Before you go on your mission, I wanted to write you a letter to explain some of my thoughts and feelings on the matter. I hope that you don’t dismiss my words on account of my disenfranchisement from the church. Though I am no longer a member, you know that the church was the most important element of my life. I loved it with all my heart and spent considerable time and energy (including those two mission years) in service of it. I am no longer religious, but I still maintain a profound desire to be an influence for good in the world, and the values of love, integrity, selflessness, and service remain core parts of my moral identity.
Before I begin, I want to express my sincere appreciation for the tolerance and love that you and the rest of the family have extended to me, despite the turmoil my course has no doubt caused you. Because I wish to reciprocate that same level of respect, I will not try to dissuade you from a mission. Instead, I hope to provide some advice that might help make your service more meaningful. Basically, I want to share some things I wish I had done differently as a missionary.
1. Be Humble
To many missionaries, the idea of humility seems to center around being modest about your stats and position, submitting to your leaders, and being open to influence of the Holy Ghost. I would suggest that true humility goes much deeper than that.
True humility is expressed not just in your function as part of a mission hierarchy but as a human being, fundamentally equal to all other human beings.
On my mission, I was not truly humble. I acted like I had all the answers to everyone’s questions and the solutions to everyone’s problems. In my conversations, I harbored a sentiment of intellectual superiority. My actions were frequently condescending. I forced my priorities on to others without much regard to the uniqueness of their search for truth and happiness. I did the same for members of the church who I felt should be constantly bending over backward to help me simply because I was a missionary.
Though you may feel empowered by the nature of your calling, remember that you have never lived outside your home state. You have not yet experienced most of the ups and downs and twists and turns that make up a life. You have not yet attended a university. You have not been married. You do not yet have children. You have not yet worked a full-time job.
Though your answers and solutions may work for some, I hope you will have the humility to accept that they will not work for everyone. In your conversations with people of other traditions, I hope you will have the humility to recognize the value of their perspective, and that you will be willing to appreciate and learn from their experiences and opinions.
When people disregard your message — and most surely will — I hope that you will not react in anger. I hope that you will not think of them as “tares” or “wicked” or “prideful” or “non-elect.” I hope instead you will extend them the same respect you have always shown me. May you accept their differences of opinion with grace.
As difficult as it is to consider as a missionary, true humility will require you to accept that other paths are just as valid as yours. Decide now to recognize that there are many people who are just as happy with their life as you are. The mission is not just an opportunity to teach, but to learn from EVERYONE around you.
2. Be Imperfect
Part of my mission experience was the incessant feeling that I was not measuring up. I had been taught that any infraction of the mission rules resulted in a loss of the spirit, and subsequently, every time I passed someone without talking to them, every time I left the house a minute late, and every time a leader told me my numbers were too low, I felt that I was unworthy of the Holy Ghost and my very title as a missionary.
Missionaries feel a lot of pressure. There is pressure to be exactly obedient, to outperform other missionaries, to impress leaders, and to utilize every second for the kingdom’s sake. But the reality is: you won’t ever be perfect. You weren’t perfect before your mission and you won’t be perfect after your mission. So don’t for a second subscribe to the notion that suddenly you have to be perfect during your mission in order to be effective and happy.
The insatiable desire for perfection is not only unrealistic, it is counterproductive. If you believe that imperfection deserves sadness (i.e. the loss of the holy ghost), then you will be doomed to sadness your entire mission because you will ALWAYS fall short of perfection. You will leave the house late. You will pass people on the street without contacting them. You will say something stupid to your companion. If you rack yourself with guilt, the sadness will make it harder for you to live up to the already overwhelming pressure of mission life, which will make you more sad… and so it goes it a spiraling cycle of self-deprecation.
If you want to avoid that, forgive yourself for your shortcomings. Don’t beat yourself up. Cultivate an indomitable belief that you are worthy.
Do this for others as well. Do it for the companion you might be tempted to think is lazy, disobedient, unskilled, or quirky. If there is one thing I could change about my mission, it would be the way I treated my “difficult” companions. I was too focused on the goal of teaching people outside my house to realize that the most important sermon I could ever preach would be the patience and compassion I expressed to the other within my house.
If I could go back, I wouldn’t put so much pressure on my depressed companion who couldn’t get out of bed on time. I wouldn’t talk over my trainee who couldn’t teach the lessons well. And I certainly would not have acted as if “rule breakers” were the vilest of sinners. I would recognize that their imperfections were no more dire than mine.
If you want to remain emotionally stable throughout your mission, abandon right now the need for you or anyone else to be perfect. As Steinbeck said, “Now that you don’t need to be perfect you can be good.” Focus on being a good person, not a perfect person, and you will find you are better person than you were when you were trying to be a perfect person.
3. Be You
Nowhere else in the church is there such a push for conformity as the mission. Elders dress the same, talk the same, teach the same, follow the same basic schedule, and share the same “first name.” Restricted from external media and relationships, missions develop their own highly insular cultures where conformity is not only desired, but required.
I hope that as Elder [Last Name], you also remember that you are also [First Name] with your own attributes, talents, and needs. It is your authenticity and individuality that will endear people to you, not your uniform or title. Learn to place the value of your relationships on that genuine human connection, rather than on your ecclesiastical expectations. If your love requires a person to follow a religious commitment, is it really love?
You have a great sense of humor. Don’t let it go to waste. For the first months of my mission I took myself WAY too seriously and suffered as a result. If you think God will disapprove of laughter, lightheartedness, play time, or discussion about life outside the mission, then you may want to reconsider the message you are delivering to people!
If you have a Plan of Happiness to teach others, make sure you have a plan of happiness for yourself. Get enough rest, eat enough food, make jokes, exercise, and RELAX when you need to. You will be far more effective if your physical, mental, and emotional needs are met.
I hope you appreciate this advice. I share it because I truly believe you will never regret implementing it into your life. Even though, while you’re in it, baptismal stats and key indicators and white handbook rules seem like the most important things in the world, eventually they will not be a part of you anymore.
When you get home, nobody will care if you were a zone leader of if you baptized 100 people or if you were super obedient to the letter of every little law. However, people WILL appreciate you so much more if you have become intellectually humble, gracefully imperfect, and refreshingly authentic.
I love you and I’m excited to hear about your adventures!