President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaks during the 2019 Mission Leadership Seminar in Provo, Utah, on June 24 | Intellectual Reserve

Missionaries should listen closely to the spirit as the extend invitations for baptism rather than feel pressure to invite prematurely, said President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at a seminar for new mission presidents.

“If we help create a mission culture based on Spirit-led invitations that allow others to have spiritual experiences, our missionaries will feel the power of God as they witness the changes occurring inside the hearts and minds of all those they find and teach,” said President Ballard.

Now, in reading this, you might be nodding your head and thinking to yourself, why wouldn’t missionaries teach and invite by the spirit? Naturally, they attempt to do so, but President Ballard’s remarks are an open acknowledgement that goal setting among missionaries and mission presidents can get out of control, with missionaries inviting individuals to be baptized during their first formal lesson or even during an initial interaction on the street. President Ballard warned that some missionaries use this approach to as a “sifting tool.”

This has been a problem for decades, dating back to well before then-Elder Ballard presided over the Missionary Department in the early 2000s. (Apostles get rotating assignments. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf currently oversees missionary efforts.) Prior to the era of Preach My Gospel, missionaries memorized and taught from six discussions. The second discussion famously contained an invitation to baptism toward its end. It was a big moment, even a scary one. Naturally, one would hope that if an investigator was not ready for such an invitation, the missionaries were savvy enough and close enough to the spirit to approach the topic at the appropriate time.

However, such was not the case, and too many missionaries became wrapped up in following the script, driven by the pressure to perform and deliver numbers.

Anecdotally, I recall a major rallying cry during the last third or so of my mission: ¡Urgencia! – or Spanish for Urgency! Now there was nothing wrong with preaching the urgency of our work, but did I know numerous missionary who took this as a queue to be reckless with baptism invitations, all in the name of being “bold”? Yep. How I loathed my weekly check ins with the assistants to the president where every call began like this:

(Phone rings)

Me: Bona nit, sóc l’Elder Openshaw de l’Església de Jesucrist dels Sants dels Darrers Dies

AP: ¡Urgencia!

Me: *sigh* Hi, Elder Assistant. What’s up?

Again, that’s anecdotal, but considering I served in the Best Mission In Europe™*, clearly I know what I’m talking about.

Beyond individuals simply not being ready for baptism and leaving the Church as soon as they came, President Ballard notes some other serious concerns with missionaries being too hasty in their invitations:

  1. Some members of the Church are reluctant to share the names of families and friends who might be interested in the gospel because they worry the missionaries will be too eager to extend an invitation for baptism before the individual is prepared.
  2. Missionaries sometimes feel like salespeople (there’s a reason sales companies recruit extensively from BYU) and become too focused on goals. Missionaries wind up using high-pressure tactics to rush people into baptism. This hurts missionaries and could make them feel guilty for their actions.
  3. Some people stop meeting with missionaries because they are put off by a premature baptism invitation.

Yes, yes and yes!

If I may add a fourth item: recklessly baptizing people destroys a ward’s morale for missionary work and erodes trust in the very people who are called to teach the gospel full time.

Want more anecdotes to illustrate my point? Sure! When I was living overseas for grad school, I served as the co-ward mission leader, which yes, was a thing. It took two ward mission leaders to manage the 16 or so missionaries we had in our ward. Why so many missionaries? We were in a peculiar situation. The mission home was next door to our chapel, so the assistants and all of the office missionaries were in our ward. In addition, we were in a large city that was divvied up into areas for a handful of companionships by necessity, but there was only one ward for the whole city. So you’re stuck with a handful of “regular” companionships, zone leaders, assistants, office missionaries, etc. It was a cabal of missionaries.

And they clearly knew more about running the ship than anyone else.

The deluge of missionaries resulted in huge waves of investigators, which is great on paper. The missionaries held baptismal services just about every week. (There was once major a major skirmish when ward leaders asked if we could move the baptisms to bi-weekly in an effort to save the $100+ it cost every time to fill up the baptismal font. Guess how receptive the missionaries were?) Of those ongoing baptisms, how many individuals were retained? How many understood what they had committed to do? A very small minority, based on my experience. And the result was ward members who started treating the posse of missionaries as some sort of autonomous unit, not to be dealt with. As a ward mission leader, I spent more time playing referee than engaging in useful gospel teaching. The entire ward suffered from a lack of discipline.

President Ballard lamented a so-called “checkbox” approach to missionary work:

“For us to see the great harvest the Lord has promised, missionaries need to move away from the ‘check-the-box’ approach of finding, teaching and extending invitations. We all need to follow the example of Jesus Christ and His apostles and servants by offering Spirit-led invitations along with meaningful offers to help and inspired questions.”

Checkbox Mormonism doesn’t work for our personal discipleship. Why would it work for missionary work? Follow the spirit and be patient!

The apostle suggests that we don’t know when practices of reckless baptism became prevalent, which is admittedly a curious assertion. Given the very corporate approach to how the Church is run, such a result can’t come as much of a surprise. So, in an effort to put a date on it, let’s just blame the Correlation efforts of the 60s, amirite?

Read more at the Church Newsroom.

*As stated by one Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. Fight me.