I guess I was that rare missionary who wasn’t pressured to baptize

Before I get into my subject, memo to Sunstone fans; the June 2013 issue is the best I have read. Every article — from letters to in-depth features, was a must-read. And filmmaker Richard Dutcher offers an excellent short story, “Expiation.” This week’s blog was partially inspired by Tom Kimball, who handles books at Signature. In a short, personal essay in which Kimball offers his sentiments on watching — as a former Mormon — LDS priesthood holders set apart his LDS son for a mission, he wonders what his son will be like after his mission.

This line stayed with me: “Will the numbers game that rules so many missions open his eyes to my unbelieving view of Mormonism?” The “numbers game.” I have heard accounts, by Mormons and former Mormons, of the salesmanship pressures of baptizing. The “numbers game” pressure is a fixture in contemporary Mormon-themed fiction sold outside Deseret Book. I don’t doubt there’s a “numbers game” but the concept is foreign to me because I , drum roll, never experienced it during my time as a missionary. Not from the president, the assistants, the zonies …

I served an 18-month mission (1983-1984) in the Peru Lima North mission. It was a high-baptizing mission. In the 16 months I was in the field, my companions and I averaged between 8 to 9 baptisms a month. I assume those numbers were about average in the mission. I was in Iquitos (by the Amazon River), Chiclayo, Lima and Chimbote, a city blessed with too many fish factories and seemingly no rules on pollution. In Chimbote, we were frequently assaulted with waves of fish smoke!

Of course, we were urged to gather prospects, urge a commitment to baptism during the first discussion, and baptize converts, but there was never the follow-up pressure and cheers for baptizers and scorn for non-baptizers. We knocked doors in the AM, studied for a couple of hours in the afternoon (siesta time) and in the late afternoon or evening went to appointments, or knocked doors. Knocking on doors was not a difficult thing to do. I can only recall two occasions when the door was shut in our face.

Recreation was treasured in my mission. We’d get up at 6 a.m on Mondays to make our Preparation Day as long as possible. My fondest memories are in in Lima, by the Tupac Amaru highway, climbing the hills, early in the morning, in the outskirts of Lima. Near Chiclayo we once visited, via truck, a place sacred to Catholics, called The Cross of Chalpon. There were dozens of these types of trips. They relieved the tension that accompanies 12-hour missionary days six days a week.

On Monday night, there was zone meeting. We reviewed the week, went over procedures, congratulated missionaries on baptisms. But again, no pressure. I wonder if my mission’s easygoing style was due to the numbers of baptisms already being logged? Or was it the strategy of my mission president, an easygoing Idaho farmer named Harvard Bitter. I never saw anything other than good humor from him, and that includes the rare personal visits.

In fact, the “worst” thing that ever happened on my mission was when I was robbed at the Chimbote taxi stop upon arrival there. The casualties were my scriptures, about $70 cash, some Peruvian money, a key chain collection, and the big loss, my mission diary which had logged 15 months of my mission. I hated losing that. I put an ad in the paper, with a reward promised for its return and no questions asked, but maybe the robbers didn’t read the daily paper. (In subsequent weeks I was bemused to see parts of my not inconsiderable key chain collection for sale by street vendors at various locations.)

Warning: Very long sentence follows — Although I realize that my mission diary likely decomposed long ago in a landfill — is it possible that destroyed mission diaries are resurrected in the hereafter? — I still harbor a hope that it’s sitting in some members’ house and that one day, through the magic of social media — which definitely did not exist back then … we weren’t even able to watch LDS conference — I will be reunited with my mission diary, thereby having an absolutely fantastic spiritual anecdote the next time I’m tapped to give a talk in sacrament meeting.

Well, I have digressed from my original topic of not being pressured to baptize. As mentioned, to the best of my memory, I never felt the pressure others describe (even now my Standard Works colleague Cal Grondahl is telling me he was pressured to baptize in his 1969 to 1971 New Zealand mission). The only time I felt harassed was due to an overenthusiastic assistant who was a stickler for rules and was hassling me one day. I exchanged a few sharp words with him, which probably ended my faint hopes of becoming a zone leader. I was a district leader the final eight months of my mission, and was always given responsibilities over sister missionaries. My leadership skills could be summed up as follows: Work hard, and don’t baptize kids unless there’s a member parent or member adult sibling. One overly enthusiastic sister missionary used to complain about my “standards” to President Bitter (I read news magazines and boxing magazines) but the prez just laughed them off. (To be fair, I also polished off the “Book of Mormon” a few times, “Jesus the Christ,” the “Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt,” the “Articles of Faith,” and “Orgullo y Prejucio” (“Pride and Prejudice”), which I picked up in a Chiclayo bookstore.)

This stream of consciousness piece is about over. There’s another article in the current Sunstone, by Scot Denhalter, who ironically was in my mission area several-plus years before I got there. In “The Persistent Impermanence of Memory,” Denhalter argues that our memories may not be what actually occurred. As Denhalter writes, “… as the mind retrieves the raw data of memory for the first time, details needed to establish the logical coherence of the memory’s retelling — details not originally stored or possibly never perceived — can be unconsciously added, while seemingly unnecessary details can be left out or likely lost forever.”

I guess it’s possible my memories are skewed. Maybe I was pressured to baptize. But I doubt it.

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16 Responses to I guess I was that rare missionary who wasn’t pressured to baptize

  1. Dylan DeShazer says:

    I served a mission in France. I didn’t have a baptism my whole mission, but I never felt pressure to baptize. I did see missionaries who felt like they were failures if they didn’t baptize, but I was not one. Some missionaries put that pressure on themselves, but it was not coming from either of my two mission presidents. They were probably careful because they knew how hard it was to baptize in France and wanted the missionaries to keep working and not feel depressed if they didn’t baptize.

    On the other hand I FEEL YOUR PAIN when it comes to your journal. I was in Bordeaux and we had just gone upstairs to our apartment, and came back down, and someone had broken into our VAN, (i was an office missionary at the time) and they stole my backpack that had all my Church CD’s, glasses, wallet and my journal that I just finished filling out. I had written in it everyday, so that was about 7 months gone. They also took my cell phone, so I called it and they actually answered HAHA. They said that someone had just sold them the phone, and I begged them to give my journal and that they could keep the rest. I checked trash cans in the area, but couldn’t find it. Sad day on my mission. Anyway, thanks for sharing your story.

  2. ScottH says:

    The pressure to baptize is highly dependent on the mission president. Today’s mission presidents are cautioned against such tactics, since they tend to produce low retention rates. Of course, current mission president training varies greatly from the training mission presidents of yesteryear received. Some mission presidents that came from sales and high performance management backgrounds have been famous (infamous?) for their strong emphasis on baptismal numbers.

    I served in a mission where baptisms were rare enough that many missionaries never baptized anyone. Both of my mission presidents had become wealthy by building their own businesses from scratch after arriving in the U.S. with nothing. But instead of baptismal pressure, we were trained to focus on doing the basics with the idea that it would lead to good results. The occasions where those results included baptisms were limited. But nobody freaked out about it.

  3. The Rev'd Neal Humphrey says:

    In my mission – the Central British Mission – 1966-1968 – we were taught in repeated exhortations and IN WRITING that the only measure of a successful mission was convert baptisms.

    I still have the mandate in my CBM manuals in my pastor’s study at work.

    The problem was, I was 600% more productive than the average missionary (the average was 3 converts in 2 years). And my mission president, who majored in the minors, would actually “call” elders who had zero baptisms to be his “Assistants to the President.” The dismal result was his assistants had nothing to teach the productive elders.

    Maybe he promoted them because he just wanted them to feel better …

  4. Karen says:

    I loved this blog. I have a friend who is now a non attending Mormon who tells me that he was never pressured to baptize. And, of course, I also know many many missionaries who say that they were pressured to baptize. But the thing I like best about your blog is the reminder that we all kind of choose whether we like who we are or we don’t. Sounds like you were true to your character, and I admire that. My opinion–and I recognize that my opinion is only worth the time I spend sharing it–is that people who feel pressured to do something (even if the pressure is real) are not really happy about doing the thing the feel pressured to do. Life is a much happier experience if we can be the person we are comfortable being and maybe not allow external pressure to push us into being someone we are not.

  5. Pingback: 1 July 2013 | MormonVoices

  6. Wayne Dequer says:

    Another excellent article. There should NOT be pressure to baptize. Encouragement is fine. Goals to baptize are fine, if there is an emphasis on being role oriented and NOT just goal oriented. The role is to focus on becoming more Christlike and developing Charity — the pure love of Jesus Christ. Understanding that role means learning and sharing the gospel, giving service, and loving the people one meets, teaches and serves.

    My twin daughters served missions in Switzerland and Argentina respectively. One had few investigators and few who accepted the invitation to baptism, the other had many. Twins are individuals, but the major difference in this case was in the cultures in which they served, not their skills or dedication to the gospel. Missionary success is NOT based on the number of baptisms.

  7. Erick says:

    I can only speak for my mission, but I served in the States (mid-west) about ten years ago. There was a ton of pressure to be baptized. Each transfer (about six week intervals) we would get a zone conference with the new mission goals. These goals were basically set for us by the Zone Leaders and Presidents Assistants. These guy’s would go “pray” and then drum up these goals that said they “felt” that every companionship could have somewhere between 1 – 3 baptisms during the next six weeks. They would then lay on the commitment pattern to each companionship.

    Our meetings were generally presided over by a couple of Elders who had respect from the Mission President as hard workers, but who easily spent over half their time in a car traveling to “help” the mission Elders. They would brag about bets they made with our mission President about how baptismal commitments they could get in a single day (while working in our areas), then come back with these unbelievable numbers (7 commitments in one day was an actual example), and then blame the “lazy” Elders who actually worked the area, for not following through on these “golden” investigators.

    I didn’t have any baptisms until about the last 9 months of my mission. Then suddenly, I fell into three opportunities with people who were essentially recruited by family members who lived in the Ward. They simply needed the missionaries (us) to teach the discussions. I did literally nothing to find these people, or much to bring them to the Church. I simply facilitated the formal teaching (the discussions). Still, In a period of two months I went from being perceived as a mediocre missionary, to one who almost had to fight of the promotions. It was very disappointing because nothing about this experience made me qualified for leadership, at least not anymore than I had been at any other time on my mission. It was clear that baptisms leadership promotions were the currency of my mission.

    In other words, I can’t explain your mission Doug, nor will I try. I will say however, that the pressure to baptize is very prevalent in at least some missions.

  8. Robyn says:

    The Lord puts events in place, months,years,decades before they come to fruition. All the work in the mission field is helping the Lord to bring about the results. You are sitting on the team bench of the football team. You want to get into the game, ask the coach to send you in. You won’t make the touchdown, but you will work to make it happen. Someone else will make the touchdown, maybe later in the game when you are back on the bench. That’s why we all should be anxiously engaged our entire life.

  9. alan says:

    I thought LDS management was going to revise the missionaries’ approach. Instead, they’ve double downed on tracting to include electronic surveillance. What a waste of young lives and energy.
    These optimists could be helping the handicapped, the old or the marginalized. Instead, their irrelevancy continues unabated like the plague of crickets they have become.

  10. Tom says:

    Doug, you really should hear John Dehlin’s podcast about his mission. His mission took baptism numbers to a new level.


  11. Jim W says:

    I served around the same time as Doug, in Korea. We didn’t receive great pressure over numbers. I remember one DL who did push us to make prayerful goals, who then chewed us out for picking such unambitious numbers. At month’s end he was the only one who hadn’t met his chosen goals, and several companionships’ results exceeded his. (I’d seen his tracting approach on splits. I wasn’t surprised.)

    Our mission at the time felt like a recovery from an earlier period where numbers had been emphasized. We found ourselves with large lists of old baptisms to track down and see if they were still around and interested. Some were, many weren’t, a few were surprised to hear they had ever been Mormon. And many neighborhoods were very wary of young men in white shirts and nametags.

    I’d like to think that lessons were learned as the effects of that aggressive approach came to light. We were encouraged to be respectful, pick up the nonverbal hints of resistance and not push too hard, and attempt to bring in heads of household or whole families since parental objection was a strong indicator of later inactivity.

  12. Erick says:

    The thing that was most strange to me about these “baseball baptisms”, is that can’t wrap my head around what the possible motive could have been…particularly at the level of Mission President. Some have argued that it was motivated by greed, ie, the presumed tithing. That doesn’t make sense because I think it’s doubtful that people baptized in such a way were going suddenly feel inclined to start giving away ten percent of their income. In fact, it is possible that having these people on the rolls increased expenses not income, but regardless I don’t see a strong financial argument. I have a hard time believing that these people really felt like they were doing it for pure spiritual reasons, otherwise I’d expect them to take greater care in the long term activity of these “converts”. I could see some missionaries doing this to get mission leadership promotions, but I’d like to think that anyone capable of becoming a Mission President would recognize that impressively high baptismal numbers coupled with impressively low activity and retention numbers wouldn’t expect to suddenly become an Apostle. I really don’t get it??

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