The Hypocrisy of Our Missionary Work (and How to Fix It!)

If missionaries came with a warning label: “Be aware that our message could destroy your marriage, alienate your friends and cause your parents to disown you. Your future children won’t know their grandparents or ever meet their cousins. But the more family relationships you can permanently damage to join our church – the more likely you are to be the lead story in my homecoming talk next month!”


I understand that as a church, we love our missionaries. I love missionaries too – as individual sweet humans trying to do good in the world in the best way they know how. But the missionary program itself is feeling less inspired as a whole to me as I get older.

Today I was in a class at my gym. At the end two ladies were catching up as we cleaned and put away our barbells. One asked the other how her daughter was doing, who got back from a mission last year. The mom of the daughter rolled her eyes and said, “Well, she’s having a “faith crisis” I guess.”

Friend: “Oh, well… that’s okay. She has a strong testimony, she’ll get over it. She’s just got to figure it all out for herself.”

Mom, with irritation/frustration/hopelessness (not totally sure) in her voice: “I know. I think it’s just like, the popular thing to do these days.”

My thoughts:

1. She’s probably not going to “get over” a faith crisis. It’s usually a permanent change in belief. She may or may not choose to remain an active Latter-day Saint after processing this experience, but the mom should really be preparing herself for an adult daughter whose choices in life don’t mirror her own (and that’s okay!).

2. Why is this the only thing you tell people when they ask about your daughter? Is she going to school? Is she working somewhere interesting? Has she picked up a new hobby or made a new friend or gone somewhere fun? All are more interesting answers than what her particular beliefs in a religion that none of us actually know is the correct one either (otherwise we wouldn’t need faith in it!).

3. If the daughter just got home from a mission, that means she spent 18 months trying to instigate a “faith crisis” in every single person she met so they would drop their current beliefs and join her church instead. That daughter caused her investigators’ parents to feel upset, just like her own mother is feeling now. This feels like karma.

How will this young man’s parents feel when he tells them he’s no longer attending church with his family, but instead going to LDS services on Sundays? What about the future when he’s busy with his calling as ward clerk and unable to come to Sunday dinners anymore, or when he gets married and tells them they can’t attend the ceremony? These are real issues converts face that we rarely acknowledge or help with.

I wondered why the gym conversation snippet bothered me so much, and I think it’s because my own parents are both converts. My mom grew up Methodist in North Carolina, had a Mormon roommate in college (at a Methodist college, even), met the sister missionaries, joined the church and moved across the country to Utah to be near other members. Her family was devastated. It was probably embarrassing for them to have a daughter join such a weird religion, they believed they were losing her eternal soul to a cult, and moving so far away meant they would never be very involved in her life again.

And they weren’t! They didn’t come to her wedding in the Ogden Temple (why travel to Utah when they weren’t even allowed to attend the marriage, and my parents didn’t have a reception or celebration outside of the sealing ceremony). I actually wrote about this experience RIGHT HERE.

My sister and I only met my aunt, cousin and grandma on that side of the family a couple times growing up. I honestly barely know them. I liked their fun personalities when we did interact, but could always feel the barrier between us (they thought we were being raised in a weird Utah cult, and we thought they were sinners living empty lives because of the coffee pot in their kitchen). We spent slightly more time with my dad’s side of the family, but not much. We were the isolated Mormons in Utah, far away from them as well (they were in California).

My sister and I graduated from college, both got married in the temple and started our families. We’re happy, but it never occurred to us that we didn’t have extended family involved in our lives in any way. Sometimes I’d think, “It’s great! I don’t have to go to a million weddings and baby showers and buy all those gifts that people with huge Mormon families have to.” But maybe that would’ve been fun. I don’t know because those relationships literally don’t exist.

As a young person I always viewed the missionaries coming into my parents’ lives as a miraculous blessing, but as I’ve got older I can see the painful fragmented family relationships that never recovered on both sides. To be fair, my mom did have a tense relationship with her family before joining the LDS church. I think that’s part of the main appeal of baptism to her at that time – it was a way to stick it to her Methodist upbringing. That tense relationship might have healed though, but instead it was permanently destroyed when she moved to Utah.

When you are still a teenager, you often don’t realize the huge impact it will have on someone’s life to accept baptism – and it isn’t always a net positive! Is it always better, no matter the consequences, to convert someone? Will any of these young people come to regret their decision to convert at any cost?


Sitting in Sacrament Meeting over the years I’ve heard homecoming talks that made me very uncomfortable. Whenever a story is shared about an investigator who joined the church despite the adversary making it very difficult to do so, I imagine heartbroken parents, screaming fights, divorces, lost friends, and permanent changes to family relationships.

So when I heard the mother at the gym bemoaning her returned missionary daughter’s faith crisis, it sounded hypocritical. Why was she just fine with her own daughter trying to cause a faith crisis in everyone she met for a year and a half, but now that the daughter’s the one changing her own mind about her past beliefs it’s suddenly upsetting?

I think my own experience with my convert mother is coming into play here, because I’ve felt pain and hurt with her disappointment in my unorthodox religious behavior over the years. I was part of Ordain Women, I volunteer at Pride Festivals, and I wear tank tops to the gym. I am not the devout member she would prefer I be.

But why would I be? She was my example! She was raised in a faith system that didn’t work for her, so she took control of her activity and beliefs and radically changed them to fit her needs. I am only following in her footsteps.

Having experienced the intense strain on family relationships that a change in religious belief causes (both between my parents and their families, and myself and my parents), I can’t see missionary work as always a good thing.

If I were in charge of the missionary program, I would overhaul it completely. No more proselyting missions! I would take the hundreds of billions the church has and set up hospitals, care facilities for elderly people who can’t afford assistance, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, childcare facilities for working parents, etc, etc… and I would staff those with the full time missionaries. They would spend their time serving others and nothing else. Then *if* someone requested to learn more about the church, they could take the missionary discussions – from the ward missionaries of the ward they’d be baptized into.

I honestly think this would be great for the young missionaries, who could focus on just helping others and not numbers or statistics or how many people made it to a baptismal font. Parents would feel great about what their kids were doing. It would be fantastic PR for the church as a whole, and instead of actively avoiding missionaries (like most members of the general public do) they would begin to love seeing those kids out in their community. They’d know they were there only to serve and wouldn’t try to preach to them anything unless they asked for it. (In fact, saying “Called to Serve” would finally be an accurate statement – right now it is more accurately described as “Called to Proselyte” – with some service on the side.) Family members of new converts would be less likely to feel upset about them joining a new church because they would see its public face in the community providing huge quantities of charitable service.

Passing the actual missionary discussions on to the ward missionaries would also mean the new converts get a chance to meet people in the ward and make friends before getting baptized and attending meetings with them. They wouldn’t feel alone or abandoned when their missionaries transferred to their next assignment.

When we talk about the missionary program and the successful baptisms, we have to acknowledge that in addition to great stories for homecoming talks, we are creating difficulty and pain for the families our converts are coming from. Some (like mine) will never recover, and family relationships will be lost permanently. The sister missionaries who baptized my mom probably talked about their “golden convert” when they got home, unaware that the trauma of that baptism would reverberate through generations of her family.

If we aren’t going to acknowledge that very real pain our missionaries cause other families throughout the world as we proselytize to their doorsteps, we need to stop complaining about our own sadness when someone we love has a faith crisis and leaves the LDS church. It’s either okay for people to change their beliefs to match their own circumstances and desires in life, or everyone needs to stick with the religious system they were born into. We can’t have it both ways.


  1. I have never considered this point of view before and…wow! In an ideal world this would be shared from every pulpit, but sadly that is not the world we currently live in. I love everything you said and can only say “AMEN”!

  2. This is a fantastic article and quite thought provoking. I 100% agree with everything you mentioned, love your ideas on revamping the missionary program, and had never considered the flipped side of the coin of the family pain generated from joining and resigning the church. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for delving deep into this thought. I have left my brief systems I was born into for over 6 generations and it hasn’t been easy on both sides of the coin. Religion isn’t for everyone and the LDS one needs to realize this and stop it’s judgements and rhetoric on saving people.

  4. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and beautifully laid out post. As an adult convert, I have experienced some real pain from joining the Church but you described it better than I ever have. I feel less alone reading this.

  5. Very though provoking. Thank you for this insight. My mother converted to the church when I was a toddler and I’m aware of some of the marginalization she faced from relatives over the years. I’ve seriously been questioning my own belief for over 30 years now so I agree with you perspective.

  6. Amen. I was an uncommitted missionary (hoped people could know that God loved them but didn’t generally worry about “converting” except with the institutional angst daily and weekly statistics reports generated). Your critique is spot-on and I wholeheartedly concur with the way you’d reform missionary work. Put energetic young adults to work doing good in the world. Questioners can connect with their actual worship community not people who come and go.

  7. I have felt this way about missionary work for years. Proselytizing missions put undue amounts of stress on missionaries and are nothing more than a numbers game. Priorities are skewed with more care being given into the number of people baptized over the actual people who are making that sacrifice by stepping into the waters of baptism.

    I wish the church would amend the missionary program and have it focus on serving the community and disadvantaged instead. So much more would be accomplished, and more people would actually feel of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ’s love that way.

  8. Excellent post, Abby. I 100% agree. I wonder if, like with so many other issues, GAs’ age is getting in the way of their reimagining missionary work. Aggressive proselytizing might have worked well between World War II and the 1980s, but it seems like it’s more likely alienating more people on balance than making them interested. (I’m thinking in the US; I’m not sure about other areas.) But for the most senior GAs, the post-WWII era still seems relevant, so they don’t want to change. I suspect they also probably appreciate how facing lots of rejection for their commitment to their faith often makes missionaries more committed themselves.

    I think it would do so much more good in the world if we could move, as you suggest, to just having missionaries do actual service. I also agree with you that it would be great PR. Not to mention the fact that we’d lose the negative PR of having missionaries constantly harassing people to convert!

  9. I absolutely agree and have been saying this for years (to anyone who would listen). I served a mission, but I didn’t encourage my daughters. I absolutely would have encouraged them to serve in this manner – actual service.

  10. Like the bad guy telling Batman that it wasn’t his fault his parents were killed – it was his fathers, not knowing your extended family is not the Church’s or the missionary program’s fault. It is your Mother’s.

  11. I love your idea and have thought about it quite a bit. BYU Pathway is doing great things, and the experience would be so much better if we had educational facilities in local areas and paid teachers out there with the missionaries.

    I’m not a big fan of Russell, but I do like that he has made it so you can marry outside the temple and then get sealed later. I think all of our marriages should be that way, and so did Joseph Smith, by the way!

    I also wish that people would start paying tithing on their surplus instead of their income. The word used in Section 119 is interest and if we believe D&C 1:26 the Lord gave the commandments in the D&C according to our language and the word interest certainly did not mean income in 1830 or 1840. The current system favors the wealthy who deduct all sorts of things from their income on taxes and tithing. If Abraham only paid tithing on all the riches he had (JST Genesis 14:39), more than he had need of, why do we ask the poor to pay tithing when they don’t even have what they need?

    If we changed these things, it seems like it would improve the lives of members and new converts.

  12. Yes!!! Missions as actual service. Imagine how life changing that would be for both the missionary and the people they serve. I think it would also be a better way to introduce the church to people who are actually interested as opposed to trying to find/hassle people into joining.

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