Friday, October 12, 2007

Raising the Bar (Absolute Moral Worthiness)

In the Priesthood Session of General Conference, Elder L. Tom Perry said that the Church was raising the bar again concerning moral worthiness: "The bar was raised by the leaders of the Church, and now the minimum standard for participating in missionary work is absolute moral worthiness; physical health and strength; intellectual, social, and emotional development. In every high-jumping competition there is a minimum height at which the competition starts. The high jumper cannot ask to start at a lower height. In the same way, you should not expect the standards to be lowered to allow you to serve a mission. If you want to be a missionary, you must be able to clear the minimum standards."
I have given his talk much thought. When I was a young man I faced some difficult challenges not being a member of the church. By the Church's standards today I would not have been worthy to serve since I transgressed the law of chastity. I am sure that because of my problems I was not as effective as a missionary could be since I carried the baggage of those sins with me throughout my mission. My mission president came close on many occasions to sending me home because I had struggles with companions. Many of my struggles concerned my transfer from one mission to another. Many missionaries speculated why I had been transferred. They attributed all kinds of heinous things to me. The majority of which were not true. But I have learned from that experience as well as others in life that "perception is reality." Many of my companions felt they were being punished to be put with me. Out of fourteen companions only four thought of me in normal missionary terms. I never disclosed what I had done but a few guessed closely to my premission problem. I never told any the real reason because I felt I had repented.
If I had never been allowed to serve a mission my mission field might have been a little more productive in terms of bringing new members into the Church. I think I was allowed to go on a mission under a different standard because the top person converted by me was myself. Since I didn't meet the minimum standards I really shouldn't have been there in the first place.
Due to my inadequacies I have felt a sense of failure when I was transferred. I was teaching the law of chastity and it finally dawned on me one day that I had not cleared it up with my church leaders. When I had been interviewed for baptism the interviewer had never asked about my moral worthiness other than had I ever stolen anything.

When I contacted my mission president he had me write back to my leaders and the other person involved. Soon I found myself transferred from Italy to Canada. I felt I was washed clean at baptism but apparently I wasn't. I have never figured out the debate between Widtsoe and Talmage where one says there is still a nail print and other says there is not. Raising the bar eliminates those of us who still have nail prints.
Last year when my daughter was called to my same mission. I felt the Lord was allowing me through my daughter to reach those I missed by being transferred when she was called to my same original mission field Italy Rome. I know that my daughter has kept herself morally unspotted from the world. If I hadn't served a mission the Lord still might have brought in the thirty or so people that were taught and baptized by one of my children. It is better to be obedient and live free of the anguish I have felt these many years. I am glad they have raised the bar. I hope missionaries will consider my bad example and not repeat them so they can have clean hands and pure heart and not burden others with problems that should not have happened in the first place. Even though a convert like myself will be affected the bar should be set so that mission presidents have better missionaries that can stand on higher ground.


Matt Thurston said...

I don't know, Dr. B...

I think the phrase "perception is reality" applies to self-perception as well. Your sense of self as a Sinner, as being "in the hot seat," as being below the bar, as sometimes having "felt a sense of failure" are not absolute and objective, but somewhat malleable and subjective.

So while I'm in favor of a "bar" for any kind of position or service (religious or otherwise), when it comes to missionary service, I place a higher/stronger emphasis on desire, intent, effort, humility, etc. than the unweildy and unforgiving club of "absolute moral worthiness."

As I read the teachings of Christ... first, we're all Sinners; and second, we should share the good news and bring other souls to Christ. The requirement for such is a broken heart and contrite spirit, not an unblemished track record.

And just what is the concern or problem with having missionaries who have committed past moral transgressions? Is the problem that they have shown such a surprising lack of self-restraint that they'll engage in further sexual indiscretions in the mission field? Or that they'll suddenly recall a sexual memory in the middle of a critical missionary discussion? Really, I don't understand.

If the problem is that they won't be able to "get over it" or that they will be less effective as missionaries because the spirit won't burn as bright with them, then this is a form of spiritual abuse.

Frankly, as I read of your struggles to overcome transgressions committed prior to your conversion to the Church, and the idea that you technically did not repent of said transgressions because the question was not specifically asked during your baptismal interview... well, it seems like a lot of angst over nothing. It calls to mind the absurd idea that your "sin" was still recorded in some general ledger in heaven on a mere technicality. Repentance is to make one feel whole again, not to balance the books. A simple, "Go and sin no more," would have sufficed.

I've seen too many good missionaries get tied up in knots over similar such mental gymnastics. To me, this is all "raising the bar" accomplishes, a bunch of unnecessary anxiety and pharisaical judgement...

Finally, if I were an investigator, give me a humble, sensitive, faithful, and loving missionary who has overcome past transgressions (no matter how serious), over an automaton with absolute moral worthiness any day of the week.

With respect, MT.

Dr. B said...


You raise some good points. Even though I am sure I did some good things. I was as you point out a screwed up mess. I went on a mission just a year after joining the church. There were a lot of things I didn't know. I'm not totally sure my desire made up for my weaknesses. I am sure a lot of other young men and young women who go out experience the angst you point out. Most teenagers suffer from angst generally but when you add the burden of their sins from moral problems they have a great deal of baggage that can really impede missionary work. I don't disagree with some of your insightful comments that about a broken heart and a contrite spirit. I am sure there have been thousands of missionaries who have had superior missions that go on to be exceptional parents who send their own children on missions. I think raising the bar just gives those of us who screwed up a better chance to straighten out our lives before going on missions.

Behind the Infamous Veil said...

Yeah, as long as "raising the bar" means that a young person who has sinned has a chance to repent and get themselves ready to go. Many bishops and SPs are interpreting this to mean if they have slipped up, they can never go on a mission.

Matt Thurston said...

Well, this is an interesting discussion.

While I can acknowledge the "baggage" that comes with moral indiscretions, I wonder if we (personally and institutionally) unnecessarily exacerbate the intensity of the pain and suffering. Calling it the "sin next to murder" is laying it on a little thick, I think.

The reality is that we really don't know what Christ or Heavenly Father think on this matter or how we will be judged. As such, we should acknowledge the pitfalls of moral transgressions and preach the importance of repentance, but we should error on the side of caution when it comes to forgiveness and judgment.

I consider forgiveness and judgment Christ's domain first and foremost, and the individual's domain second. Third is the institutional church, and it's lay leaders, who should help facilitate repentance and speed the road to recovery, not add more shame and guilt or impose draconian measures (like keeping an otherwise bright and spiritual son or daughter from serving a mission).

More is lost by keeping a person who has sinned from serving a mission than is gained by keeping the mission field free of sinners.

I served a mission in the late 80s when the bar was "lower." Had I come of age today I probably would not have been able to serve. I cannot see how this would have benefited me or the good people of Taiwan.

I guess I'm still looking for someone to explain to me the problem with having someone who has committed a moral transgression within, say, three months (for example) of serving a mission. If his repentance is sincere, if his desire to serve is real, what is the downside? Scriptures are replete with examples of people who have experienced a change of heart overnight. Would not such an individual serving a mission be an example of the healing and transformative power of the gospel?

I don't mean to take over your blog with these two long comments. No need to respond if you don't feel like it. Thanks, MT.

Dr. B said...

rmon1Actually I see the logic of your argument that the atonement of Christ could make it possible for sinners like Paul who held the cloaks still be an effective missionary. As to moral transgression being the sin next to death I think that argument probably applies to more serious sexual transgressions that result in abortion. A missionary who has participated in such a matter probably should be exempted from missionary service. In the missionary discussions we talked about such things and in preparing a candidate for baptism. Then the church gets involved in the decision-making process. I can't judge a person's worthiness nor am I in an ecclesiastical position to worry about it. I think the church gets involved mostly when serious transgression is involved.
I have given the discussion between Widtsoe and Talmage much thought over the years whether the sin is completely washed away or whether there is residual prints or marks left on the sinner. In the case of absolute moral worthiness I guess it would lean toward the latter. I haven't seen the new bar institutionalize yet but maybe there will still be room for repented sinners on missions such as new converts. We should get a ruling from the General Authorities on the matter. I guess you folks at Sunstone should track that for a while so we can see. I can't speak for what Elder Perry meant only on my reactions.

Matt Thurston said...

Actually, I do know of one person affiliated with Sunstone who is working on an article studying the effects of "raising the bar" on missionary worthiness. Not sure how far she is in her study nor am I sure of her conclusions, but it should be interesting.

The number of missionaries serving worldwide has fallen since the late 80s early 90s, while the number of members is increasing. I'm not sure how much of this decline in the number of missionaries has to do with raising the bar or other factors. Since you seem to be interested in missionary work maybe you have an opinion.