I have so many people I love preparing to serve missions. Some of them are thinking about it, some have their papers in, some are on their way to the MTC. I figured I would share some things that people had told me before I left, things I learned in the field, and some general pre-mission and mission advice from a relatively newly returned missionary.
I’ll preface this with the reminder that every mission is incredibly different, no matter where you are. I served in California, where there are 20 missions in the state. My mission covered just two valleys – roughly the size of my stake at home in Connecticut. And yet, even though those who served in California served in what could be categorized as similar areas, each mission is different due to the areas, mission president, members, and of course, the missionaries themselves.
No mission is harder than another. Foreign missions aren’t harder than serving in your own country. Each mission presents its own unique challenges, and is a perfect fit for those serving in it. Each mission is equally as ‘hard’ or ‘challenging’, just in very different ways. Trust me – you’ll face the same problems as your friend in Ghana or Brazil. And you’ll also have different challenges from those same people. Just remember that you’re all doing the same work and you’re all serving the same God.
And the mission is honestly what you make of it.
Some things I have to share. There’s a lot, and some of it may not be a concern to you, but here’s what I have to offer.
I think this is the biggest concern I’ve heard from people who just received their mission calls. If you’re assigned to speak a language other than your own native tongue, resist the temptation to try to learn it before you head to the MTC. While I served a [mostly] English speaking mission, talking and serving with missionaries who had a foreign language assignment, I learned a lot. Here’s a few reasons not to worry about it until you get to the MTC:
1. When you’re set apart as a missionary, you’re given the blessings you need to teach in your assigned language(s). You’re able to work with the spirit to learn everything you need to in order to effectively communicate and share the Gospel. You won’t be perfect, but you will have the gifts of the spirit necessary to teach. You’ll learn the language so much faster after you’ve been set apart.
2. The best thing is to learn what you’re going to teach in your own language first. I learned American Sign Language on my mission, and the only reason I was able to teach in ASL was because I had first learned the doctrines and principles in English (and I relied fully on the Spirit). When you’re familiar with what you’re teaching, you’re not trying to do two things at once: learn the doctrine and translate it. The Lord will work with the knowledge you have, and amplify it. Instead of trying to learn Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, or French, focus on studying Preach My Gospel and The Book of Mormon in English (or your preferred native language). You’ll be grateful for it later.
3. If you serve an English-speaking mission, be prepared to learn phrases in other languages to help you contact on the street. I served in a mission with Korean, English, and Spanish-speaking missionaries, as well as a complement of American Sign Language missionaries. What people don’t realize is that if you’re an English missionary, you are to teach all those people that the others cannot. Spanish missionaries don’t teach in English, just as English missionaries don’t teach in Spanish. If they can speak broken English, you’re the one to teach them.
For example, on my mission, I taught a couple who spoke Arabic and Pashto because we were what they had. I also worked with people who spoke Tagalog, Portuguese, Polish, and various sub-dialects from throughout the world. To bridge the language barrier, you find a member who speaks the same language (calling all returned missionaries!).
A handy tip is to keep a little notebook with phrases in the languages you’re most likely to encounter while talking to people on the street. I had a notebook with basic phrases in Spanish, Korean (phonetic, obviously), and Armenian, because those were some of the common languages in the areas I served in. We asked other missionaries who spoke the language how to say things, so that we could introduce ourselves, and if they were interested, get their information to send other missionaries to them, or at least get them a copy of The Book of Mormon in their scriptures. In our districts, we occasionally held short language trainings on how to introduce yourself as missionaries (ASL was the most fun).
And remember, the universal language is a smile and the presence of the Spirit!
A lot of parents are concerned about the safety of their missionaries in the field, which is totally understandable. Especially because you see crazy news reports of things happening to missionaries, or have watched The Saratov Approach. What you don’t see is the rest of the thousands of missionaries safely going about the work. Regardless of where you serve, here are some pointers:
1. Follow the Spirit. This is absolutely crucial. You will be warned/prompted if you’re about to get into a tricky situation. Strive to keep the Spirit with you, and learn to understand how the Spirit works with you, how it communicates. If you have a strange feeling, or feel unsettled, leave. No questions asked.
2. Be smart. Follow The Missionary Handbook. In it, you are given an outline of basic safety – don’t go down streets that are unlit, always stay with your companion, don’t carry valuables, etc.
3. Listen to your leaders. Your district leader, zone leaders, assistants to the president and the President himself know which areas are safe at what times. Follow their counsel. And sisters, trust that your mission president has deemed your area safe for you to proselyte. Don’t be afraid to ask the advice of members. Most of them have lived in your proselyting areas for years, and know the good from the bad. And while you’re at it, ask for referrals!
4. This is specifically for sisters – don’t be afraid to call your elders! Elders are generally more than happy to scare off the ‘creepers,’ and most of them have sisters. They’re already protective, so why not let them exercise their big brother muscles? Check out this video for more safety tips for sisters. Not all of them apply, but it’s a good source of ideas.
Every missionary has some ‘sketchy’ experiences. It’s part of the process, and it would happen regardless if you are a missionary. Not comforting, but true. Just don’t go looking for it! Trust the Spirit and be smart.
“Forget Yourself and Get to Work”
You’ll probably want to start a tally of how often you hear this quote by Gordon B. Hinckley, honestly. You’ll hear it your first day in the MTC, you’ll hear it from your trainer, your leaders, your mission president. You’ll read it in Preach My Gospel. You’ll probably even get this counsel in a letter or two from home. Get used to it, and apply it. If you haven’t gotten familiar with it already, here’s your first glimpse:
“Do you want to be happy? Forget yourself and get lost in this great cause. Lend your efforts to helping people… Stand higher, lift those with feeble knees, hold up the arms of those that hang down. Live the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (this particular quote is found on page 168 of Preach My Gospel)
I wanted to talk a bit about this because of my experiences with it. So many missionaries think that ‘forgetting yourself’ means to become someone else, to be more like your companion, district leader, sister training leader, etc. And while we’re meant to learn from other missionaries, we’ve also been called to be ourselves. You’ll notice a series of natural changes in yourself, but they won’t be overnight. Be you, have fun, and remember the Lord called you to be you, in all your strengths and weaknesses, and with all your experiences and talents. Find a way to use them to your advantage. Do you struggle with understanding the New Testament? Study with your companion. Do you love music? Use it to bring the spirit, or as a finding activity. Do you love to cook? Make something for your investigators. Throw a mean party? Why not collaborate with members to host an activity/party for investigators?. Acknowledge who you are, who you’ve become, and the talents you have, and draw closer to the Lord. He’ll help you refine them.
Forgetting yourself means putting others before you. Do what the Savior would do. We are safe to assume that He had really hard days during his mortal ministry (Gethsemane, anyone?), but he was always focused on another person. Having a rough day? Get out and serve. Work is the answer as a missionary. But remember, at the same time, to take care of yourself. You can’t give 100% when you’re burnt out.
(MTC tip – during Sunday night activities, make sure you watch Elder Bednar’s talk “The Character of Christ” – it’s all about forgetting yourself)
I’ve talked a little bit about my views of what a successful missionary is in a letter home from July of 2014 and more recently in my post on miracles. Numbers and key indicators in the field are necessary – it helps you to understand areas where you can improve. But never let the numbers drive you. Your success is based solely on your relationship with the Lord and His work. Are you loving the people? Are you doing all you can to help them draw closer to Heavenly Father and understand the atonement of His Son? Are you listening to them? Are you doing all you can for them? If this is the case, you are an incredibly successful missionary, because the root of missionary work always has been and must always be love for the people and for the Gospel.
Yes, “your success as a missionary is measured primarily by your commitment to find, teach, baptize, and confirm people and help them become faithful members of the Church who enjoy the presence of the Holy Ghost.”
Note that important word. Hint: it’s italicized.
Your success is measured by your commitment.
You’re not going to get to the throne of the Lord to have him ask, “Sister so-and-so. Why didn’t you baptize more people?” What will He ask? “Did you feed my sheep? Did you love them? Did you love me?”
And that’s that.
You’ll hear it a hundred times if you hear it once. It’s the old missionary adage: “Obedience brings blessings. Exact obedience brings miracles.” Don’t forget it. Obedience brings you power. You have the Spirit with you. You have the trust of the Lord. You have His respect. Be obedient. The blessings that come from obedience are far greater than we can comprehend. No rule is insignificant. Each carries a blessing. Never underestimate the power of obedience.
Studies and Journaling
You learn in the MTC how important writing things down is. You’re learning so much, and going in so many directions, your brain can’t handle it all. Write it down. You might feel like you won’t forget, but you will. I promise. Keep a regular journal of your thoughts, experiences, and things you’ve seen. If keeping a traditional journal isn’t your style, find a different way. Annotated and illustrated calendars. Jot down what happened during the day in your planner. Get a Smash Book and paste in photos and memories. Take a picture of day and keep a notebook of captions for each photo. These are the best years, and you don’t want to forget them.
Just as important is remembering your experiences with studies. The Book of Mormon and Preach My Gospel will be your best friends. Get to know them. Love them. Refer to them often. Share what you learn. Keep a notebook of what you learn in the scriptures and the missionary library, questions you have, inspiration you receive, quotes you love. Make it personal. Find your own system. I preferred a series of small notebooks, some missionaries I served with loved binders. Others used post-it notes and notecards taped into the pamphlets we taught with. Find what works, because they Lord is speaking, and you’ll want to take notes.
YOU CAN BE FRIENDS WITH MISSIONARIES OF THE OPPOSITE SEX
This is all in caps for a reason. I hated the stigma of elders and sisters not being able to be friends. Some of my best friends from the mission were the elders I served with. I think I talk to them more often than I talk to half of my companions. Sisters, you can be friends with elders. Elders, you can be friends with sisters. Just because you’re friends doesn’t mean you’re being disobedient, flirting, or aren’t focused. Let’s be honest. We all need each other in the field. We’re brothers and sisters, and we’ve got to start acting like it. The work goes so much smoother when elders and sisters work in teams. To really be unified, you need to be friends first. Miracles come from unity.
I served in a zone that was pretty tough – we were all struggling in our individual areas to meet our goals. We were discouraged. I firmly believe that the reason we all stayed sane and focused was because of the unity within our district and zone. We relied on each other. We were a family. We prayed for each other by name. We came to know and rely upon each other’s strengths. The load is heavy, but it’s not nearly as hard to bear when you’re standing shoulder to shoulder. We were there for each other in the field, and we’re still there for each other. It’s not uncommon for me to get a text that says, “hey, got a minute?” from an RM I served with. We did hard things in the field, we can do hard things now, as long as we have each other’s backs.
Friends you make on the mission are friends for life. Some of my favorite, and the most powerful, moments of my mission were with my fellow missionaries. Singing to welcome the new missionaries in transfer meeting, lunches at zone conference, time in the temple with all of us dressed in white. It was a glimpse of that incredible mission reunion we’ll have in eternity.
To some extent, we’re responsible for each other. It’s part of the calling. We have to take care of each other to get the job done. We need to work together. Start by being friends.
Last but not least – PRAY ALWAYS.
You gain an incredible testimony of prayer as a missionary. You pray so often, at times it can become simply a routine. The joy comes from cherishing each opportunity you have to converse with your Heavenly Father, and teach others to do so as well. Never stop praying. Pray for your investigators. Pray for your mission president. Pray for the ward. Pray for your companion. Pray for your companion’s family. Never stop praying.
And listen to those who pray for you. Those prayers are some of the most special and sacred to a missionary. Remember that members throughout the world are praying for you. Elder Holland said that he’d never known someone to pray for the prophet and not pray for the missionaries in the same breath. The apostles and leaders of the church are praying for you. The prophet is praying for you. Christ prayed for you.
Pray always. Every step of the way. You might not be in the field yet, but cultivate the habit of prayer. Pray for those you will teach in your assigned area, that they will be prepared. Pray for your trainer, who is anxiously waiting for you. Pray always.
This will be the best and hardest time of your life. It is worth every moment, because it’s shaping your eternity. Every day as a missionary in the field is a gift. You don’t know how much you love it until you’re home, and then not a day goes by that you don’t think about your mission and yearn to be back in the field. From an RM – love every moment. Give it all you’ve got. Be yourself. Follow the Lord. Work hard. Love the people. Have faith. Keep going.
Preparing to serve and still have questions? Feel free to ask! Returned missionaries – got any tips you want to share with our younger brothers and sisters preparing to serve?