Mormon Culture: Mission Presidents, Room for Interpretation?

Sometimes people got along with their mission president and sometimes people didn’t. But a mission president still makes an impact on the missionaries he presides over.

Wendy Ulrich, a psychologist who advises the missionary mental health committee, said sometimes clashes between missionaries and mission presidents come about because of personalities.

She said that when her husband was mission president, she even made mistakes sometimes.

“People are people,” Ulrich said.

Currently, there are no resources provided to missionaries on how to talk with their mission presidents. However, the “Adjusting to Missionary Life” booklet includes general information on communication.

“I think the church is reluctant to imply to a missionary, you know, ‘Well maybe it’s just your mission president is nuts.’ And sometimes that is the reality, but it would be probably a little too glib and too easy for a missionary to just assume ‘I don’t have to listen to my mission president because after all, some mission presidents are nuts,'” Ulrich said.

She said missionaries try to work figure out with other missionaries where the mission president has a blind spot rather than talking with the mission president about it.

The 2006 version of the Mission President’s Handbook is online and outlines things for the mission president to enforce. Not all of the guidelines in this handbook are stated in the Missionary Handbook that’s provided to missionaries.

While I was skimming through the Mission President’s Handbook, I found myself wishing I had known before my mission about some of the expectations I would be required to live, since they weren’t in any mission preparation materials. I remember also reading the Missionary Handbook while on my mission and wondering why the mission president had so many more guidelines than were outlined in the Missionary Handbook. I saw that some of the things my mission president asked us to do were in the Mission President’s Handbook, but not in the Missionary Handbook — and had I known that on my mission, I think I would have reacted differently to some of the “extra” guidelines he gave us.

Questions to consider

  • Even after your mission, do you consider what your mission told you to do equivalent to a commandment? Should you?
  • Is what you were told to do helpful to your salvation? Or is it just a nice suggestion, an opinion?
  • Is what you were told to do negatively affecting your testimony?
  • Are you basing your testimony on what you were told to do on your mission or on your relationship with God?

Mormon Culture: Doctrine vs. Policy

Did you know it’s a commandment to wear a white shirt while passing the sacrament? And blue shirts evil?

It seems that sometimes there are blurred lines between what’s doctrine and what’s policy or culture. For example, it’s a policy that people don’t play brass instruments or guitars during sacrament meeting, but does that mean those instruments are bad? Nope.

On a mission, you follow a pretty strict schedule, complete with waking up at 6:30 a.m., so does that mean you’re a “bad” member if after your mission you wake up later than that? Are you living a lesser law? Nope.

But the imposed expectations that people sometimes have about these policies causes a risk for members being judgmental toward others.

And sometimes, policy even changes in the church. *Gasp* But that’s a key difference between policy and doctrine. I once had it explained to me by BYU biology professor John Kauwe. He was trying to teach us about evolution and the stance of the church. And to do so, he had to explain that doctrine includes the key truths of the gospel (scriptural cannon and official statements of the church signed by all the members of the First Presidency). Policy is something that changes; doctrine does not.

See this article for another explanation of separating doctrine from policy.

In a book review for, “Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” professor Julie J. Nicols writes two essays contained in the book “place trends in Mormon history within larger American contexts, work that many Utah Mormons would benefit from studying in order to extract themselves from the mistaken notion that the evolution of Church policies and practices has come straight from the mouth of God, unattached to secular movements and political needs.”

What’s another policy that was pretty controversial? Why couldn’t Blacks have the priesthood? Now obviously that has changed, so was it doctrine or policy? It was policy. Because policy changes; doctrine doesn’t.

In the 1992 publication of The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, it says the prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve, collectively and under the inspiration of God, “are authorized to determine the position of the Church at any given time on matters of doctrine, policy, and practice.”

So when you come upon a teaching in the church that you’re not so sure about, do some homework. Who said it? What’s the context? Is it doctrine or policy?

What about the long-standing battle about whether or not caffeine is against the Word of Wisdom? In an article published in The Daily Universe, Robert Walz said when he was a kid, people said caffeine was against the Word of Wisdom, but as he got older, he realized it wasn’t. And now he’s making up for lost time. That was a culture thing. Not doctrine or policy.

Now, the For the Strength of Youth back in the day said young women shouldn’t leave the house with curlers in their hair. First off, why was that a thing that was even written in the For the Strength of Youth? Was it in fashion? It was probably just seen as improper. So it might have been a societally-influenced standard. It probably wasn’t considered a commandment though — but who knows. Step back and ask yourself something. “Will wearing curlers in my hair to the grocery store condemn me to hell?” Hmmm…..I wonder. (The answer is no if you were wondering.) How does that fit into the context of doctrine, policy, and culture?

But there are quite a few cultural things that come from the For the Strength of Youth. What’s interesting is that after so many years, the booklet changes. When I was a youth, I had the 2001 version; but when I was graduating high school, the version I had worked so tirelessly to live by was modified. LDS Living has an online article called “How ‘For the Strength of Youth’ Has Changed Over the Years.Here’s the current For the Strength of Youth pamphlet.

Scholar Wilfred Decoo sent me a Times and Seasons article he wrote that brings up an interesting point. Is it doctrine that you must have a missionary haircut? Nope, but sometimes it might be policy for certain things in the church. In Decoo’s article, he said a convert from Mali had braided hair — which was a common hairstyle for African men — and the bishop told the convert he had to cut his braids in order to attend EFY. Decoo said the bishop said he had to enforce EFY guidelines.

Now this story calls for some interesting questions. How would you feel if you wore your hair “normally,” according to your culture, and one day you were told that hairstyle would prohibit you from going to a church camp? If you were a convert who didn’t know much about the church, how would you feel that you wouldn’t be able to attend this camp because of your cultural hairstyle?

My person opinion is I don’t think God has a preference for your hairstyle. I mean, Jesus always has long hair in those videos the church makes after all. But I understand that the EFY camps might set their own policy for those who attend the camp.

What’s not so great is that the policies we have in the church sometimes lead to judging. The Daily Universe also has an articles about this: the Mormons Judging Mormon series.

On the church’s side of things, the official handbook gives guidelines on how to deal with the commandments and standards of the church:  “The commandments of the Lord and the worthiness standards of the Church are given in the scriptures and in official communications from the First Presidency. Local leaders should not alter these commandments and standards. Nor should local leaders teach their own rules or interpretations regarding the commandments.”

Now, I’ve heard some wild stories about people making their own interpretations of the commandments. Just the other day, I heard that a bishop told his congregation that having sleepovers wasn’t allowed. I’m sure you have heard some strange ones as well. Make sure to comment and tell me some more.

The handbook also gives instruction about what to do if people are teaching “false or speculative doctrine” — which I’m sure we’ve all heard.

“Leaders should correct it promptly and sensitively,” the handbook states. “Errors can usually be corrected in private, but major or repeated errors may require public correction.”

Questions to consider

  • Is what you’re judging people on based on policy or tradition?
  • What’s the difference between doctrine and policy? How am I going to view those two things for my own life and not judge others based on them?
  • Do I pray to God and receive confirmation from the Holy Ghost when I’m confronted with a question as to whether something is true? Or do I just let other people tell me?

last words

Make sure you’re not judging people because of past policies. If someone drinks caffeine and you don’t, don’t mentally condemn them to hell. If someone comes to sacrament with a mohawk, don’t judge them; I mean, they’re worshipping God and that’s all that matters — plus mohawks are cool (hair can really stand straight up like that?!), and Mormons have totally had them.