Monday, March 25, 2013

Reforming the Missionary Program (in Cleveland)

Whenever we have the missionaries over to our house, they always ask if they can help me with whatever project I happen to be doing.  I'm putting in new garden beds, or painting rooms, or rotating my tires.  "Can we help?" they ask.  "We're always looking for opportunities to serve!"

I never know whether to chuckle or groan.  

It's great that they want to help.  I commend them for their willingness.  But let's face it -- I'm a healthy, capable adult male whose major difficulty in doing these projects is that I'm too lazy to do them.  Making use of the missionaries' eagerness would not be providing them with service opportunities; it would be taking advantage of free labor.  Service is more than doing something for someone so that they won't have to.  

The ability to provide meaningful service may be the source of more untapped potential than anything else in the LDS missionary program.  Based on the recommended schedules for when I was a missionary, the usual week consisted of 53 hours of 'proselyting' time1 and 4 hours devoted to 'service.'  So somewhere around 6% of the missionaries' time is intended to be devoted to service. The rest of the time, they are expected to be meeting with members, investigators, or contacting people randomly on the street or door-to-door. If you've never tried to sell your religion door-to-door, let me just tell you that it isn't easy.

This leads me to ask this question: Why do we do this to ourselves?  Couldn't we do something more?  Accomplish something greater?

Switch gears with me for a second.  This is going to seem entirely unrelated, but it will tie back in.  Take a look at the map below.  This map shows the median income in the Cleveland area by ZIP code.  The lighter colors are lower income, and the darker colors are higher income.  The dots show the placement of LDS meetinghouses.  There's no scale on the map, but the distance from the western most meetinghouse to the eastern most meetinghouse is about 40 miles on the interstate.

If you're not from the area, you won't know all the details, so it might look like this is a pretty good distribution of meetinghouses.  It covers 11 units between two stakes (not all of the units in each stake are shown).  What you can't tell from this map is the size of each building.  The one in the center of the map is the smallest building.  It is also the only building that is on a major public transportation line.  But a large portion of the lower income families that live around that building are assigned to the outlying buildings.

Believe it or not, this does affect missionary work.  I live in one of the ZIP codes that shows a median income of $45,000 - $60,000 per year, and I live just over six miles from my assigned meetinghouse.  I can't tell you the number of times I've heard the missionaries ask that someone give an investigator a ride because a) they don't have a car and public transportation doesn't run to the meetinghouse on Sunday, or b) the person has a car but can't afford the gas to drive the six miles to Church (yes, that's a real problem).2

So here's an idea --  it comes is two steps.

First, why don't be build more chapels in the poorer areas?  Also, let's build bigger chapels in poorer areas.  Let's get them as close to major public transportation lines as possible, and let's make it as easy as possible for people to come worship as we can3.

Step two: let's use these buildings.  I mean, really use them.  Not just for Sunday worship, once a week for youth activities, and then maybe four or five other days a month.  Let's use them daily.

"But, I don't want to go to church every day!" you say?  Neither do I.  And we shouldn't need to.  Picture a large building in a lower income area, perhaps not far from a school, that offers free after school programs and tutoring for students.  A senior missionary couple could be called to run it, or - gasp - LDS Philanthropies could hire someone to run it.  Missionaries could be trained to tutor students in various subjects and supervise any number community driven activities.

You could even take this a step further.  We could apply for grants and obtain funding to build community gardens.  This could even extend to helping people install gardens on their own property.  Missionaries could then work directly with people to teach them how to plant, care for, and harvest these gardens.  The savings of a small garden may not be huge, but for some of these families, it's a fair amount of relief.

How successful could a program like this be4?  I guess that depends on your definition of success.  If you're interested in convert baptisms, this probably isn't something that will raise your metric (I don't think it would hurt though).  Are you in interested in improving the lives of individuals and providing meaningful and lasting service?  This could do it.  We probably wouldn't see a huge effect in the short term, but I suspect the impact over generations would be incalculable.

I for one would feel a whole lot better if I knew our missionaries were doing this kind of work instead of trying to count painting my walls as service.  They might also be a little less bored too.

1 This calculation assumes 6 proselyting days from 10 AM - 8 PM, a preparation day where proselyting occurs from 6 PM - 8 PM, with 3 hours deducted for church, 4 hours deducted for service, and 2 hours deducted for other meetings. Depending on the local area, this might vary by a few hours.

2 There may be buses that run, but because worship services happen on the weekend, they run less often. You could realistically spend twice as much time en route on public transport than you would spend at the meetinghouse. That would make for a 9 hour day just to go to Church.

3 It also wouldn't hurt to get people our of our wealthier areas to come in and see how the other half of society lives.

4 If you're interested in a local model on which this could be built, visit the Open Doors program.


  1. Love it! Service is also the fastest way to acceptance and respect on a larger scale as well. We need all the good will we can get after the last election.

  2. This. Yes. Times a Million.
    thank you!