“For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul.” (Doctrine and Covenants 4:4)
When President Monson announced the change in missionary age limits in October 20121, it drastically changed Mormon culture. Suddenly every worthy young man could begin his mission immediately after high school and every young woman could enter the field at age 19. Since then there has been a huge influx of young people choosing to serve. With this growing number of missionaries there has also come an increased number of early-return missionaries. Some of our greatest youth are going into the field only to experience complications that prevent them from safely serving as a missionary for the expected amount of time. While their counterparts return to a hero’s welcome, these Elders and Sisters return to a quiet, sweep-it-under the rug treatment. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we generally treat early-returned missionaries as outcasts. But we’re not really sure how to treat them, are we? They don’t fit the missionary mold we’ve created, and so their service and sacrifice isn’t celebrated like the missions of those who were able to serve for one-and-a-half or two years. But early-return missionaries still chose to serve. They sacrificed just as much if not more than the rest of our missionaries and most often they did nothing sinful to cut their time short. Yet they are still treated differently, and they feel different, from those who served a “whole” mission.
Then there are those who serve for the expected amount of time but who don’t feel they’ve made a difference. They set no records, they never led their mission in tracting hours and despite their best efforts, they came home with no baptisms. (Or they baptized a couple people only to see them quickly fall into inactivity.) Many of these sincere, hard-working Elders and Sisters come home feeling defeated, wondering whether or not they really had any success out in the field; whether their time out there really meant anything.
Why? What separates all these Elders and Sisters from the rest of the missionary force? The answer is numbers. The number of years, the number of baptisms…numbers. Mormon culture seems to celebrate these superficial indicators above all else.
Now, I am not trying to uproot one bad cultural feature only to leave another in its place. I don’t think all missionaries think of success in terms of numbers or that every member of the Church harbors false ideas of what makes a good mission. What I am saying is our culture has a tendency to get caught up in the wrong indications of missionary success. I’m saying that when strong and worthy missionaries have reason to feel less accomplished than their peers based on cultural attitudes, then maybe it’s time we tweaked our collective paradigm and re-examined an important question: how do you measure the success of a mission? I believe the answers to this question are important to every full-time and member missionary in the Church.
From the day they enter the MTC till the time they fly home, it seems all missionaries have one thing weighing most heavily on their minds: baptisms! Missionaries must learn to teach about baptism, extend baptismal invitations, perform baptisms, and fill out baptismal records. They set a baptismal goal every month with their companions, and they report regularly to their leaders on the number of baptismal commitments they get. Baptisms, baptisms, baptisms! So a successful missionary is one who comes home with lots of baptisms? No!
Don’t get me wrong. Baptism is a very important ordinance. Jesus said “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). But do baptisms really indicate the success of a mission? How were Abinadi’s baptism numbers? How would his weekly report have looked? What about Moroni? He should’ve just had more faith and then he could have baptized all those angry Lamanites, right? (Sure, he safeguarded the gold plates and all, but his numbers didn’t quite meet the standard of excellence, you know what I mean?) What about Joseph Fielding Smith? Did you know he served as a missionary for two years without baptizing a single soul?2 Not one! Was he a worthless missionary? Of course not! He was a future prophet! He was a wonderful man and a chosen instrument of God.
So, unless you call Abinadi, Moroni and Joseph Fielding Smith unsuccessful missionaries, clearly you can’t measure a mission in baptisms.
I don’t know of a Mormon parent who would not be proud of her son or daughter being selected to serve in a position of leadership while on his or her mission. I am also unaware of any Elder who would not be proud to be made a district leader, zone leader, or A.P. That’s only natural! I think any missionary who genuinely abhors being recognized and appreciated by his mission president should probably check to make sure his last bike accident didn’t cause some brain damage. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be better, after all, he who is “faithful in a few things” shall be made “ruler over many things” (Matthew 25:23). It’s only when we use our position to measure our success that it becomes a problem.
Contrary to what some missionaries tend to think, missionary leadership positions have nothing to do with divine authority. The current “offices” of district leaders, sister trainers, etc. weren’t even invented until recently. Back in the 1940s missionaries were supervised by a district president, who was often not even a missionary. Where a whole district presidency could be organized, a supervising Elder was appointed and the local missionaries would consult with him about proselytizing 3. The 1946 missionary handbook says: “Realizing that all elders are equal in the priesthood and brothers of equal station in the common cause, he [the supervising Elder] never drives or compels. It is only to avoid confusion and promote harmony and efficiency that one is appointed to supervise the activities of all.”4 The current handbook likewise states “Like all callings in the Church, each assignment has its own importance; an assistant to the president is no more important than any other missionary.”5
Are leadership positions bad? No way! “Harmony and efficiency” get my vote any day. But are positions good indicators of success? Nope!
Ammon is probably the most revered missionary of all time except for Jesus himself. But did Ammon “make it to A.P.?” Au contraire! What was the position he aspired to? Sheep herder! The guy could have been the king’s son-in-law and he decides to be a servant instead (Alma 17:22-25). Was Ammon a successful missionary? Oh, yes. Was he a great leader? Absolutely. Was he ever in an official leadership capacity? No. Never. Clearly you can’t measure a mission on leadership position.
“Two years” and “mission” have become almost synonymous in Mormon culture. “The best two years of my life” is a common idiom and when a Utahn mentions having lived “two years overseas” in a secular setting, you pretty much know exactly when and why he did it. Missions are seen as a tithing on the first twenty years of a Mormon boy’s life.6 But this, too, is only a recent phenomenon.
It is a well-known fact that the first Apostles of our dispensation served many missions, each lasting various lengths of time. Apostle Moses Thatcher remarked in an 1882 general conference that he had been “more or less in the missionary field since [he] was fifteen years of age.”7 This program evolved until 1939, John A. Widtsoe observed that “The practice in the Church is that those who accept missionary calls go… on a term mission varying in length, but usually not serving more than two years.”8 In 1966 the length of a mission was still elastic, with foreign missionaries serving “for periods of two or three years.”9 In 1971 it was announced that sister missionaries and senior couples would serve for a period of eighteen months,10 and by 1982 that became the standard term of service for all missionaries.11 In 1985 the Church changed that policy, leading to the current model of a two-year mission for young men and eighteen months for young women.12
In the 75th annual general conference of the Church, Charles W. Penrose said “More than fifty-three years ago I was called to go out, as a boy, to lift up my voice and proclaim the truth of the Everlasting Gospel… I did not think about laboring for for a year or two years, or three years, but to labor until I was released… So there is no particular term for a mission.”13
So can you measure a mission’s success by whether or not it lasted for eighteen months or two years? No. It’s different for everybody. For Ammon and his brethren a mission meant over fourteen years of service. Samuel the Lamanite only got to preach two lessons before his term was up, and Jesus served in his earthly ministry for about three years. It’s not the length of time, but what you make of that time that counts.
Answering the Question
“Alright, Mr. Provo Mormon Dude. We get it! You can’t measure a mission in baptisms or positions or years. How, then, do you suppose a mission ought to be measured?” Good question, rhetorical heckler! (My rhetorical heckler is great. He’s abrasive, but he always knows just what to ask.) The answer is found in the first pages of Preach My Gospel. “Your success as a missionary is measured primarily by your commitment to find, teach, baptize, and confirm people and to help them become faithful members of the Church who enjoy the presence of the Holy Ghost.”14 I would go so far as to shorten that phrase to “Your success as a missionary is measured primarily by your commitment.” The success of any missionary can easily be measured by his or her level of commitment. The most successful missionaries aren’t those who tallied up a bunch of baptisms, worked their way up the ladder and called it quits after two years. Rather, the most successful missionaries are those who, like our Savior, were committed to their missionary calling until the very end.
“Alright, dude. That’s all well and good. How, then, are you supposed to measure commitment?” (Man, rhetorical heckler, you are on fire today!) It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? It’s so much easier to measure a mission by those other, superficial things. Those are, at least, tangible. One’s level of commitment is not so easily tracked. Still, Preach My Gospel gives some answers to this, as well. According to that monumental book, you can know you’re a successful missionary through several indicators, which include: feeling the spirit testify to others through you, loving people and desiring their salvation, helping to build the Church wherever you’re assigned to work, and, most importantly, developing Christlike attributes.15 I believe these things follow any missionary who is committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Why do we serve missions? What’s the point of having missionaries? It’s to serve God and spread the gospel. It’s not about numbers. Whether you served for two years or got twenty baptisms isn’t the point. We’re all here with a divine commission to feed the Savior’s sheep. Will we be counted more worthy if we managed to throw the most grass in front of the sheep in a set amount of time, or if we managed to be recognized as the official “assistant to the shepherd,” or if we clocked in the most hours on our shepherd timecard? I highly doubt it. It’s our commitment that counts in the end. And whether you’re a freshly-returned missionary having just stepped off the plane after two glorious years, or you’re a tired member missionary just trying to make it through one more week, it’s all the same. If you’re committed to Christ, you are successful. By the way, Christ is more committed to you than you know. And He is, after all, the one who makes missions matter.
- Monson, Thomas S. “Welcome to Conference.” Ensign, November 1, 2012.
- LDS Church. “Joseph Fielding Smith: Tenth President of the Church.” In Presidents of the Church Student Manual, 164-179. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012.
- LDS Church. “District Administration.” In The Missionary’s Hand Book, 113. Revised ed. Independence: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1946.
- LDS Church. “District Administration.” In The Missionary’s Hand Book, 114. Revised ed. Independence: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1946.
- LDS Church. “Missionary Leadership.” In Missionary Handbook, 55. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2006.
- Riess, Jana, and Christopher Kimball Bigelow. “Called to Serve: Missionaries and International Growth.” In Mormonism for Dummies, 232. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub., 2005.
- Thatcher, Moses. “The Mission of the Holy Ghost.” Journal of Discourses 23 (1882): 204. http://jod.mrm.org/23/196.
- Widtsoe, John A. “The Missions of the Church.” In Priesthood and Church Government, 337. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1939.
- McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine. 2nd ed. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1966. 509.
- First Presidency. “Programs and Policies Newsletter.” Ensign, June 1, 1971.
- Arave, Lynn. “LDS Programs Evolve over the Years.” Deseret News, October 3, 2006. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/650194860/LDS-programs-evolve-over-the-years.html?pg=all.
- LDS Church. “Two-Year Missions Return for Single Elders.” Ensign, February 1, 1985.
- LDS Church. “Length of a Mission.” In The Elders’ Manual, 22. Independence: Missions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1918.
- LDS Church. “My Purpose.” In “Preach My Gospel”, 10. Salt Lake City, Utah: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004.
- LDS Church. “My Purpose.” In “Preach My Gospel”, 10-11. Salt Lake City, Utah: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004.
Austin Wrathall is the writer of the weekly blog Provo Mormon Dude, which examines life in Utah Mormon culture. Austin was born and raised in West Jordan, Utah and is currently attending BYU pursuing a degree in Social Science Teaching. Besides writing, Austin’s favorite pastimes include swimming, playing Angry Birds, and doing anything that involves Star Wars.