TEACHING AT THE MISSIONARY TRAINING CENTER:
AWAKENING TO DISILLUSIONMENT
MAXINE HANKS is a feminist theologian in Salt Lake City. Between 1978 and 1986 she was employed by the LDS Church, first as a missionary, then teacher at the Missionary Training Center, then an editor at Brigham Young University. Her book Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), deals with feminist experience in Mormon religion, theology, history and culture. She was excommunicated for this work by the LDS Church in September 1993 as one of the "September Six." This essay was written in 1995, in the aftermath of excommunication
CLAIMING MY RIGHT TO THE RITE
FRACTURES IN THE FOUNDATION
GOALS AND GODLINESS
KNOWING WHEN TO LEAVE
RIDING A SPIRITUAL EMERGENCY
TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE
A Mormon mission is a rite of passage—a doorway to religious adulthood. The missionary calling bestows priestly authority and status in our culture. And yet it is a paradoxical rite of passage. A mission opens the way to higher standing in Mormonism; but it may open the way to doubt, becoming a rite of passage to disillusionment.
A mission is also a paradoxical adulthood. A missionary is an official minister of the LDS Church but is also subject to a rigid religious structure that dictates every facet of life from daily schedule to how one answers questions. As a missionary, the child must become an adult, yet the adult must remain a child in obedience to direction.
The mission system, like the larger church, is a well-tuned masculine machine—a tightly knit hierarchy of men, linked into an elaborate chain of authority. The Mormon religious structure is a male bonding that reaches, like Jacob’s ladder, all the way from lowly deacon to God on high.
Few women have ventured into this male territory. Historically, only between 1 and 20 percent of the total LDS missionary force has been female. During World War II the number of women temporarily swelled to 40 percent because men were unavailable.1Thirty years later in the mid-1970s, when I served a mission, women missionaries were viewed as anomalies, exceptions to the rule, inconveniences. The mission environment was not only sexist, it was misogynist. Back then, male missionaries tended to describe female missionaries through horror stories. Today in the mid-1990s things have improved significantly. Now approximately 20 percent of the total LDS missionary force is female, and women are accepted as a standard feature of missionary work.
However, the missionary environment is still overwhelmingly masculine. Mission leaders are male. Directors of the missionary program are male. And 80 percent of the missionaries are male. To venture inside the expanding brick complex of buildings known as the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, is to disappear into an ocean of dark suits and ties.
Meanwhile, within the missionary environment, performance is everything. As in other male-dominated contexts like sports and business, success is the goal and competition is the mode. One can see this even in the determined way missionaries walk and talk, reciting their lessons and goals aloud. Reputations are quickly made and images formed by performance. Those missionaries who put personal needs before the demands of the mission are seen as weak or inferior. From structure to expression, the missionary experience is an assertion of masculinity.
From the time I was a child, I dreamed of being a missionary or priest. Mormonism was my life, yet I wanted a priestly calling more than any other opportunity in my religious culture. Priesthood meant more to me than marriage, motherhood, or money. But the closest thing to priesthood available to women was missionary service. And women had to wait until the age of twenty-one years before being called as missionaries. So for years, I studied and prepared, taking classes, learning scripture and doctrine, memorizing discussions, and earning money to pay for a mission.
Finally, I submitted my missionary papers in June 1978. That same week, the LDS Church made national news by granting its priesthood to African American males. This coincidence felt significant to me. I was a twenty-two-year-old white female, but I had the feeling that somehow the LDS Church had just given me the priesthood, too.
I was ecstatic to serve as a full-time missionary of the LDS Church--a certified "minister of the gospel." I received a formal calling signed by Spencer W. Kimball, President of the LDS Church, an official ministerial certificate, a blessing or "setting apart" by a high priest, and robes of holy priesthood in the Salt Lake Temple. I received the spiritual mantle of the role. I felt truly called by god and the church.
Yet, I found the missionary experience very paradoxical, both exhilarating and frustrating. It presented challenges that simultaneously expanded me and limited me, enhanced me and handicapped me. I held the official LDS title of "minister of the gospel." Yet I was repeatedly told by mission leaders that I had no priesthood authority. I could preach, but not baptize; teach, but not lead; work, but not supervise; interview, but not authorize; organize, but not officiate; assist, but not bless.
On a conscious level the mission limitations were frustrating; but subconsciously I was in emotional pain. However, like most missionaries, I suffered in silence and kept going. Why? Because that’s what a good missionary does. That’s what a good Mormon does. That’s what a good mother, or a good father, or a good employee does. When performance is more importance than personal needs, the self is sacrificed to the responsibility.
Then there was the guilt. Much of the missionary experience seemed based upon heavy doses of guilt, which I found destructive. Guilt was a double-edged sword—simultaneously the motivation for what we were expected to do, as well as the punishment for whatever we failed to do. Guilt was a double bind that formed our context.
As a missionary, loved the work of tracting and teaching the gospel. I was never happier than when discussing religious ideas, so I performed well. Yet I also suffered privately. I was expected to compete with the elders, so I worked hard while ignoring any illness or physical pain, as well as male bias, gender discrimination, personal insult, and a general policy of censuring females. I trained other missionaries, managed areas, excelled at teaching, preaching, and study, broke mission records, regularly made the list of top missionaries, and achieved the mission goal of one baptism per month. By the time I finished my mission, I could do anything while stuffing my feelings. I could hold my composure under ridiculous circumstances. Endurance was next to holiness. But endurance was not happiness.
The dissonance brewing beneath my demeanor was taking a toll. If true loyalty to the Church was as tightly knit as the masculinity of its structure, then I was unraveling. The paradoxes, contradictions, and incongruencies of my missionary experience had undone something inside of me. Ironically, my mission had unsettled my faith, fractured the picture of my relationship to my church, and given me a strange sense of dislocation.
Yet it was my experience of teaching at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo that completed my process of unraveling and disassociation from the LDS Church. In fact, teaching at the MTC became the last Church calling I ever held; it was my final participation as a member within the Mormon religious structure.
When I returned home from my mission in April 1980, I enrolled as a student at Brigham Young University and looked for a part-time job. I applied at the MTC, where I was interviewed by several men who wore dark suits. They told me that my record of Church service was exemplary, including a glowing performance as a missionary. I was surprised to learn that such a record of my Church work existed and that these men had copies of it. I asked if I could see my record but was told that I wasn’t allowed to see "Church records." The men in dark suits hired me to teach missionaries at the MTC. They gave me instruction manuals, strict guidelines and rules, and directives about how to dress and wear my hair.
So I taught at the MTC for two years, between August 1980 and May 1983. But the experience was different from what I'd expected. Those years brought a costly evolution to a benevolent disillusionment.
During my first year, I taught a four-hour class daily, Monday through Friday. I was paid four dollars per hour and limited to twenty hours per week. Yet I spent many unpaid hours doing preparation and reporting. And when the missionaries needed additional help after class, I voluntarily assisted in the evenings.
I was hired to work in an exclusive area—testing new materials produced by MTC Research & Development. We taught and evaluated experimental missionary discussions and programs. Initially there were only two such groups or "zones" out of hundreds in the MTC, both English-speaking. I was one of two women in the program along with two dozen men.
We teachers tested new materials on the missionaries, then reported how well or poorly each program seemed to work. We met regularly with supervisors to discuss our progress. Everything was in constant revision, week after week. But this MTC work was satisfying and easy to immerse myself in. I loved working with missionaries and I studied each new lesson intently.
In 1980, the stay for English-speaking missionaries at the MTC was four and a half weeks, During this time frame, the missionaries were expected to complete several programs: memorize eight missionary discussions; master a book of teaching skills, approaches, lessons, and tests; learn dozens of scriptures; and live all the mission rules. The MTC goal was to master all of this material within four and a half weeks.
Each group or class of missionaries consisted of about a dozen elders and perhaps two sisters. Each class had a progress chart posted at the front of the classroom listing all of the tasks to be mastered and the names of all missionaries in the class. The chart was marked in bright red, extra wide, felt-tipped pen to show the progress of each missionary on each task. Our goals, programs, and materials were all determined by the MTC directors. We teachers, along with the missionaries, were repeatedly told that the MTC goal of mastering all tasks within the four-and-a-half week stay could be achieved by anyone who applied enough faith and hard work. We were also told that the goals and the materials were inspired by God. Thus, our tasks were sacred.
Obviously, this situation was not realistic. It was an extreme situation requiring extreme behavior. The MTC program offered a choice between two costly options: either we exert ourselves trying to do the impossible (and avoid guilt); or we accept guilt by falling short of a ridiculous goal. A third option—not obvious to us, nor even conceivable—was simply to do a realistic amount of work and feel good about what we did. But I guess as Mormons we weren’t accustomed to moderate expectations or healthy options. So we chose overexertion.
I was a devoted teacher. And a devoted Mormon overachiever. However, my main motivation in teaching missionaries was to help them develop self-confidence and avoid some of the guilt I had found so pervasive in missionary experience. My desire to protect missionaries against guilt was strong enough to make me work very hard. Ridiculously hard. I think it was my personal quest. My approach was to help intimidated elders and sisters feel comfortable and relaxed enough to perform at their very best. I reasoned that if the MTC goals were God’s will and were attainable, then we could succeed through positive attitudes, encouragement, and hard work.
My first experimental group or "zone" was a challenge. Like most missionaries, they were overwhelmed, fearful, guilt-ridden, and prone to self-criticism. A couple of them were "slow learners" who had experienced problems in school. I spent most of the first week trying to help my new missionaries release poor self-images and negative attitudes. Not only were they overwhelmed by the complete MTC program, they were overwhelmed by the thought of learning even one discussion.
I worked one on one with each missionary, focusing on a single task at a time. It pained me to hear them berate themselves as they tried to recite their lessons. One elder was so filled with self-loathing that I wondered if his family life had been abusive. One sister was so insecure she simply sat at her desk for the first three days and wept, unable to talk at all. I wanted to love them into having a positive experience. Yet they couldn’t avoid their tasks; they either learned the material or they didn’t. I vowed to do whatever it took to help them get through it.
So I overexerted myself. And so did they. We drilled on each paragraph, repeating every word until they could recite it verbatim. If it took an hour to learn one page or one skill we spent an hour. I taught them shortcuts to memorizing and let them use their own words as long as the meaning was the same. I stayed after class and came back in the evening.
I gave the missionaries rewards, like letting them leave class or bringing snacks when they accomplished a difficult task. I prodded, pushed, coached, and cheered each missionary through every task, marking each accomplishment on the class chart in bold red ink. They were excited to see their progress every day, which propelled them further. They began wanting to race through as many tasks per day as possible. They took pride in group success and helped each other. Rather than manifesting a spirit of competition, they had a powerful group bond and united will.
We exerted ourselves until the final hour on the final day of class. And on that day, I stayed late to hear the last recitations from the so-called "slow learners." The others gathered around urging them on, lending support. When we finished the whole group cheered. Some MTC supervisors came by to check on our commotion. Using the red felt-tipped pen, I updated our class chart by coloring in the boxes for the last few tasks. Our chart was a solid block of red ink. Every missionary had completed every task.
We set an MTC record. We were the first experimental zone to have every missionary in the group learn all of the new material within the required time frame of four and a half weeks. When my boss and his supervisors saw our results, they were elated. Brother Brown (a pseudonym) from the MTC administration personally came to my class to congratulate us. Privately he told my boss, "Sister Hanks and her zone have made my day!" I was very pleased. It was a personal triumph. And my missionaries were ecstatic. We not only succeeded in meeting the goals—we set an MTC record.
We celebrated. I brought food and drinks and we had a little party. This was against MTC rules, of course. The MTC was something like being in prison; but I was a lenient jailer.
Meanwhile, the MTC administrators conferred about our results. Due to our performance, the administrators decided to shorten the MTC stay for English-speaking missionaries, from four and a half weeks to three and a half weeks. The MTC administrators viewed our success as evidence that the new teaching program was effective. My boss gleefully quoted the administrators’ conclusion: "If missionaries are meeting the goals, then they need higher goals!"
I was astonished. I found this statement disillusioning. It indicated that "God’s inspired goal" was a kind of bait to lure naive missionaries into endless exertion. Though most missionaries would love spending less time at the MTC, I was horrified by the prospect of trying to master all the materials in three and a half weeks! This new goal would ruin all but the most able. And this was our reward for meeting "God’s" goal? It was a rude awakening to the reality of "inspired programs."
I was dismayed. If mission goals were inspired by God and missionaries met inspired goals, then they deserved some kind of reward. The idea that a goal should be out of reach, or that achievement itself was not enough, seemed perverse and destructive, even callous. Instead of being rewarded for our faith and exertion, we were being punished with higher demands. I was a religious person, but this struck me as masochistic. (Unfortunately, the futile pursuit of the unattainable is an ideal pervading much of religious thought. But that’s another essay.)
Still, I was determined to help my missionaries have a positive experience at the MTC. So when my next group arrived, I vowed to work even harder to complete every task and meet every deadline within the shorter time frame of three and a half weeks. Of course, this put me and them through ridiculous effort.
I used any teaching method that worked. But I didn’t use guilt. And I didn’t use competition. I never preached "obedience." I never used punishment. Instead I used validation. I devoted myself to individual success and worked to help each person feel valid and capable.
I was unorthodox. I treated missionaries with respect and recognized their agency and rights. I bent rules for them, worked after hours, brought them rewards like doughnuts and Dr. Pepper. I emphasized personal style over standard MTC methods. When I honored the missionaries’ feelings, needs, and preferences, my boss chastised me, saying "Sister Hanks, missionaries don’t have rights!" It was true; they didn’t. The MTC really was a bit like prison or the Army. (Even the garbage was inspected by janitors who looked for incriminating discarded items, such as indiscreet photos or letters from loves back home. Any such items were handed over to MTC personnel, sometimes resulting in a missionary’s expulsion.)
What emerged in my missionary groups was a dedication that lifted missionaries beyond themselves. With each task mastered, each small success, I watched them develop new self-confidence and greater love for themselves and each other. I also saw the growth of their own spiritual power and a greater capacity to appreciate and encourage each other.
After three and a half weeks, my new group broke my previous group’s MTC record: They mastered all of the same material within one fewer weeks. Once again we were the only group to meet all the MTC goals. Once again, Brother Brown was elated and amazed. He came to congratulate us personally. Once again, MTC administrators conferred about our performance, viewing it as evidence that the new program was working. And once again they rewarded the missionaries by shortening the MTC stay another week—to two and a half weeks! Again, their reasoning was punitive: "If the missionaries are meeting the goals, then they need higher goals."
This time I was unhappy. I knew it wasn’t the missionary goals, nor programs, nor the leaders, nor Research & Development that created my group’s success; and it was certainly not that the goals were easy to attain. Our success was the result of our overexertion and my unorthodox methods. We were killing ourselves to succeed, so that we could feel good about ourselves; but the MTC kept altering the measure of success to keep it out of our reach. We were paying a high cost to find satisfaction, and they kept raising the cost.
The MTC program often intimidated new missionaries, overwhelming or defeating them before they ever began. They sweated, fretted, and despaired. The only way for a missionary to overcome these feelings of inadequacy was to succeed at some task. But what I saw happening was the MTC working against the missionaries to keep them feeling inadequate.
This destructive approach left me disillusioned with MTC policy, goals, and philosophy. I went back and told my second group of record-breaking missionaries the full truth. I told them what the MTC administrators had said in response to their achievements. I told them about my previous group. I told them what I saw happening. I saw these realizations dawn behind their eyes. They were being exploited. I saw their disappointment and disillusionment mirror my own.
So we did the best thing we could: We made a transition from unhealthy choices. We removed ourselves from the double bind. We discussed our dilemma and decided we could no longer take mission goals seriously. I urged the missionaries to continue setting goals but to measure themselves by personal standards rather than by mission goals. Together, we decided we could feel satisfied and proud with whatever we accomplished at the MTC, and they could feel good about whatever they accomplished in their mission. I advised them not to accept guilt from others but to remain true to themselves. It was a healthy move—for them and for me.
After that, I told this story and gave this same speech to each new group of missionaries to convey a more realistic mindset. I knew my directors wouldn't like this, but I felt it was vital to missionary mental health. I continued to help each missionary do his or her best; but I never again tried to meet all the MTC goals within the impossible two-and-a-half week time-frame, nor did I try to break our previous record. As far as I know, no other group ever broke our record or set a new one. Within a few months, I noticed that the MTC administrators changed the time-frame back to three and a half weeks. Since that time, the MTC discussions and materials have continued to change every year; but today in 1996, sixteen years later, English-speaking missionaries still stay at the MTC for three and a half weeks.
Meanwhile I expressed my frustrations with the missionary program to my boss. I regularly compiled my observations and suggestions into written reports for him. He appreciated my hard work and successes with the missionaries, but he didn’t like my criticisms of the program nor my unorthodox tendencies. I kept approaching him with my concerns until he invited me to share my views with a few others in R&D. When I did, no one was interested. The supervisors valued my compliance and success, but they didn’t value my concerns and suggestions.
I felt just as patronized as a teacher at the MTC as I had felt as a missionary. Although my boss praised me as a teacher, he ignored my evaluation of the materials and the program. I was hired to teach and evaluate the materials, but he didn’t use my evaluations. The problems I described were ignored.
I made one final attempt to discuss problems in the missionary program. I anxiously presented my concerns to my boss and a man from R&D. But no one said anything. They smiled politely at me. They smiled politely at each other. My boss thanked me for coming and dismissed me.
Later, the man from R&D said they should exclude my perspectives because I was "only negative about the MTC" and therefore I was "not a good person to interview." He preferred teachers "who had positive experiences to report." I felt betrayed. And I noticed that he was doing the very thing he accused me of—seeing only the negative in my perspective, while omitting all the positive. (I have since realized that religious orthodoxy often denies negativity in principle, yet clings to it in practice.)
I was tired. Frustrated. I was especially weary of feeling invalidated. I realized I was in a hopeless cycle of seeking validation from those who would never give it. A week or so later, I resigned from the MTC. Oddly enough, my boss told me he would give me a top recommendation, if I wanted one.
My heart was no longer in the MTC program. And it wasn’t in my BYU classes either. So I dropped out of school. I felt wrong and out of place—at BYU, the MTC, the Church, and Utah. I didn’t really know what to do with myself.
It was at this point that I stumbled onto the emerging Seventh East Press—an independent, liberal student newspaper. It was the only thing that engaged or excited me. So I immediately interviewed for a position on the staff. We published scholarly, historical, critical, creative, controversial, and humorous articles dealing with BYU, as well as the Mormon Church, its history, and culture. Our newspaper quickly gained notoriety for its critiques of BYU and Mormonism.
I worked on the Seventh East Press from September 1981 to May 1983. We were unusual BYU students who pursued controversial topics in our school and religion. Although we were young, our paper had a maturity or sophistication of content beyond the typical student interests. Our readers were mostly professors and intellectuals.
Interestingly, several of the staff at the Press taught at the MTC on Sundays, which was a volunteer position or Church calling. Sunday classes consisted of three hours of doctrine and scripture; but they were unstructured, open discussions, less monitored than weekday classes. So after a year's hiatus, I joined the MTC Sunday staff in 1982 where I was able to relax and enjoy teaching the missionaries again. At least for awhile.
Meanwhile, the Seventh East Press was considered a threat to BYU students’ faith. Church leaders in Salt Lake repeatedly requested that the BYU administration ban our paper from campus. Some BYU students were even assigned to spy on us. At one point, we believed our phone was tapped. Friends in Salt Lake warned us that Church leaders were keeping files on us. Every day, a new catastrophe of faith in Mormonism greeted us, offering me further disillusionment with the Church.
Incongruity and disorientation teach us things that comfort will never reveal. Life offers us a series of contradictory circumstances to help us grow beyond ourselves. We find ourselves doing or being something that makes no sense, yet it somehow feels right. As my faith in the institutional Church collapsed, I turned to the church within me. My loss of faith in the outer Church required greater personal strength.
In May 1983 there was an "inquisition" or flurry of Church interrogations and releases from Church callings of Mormons who wrote for Sunstone, Dialogue, and Seventh East Press. That month, I was suddenly "released" from my position as an MTC Sunday teacher. I was never interviewed, interrogated, nor given a reason for my release. I simply learned about it when I went to teach one Sunday and saw a new list of teachers posted. My name was not among them. I suddenly was no longer teaching at the MTC. I asked the student MTC supervisor about it but he had no information. There was no notice, no explanation, no courtesy of communication.
This was exasperating. because I loved teaching Sunday classes; the flexibility of materials and focus on spirituality created a niche that worked nicely. I didn't want to lose this position, which rewarded my love for missionary work, yet escaped the pressure of daily goals.
So, I made an appointment to discuss the situation with the MTC administrator of the Sunday classes. This in itself was unusual. Few teachers, especially women, ever requested an interview with an MTC director about a decision. But this decision had never been communicated to me, and I deserved at least a confirmation.
When I arrived at the administrator’s office at the MTC, he seemed uneasy. I asked him directly if I was being released. And he said, "Yes." So I asked him if it was because I worked on the Seventh East Press. He said "No—this has nothing to do with the Seventh East Press." I pressed him, "Then what is the reason?" He seemed to lack an answer. But smiling condescendingly and trying for a lighter mood, he speculated, "Well, it wasn’t that you weren’t good enough. Or smart enough. It wasn’t that you weren’t pretty enough. I guess if I had to give a reason, I would say that perhaps you were too intelligent for the elders. You are too intellectual."
On the surface, his statement was a compliment to me and an insult to all missionaries. Below the surface, it was a lie. I was being fired because I was a "liberal," an "intellectual." So I offered to revise my teaching approach; but his decision was firm, my release nonnegotiable. I was out.
My release was disorienting. I felt rejected, invalidated. Yet as I was leaving his office it occurred to me that my dismissal was also a compliment. It meant that I didn’t belong at the MTC. And I didn’t. I belonged with the missionaries, not the MTC. I belonged with the people, not the Church. At that moment I realized I was free of the institution. It felt strange; but somehow it seemed right. And it was the last Church calling I ever held.
Ironically, my mission was the first disillusioning experience I had with the LDS Church; and the MTC was my last. Before my mission I believed completely in the Church. After teaching at the MTC, I didn’t believe in the Church system enough to be disillusioned by it anymore. In the five short years between the start of my mission in 1978 and being released from the MTC in 1983, I experienced so many disillusioning episodes with the missionary and Church leadership that my attachment to it had dissolved. By the time the MTC rejected me, my faith in the Church structure was dead. Meanwhile my spirituality was alive and kicking. Each new realization about Mormonism was affecting and altering me. I had awakened to disillusionment, and I was evolving into truth.
I had devoted six years to the LDS mission program--preparing, serving, and teaching. The missionary experience loomed so large in my life, I felt compelled to analyze it by researching the role of women missionaries, which evolved into a scholarly article, eventually published in my first book in 1992.
The following year, a decade after leaving the MTC, in 1993 I was excommunicated from the LDS Church for heresy-- for publishing women's studies of Mormonism. Yet for me, this was an invigorating, positive growth experience. It was another phase of my spiritual evolution. In retrospect my journey from Mormon missionary to post-Mormon mystic made perfect sense. My path always offered the same dilemma, a paradoxical choice between two opposing options: either please the external institution or satisfy the spiritual search inside myself.
When my MTC missionaries encountered this dilemma, it was a troubling choice between success or failure, overexertion or apathy. But we couldn’t satisfy both options, so instead we learned a harder lesson for many Mormons—that sometimes it’s best to
do the minimum instead of the maximum. In reality, at the MTC we teachers lacked the time to do more than the minimum.
In retrospect, I’m not sorry that I cared more about helping traumatized missionaries achieve their maximum potential. The human cost of personal failure in the MTC seemed worse at that time. Yet, the lessons we mastered together went far beyond the memorization of missionary texts: we learned to respect ourselves.
1Maxine Hanks, "Sister Missionaries and Authority," in Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 319.