rules have to do with a clean-cut appearance or avoiding potentially compromising situations with children and people of the opposite sex.

The ‘appearance rules’ include things like the appropriate length of sideburns (above mid-ear), tie styles (no pink or purple), and hair cuts (no buzzes). While appearance rules are understandable, the necessity of this one baffles me:

All missionaries wear a part and comb their hair to the side. You will be the minority and feel out of place if you do not.

The ‘cautionary rules’ listed state that the missionaries should not become too familiar with children; no tickling, hugging, or allowing children to sit on a missionary’s lap. In addition,

Always obey the Rule of Three: In order to enter a home to teach or visit a member or nonmember, there must be three men or three women 16 or older present in the same room. A person in the next room does not count. … The only exception to this rule is that you may enter the home of a person of the opposite sex who is 70 or older. If a person 70 or older is home with someone younger than 70, you must follow the normal Rule of Three.

There is wisdom in setting up these sorts of rules. They are a hedge against false accusations.

Several of the other rules have to do with safety or cleanliness: wear a bike helmet; clean the apartment for an hour every prep-day; dry clean suits often; do all bike repairs outside. When remembering that the missionaries are young men only 19-21 years old, any mother would say these sorts of rules are a must.

But we should also remember that the LDS Church claims these young men have received a personal calling from Almighty God to go into the mission field. They have been individually prepared and equipped for their service: “Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies,” said LDS President Harold B. Lee (quoted in Ensign, November 1995, 50).

Because of this, some of the missionary rules seem out of place to me. Consider a few:

  • You may only call other missionaries within your district.
  • You may call home [only] on Mother’s Day and Christmas for 45 minutes.
  • Missionaries may only access mldsmail.net, lds.org, mormon.org and josephsmith.net.
  • Internet usage [allowed only one day a week] is only permissible if companions can see each other’s screens. No exceptions.
  • Missionaries may only e-mail family.
  • The following music is approved: Especially For Youth, church-produced music, LDS hymns, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, appropriate Christmas music (i.e., no rock) and classical music.
  • Please strictly follow the Elbow Rule: Always be near enough to your companion to hear him at a whisper while outside of the apartment. Do not separate for long periods of time within the apartment.
  • Missionaries may watch “The Other Side of Heaven” [a movie by Mormon filmmaker Mitch Davis] on preparation day only.
  • 100% on the plan: Out of bed by 6:30 a.m. (not 6:31). One full hour of personal and companionship studies (not 59 minutes). Out of the apartment by 10 a.m. (not 10:01). One hour for lunch at the most. One hour for dinner, the latest time being from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Be out of the members’ houses by 6 p.m. (not 6:01). Be in by 9 p.m. If you are teaching, you may be out until 9:30 p.m. at the latest. Plan the next day’s activities starting right when you get in the apartment. Be either in your bed or praying by 10:30 p.m. (not 10:31).

Rather than supporting the idea that these young men “have been set apart for [their] sacred calling with the promise that the Spirit will be given as [they] meet the requirements set by the Lord” (Preach My Gospel, 4), these rules reflect an assumed immaturity (social and spiritual), plus a lack of trust in the missionaries’ judgment and inspiration.

They’re told who they may (and may not) email, what music they may (and may not) listen to, when and who they may (and may not) call on the phone and how long they may talk, how long they may linger over a meal, and what time they need to be in bed. Don’t these missionary rules sound like something given to middle-school kids as they head off to summer camp? These young men, set apart and equipped for a “sacred calling,” are not trusted to have the ability to make good choices regarding even the most basic stuff of everyday life.

I don’t doubt that the Mormon Church’s long experience with their missionary program has necessitated the institution of such rules. What I don’t get is why we’re supposed to believe these kids have power and authority from God when even the LDS Church doesn’t seem to believe it.

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
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8 Responses to The Dos and Don’ts of Mormon Missionary Life

  1. Neal says:

    Interesting post and good questions. I think you hit the nail on the head at the end of the post when you stated that the rules probably come from long experience. As a Mormon missionary myself (25 years ago), I can tell you that I had never in my life felt so empowered to teach, to testify and to love the people I came into contact with. I can also tell you that as a 19-21 year old young man away from home for the first time in my life, I was also grateful many times for the rules that protected me, guided me, and taught me how to keep myself spiritually pure so that I could teach with conviction and without distraction. I’ll admit I didn’t understand every rule, but the discipline I learned in obeying them has been to my benefit every day of my life. Thanks for posing some thoughtful questions.

  2. rick b says:

    Maybe it’s just me, But I would have a hard time covertin g to mormonism if I knew I had to follow these rules. I did have long hair, down the middle of my back, then had a mohawk ,same length.

    Growing up, I was into the hard core punk rocker scene, Now I shaved my head, to hot in the summer for long hair.

    I personnaly like the martial arts, Fighting and I play Judo and ju-jitsu, (Submission style fighting)

    This may seem hard to believe for a guy who reads the Bible and follows Jesus as Lord and Saviour, But I have plenty of times in the Gym to share Jesus with other Fighters, or People like me who follow the old school punk scene.

    Jesus said, come as you are, he did not say, shave your head or cut your hair then come to me. Can the LDS reach these groups of people if they have never been their? Maybe they can, but I bet I would have an easier time, because I have been in their shoes. Rick b

  3. Eric the Red says:

    It is true as Neal mentioned that the two year Mormon mission would instill discipline and provide experiences to last a life time, but this wasn’t the “nail” that Sharon was trying to hit on the head. The point of the article is that such all consuming rules and restrictions, even to the point of parting one’s hair, do not evidence trust in the spiritual authority and maturity of these young men.

    I have experienced first hand this “empowerment to teach” in my 23 year s of contact with Mormon missionaries. In our sector of the world (Micronesia) missionaries are not allowed to use their first names, at least not with me. They introduce themselves as “Elder” and when I ask for their first name they refuse to give it. In fact, some have become offended when I have found out their first name and addressed them by it. One missionary who had been lying about our ministry, said that he would stop doing so, if I promised to stop calling him by his first name. I have had retired elderly missionary couples refer me to the young missionaries saying that they themselves were not “Scripturians”and couldn’t answer questions about their own religion! Once a young missionary cut off an elderly missionary couple in midstatement. To me it was very embarrassing and disrespectful, but this young man probably felt empowered to use his “elder-ly” authority on that occassion. Numerous missionaries have terminated my conversations with them by saying that they came to the mission field to teach, not to be taught.

    My personal take is that the LDS church has found success in taking naive, impressionable young people, cramming them with nine months of teaching paradigms and contrived statements, stamping their name tags with a tituler sobriquet, and sending them forth with authoritative pomp. Sadly, these young men and women are not given the spiritual empowerment to discover. In their ministry they seldom present personaly discovered spiritual truth, rather they parrot official church dogma. A recent encounter with two Mormon missionaries illustrates this point. When I shared with them a Bible verse, they immediately commented that there are mistakes in the Bible. When I talked with them later I asked them why all missionaries without fail bring up the issue of mistakes in the Bible whenever I quote it (is this personally discovered truth, or something they are instructed to say?). I then asked them to show me one place where the Bible was mistranslated. They could show me none. I then asked them why they made such statements if they had no basis for doing so. They said there was someone in town that could give me answers. I again told them this was not the point. They were going around telling people that the Bible was correct in as far as it was correctly translated; yet, they could show no place where it was mistranslated. Again, are such actions indicative of a spiritually mature and empowered minister of the Lord? I often wonder if this ties in with the practice of making small boys deacons. The bible clearly teaches that elders and deacons are to be spiritually mature men. But for the Mormon church, using immature, impressionable young men and boys has been a successful practice. Which goes to show, that with many religious people, and even Christians, success is a stronger guiding compass than biblical truth.

  4. Nathan says:

    I happened to be a missionary a month ago, and those "rules" keep us safe. If you can recall the experience of King David, he was set apart by the prophet to be the "chosen" of the Lord. He was given great responsibility and power from the Lord, but he was also tempted. As you may recall he saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof, which tempted him to use his power for lustful purposes. David lost his place as the Lord's annointed, where he could have come back to live with God once again when his mortal ministry was up. Too bad David didn't have a strict set of rules to follow too… because he might have made it back if he had a companion at his side with strict rules.

    Again, the rules keep us safe, and those who disagree with them or choose not to follow them end up seeing the consequences of their actions afterwards. Even the best and the greatest of the Lord's can fall- I just hope they take the precautions that the Prophet of the Lord has advised us to take, so that they don't.

  5. bart says:

    Also, those rules are either very specific to a certain area (Many of them are unfamiliar to me) or outdated. I just got back from a mission recently too.

  6. Amanda says:

    Question for anyone who has served a mission experience: Is there any kind of snack that you wish you could have had more of while on your mission? I've done a lot of research on how tough the life of an LDS missionary is and would like to be able to provide little treats for the missionaries in my ward just to help keep their spirits up. Any suggestions?

  7. Desiree says:

    I am not Mormon but your lifestyle fascinates me.

  8. Mallory says:

    Amanda,
    Each missionary differs in what they like. It can depend a lot on where they are from but they are always happy to be given food or treats. My brother is currently serving in California and we email him to ask what he would like. You can always just ask them or be creative and surprise them with something you like :-)

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