Monday, April 21, 2008

Higher Physical Requirements for LDS Missionaries

Recently in the Raising the Bar talk by Elder L. Tom Perry he discussed the ability of missionaries to meet the physical challenges of serving a mission.

President Gordon B. Hinckley chimed in on the topic in a Worldwide Leadership Conference:

"We ask you brethren to be more selective in those you recommend. Let your young people know what will be expected of them if they are to serve missions. Let their parents know what will be expected of their sons and daughters. . . .

I recognize that the position we have taken will appear unreasonable and harsh to many parents, who will plead that their sons and daughters have the opportunity of missionary service. But, brethren, we feel that we must bring back into focus the real purpose of missionary work and the need for certain qualifications in order to accomplish that purpose. I hope that all concerned will realize that it is better not to go, than to go out and have to return in disappointment and with a sense of failure after a very short time. Brethren, may the Lord bless you with inspiration, with direction and guidance, with love for those for whom you are responsible, and with the courage to stand up for what you know to be right and reasonable. . . .

Permit me to emphasize that we need missionaries, but they must be capable of doing the work. . . .

There should be an eagerness and a desire to serve the Lord as His ambassadors to the world. And there must be health and strength, both physical and mental, for the work is demanding, the hours are long, and the stress can be heavy.

We are not asking for perfection. The work of the Lord is done by ordinary people who work in an extraordinary way. (Gordon B. Hinckley, First Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, Jan. 2003, 18).

President Hinckley in the same address went on to say: "

This work is rigorous. It demands strength and vitality. It demands mental sharpness and capacity. . . .

. . . Missionary work is not a rite of passage in the Church. It is a call extended by the President of the Church to those who are worthy and able to accomplish it. . . .

Good physical and mental health is vital. . . .

There are parents who say, ‘If only we can get Johnny on a mission, then the Lord will bless him with health.’

It seems not to work out that way. Rather, whatever ailment or physical or mental shortcoming a missionary has when he comes into the field only becomes aggravated under the stress of the work.

We simply must face up to the facts. We are spending millions of dollars on medical care and countless hours assisting those with problems that make it impossible for them to perform the work. . . .

. . . There are other areas where those with serious limitations may work and have a satisfying experience. And the Lord will bless them for what they are able to do. . . .

Permit me to emphasize that we need missionaries, but they must be capable of doing the work. . . .

There should be an eagerness and a desire to serve the Lord as His ambassadors to the world. And there must be health and strength, both physical and mental, for the work is demanding, the hours are long, and the stress can be heavy. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Missionary Service,” First Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, Jan. 2003, 17–18).

When I was on a mission the question of whether an elder or sister could meet the challenges was assumed. Physical education was taught in the elementary school all the way up to high school. Most of us participated in the president's physical fitness challenge. Even overweight elders and sisters seemed more vigorous and were seldom considered a major problem in most missions. When a missionary had a problem it usually stemmed from some ailment like breaking a leg usually caused during a P-day activity like basketball.

There were only a handful that had serious physical limitations and they were accommodated by being in missionary areas with cars. Most of them were even mentally and physically tough.

Vaughn J. Featherstone showed the tough attitude that missionaries had back in the 1970s : "An elder in our mission has had some pretty serious health problems. He has a skin allergy, bronchial problems, and sinus problems. When I arrived in the mission, he was sleeping in for fear of coming to a weakened condition and catching the flu. Then when he came in for lunch, he was sleeping for a couple of hours to keep from catching a cold or the flu. His companion was frustrated and called me.

I called the elder’s doctor. He said, “Well, his condition is bad, but it’s better than it was when he came into the mission field. It’s not going to change much no matter how many hours he works.” I called the elder into the office and suggested that I would rather see him sick with the flu legitimately than always worrying about it. I discussed with him the principle of suffering in silence, of simply going to work and doing what the Lord had called him to do. I said, “The doctor says your condition isn’t going to change no matter how much or how little you do. We’ve done and are doing all we can do. Why don’t you learn to bear your health problems without mentioning them to anyone else or showing any signs of being ill.”

Bless his great heart, he took the counsel and put it into practice. He has become one of the top missionaries in the mission. He was made a training senior companion and then a district leader, all within about six weeks. What a great missionary he is now. He discovered how to suffer in silence and do the work. He is a great example of self-denial.

Another missionary had a bad back. He was in pain constantly. He did not know that I knew of his condition. He loved missionary work so much he had kept it a secret for fear that he might be released from his mission. Another great elder had ruined both knees in sports competition. He asked for a blessing from the previous mission president and was unable to endure another full year. Every step he took he was in pain. When I interviewed him to be released, he pleaded with me to let him stay two more years in the mission.

The mission life is not easy. It requires self-denial, mental and physical exertion, maturity, self-mastery, spirituality, and a very strong, positive mental attitude. It requires an elder to be a man, not a boy. A mission should be a Spartan life. It will require resiliency and total commitment." (Vaughn J. Featherstone, “Self-Denial,” Tambuli, Jan 1979, 45).

The number of overweight children has more than tripled over the past three decades since I went on a mission. In 2008 the U.S. Surgeon General reported: "Today, more than 12.5 million children -- 17.1% of children and adolescents 2 to 19 years of age -- are overweight in the U.S., up from 13 % in 1999. Overweight children are at far greater risk for numerous health consequences, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. The most immediate consequence of overweight as perceived by the children themselves is social discrimination sometimes resulting in poor self-esteem and depression."

An interesting article described an elder losing 120 pound from 400 to 280 in the New Era in 2005. He describes his program of weight reduction. I wonder if they factor in height and bone density.

As a consequence of this growing trend, in November 2007 Elder L. Tom Perry stated: "The minimum physical standard for full-time missionary service refers to a potential missionary’s physical health and strength. For example, one of the questions on the missionary recommendation forms asks if you “can work 12 to 15 hours per day, walk 6 to 8 miles per day, ride a bicycle 10 to 15 miles per day, and climb stairs daily.” Missionary work is hard, and full-time missionaries must be in good physical condition to serve. Raising the bar to a higher physical standard could involve further physical conditioning."

Missionary candidates need to work on physical conditioning prior to serving a mission. In March 2007 Donald B. Doty, Chairman of the Missionary Health Department said:

"Physical and mental preparation should begin at least two years before a full-time mission.

During 35 years of practice as a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon, I performed thousands of operations on the heart. After cardiac surgery, patients would often ask me how they could prevent future surgery. And even if they didn’t ask, I felt obligated to advise them anyway. I would talk to them about the importance of a healthy diet, appropriate weight, aerobic exercise, adequate rest, and stress reduction. Those who acted on my advice were generally blessed with years of comfortable living. Many of those who lacked the resolve to make the necessary lifestyle changes had to face the surgical knife again—often sooner rather than later."

He goes on to say:

"Regular (daily) exercise. A missionary must be able to walk an average of six miles (10 km) per day and ride a bicycle 12 miles (19 km) per day. Prospective missionaries who aren’t walking more than from the car to a class or a job will likely get sore feet and blisters when they reach the mission field. Those who are not used to riding a bicycle regularly will also become very “saddle sore” when a bike becomes their primary means of transportation. A missionary who is out of shape will be fatigued by missionary work, and a tired missionary is more open to discouragement and health concerns than a missionary who is physically fit.

Prospective missionaries can prepare for the rigors of missionary life by establishing a regular pattern of aerobic exercise—walking, running, or cycling for one hour every day. Those whose primary form of exercise is playing electronic games or text messaging will take at least four months to achieve the level of conditioning that will allow them to actually enjoy a workout."

A few potential missionary candidates can not meet this standard even after trying and several won't put in the effort suggested. Doty says "Today about 3 percent of missionaries have their missions shortened by either physical or mental health problems. Losing 3 out of 100 missionaries may not seem like very many. But to the individual and his or her family, it is very significant."

The standard according to Doty is "that missionaries have a body mass index no higher than 37. This is actually on the border between obesity and morbid obesity. Prospective missionaries should strive to keep their weight in the normal range, thereby avoiding obesity-related health problems. Being markedly under normal weight can also have serious health consequences."

It is hard to know who really has a physical problem and who just doesn't have the motivation to be physically active. It is a complex problem in a culture that prides itself on living "The Word of Wisdom." Serving a mission is a voluntary program that has criteria associated with acceptance by the LDS missionary committee.

Those who cannot meet the standard are considered honorably excused from a regular proselyting mission. They can serve in other ways back in their home communities on service missions. LDS families need to consider the impact of lifestyle choices well in advance of a child serving. It is very disappointing to not serve a mission due to the fact you might have ate too much fast food or spent your life playing video games or watched too much television.

If I applied for a mission today at my current weight I would be turned down for not just obesity but for morbid obesity. I don't criticize those who can't meet the standard. I think if you can handle the work but your body mass isn't low enough you should still apply I am sure they consider every missionary's situation in making a determination. My dear departed father used to say "They can only say no." As an LDS parent I am going to repent and encourage my children to be more physically active since when the "going gets tough the tough get going." I would hate to see them not be qualified for a mission because I didn't make them exercise by going out to play each day.

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