Mormon Culture: Missionary Mental Health Resources

If you’re the parent of a son or daughter going on a mission, you probably worry about their health when they write home saying something is amiss. And if it’s related to mental health, you might not know what resources are available to them.

According to psychologist Wendy Ulrich, who provides council for the missionary mental health committee, in general, we can expect one in five people at any time to struggle with depression. And missions connect to depression through stress.

“Stress isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but when we get overstressed, we start dealing with depression and anxiety,” Ulrich said.

Not all mission presidents will be very versed in mental health or know all the proper ways of dealing with mental health, but the Church provides them and missionaries with resources.

Here’s a breakdown of what exists to help missionaries with mental health:

Missionary Mental health committee

The church has a mental health committee that works to think of ways to help missionaries and their mental health while in the field. This committee has put together things like the “Adjusting to Missionary Life” booklet and “My Plan.”

Adjusting to missionary life” booklet

This is a booklet that missionaries receive in the MTC as of 2013. It talks about stress and how to manage it. Also included are resources for managing physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual demands.

Ulrich helped put together this resource. She said the missionary mental health committee was concerned about the amount of stress put on missionaries and decided to create a resource to help missionaries deal with the new stress.

She said in an interview, “People maybe are not supposed to admit when they’re involved in these sorts of projects. I think we want to believe they just descend from heaven.”

They worked on this booklet for about two years. It was meant to be given to missionaries after they’d already been in the field for a while, but Ulrich said bishops are starting to give the booklets to priests and laurels so that the transition isn’t so “dramatic.” The booklet provides resources for the missionaries.

Before a mission, people can do things like talk to parents or friends or go to the movies, Ulrich said, but when they’re on a mission, they can’t do those things. Ulrich said once people learn to manage their stress in a missionary environment, their stress levels will go down.

According to Ulrich, for the past two years, there was an effort to teach mission presidents how to use the “Adjusting to Missionary Life” booklet — which is apparently a big deal since they spent several hours out of the short time the mission presidents are trained to go over this booklet.

My Plan

My Plan is a booklet structured to help returned missionaries learn to set goals when they get home and help with the transition from mission life to home life.

“It’s really a time when people are trying to gain a sense of independence, and that’s the important thing for them to be doing,” Ulrich said.

Ulrich said the committee in charge of My Plan is now reworking the program.

It seems as though there will soon be an online portal as well to help “strengthen returning full-time missionaries.” Missionaries will work with the material before, during, and after their missions.

mental health and medical advisors

There are mental health and medical advisors assigned to various missions. They work under the missionary department organization and help provide mental health counseling to missionaries.

Senior missionaries can also serve providing mental health counseling. In the  Senior Missionaries Opportunity Bulletin, updated May 19, 2017,  it says mental health counselors are needed to advise mission presidents on missionary health.

Ulrich said there was a spike  in concern about mental health right at the beginning of the missionary age change in 2012, but percentage-wise, things have stabilized again.

Mission presidents have resources to help missionaries, but Ulrich said she thinks they are reluctant to use them.

“I think most of them are probably pretty reluctant to make use of them because you’re trying really hard to pretend that you know what you’re doing,” Ulrich said, her husband having served as a mission president in Canada.

However, she said some do reach out, and she’s done consultations with them. She said one of the reasons mission presidents might not reach out is because people of her generation aren’t accustomed to reaching out about mental health issues.

in-field representatives

Every mission president is assigned an “in-field representative.” There are about 20 representatives in Salt Lake City that are available full-time to mission presidents and their wives. They are the people who can connect mission presidents to medical help and other such resources.

mission president portal

Mission presidents have access to resources on various topics, including mental health, through a mission president portal.

Mormon Culture: “Mormons and Gays” to “Mormon and Gay”

What’s the difference between saying “Mormons and Gays” and “Mormon and Gay”? Actually, quite a lot. It’s a shift from “us” and “them” language to “us” language.

In 2012, the LDS church launched a website called Mormons and Gays (this link will take you to the old website). In October 2016, the LDS Church changed their site to Mormon and Gay. An article from the Mormon Newsroom says, “The new appellation, ‘Mormon and Gay,’ reflects the reality that a person doesn’t need to choose between these two identities — one can, in fact, be gay and live faithful to the teachings of Christ.”

This is a mentality that has changed over time. Back in the day, people used to hear that someone was gay, and that person’s membership status would be reevaluated. But today, the cultural meaning of the term “gay” is different. The term “gay” is a sexual orientation term.

Here’s what the current website says about the terminology:

“Same-sex attraction (SSA) refers to emotional, physical, romantic, or sexual attraction to a person of the same gender. If you experience same-sex attraction, you may or may not choose to use a sexual orientation label to describe yourself. Either way, same-sex attraction is a technical term describing the experience without imposing a label. This website uses this term to be inclusive of people who are not comfortable using a label, not to deny the existence of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity.”

We can see that the language is shifting. And Elder Holland in the October 2015 session of General Conference talked about a young man with same-sex attraction.

If you are a member of the church, and probably if you’re not a member of church, you probably know there’s still a stigma associated with being LGBTQ+ and being Mormon.

Sociologist Ryan Cragun said the following are stigmatized in the church: being gender queer (the idea that people aren’t just female/feminine or male/masculine), being lesbian/gay/bisexual, advocating gender equality in the LDS church.

He said he thinks that the church has changed the way they talk about gays because of a “combination of internal and external pressures.”

external

How society talks about gays has changed over time. Cragun said “gays were heavily criticized and demonized” in the 1950s, but that has since changed and “being gay/lesbian has become normalized outside the church,” which he said has “led to external pressure for the Church leaders to tone down their rhetoric against gays and lesbians.”

internal

Cragun said nowadays, many members have family who are gay, which is contributing to the change in the ways people talk about gays. “It is much harder to be critical and to demonize family than it is anonymous others,” Cragun said. Because there is “increased contact,” Cragun said it is “forcing many Mormons to reconsider their prejudices.”

possible solutions

educate yourself and stop judging

I’ve grown up with some close family friends who are LGBTQ+, which has often made me question a lot of what people in the church say regarding LBGTQ+ issues. I remember people saying that people aren’t really gay, that they pretend. And since I’ve talked to people about their experiences being LGBTQ+, I’ve realized that I have not had the experiences that they’ve had and there are things I won’t be able to understand. So my first piece of advice is that you should talk to someone who’s LGBTQ+ before you decide to judge them.

Cragun also said it’s important for people to learn about what it means to be LGBTQ+ so they can have an understanding  of how common gender and sexual minorities are.

put yourself in their shoes and love them

When you talk to people who identify as LGBTQ+ and hear their stories, really listen. But then put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself how they feel to be Mormon and gay. Have compassion and love people.

I can’t begin to understand what people who identify as LGBTQ+ in the church feel or go through. But what I do know is that I love them for the wonderful people they are.

questions to consider

  • Have you ever talked to an LGBTQ+ individual about their experience being LGBTQ+ and coming out?
  • Have you ever imagined what it would be like to feel like your religion is at odds with automatics feelings you have?
  • Have you ever imagined what it would feel like to not be able to feel true to yourself?
  • Do you judge other people for being LGBTQ+? Do you like it when people judge you?

Mormon Culture: “Us” and “Them” Mentality

Sometimes you’ll hear an “us” and “them” mentality in religious rhetoric; the same is true for Mormon rhetoric.

In sociology, there’s a concept of the in-group and the out-group. If you feel you’re part of a group, you are the in-group. Whoever the in-group is “competing” with is the out-group.

In the April 2017 General Conference, Neil L. Anderson said, “Those of the world have difficulty with accountability to God — like a child who parties in his parents’ home while they are out of town, enjoying the ruckus, refusing to think about the consequences when the parents return 24 hours later.”

This phraseology “those of the world” puts members of the church into the category of the in-group pitted against the out-group, or “those of the world.”

The way this social construct plays out is situational and personal. I will explain.

There is a common phrase in the church that goes “be in the world but not of the world.” I’m not sure where it originated, but here’s a talk from the mid-1970s that talks about it. This mentality mirrors an “us” and “them” or “in-group” and “out-group” mentality. The problem occurs when those from the in-group treat those in the out-group as though they are blatantly part of the out-group. The reason this is a problem is scriptures says God is no respecter of persons, which means he sees us all the same. And if God does that, shouldn’t we as well?

Because Mormons are in somewhat of a social minority, it’s easy to see there’s some type of division. Sociologist Armand Mauss said he grew up in California where he didn’t have any Mormon friends in high school. “I periodically encountered not only ignorance but outright prejudice about Mormons from my non-Mormon friends and acquaintances,” he said. “I was always highly conscious of being ‘different’ and periodically having to ‘account for’ it.”

On the other side, anthropology professor Erin E. Stiles was one of the few non-Mormons at her school in a small town in Utah, but she said it didn’t bother her. She said there were some differences between her family and others’, such as her mom wore crosses and drank coffee. She also thought playing the piano was a Mormon thing. And I laughed a little when she said, “My dad had a beard, and my mom didn’t wear much makeup or have big hair, so a lot of my friends thought my parents were hippies (they were not).”

Some of the things she mentioned weren’t really my experiences as a Mormon from Washington, so I thought it was a little funny. My dad has pretty much always had facial hair, and I don’t actually know that many women from my home ward who wore a lot of makeup or had big hair. But I definitely know the stereotype Stiles mentioned.

Scholar Wilfried Decoo in his paper “In Search of Mormon Identity: Mormon Culture, Gospel Culture, and an American Worldwide Church,” writes that in the history of the church, there have been leaders who have shifted “culture of the world” from a positive meaning to a negative meaning.

He said the church’s perspective of not wanting to use “extraneous sources when teaching courses in the church” (from the correlation movement), while it was meant to “make a curriculum that can be used anywhere in the world, under any cultural or political circumstance, so that the only culture we’re bound by is the culture of the gospel,” it had another side effect. Decoo said it led to an isolation that “fosters deep distrust toward the world.” The positive side of the isolation is it stresses exceptionalism (“a chosen generation”) and exemplarism (“a light unto the world”). He said the negative side to isolation is it makes people think of “the rest of the world as evil and threatening.”

And I see that all the time. At church I often hear people talk about how evil this world is.

Personally, I found that I missed out on blessing a lot of people’s lives when I separated myself from people just because I thought they were in the “them” category.

On the positive end of the spectrum for church teachings of “us” and “them,” President Hinckley often encouraged that people bring the good they have and let the church add to it. That kind of language is inviting and welcoming, not divisive.

overcoming the divisive thinking

Susan Whitbourne, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst wrote an article for Psychology Today that talks about the concept of in-groups and out-groups. She gives five suggestions for combating the divisive nature of thinking in the in-group and out-group mentality.

  1. Realize that your in-group and out-group status could change depending on the situation. One day you’re going to sin, so are you going to then be part of the “those of the world” group and therefore out of the in-group?
  2. Put yourself in the shoes of someone in the out-group. Just imagine what it’s like to join the Mormon church and have no clue what people are talking about with all the jargon and cultural practices. Someone even wrote a book for converts so they can figure out how to navigate the culture.
  3. Look for commonalities. Those who are of other religions or are non-religious still hold some of the same values as you. You just have to be open to looking for them.
  4. Be confident about your identity. Whitbourne says if you’re confident about your identity, you’re less likely to criticize someone else’s. You can also root yourself more in Christ than in cultural things (the ability to make a good casserole is nothing compared to the ability to be like Christ). Because belief in Christ is what makes you a Mormon — not your ability to make a good contribution to the ward cook-off.
  5. Teach others how to overcome the “us” and “them” mentality. When you hear people using divisive language, speak out.

Something Stiles was able to do was find commonalities with her Mormon neighbors. She said she liked that “so many kids took school seriously, were not too wild, and enjoyed their family life.”

questions to consider

  • Am I being divisive in my thinking with Mormons and non-Mormons?
  • Am I being divisive in my thinking within the Mormon community? Am I grouping members of the church into “righteous” and “non-righteous” categories? “Kid goes on a mission” and “kid doesn’t go on a mission”? “Married” and “single”? “Gets married in the temple” and “doesn’t get married in the temple”?
  • Are we loving one another?
  • Am I actively trying to close the divide?
  • Aren’t we all children of God? And don’t you want to bring everyone into the church? Are you making them feel like they’ll be comfortable with joining the church? Or are you making them feel like they are “them” and not “us”?

Mormon Culture: Transitioning From Mission to Real Life

Coming home from a mission is not as easy as you expect it to be. Sure, you learned how to study and make goals, but missions are extremely structured in a way that life is not.

Psychologist Wendy Ulrich has worked with the LDS Church missionary mental health committee on several projects, such as a booklet called “Adjusting to Missionary Life” and an online program to help missionaries returning home from their missions, called “My Plan.”

Adjusting to missionary life is difficult, but Ulrich said it can be just as hard transitioning back to “normal” life. There are a few reasons for this.

1. You have to make your own plans.

On a mission, you have your schedule laid out for you. You just fill in the gaps with teaching people and various ways of finding people to teach. And often, on missions you were told to not get “trunky” and to not plan for when you go home. “You feel like you surreptitiously have to sneak around and make arrangement for your classes or apartment or a job when you get home,” Ulrich said.

But Ulrich said that is changing. She’s noticed a shift with mission presidents. She said they are now “trying to move from this idea of work till you drop at the end of your mission and don’t even think about anything else” to helping missionaries anticipate the changes. Because when the mission is over, “there’s no mission president waiting for you when you get home to help you with that transition,” she said.

2. Sometimes you face depression or anxiety or maybe just plain confusion

Ulrich said the best thing for return missionaries to do is to seek out resources, like counseling, when they feel like what they’re experiencing is more than they can handle.

But she also said it’s normal to feel a little off. She said that when she talks with groups of missionaries, all the same issues come up.

“I think sometimes the best thing we can do is just open up a little more with other people around us who are dealing with the same issues,” Ulrich said. “When you’re in the middle of it, the feeling is ‘This is just me. What’s the matter with me?’ And when you get talking to people, you start realizing, ‘No, a lot of people are struggling with the same issues I am.'”

3. You’re confusing mission life with “adult spirituality”

If you’re around Mormons for long enough, you’ll probably hear a story about a mission president who told missionaries something he shouldn’t have, which caused the return missionary a lot of grief.

Ulrich said one of the biggest challenges for a mission president is that he will likely do what his own mission president did. So if his mission president said to go home and get married in six months or read the scriptures for an hour every day for the rest of your life, then he is likely to pass that on.

(Now, as we established in a previous blog, mission presidents saying things like “go home and get married in six months” or “read the scriptures for an hour every day for the rest of your life” is opinion, not doctrine. So if someone doesn’t follow that council, it doesn’t mean they are damned or “less.”)

“A mission is more like a boot camp than it is real life,” Ulrich said.

She compared the experience of a mission to learning discipline, which is helpful, but she said it’s not what “adult spirituality” looks like.

“Adult spirituality has a lot more to do with dealing with ambiguity and dealing with paradox and dealing with uncertainty and not knowing all the answers and figuring it out yourself and having to make lots of adjustments,” Ulrich said.

She laughed as she said when you have a kid, getting up at 6 a.m. just doesn’t work. But she said missions teach people to how get comfortable with the scriptures, how to get along with others, and how to testify.

What does it mean to be an adult in the Church?

  • “Learning to question and not fall apart over it.”
  • “Learning to cut people slack and to realize that your leaders are just human beings like you are, and they don’t have all the answers”
  • It can’t be prescribed.
  • You have to come up with the rules for yourself that “make spirituality alive in your life.”

Ulrich said the hardest part about coming home from a mission is “there are no clean answers” for a lot of the things people are going to encounter.

last words

I think everyone in the world can agree that life is messy and complicated. And Ulrich pointed out that the early 20s is a time when everyone is having a hard time, so transitioning from a mission to coming home is already harder because of that fact.

So if you’re transitioning from getting home from your mission, just know that it’s normal if you’re having a hard time. Cut yourself some slack and cut some slack for anyone who offended you or imposed their opinion on you.

Mormon Culture: Modesty and Bikinis

Here’s a message I got the other day from a friend: “I just really don’t understand why my midriff causes so much uproar from other people. It’s like my belly button is somehow so much more inappropriate or sexual than some guy’s belly button.”

What do you think of that? I personally don’t think there’s anything sexy about a bellybutton, but maybe other people do? Comment and let me know so I can get the facts straight.

Scott Gordon, the President of FairMormon, a non-profit “dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practice,” told me in an email, “Bare midriff for men or women is the same.” In regards to modesty, he said, “I think you are correct to note that the focus on modesty seems to be our young women. One can argue that is because they have the most difficulties with it, but I suspect much comes from cultural bias.”

About a year ago, I read an article by an LDS mother who said teaching modesty is sometimes done in a way that’s harmful. And recently I read one called “Stop Teaching Your Daughter to be Modest” by Baily Suzio.

In Suzio’s article, she said “Measuring skirt length and tank top straps will not free girls from being objects of lust but it will make them self-conscious.”

She goes on to say “causing them to want to hide their bodies and to blame themselves for another’s sin, that is not honoring the image of God in each and every woman.” This comment comes from the idea that women who dress revealingly cause men to sin in their thoughts or actions. And it’s a problem that society — and people in the church — use as reason to tell young women to dress a certain way.

Editorial moment by me: If a woman is dressed in something “revealing,” she is not asking to be raped. And men who use a woman’s dress as an excuse for raping her need to spend time in prison. So society, do not teach your boys that women are the problem. Teach your boys to respect women no matter what they wear.

Back to non-opinon …

While the teaching to be modest has been in the For the Strength of Youth since it was first introduced, with different times and fads, the church has modified the dress standards in the pamphlet. You can read the differences over the years in the links below:

  • Here’s the current version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 2012 version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 1990 version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 1972 version of the For the Strength of Youth
  • Here’s the 1965 version of the For the Strength of Youth

An interesting change that’s happened over time is the reference of swim suits in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. The early versions didn’t mention swim suits, but the 1972 version says not to wear bathing suits that show a bare midriff. But the 1990 version doesn’t mention it. The 1990 version mentions that you shouldn’t wear an immodest bathing suit, but doesn’t specify what that means. The 2001 and 2012 versions don’t even mention swim suits. So which “rule” are people to follow when it comes to swim suits? I guess we have to figure it out on our own.

But just a story first. I was with some people and someone we knew posted a photo of herself kayaking with friends, and she was wearing a bikini. Someone who I was with said something like, “Oh, but she was such a good missionary.” Last time I checked, wearing a bikini doesn’t mean you were a bad missionary, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I think people are  too often too quick to judge people’s righteousness on what people are wearing. Is that okay?

The For the Strength of Youth says the following of modesty: “Prophets of God have continually counseled His children to dress modestly. When you are well groomed and modestly dressed, you invite the companionship of the Spirit and you can be a good influence on others. Your dress and grooming influence the way you and others act.”

Scholar Rosemary Avance did a study on the interpretation of modesty in the LDS church. She says the body has been sexualized, and so modesty is sometimes seen as “tool for aiding in the control of lustful desires.” She then says that this thought leads immodesty to be treated as a “sexual, female sin,” which makes women responsible for the purity of both women and men.

In a New Era article from 2006, nothing is mentioned of the young men’s dress; however, the authors say the following to young women: “As you dress and behave modestly, you can have a great impact on young men. Your modest actions and dress will help them control their thoughts and focus on virtue and that which is wholesome.”

Now, I want you to consider this question. Is it okay to tell women that they are at fault if men can’t “control their thoughts”? Just saying.

On the other hand, Avance makes an interesting point: that in saying this, church members are also saying men don’t have the ability to exercise self-control. So not only are we blaming women if a man can’t control his thoughts, but we are also saying men aren’t able to exert self-control. Is that a good thing?

Yes, the church has always counseled people to dress modestly, but the way each person chooses to dress modestly is their choice, and it’s not anyone’s place to judge how someone chooses to dress modestly.

Some questions to consider

  • Do I judge people on what they wear rather focusing on who they are?
  • Am I teaching about modesty in a way that’s about respecting our bodies or in a way that makes people feel ashamed of their bodies?

another opinon

After telling my friend about this Mormon culture blog I was writing, he sent me a Facebook post written by a member of the church. It had over 12,000 reactions, over 9,000 shares, and over 1,800 comments. As you read it, remember that it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, but it might make you ask yourself some new questions about how you assess modesty and judge others.

 

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.

Mormon Culture: Dating

Ask anyone in Provo how they feel about dating, and you’ll probably get some exasperated sighs. So maybe there’s a Provo dating culture and a Mormon dating culture, but BYU professor Tom Robinson, who has been at BYU for 14 years and served as a YSA bishop said, “The YSAs aren’t dating because I don’t think they know how.”

The list problem

When girls are in Young Women’s, they’re asked to make a list of qualities they want in a future spouse. These lists usually include things like college grad, good-looking,  good job, return missionary.

BYU Professor Tom Robinson gives firesides on dating and says these lists are part of the problem with dating in Mormon culture. They leave young women thinking that these are the qualities that will make a good husband and leave men thinking that’s what they need in order to find a wife.

“That guy doesn’t exist,” Robinson said. “He’s a figment of your imagination, and the best thing that you can do as a young woman is to throw the list away.”

Instead, Robinson says to just get to know people and figure out what you actually like about people. And a good husband isn’t a list; he’s a good person who’s a good listener and communicator.

“If my wife had had a list, she would have never went out with me,” Robinson joked.

He said if he had a list, it would’ve said “loves sports.” And if he had only looked for women who loved sports, he wouldn’t have gone out with his wife, who hated sports — and still hates them.

“I fell in love with her not because of things I had on my list, but because of the person that she was,” Robinson said. “She was kind and giving and she had a strong testimony, and that’s what I fell in love with.”

a “just dinner” solution

In his “Just Dinner” firesides, Robinson tells young single adults to just go out to dinner. “If it turns into something, even better,” he said. “If It doesn’t, that’s okay because it’s just dinner.”

Robinson said he came up with this “just dinner” idea when he was a singles ward bishop, just trying to get the YSAs out of their apartments and talking.

The Young men problem

Robinson said the problem with the young men is that they don’t know how to date. He says that when they turn 12, they are told they are preparing to serve missions, which means not dating because girls are a “distraction.” Robinson said that while the counsel is meant to “protect” the young men, the young men end up hearing, “Girls are bad. Girls will get me in trouble. Girls will keep me from being able to go on a mission.”

Is that a good mentality to teach the young men of the church? Who after their missions are supposed to change their thought process and get married? Robinson said that people in the church need to help the youth to not only prepare for missions, but for eternal marriage as well — and that begins with dating.

In the For the Strength of Youth, there’s a section on dating. In it, it says, “You should not date until you are at least 16 years old. When you begin dating, go with one or more additional couples. Avoid going on frequent dates with the same person. Developing serious relationships too early in life can limit the number of other people you meet and can perhaps lead to immorality.”

Robinson said some parents take this idea and tell their children they can’t steady date before a mission. But that’s just a personal preference. Robinson said something changed with his generation.

“Somehow, my generation — when we were growing up we were growing up — we dated, and we dated, we had girlfriends, we kissed girls, and we still went on missions, and we still ended up getting married in the temple,” Robinson said. “Now there were a few that didn’t and because there were a few  that didn’t, my generation looked back and said ‘Well, maybe it would be better if our kids didn’t date.'”

getting over it and accepting the plan

Okay, but what about rejection? Even though return missionaries learn about being rejected for their whole missions, it still hurts. But Robinson brought up a good point in our interview. He asked me, what if every person said yes to a date, got married, and had a perfect life with no problems? Then he asked me, “Who’s plan in the preexistence was that? That’s not the plan we sustained. We sustained the plan where we were going to get rejected. It was going to hurt, and we would hate it. And we would date someone for seven months, and she’d break up with us, or he would hurt us. That’s the plan we signed up for. And it sucks, but that’s our Father in Heaven’s plan. We have to taste the bitter to be able to experience the sweet.”

I tried to stay professional as I felt my tear ducts start wanting to water. But I did it. No crying. But he was right. We chose a plan that would hurt, and we can only get to the sweet by tasting of the bitter.

For the women

Robinson said it’s chill for a young woman to ask a young man to dinner because it’s “just dinner.”

In a study done at Utah State University, “The Social and Cultural Construction of Singlehood among Young, Single Mormons,” young women had varying responses about dating. One said, “Right now I would like to date more, but it is okay that I am not. I guess that I am content, but not content.”

Robinson would say to that girl that she can ask a young man to dinner. So chicas, if you want to date more, go ahead an ask a guy on a date. Or just dinner.

dating pressure

Obviously there’s a lot of pressure to date in Mormon culture, but if you’re not ready to date, just get to know people and have fun. Or don’t. Do whatever you want. But if you want to get to know people, then just ask someone to dinner every once in a while.

questions to consider

  • Am I sitting home alone? (probs … because you’re reading this)
  • Who can I invite to go to dinner?
  • Do I have a list of things I’m checking off when I’m with someone instead of getting to know who they really are?
  • Am I afraid to ask people on dates? What’s my plan to change that?

Words of the apostles

Gerrit W. Gong

Another serious dimension of perfectionism is to hold others to our unrealistic, judgmental, or unforgiving standards. Such behavior may, in fact, deny or limit the blessings of the Savior’s Atonement in our lives and in the lives of others. For example, young single adults may make a list of desired qualities in a potential spouse and yet be unable to marry because of unrealistic expectations for the perfect companion.

Thus, a sister may be unwilling to consider dating a wonderful, worthy brother who falls short on her perfectionist scale—he does not dance well, is not planning to be wealthy, did not serve a mission, or admits to a past problem with pornography since resolved through repentance and counseling.

Similarly, a brother may not consider dating a wonderful, worthy sister who doesn’t fit his unrealistic profile—she is not a sports enthusiast, a Relief Society president, a beauty queen, a sophisticated budgeter, or she admits to an earlier, now-resolved weakness with the Word of Wisdom.

Of course, we should consider qualities we desire in ourselves and in a potential spouse. We should maintain our highest hopes and standards. But if we are humble, we will be surprised by goodness in unexpected places, and we may create opportunities to grow closer to someone who, like us, is not perfect.

Faith acknowledges that, through repentance and the power of the Atonement, weakness can be made strong and repented sins can truly be forgiven.

Happy marriages are not the result of two perfect people saying vows. Rather, devotion and love grow as two imperfect people build, bless, help, encourage, and forgive along the way. The wife of a modern prophet was once asked what it was like being married to a prophet. She wisely replied that she had not married a prophet; she had simply married a man who was completely dedicated to the Church no matter what calling he received. In other words, in process of time, husbands and wives grow together—individually and as a couple.

The wait for a perfect spouse, perfect education, perfect job, or perfect house will be long and lonely. We are wise to follow the Spirit in life’s important decisions and not let doubts spawned by perfectionist demands hinder our progress.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf

Now, just one word to those of our single brethren who follow the deception that they first have to find the “perfect woman” before they can enter into serious courting or marriage.

My beloved brethren, may I remind you, if there were a perfect woman, do you really think she would be that interested in you?

In God’s plan of happiness, we are not so much looking for someone perfect but for a person with whom, throughout a lifetime, we can join efforts to create a loving, lasting, and more perfect relationship. That is the goal.

Robert D. Hales

Again, may I speak frankly? The track that leads to marriage passes through the terrain called dating! Dating is the opportunity for lengthy conversations. When you date, learn everything you can about each other. Get to know each other’s families when possible. Are your goals compatible? Do you share the same feelings about the commandments, the Savior, the priesthood, the temple, parenting, callings in the Church, and serving others? Have you observed one another under stress, responding to success and failure, resisting anger, and dealing with setbacks? Does the person you are dating tear others down or build them up? Is his or her attitude and language and conduct what you would like to live with every day?

That said, none of us marry perfection; we marry potential. The right marriage is not only about what I want; it’s also about what she—who’s going to be my companion—wants and needs me to be.

Speaking plainly, please don’t date all through your 20s just to “have a good time,” thus delaying marriage in favor of other interests and activities. Why? Because dating and marriage aren’t final destinations. They are the gateway to where you ultimately want to go. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife.”

Your responsibility now is to be worthy of the person you want to marry. If you want to marry a wholesome, attractive, honest, happy, hardworking, spiritual person, be that kind of person. If you are that person and you are not married, be patient.

Antoine Taveneaux, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASan_Diego_Mormon_Temple17.jpg

Mormon Culture: What is it?

Mormon culture is simply the culture shared by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But this blog will mostly focus on American Mormon culture because while some aspects of Mormon culture carry over into other places, much of the Mormon culture I’ll be dealing with in this blog has to do with American Mormon culture.

And just like any other culture, it’s more pronounced in places that are more concentrated with people of the group. Without hard data, you can probably guess where Mormon culture is most prevalent: Utah and Idaho. But here’s the hard data anyway:

This map shows the percentage of adults who are Mormon in each state. Follow the link to see the percentages per state. (Pew Research Center)

So what makes up culture? In sociology, there are elements that make up a culture: symbols, language, norms, rituals, artifacts, values.

Symbols

An example of a symbol is giving a thumbs up, which means “good,” whereas in Australia its meaning is akin to flipping someone off.

In Mormon culture, we have symbols too. For example, why do Mormons like beehives so much? They’re on the doors to the temple, you can buy them on jewelry at Deseret Book, and they’re the theme of Mormon-related businesses (just look up utah beehive stores on Google).

Apparently the symbol comes from the early Saints latching onto the idea of beehives representing hard work and unity, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

Language

Branch, stake, sweet spirit, mia maids, eight-cow wife, investigator, vote of thanks, primary voice, companion, tender mercies, extend a calling, home teaching, MRS degree, ox in the mire, Jello. These words and others probably trip you up if you’re not in the know about Mormon culture. LDS Living even put out an article on “12 Funny Mormon Lingo Mix-Ups” to show Mormons have their own language full of jargon.

Here’s some other religious vocabulary from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Another fun fact: Back in the day Brigham Young tried to institute the Deseret alphabet as a way to teach people to write English. Sad fact: it didn’t work out. But because people are cool, there’s an online translator. Let the passing of secret notes begin.

Norms

Norms are “standards and expectations for behaving,” according to the book Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World. I think the “bad rep” that Mormon culture gets has do with the norms: women as the perfect homemakers, multiple ear piercings as being edgy (and to some rebellious), swearing as a deterrent for marrying someone, and the list goes on.

Just search #MormonCulture on Twitter, and you’ll see some more examples.

Rituals

Since Mormons are obviously a religiously-based culture, there are religious rituals, but there are rituals beyond the religious ones.

Think about a missionary’s experience. When they leave, there’s usually a “going away” talk and an open house type event where people go to the future missionary’s home to wish them good luck. When the missionary comes home from their mission, the ritual people (typically) follow is greeting the missionary at the airport with a welcome sign, followed by a “homecoming” talk the next Sunday.

Sociology professor Armand Mauss said “trek” — where the youth dress up like pioneers and pull handcarts for a couple of days to recreate the experience of pioneer ancestors — is another ritual observance. He said activities like these help the community to “reaffirm one’s allegiance to one’s heritage.”

artifacts

Boy, do Mormons have artifacts. There’s even a whole museum dedicated to church history.

In Jeffrey R. Holland’s October 2009 General Conference talk, he brought out the Book of Mormon that Hyrum Smith read from just before him and Joseph went to Carthage. (Go to 7:03 in the video.)

Scholar Wilfried Decoo, in his article, Mormon Identity and Culture, also noted Mormons have artifacts like young women’s medallions, CTR-rings, and temple statuettes.

VALUES

Mormons are known for valuing education (with universities and other schools they’ve set up over the years in other countries), hard work, and families, among other things.

Something interesting I found in my research was a quote from the book, “Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century.” The writer, Claudia Bushman, says she’s a California Mormon and then talks about how her values were different than those of Utah Mormons: “California Mormons were more independent than Utah Mormons; they were grateful for the distance that separated the from Salt Lake City. They paid less homage to old church fails. They were less pious, less judgmental, more aware of living in and negotiating with the secular world.”

It’s interesting to note that even within American Mormon culture, there may be some variation due to geographic location.

last words

So Mormon culture exists, but what are the experiences associated with the culture? You’ll have to keep up with my weekly posts to find out.

Jesse King’s blog on Mormon Culture

“Mormon culture.” Tell me what you think when you hear that. Is it negative? Positive? Neutral? Do you have something to say about it? Well comment and tell me!

“Culture affects every aspect of religious acceptance,” said Julie J. Nichols in a book review for “Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century.” “The ignorance or refusal of leaders to address the complex interplay between culture and gospel, between social attitudes and potential for spiritual growth, needs careful remediation. Research—here and abroad—can help.”

There’s a difference between culture and the gospel. The culture of Mormonism is human-made to fit this earth life. The gospel is eternal — that there is a God who loves us, created this earth, and wants us to return to him through principles of faith and repentance.

Over the next few months, I’ll be posting on Mormon culture, so get ready for some good reads. I’ve done a bunch of interviews and a bunch of research, but I’ve also added some of my expert Mormon insights (by expert, I just mean that I’m a Mormon). They say journalism is biased nowadays, but I’d like to let you know that I’m a Mormon, and I’m going to have some biases. I’ve done my best to try to give the other side of the story when possible and clearly indicate when I’m giving my opinion.

You don’t have to agree with everything I say though — and you probably won’t. And at times you might see some bias seep through. Call me out on it, and I’ll be happy to address the topic. I think something we need to learn to do in our society is have healthy conversations about things. Bring out the uncomfortable topics. It’s okay to disagree with people, because then we can learn different points of view. And that will make us better, more understanding people. There are just some things I feel strongly about — like just because a Mormon girl wears shorts and a tank top doesn’t mean she’s a skank (heard that from someone the other day).

In this blog, I’m going to ask hard questions, things you may not have considered. And I want these questions to strengthen your ability to act as a disciple of Christ, to think of others how Christ and God think of them. Your job on this earth is not to judge (except to some extent if you are a bishop — but even then it’s different). We are all just humans struggling here on earth, and the last thing we need is to pull each other down. So I hope from reading this blog you learn other people’s perspectives and can therefore be a better servant of God.

The most important reason for this blog is to help you and I learn to question ourselves when we are being judgmental and instead learn to love, uplift, and serve. This blog is about looking at the root of our Mormon culture problems. And though some things might be unreconcilable, we can take our faith and serve and love the best we can.

Now, you’re going to encounter some uncomfortable things I’m sure, but I want you to remember that a testimony of the truth comes through prayer and witness of the Holy Ghost.

And don’t forget to always read the Book of Mormon every day because it’s true, and I promise it will help you understand the all the things that frustrate you about life. If you stop reading it, I have no promises for you. And that’s my testimony perseverance hook because questions can learn to doubt or faith, and I hope you let the questions I’ll be presenting to you lead you to more faith.