To anyone who has ever winced when hearing the words "The Best 2 Years."
Recently I was talking with a woman at Church about her son who is serving a stateside LDS mission. He has been struggling and she explained a bit exasperatedly how "no one ever tells them how hard it really is!" After I commiserated and described briefly some of the struggles on my own mission she asked if I wouldn't mind writing to him. I agreed and later realized that other missionaries, returned missionaries, or friends or parents of either might benefit from my words and decided to turn it into a blog post. It has taken 5 years to finally come to full and complete peace about my mission experience. As I've leaned on the Savior I've been able to stumble onward, contemplating his great sacrifice and using my experience to help others along the way. I can testify of the words of Elder Holland: "It is only an appreciation of this divine love that will make our own lesser suffering first bearable, then understandable, and finally redemptive." It is only since he gave that talk have I felt comfortable talking about my mission publicly.
Dear Struggling Missionary,
Mormon missions are seen as a seminal moment between youth and adulthood--a transition and a rite of passage, and rightly so. The rigors of a mission alone can incur the phrase "they leave boys and they come home men." But not all missions go as expected, and this can be an added burden to an already intense experience. So, to those who may be struggling or did struggle, it is to you--my comrades in the gospel--that I address my remarks.
I know what you're thinking: How did I get here? What is wrong with me? How did this happen?
Nothing is wrong with you. You are right where you are supposed to be, but I'll try to explain a bit how it happened. I'll begin with a brief history of Missionary Work.
Once upon a time there was no missionary work as we now call it. There was a time where there were no missionary badges, or ties, or skirts, or white handbooks. God spoke to Prophets and they spoke to their families and that was about it. The Priesthood was passed down through bloodlines from Father to Son through the Levitical order. Fun fact: apparently this is still going on if you are a Jew and your last name happens to be Cohen. Don't ask me any more on that, that's all I know. I assume this is a big reason why it was important to marry in the covenant (see Deuteronomy 7:1-6). Eventually you could be adopted into the House of Israel and the Priesthood was passed down through the laying on of hands, to be "called of God, as was Aaron" (see Hebrews 5:4). About the same time, Peter (the Prophet at the time) and the Apostles were commanded by Jesus to "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:18-19). Missionary work had begun.
First stop: the Gentiles. That was a major change from the way things had been done--the Jews were the chosen people, remember? But kind of important if God is supposed to love ALL of his children and Jesus is a big part of that love (see John 3:16). Luckily Peter got the message about going to the Gentiles and then things started to pick up, spreading the gospel to the surrounding regions.
At first it was just some guys in robes and sandals, repeating what Jesus had said and collecting followers along the way. This created lots of little congregations all over the place who sometimes had their own ideas about how things should be run, hence why we have the 2nd half of the New Testament (mostly Paul writing to them trying to keep things in order). Eventually things kinda fell apart (don't worry, it was prophesied--see Isaiah 24:5, Amos 8:11-12, Matthew 24:4-14, Acts 20:28-30, 2 Timothy 3:1-5, 14-15; 4:3-4) and the Apostles were all killed and the Priesthood was lost to the earth for a time.
Don't worry, this had happened before, that's why we have lots of different religions--without a Prophet, people start interpreting scripture in their own way...kind of chaotic, I know. Nice people I'm sure but it's caused a lot of confusion over the years. If you're an LDS missionary I'm guessing you already understand this, just wanted to elaborate for anyone else listening in.
Skip ahead to Joseph Smith. New Prophet called. Priesthood restored through heavenly messengers. Missionary work back on!
The Lord starts sending out people alone or in pairs to go preach the gospel (see a bunch of sections in the Doctrine and Covenants). At first they don't take money or script and traveled on foot like the New Testament missionaries but that probably only worked for a bit until people stopped being so nice to missionaries and cars and airplanes were invented. 117,456 (just a guesstimate here) revelations of differing significance later we have straight laced young men (and now lots of women!) in white shirts and ties with name tags and MTCs and area books and a whole (mostly) well-oiled machine of streamlined missionary work. To study (or experience) the whole process is a fascinating endeavor.
Somewhere along the line (and this is not hard to figure out with most of the workforce being 19 year old hormonally charged boys living on their own for possibly the first time) there came mission rules. Mission rules (aka "The White Handbook") are a product of Correlation--a period in the Church's history when things were organized in a business-like fashion so that it was ACTUALLY possible to bring the gospel to the ENTIRE world. It's a big job and the best framework we had available was multi-national corporations. God works with what he has: people--us bumbling mortals, this is not new. Revelation is a complex process so out of any decision we can usually see how things are both divinely inspired but also based on man-made constructs. Inspiration is based on information, we believe in things being organized from previous matter--not something from nothing. This has no bearing on the divinity of the work.
Anyway, an unfortunate by-product of this is that there has to be a TON of rules. There are rules that govern and dictate pretty much every aspect of your existence as a missionary. This can get a wee bit stifling. You have virtually no coping mechanisms available except the scriptures--which can sometimes be a good thing, but personally (and what I understand about agency) I think it's not the best way. Right now our missionary program is sub-optimal. As Elder Tom Perry iterated in the special conference, "Hastening the Work" that up until now we have been working hard, but now we need to work smart. To me, this means the physical, spiritual, emotional and mental well being of our missionary work force. To continue, an unfortunate by-product of so many rules and a culture which HEAVILY encourages obedience to said rules is sort of a Pre-New Testament existence. Missions can very easily operate in a Mosaic law sort of sphere.
The Mosaic law or "lower law" was what the Lord had to give to the children of Israel in order to prepare them for Christ's coming. He wanted to give the higher law (see Exodus 32:19-20) but we just weren't ready for it. Humans were barely ready for it when Christ came--a big reason they killed Jesus is because they didn't like what he was saying. Anyway, the religious world up until the meridian of time was operating under this complex structure of rules and hierarchies that created a lot of different sects within Judaism--the Pharisees, the Sadducees, etc. They had interpreted the words of the prophets in different ways and felt very strongly about what they had read. The Pharisees were the ones that believed in being saved by the law--they had LOTS of rules: rules for sabbath day observance, rules for what you could and couldn't eat, rules for dealing with sinners. Jesus came and spoke and taught and didn't seem to care what they thought about those rules. He was a man of perfect principle.
This upset the Jews because they were very proud of how good they were at following the rules. They were harsh on those that didn't seem to keep up with their righteousness, they could be cruel to them who didn't fit in with their way of thinking. This can very, very easily happen on a mission.
When you leave on your mission EVERYONE has advice which they heap down on you in glorious abundance. It can be overwhelming but generally people mean well. One of my friends though, all she said was "don't judge your trainer." She said it several times. "Don't judge your trainer." For some reason it stuck with me.
When I got out into the field I had a wonderful trainer whom I adored. We were both artists and we bonded quickly, serving in a collection of small farm towns in Illinois. She showed me the ropes: we knocked on doors, we planned every night, we called people, we taught lessons and asked people to keep commitments. I was working hard and doing missionary work and loving it. My trainer however had been out seven months and would sometimes get stomach aches. We would have to stop our work and come home so she could rest. This was hard.
I was a new greenie, an exuberant missionary who was a ball of impetuous energy with the most exciting message in the world to tell. I was on "fire" as they say. And we had to come home? And do nothing? I was patient but I struggled. Every time I wanted to get frustrated with my trainer, whose stomach aches sometimes came at convenient times or they would magically clear up when something interesting was happening, I would remember the words of my friend: "Don't judge your trainer." Even when we went to the Doctor and her tests would come back inconclusive on suggested maladies I decided out of sheer will to give her the benefit of the doubt. To this day I never regret my decision--and I still choose to believe her (note: missions are hard, your body breaks down and there's not much room for rejuvenation, it happens). The work never seemed to suffer and our companionship thrived in unity. The words of Doctrine and Covenants 3:3 ring true: "Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men."
Fast forward several months and my mission reality as compared to the expectations I had when I came out were of vast difference and painted two, very different, pictures.
My expectation was filled with the stories of missionaries who had gone before: great spiritual strength and triumph, intense bonding with companions over helping the people of your mission (who you loved with all your heart) as they come to know their Savior more. Wonderful testimony building and faith promoting and friendship making of the highest quality and caliber--stories to fill a lifetime. I imagined coming home a better, stronger, more faithful, more graceful, and of course more marriageable me. Going on my mission was an act of great sacrifice for me in all aspects and I had faith that the blessings would far outweigh the things I had to give up. I was subverting my will for the will of the Lord and I humbly expected that great things would come of it, as they had in times before. They have (oh boy they have), but not in the way I expected.
The only trials I expected as a missionary were those of tough companions (every one has a story of a hard companion), moments of defeat when an investigator doesn't keep their commitments, and the rigors of mission life: strange food, homesickness, and hard work. I had had some bouts of insomnia and a single case of depression before I left but both I felt had been cleared up and had faith that the Lord would carry me through if things turned out otherwise.
The first few months of my mission fit this script and nothing got me down. I forged onward, I made errors along the way, but my missionary heart burned with a fervor I had never felt in my life. I was willing to spread the gospel as much as possible, without regard to other people (truly a mistake), come hell or high water. Well, hell and high water did come and I have learned, to say the least, a lot.
About halfway through my mission the picture my mission reality painted was thus: I was a tired, stressed out, maxed out, sick, over weight and depressed missionary. For all intents and purposes I should have gone home. I had major insomnia problems (I would go DAYS without sleeping), I was on medication and seeing a counselor for severe seasonal depression, and my diet was all out of sorts since historically the mid-west is not known for it's healthy eating habits and I was at the mercy of members for meals. I never felt "on top of things" with P-day being the only day available to take care of personal matters, and there were little to no coping mechanisms available: I couldn't call my mom, I couldn't go to the movies, I couldn't read a book or watch TV or even go for a run or a walk by myself just to clear my head. I understood why all these rules were in place and I respected them and had I not been a missionary there wouldn't be issue, but as they say I was "not in Kansas anymore." I was a missionary and I wanted ever so badly to be a good one.
Also, within a 2 week period at around the middle of my mission I had four, you could even say a series of, unfortunate events happen. I found out in a most shocking and unexpected way during an interview that my mission president thought I was being rebellious during the entire first half of my mission, citing things I had said or done completely out of context or had not even happened. My dear companion (it seems the only thing that didn't go wrong on my mission was thankfully, the quality of my companions) was being transferred. I had been suffering from and attempting to treat maladies for the past 8 months on an embarrassing part of my body which now required surgery. And my most dear investigator, a sweet and sincere older woman who lived alone and also suffered from depression, had committed suicide. I was devastated to say the least. Oh and the family threatened to blame us legally since we were the only ones visiting her on a regular basis and talked to her about her deceased husband, whom she missed greatly. Thankfully, no charges were filed.
To make matters worse I was in a mission that suffered from serious issues with gossip. To this day (despite many hours worth of rumination) I have wondered where it started, where it went wrong, and what I could have done to prevent it--but I somehow got a reputation for being a "bad missionary." A rebel, an apostate, a rule-breaker. Now to be clear, I am most definitely a free spirit, but I am no rebel. This girl is and has always been "a teacher's pet" even and often to a fault. I never skipped curfew or snuck out or broke rules. I got good grades and read books and went to summer school to get ahead. I was "a good girl" as they say. So to be branded as anything else was a completely new experience and one that I was completely unprepared for, especially within my dear community of Mormonism. And to illustrate the extent of this branding I once overheard a Stake leader visiting our ward say to his counselor: "She doesn't look like a troublemaker."
The thing about people having a certain idea about you is that even if you try to correct it, it will only affirm what they have already decided. The more I tried to correct people's assumptions about me the more it was seen as a defensive strategy. It was frustrating and hard to say the least and to this day I have to work very hard at not caring what I think others are thinking about me and use the Spirit and people I trust as my metric for life. Throughout the ordeal and the five years after I returned from my mission I've had to fight the feelings of bitterness and resentment that can come through painful experiences where people did not act the way they should have (myself included). I fight those feelings no more. I don't know if it's that I've slowly and finally gained perspective or that I'm just better equipped to only care what God thinks of my actions. Regardless, I feel that now my job is to use my experience to help other's who may have struggled or are currently struggling within my community.
In the midst of my struggles I turned to the scriptures since that's where I had been taught (and was teaching others) to find answers. I was searching for knowledge on how to be a more obedient (and by mission logic a more effective) missionary. I went to the New Testament since we are raised with the understanding that part of Christ's mission was to be our greatest exemplar in a addition to His Atoning sacrifice. What I found was unexpected but not unsurprising: Jesus was a rebel. He was completely obedient to the Godhood (Luke 2:49 and John 5:19) but didn't give a lick if anyone thought he was somehow acting contrary.
The mosaic law was meant as a way to point people towards the Savior, simply because it was impossible to follow all the commandments all the time. Mission rules, I argue, should be viewed the same way. They should be seen as important to follow, but as much as they are preached to be followed, we should always add important messages about the Atonement. As Paul said: "for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6).
During those dark hours at the meridian of my mission I was humbled enough to get a blessing from one of my Zone Leaders. A blessing is a Mormon practice where a Priesthood holder lays his hands on your head and speaks words of inspiration from God. They can be faith filled experiences where the man pronouncing the blessing says things that are only known to you and God or a healing miracle is performed. I have had many spiritual experiences with blessings. In that blessing I needed to know from God if I was supposed to go home, if these trials beyond the normal rigors of missionary work were meant to humble me into another path God had for me, if it was simply my pride that was keeping me on my mission. I don't remember the exact words of the blessing but in it He said that I was to stay on my mission. I knew in my heart it was true.
Somehow, and I am convinced it was only in and through the grace of God, I was able to continue working as a missionary--doing my personal and companion studies, getting out the door, knocking on the doors of others, planning and teaching lessons, counting numbers, and strengthening the members. I don't think a single day of the rest of my mission I looked or acted like a tip-top missionary and a single moment when I didn't feel like I was living up to my potential, but I kept working. Did I always (or ever) actually get up at 6:30am and do my exercises and get ready on time to do my studies at the appointed time? No. But I kept working. Did I spend all day teaching a ton of well-planned, well-executed lessons and share testimony whenever possible? No. But I kept working. Was I rewarded with lots of baptisms? No. But I kept working. Did I come to truly love the people of my mission? Mostly, but not perfectly. But despite my shortcomings and regardless of wanting dearly to be doing anything other than traditional missionary work in that whole 2nd half of my mission, I kept working. Was everything fine and dandy when I got home and blessings were instantly rained down upon my head? No. But I kept working. Did I get married and live happily ever after within 6 months of getting home? No. But I kept working. I am still working.
Now you may ask yourself, especially if you're not a Mormon or person of conviction, why I decided to believe that blessing. It is because I truly and sincerely know the Church is true. I know Joseph Smith was and is a Prophet of God. I know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is being lead by Jesus Christ. It is His Church on the earth today. The Bible and the Book of Mormon are the word of God. I know God loves all of His children. I know the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Atonement have the ability to change lives. These are non-negotiables in my book. And whenever I have sided with my testimony, or the things I know to be true, things have always worked out for the better. Always.
I shared briefly the travails of my mission simply to let you know that as much as I know the Church is true, I know that missions are hard. I also know that missions are harder for those who are struggling. And I know that missions are even harder still for those who are struggling who many people believe are struggling because of disobedience or unfaithfulness on their part. And since I know this, to all who may do anything to hinder the work of a missionary, whether member or missionary or otherwise, I say with all the love of Elder Uchtdorf: "Stop it."
We need to trust that our missionaries are doing the best they can. We need to all help keep mission rules (and I would add commandments) in proper perspective. And perhaps most importantly, we need to trust that Missionaries need the Atonement as much as the rest of us. May the work continue forward and fill the whole earth, every nook and cranny of as many hearts willing to listen to our message.
God speed Elders and Sisters.
Here are some suggestions if you or someone you know is struggling on a mission or if you just want to be a better missionary or missionary helper yourself.
- Acknowledge the pain and the hardship. Don't swipe it away or see them (or yourself) as weak. This situation leads easily to despair and doubt about abilities. And please don't say "forget yourself and go to work" unless you know the entire story behind that quote and the letter it came from. It is a much more encouraging tale than simply the above statement. Just because I'm at peace about my mission experience, does not mean I do not still bear physical and emotional scars from the experience. Someone trying to trivialize my experience does not make those scars easier to bear.
- Missionaries--make sure you really are doing the best you can (and seek feedback from the Lord) and try to be patient with those who are helping you. Listen and obey the Spirit. Pace yourself, you're running a marathon not sprinting a lap. An 18-24 month marathon with no vacation or holidays.
- Forgive, forgive, forgive. In my missionary scriptures I had written in one of the beginning blank pages the phrase: "Should I not spare Ninevah?" This comes from the story of Jonah and the Whale. We all hear about the whale part of the story but that's it. Jonah is a powerful story about repentance and forgiveness. As a struggling missionary you may feel like Jonah--a young person sent on a mission by God to preach repentance and God's message. At any time your investigators or the members or other missionaries may seem to (or actually) be thwarting you in that effort. Jonah was sent to preach to the people of Ninevah but the people are wicked and refuse to listen. He runs away, has the ordeal with the whale, and then is humbled but doesn't completely repent: he doesn't want to forgive and preach to the people of Ninevah. The people had repented and were ready to listen but Jonah was angry and bitter and didn't want to continue on his journey. In the 4th chapter of Jonah, the young prophet is sitting angrily on a hill overlooking the city, waiting and expecting God to destroy it--perhaps in some epic Noah-like fashion. When the Lord refuses to comply, Jonah is angry with God. The Lord then uses a gourd to illustrate his love to Jonah for all his creations and then with the what I imagine the love only a (heavenly) father could muster, God says "And should I not spare Ninevah?" (Jonah 4:11). That phrase helped me remember that just as I hoped to receive forgiveness of my mistakes as a missionary and as a human, I needed to grant that to everyone else I came in contact with. At times this was, and still is, a difficult endeavor--but it is well worth it.
- Companions and fellow missionaries. Be patient and have faith that the Lord's work will not be stopped. I came out expecting to have hard companions and ended up being the hard companion. No one wants to be a burden. Listen closely and remember ALL the words of that great missionary section, Doctrine and Covenants 4: "And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work. Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence." (Verses 5 and 6). Do your best darndest not to judge, I promise you won't regret it.
- A return to principle based missionary work. Joseph Smith, when asked why his followers were so obedient said: "I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves." If we don't start allowing our missionaries more freedom to govern themselves they won't learn self mastery on the mission or in the hereafter. They will struggle, they will falter but we must let them work it out. I'm happy to say that the New Youth Program does a better job of teaching empowerment and accountability than the one I was raised in. Our missionary program needs to be revamped to teach this as well.
- Keep working (even if and when you go home). I echo Elder Holland's words: "Anyone who does any kind of missionary work will have occasion to ask, Why is this so hard? Why doesn’t it go better? Why can’t our success be more rapid? Why aren’t there more people joining the Church? It is the truth. We believe in angels. We trust in miracles. Why don’t people just flock to the font? Why isn’t the only risk in missionary work that of pneumonia from being soaking wet all day and all night in the baptismal font? You will have occasion to ask those questions. I have thought about this a great deal. I offer this as my personal feeling. I am convinced that missionary work is not easy because salvation is not a cheap experience."
- Non Mormons: You don't have to listen to their message, but please be nice to missionaries. They are out in the world doing something they believe in and at best deserve respect and kindness. At worst they deserve being politely ignored. I would suggest though if you are looking for more spirituality in life, give listening to the message and the missionaries a try...it might just change your life.
- Members: it is not your job to make sure the missionaries are doing their job. It is your job to be a missionary yourself. If you have time to see how missionaries are less than stellar than you are obviously lacking faith and failing at missionary work yourself. I am still so grateful to many members on my mission who were patient, charitable, and kind to me.
- Familiarize yourself with The Purple Heart RMs project. It is a much needed project on awareness of struggling missionaries. Even though I didn't come home early, I participated in the initial survey because my experiences qualified me and I believed I had something to offer.
- Leaders: Do a better job of preparing missionaries by encouraging members to share ALL the experiences of their missions, not just the funny or faith-promoting. I remember clinging to the half-hinted words and strings of somethings from returned missionaries who dared to mention just how hard the work is so that I could tell myself it wasn't just me. I do my best to share what I feel would help, even if it's gruesome or could be heard as critical and will usually add sincerely my testimony: "but I'm glad I did it. I'm glad I'm home but I am still glad I served a mission."
- Mission Presidents: If a missionary is truly struggling, even if it looks like outright rebellion, there is probably an underlying reason. The more I study about sin the more I see that sinfulness is more about the intents of the heart than anything else. Perceived (or actual) sinfulness, I argue, is often a symptom of something else. Identify and address the symptom (even if it is actually transgression) and you will likely resolve the struggle or rebellion. In Elder Packer's words: "True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel."