Originally published May 15, 2016.
My sister recently received her mission call to Brazil which led me to reflect on my own mission experience. A lot of “what I wish” blog posts float around the internet these days (I really enjoyed the second of these posts from Bella in Berlin). Most of the advice, however, misses something crucial about spiritual preparation as well as mental/emotional expectations for an LDS mission.
I served an LDS mission from 2008-2010 when sister missionaries were still kind of a rare thing. I knew for many years that I needed to serve but it took me a long time to build up the desire to serve and to quash my fears. By the time I entered the mission field I had a bachelor’s degree and had worked full time as an administrative assistant. My mission experience was not what I expected and I have carried a lot of emotional baggage for many years since returning.
My end goal is for you to enter the mission field informed and armed. Here are a few concepts I learned on my mission that I hope will aid you in your preparation.
1. Follow the promptings of the Spirit, no matter what. Be confident in your ability to receive divine guidance and confidently follow it! Even if your companion does not agree, follow the promptings you receive. I learned this principle early in my mission (at the MTC) and it was reinforced many times throughout my 18 months. One example will suffice: one day my companion and I unexpectedly rode the tram. As soon as the doors closed, the Spirit told me to start walking. I made my way towards the front of the tram while my companion hissed after me to stay with her. I followed the Spirit and discovered a former investigator sitting several rows from the front. I dropped into the empty seat beside him. He recognized me and we were able to visit briefly. I re-invited him to take the lessons and reminded him that not only we the missionaries cared about him, but that God was watching out for him as well. A small example but a vital principle––always follow the Spirit, regardless of whether the prompting seems silly, your companion disagrees, or even a leader hasn’t received the same guidance. I received individual promptings to talk to a sister missionary on my floor at the MTC who I had never met before, to sing a certain song at a given moment, to go to a specific set of buildings for finding, and more. Be brave, fight the feelings of discomfort, and don’t worry about what your companion(s) thinks; just do what the Spirit says.
2. Place your talents on the altar and let the Lord use them in His way. I had never had the confidence to sing a solo before my mission but once I entered the MTC, I felt a pressing need to share my talent for the good of others. The Spirit taught me the power of music and also instructed me on how to “consecrate my performance” for the spiritual benefit of others. On my mission I sang in train stations, on people’s doorsteps, in sacrament meetings at the last minute, at baptisms, in parks, at the bedside of a dying woman. Whenever the Spirit moved, I sang. Whatever your talent is, God can use it to bless the lives of others in profound ways. It is crucial, however, that your attitude and desires be right. Turn your talents over to God in prayer, let Him know that you are willing and ready to follow His instructions, and invite Him to use your talents in whatever way He sees fit. I invite you to read Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s talk “Consecrate Thy Performance” for great instruction and encouragement on the kind of consecration I believe is the goal of life.
3. Worship the ground your companions walk on but do not expect them to do the same for you. Some of the best advice I received on my mission came during my second to last transfer. Someone recommended I worship the ground my companion walked on––make her bed, cook for her, treat her with great kindness and love, build her up. This sounded very wise to me and I put the advice into practice. When my companion did not show appreciation and did not respond in kind, I gave up. I realize now that my expectations were all wrong. What this adviser might have added was that I could absolutely not expect my companion to reciprocate. Service and love need to be given without expecting anything in return. In some companionships this may come down to the very difficult and (often) humiliating need to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39–42, NT).
4. Smile and laugh. The Assistants to the mission president told us this when we first arrived in the country. I really should have listened. Much of my mission experience left me in tears and/or angry. I took missionary work very seriously and felt a tremendous weight of responsibility for the souls in my area. A bishop once commented he was concerned that the missionaries were always frowning––I knew he meant me but I just could not see a way to be happy when there was so much to be done. I realize now that half my work might have been accomplished by simply smiling and letting people see the joy the Gospel really can bring to their lives. Look for the bright spots in every day, and if you can’t find them, make them. Try to find the humor in a bad situation and laugh. Laugh hysterically if you are in your apartment––it is healing and may be necessary to preserve your sanity.
5. Your “best” will change from day to day. I had the mistaken idea that I would somehow function at my very best everyday. My first transfer crippled me emotionally for the rest of my mission––I absolutely did not perform to my idea of my best ability thereafter. In spite of my diminished abilities, whatever my best was on a given day, I laid it on the altar and asked the Lord to make up the difference. The only way to successfully serve is to give your best (whatever it happens to be that day) and ask the Lord to consecrate it for your good and the good of those around you (see 2 Nephi 32:9, BoM).
6. Obedience will set you apart just like modesty or the Word of Wisdom. Consider 1 Peter 2 (NT) which I would argue is structured around an invitation to be obedient. Verses 7-8 warn against disobedience and then contrast the stumbling of the disobedient with the success of the obedient. The obedient are built on Christ, the chief cornerstone; their obedience makes them stand out in important ways, they become “a peculiar people.” The rest of the chapter (verses 10-25) articulates clear principles of obedience: “abstain from fleshly lusts,” obey the laws of the land, do good always no matter what treatment you receive in return, suffer patiently, be humble.
One benefit of having proselyting missionaries is that they are so recognizable. The name tag communicates before the first greeting is even extended, the dress and bearing of missionaries speaks volumes. Allow me to highlight one example of how being obedient made us missionaries “peculiar.” One of my companions insisted on jaywalking all the time. When I encouraged her to use the crosswalks, she retorted that everyone jaywalked and why shouldn’t we if it meant the difference between catching the tram or waiting 15-30 minutes for the next one? I tried to explain that missionaries need to stand out, especially in matters of following the law. If everyone is jaywalking, then we should that much more pointedly use the crosswalks.
Embrace the rules, enjoy your peculiarity as a missionary! Obedience will not only keep you safe but it will set you apart from everyone else and help others recognize you as a servant of God that much more easily.
7. Tell your mission president exactly what is going on. I remember crying myself to sleep during my second transfer, praying with all my might for the mission president to call. First of all, I misplaced my faith; you can only really exercise faith to do things yourself, not to make God make other people do things. Second, the only way for a mission president to know what’s going on with you and/or your companion(s) is for you to tell him. If your companion is abusing you, emotionally or otherwise, you need to tell your mission president! If your companion routinely spends study time putting on makeup, you need to tell your mission president! If your companion is looking at pornography, call your mission president right away! If your companion refuses to participate in teaching, disappears on a tram with your phone, seems to want to run away, tell your mission president! If you have the feeling that shady characters are following you or are watching your apartment, call the mission president right away!
There are certain things about a companion you really ought to just overlook and not worry about, such as: whether or not s/he puts the toilet seat down; personality quirks that have no bearing on your spiritual/physical well-being or the missionary work in your area; how loud s/he snores. For any situation, however, in which you feel the work may be at risk, your spirit and/or body are in serious mor(t)al peril, or your emotional/mental well-being is at stake, call the mission president!
I also strongly encourage you to keep details of issues, episodes, or events strictly between you, your companion(s), and the mission president. There is no need to go spilling the beans about how mean your companion is/was. Gossiping is never okay.
8. Make the decision to stay on your mission once, and don’t ever look back. Once I arrived at the MTC I knew I would not leave my mission until I was done. When my first transfer turned out so horribly, I decided that I could and would stick it out; I would not go home until I had served for the full time, no matter what. I followed the mission rules and worked as hard as I could. One of my last companions who was new in the mission allowed herself to make a new choice every day. Some days she chose to be on a mission and worked hard (she was a great missionary). But most days she decided she would rather be somewhere else––she didn’t study, she dragged her feet everywhere we went, she barely spoke, she was distracted, she wrote letters to her boyfriend, she refused to follow individual counsel from our mission president. Consequently, we had a small teaching pool, we missed trams, we were late for appointments and church, people seemed not to want to talk to us. I did my best to salvage the transfer and dragged her around with me. We saw some successes but not as many as if both of us were committed and trying our best every day. Do not allow yourself to make a new choice each day. Do not do this––not to yourself, not to your companion. Make the decision once to stay and then everyday it’s not a question of whether you want to be on a mission but a question of how you will use the time to serve the Lord.
9. Allow the Atonement to work in your life. If something terrible, upsetting, or unexpected happens on your mission, talk to your mission president right away and ask him to help you put it behind you. I nursed wounds from my mission for years after. I eventually found a priesthood leader willing to listen and be compassionate (my husband). I was able to explain the situations, my responses, my regrets, my anger. He helped me overcome feelings of guilt. Most importantly, he helped me access the power of the Atonement to forgive those who wronged me and to forgive myself. Do not wait years to go through this process; do it right away so you can move on and be a happy person! Remember that guilt, remorse, and refusing to forgive all stunt spiritual growth. (See Elder Kevin R. Duncan’s April 2016 conference talk “The Healing Ointment of Forgiveness.”)
10. Choose to feel JOY. One of my most poignant and redemptive mission experiences came as I watched a pair of sisters get baptized. Coming towards the end of a difficult transfer, this baptism impressed upon me the very real need for saving ordinances and the importance of missionary work. I grabbed my companion and, so overcome with gratitude, I exclaimed, “I love missionary work!” While I never uttered this phrase again on my mission, it proved to be a watershed moment. For literally one moment in time I glimpsed the kind of love that led the Savior to offer Himself as the great and last sacrifice on behalf of all mankind. I felt filled to brimming with a transcendent love, love that made the previous five transfers worth the pain and anguish. In that moment I experienced true joy, a deeply rooted happiness springing from love for a repentant soul. Some of the most overwhelming spiritual experiences recorded in the scriptures occur as missionaries witness the repentance of their investigators (Alma 27:17, BoM where Ammon’s joy over Lamoni’s repentance makes him pass out; Alma 36:20, BoM where Alma the Younger describes his own repentance). Part of your detox from “the world” while a missionary will include replacing lost forms of entertainment and carnal enjoyment with the more lasting (and sometimes rare) pleasures of mission service: bringing people to Christ. You may need to actively look for the joy, but it will be there. Remember, “how great shall be your joy” (D&C 18:16).
No matter what you experience on your mission, it can build your faith, provide insight to the future, allow you to live the Gospel in action, teach you to rely on the Lord, humble you, and enhance your understanding of the Atonement. If we are to invite others to “come unto Christ and be perfected in Him,” then we really ought to understand the invitation firsthand (Moroni 10:32). Sometimes that understanding comes at a heavy cost to personal comfort or even emotional stability. But I absolutely learned to trust the Lord, much like Ruth, of whom it was said, “The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust” (Ruth 2:12, OT).
Finally, consider the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley who praised the young proselyting missionaries of the Church and offered this encouragement:
“Callow youth?” Yes, they are lacking in sophistication. What a great blessing this is. They carry no element of deception. They speak with no element of sophistry. They speak out of their hearts, with personal conviction. Each is a servant of the living God, an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ. Their power comes not of their learning in the things of the world. Their power comes of faith, and prayer, and humility. As we have been reminded, the work is not easy. It has never been easy…. In terms of the individual missionary, the harvest is not great in most instances, but in the aggregate it becomes tremendous. The work demands courage, it demands effort, it demands dedication, it demands the humility to get on one’s knees and ask the Lord for help and direction…. Prepare yourself now to be worthy to serve the Lord as a full-time missionary. (“Of Missions, Temples, and Stewardship,” Ensign [November 1995].)