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|Authority and the Role of Stigma in the Church|
Feb. 25th, 2007 at 6:42 pm
(At the request of a few curious readers, I’ve added a postscript below to provide more details surrounding the story that I use to make a point in this post.)
All this talk about the fallibility of leaders on big issues of long ago (here at BCC and here at FMH) makes me wonder at how much easier it is for people to admit the big mistakes of past leaders than to cop to the problems that continue to exist within the current culture of church leadership.
In November of 1990, President Ezra Taft Benson called me on a mission to Fukuoka (anglicized pronunciation: /fū-kū-wō-kä/), Japan. So I entered the MTC in January of 1991, and there I stayed until about two weeks later, when Richard K. Klein, the MTC mission president, thought better of the prophet’s calling. “People like you shouldn’t go on missions,” he told me. And he promptly sent me home.
Richard K. Klein was later called to be an Area Authority Seventy. He died before I became active in the church again, thus robbing me of the opportunity to oppose his sustaining vote each year in general conference. Serves me right for going inactive.
(That’s a fun kind of thing to say, but it makes it sound like I hold a grudge. Honestly, I didn’t even care enough to remember the poor guy’s name. Jonathan Green convinced me that my MTC mission president was named “Richard K. Klein” based on the history of presidents at the MTC. And even if I had remembered the name, it’s not likely I’d have even noticed it among the 134 vainly repeated names offered for a “sustaining vote” as Area Authorities. If you’re going to have a taboo on publicly airing dirty laundry, it follows that you can’t have a public sustaining process for high-level leaders that’s anything more than a formality — but perhaps I digress.)
Back to the MTC: I hadn’t broken any rules. Klein and I simply had a discussion in his office where he’d repeatedly tried to brow-beat and intimidate me, and in response I’d bated and scorned him — but calmly and with a broad smile. By far the most gratifying moment in the exchange occurred when he stood up, leaned over his desk, wagged his finger in my face, and shouted at me, “Look elder, you don’t have the spirit, and if you don’t have the spirit, you’re not going on a mission!” I smiled broadly and responded, “You don’t seem to have the spirit much yourself, President.” That shut him up for a little while.
I talk freely about getting sent home from my mission, but most folks who got a raw deal on their mission (and there are many) are more reticent. And who can blame them? There is a stigma attached to getting sent home from one’s mission. Missionaries feel it, and parents of missionaries feel it. It’s the all-too-human instinct to pretend that the embarrassment (perhaps the humiliation) never actually happened.
This reticence isolates others who run afoul of the church’s expected norms and further entrenches the stigma by allowing others to maintain an unduly rosy view of reality: those who get sent home from the MTC are fornicators or can’t hack it or aren’t “ready.”
Stories of those who got sent home (or who left) and then came back to the MTC too often assume the narrative style of redemption and growth. All of this assumes some problem with the missionaries who get sent home or who leave. This kind of growth and redemption sometimes really occurs, but the fact that many of them simply got screwed doesn’t enter the realm of possibility for most members.
When missionaries don’t return to the MTC, it is customary to bemoan the missed opportunities. It never occurs to people that the love many missionaries express for their mission springs more from a religious brand of Stockholm Syndrome than anything especially spiritual. Too many Mormons cling to the simplistic worldview that equates cultural non-comformity with personal defects that one must overcome. (Perhaps that’s why so many of us are Republicans…)
When BYU was in the process of throwing me out, the provost to whom I’d appealed for a reprieve asked the MTC what happened over there. He related to me their report that I was belligerent and argumentative — no surprise, that. But aside from Klein’s condemnation (“People like you shouldn’t go on missions”), that’s the closest thing I ever received to an explanation of why they sent me home.
The common line of thinking is that what I did on my mission was regrettable. Even if the mission president was wrong, I should have just gone-along to get-along. But one thing is perfectly clear: There are places in the church for the belligerent and argumentative. Klein himself proved to be quite a bit more belligerent and argumentative than I was. But using belligerence to put down those beneath you is more acceptable in our church than using it to fend off brow-beating bullies from above — though this is clearly not the Lord’s program, and it’s arguably the exact reverse of how things ought to be.
When priesthood leaders do bad things, nobody wants to point fingers or name names. At the same time, members and leaders will openly condemn scholarly historians or intellectuals based on the damage they may do to the testimony of members. What do we call the aversion to publicly condemn bullying mission presidents and other out-of-line church leaders who cause damage on a much more personal level?
Perhaps it’s cowardice. Perhaps it’s self preservation. Maybe it’s both. Armand Mauss famously instructs “anyone who would aspire to be efficacious in offering alternative ideas or counsel to the saints and their leaders at any level, whether in the pages of Dialogue and Sunstone, in ward council, priesthood quorums, Relief Society, or Sunday School” to “Relinquish any and all aspirations (or even expectations) for leadership callings in the Church.”
Criticizing church leadership carries with it its own stigma, and fear of this stigma means that in practice the principle “Where more is given, more is required” usually applies only to those to whom little is given; e.g., to missionaries instead of to mission presidents, to members instead of to leaders.
I’ve received requests to explain exactly why I ended up in the MTC mission president’s office. So here’s the rest of the story:
I wear contacts, and back then contact-wearing missionaries going overseas were instructed to bring rigid, gas-permeable contact lenses. After I was in the MTC, I arranged an appointment at the University Mall in Orem to get them, and I filled out the appropriate paperwork to head up there with my companion on the appointed MTC shuttle that was reserved for just such occasions.
Apparently, one of my MTC teachers failed to get the paperwork and reported me truant. So the MTC mission president called me and my companion up to his office to speak to us separately. He spoke to me first. I don’t even know if he spoke to my companion.
He accused me of being truant, and I corrected him, saying that I’d arranged everything properly. He left the office for something like 15 minutes (perhaps he was talking to my companion?). I began to wonder whether I should get up and leave, and I thought to myself that if he ever came back in, he may well ask me, “What are you still doing here?”
But he did come back, and he stated that he’d found the paperwork. He started going on in a condescending tone about how important the MTC rules were. After about a minute, he pulled a laminated card out of his pocket that listed each MTC rule, and he began reading them to me, stopping after each to explain the purpose of the rule. I just stared at him dumbfounded until he reached rule #3, at which time I interrupted him, saying “Hold on a second. I didn’t break any rules. Why are you reading these to me? Did the spirit tell you to start into this canned performance?”
Things escalated from there, until about 35 minutes later when it reached the culminating point I describe in my post, where he shouted at me, “Look elder, you don’t have the spirit, and if you don’t have the spirit, you’re not going on a mission!”
After I smiled broadly and responded, “You don’t seem to have the spirit much yourself, President,” he sat back down and was quiet for a little while, looking at his desk and rubbing his forehead. He finally looked up and said, “I’m a bit frustrated here, because I feel like you’ve been twisting my words.”
At this point, he may have been offering me a truce. I proceeded undeterred, leaning forward to say (always with a smile), “Good. Then you probably know how a lot of the missionaries feel who are sitting where I’m sitting.”
He then stood straight up, walked to the door, and opened it. I arose to leave, and when I paused to shake his hand at the door, he said to me, “People like you shouldn’t go on missions.”
I was left to puzzle over what this meant until the next morning. Shortly after the post-breakfast, morning-class began, some messengers came from the president’s office to extract me from class. They took me to my room, where I packed, and then to the president’s office. I was informed that my BYU-ward bishop had been called to come and pick me up.
My bishop drove me to a friend’s house, where I determined that my apartment complex had neither sent my security deposit home nor rented my room. So I took up residence there again as though I never left, I resumed my coursework at BYU by enrolling in block classes, and I carried on with life. I stopped attending church shortly thereafter. Several months later, I received a letter in the mail informing me that I’d been released from my calling as a missionary.
For some time after that, I was a bit defensive about getting sent home. Very few people asked why, though at the time I’d wished they had. I felt that if they didn’t, then they’d assume the worst (e.g., fornication). I remember one professor with whom I worked closely both before and after my two-week stint as a missionary. After I’d returned and resumed working with him, I said something to him one day to the effect, “Just an FYI: I didn’t get sent home from my mission because of any especially grave sin.” He simply responded, “That’s life.” And so it is.
The best news of the entire affair was that my girlfriend (now my wife) waited for me the entire time! I still can’t get a straight answer out of her about whether she kissed anyone while I was on my mission, but she was (at least) not in a serious relationship with anyone when I returned.