To a Young Missionary in a Disobedient Mission, Part 2

[This article is Part 4 in an ongoing series about LDS missions and missionary work]

author as a missionary in Germany

You asked what I thought about the podcasts that you’ve found during all of your downtime. I’ve listened to these podcasts in the past because, as you said, it is nice to hear people bringing stuff out in the open that you don’t get a chance to talk about at church. I was intrigued, and I understand why you would be as well.

My interest in these kinds of podcasts petered out when I reached a saturation point, meaning that I didn’t hear radically new ideas anymore. I felt like I’d learned what I could. At some point, I was ready to move past the expose-and-criticize mindset. 

For me, it was partly a matter of consuming vs producing. I wanted to focus more on creating my own life rather than spend so much of my time consuming other people’s. That’s my experience, since you asked.

Do you remember hearing about Maddie*? In her first year at uni, she wrote an editorial for her school newspaper. She blasted the conservative religious culture in Utah, where she’d spent her last few years of high school. She wrote about the limited expectations for women and gave several damning examples. She wrote about how happy she was to have left that culture behind. She was relieved to be at a university in which her academic ambitions were finally honored. She seemed outraged and critical.

Yet, at her mission homecoming a few months ago, she projected humility and gratitude. She had put aside her concerns about the US-based church culture and focused on loving and serving people. She focused on basic precepts of the gospel of Jesus Christ. She loved her mission.

Projecting my own experience onto Maddie, I imagine that she will still have strong opinions about the church’s gender roles as she moves away from her mission experience and back into ‘real life.’ Her intellectual concerns may become more pronounced again. 

Still, she’ll always have her mission experience to keep things in perspective. Whether she decides to live a life as an active member of the church or not, I imagine she might always cherish the people and experiences she had on her mission.

That’s how I feel about my mission. And I grieve the fact that you’re not having that. I desire it for you. I feel like throwing a spiritual tantrum. It feels like you’re not having the kind of mission experience you were ‘supposed’ to have. But, I know, I know. Life’s not fair, and we don’t always get handed what we want in life. 

____________

You said you sometimes wished that Dad and I could tell you what to do. I know you don’t really mean this, but I know how you feel. You aren’t sure whether to stay on your mission, and you want it to become clear.  (This was in response to Dad telling you that you needed to answer the question: is there a way for me to finish a mission without being hurt spiritually and mentally?)

I will say that my desire for you is that, starting tomorrow, when you have more control over your companionship and time, that you get a taste of what a Mum-type-mission could be. 

Ask your companion to do an experiment with you: ask him to send his personal phone to the mission office, disengage your own phone hack, wake up at 6:30AM with your companion and study in the morning rather than during the day, get out of your apartment at 9:30AM having exercised and studied and tidied up, and go make something happen. Try this for a couple of months and see. Try leaving your mark. Try putting your ghost on all the street corners and in people’s homes. 

Set goals that make sense to you and that you feel some life around. Talk to 20 new people every day. Make 5 people laugh. Share 3 core stories. Memorize something. Your goals don’t need to be traditional or involve numbers. Make whatever goal you feel a zing with. And then go do it. 

____________

Even if you were to try this, could you create the kind of mission experience I imagined for you? Without more training and examples from other missionaries – I don’t know. It would be different than what I imagined/hoped, no matter what. Doesn’t mean worse, just different.

I have to think you could, but it would still be different from my experience. It’s like trying to imagine a Hillary experience with a high-expectation team if you’d only experienced adventure racing with a low-expectation team. If you were on a low-expectation team, it would be hard to imagine the hardcore mindset as logical or desirable –  or even sane. 

I don’t sense that you have a vision for what a mission could be like, and it’s hard to imagine stuff like that without being shown. I was shown a certain way of doing things, but – who knows – maybe God grieved at the poor examples I was getting compared with the possibilities God could imagine. 

I don’t discount all your questions about our religion, religion in general, wooden tools, truth claims, confirmation bias, LGBTQ+, etc. It seems like these questions are bigger concerns to you than your mission culture. I wouldn’t wish to take away these questions or concerns, many of which I share. I do wish I could change your mission culture, though.

It doesn’t mean you’d turn out like me. But since I value my mission experience, I hope it makes sense to you why I would grieve the idea of you not having something similar. 

____________

I opened my mission journal to a random week from Celle, where I imagined my ghost to be still hanging around on street corners: 

July 11

Every night I dream like crazy about missionary work…

July 12

Yesterday was a day to remember. Missionary work has just been too fun lately. It’s better than a vacation (more adventurous)…

July 13

Yesterday we had a district meeting in the cemetery up the street. We used our practice time out on the street instead of practicing with each other… (I described 3 interesting conversations that resulted)

July 16

Yesterday I converted a man to bike helmets. He was on his bike, too…

July 17

It seems like we have more and more success every week at our street display…

July 18

Sr M– and I are fasting from English this week. I’m excited. I want to develop an iron will…

July 19

Yesterday we ran into Dietmar, and I felt an incredible love and compassion for him…

July 20

The work has been making more and more fun! A love for it is settling deep inside me…A life of such daring and spontaneity would never get boring! For example…

July 21

I am so FULL right now. I have never felt such a burning within, such a powerful wish to do GOOD and BE good, and love other people, and be humble…

July 25

I really love being here. I feel so LOVED for one thing. Sr H’s daughter passed me a note today, Br M wants to get me a… (more examples of people who expressed appreciation to me or gave me gifts).

July 30

Yesterday we made our 1-2-3 goals from our mission president. 1 book of Mormon, 2 Lessons, 3 Minutes (talk to somebody about the gospel within 3 minutes of leaving the discussion)

That’s what I imagined the mission would be like for you, at least some of the time. I want you to understand, why I recommended that you go on a mission. I would never have encouraged you to go if I thought you’d have anything less than a tough-but-awesome experience.

Finally, I think that your girlfriend would respect this traditional kind of missionary experience. 

I don’t mean that she’d join the church, but that she’d respect the richness of the experience, the character growth in the missionary, the positive changes in people, and the commitment that made it possible. She might not want it for herself, but she might respect it nonetheless, like how I respect a yogi, or a ski instructor, or a surgeon. I respect their contribution to humanity, even if it’s not something I see myself doing. But still, respect.

Love,

Mom

*name changed

Comments

  1. Gilgamesh says:

    What wonderful advice. I remember when I was the most discouraged with my mission that I had to decide to follow the schedule outlined in the white bible whether or not my companion chose to do so. It made a big difference in how I felt about myself. I knew I could at least change how I approached my mission. I did not need to rely on my companions to help me feel like I was doing my part.

    Because I was in a non interested European country where everybody was Catholic, it was not easy to get in to teach discussions. My dad gave me the advice to not focus on our church, but to focus on God. If I could help the people I met to take one footstep towards God, then I was doing God’s work. This changed from invitations to hear the discussions to invitations to read a scripture, recite a Catholic prayer, go to Mass, etc… I felt so much more successful when I made that shift. I may not have left my mission with a lot of converts, but I did leave with the knowledge that a lot of people were at least 1 step closer to God due to my efforts.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for another lovely and wise letter, Holly. I can’t think of a more generous response and I hope that the people I love will have interactions with people that are similarly modeled.

  3. A good friend is from Celle; I would imagine that you encountered his family (Familie Kla***rt) while there.

    Anyway, at one point in my mission I went to a new area as district leader and became a new missionary’s second companion. His trainer was a go-getter who led from the front. I quickly discovered that my new companion had followed his trainer faithfully but didn’t even know how to get back to the apartment by himself, much less approach and speak to people in his mission language. That didn’t seem like a particularly auspicious start to a mission that would involve a lot of first contacting, so I set about trying to encourage him to take a more active role in planning and carrying out our proselytizing activities and speaking to people. I also tried to lead by example, committing during street displays, for example, to speaking to 10 people for every one he approached. He wasn’t lazy, just reserved, and I thought that I was showing him what was possible if he’d just give it a shot.

    I found out a few years after returning home that he resented me deeply and considered me his worst companion.

    If I had to do it over again—perish the thought!—I would try to do a better job of accepting companions and the people I met on their own terms. In retrospect, most people I encountered were generally forbearing despite our comically ham-handed attempts to preach the gospel while spending every waking hour with someone not of our own choosing, and I’d like to have a second chance to return the favor rather than chafe at their unwillingness to further my goals on my terms.

  4. it's a series of tubes says:

    If I had to do it over again—perish the thought!—I would try to do a better job of accepting companions and the people I met on their own terms.

    My thoughts exactly.

  5. I’ve read this series with interest because of my experiences as a mother of missionaries in just the past few years. First son fell in love with the people and the language of his mission country and served in the mission office quickly after arrival. He learned intimate and interesting details about how the church works and about its financial choices. He saw the differences in worthiness, WoW, and general standards between his home country and his mission country. He saw that everything could be subjugated for any purpose the mission president desired. The highlight of his mission was the last six months where he was serving in an area amongst members who knew and loved him and with an experienced companion. He and his companion threw out all the knit-picking rules (many of which required them to be rather rude, ungrateful, or unresponsive to members and nonmembers or to disregard their own health or wellness). They concentrated on doing missionary work the way they felt best and were guided to by the Holy Ghost. It was the most productive, happiest, easiest, and best time of his whole mission. This is the very short version but with the long version, one can understand how this son learned some things about the church that it probably didn’t intend.

    We were concerned about how a mission would affect his younger brother, genuinely mature and good and quite the thinker; the child we hardly had to parent. Second son’s high observation and critical thinking skills soon saw issues with the church’s Machiavellian approach to missionary work which threw out principles of the gospel, consideration for the one, and Christ-like behavior towards others in pursuit of numbers at all costs. His synopsis now include the conclusion that leadership had no idea who God really was, nor did they trust Him to accomplish His work. Recently he told me that his mission was the time where he felt the most darkness and distance from God. About fifteen months in, he let us know that he’d gotten the okay from Heavenly Father to come home. As soon as his dad and I started praying about it, we got undeniable revelation that it was okay. When the mission president called to make arrangements and I caught him in a lie meant to pressure us, in a high-stakes way, to tell second son he couldn’t come home, I got a whiff of what he’d been dealing with. He had started asking Heavenly Father about leaving when he came to the conclusion he could not serve this way AND live his religion. Once I had possession of a fuller picture of what went on, I was grateful God had heard our prayers and protected second son by bringing him home. He had been true to his principles and what he knew to be true.

    Their experiences were so so different than my husband’s, whose mission has joyfully informed and colored his life ever since, professionally, emotionally, and spiritually. Both sons’ missions have also informed their lives but with far less joy and pleasure and more distance from the church which they no longer see as entirely integral to their spiritual lives or relationships with God.

  6. I find these open letters very compelling. I lay awake this morning thinking about it after reading last night and how I would respond if I were you. In part because my oldest daughter is this same age and I suspect we served our missions at a similar time period. I think about what I would write to my daughter if it were her, and it is strange that this is so compelling because she has taken a very different path. As a lesbian art student at a state university she is having a very different experience that I did as a returned missionary biology major at BYU.

    At one point I realized that one of the things that was hard for me, that I had to get over, with my daughter is mourning the experiences that I had hoped she would have that were like mine that she wouldn’t have. That the future I had imagined for her, wouldn’t be her future. And at moments I am reminded of that. And maybe in my head I am imagining my response would be to that ghost of a future she could of have, but didn’t. Her present and future is not what I imagined all those years ago as a new dad walking with her at night, trying to sooth her to sleep, on the side walks between the married student housing apartments.

    One of the good things about this though is that I can’t project my experiences on to her. She won’t have a Dad-type mission or college experience and it is kind of exciting to hear and see the new and different challenges that she has. Some things are constant – stress of school, overcoming failure and rejection, and connections with people. Relationships – falling in love. Letting go of those expectations has allowed us to have a more mature and interesting relationship.

    If I were in your shoes and my daughter was struggling as you describe, I think I would urge her to focus not on what is wrong with the mission or the missionaries, but to focus on building relationships that will last. Build friendships with the people in the area. Serve them, listen to companions, and not to worry about what the mission isn’t, but focus on what it is that is good. And to try to do good, and if that is not possible and the bad outweighs the good – to come home and make something good out of new and different things.

  7. Holly Miller says:

    “My dad gave me the advice to not focus on our church, but to focus on God. If I could help the people I met to take one footstep towards God, then I was doing God’s work.” I’m convinced that having this same approach is one of the main reasons that I had a successful mission. I think I would have felt like I wasted my time otherwise, but I had this mentality burned deep into my heart.

  8. Holly Miller says:

    How interesting to have a Celle connection! I loved being in Celle, and I’m sure the people there had a bigger impact on me than I had on them. I agree that if I did it again I’d try to do a better job of accepting people on their own terms. I felt that my mission helped me improve in this way, comparing how I was at the beginning of my mission to how I was at the end. I’m thankful for that. (I also agree with ‘perish the thought’ haha)

  9. Holly Miller says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write out your experiences. I read your comment with interest for the same reason that you’ve been interested in my series. Wish we could sit down for a chat. It’s nice to feel like I’m not the only one navigating these kinds of parenting experiences.

  10. Holly Miller says:

    You wrote: “At one point I realized that one of the things that was hard for me, that I had to get over, with my daughter, is mourning the experiences that I had hoped she would have that were like mine that she wouldn’t have”. I have felt this grief, too, as my letters show. I agree with you that I need to let go of the grief at some point, and I appreciate your example. “Letting go of those expectations has allowed us to have a more mature and interesting relationship.” Thank you.

  11. Brian G says:

    Who knows. It is truly a small world. I will be traveling to Dunedin for work as soon as Covid decreases worldwide some more.

  12. Holly Miller says:

    I’d love to meet you in person if you are in NZ!