To a Young Missionary in a Disobedient Mission, Part 1

[part 3 in an ongoing series about LDS missions and missionaries]

author as a young missionary in Germany

I am mourning the loss of the mission experience I thought you’d have. 

Imagine having a kid someday that you love more than you can put into words, and that kid has been looking forward to the Hillary Challenge all his life because you told him it would be tough-but-awesome. Your kid knows your Hillary highlights; he’s seen your pictures and heard your stories. He’s seen his older brothers’ pictures and heard their stories, as well.

While growing up, your kid prepares for Hillary, a multi-year commitment to get fit, learn to run in the mountains in all types of weather, navigate, bike, paddle, and carry a pack, and then he chooses to try out for the team. You anticipate the good stuff that’s about to happen.

And then imagine that Hillary turns out to be nothing like the epic Hillary environment that you’d been telling your kid about since he was little. What if the Hillary squad wasn’t tough-but-awesome at all, but loose, mutinous, slack?  

What if your kid respected the other team members just for showing up because they’d come from such different backgrounds to himself, but that didn’t change the fact that they spent most of their time sitting around or lost on the course? 

The loose culture makes it hard for your kid to differentiate his feelings for the sport from the poor team training and morale. 

That’s how I feel about you, when I hear the offhand comments you make, such as your companion’s goal to break as many mission rules as possible without breaking any commandments, or about how you spend hours alone every morning. That’s how I feel when I hear about missionaries threatening you when you turn down the rap music or when you want to spend fewer hours in the gym every day.

I don’t feel like your mission experience is very similar to mine, and I grieve the loss. Not your fault or mine, but I still grieve.

________

I wonder if your mission culture is similar to the disobedient mission culture in [one particular area where we’ve lived in the past]? The mission president, Pres S, told me that mission morale and obedience were very low when he arrived. In our district alone, there was one missionary using church computers to look up porn, and another missionary having a sexual relationship with an investigator-turned-new-member (resulting in pregnancy and a baby), as well as companions who pretended not to know what was happening or just didn’t know what to do. Not a lot of missionary work was happening. 

In Pres S’s analysis, the previous mission leadership had hammered on obedience so much that the missionaries only knew what they SHOULDN’T be doing. They had no idea what actually to DO with their time. 

Because the missionaries didn’t know what to do with their time, they weren’t experiencing much joy in missionary work, in the sense of becoming involved in people’s lives and helping people make positive  changes. Pres S reckons that once missionaries started  seeing what positive missionary work was really like, missionaries wanted more of it. Obedience and morale increased in tandem. 

I don’t know how similar that is to your experience, but it seems like there’s some overlap. It seems like missionaries in your mission know more about what NOT to do than what to do. It doesn’t seem like they are doing very much ‘missionary work’ in the traditional sense of working hard, mixing with people, telling your core stories, hearing core stories from others, resulting in both you and others changing for the better.  

You have done SOME of this, but just such a small fraction of your time, that I can see why you’d feel like your mission time was, in part, a waste of resources, and why you are thinking about coming home.

________

Today on the phone, you mentioned that your mission has been bittersweet and that you’ve enjoyed the diversity of people in particular. I understand what you’re saying. Even though you haven’t enjoyed all parts of your mission, you’ve enjoyed the people. 

My wish for you is that you’d had so much more of this people-time, that your days were filled from 9:30 AM – 9:30 PM with new people and with a few people who become very dear to you, that you cared about more than you’d cared about other people in your life up to this point, which is how my mission was for me. It was full in this way. We didn’t spend time in the apartment.

I don’t know if it would even be possible for you to have an experience like this, though. And I need to wrap my mind around it. I think you would have liked a mission like mine in similar ways to how I liked it and been challenged by it in similar ways to how I felt challenged by it. 

On my mission, I felt like I made a difference for good enough to make my time worthwhile. It was a heady experience to be “let loose” in a city of thousands of people and see what adventures we could find. 

I remember my last night in Celle, riding my bike home in the dark with tears streaming down my face, because I saw my “ghost” on every street that we passed; I remembered people who lived in the different houses and the interesting conversations I’d had at various points on sidewalks. 

I felt like I “poured out my soul” in Celle. Sometimes even when I was home from my mission, lying in bed at university, I’d imagine the map of this city in my mind’s eye and feel the importance of all the streets and all the people I’d met. That city was where I fell in love with German people. 

I wish you were having more of these kinds of experiences because I treasure those experiences. 

I am trying to inspire you, sure. I’m also blowing on the ashes to see if there’s still a spark there. I’m also trying to have some empathy for your situation. 

*****

Is it possible for you to have the epic mission experience at this point? I’m not sure. I don’t doubt that I’d be having very similar feelings and experiences to you if I was out six months on my mission in such an environment as your mission. 

Even if you’re going hard alone, doing Hillary wouldn’t be the same without experienced coaches and legend-alumni and seven other committed team members. As a missionary, it’s like you’re trying to have a hardcore Hillary experience with an undisciplined, unruly team. Your mission could be valuable, but I understand how it may not be something you’d do more than one year in a row, if you were in school and deciding how to spend your extracurricular time. 

All analogies break down after a while, but I just mean to say that I grieve that you aren’t having the mission experience that I hoped for you. You’re not responsible for making me feel better; I’m sharing so that you can know me. Discomfort over resentment, right? You are in a discomforting situation, and so am I. 

(letter to be continued)

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

*The Hillary Challenge is the weeklong championship for high school adventure racing teams in New Zealand. Adventure racing is a team sport. It involves orienteering, mountain biking, trail running, team problem-solving, and endurance. The races leading up to Hillary are 6-hour or 12-hour endurance events. My kids have benefited from a strong tradition of excellence in adventure racing at our local high school.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    First, I know that the illustration wasn’t supposed to be the main point, but the Hillary Challenge sounds absolutely amazing. Like move to NZ in order to participate amazing.

    Now to the the content: this all strikes me as very empathetic and wise. I have to believe that conversations like this are necessary, particularly in the COVID age. Thank you.

  2. Something I noticed 48 years ago is that it only takes one. We had a district, not the best but not the worse. An elder was transferred bin who refused to work, wouldn’t even leave his apartment. It wasn’t long before the entire district was performing poorly. Hours were down. Discussions were down. Attitude was down. They didn’t even work in the same towns and only saw each other on Sunday, but it was enough. (They saw us on Sunday too, which tells you how effective we were.) I don’t remember his name,only his impact. I guess the mission president was trying to save the one. He’d go through extraordinary measures to do so but sometimes there was collateral damage.

  3. There were a lot of us in Europe 55 years ago to whom such a letter could have/should have been written. Maybe the COVID age has made matters worse, but I don’t know. I wonder what kind of experience my grandson called to Europe will have.

  4. In some missions, the problem is the other opposite : there is so much emphasis on obedience, that many missionaries experience guilt and anxiety all their mission whatever they do. I know some who felt into scrupulosity, a religious OCD, during their mission.

  5. Brian G says:

    I still think the solution is not buckling down on proselyting and some of the rules are dumb and probably are worth breaking. They make the experience bad for missionaries. My first companion was trunky, tired, and not interested in obeying all the mission rules, but he was such a good person. We spent most of our day doing service – volunteering at the hospital in Leon, teaching PE at an elementary school, meeting with inactive members. We probably did more good there “breaking” the rules than I did with more “obedient” missionaries.

    Some rules are made to be broken. I served 20 years ago when we weren’t supposed to call home except twice a year. I was feeling really broken in one of my areas and calling my mom was just what I needed. I had a mission companion that was depressed and concerned about his family back home and so we decided we would stop knocking doors and teaching discussions for a while. We instead distributed Proclamation on the Family to businesses, went to the radio station and asked if we could be on the air – and were interviewed, talked to pastors and priests from other churches and took time to hike up the hill near the town, road bikes out to the lake. Sure some of those things weren’t missionary work, but it was what he needed. We needed some time. So we took it. and I don’t feel bad at all about being a disobedient missionary for a short while.

    Plus taking time to appreciate the culture and area are good for the missionary and good for the mission and there is just not time if you obey all of the rules.

  6. nobody, really says:

    For several months on my mission, my companion and I managed to get onto the chaplain staff at a world-class hospital. I can’t tell you much about the endless hours tracting and teaching the mentally ill and unemployable people in that town, but the experiences serving in the hospital will stay with me forever. But, not a lot of baptisms happen when you’re too busy praying with a woman who just lost her husband to pancreatic cancer and now faces the task of flying home alone, to a home where her husband would never return. The mission president would have sent us home in heartbeat as an example to everyone else if he’d known.

  7. Rockwell says:

    I felt like my mission was pretty disobedient at the time but in retrospect it doesn’t seem so bad. I certainly did not gave a great experience, and a good portion of that may very well have been my fault.

    But I think the biggest problem was that we didn’t have worthwhile work to do. We weren’t allowed to do too much service, and the proselytizing time was not productive.

    Members were sparse. Every door in my area typically got knocked by missionaries every two months. Everyone knew who we were and knew they didn’t want to talk to us. There were typically 3 active families in an area and a very few less active families willing to talk to us; we were allowed to visit them each once a week.

    Most of the other time was a complete waste, full of ineffective door knocking and street contacting that never really produced results. Lazy missionaries and hard working missionaries, as far as I could tell, were equally effective.

    It seems to me that the tradition of “every with young man (and many women now) has resulted in a huge missionary force that is mostly doing busywork.

    Take what I say with a grain (or boulder) of salt as I no longer believe many of the things I taught as a missionary which certainly changes my current view.

  8. Gilgamesh says:

    I served 30 years ago in a European country and it was very similar to the mission in the OP. We had a missionary take a week-long trips with his girlfriend and her family (his district covered for him). There was a group of 4 elders who had jobs as cabana boys on the beach during the summer. We had an elder get an investigator pregnant, go home, marry the woman, then come back within a month and placed in the branch presidency within 6 months. A lot of elders had girlfriends. We had one elder who refused to do any proselyting and only wore a white shirt and tie on Sundays when he had church in our apartment. He was a really nice and fun person, but obviously did not go on a mission to serve. Arcade tracting was considered a thing as were trips outside the mission. A typical zone conference included sharing pictures by the sign in front of the area office which was in another country. It was pretty frustrating if you wanted to work, which I did. When I was a young men’s president my bishop asked me to share my mission experiences with the youth. I told him some of our stories and he looked at me dumbfounded, and said “Never mind, it would be best to keep those things to yourself.”

    With all that said, I would not trade any of my mission experiences. I learned to lean on the Lord because I couldn’t lean on my companions. I learned that mission work also includes serving with those who don’t want to serve and loving them anyway. I learned that if I wanted to get anything spiritual out of my mission (or life) it was up to me todo the work. It wouldn’t just happen. I decided that I was out there for a reason which didn’t include travel, girlfriends, etc… It was my time to give to the Lord and I had to decide to do that on my own. I didn’t preach to my lazy companions, I didn’t complain to the president, but I did use my time to build my testimony and do what work I could. That was the one part of the mission I controlled.

  9. Holly Miller says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Brian G. It sounds to me like you found good things to do with your time. You weren’t sitting around the apartment on your phones, at any rate. I was just about to type ‘it’s too bad the good things you found to do with your time were also things that made you feel disobedient,’ but perhaps this aspect of your mission was actually an important part of maturing and learning to trust your inner authority. (?) As my mission progressed, I felt more confident in ‘breaking’ mission rules in order to do what was right or what was needed.

  10. Holly Miller says:

    I completely agree. I can imagine grieving just as much if this had been my son’s experience. The mission experience can create or exacerbate scrupulosity. I think it would be great if youth and missionaries got specific training on this subject, so they could watch for red flags in their own lives and look out for the people around them.
    Religious scrupulosity fits into my sports analogy. When an athlete overtrains, becomes overly regimented or intense, or ignores injuries, then things have gone too far.

  11. Angela C says:

    In my experience, obedience for its own sake is overrated, particularly when breaking a rule is not the same thing as committing an actual sin. But I would also distinguish between those who broke rules for themselves (e.g. laziness, didn’t want to be there) and those who broke rules because they felt it would be appropriate or more effective in a specific situation. In my mission, there was a work hard / play hard attitude, and if those who played hard had also worked hard, that didn’t really strike me as wrong. The worst missionaries I saw were the ones who literally did not want to be there and only went to appease their parents or to get a car or job that was being promised to them if they served. Bribed missionaries who would have rather been anywhere else were not great to work with. The point made by others is a valid one, too, that normal missionary tactics (knocking doors and rote, scripted discussions) are not always effective tools; leaving the script behind and shaking things up creatively can actually lead to being more productive.

    I really don’t know how I would deal with being a missionary now, 30 years later, in light of the Church’s current stances on American culture wars, though. It felt like we were more free to apply the gospel to people’s lives back then rather than exporting Mormon culture and Republican party dogma. That’s not totally changed, because there were missions like that even 30 years ago that did nothing but harp on obedience as the key to success; my mission just wasn’t one of those.

  12. In my mind the whole thing is broken…the message is slightly flawed and we have this huge expectation that all or most youth will serve and that they will remain active payers of tithing during their lifetimes.

    DISCLAIMER – my child is serving currently and is frustrated by the same issues.

    What about parents of lazy missionaries? Maybe they don’t know what’s going on. I would hate to send someone home and break the heart of their mom.

    Either we raise the bar again or we remember that ALL are alike unto God, even lazy missionaries.

  13. I was a disobedient missionary. I reserved in the Franco-Belgian Mission in the 1960’s. Except for 3 cities in the Mission, the Church was in bad shape. Our only real missionary activities were tracting and giving memorized discussions. In foreign-speaking areas, missions for men (really boys) were 2-1/2 years. I didn’t drink, didn’t read Playboy, didn’t date, but I did love to travel, and travel I did. I enjoyed visiting Germany, Switzerland, Flanders, and parts of France that were not in my Mission. I also visited many areas inside the mission boundaries but outside my assigned areas. It was a great education. Realistically, nobody can tract for 10 hours a day, 6+ days a week. (We gave few discussions.) I also read a lot. Camus, Sartre, etc. I really related to the writings of Camus. I also read history books. We didn’t have much access to LDS literature. And I found “Mormon Doctrine” problematic.

    I have spent a lot of my life thinking “outside the box.” On my mission, we tried a few different things. None of my ideas worked. In bull sessions, we occasionally rued the lack of support systems for members in Europe. But that seemed beyond our abilities to resolve. Ironically, the one activity I didn’t try was volunteerism, humanitarian work. The Church’s current movement toward increased volunteerism for young missionaries is great. But I personally think that it should be an even greater part of Church missionary service. It would do wonders for the Church’s sagging image. And would be a better use of a missionary’s time. Our young would feel better about serving.

  14. Realistically, nobody can tract for 10 hours a day, 6+ days a week.

    I came pretty close. I found out later that one of my companions—an obedient, line-toeing missionary himself—considered me his worst companion partly because of all the tracting and street contacting we did. I didn’t actually enjoy that aspect missionary work at all, even—especially?—though it was almost all there was to do, but at the time I just buckled down and did it, six days a week. Not to say that we never wasted time, but it was time wasted in the streets, wearing suits and name tags. But P-days were set apart to decompress, and decompress we did. Fortunately all of my areas offered plenty of diversions, and I never felt a need to seek adventure farther afield.

  15. Germany, 20 years ago, and we definitely knocked doors and did street contacting 60 hours per week, at least in my first area (and possibly my second). It was horrid and stupid, but lots of missionaries believe hard work excuses the lack of smart work. Later on, when I had a bit more seniority, I spent more time looking for less active members, and in fact there were areas where I spent most my time running from appointment to appointment.

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