Called to learn: what you would tell a missonary

Despite being a Mormon feminist, I confess there are times when I have been glad that our church does not demand of women what it sometimes does of men.  I believe in service and in the transformative power that comes from the life experience gained on a mission.  But I still have ambivalent feelings about proselyting, particularly about convincing others that our beliefs offer more than theirs, so I was glad when my gender allowed me to avoid the question of whether or not I would serve a mission.  My younger brothers, however, have no such luxury.  Although they share my ambivalence, a refusal on their parts to serve a mission entails a loss of their standing as good members and risks alienating friends and family.   They cannot wait, as I can, to serve a mission when I feel ready.  They must serve at age nineteen.

One of my brothers has now completed a mission, but the other still must decide if he will serve.  Since I have not served a mission, I feel that I am poorly equipped to respond to him with the empathy and understanding that I believe his questions demand.  But as I watch them struggle, I am convinced that it is important that they feel supported and not banished to a closet with their concerns.  So, I am writing this post as an open invitation for people to share their thoughts on how they would approach a full-time mission and on how they would reconcile their beliefs with mission goals and imperatives that are sometimes at odds with them.  I am beginning this thread by sharing a few insights that I have culled from conversations with those near me.

Called to learn: Our leaders are, I believe, deeply aware that we must strive to respect the competing beliefs of our neighbors.  The current rhetoric that we invite others to ask what we can share with them or add to their already strong beliefs seems like a genuine attempt to exercise such respect.  However, this rhetoric positions us as the ones doing the share, and it does not stress that we must in turn be prepared to listen.  When we are missionaries, in all contexts, I believe it is important that we are prepared to ask not only what we can share but also what we can learn from others, because we as individuals also have imperfect knowledge of the gospel.  Only if we approach conversations about faith with a genuine desire to listen and to learn can we really respond to others with genuine attention to their needs.

Learn a variety of things:  Most missionaries I know agree that they learned a great deal on their missions.  But not every missionary has learned primarily about his faith or has even had his testimony grow.  We stress that missions build faith, but I believe we should be more open to asking what in particular God needs us to learn when we are in a missionary context – whether it is about poverty, humility, etc.  Although we ask all young men to serve at age nineteen, these young men doubtlessly come with a wide variety of experiences and of things they need to learn.

Don’t distort the church:  I no longer believe that anyone aside from our apostles can speak as a true “representative” of the church.  Church members have a wide range of beliefs and backgrounds, and I think we make a deep mistake in believing that when are asked to share the gospel that we must adopt what we believe to be the church’s standard line.  I believe that our non-member friends want to hear why we in particular value the church, and that we should represent the church through our own eyes without falling into preaching flat stereotypes about the general church body.  That said, we owe it to potential converts to not depict the church too much in terms that we know they will be sympathetic to or that we find attractive if we know this depiction is misleading about actual church practice.  We should not whitewash or distort the church, only to have converts feel disappointed when the church is profoundly different from one they thought they were joining.

[Edit: Some people seem to have interpreted my suggesting that we should not distort the church to mean that we should bring up controversial issues.  While I think missionaries should know about issues that investigators themselves are likely to think up (who doesn’t know about polygamy, for example), my intention was not to suggest that we should bring those issues up.  Instead, I’m referring to the fact that when we want people to accept our beliefs or when we are uncomfortable with some aspects of our culture we sometimes reinterpret the church in a way that makes us more acceptable to others and to ourselves.  This doesn’t have to ocurr only around controversial issues.  What I am saying is that we need be cautious about preaching too much of our own gospel in certain contexts so that people are not mislead.  If we are going to go on a mission, then to some extent we need to be on board with the core principles, even if it is also important that we still make our remarks personal.]


Please add more comments…


  1. Missionary service is more about service than missionary: Even as someone that felt unsure about the methods/ purposes of proselytizing as a missionary, it was easy for me to get caught up in the numbers. I left my mission feeling confused because I never saw an investigator receive baptism. I worked hard, and I learned to love the gospel, but I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t see the successes that other missionaries experienced. For some time, I figured that I just didn’t do the proselytizing thing right because of my reluctance to make someone else feel like they were wrong and I was right.

    As I look back now, however, I’ve realized that the Lord used me in a variety of ways to fulfill his purposes. I think the people I served came to understand our Heavenly Father more through the way my companions and I treated them than through the words we shared. I think they understood the gospel of Jesus Christ better because of the way we lived than they did because of the scriptures we shared.

    And that’s also how I gained my ever-growing testimony of the gospel.

    So, ultimately maybe it wasn’t as much about the message as it was about sharing what I hope to be true through my actions. I know that I’m a better person because of it, and I hope that the people I served are better because of it too. Over the years as I’ve prayed that my missionary offering would be accepted by our Heavenly Father, I’ve felt a great sense of peace and satisfaction. Not only because of what I did as a missionary but because of who I became and how I continue to treat others today.

  2. I love missionaries. I love missionary work. As I get notes from the missionaries our MTC branch has sent out, I long for my son (the one who still considers himself LDS) to serve a mission. I got a note last week from a missionary in the Congo who waited until he was 24 to serve. He was ordained to the priesthood comparatively late–I’m guessing when he was 23. In this note, he spoke about blessing a man who had been beaten into a coma. I am watching him and the others grow in compassion and goodness. I desire all to partake of this, and certainly desire it for my own children. To have this last phase of puberty take place with _Preach my Gospel_ as the textbook and in the company of young men and women who are serving a cause together which is far greater than any of them–I am in awe of the program. I am honored to serve with the missionaries. I would say this to anyone considering a mission: You will never know what you MIGHT HAVE become or learned on your mission unless you serve one.

  3. “Only if we approach conversations about faith with a genuine desire to listen and to learn can we really respond to others with genuine attention to their needs.”

    I agree, with some clarifications.

    Some of the most important spiritual experiences I had as a missionary came after the Spirit instructed us to simply listen to what the other person was saying and to do so without judgment or correcting misconceptions. Once the person sitting across from knew he could speak freely and would receive genuine respect no matter what, often only then would the Spirit instruct us to begin teaching. Listening, in the right context, is a vital element of building relationships of trust. That’s one of the most repeated elements of effective missionary work.

    I don’t know that current counsel to missionaries contradicts the need to listen. There’s a lot of wisdom behind the broad counsel to missionaries about being there to teach and not to be taught. Some of the most negative and counter-productive experiences I had came with people who wanted to express their beliefs only for the sake of showing how smart they were, how right they were, how wrong we were, etc. If regular members sense a need to listen during such situations, that’s their call. For missionaries, it’s pretty much always a distraction and waste of time.

    I had a handful of very edifying spiritual experiences as a missionary following a respectful refusal to engage in a contentious or disingenuous religious discussion. In these rare cases, our respectful but firm declaration that we weren’t going to engage in such a discussion led a few people to recognize how rude they were being. Their countenance changed and the Spirit then entered and allowed for a fruitful discussion. No conversions or missionary discussions resulted from these conversations, but they were anything but a waste of time.

  4. About not whitewashing the Church–I also think it’s a great mistake to spend a lot of time talking about difficult issues (MMM etc) as part of missionary prep. The core of _Preach My Gospel_ is “Attaining Christlike Attributes”. If a missionary focuses on that chapter, other things like difficult history should pale. Certainly, we can forgive historical blunders in the spirit of faith. This might sound strange coming from me, since I bring up race issues on a regular basis on the ‘Nacle, but I wholeheartedly support the idea of focusing on the big picture rather than the controversial details during missionary service. That said, I’m always happy to say A LITTLE about race if a missionary asks me, but I am very careful to do it in the spirit of love and faith. I have sometimes said with a smile, “Elder, come see me after your mission and we’ll talk about that.” If there is a situation which requires more knowledge, I hope resources are available.
    As far as being representatives of Christ–oh, the missionaries are. They are ordained ministers, authorized with ministerial certificates. They’re also kids, so they do need to pay attention to the counsel to avoid contention and competition.

  5. I tend to be with you Margaret; however, I think that it wouldn’t hurt to have the missionaries learn a few basics. Even a couple of sentences about tough issues; e.g., the Ensign article by Turley on Mountain Meadows. I now that would have helped me.

    Missions are peculiar, no doubt about it. I served in France, and had a wonderful experience. In retrospect, however, it is obvious that a lot of Mission bureaucracy and activity is anachronistic and not particularly good for Church growth or perhaps even the growth of missionaries. That said, as you say Margaret, there is something wonderful about losing oneself for others.

    The Church is in something of a bind as they have shifted from mature men and women to 19 and 21 year old boys and girls. These issues are further exacerbated by the fact that with every passing year, 19 and 20 year olds (at least from the US) are less and less responsible. I believe that Christlike service is a foundational response to the situation. That isn’t to say that there isn’t more; I’m not sure what it is though.

  6. Study “Preach My Gospel” diligently and carefully. It really is amazing – so different than what I had when I served that it’s like a doctoral dissertation versus a kindergarten primer. I’m not sure everyone is aware of how radically the training of missionaries and teaching of investigators has changed in the last decade.

    I also want to echo Margaret in one important respect. The missionaries are not sent out to teach church history or former teachings or anything but the principles of the Gospel as outlines in the materials they are given. The simple fact is that many members (baptized and confirmed and endowed members) struggle with exactly how to understand and present certain aspects of out history and theology – and to separate what is legitimate from the incorrect traditions of our fathers. To expect missionaries to be able to deviate from the core principles and basic narrative – to actually discuss and “teach” and correct those types of concerns – is unrealistic and unfair (to both the missionary and the investigator. Those conversations are important to those for whom they are important, but they should be addressed with a regular member – not the missionaries – leading the discussion. (That also helps the missionaries learn, and I have never had a missionary object to that request.)

    Finally, no matter what kind of statistical measures and pressures are used or the personality of the Mission President and leaders, the key is to stay focused on the people and the message. Not everyone will have the same numerical results, even if their levels of faith and dedication are identical. Do your best; stay focused on your actual “mission”; love the people with whom you serve and associate; don’t compare your own efforts to anyone else’s – and know “Preach My Gospel” backward and forward.

  7. I wouldn’t trade my mission experience for anything I truly learned to love people. I would only change one thing. I would have those companions that were not really committed and really did not want to be there find another way to serve. they sure wasted a lot of my time as a missionary. If any prospective missionary can read Preach my Gospel and not feel the call they really should wait.

    We should do something about the stigma of not going on a mission some really great members did not go.

  8. Max Seawright says:

    I would like to see a greater emphasis on community service. If I could serve as a missionary again I would focus much more on explaining how some LDS beliefs have helped me cultivate a relationship with God, then invite listeners to try out the church or otherwise try to increase their communion with the divine.

  9. Before I went on a mission, I was concerned about proselytizing because I didn’t want to force my religion on others. My dad told me (and as a convert, he could say this with experience) that I definitely had something in the gospel that a lot of people were searching for. My mission would be to find the seekers and offer what I have to them. To people who were satisfied with their own churches or beliefs, I could offer to add some notions, but otherwise, I wouldn’t be in the business of selling Mormonism to them. I was out to find and teach the seekers. This insight carried me through my mission, and two subsequent callings as ward missionary.

  10. StillConfused says:

    Thank you for emphasizing listening to and learning from others. I had the most wonderful encounter last week with a Jewish gentlemen born in Israel. He had never heard of the Mormon Church and I didn’t know much about the Jewish faith. We had the best time asking each other questions and listening to what the other person had to say. We talked about what we felt made our religion unique. (Mine was that families are forever and his was that you ask forgiveness from the people you offended rather than from a church leader).

    It was the best time ever and I have a profound respect for the Jewish faith. At no point did either of us try to convert the other. We just learned from each other and respected the other person’s culture.

    I was telling an LDS friend about the conversation and how fun and informative I had found it to be. This friend was very upset that I enjoyed the conversation and kept referring to how my Jewish friend didn’t know “the truth.” I don’t agree. I think he knows the truth as he defines it just fine.

  11. I would tell a missionary to be clear about what his mission was. A mission is an assignment made, a calling extended, an errand given to the missionary to complete. Just as when you send a child on an errand to buy a quart of milk and expect him to return with a quart of milk (not with a pound of candy, not having dropped the money into a video arcade), so the Lord who has given a missionary an errand expects him to complete that task and not substitute his own ideas of what would be a better use of his resources.

    If you receive and accept a call to proselytize, then that’s your mission: you proselytize. There are other kinds of missions, and if the Lord had wanted you to be chiefly concerned with resettling refugees or giving measles vaccinations, He would have called you to a service or medical mission. Others have been sent on those errands, and a great many others haven’t accepted any mission — if you don’t proselytize because you prefer not to, nobody else will fill the gap created by your failure to take your assignment seriously.

    There was a statement in the missionary handbook when I served, and I’ll bet it’s still there, specifically instructing me that I was sent forth to teach, not to be taught. That didn’t mean I weren’t supposed to study the gospel or look for the best methods to complete my proselytizing assignment; it did mean that my mission was chiefly to serve others by offering them the gospel, not serve myself by focusing on hobby learning and not avoid service by merely exchanging ideas with others. *I* was to be the teacher. I had been given that assignment, and the power and authority to do it. Better not to have accepted the assignment than to have accepted it but insisted on doing my own thing.

    I suspect this won’t be a popular answer, but I think it is right, and I don’t mean to offend those who disagree.

  12. … that I wasn’t … (not weren’t — the hazards of incomplete editing)

  13. My younger brothers, however, have no such luxury. Although they share my ambivalence, a refusal on their parts to serve a mission entails a loss of their standing as good members and risks alienating friends and family. They cannot wait, as I can, to serve a mission when I feel ready. They must serve at age nineteen.

    Huh? I thought missionary service was completely voluntary? I haven’t seen it written anywhere that men MUST serve, and to be honest I have a hard time at present seeing my 11-year old son as a missionary. Maybe things will change over the years but I dunno…

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    To be honest, I went on my mission simply because it was culturally expected. (And I eventually wanted to marry an LDS woman, and I was convinced no one would want to marry me if I didn’t go on a mission. That was and is part of the culture.)

    I’m glad I went; in many ways, my mission was the making of me.

    On the other hand, while I’m always happy to talk about the church with anyone who is genuinely interested, I don’t really have an interest in the kind of socially invasive proselytism a mission entails. And experiencing the bizarre bureaucracy and politics of mission life can be a severe challenge to one’s faith. I survived it mainly because I have the kind of laid back personality that allows things to roll off my back. But not everyone does; I had one companion in particular who was so overcome by guilt for every little thing he wasn’t doing quite right that I feared he might do himself a harm.

    We seem to want to have it both ways–we put immense pressure on all young men to go, but then we say they shouldn’t go if they’re not really committed to it. We really ought to pick our poison; we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. If we keep up with the cultural pressure, then of course we’re going to get some young men out in the field that really don’t want to be there. If the Church doesn’t want them in the field, they need to provide a culturally acceptable means for them to decline such service.

  15. Actually, by not whitewashing the church I wasn’t thinking about bringing up controversial issues. I have talked to several people who felt that in the members’ efforts to make them feel welcome that they distorted some of the church’s core beliefs. From what I gathered, this was unintentional, but in our eagerness to invite others in we sometimes painted the church in terms that made it seem more similar to other people’s beliefs than it actually was. People were preaching their own gospel, and so the converts didn’t accurately learn the core Mormon principles.

    I think we can be a representative of the church in that by virtue of being Mormon’s we are affiliated with it. I don’t think any of us can speak for the church as a body, and I think we should be skeptical of people’s attempts to say that they represent Mormons as a whole. I think there is far too much diversity of opinion to make sweeping statments beyond the church’s core beliefs.

    Can 19-year olds really be called on non-proselytizing missions? I have only heard of exceptions being made for people with illnesses. And the expectation to serve a mission is not something that comes by revelation on a case by case basis. It is a cultural standard. I would rather that people had the opportunity to serve a mission that they were comfortable with than to serve none at all and feel that they were no longer welcome in the church. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t try – I would – and I think people will be blest for trying. But, if they are not going to serve one, and they are going to leave the church otherwise, then why not put a program in place that allows them to do what they can and stay active?

  16. SinisterMatt says:

    Natalie, (#15), a friend of mine was called to a service mission because he messed up his knee playing some sport. He was 19 when he left, but I imagine that that probably qualifies in a loose sense as the same thing as an “illness.”


  17. #8 – This comment rings true with my own experience. I feel that people I talk to about the gospel overwhelming want to know how my belief has helped me live a fuller life and how it has shaped my interactions with my family and community. I feel that people are looking not for doctrine, but for the personal transformation that can come with the gospel. And that is why I think it is important that we do speak through our eyes and experiences.

  18. #12 – While I don’t people young men are required to serve any more than they are required to remain in the church at all, I do believe that there is an overwhelming cultural expectation that they serve and that there are real consequences for those who don’t. Hence, my expression that they must serve unless they want to face massive disapproval from those around them.

  19. #9 – That’s a great perspective. I’ll pass that on to my brother, since I think that touches on his concern.

  20. Within the church there are a great deal of cultural norms that are often confused as requirements. A young man of 19 is not required to go on a mission and can still be considered in good standing with the church. Even though members of the ward may put some social pressure on him to go on a mission, he can still be worthy to enter the temple.

    When I was 19, my Bishop asked me to serve a mission and I promptly declined. After picking himself up off the floor he politely asked why and I responded that I did not want to go. That was the only time he asked me to serve. Certainly, my parents and people in my ward asked me many times when I was going to go on a mission and frankly it got old fairly quick. I did however end up going on a mission when I was 23 and I am glad that I did! Because yes, it was the best two years of my life! :)

    Looking back on it though, I am glad that I did not serve a mission when I was 19, because I was not prepared or willing to serve. Had I succomed to the social pressure of the members and gone on a mission, I am sure that I would have been a terrible missionary and would have been a detriment to the work. My advice to anyone who does not want to go on a mission, don’t! As an AP and Zone Leader, I had too many misisonaries who really did not want to be there. I was tired of having to check on missionaries to make sure they were doing missionary work! I saw missionaries fight each other, date women, get tatoos, teach false doctrine, and turn investigators and members away from the church.

    To serve as a missionary, is one of the greatest callings to be given and it’s not to be taken lightly. If the spirit prompts you to serve, then serve with all your heart, might, mind, and strength. If you’re not ready to serve, then don’t do something that you and others may regret. Instead, continue to strengthen your testimony, stay active in the church, and don’t rule out serving a mission later on. Remember guys can serve until they are 27 without a waiver.

  21. As a missionary you dress and work in such a way that you stand out, and while this is probably the most uncomfortable aspect of our proselyting model, it does wonders to reach those people that are kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.

    I believe that going in with this mindset, having faith that the Lord has prepared people for you to teach, and that you’ll just have to respect the agency of those who aren’t ready yet will make things a lot easier.

  22. Thomas Parkin says:

    “I feel that people are looking not for doctrine, but for the personal transformation that can come with the gospel.”

    Natalie, I think this might be, ultimately, a distinction without a difference.


  23. LDS culture is cruel to males who choose not to serve a mission.

    I didn’t go. I was not comfortable with the idea of attempting to persuade others to change their religious belief. In addition, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness a year before.

    My parents were very disappointed. I had a bishop who pursued me for years.

    But, I believed not going was the right decision for me.

    I’ve married in the temple and raised a family. But, even today, people assume I did something awful that kept me from a mission. That is very hurtful.

    I’ve talked to others in the same situation — many simply go inactive. Others are simply resentful.

    Missions are not for everyone. Folks need to give people space and hold the judgment.

  24. Peter LLC says:

    When I was nineteen I lined up with all the other 19-year-olds and signed up for a mission. Between receiving my call and going to the MTC I had serious reservations about going. I met with the bishopric/stake presidency several times and each time they would convince me to go.

    When the time came I was set apart and said farewell on Sunday. On Monday my family made the trek to Utah. On Tuesday I told my parents I wasn’t going. On Wednesday I told the MTC receptionist I wouldn’t be reporting. On Thursday we drove home and the next Sunday, there I was again, back in my old ward.

    At the time I was embarrassed and really wished I had shown more resolve in communicating to others that I wasn’t ready. Still, everyone seemed as supportive of a not-quite-missionary as I could have expected under the circumstances and I felt no recrimination.

    I moved out of state and about a year and a half later had a conversion experience. I felt that the time was right. I met with the relevant church leaders, got the ball rolling and received my mission call. Three weeks later I was in the MTC ready to be on a mission and thankful for the opportunity. What a difference a couple of years made.

    I’m sure there are plenty of people whose personal readiness lines up with the calendar. For others, waiting just might be the ticket. For others, not going ought to be an acceptable option. After all, a mission is not a saving ordinance. A rite of passage, yes, a divine calling, yes, a time of tempering for future leaders, yes, a rare opportunity to serve and expand the kingdom, yes, but in the overall scheme of things neither a necessary nor sufficient qualification for eternal life.

  25. …but in the overall scheme of things neither a necessary nor sufficient qualification for eternal life.

    Well said, Peter. Thank you.

  26. My daughter wanted to serve, but because of her health she couldn’t. Until three years later, when she had gotten better and had some experiences that helped her trust herself and the Lord more. She loves her mission and every letter we get is filled with stories of growth and learning.

    We are all unique. Parents should try to prepare their children to serve. We can (and there’s a strong argument that we should) think like missionaries. But we should always respect others’ choices.

    Study Preach My Gospel. It contains the core principles that represent what’s important about the gospel. Some insights that I have gleaned from it: You have to learn to listen in order to be a good teacher. Your success is not determined by how many people are baptized directly resulting from something you did (especially when, hopefully, the number would be zero!), but by how you learn to put aside selfish urges and come to Christ in order to invite others to follow. We’re not supposed to “push” people, but to “pull”.

    It is true we shouldn’t misrepresent the Church. However, we all do have our individually unique understanding, and we can all be “edified” by each other, if we follow the Spirit.

    And, to your Jewish friend, and to you, StillConfused: We are indeed expected to apologize and make any possible restitution to the people we have offended. The Bishop can not forgive sins, he can only decide whether we have repented sufficiently if we have done something that would jeopardize our membership.

  27. 1. While I agree with the principles of the post — that it is better to learn than to teach, and that we teach better when we are ready to learn from others — a missionary will have a terrible experience if his or her primary goals as a missionary are anything else than teaching the gospel. Missions are not structured for individual goals.

    2. The choice not to serve a mission needs to be there, and needs to be respected. Peter’s experience is important.

  28. Naive expectations complicated my mission experience. I expected every missionary to be converted and eager to share to gospel, to be free of pretension and politics. I expected my mission presidents to be perfect. Reality was a bitter pill to swallow. After I got home I heard the advice I should have heard earlier, “Remember the Elders are 19 and the mission president is human.”

    The hours I spent teaching the gospel on my mission are some of the most precious hours of my life. I hope to be able to serve again, but this time I’ll remember that human nature doesn’t evaporate just because we are serving the Lord.

  29. I don’t think you should serve a mission if you don’t have a deep, abiding testimony of the truthfulness of the Restoration and the Gospel of Christ as taught by the Church. Everything (meaning personal quibbles) beyond that should be put on hold for the duration of the mission. You are not there to sell the Church, you are there to proclaim the restoration. As such, you are an official representative of the Church. If you don’t have a testimony of issues beyond those in the discussions, and those issues come up, defer them to a member who does have a testimony, bring it up in the PEC of the ward in which you are serving.

    Above all other things, live worthy of the Spirit and be willing to follow wherever He leads. That is all you really need.

  30. Anon for this one says:

    I went because it was expected and not going would have broken my Mom and Dad’s hearts. I also went because a Bishop promised me that serving a mission would clear up some psychological/emotional struggles that I had been experiencing.

    I do not regret going, but it was a very painful experience. I can’t spend too much time thinking about my mission right now as it stirs up too many negative feelings. I hope that given a few more years some scars will heal and I will be able to look back and not feel bitter and angry. But yeah, “the best two years” kind of statements really annoy me.

    I don’t know how similar any mission is to another, so missionary preparation tends to be perfunctory at best; I doubt that there is such a thing as adequate preparation beyond making up your mind that you’ll do what it takes.

    One thing that really concerned me was how, even after the bar raising, there was so much focus on people as goals. I don’t think many missionaries realize that the gospel is not necessarily the most pressing need for everyone they meet. When a person is bleeding, they need first aid, not a first discussion. I wish there had been more focus on bringing to those you contacted as much light and help as they could receive. Even if they didn’t accept the gospel, you could still improve their lives. That being said, perhaps that was just something this nineteen-year-old idiot needed to learn by experience.

    And no, my bishop was wrong. The mission didn’t solve the issues he said it would. I wish priesthood leaders wouldn’t make those kinds of unwarranted promises. Sigh.

  31. Thanks for an excellent, thoughtful post, Natalie. You raise questions I struggled with before and during my mission fifteen years ago–and I’ve continued to think about them, on and off, ever since. When I was a missionary, I swore to myself I’d be kind to the missionaries and aid and assist them for the rest of my life, knowing as I did how hard their work is. Now, for a variety of reasons, I find myself avoiding the missionaries at almost all costs, both on campus and at church. I say this in the ambivalence of one who loved and adored my mission and found it a profound and life-changing experience, hard as it was most of the time.

    I have mixed feelings about proselytizing. I can understand why critics find it deeply problematic and even culturally imperialistic, at least in certain contexts. At the same time the critique of proselytizing is rooted in intellectual trends whose extremes I’m skeptical of–the exaltation of culture at the expense of the concept of individual choice, for instance. (Some of those good old Enlightenment concepts need to make a comeback!) I’m convinced that what we really need is better proselytizing. And proselytizing is hard to do well.

    Married as I am to an inactive unbeliever, I’ve witnessed numerous missionary attempts on my husband over the years. More often than not, they’ve flopped. The missionaries are young, eager, and well-meaning, but too many don’t exhibit much genuine interest in my husband, or in me, and they often seem too eager to push the latest programs (which, one companionship grandiously proclaimed, came straight from President Hinckley himself! Now we didn’t want to go against the prophet, did we? Well, if you’re going to put it that way, elder….). We both served missions, so we understand all too well the pressure they’re under to meet goals, and we haven’t been offended by these kinds of stunts and gimmicks, even as we’ve rolled our eyes privately. But I’ve reached a point at which I’m pretty unwilling to subject my husband or myself to appeals that are only going to alienate. At this point it would be a very unusual missionary, probably one deeply at odds with the general relentless focus on goals and numbers that characterizes mission life, that I’d be willing to let into my house.

  32. I would say this to anyone considering a mission: You will never know what you MIGHT HAVE become or learned on your mission unless you serve one.

    Although I know these kinds of general proclamations are made with the best of intentions, as some of the comments above suggest, I think we need a much more nuanced, individualized view of missions. I’m one of six daughters. Three of us have served missions (one of my sisters is currently nearing the end of her eighteen months); three haven’t. I went for one reason only: I felt deeply, unmistakably called of God to go. In my case, the depth of that experience of being called was essential to sustain me through the hardest parts of my mission. (And as everyone who’s served a mission knows, life in the mission field itself may bear almost no resemblance whatsoever to the enthusiasms of the MTC–for better, for worse, or most likely for both.)

    But I think it would be a mistake to generalize from my experience to make some sort of case that my three sisters who didn’t serve somehow failed or missed a crucial spiritual opportunity, that as a result of not going they’ll “never know what they might have become.” For one thing, this statement applies equally to any worthy activity–if you never finish college, go to grad school, take this job or that internship, or marry this particular person, you’ll also never know who you might have become as a result.

    Missions can make or break people. I’ve known people who definitely shouldn’t have gone, and people whose missions have devastated them, for a variety of complicated reasons. I don’t think we should add guilt to what can be a very legitimate choice not to serve–or as in Peter’s case above, not to serve at a given point in time.

  33. Mark Brown says:

    I recently wrote a letter of advice to a young man called to the mission field who had been in the priesthood quorum I taught. As I recall, I gave him advice about how to avoid the things I regretted about my mission.

    First, I wish I had been a better member of the branches where I served. I’m afraid that I had the attitude that I was the guy from Utah, here to set them straight. I think I really was an insufferable know-it-all much of the time. I wish I had taken more of a servant’s approach and looked for ways to help.

    I also wish I have focused more on building friendship with my companions, and being a support to them. I think I missed some opportunities there. Some of my companions were the only members in their families, and life in the mission must have been very tough for them. I had a very supportive family and just assumed everybody else did, too. Looking back, I realize I could have done many things to lift some burdens.

    While I agree with the idea that missionaries need to realize that they are teachers first, I also think they need a periodic dose of reality. A visiting GA in our mission once asked us at a zone conference why we thought we were serving a mission. People gave answers like build the kingdom, get converts to the church, etc. He challenged us and said that if the church wanted to get lots of converts, why in the world was it sending out kids like us who didn’t know much? If the church was interested in lots of converts, it would send out the high priests as missionaries. They have better gospel knowledge, stronger testimonies, better people skills, etc. He told us that the biggest reason we were on missions was to convert ourselves.

  34. I dealt with some of these issues before serving my own mission. Some of these concerns–we have so much to learn from others; who are we to tell others what to think–I had inherited from my father (who served a mission but has since had doubts) and others I had developed as an undergraduate at Harvard. I was particularly concerned with what ‘cultural relativism’ had taught–that cultures are incomparable, none being better or worse–and how that seemed different from the church’s commission to go to all the world.

    Despite being a woman, I had always planned on serving a mission, so I did, doubts notwithstanding. It was hard, but hard in a good way, and has completely changed my own life for the better. What I learned, and would share with anyone contemplating a mission (whether under social pressure as the young men do or voluntarily as young women do) is the following:

    The core of the gospel which the church tries to spread–that a new prophet preaches of Christ, that modern visions are possible, that there is an eternity in which to live with loved ones–is of potentially universal appeal. As human beings, the core of our humanity makes us more similar the world over than any amount of culture makes us different. Parents love their children in various ways, and to various amounts, but still have them and care for them. The notion–new to many outsiders–of having a Father in Heaven and of having family relations persist in a future existence is therefore of potentially universal appeal. We owe it to our siblings to offer them the opportunity to learn this truth for themselves.

    We should learn about other people’s views, but not ON mission time; before and after, certainly, but not while wearing the nametag. A mission is very short, and funded by the church to a large degree. A mission therefore is a job, and we owe it to one’s “employer” to do the job they send us to do and not waste the employer’s time and money. That a mission is less voluntary for young men does not make it less of an honor to share with our siblings the idea of being all related to God.

  35. I was ambivalent about a mission when I was 21. (I am 60, now) I was willing to go if it was the Lord’s will, but I was very unsure if it really was the Lord’s will. I prayed and asked the Lord to have the Bishop talk to me about it if I should go. At Thanksgiving time when I went home from BYU the Bishop told me to “think about it” and let him know at Christmas time. I told my Dad, and for the first time in my life I saw him angry. “I told him not to ask you!” he said. We had Sacrament meeting rather late in the evening, and I usually had to miss it to get my ride back to BYU. This time the driver called me and asked if I wanted to go to Sacrament meeting with him and we would leave from there. In the meeting, a young returned missionary spoke. He was a boy I knew from school, who had not been active in the church when we were in High School, but he told of how his testimony had developed and the special experience a mission was for him. Midway through his talk he abruptly changed his tone and said, “There may be someone here today who is thinking of going on a mission, if so, fast and pray about it, and if you get the answer not to go, fast and pray about it again, because you got the wrong answer!” He shone with the gospel light as he spoke, truly a changed young man.

    I began fasting and praying. When I got back to my apartment I knelt down and prayed vocally saying, “I know it is right for young men to serve missions, but isn’t my mission to get married?” And the still, small voice replied, “You will not get married until you have served a mission.” I was convinced and was soon called to serve. The mission was very difficult–I don’t know how to describe it, it was so hard. But I was strengthened in was that I really needed. About 10 years later I was married to my sweetheart husband who is 10 years younger than I am.

    He served his mission mostly from a sense of duty, while his younger brothers decided not to go. My husband, though, was blessed directly through having served the mission. While he was out he was exposed to computers and it soon became evident that he wanted to be a computer programmer, so that is now his career. This was in a time when personal computers were rare and he had never known of them before.

    What is the moral of these stories? Fast and Pray and do what the Lord wants you to do.

  36. Natalie, I was pressed for time so I didn’t read the entire balance of your email, but I had to take issue with the statement that young men MUST serve missions at 19. While there is a tremendous amount of cultural pressure for young men to serve at 19, church policy doesn’t state that it is the only time a young men can go on a mission. There is a period of time spanning a few years where a young man is eligble, age-wise to serve a mission. In Sweden, most young men do not serve missions until they are in their twenties because they don’t graduate until they are 20 and then a majority of them work and earn money for the mission.

  37. At this point it would be a very unusual missionary, probably one deeply at odds with the general relentless focus on goals and numbers that characterizes mission life, that I’d be willing to let into my house.

    I’m waiting for this missionary to show up at my house too…..

  38. This thread is hopefully not too dormant. I wanted to echo Ardis’ comments, with just a tiny qualifier.

    Sometimes, mission presidents will give you other assignments on your proselyting mission. You should fulfill those, even if you don’t think that’s the point of a mission. In my case, I spent half my mission serving in branch presidencies (counselor and president), and by necessity spent a lot of time strengthening the branches and the local membership. It wasn’t what I signed up for, but I tried my best.

    When I got home, though, it was hard to know what to feel about my mission. I didn’t “do” what the MTC and my youth leaders and BYU people said I was supposed to have done. My wife’s stories about her mission sounded more like a “real” mission.

    It wasn’t until I was visiting another country, years later, and visiting a tiny branch in a remote part that I got it. Missionaries are called to go preach repentance, baptism, priesthood, restoration, and all that, but *sometimes*, necessity is such that the Lord needs them to minister to the local members. They won’t tell you this in the MTC. You just need to follow your mission president and the Spirit to figure out what to do.

    But in all things, the mission is not about you. It’s about the people you are serving. If you make them the focus, you’ll find out that it’s you who benefits most.

    Recently, I came across a woman who was in my last area (she was the same age as the missionaries), when I was a branch president. She’s married in the temple and has moved to the US. We’ve shared some stories about the aftermath of my time in that branch. It’s clear to me that I was supposed to be there at that time to be in that branch. Any baptisms (and we had several) were just gravy. I saw people feel the Spirit, accept Christ and commit to change their lives, and that means so much more to me and my testimony than what some idiot says in gospel doctrine about the election or Proposition 8.

  39. queuno demonstrates again why he is one of my favorite commenters. My comment was a little strong, given in reaction to what felt to me the desire to design a mission to suit the preferences of a missionary — I’d certainly endorse what queuno says about shouldering assignments made by a mission president.

    I’m still coming to terms with my mission of decades ago. I made mistakes, and I’m still living with the health consequences, and sometimes I’m sure I shouldn’t have gone. Still, as queuno says, “the mission is not about [me]. It’s about the people [I served].” I truly did love them and tried to serve them, and all the years of second guessing haven’t changed that.

  40. Ardis, I would love to hear more about your mission sometime.

  41. BiV, my mission was a series of paradoxes, the latest of which I became aware of this week, here at BCC. I idolized my MTC zone leader (the man in charge of all the French-speaking missionaries; so far as I remember, he reported only to the MTC mission president). He had a way of inspiring us to do anything, yet was as down to earth as you could hope for — he challenged us to do something, I don’t remember what, with the promise that he would do something amazing in return. We did, and he did: He must have been in his 40s then, but he stood on the floor, jumped up in the air, and did a back flip. I’d never seen anyone do that before except itty bitty Olympics gymnasts. He gave us what turned out to be about the only practical advice I had for dealing with difficult mission situations. I wrote to him to report a time our district had followed one of his suggestions, with miraculous results. I’ve wondered for a long time where he was and what he was doing.

    This week I learned where and how. Check out the link in BCC’s “LDS Headlines,” the one about the Mormon and Catholic in St. George, together for 19 years.

  42. And yet he was an instrument in the Lord’s hands in France. Maybe we can learn from this?

  43. Yes, that we can’t live on past laurels. No matter what contributions we made to the kingdom once upon a time, we still need to keep the commandments and endure to the end.

  44. Ardis: I am sorry. That’s rough.

  45. What can we learn??

    That there are lots of gay people whose talents and faith we need in the church, and we should be figuring out how to make them welcome.


  46. Kristine, are your lesson and mine mutually incompatible? No, but the law of chastity is non-negotiable.

  47. I was thinking how marvelous it is that the Lord can take each of us with our individual imperfections and use us to help create something perfect, like the Kingdom of God.

  48. Kristine: (!)?

  49. Matt–I find it hard to regard it as a tragedy that someone has been in a happy, loving relationship for 19 years. The (!) was lazy shorthand for my surprise at the tone of Ardis’ and your comments, and my exasperation at our church’s apparent inability to meaningfully fellowship our gay brothers and sisters.

    /end threadjack/

  50. /renew threadjack/

    Kristine: I was merely expressing my understanding of a persons inner pain and conflict which is often caused when we see those we love and care about part ways with the teachings of the church. I would have made the same statement if the person had left the church to make a movie called falling or because the church was horrible to them. I say it not as a condemnation of the person’s choice, but as an expression of empathy for the sense of loss we feel when people do not live up to our expectations, whether our expectations were correct or not. It is disheartening to see someone we love, respect, etc. act contrary to covenants we know they have made. That is all I was attempting to convey in the comment.

  51. Just my personal opinion…

    You’re defining a couple that has (assuming for the sake of argument) only slept with each other for the last 19 years as unchaste, and saying that the only way to be chaste is to separate from that loving relationship and enter into a life of celibacy. That may not be technically mutually exclusive with the goal of including gay people in the Church, but for all practical purposes, it is.

  52. I can list many things that I could say–and have said–to missionaries, both prospective ones and those currently serving. But what would I “tell” them–in the sense of recommendations, lessons, challenges, expectations, perspective? I have nothing. Twenty years on, my mission–why I was there, what I was doing right, what I was doing wrong, what it all meant–remains basically a mystery to me. There was no “conclusion” to it all; just, there came a point when it was over, and then I packed it all or threw it all away as best I could, and continued on. I can’t sum it up (and have only tried to do so a couple of times). I had many bad experiences, and some good ones, and I survived, and I’m the person I am today, and if that end is in part the result of what came before, then I suppose I’m grateful for it.

  53. Yes, Nate W., that is what I am saying, except for your last seven words.

    And Kristine, what can I say? Only that I’m as surprised by you as you appear to be by me. We don’t rewrite covenants in other cases — why would you make an exception for this one?

  54. Ardis:

    I guess the question is what to do now. I agree with you that the law of chastity is what it is; to me that means that gays and lesbians have no place in the Church as currently constituted. If being involved in Church means asking someone to walk away from their family, I doubt that involvement in Church is worth it for that person, nor should it be. I’m content for the Church to say, “we love you and wish you well on your way.” Just as I would have said to anyone of Black African descent before 1978.

  55. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Just as I would have said to anyone of Black African descent before 1978”

    Anyone? Not just anyone – that’s the catch. The church did work, in its painful way, for some black folks before 1978, and it works, in its painful way, for some gay folks now.

    The sacrifices the gospel requires are potentially life shattering, but that is what it is. We sacrifice and conform to the covenants we make, however far from our nature and the facts of our telestial lives, and towards the divine nature, that might take us. For some, that distance is a chasm. But for any remotely self-aware person it is daunting.

    I’m reminded of when Christ talking to his apostles about the difficulties faced by the rich. The apostles are astonished at the requirement. You can almost hear them aghast: who then shall be saved?? Christ’s response is that it is only possible with God.


  56. Nate W., I’ll have to leave this by saying that you and I apparently have ideas about chastity, family, the value of church involvement, covenants, race, and no doubt a host of other issues that are about as far apart as it is possible for two human beings to be. All I ask is that in launching off my words to state your own opinions, you don’t twist my words or put new ones in my mouth.

  57. Ardis:

    You’re probably right. I hope I haven’t twisted your words or put words in your mouth–I apologize if I have.

  58. Too bad a discussion of missionary work devolved again into other talk.

    BCC:Gay Marriage :: FMH:Julie Beck

  59. My maternal grandfather spent two years in the Northern States Mission, and didn’t baptize a single soul. But he said in his journals that it was one of the most impactful times in his life, because he was converted through his service and efforts.

    My father served in the Central States Mission, and maybe baptized one person. But he directly credits the person he became to his going and being faithful and doing his best. He was raised on the mean streets of SLC in the 40s and 50s, and probably had no opportunity to do much except go work in the mines. His family was marginally active and ignored by their ward. He remembers a leader working hard to get him to attend Church. But when his bishop blindsided him with an opportunity to serve, he went, even though missions didn’t happen for people like him or his family (paraphrasing his life story). He came home changed. A boy who couldn’t learn and struggled in school, he’d learned to study and how to learn. A boy too shy to talk to others, he had learned to teach. He became a college professor.

    Nothing my father ever accomplished would have been possible without his mission. But … he didn’t go to avail himself of those blessings. He went because a bishop came to him and said, “Go — someone else is paying for it — make them proud of your service.” So he did.

    There is no way I could have ever become who I am (and whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate) without the influence of my father and grandfather. Their influence continues today.

    My brother is a missionary now, in Arizona. His letters are full of success after success. I don’t know that he’s struggled the same ways my grandfather did, or my father did, or I did (we all had our different struggles). But I know he’s being faithful. That’s what I urge him when I write — Don’t worry about yourself. Don’t worry about anything else besides doing what you’re asked to do, and doing it well. I tell him that 20 years from now, he won’t remember the details of his mission so well. But he’ll remember the lessons he learned.

  60. Steve Evans says:

    queuno, I think if you look around the bloggernacle, pretty much everything turns into a gay marriage debate right now. Don’t blame us! Next week things will be better.

  61. Eric Russell says:

    Next week things will be better.

    That’s what I’ve been telling myself every week since ’04.

  62. No, the vote on Prop 8 will be better, but the debate in the Church will never be better (particularly after TPotF is canonized, or the LoC’s wording is modified, etc.).