I was embarrassed for them. In this equatorial country where the only time neck-ties are worn is when you are in court as a defendant, the Mormon missionaries stood out painfully with their long pants, long shirts, ties and name tags. It was almost as if they went out of their way to not fit in. At present there are about 51,000 Mormon missionaries around the world. They are volunteers working without pay and traveling at their own family’s expense in a place they have not chosen. They simply submit their names to the church and then the leadership of the church sends them out. They have no say, they simply obey...
I was embarrassed for them. In this equatorial country where the only time neck-ties are worn is when you are in court as a defendant, the Mormon missionaries stood out painfully with their long pants, long shirts, ties and name tags. It was almost as if they went out of their way to not fit in.
At present there are about 51,000 Mormon missionaries around the world. They are volunteers working without pay and traveling at their own family’s expense in a place they have not chosen. They simply submit their names to the church and then the leadership of the church sends them out. They have no say, they simply obey.
On my journey back from Ebeye in the Marshall Islands this summer I got to know two missionaries who were on their way home following the completion of their two year mission. After our shared flight home was cancelled, we were forced to spending 6 hours in a holding area, before being deported from the US military base on Kwajalein back to Ebeye for the night. The next day brought another 6 hour session in the holding area and plenty of opportunity to talk. They knew who I was as a Lutheran Pastor, and of course who they were and what they did was obvious even without the name tags. So all pretenses and unspoken motivations were laid aside and we were able to just sit down and get to know one another as human beings.
Each of them described how life changing their experience as a missionary was. Neither of them had heard of the Marshall Islands before begin assigned to work there. Both of them had learned the language within six months of arriving. Their work was simple. They were to walk around the island, stand out in the community, and talk to the people in their own language. In short, they were to get to know communities and build relationships within them.
Their work has met with mixed success. The Mormon church is growing in the Pacific, but it is hard to tell by exactly how much. But the success of the mission on the young men who serve is unmistakable. Here were two young men who will forever be committed to a church, not just as members but as missionaries with a zeal for sharing their faith.
I could not help but contrast the experience of these missionaries to my own period of pastoral formation at the seminary. We had expectations of full-time jobs that paid livable salaries when we graduated. We would be able to choose to some extent where we would and would not be willing to serve. By and large people were able to choose places to serve where the people they would be serving looked and sounded just like them. No language learning necessary. A comment made at a pre-vicarage meeting typifies in my mind much that is wrong with our church’s approach to pastoral care today. A young man, there with his wife stood up and asked, “Does where we go for vicarage have any bearing on where we get our first call? My wife and I wouldn’t mind serving in an inner-city parish for a year, but we wouldn’t want to get stuck there for our first call.”
Even if the Lutheran Church could muster the resources to develop a organizational structure that would allow us to develop a program of missions similar to the Mormon church, it is hard to imagine it meeting with the same success. Lutherans, by and large, just seem to not be motivated enough about Lutheranism to make those kind of sacrifices. For better or worse, (yes, I know, the worker is worth his keep) seminarians and pastors spend time talking about salary scales, pension plans, health plans and the like, and calls are sometimes accepted and declined on that basis. A Pastor’s personal preferences for ministry (yes, I know, spiritual gifts) lead him or her to fill out forms that say, “I would prefer not to go to the Midwest or to an inner city church, a black church or a Hispanic church.” The fact that the forms even have these options available show that in Lutheranism the Spirit indeed works through some rather specific worldly means. If clergy are limited in the sacrifices they are prepared to make, is it reasonable to expect that our lay parishioners should not be?
One significant difference between pastors and Mormon missionaries is that the missionaries are not married while pastors often are. Families complicate things. Time and again at the seminary we were told that for a pastor his (it was a Missouri seminary after all!) family must come first. But what does that say about the mission of the church? Is it secondary to our own personal needs or concerns? What does that say about the trust level that we have in God’s ability to provide “all that we need to support this body and life.”?
Perhaps Roman Catholics are right in not allowing their priests to marry. Or perhaps there needs to be some sort of happy medium: A Lutheran religious order of single men and women, lay or ordained where people can devote their lives singularly to Christ and his church in those places that have exceptional need; A greater concern for empowering lay people with their varied and singular gifts to work in those exceptional climates; A reminder to our pastors of the servant nature of their work and the providential care of God.
Beyond concerns of family life, however, there is simply the question of whether Lutheranism has any missionary zeal left within it. Brand loyalty to the Lutheran name is disappearing, and our American Lutheran church bodies seem to have little vitality left beyond the occasional ability to bicker internally or muster up the strength to argue with one another. All the while our churches continue their slow steady march toward irrelevancy and churches like the Mormon Church step up and fill the void. It is embarrassing indeed.