Monday, August 10, 2009

Dear Abby and missionary service

I usually try to keep posts here strictly legal, but this topic was too interesting to pass up. A family member mentioned this Dear Abby column that ran in a newspaper about a week ago, and it raised a lot of red flags. The question and answer are brief so I will reproduce them in their entirety:

DEAR ABBY: Our nephew recently asked family members for money to help him go on a mission for his church. Apparently he is supposed to gather 50 sponsors to pay a "tax deductible" $50 to $100 per month for two years (via direct bill or credit card), according to the forms from his church.
We love our nephew and his parents, but we do not share their religious beliefs. And quite frankly, the request has upset more than a few members of the family because the amount requested is obviously not just to support the young man, but a way to support his church.

I generally think the new Dear Abby distributes poor advice, but she's right-on this time. I wanted to know more about the situation. First and foremost, is this a Mormon mission? The two-year time period and Arizona location would seem to support this possibility, as would the family members' disapproval of the church in question. But if that is the case, I'm just as embarrassed as the writer in Arizona.

I'm sure the Mormon Church has methods or forms to enable interested family members or friends. However, I'm reasonably certain that mass-mailings are discouraged, if not prohibited. I find it particularly troubling that the young missionary-to-be was seeking a fixed number of sponsors (50) that were supposed to donate a certain amount per month ($50-100). While that may be a legitimate fund-raising tactic in other areas, it seems to run against the personal sacrifice aspects of Mormon missionary services. I find it extremely hard to believe that the Mormon Church would instruct its missionaries to gather sponsors in such a way. In fact, the general guidance is for young men and women to save money in their teenage years to pay for the cost of serving a mission.

I see two possibilities behind the Dear Abby question. The first is that this aspiring missionary is actually a member of another denomination that performs missionary service. If that is the case I have no problem with it. It seems somewhat in poor taste, but they can set their own rules. The second possibility is that this is indeed a young man going on a Mormon mission who is misrepresenting the LDS Church's missionary system in order to defray the cost of service. I wish I could say that it was impossible that a young man or family would try to pass on the cost of a mission, but I can't. I hope that it is not the case.

Is anyone aware of specific LDS Church policy prohibiting missionary funding schemes like this? I don't have immediate access to a Handbook of Instructions, but I can check. I can't find any specific policies on mission funding on the missions page. The most guidance I can find is the following passage from the LDS Newsroom page on the Missionary Program. It states: "Missionaries fund their own missions — except for their transportation to and from their field of labor — and are not paid for their services."


  1. This may be a Mormon missionary being way out of line, but I doubt it. The Church encourages missions for all youth, but is specific that the funds for the mission come from the individual, then his or her immediate family, and finally from extended family. However, the cost of a mission is not anywhere near the $2500-5000 that the 50 contributers were asked to give.

    The costs for a mission include the clothing costs upfront, then transport, and finally housing and food, etc. While these are expected to be born by the missionary and his/her family, the Church (the local Ward or congregation, first, then general missionary funds) will step in where needed, to ensure that every worthy person can serve a full mission.

    Originally, the costs for serving differed, sometimes significantly, depending on where you were called to serve. Japan was very expensive, Peru not so. But years ago, in order to make it easier for families to manage, the costs were equalized, so that all missions were the same, and were only several hundred a month. This made it possible for the individual missionary to plan and save for much of the costs. Being responsible, planning, and preparing is a significant part of the missionary experience.

    Again, it may be a Mormon missionary has gotten a bit too creative, even overzealous. If so, I am certain someone will have stepped in to curtail and redirect.

  2. You have a good point, Mark. My understanding is that Mormon missionaries currently pay about $400-450 a month, which is far less than the amount sought in the Dear Abby question.

  3. Actually, I have served as bishop and in a stake presidency, and know for a fact that this type of "fund-raising" isn't just wrong for missionaries, but clearly in the handbook it is forbidden for scout camps, and other youth activities. Further, the Church has not mechanism currently set up to accept credit card donations. I think with the confidentiality of credit card numbers, the Church would not want to get so involved. This is either a misguided LDS young man, or another church.

  4. I wonder if this was in an LDS Church because I've been a member my entire life and I've never heard of someone openly soliciting donations. However, I have seen it in other Churches.

  5. Concur with the above. In researching this issue in the past (albeit in a different legal situation), the only two mechanisms I am aware of are: 1) Tithing slip that designates the mission fund, given to the bishop in the unit where the member last attended, noting the specific person on the form (and then, as I understand it, it's during the mission itself); or, 2) direct contribution to Church HQ by check. Even if someone is looking to find a mission through a will or testamentary device, those are the two mechanisms the executor or trustee would need to use. --SJR