Monday, October 09, 2006

Mandatory Repentence Periods?

It appears that a new instruction manual to bishops requires certain "waiting periods" for prospective missionaries who commit certain sins, which are specifically enumerated. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The only reason that I can think that it is a good thing is that it standardizes the waiting period. This way, bishop A who is more strict than bishop B is required to follow the same guidelines.
However, this very process of standardization also strikes me as creating a whole new set of problems. First, it doesn't distinguish between various degrees and types of sin. If a pre-missionary "pets" once with his girlfriend of three years, there is no difference in the waiting period from the pre-missionary who had sex numerous times with several partners.

Second, these waiting periods don't deter sins. They aren't public, so no one knows. But even when they become public, they are seen as standards which can be worked around. On a pre-missionary's 18th birthday, he can have sex for the last time. These waiting periods seem to encourage teenagers to miss the message.

Third, this whole process of standarizing repentence periods strikes me as belonging to a Christian tradition of proscribed penitence, which I thought we Mormons didn't beleive in. Say your "Hail Mary's", wait a year, and viola, you're now forgiven. This seems to me to profoundly miss the point of the atonement. We don't do this for others who sin in similar ways, why do we single out these pre-missionaries? This practice seems completely non-scriptural.

Fourth, from all accounts, many pre-missionaries simply choose to lie about their past transgressions because they don't want to face the public shame. These policies turn private repentence into a public spectacle in such a way that can only encourage pre-missionaries to hide the truth and lose out on the benefits of a full repentence process.

Finally, these policies function to publically shame prospective missionaries in such a way as to actually discourage repentence and the desire to serve a mission. They make teenagers who have sinned feel unworthy and frustrated by a beaurocratic requirement that they feel is contrary to the principles of the gospel. Rather than have to admit that they have to "wait a year" and let family and friends express dissapointment, speculate about the nature of the sins, and constantly check-up on them, many prospective missionaries find that it is easier and more accepted if they simply say that they don't want to go.

Perhaps I am missing something?


endlessnegotiation said...

I don't think the Church ties the waiting period to actual forgiveness. The waiting periods seem more about ensuring that the "offender" has built up the necessary spiritual strength to resist temptation in the future. I don't know if statistics are collected but I'd be willing to make an honest bet that the vast majority of missionaries "sent home" from their missions were guilty of similar indescretions prior to serving a mission.

TrailerTrash said...

This is an interesting idea. I am certainly curious to know if statistics have been collected on such a thing. However, I am not sure that the correlation between those who are sent home and those who sinned before their mission is the relevent information here. The question is what is the relationship b/t those who have sinned who are NOT sent home. But even if this were the case, it seems to me that the lack of flexibility for individual circumstances is still a major disadvantage to this kind of pragmatic policy.

Where are the lawyers in this conversation? There has been a lot of research done on punishment, recidivism, deterence, and mandatory sentences. What can we learn from these studies to fill in the gaps about a possible "rehabilitation" motive for the policy that ELN suggests?

Jared E. said...

I think what the leaders of the Church are trying to accomplish with this, is stronger service from missionaries in the field. I think their approach is all wrong. It seems that they are making the assumption that those who have not made mistakes when younger, will turn out to be those who are strongest in the field.

The only conclusion I can come to based upon my missionary experience, is that this is patently wrong. I would say that the majority of the best missionaries I knew in the field had troubled pasts. I would also say that almost all those who were the worst, hadn't make large mistakes before their missions. Of course my experience is anecdotal, but it has lead me to believe that this approach is the wrong one.

Steve M. said...

Anyone know about the specifics, i.e., how long of a wait is required for which sins?

My initial hunch was that the idea is designed to make sure that those involved in some kind of habitual sin, like porn-viewing or masturbation, have demonstrated some control over the habit.

However, the guidelines sound a bit arbitrary. If the goal is to create a more effective missionary force, I think it will require a more serious re-assessment of our present philosophy and methodology. So far, revamping the discussions and preventing young men who have committed moral transgressions from becoming missionaries have proven to be rather ineffective in increasing conversions.

TrailerTrash said...

excellent points. Unfortunately, I don't know the specifics about exactly which sins and exactly how long. My impression is that 1 year is the standard for pretty much everything, and I know that it goes far beyond habitual sins, and even sins much less serious than intercourse.

Mark B. said...

I've read those sections of the new handbook, but I didn't commit them to memory. I think, though, that your post misses the point of the guidelines, and I'd be concerned if bishops and branch presidents read the guidelines the way you do.

On a completely different matter, keep the blasted violas out of this. They are the sad stepchildren of the string section, and never get any respect. So leave them alone!

Steve M. said...

Well, I predict that the average age at which elders enter the MTC will now go up by about a year, but I don't really see the policy having any other effects.

TrailerTrash said...

voila! merci beaucoup Mark! je te suis redevable!

Bookslinger said...

You guys are missing the major points here.

As long as 20 years ago, missionaries were bragging in the mission field about what they "got away with" prior to the mission. They continued to brag after they got home. Those stories get passed down from 21 year old RMs to 17 and 18 year old future missionaries, and so on down through to 16 year olds, etc, and at least a generation of young men grew up with dual messages. The leaders say don't do it. But the recently called missionaries and the RMs say "do whatever you want, confess it, then go on your mission."

And what I understood was that my contemporaries got that attitude from older brothers, friends, and even from fathers and uncles.

So there were tens of thousands of young men telling their bishops "well, so-and-so screwed around and he still went on a mission."

The bragging of what people did in their pre-mission existance is also disheartening to the elders who sacrificed a lot to keep the commandments. And as a convert, it was very disheartening for me to hear it. It wasn't that people transgressed and repented. That part I can understand. But it was that people were intentionally transgressing, thinking that repentance was a mere confession to the bishop, and then proudly bragging of their sexual exploits. There was no regret. There was no sorrow. They were in effect promoting a sexual "free pass" until you're 18 or 19.

I have no problem with someone who transgressed, then truly repented, and then goes on a mission. I don't think virginity should be a missionary requirement. But the problem was that young men were being sent out at the beginning of the repentance process, not after there had been a cancellation or lifting of the sin.

I have a lot more respect for someone who tearfully confesses to his/her bishop immediately after transgressing, especially if the act was not premeditated (ie, they were kissing, then making out, etc., etc., and didn't stop as things heated up), than for the person who intentionally has sex multiple times and doesn't tell their bishop until the missionary application process starts.

I remember watching Elder Monson on the big screen (either a conference or a fireside) saying what the high requirements to be a missionary were. They were pretty much exactly what Elder Ballard said in the Raise-The-Bar talk in October 2002. (The difference being that the requirements would be more strictly enforced, hence an "effective" raising of the bar.) But when I got to the MTC in 1984, I found out that the reality didn't match the verbal "missionaries must be" bla-bla-bla.

If I hadn't had a "burned in" type testimony, I would have walked out of the MTC due to all the hypocrisy I saw in so many of the BIC elders, and the apparent "false picture" of missionary requirements and church law that Elder Monson painted. It all looked like a joke, double-standards, and lip-service to me.

Over the last 20 years, a bad sub-culture of "free sex until you're 18/19" had developed in the church, and this was not just bad for the kids engaging in it, it was influencing kids who succumbed to the peer pressure and who would not have transgressed had not others bragged about it.

The "no consequences, just go on a mission" message was undermining the chastity message of the church. It was telling the youth that there really were no consequences to teenage sex.

TrailerTrash said...

This is an interesting perspective. I went on my mission 10 years ago, and to be honest I have never heard any "bragging" about pre-mission indiscretions either before or since my mission. I am not saying that it never happened, only that I am not sure it was as pervasive as you make it seem.

For the record, I am not opposed to guidelines about waiting periods per se. I do question this "one size fits all" of the status quo that doesn't make the distinction you make b/t those who do it once and those who do it multiple times, etc., etc. You may be right that the previous ethos was too lax, but is this really the solution?

Bookslinger said...

Sending out missionaries at the beginning of the repentance process (of major sins) rather than at the end of the repentance process, is also one of the major factors of why literally thousands of missionaries were being sent home each year, or voluntarily left their missions. Two to nine weeks at the MTC, plus a round-trip ticket (most to overseas) is a lot of money to waste.

Missions just can't tolerate the kind of "well, my bishop didn't get that angry over it" attitude towards transgressions in the mission field.

Another factor is that when a 17/18 year old gets just a slap on the wrist (not even disfellowshipment) for a major sin, then the other rules of mission life (hours and working etc) just don't seem important to him. Those missionaries then have a dragging down effect on their companions and other missionaries in the same apartment or district.

When an adult male commits sexual transgression and is disfellowshipped or excommunicated, the period is a minimum of one year. The old guidelines of lesser periods for 18 year olds or younger apparently were taken advantage of by the common teenage attitude of "how much can I get away with?"

I don't see the 1 year period so much as a one size fits all, but as a minimum. And if the transgressor is 18, and has the Melchizedek priesthood, he's supposed to be treated under the same rules as other adults. So in essence, if a young man in such a situation begins his repentance process before he turns 18, he can still go at 19.

There are lots of reasons other than moral worthiness why someone shouldn't go at 19. So when someone doesn't ship off at 19, ward members should not infer transgression as the reason.

It's not just moral worthiness in which the bar is being raised. It's also about preparation and attitude.

I was an adult convert before going on a mission, and I was utterly shocked at the generally un-Christian attitudes of a good number of the 19 year olds at the MTC. Yeah, most elders had a good attitude, or at least were trying. But about 15 to 20% were not trying, didn't even know what the gospel was, and it was a party or vacation to them. For that group, I kept thinking if they weren't already members of the church, they probably wouldn't even qualify for baptism, because they didn't really believe, let alone make real committments. I realize that's judgemental on my part, but I'm telling you, those guys really stood out and were obnoxious towards those trying to be straight-arrows.

In 2004, 2 years after the raise-the-bar went into effect, the missionary force had dropped from 60,000 to 51,000. A decline of 15%. That seemed about right from my perspective, as at least that percentage (from my observations) were just going through the motions, and were not sincere believers.

No one should mistake what raise-the-bar is. It's not requiring all missionaries to be virgins. Those who have transgressed and repented, and "gone to Gethsemane" as some GA's say, can still go on a mission. But the change or conversion has to happen before starting the missionary application process, not during.

And raise-the-bar is not to keep young men from serving. It's to prepare them better to serve. If it does have an effect of keeping some young men out of full-time missionary service, those are the ones who likely shouldn't have gone anyway. Being sent home from a mission is more damaging than not going on a mission. And being sent home is far worse than merely delaying a mission for a year or two.

There's nothing wrong with going on a mission at 20, or 21, or 22, or 23, or 24, or 25.

And in the final analysis, the standards voiced by Elder Ballard in October 2002, are really the EXACT SAME standards for missionary service voiced all along (at least since 1983). The only real difference is that now they are (supposedly) going to be actually applied. If there were errors in the "old" system, it was that bishops and stake presidents were NOT applying the standards as laid out by the Brethren.

TrailerTrash said...

You have my 100% on all points about raising the bar, etc. I don't think people should get slaps on the wrist. I think that missions should be taken seriously. However, I am still not convinced that this mandatory waiting period effectively does this, for all of the reasons that I lay out in my post. As for the 15% of immature missionaries, I am a little more remorseful about seeing them go than you are. First of all, I don't see them as immature because they have committed sexual sins, so I don't really see this as a solution. Second, to judge them by how they are in the MTC rather than at the end of their missions is unfair.

Dave said...

The brethren have said multiple times that we need our missionary force to be missionaries before they go. So yes, it is fair to judge missionaries while they are in the MTC rather than when they return. A mission is not a place to grow up. Missionaries are asked to dedicate 2 years of their lives solely to the service of God. This is no small requirement. I am a preparing missionary, and I would like to see those who go be prepared to serve with all their hearts. I am preparing myself to give two full years to my God, and not to babysit a companion who is not prepared. We cannot suppose that those who cannot stay clean for at least a year can be worthy to serve God. This just isn't the case. I would agree that people can turn their lives around after major transgression. I have known a few people who have committed major transgression and have turned out to be wonderful people and missionaries. Paul describes himself as the "vilest of all sinners," and yet he was an effective tool in bringing many Gentile nations to Christ. Yet in each case it was through a painful process, one in which they were made to suffer and feel guilt. and remember this because it becomes important later on; that guilt takes time to fade.
While I can see how you would disagree with a one size fits all philosophy, the brethren are not saying that it takes at least a year to repent from the listed transgressions. In many cases, full repentance will take less time. But while God remembers their sins no more, the preparing missionary will still remember his sins. Because the army of missionaries is the most dangerous force in the church to the Kingdom of Satan, he will oppose them at every turn. Ask any missionary or mission president. Missionaries have their pasts flung into their faces by Satan on a daily basis telling them they they are unworthy, and that they are the hypocrite, preaching moral living when they have not done it themselves. For their own benefit, they need to prove to themselves that they can live morally clean lives, and that their sins are attributes of "the old man of sin," which they have "crucified with the lusts of the flesh." We are on this earth to prove that we can live according to God's laws without his presence. But who are we proving it to? God? nope. He already knows. We are here to prove it to ourselves, and so preparing missionaries that have committed moral indiscretions need to do likewise.