Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mother's Day and Christmas Calls: Challenges and Thoughts about Non-traditional Family Relationships

Recently it came to my attention that a parent might be left out in the two phone calls that missionaries are allowed to make each year on Mother's Day and Christmas. I hadn't really considered that angle before, who receives the phone call when parents are divorced. Is the call on Mother's Day really just for a missionary's mother or is the father included. The church doesn't have missionaries call on Father's Day just Mother's Day. So it is a debatable issue of who the call is really for. In some relationship the mother has abandoned her family and the father is both father and mother to the child in the nurturing role. In other cases the mother takes on both roles. It is a complex issue without any simple answers. It has caused me to reflect on the whole process of missionary communication. This isn't as simple as you might believe and I have never seen it addressed by the missionary department of the LDS Church. I am sure there are angles that have implications not only about communication but also relationships.

When I was a missionary thirty-three years ago , we didn't call home at all so this was not an issue then like it is today. Historically in those days on Mother's Day you had to think about your dear old mom weeks in advance and the same for your dad if you wanted to send them a card. You usually sent some Hallmark card with a line or two on the card and your weekly note which had a little like I love you and appreciate all you did for me. We didn't call home unless there was a dire emergency and we didn't receive calls for the same reason. That was usually the death of a family member or a tragic accident. In a rare case there were exceptions but they were few and far between and usually required permission from the leaders in Salt Lake City. I only knew one elder who called a fiancee. She kept him on a mission and he was able to feel good

In Italy were I served it took about two to three weeks for letters to come and another two or three weeks to go back home. We were instructed to write our parents once a week which most missionaries tried to do. Back then we could also write family and friends on P-Day. Most most missionaries had a guy or girl back home real or imagined. We would beg them for pictures show we could show our missionary buddies. Letter writing became a skill for us that some were good at and others neglected. Missionaries for the most part wrote at least one or twice a month.

Back when I was on a mission we felt we were losing ourselves in the work and sacrificed even contact with our own families for the missionary cause. I recognize that many elders lived for the letters that came each week and were lonely on special days and holidays when they couldn't speak to loved ones and when letters didn't come we carried on. Missionaries felt a sense of rejection and were very disappointed when no news came from home. We concentrated on the work not really knowing what went on at home. In the short term it was better but in the long term we had to reestablish relationship with family members since we didn't have a context for two years of their lives.

Not hearing from home affected the work of a few elders who became homesick. Parents also were concerned about their child who may or may not being doing well on their missions. Parents want to be encouraging and help their missionary son or daughter be effective. There is occasionally the parent who does the opposite but they are few and far between.

The time lag even caused problems if there were any type of family or missionary crisis. Many times in the time lag what seemed a serious problem might have been resolved but was uncommunicated because of the long mail process. The missionary or parents might spend weeks fretting about perceived problems that was no longer an issue. I probably only received twenty or thirty letter during my mission. So in a sense it is a disjointed account of both family and my own experience. Even though that is the case it all that remains of my memories thirty years later. I wasn't that connected to my family to worry about their life issues and I had a different agenda. Even though not members my parents' letters were mostly encouragement for me to stay the course on my mission and get along with companions.

They had no clue contextually of what I really did and even active members who aren't part of the missionary culture don't realize the daily happenings from a district leader calling at 9:30:01 to see if they are in or dropping in at 6:30 am to catch you in bed. Mostly missionary communication is about the big stuff like I baptized so and so not my district leader caught me sleeping at 7am. Rather it is I attended a zone conference or heard a general authority and learned this gospel principle that touched me in some way. On occasion they fell in to trunky behaviors asking about this a boyfriend or a girlfriend back home but for the most part it was a synopsis of their major achievements.

The Church recognized the lack of communication and knew that missionaries should be better connected and instituted a weekly policy. Today with email there is the ability to communicate quicker and in less time so that there is instantaneous delivery of their happenings. Parents have an expectation that they should be able to communicate weekly.

I can wait right up until an hour or two before my daughter will read it to send her a paragraph or two that has some encouragement such as a scripture or gospel idea and say things are going well at home. My daughter then briefly knows what is happening at home and we know what is happening on her mission. Missionaries are actually instructed not to discuss negative things with their parents. Parents are encouraged to be uplifting and seek to know about the successes of their child.

The added two phone calls let you hear the loved one's voice and that is reassuring to both missionary and parent. It reestablishes a bond as you share the missionary experience. Such calls can really make a difference in understanding what the missionary is going through. They self-disclose their core values and life-changing experiences while expressing gratitude to the parents, church leaders and to Jesus Christ. It really is a spiritual experience that can affect parents lives. It reestablished bridges because the written word doesn't always convey the heart of the child or the parent. Some people are better communicators in person.

Coming from a traditional family where my parents were married just shy of fifty years I hadn't really thought about divorced parents of missionaries before. Today there are many parents that are divorced for a variety of reason. Relationship sometimes just don't work out. It doesn't always involve sexual transgression many times it is just communication or trust issues. Although culturally Mormons discourage divorce it is a reality that is not uncommon. It is not unusual to find members in a ward that have been married two or three times. The missionary might actually have more than one mother or father that raised them.

A question came up this week that got me on this topic: Should a father who doesn't have a cordial relationship with his divorced spouse not hear from his missionary child on Mother's Day?

A friend asked for my suggestion about one parent making the following argument why he should be included in the call and asked my advice on it:
I noticed that you mentioned the proper protocol to calling mother's for
missionaries. I have never received an acceptable answer to a question
about the practice of only allowing missionaries to call on Mother's Day
and not also allowing phone calls on Father's Day.

While this was not important when I served, my parents were and are
married. I ask because I am no longer married to the mothers of my five
children. My oldest three are sons (ages 15, 13, & 10).

Should I be excluded on phone calls, while my sons serve missions? I do
not think that fathers should be left out of phone calls, period. In my
case, doubly so. My father missed his five sons as much as my mother.

Is this a topic you can touch on for Mother's Day?
I thought about the matter and at first blush I replied:

I will forward this on to someone in the missionary department in SLC. Missionaries don't call on Father's Day that I know of only Christmas and Mother's Day. I don't think they will change the policy for divorce but perhaps he could contact the mission president for individual permission to receive a call on Mother's Day also. That way the son has a chance to talk twice a year to his parents.

I have given the matter more than a five minute treatment and here are a few suggestions that might or might not work depending on relationship:

Having had three children on missions during the last three years I know a missionary can make one phone call on those two days only. It is a concession that the Church makes today to better communication and connection between missionaries and families. Hearing the child's voice is a special experience on those days. My three children have cherished the day and for the most part steer away from our family happenings to more of one of gratitude. They usually express their thanks individually and maturely expressing how they never really appreciated what we taught them throughout our lives. Even bad things which affected them they see as lessons in helping others find the joy in the gospel.

Now to a few practical thoughts from my experience with missionary phone calls that could apply to the topic of divorced spouses. In the process of phone calling all members of my family have cell phones with the ability to add multiple people on the line. On those two days we form a phone chain with five-way calling. When two of our daughters were on a mission simultaneously we had both call another daughter who was away at college. She was more cell phone savvy then my wife or I. She established a call to her mother, to me and to another sibling at BYU. Then the two calls came in one by one and she added the missionaries on the line so there were five of us. The other five children who were younger used either my wife or my phone to chip in their three or four minutes worth. It was a family call.

If a divorced parent has a passable relationship with a former spouse he or she could be added on the line. You need to have everyone together to make it work without technical glitzes. What happened in reality was that each member of the family said what they wanted to say and some dropped off the line. The missionary could talk to his mother first. Then she could drop off. Then to a sibling and finally the father or any configuration. That way the missionary follows the intent which is that they have a thirty to sixty minute call twice a year with their family.

If the wife or children are hostile to the other spouse. The husband could always email the mission president so that the child could phone that parent. Missionaries want to be obedient so it might also create some resentment on the part of the mother who would not want to share her time with the former spouse. I am not sure even the mission president would be amenable to going over the time since some hold exactly to the policy. A few use their discretion and might give special permission for an extra thirty minutes.

There is also the relationship to consider. Even if the missionary lives with the father not the mother they might be reluctant to call the parent whom they have had little relations with. By not calling the parent the missionary is losing an opportunity to apply Christ-like principles in their life. Their hearts need to be right and forgiving a parent for little involvement might be a wedge in their life holding them back from having the Spirit or counseling others in a similar situation.

I am aware that some would argue that the father in question should suck it up and not expect the hear from the child on Mother's Day and only on Christmas since Mother's Day is expressing our love and gratitude to our mother who gave us birth and nurtured us. But father in question above has a good point that I once thought about why can't my child call me on Father's Day?

I also think there are a few who would would suggest why don't they alternate where the missionary calls the mother on Mother's Day and the father on Christmas. Both are not satisfactory to both parents. But the truth is both parents want to share the call but their relationship is in the way. If both are active Latter-day Saints they might want to set aside past problems and share the experience as I suggested above. For me who couldn't call my parents on either day when I was a missionary I think it is a bonus if you hear from them at all. It really is convoluted when you factor in relationships. A missionary is placed in a difficult situation and is between a rock and a hard place when parents aren't together since he or she might have to choose one parent over the other in the calling situation. It is easy to offer suggestions but people's lives are messy. There really are gospel implications to missionary phone calls.

I think the greater minds of the LDS missionary department need to come up with a solution to such situations. I am not officially capable of solving this quagmire. What I say is based on my own personal reason but isn't backed up by authority. By writing about it maybe some higher up will consider it. Only the LDS leaders can really tells us their rationale for the intent of the call. Personally I think it is a family call on both days. The leaders need to make a policy or practice statement to consider this increasing family dynamic. Even if they decide to not include the father at least he will know that is the policy like they say revelation isn't created in a vacuum nor policies or practices.

If we raise awareness on an issue maybe the church leaders will consider exceptions in a written policy statement. It doesn't give approval to the dissolution of a marriage by allowing missionaries to work out communication exceptions it just helps them stay connected to both parents. The best approach on an individual basis is for the parent to contact the missionary department directly and get their advice. Sometimes there are exceptions to the rule. Those in power can make that determination better than me.

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