A lot has happened to the Church in the last few weeks: Weekly church meetings have been cancelled indefinitely; public attendance at the upcoming General Conference has been suspended; activities at LDS temples have been scaled back or suspended; and now the worldwide missionary program of the LDS Church — a massive program that can’t be quickly suspended like weekly services can — is being scaled back as well. The latest move, as reported in the Deseret News, is that LDS missionaries are returning to the US from overseas and will be reassigned to serve in US missions until 18 months of service, then be released. Reassigned sisters will serve until 15 months. Reassignments, of course, happen only after each returning missionary does 14 days of self-isolation to insure they have not contracted a case of COVID-19.
Also reported recently, as in this Deseret News story, is that Missionary Training Centers around the world will cease accepting new missionaries. What about those presently training at an MTC? They will possibly complete their training and report to their assigned mission, although that appears less and less likely as missions repatriate their currently serving missionaries and as countries around the world close their borders. Alternatively, those presently in an MTC will be returned to their home country and, after self-isolation, be reassigned to a mission in their home country.
These are truly significant changes that amount to a huge disruption to the sprawling LDS missionary program. But let’s be realistic: In the current situation, which gets more severe by the day, more changes to the program are likely. With tens of millions of American presently under some version of a stay-at-home order, who wants to answer their door and invite strangers in for a chat about Jesus or Joseph? With travel of almost any sort being a risky proposition at the moment, how can the Church require thousands of missionaries to travel all over the place for reassignment, even within their home country? Is any responsible parent likely to encourage their son or daughter to submit missionary papers at the present time, as opposed to waiting a year? How many missionaries — after returning home, self-isolating for 14 days, getting news about what’s going on in the world, and talking to parents and relatives — are going to release themselves?
Some Changes Are Very Hard to Reverse
As these and other changes, both within the Church and without, hit us one after another, it’s hard to grasp the full scale of what is changing. These seem like interim measures, but they are much harder to reverse than one might think. Once schools are closed because of a few students who test positive or a few dozen in the community, what is the reverse threshold that signals officials to reopen the schools? Once a stay-at-home order is issued by a governor, what measure of progress in slowing or stopping the coronavirus is going to trigger a termination of those orders? Officials and bureaucrats are conservative creatures. They are not going to reverse these measures until they are very confident the reversal won’t be used against them by critics or political opponents. It will certainly take months before most of these orders are reversed. Schools will likely not reopen until September.
The same reasoning applies to LDS missionary program changes. MTCs won’t admit new missionaries until LDS leadership is quite confident there won’t be a cluster outbreak in one of them. Missionaries will not be sent to foreign missions again until LDS leadership is quite confident the political and civil as well as medical situation is back to normal, more or less. That is a prudent course of action. But we’re talking months, possibly years, before things are “back to normal.”
Normal? What’s the New Normal?
Will things ever be “back to normal”? No. There’s going to be a new normal, and it’s going to be a lot different than the old normal. If you think you have any clear idea what that new normal will be, just wait a month or two. Thanks to the coronavirus and Amazon, I have started watching reruns of Monk. You remember, the quirky OCD detective who could solve almost any case. Guess what? He’s not so OCD anymore. Touching things with a tissue and washing hands a lot isn’t so quirky anymore. Monk looks like a fairly reasonable guy at the moment. Remember that the next time you decline to shake hands, or you clean a doorknob with a stinky wipe, or you put on a mask before going into a grocery store. The world is changing, and a lot of things won’t change back. The future is Monk.
What will the LDS missionary program look like in two or three years? What will come back and what won’t? Just off the top of my head, some things I expect to happen: (1) A lot more attention will be given to missionary health and missionary medical care. The insouciance with which the Church has treated missionary health and safety has always been something of a scandal, but now things will have to change. (2) More training of newly called missionaries will be done online rather than in large groups at one or another MTC. (3) More missionaries will serve in their home country rather than overseas. “Foreign-language missions” may become a thing of the past. (4) Maybe, just maybe, the number of volunteers will go down. If you train at your home computer rather than at an MTC, and you are guranteed to go to a neighboring state rather than possibly some interesting foreign country, a mission looks a lot less exciting and adventurous. In a word, somewhat less appealing.
Questions for the reader: What are you hearing from returning missionaries? What advice are you giving young prospective missionaries? What are your guesses for what’s going to happen to the LDS missionary program going forward? Is the senior missionary program gone forever?