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: Ministering

What does it mean to minister? The dictionary definition is “to give aid or service.”

What’s interesting to me is that the LDS Church has a whole section of their Provident Living website devoted to “ministering” — which includes topics on abuse help, addiction, caregivers, early-return missionaries, employment, family finances, marital conflict, overcoming pornography, same-sex attraction, single expectant parents, and spouses of pornography users.

On the homepage of the ministering resources page, there’s a letter from the First Presidency  to bishops. It says, “The ministering resources listed below have been created to assist you as you respond to the specific challenges members often face.”

Imagine you are called as a bishop to watch over not only the spiritual needs of a large group of people, but the temporal needs — and these people are also going to come to you with many, many other things that they want you to help them with. And you probably don’t have any formal training with the things they need help with. And that’s probably super overwhelming.

The resources are not meant to teach bishops to act as psychologists, but are meant to help bishops help their ward members. Many of the sections include some sort of suggestion that members seek professional help.

Here are some highlights from the website:

Abuse (Help for the Victim)

Helping the victim feel heard and understood may be just as important as any help you can give.

Abuse (Help for the Offender)

When appropriate, discuss with the member the consequences of abusive behavior on self and family, including the doctrine and church policies related to abuse.

Addiction

Help the member make a plan to avoid or address situations in which he or she is vulnerable to temptation. Review the plan with the member regularly.

Support for Caregivers

If the caregiver and care receiver feel like they are a burden to the ward, help them understand that they are valued and that many ward members are glad to serve them.

Missionaries Who Return Home Early

Encourage the missionary, his or her family, and ward members to refer to him or her as a “returned missionary” and not an “early-returned” or “early-released missionary.”

Employment

Consider inviting the member to pursue opportunities for education, training, or certification.

Family Finances

Help members understand the importance of paying an honest tithing, living within their means, saving for unexpected expenses, and avoiding debt.

Marital Conflict

Help each spouse recognize that no one can change someone else, but with faith, effort, and the help of God, each person can undergo his or her own mighty change of heart.

Mental Health

When members do not seem to respond to normal attempts by leaders to be helpful, leaders should not be offended by their lack of response. Instead, leaders should seriously consider encouraging the member to get a mental health assessment from a qualified provider.

Overcoming Pornography

Expressing love and gratitude to the individual for coming forward is an important step to help the member overcome the problem.

Same-Sex Attraction

Feeling same-sex attraction or choosing to use a sexual identity label (such as gay, lesbian, or bisexual) is not a sin and does not violate church policy or doctrine.

Single Expectant Parents

Reach out in love to comfort, encourage, and care for the single expectant mother or father. Express your desire to help and thank the individual for his or her willingness to involve you.

Support for Spouses of Pornography Users

Spouses often incorrectly assume the problem is somehow their fault. Help the spouse of the pornography user understand that he or she is not responsible for the user’s behavior.

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.