My mission

Twenty years ago today — 4 January 1989 — I entered the MTC as a missionary, headed for the Netherlands Amsterdam mission. Following a grand tradition, I thought I would reflect for a moment on that experience.

In the Autumn of 1988, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on a mission, so I took the BYU religion class Sharing the Gospel. Spencer Condie was the teacher, a sociology professor recently returned from being a mission president in Austria. The class was inspiring and uplifting, but I still wasn’t sure. I had my papers all ready, and I went to see him.

I asked, ‘If missionaries are just supposed to be obedient and do what they’re told to do, why does it matter if I go on a mission? I’m going to struggle to be the person they want me to be. Wouldn’t it be easier for someone else to be sent out who can be that missionary-person with less struggle?’

He said, ‘The Lord doesn’t want robots. He wants you, with your strengths and your insights. The missionary force needs all kinds of people, and it needs creative, thoughtful, intelligent young men like you.’ I prayerfully considered this and sent in my papers.

A year into my mission, Elder Condie of the Quorum of the 70 toured our mission. At the zone conference, he recognized me and wanted to have a chat, and I was pleased to meet with him. He asked how the mission was going. I said, with all due respect for him, ‘This is not the mission you described.’

For most of my mission, my worst fears were realized. The predominant doctrine was obedience, and the leadership style and reporting systems of the mission seemed designed to maintain the highest level of obedience and minimize individuality, innovation or even spiritual insight. We were to do as we were told, and if we did we would be blessed; if we wavered in our faith in the mission rules and programs, we had weak testimonies and were not worthy of the Holy Ghost. No element of the missionary program — the commitment pattern, the three week to baptism path, the presentation of the discussions or the heavily prescribed goals for how we spent our time — could be questioned or modified to best serve individuals or communities: such ideas were met with hostile accusations of weak faith and even heresy.

I responded to this environment with frustration, anxiety and some rebellion. I was told I was a bad missionary by mission leadership, both implicitly and explicitly, and, despite the fact that I was involved in the teaching and baptism of more converts than the average missionary, I believed them. At the end of my mission, I felt no positive connection to the structure of the mission or the leaders. I recognized that I had had some positive experiences, some of them spiritual, but they were in spite of the formal mission and its programs and rules, not because of them. I regarded it up as a negative episode of my life and walked away.

In my twenties, my mission experience became symbolic of my attitude toward the church more generally. I saw the church as a hierarchy that attempted to dictate spirituality rather than encouraging the individual growth and inspiration of the members. The environment of BYU in the early 1990s helped solidify that view, and in the same way that I put my mission behind me, I was happy to put the church behind me.

And then, several years later, I found the packet of letters I had sent home to my parents during my mission. I expected them to be filled with bitterness and frustration, and they were. But I also found a lot of joy: exposure to unfamiliar languages and cultures; excitement about working with investigators; opportunities for service; friendships with companions, members and non-members. I dug out my missionary journals, which I had purposely put away after I got home, and found the same thing. Again, a fair number of these experiences were outside the approval of the official mission, but there they were.

It was my mission. All in all, it had been good. I had allowed the mission leadership, flawed for reasons I never understood, to take that away from me. I started thinking about my mission more, looking at what I had learned from it and how it had shaped my life, reconnecting or strengthening connections to the people I had met there.

The way I think about my mission now mirrors the way I think about the church. Whatever flaws, or what I perceive to be flaws, come through the leadership or programs of the church are less important than my own spiritual and ecclesiastical experiences. I own my Mormon experiences. It’s my church.


  1. Thanks for this Norbert. It mirrors many of the feelings I had as a missionary in New England from 1980 – 82. I loved teaching the gospel, but hated the politics of mission life (and this from a political science major).

    To this day I still struggle to forgive some of my fellow servants for things that they said and did.

    But blessings do come. Without the common frame work of a New England mission my wife and I never would have gotten together.

    Experiences I had being a ward mission leader in TX in the late 1990’s also helped rid me of some of those demons. The main thing I learned was that if you are teaching by the spirit lives will change and then nothing else matters.

  2. This makes me so grateful for my mission president.

  3. I served in Ireland from 1979-1981 and my experience was different from yours. We were expected to maintain high standards and follow church and mission guidelines but we had a lot of freedom to “customize” our preaching and teaching based upon the companionship and area.

    In some areas we did a lot of tracting etc. and in other areas we spent a lot of time fellowshipping and working with members and nonmembers.
    We went on camping trips, hosted many dinners, put on a haunted house, played in a local bb league, watched and played a lot of soccer, made homemade rootbeer, hitchhiked, went to Catholic masses not to mention hours upon hours of just talking with and getting to know the people. None of this was in the mission rules, nor were we being disobedient. Yes, we had to report our activities but I can never remember being questioned or reprimanded.

    Perhaps it comes down to the leadership style of the mission president. I served under two of them and my experience was the same with them both.

    I had to make adjustments based upon my personality and that of my companions and leaders but I never felt that I wasn’t serving the mission that I wanted to serve. I’m grateful for that.

  4. An hour ago, I sat in my MTC branch listening to “my” missionaries sing “We Are As the Armies of Helaman.” They leave tomorrow, very early, for various countries. I love them so much. One elder is the son of some of my good friends. I want desperately for them to be loved and nurtured as they themselves learn to love more fully and to nurture even when it’s inconvenient. I’ll probably cut and paste some of this lovely post into my next template letter to them.

  5. Mike and Matt W: I agree that the mission president controls the culture of the mission. It is probably significant that both my MP and the area president at the time had had military careers.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this, Norbert. I could relate in some ways. By baptism statistic measures, I was a better than average, but not a stellar missionary. (In my mission average baptisms per elder were 24; I had IIRC 37; but the megastars who became APs could actually break 100.) By obedience measures, I was a total rebel. But my mission was a great experience, and in many ways was the making of me. I doubt that I would be anywhere near the success I am in life, or that I would even still be a member of the Church, if I had not gone through that experience, as challenging as it was.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    BTW, Norbert, did you ever see The Best Two Years, which I believe was set in Amsterdam? Any thoughts as to how realistic that depiction of missionary life was for that mission?

  8. A fine post, Nortbert; thanks for writing it.

    I was told I was a bad missionary by mission leadership, both implicitly and explicitly, and, despite the fact that I was involved in the teaching and baptism of more converts than the average missionary, I believed them.

    I am impressed at your ability to say this so straightforwardly; my recognition of my own “badness” as a missionary–namely, my dislike for missionary work and the organization through which I was expected to perform said work, and hence my occasional, always inconsistent rebellions against it–was fraught with nervous doubts and insecurities, with a frustration at my own inability to take a stand either for or against what I was expected to do. In short, I had no clear sense of just what I was about and why I was being assessed–by myself, by the mission culture and organization around me, by the Lord–the way I thought I was. If I’d just taken the whole thing less seriously, I would have been better off.

    I dug out my missionary journals, which I had purposely put away after I got home, and found the same thing. Again, a fair number of these experiences were outside the approval of the official mission, but there they were.

    Man, you make me wish I hadn’t thrown mine away. Good for you Norbert, for having a patience and sense of perspective which I lacked.

  9. Honestly, this conversation depresses me. I think the missionaries in the MTC are wonderful, and I anticipate most will have great missions. When it comes down to my own family, however, the comments here make me question the little hope I was summoning that my son and maybe my daughter would choose to be missionaries, and would have the kinds of experiences I know are possible. But they, like their mother, are free spirits, and they bristle under authority. I think I will subdue my hope, and maybe consider that they would be better off without missionary experience. Except that I would never really be able to convince myself of that. So I just find this depressing. I still like the post, Norbert, and still plan on sharing portions with my missionaries. It’s the bong, bong, bong, “Yeah, me too” that’s getting to me.

  10. Kevin: I have seen Best Two Years. (Actually, its set in Haarlem, but in the Amsterdam mission.) There were elements of it that made me laugh, knowing that a writer had served in the mission, like the missionary apartment and the street contacting scenes. I’d have to re-watch it to remember other things that caught my eye.

    Margaret: There are a good number of people who found their mission experience troubling or even destructive, and part of the problem is that they have nobody to tell about it — its supposed to b the best two years, etc. A mission is not for everyone, but the type of experience someone has varies so widely that it’s tough to predict.

  11. Russell, the attempt to not take the mission seriously never quite works because of the quagmire of doubt and uncertainty you describe. I enjoyed life in the Netherlands and Belgium more than many other missionaries without crossing some well-defined lines of proper behavior, and I don’t regret doing that, but I had feelings of inadequacies as a result despite my ‘rebellious’ stance.

  12. I enjoyed reading this so much… thank you.

  13. I didn’t really like my mission, until a few years ago (I left in 1989 and came home in 1991).

    I served in tiny towns with little lasting impact; most of my companions are now inactive, etc. I spent more time leading small branches than I ever did converting people. But, of course, that wasn’t why I was there (or so I thought).

    But I had two experiences that opened my eyes. First, when my in-laws were mission presidents in Eastern Europe, I got to see first-hand “my mission” from the perspective of another (different continent, though). Second, I’ve been in contact via Facebook a sister (who married someone from my mission and moved to the US) who had been in my area that had been a positive experience, and it’s been great to see *her* perspective on my mission and my areas.

    I’ve come to realize this: The MTC does a terrible job of preparing you for “your mission”. They do a great job of teaching languages. They do an OK job of getting you up to speed on the lessons (pre-PMG days). They do a terrible job of cultural preparation and preparation for your mission. The MTC has no ability to prepare you for “untraditional” missions.

    In the MTC, everything is happy, glowing, and you’ll face no challenges. I believe you are there to feel the Spirit and get your “mind right”, but don’t expect to hit the mission field “running” based strictly off the MTC experience.

    (I’ve had three brothers teach at the MTC in recent years, and their perspective of the MTC mirrors my own. And my in-laws had similar comments about the preparedness of missionaries arriving in their mission — they were well-trained in the language and the basic ideals of being a missionary, but had no idea what they were in for.)

  14. Maybe the MTC needs to bring in a few BCCers right before the missionaries leave to give them the “down-low” on companions who misbehave and are sent-home or who sleep in all day or who are suicidal, how best to handle the guilt-trip dinner appointments, how best to handle the “snakes”, how best to handle local leaders who really hate the US, how to gracefully handle people who hate America, how to handle people who constantly try to steal from you, how to handle branch presidents with an alcohol addiction, etc.

  15. Thanks for this post. I think more missionaries have this type of experience than the church is willing to openly talk about, for whatever misguided reasons. I wrote some similar thoughts here, in response to an earlier BCC post.

  16. Sometimes I fantasize about what my mission experience would have been like under a different mission president.

  17. Perhaps missionaries could gain better cultural preparation than they do now at the MTC. But, when possible, preparation should be acquired at home. This post reminds me that I neeed to expose my children to economic and cultural realities of other contries and help them understand how to cope with interacting with all sorts of people and situations.
    My husband and I have frankly told our children about the challenges and joys of our missions but could do more.
    Regarding the rigid oppression that results from over zealous leadership, that is one of the many challenges that a missionary could face.
    This was inflicted upon me by zone leaders in one area. The burden was depressing for me at first. After thinking and praying about it, I was able to ignore the zone leader pushing and work as I believed the Lord wanted me to.

  18. …but had no idea what they were in for.

    My brother and I laugh about this often. If any missionary really knew what it was going to be like, nobody would go! That may be exaggerating a little bit but most missionaries will have more tough days than they will amazing days during the duration of their missions. Thankfully, those amazing days are the ones you remember the most.

  19. I think the missionaries in the MTC are wonderful, and I anticipate most will have great missions.

    The honest truth, Margaret, is that I think most of them probably are wonderful, and most of them probably will have good, maybe even great, missions. I have more complaints about the church’s whole missionary program than can be listed in a single comment or post, but eventually even I had to recognize that my complaints were utterly foreign to the majority of missionaries–or rather, that while they could appreciate my complaints, they did not weigh upon them, or negatively affect how they thought about themselves as missionaries to any significant degree. The program really does work. Just not for everybody.

    But they, like their mother, are free spirits, and they bristle under authority. I think I will subdue my hope, and maybe consider that they would be better off without missionary experience.

    I’m not sure being a “free spirit,” and running into conflicts with authority, is really the heart of it, Margaret; I’m not sure what the heart of it is. For my part though, I can say that I ran into numerous free-thinking, open-minded missionaries that positively flourished in the mission field, who felt themselves sustained and thrilled by the experience of proselyting, even throughout the many difficult times. As I tried to say in the long post from six months ago that Norbert linked to, I think in the end some people are going to be able to feel the spirit in and through the missionary program, and some will fail to do so, and really, that’s that. That’s a difficult thing to acknowledge–much more difficult than saying that missions are “hard” (after all, lots of things are hard). On the other hand, making the small point that some small number of missionaries just won’t fit in and won’t like any of it and will be troubled by it for years and years to come for any number of innumerable, unaccountable reasons, might seem valuable in the abstract, but honestly, it just isn’t something they can or should teach in the MTC.

  20. [T]he attempt to not take the mission seriously never quite works because of the quagmire of doubt and uncertainty you describe. I enjoyed life in the Netherlands and Belgium more than many other missionaries without crossing some well-defined lines of proper behavior, and I don’t regret doing that, but I had feelings of inadequacies as a result despite my ‘rebellious’ stance.

    Very true, Norbert, and very well said. Thanks.

  21. I think it’s a bit naive to suggest that all cultural preparation should come at home. There’s only so much Lonely Planet and the Internet can do, and at any rate, that’s more tourist-driven. (Although, it’s certainly much better than it was 20 years ago.)

    And to my mother’s deep chagrin, I didn’t use my cooking or laundry skills on my mission.

  22. most missionaries will have more tough days than they will amazing days during the duration of their missions. Thankfully, those amazing days are the ones you remember the most.

    This is absolutely true. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to fully appreciate my mission (largely because it took me that long to get over the shock of certain things that happened).

  23. Kleermaker says:

    Norbert, not that you need my validation, but you were not alone. I served in the same mission, finishing in the summer of 1989, and experienced exactly what you have described. The culture of the mission changed dramatically in 1988 with the change in leadership. The two men could not have been more different in temperament or leadership style, and this rolled all the way down.

    Missionaries either “fit in” to the new culture or they did not, and it seemed as if this determination was made on the basis of a single interview with the new president and cast in stone. Some personality types thrived in the new environment, some withered. And, despite the new obsession with numbers, absolutely nothing changed in the success rate of the work.

  24. I entered the MTC in November 1989 and served in the Paris France mission. I don’t have any complaints about my two mission presidents, and I feel fortunate to have served under their leadership. My biggest challenge during my mission was a constant feeling that, despite all my efforts (including efforts to rely on the Lord), I simply wasn’t doing a good enough job, and that my experience wasn’t matching up with the stories I had heard at the MTC and from all those return missionaries who described their experience in such glowing terms. My mission was plagued by a sense of constant failure.

    When I returned, I taught at the MTC. I enjoyed that experience, but I think that it was somewhat of an attempt to redeem myself. I was trying to make up for what I couldn’t seem to do on my mission. I tried to tell inspiring stories in the way my MTC teachers had. (And I did have inspiring experiences–I certainly wasn’t lying to the missionaries that I taught.) But I really think I was also trying to put my mission experience into a certain narrative–the narrative that so many other missionaries seemed to have.

    As I get older, I have a different perspective on my “mission guilt.” I realize that I have a natural tendancy to be extremely hard on myself, and that a mission atmosphere can be fertile ground for those feelings to grow. I also realize how easily I believed what I perceived to be the message from the MTC and from zone conferences, etc.: That if you have enough faith and follow the teaching plan (when I was a missionary the ideal teaching to baptism plan was three weeks) miracles will happen and people join the Church. And, conversely, or so I thought, that if such success does not occur, then there is a problem with the missionary–me. I realize now that this thinking is wrong on so many levels, but at the time I was pretty convinced.

    I can’t say that I regret my mission. But I wish I had been easier on myself.

  25. This is such a broad topic with so many individual factors that its hard to comment on. I consider my mission to be a success.

    One of the big complaints commonly heard from RM’s is the pressure to perform and the lengths in which ZL’s, AP’s and MP’s go to enforce performance. I did not face this pressure on my mission and here is why. One of the big reasons for this is that my Mission President was a native. He was willing to do what he thought was right with the direction of our efforts and took all kinds of heat from the regional level GA’s and kept the pressure for baptisms from rolling down hill and affecting the missionaries.

    When he came in he replaced an American MP who had created an environment with lots of baptisms and little retention. He changed this and took a different direction which resulted in baptisms initially dropping 80% but by the time I left they were headed back up and the converts were staying. There was no pressure to baptize and in fact the mission office was almost sceptical about baptisms for about a year. This led to relaxed attitude about baptism numbers as we searched for “quality converts” The misson office defined a quality convert as 4 weeks attending church, friends in the branch, a job, hopefully a car, and what we called the “holy grail” a married couple. The MP re-organized the branches as only a native could.

    15 years later there are 2 new stakes and lots of retention

  26. bbell, I am of the opinion that native or local MPs should be the rule, not the exception.

  27. S.P. Bailey says:

    I loved my mission despite the fact that I served in an extremely high-pressure, high-“obedience” mission. With time, I came to forgive and even respect my leaders.

    The disenchantment that missionaries experience when they run up against the human frailty built into church leaders and church programs is good. Perhaps more than anything else, coming to understand that complexity is what makes the mission a true rite of passage to adulthood.

    The troubling thing: all these stories of people coming home damaged, guilt-ridden, angry, and so forth.

    I am hoping my little brother will put in his papers this spring. If he does, I intend to give him the low-down on what he is in for.

  28. There are a host of reasons for my agreement with your #26.

    1. Understands the local culture, laws and customs.
    2. Understands the local members and their opinions and issues
    3. Takes a long term approach. He has to live there after all. Its not three years and out back to Logan
    4. In my case anyway was willing to buck the American GA’s cause he knew what work best in his own country. I am not sure that all native MP’s are willing to do this.
    5. Not immersed in American Corp style “instant results” This is where the pressure for results often comes from.

  29. #29,

    As a long time YM leader I have seen about 25-30 YM I know come and go on missions. I make an effort before they leave to sit down and tell them about the challenges that they face. Most of their real hard challenges will be internal to the missionaries and the local members. AKA comps, ZL’s, MP’s, Mission Cliques, Aspiring to be AP elders, Slacker elders, rule nazis, mentally ill elders, whacked out sisters, lazy rulebreakers, elders who work to hard, Ill comps, crazy elder couples (one of my comps got hisself circumsized for heavens sake no joke, that was fun) members who want them to marry their daughters etc.

  30. Reading the original post made me realize one major reason why my mission was a disapointment to me: I too felt no positive connection to the structure of the mission or its leaders, and more sadly, even to most of my companions.

    I have lost all touch with all of my companions, and with the few others that I spent any time with. Looking back, I remember days and moments, and even though I remember pretty clearly my favorite day, I don’t have a clue who my companion was.

  31. This is a very meaningful post to me. I haven’t gone on a mission, but I have a family member who is struggling with many of the concerns that you express here. Since I still have his mission letters, I think I will pass them along.

  32. This was interesting for me to read. I never served a mission and, moreover, never had a desire to, believing that I would be totally unsuited for it temperamentally and for a host of reasons that don’t start with the structure of the missionary program itself. But it’s always interesting to me how different the experience is for different people. My sister served a mission, and I think she’s certainly grateful for the experience, but at the time it was also a very difficult experience for her. She said once, “A mission is the church’s best-kept secret”–meaning, I think, that it was not at all what she’d anticipated, spiritually or otherwise.

    My husband thrived as a missionary. I actually spent the first year or so of our marriage thinking that he would rather still be out there than married to me.

    I’m glad that you’re able to see your mission experience in a more positive light now. I guess this is why we’re supposed to keep journals, eh?

  33. I served in Austria during 91 and 92. I loved the MTC. But it is true, it did nothing to prepare me for the realities of my mission. My first week in the field I was so depressed that I kept wishing I’d get hit by a car- not bad enough to do serious damage, but just bad enough to send me home. The thought of deciding on my own to leave the mission was not something I could have done, for whatever reason.
    Anyhow, in the MTC I was told that if I had enough faith, I could baptize as much as I wanted (well, I’m a sister, so not actually baptize, but you know what I mean). I actually had the gall to tell my MP in my initial interview that my goal was weekly baptisms. I’m sure he was laughing inside his head- but he had the good sense not to say anything.
    Anyhow, I spent 7 months of my mission in a small town- tiny branch, with two elders and two sisters. Much of our time was spent simulating a youth group for the 2 young investigators and two inactive brothers in the branch. We spent days playing Uno, Risk, having snowball fights, and generally probably breaking all kinds of rules. But you know what? Those two brothers were reactivated and served missions. The investigators were baptized, and one served a mission, the other married a returned missionary. Tell me that was not effective missionary work, I dare ya.

  34. Norbert, my mission president was a military man too. I think what made the difference was that he was an officer, and understood 19-21 year old young men very well. Also, I think it helped that he was a convert, and a non-utahn. I think he told his conversion story to me almost every other zone conference and he knew a lot about sales from his post-retirement career in real-estate. He had a great attitude and minimized bureaucracy in the mission. Also, I think it helped that 90% of the areas in the mission didn’t have phones, so micro-managing the affairs of the mission was simply impossible to begin with, and there was little or no risk of relationships forming between elders and sisters, because there wasn’t really any opportunity. It also didn’t hurt (for me) that he said things like “Elder, there’s a big difference between looking at a girl and thinking ‘she’s attractive’, and taking her home and sleeping with her.” or “Elder, some rules are meant to be broken”. He was personable and treated all the missionaries like they were his equals, or better, like they were his grandchildren and he loved and cared about them. He also holds the honor of being the first person I ever met who used the term “piss-cicle” to describe frozen urine.

  35. I think everyone should re-read Kevin Barney’s blog
    (which I’ll bet some other permablogger can reduce to a “here”) as part of this conversation.

  36. Hey Norbert, I just found out that you served with my brother Mark Hilton. He remembers you. Recently we’ve been visiting our parents for Christmas; he had just commented the other day that it had been 20 years since he left for his mission. Crazy!

  37. Interesting how so many commenters left in 1989. What was in the water then?

  38. #33 (Meggle). So was wuerde Ich nie sagen.

    I served in the Germany Munich Mission back in the mid-70’s under a native MP who took over from an Ami MP. Yes, it was difficult and I was likewise not prepared except for the language (especially given that I joined the Church when I was 14, only member of my family to join). In fact, I had thoughts of leaving the mission field but decided I needed to stay and exercise my faith not only in myself (continually wondering if I was truly worthy enough to serve a mission) but in some of my companions (those who thought as the senior companion they had become every authority role one can think of – father, mother, bishop, even God to a degree).
    At the end of it all, though, as I traveled by train from one end of the mission back to Munich and with stops in several cities I had served in, I knew I had not only done the right thing but had learned one of the most important lessons a disciple of Christ has to learn…to love the people not just for what they may become as potential future members of the Church but for who they already are, our brothers and sisters as children of God. And for that lesson alone the two years was worth it….
    And I’d go back in a heart beat….
    Sam K.

  39. Thank you for publishing this. I feel a strong pull to go on a mission, but do not know how my unorthodox, irreverent (but sincere) self would fit in. I would rather hear stories of honest struggle than rose-colored, sugar-coated Ensign tidbits.

  40. What did Jesus say about missionaries ?
    When he told his apostles to spread the word, he was speaking to those who knew God.

    For all others he cautioned many things.
    eg.”what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul.”
    This metaphor describes the missionary who, instead of changing himself-herself first, entertains the grand self-deception that every one else needs changing.
    He also said” first remove the beam from you own eye , then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brothers eye.”

    If the missionary experience seems frustrating at times, it is because most (99%)of missionaries know far less about truth and religion than those they are attempting to convert to what the only know how to repeat.

    Some one (or some persons) who is/are blind has taught you that there is only one way. If you ever open you eyes you will be able to go beyond the “Santa Syndrome” of the darkness of your predecessors. The you might be ready to witness to others. It won’t happen you will begin to respect the right of other human beings(many wiser and more spiritually advanced than yourself) to be saved by their own path.

    ps. Jesus has a lot more than this to say about missionaries. to be sure!

    Jesus Himself is not the only way, the evidence of this is a few verses down in John 14. This whole concept of the only way was encouraged by the architect of post 4th century Christianity – Emperor Constantine.
    The greatest barrier to world peace in the last 2500 years have been the mantra of those saying there is only “one way”. This is the slogan of every evil dictator and warmonger, from large mass religion to large scale imperialism to small scale like Jim Jones.