Dear Missionaries: 5 Tips for Working With Members Like Me

 

Part 2 in an ongoing series about LDS missions and missionaries.

photo source

Dear Missionaries,

It takes skill and courage to insert yourself into other people’s lives in a respectful way, a helpful way. When you come from a different culture and a different generation, it’s easy to misstep. 

I live in a secular, Westernized country: New Zealand. Most of my friends know very little about religion. They have rarely stepped inside a church or mosque or opened a book of scripture.

My secular friends perceive religion the way it shows up in the news and TV scripts, as fundamentalist and radical. They are wary of people who take religion too seriously. But they know me, and so they are cautiously willing to meet you. 

Although your good-heartedness will carry the day without any help from me, I’m offering you a few tips for making the most of our time together.

1-CALL ME “HOLLY” 

When you teach my friends, refer to me in the same way that I introduce myself to you. Call me the same thing that my friends call me.  

A doctor named Stella1 came to my house a couple of days ago to meet with you (sisters). You called me “Sister Jones” and referred to my partner as “President Jones.”    

Using Stella’s first name – but my last name – felt out of balance. Also, my church title would have appeared formal and unfamiliar to my houseguest and friend.

I asked you to call me “Holly” during our discussion, but you either didn’t remember or didn’t feel comfortable enough to do it.

You (elders) did the same thing when Jill and Tom came over. 

“Would you read this passage, President Jones?” 

“I agree with what Sister Jones just said.” 

Jill looked over at me with a raised eyebrow and an amused expression each time it happened. 

Since we were in the middle of talking about something else, I chose not to stop and explain, even when it kept happening. If you must use church titles, I recommend that you explain to my friends why you are doing so. 

This tip might be especially true in New Zealand, where I’d even call the prime minister by her first name if I met her (Jacinda, what a pleasure!).

Dear missionaries, I prefer you to call me “Holly,” especially when you’re teaching my friends. That’s what my friends call me, and so can you.

2-CONSIDER the STUDY MATERIALS YOU LEAVE

Consider leaving something other than the missionary tracts that look – in my mind – unappealing. My friends, who don’t see religious material very often, might have a stronger reaction than I. 

How do you feel when you hold a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet? That is comparable to how my friends feel when they hold a missionary pamphlet from our church. The missionary pamphlets weren’t necessarily designed for people like my friends.

Jill told me that she was turned off by her pamphlet, both the pictures and the wording, but I feel that she would have responded well to some other reading assignment.  Not sure about Tom, although I know he read most of the Book of Mormon that you gave him.  

I also noticed some reluctance from Stella when you handed her the “Plan of Salvation” pamphlet after our meeting on Friday night. 

It’s important to send something home to study, but, depending on the person you are teaching, consider a conference talk instead of the pamphlet?  Or a scripture passage? Or a link to churchofjesuschrist.org? Or a link to a church video? An assignment to jot something down – three things they would ask God if God would answer?  Three times when they felt a feeling of holiness? 

3-TELL CORE STORIES: the big and small moments that define you

Just like a primary talk or a sacrament-meeting talk, most missionary discussions (or after-dinner spiritual thoughts) would be effective if they included:

  1. a story
  2. a scripture 
  3. a testimony  

You are great at including scriptures and testimonies. My request is for a story or two, to keep it real.

For example, on Friday, after a lofty – but abstract – conversation with Stella, you offered emotional testimonies. I found it hard to know what you felt so strongly about.

You may protest that Jesus Christ, God, the scriptures, and the Spirit are not abstractions; each is vivid and real to you. I don’t doubt it, but these same topics that are vibrant in your mind can seem very abstract to my secular friends.

Emotional testimonies come across as more abstractions, and abstractions won’t connect my friends to your message.

“I don’t know where I’d be without the gospel.”

“The knowledge that I have, the understanding that I have, brings me so much comfort, so much peace.” 

“I feel such a strong feeling here when we talk about these things.”

Instead of relying on emotional testimonies to connect my friends to your message, I would recommend telling your core stories as your testimony. 

“Last Tuesday, when my companion and I were just waking up…”

“In my last area, I had an experience I hope I never forget…”

“I remember one time visiting my grandparents when …”

It’s okay if your companion has heard your stories many times before. It’s okay if I heard the same story when you spoke in sacrament meeting. It’s okay if yours is a simple story. If it’s one of your core stories, it’s what you’re on your mission to say. 

4- AVOID AWKWARD PRAYER INTRODUCTIONS

Many of my friends have never seen anyone pray in a home setting, someone sitting just a few feet away from them. On a couch. My friends don’t know how praying in such a setting might be accomplished, or who should do it, or how long it will last, or ANYTHING.

Please don’t give an apologetic smile to my friends and ask, 

“Should we end with a prayer?” 

Or 

“Would you mind if we ended with a prayer?”

If my friends nod, please don’t say, 

“Who would you like to say it?”  

My nonreligious friends have no idea how to answer any of these questions.  Stella, for example, a couple of nights ago, was at a loss to answer these questions when you asked her.

One more thing. If my husband is home, I don’t recommend, “President Jones, as the head of the house, would you ask someone to close with prayer?” This is problematic and distracting on several levels. 

You could say, 

“We’d like to end this conversation with a prayer. Prayer is a few moments of thankfulness and unity when we speak to God about the things that really matter to us. It will take about 2 minutes. I would ask my companion to pray for us, and the rest of us will listen. To concentrate better, we usually close our eyes when we pray. Would you please join us?”

5- MINDFUL PRAYER: SLOW DOWN

I recommend slowing down your prayers, especially the first bit and the last bit. 

Take a deep breath before beginning a prayer. Or several deep breaths. Although my friends don’t know a lot about religion, they know about mindfulness and respect it.

A prayer’s ending is another good time to slow down. InthenameofJesusChristAmen is more meaningful when you make every word count. 

In Conclusion – Révérence

You missionaries who have taught our friends have brought energy and hope into our home.  I appreciate each one of you.  Without being perfect, you are doing a good job.  I’m not perfect, either.

____________

1Names changed. I wrote the bulk of this article some months ago.

Comments

  1. Stephen Hardy says:

    Holly, er Sister Miller… could you please be our mission president? I think that we as members of the church have a hard time stepping back and seeing our oddities

    Well done and thank you

  2. Allison says:

    Can this be sent to to all the MTCs, missionaries and mission presidents worldwide? Please!

  3. I wish somebody had sent me this when I was 19.

  4. Mortimer says:

    Amen and brava Holly! I wish I had heard this advice prior to my mission. Expand the series- write a book.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    I’m totally sending this to my missionary son.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Simply outstanding advice.

  7. Morgana says:

    I’m not Mormon but if you want to hear a candid impression from someone you might want to influence the things I’d add are, if you’re going to address me directly using my name, how about telling me yours. I’m not inclined to have a lot of trust in someone who hides their real identity. And while you’re at it, drop the laughable title of “elder”. If someone isn’t over 70 who can possibly think of them as an elder,

  8. There is a planned broadcast on 6/26 on the topic of sharing our faith more naturally, but I do not have great expectations for it.

  9. Masked Mike says:

    This entire discussion is based on a false premise. What is the purpose of the Mormon missionary experience? Once it might have been to convert people to Mormonism, or even create a space of tolerance for others to convert with less persecution. Or even to support a struggling branch or provide some leadership training. Or turning a boy into a man and space for a wayward boy to escape prosecution. Not happening any more. None of it. Think about it.

    Today, the primary purpose of a mission is to convert the missionaries and sink them as deep into the Mormon cultural bubble as possible as we circle the wagons. Notice, how many of your suggestions go against this agenda.

    We tell all male youth that you have to serve a mission. About 1/3 do. We tell all female youth you can, but don’t have to. But you have to marry a return missionary. About 2/3 stay active and want to marry in the church. We tell the missionaries that if they go, they will be blessed with a hotter wife and in the 2-girls-for-every-boy ward, it is mostly true. Now being a female return missionary just might enhance your marriage opportunities within the church, when it once was a drag. But not enough to overwhelm that about 2 for 1 ratio for most.

    We also deny the principles of repentance and forgiveness by insisting on absolute strict chastity, no mistakes (well maybe one little mistake) to serve a mission. This because if you can control a young person’s sexual appetites in this modern lascivious culture, you can pretty much control most everything else they do. That includes paying a million dollars in tithing over a lifetime and serving obediently in church callings to the equivalent of about a 50% full-time job for free. If you suffer any regrets, there is the sunk cost logical fallacy that can kick in. How could you turn your back on something for which you heroically gave 2 of the best years of your life? Put it on a shelf. In spite of all of this, we are briskly bleeding membership.

    In the big picture, past missionary efforts appeared to be highly successful. But in fact, horrible retention was ignored and too many missionaries and converts new and old have suffered a membership ending faith crisis. Yet we continue to stumble along the same worn out ruts with a very few little tweaks that are celebrated as monumental. The lack of a creative, inspired and effective response to alleviating any of the misery of the pandemic exposed the missionary program, and the rest of the church for that matter, for the farce it is becoming.

    If we build a genuine, Christ-centered, functional and compassionate church; knowing, loving and serving others with all our heart, mind and strength, people will be drawn to us. God can and will do His/Her own missionarying.

  10. Queen Ninja says:

    Yes!! One thing I’d add – when I was meeting with the missionaries, I always felt like I didn’t understand the dynamics. I don’t know what the official policy is, but it always felt like there were a lot of rules they had to follow, but no one would actually tell me what they were (when relevant, of course.) For example, I didn’t know that as a young, single female, I wouldn’t be allowed to drive the Elders somewhere. Or meet with them at my own apartment, where I lived alone. I totally get why that’s a rule, but no one would say that directly – they’d just keep trying to find solutions to a problem that I didn’t know existed. It just contributed to a sort of sketchy/shady feeling, e.g. “what aren’t they saying?? are they hiding something?” Or maybe that’s just my neuroticism talking.

  11. A Fellow Traveler on the Path says:

    Masked Mike:

    Along the same lines as your suggestions would be to have most of the missionaries’ time spent in service to the community, while wearing identical, easily identified T-shirts. And to surge this corp of missionaries into areas of various kinds of disasters so help with relief of all types—distributing clean water and food, cleaning up debris, helping to rebuild, etc. And between disasters, there are always plenty of jobs they could be working at: food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, homeless encampments, etc. And members could don the same easily identifiable T-shirts when they are serving in their communities.

    If the world became accustomed to always seeing readily identifiable Mormon missionaries in the background (of the news) of disasters busy helping to make things better, the missionaries would find welcome in many people’s homes who otherwise would have little to do with them. After all, wouldn’t they just be emulating Christ’s own mission on earth and showing themselves to be righteous ambassadors of the Church?

    Of course, this assumes the purpose of serving a mission is to spread the Gospel to the unbelieving…….

  12. Josiah Reckons says:

    This kiwi agrees with much in this thoughtful post.

    The core story idea is wonderfully illustrated if you consider any testimony meeting. People resonate with the stories. When the story illustrates a principle, people have a better intuition of it if it’s presented in a story.

    I wish I read this as a missionary. I often struggled to know how to introduce prayer to people wholly unfamiliar with the practice. I’ve not seen introduction to prayer modelled like you’ve done here. I like it a lot.

    Beautiful. Thanks, Holly.

  13. Where can I find part one of this subject?

  14. C. Sierra says:

    I served a mission and knew that the nuances and culture of the church was unknown to the outside world. Members can and should explain some of these things to nonmembers before the missionaries arrive. Missionaries are ok with any additional information shared before addressing an investigator. I personally find differences interesting and would not feel uncomfortable asking about a word or term. My hope is that all people feel cherished and loved when meeting with the missionaries.

  15. Bro. Jones says:

    I have a twisty, long, non-English surname. I have repeatedly begged missionaries to call my by my first name, or a shortened version of my surname that I go by at church. They have all refused, citing mission rules. It’s incredibly awkward, as if an extraterrestrial visitor were attempting to mimic human formality and utterly failing at it.

  16. Holly Miller says:
  17. So…Hide Mormon quirks until the investigator gets baptized? Wait until someone joins to find out that the church always defers to men? Here’s another tip, coming from a non-member – maybe actually ask female investigators what they do for a living, when engaging in normal conversation. It’s extremely off-putting to have them only direct that question to the husband, in a couples situation. It’s a little sad to see that these simple suggestions have to be made. In the past, has the Mormon church had NO interest in hearing feedback from the actual people that missionaries and members are proselytizing to??

  18. Masked Mike says:

    Fellow Traveler: Amen and amen.

    I was a missionary in Okinawa in the mid 1970’s and we had 2 typhoons. For the first one, we all gathered for a couple of days in the only LDS church building in Naha which in retrospect was probably one of the least hurricane resistant buildings on the island, although it had lasted for 2-3 decades. The Zone Lords were getting out of control with their praying and receiving revelations and generally spazing out. They informed us that flocks of demons were swirling all around the church threating our very lives. I walked out of the building into the wind and rain, raised my arms to the sky and challenged any demons to bring it on. Come and get me! Or get the hell out of there.

    The Zone Lords were not amused. They said the reason I was unharmed is because I was one of them. I asked them to read Matt 12:24-28.

    For the next hurricane I had a green companion, easily lead astray. When it was time to gather in the church, we went tracting near a small college. In about 5 minutes we were invited into this small dorm (geshuku). The building was surrounded by many other buildings on all sides with a heavy tile roof and looked like it might have been there for 100’s of years. (Except WWII, leveled everything). About 20 Japanese guys lived there and they had a bunch of their girlfriends visiting (Sush). Seemed like a big slumber party. The place was kind of a dump with a plopper toilet. They had plenty of cheap food and a moderate amount of alcohol. We spent about the next 24 -36 hours with them in the commons area and gave them all of our maybe 10 copies of the Book of Mormon. I talked about the church, say 10% of the time and still covered several lessons. Mostly just socialized. A few showed up for our English classes in the coming weeks.

    When we returned to the church, the Zone Lords had reported us missing to the Prez along with the previous episode. Some of the missionaries were convinced the demons had gotten us but most were snickering about it. The ZL’s were not even glad that we were save, just angry and judgmental. I told the Prez we got lost and he seemed relieved that I found an excuse and he didn’t have to lecture me too much. Weekly reports reflected that we got as much measurable missionary word done during the hurricane as about a months time doing the usual things.

    If I had been in Fukushima when the tsunami hit 10 years ago, I would have disappeared for a few weeks. (My mother might have been worried but it would not have been the worst thing I put her through). I would have done everything I could to rescue people and find food and water for them. Generally be helpful. I would have relied upon the legendary generosity of the Japanese people and the Lord to see us through. A couple of farm-raised Americans can lift the smaller, flimsy houses that poor people inhabit there.

    Do we forget that these missionaries were a bunch of high school geeks a year or 2 ago and generally are in sore need of prayer and guidance? But where, amongst the leadership, is the courage to plow new ground for the age-old quest to bring people to the Savior?

  19. Why do you impose on friendship this way pushing your “friends” into church conversion efforts and behaving in the manipulating manner you’ve laid out here towards people you call friends.

  20. Wondering says:

    Nan, I’m curious as to whether you have directed your “you” to the writer of the post and, if not, to whom. I haven’t found anything in the post that suggests either pushing or manipulating to me. What have I missed?

  21. “They are wary of people who take religion too seriously. But they know me, and so they are cautiously willing to meet you.”
    This shows the author had to push friends to meet the missionaries, the whole rest of it outlines how to manipulate the conversation between missionaries and “friends” roped into meeting with them and of course the only reason that missionaries are talking with the authors “friends” is to convert them. It is not an open discussion of religion with give and take between the missionaries and her “friends”. It is pure manipulation on the authors part.

  22. I also agree that a larger role in service to communities would be more beneficial. In my mission, most of the times in which I felt like I was doing the most good and having the most positive impact on non-church members was in the various physical service projects we participated in.

    However, at some point our mission president decided that we were doing too much service, and mandated that we participate in no more than 1 hour of service per week, which was unfortunate. Most of the kinds of service projects we did in our mission we’d do on saturdays they’d take 3-4 hours to complete. By limiting us to an hour, the effect was that the missionaries would show up on time, stand around for a bit while things were still getting organized, participate for like a half hour or so, then leave while there was still a lot of work to be done. It didn’t look good.

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