For years, Mormon bishops received only general guidelines about how to interview members who want to become full-time missionaries — so those discussions could vary greatly. Now, all will follow the same new list of 16 standardized questions.
The church released them Friday, while emphasizing it is not changing requirements nor “raising the bar” for its 70,000-volunteer missionary force. It says that is part of efforts to ensure each missionary is appropriately prepared, worthy and healthy.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also announced that, along with Mormon scriptures, smartphones soon will become standard proselytizing tools for missionaries to help them find people interested in religion through online chats and other high-tech means.
In addition, the Utah-based faith previewed plans to close a ”number of missions” — without listing specific ones — because the missionary force has decreased and leveled off after the surge that followed lowering the minimum age for missionary service.
That historic 2012 announcement (young men can now serve at age 18, down from 19, and young women can go at 19, down from 21) saw the faith’s proselytizing force balloon from 58,000 to 88,000 within a few years. Five years later, the tally has fallen to about 70,000.
Gary Crittenden, managing director of the LDS missionary department, says the changes come after the church reviewed how to improve its missionary program.
“We really have been focused on looking at absolutely every element of missionary operations, starting from when a missionary is thinking about preparing, through the experience he has on his mission, and even after that,” he says. “And through that we’ve found opportunities where we think we can improve.”
That includes the new standardized questions for prospective missionaries.
The church says on its website that it hopes “each young man and woman will be familiar with them years before they formally prepare to serve so they have a complete understanding of the rigorous requirements of missionary work.”
Many of the questions are similar to those asked to determine worthiness for members to enter Mormon temples, where members participate in the religion’s highest ordinances.
The list includes questions about prospective missionaries’ faith and testimony, and whether they live the law of chastity; avoid pornography; pay tithing; and abstain from coffee, tea, tobacco and alcohol.
The question pertaining to the Word of Wisdom, the LDS health code, also instructs lay leaders to ask about a candidate’s “use of drugs or the abuse of prescribed medications.”
Several of the new questions also inquire about a member’s physical, mental and emotional state. That comes as the church says health problems are the most common reason for missionaries to go home early.
Such questions ask if members have any physical, mental or emotional condition that would make it difficult “to maintain a normal missionary schedule, which requires that you work for 12 to 15 hours a day, including studying for two to four hours a day, [and] walking or biking up to eight to 10 hours a day.”
“[Missionary] safety is a special concern,” the church notes. “In June of this year, the church sent out a physical safety survey to missionaries everywhere. The results of that survey are helping the church continue to provide missionaries with safer apartments and training videos to foster more self-awareness.”
The church has not publicly released those survey results.
The new questions also ask if prospective missionaries have ever been treated for numerous conditions, including anxiety, depression or autism — and how well they are functioning.
Questions examine if the candidates have been treated for speech disorders or dyslexia, and if they are comfortable talking in front of others and have adequate tools to learn, teach and communicate.
Other questions ask if prospective missionaries have “ever sexually abused a child in any way“ (regardless of whether or not they were charged or convicted), if they have unpaid debts (and how they would be managed while on a mission), or whether they have ever committed a serious violation of criminal law (even if not charged) and if any legal punishments or requirements have been completed.
Steve Evans, a Salt Lake City lawyer and founder of the Mormon-related blog By Common Consent, says the questions that bishops asked prospective missionaries in the past were “all over the map. Whenever you just have general instructions, you are going to get all kinds of questions asked — some appropriate, some inappropriate.”
He adds, “You also get different evaluations. Some bishops sent people on missions despite significant problems thinking that a mission will help cure them.”
Because of that, Evans says, “Everybody has a story about the one missionary companion who went crazy in the night, or had a loan collector show up at the door, or they had some other problem. Yes, you ask questions to pre-empt this stuff. It’s logical.”
Evans says the questions do raise some concerns. As an attorney, he says some of them sound like what a lawyer would ask more to protect the church than to screen missionary candidates. For example, he’s not sure child abusers would admit problems, but at least the church could say it asked if such problems occurred.
He also worries that some who are unable to serve missions for mental or physical reasons — even for problems with dyslexia — may feel they are not spiritually worthy and valuable.
“It may be an unintended consequence,” he says. “I hope the church deals with that.”
An introduction to the questions instructs that bishops and stake presidents (regional lay leaders who oversee a number of LDS congregations) should make interviews “a sacred experience.”
It adds, “When appropriate, bishops and stake presidents should help prospective missionaries to understand when they are honorably excused from full-time missionary service and help them find meaningful ways to remain faithful.”
The church says it wants to better help missionaries who do return early for health or other reasons to have smoother transitions.
“Their mission isn’t over [when they come home],” general authority Seventy Brent H. Nielson says on the church website. “They now have an opportunity, after they get better, to perhaps complete their mission at home serving in church service missions and other opportunities. We’re working diligently to try to be sure they can complete their mission and have a positive experience.”
In another change, the church says that, in the future “most missionaries will arrive on their mission with a smartphone to assist them in their study, finding and teaching.” For some missions where tablets have been used, smartphones will replace them.
“In a world of 7.4 billion people,” Crittenden says, “many online are involved in that search” to answer questions such as “how can I find peace in my life, or is there a God?”
He adds, “They look at the same kinds of websites and seek the same kind of information. And it’s possible for us then, because they’ve asked that question, to put content in front of them that might be of interest to them. We are able to reach those who are actually searching for the truth” with smartphones.
Also, the church reports that it will soon trim the number of missions (there are more than 400 around the globe) that it operates.
“In the orderly process of accommodating changes in our numbers,” Nielson says, “we’ll be slowly closing missions because we don’t need as many was we required for the great increase we experienced in 2012-13.”