My mission was different from what I thought it would be. I imagined I would knock on a door, the father of a family of six would answer, and the entire family would be baptized the following Saturday. Throngs of investigators would gather around the baptismal font and feel the Spirit and they would all be baptized the following week. I imagined sending home weekly pictures of me with my investigators dressed in white ready to become members of the Lord’s true church.
To be completely honest, my first few weeks in the Spain Madrid Mission was a little bit of a shock for me – culturally and spiritually. I doubted my abilities to speak the language, and even in the strength of my own testimony. I remember thinking, “Could I really do this for 2 years?” I loved my mission – there isn’t a day I don’t think about how it has blessed my life. I want you to love your mission. Since being more fully prepared will help you in that endeavor, here are a few things I wish I would have known before I served. Some of them took a few months in the mission field to learn, others took a few years after my mission to learn.
1. Working with members is more than just asking for referrals.
In order to get referrals from members, you need to gain their trust. They aren’t going to send some random people they barely know wearing dresses or ties to visit their loved ones. You will need to gain their trust by getting to know them and letting them get to know you. Attend ward activities where you might have opportunities to talk with members in a less formal setting. Find opportunities for service where members will be – show them you are a hard worker and capable of getting things done. Help members understand they are putting their friends and family in good hands.
2. You are a literal representative of the LDS church.
If you go to McDonald’s and the cashier is impatient and short, you are going to have a bad taste (no pun intended) for McDonald’s – not the cashier. Their interaction with you reflects poorly on the company. By wearing a name tag with the name and logo of the church, you are representing the church. If you leave your smelly garbage in the hallway in your apartment for your neighbors to see, they might not know you, but they will know you are missionaries of the Mormon church. If you are seen having shopping cart races in a grocery store, you are going to leave a bad taste about the Church because you are wearing a nametag. Understand that your nametag bears the name of the Church, which bears the name of the Savior. Be sure to act accordingly.
3. Not all missionaries are perfectly obedient.
Before I became a missionary, I thought all missionaries were sinless and perfect. Missionaries were little angels sent straight from heaven. I remember being a little shocked my first few weeks in the mission field when I discovered that neither was true. Don’t be surprised if your companion drinks Mountain Dew or has a tattoo. They are trying to be better just like you. We all come from different backgrounds and life experiences. Don’t judge someone because they sin differently than you.
4. Obeying all the mission rules isn’t easy.
There will never be a time in your life that you will have so many “rules” and such high standards as you will while serving as a missionary for the Church. If your mission president tells you not to take naps, you might feel guilty when you fall asleep during lunch study. Getting up every morning for two years straight at 6:30am might be a challenge for you if you are a night person. Understand that if you or your companion sleep through your alarm and don’t get up until 7:06am, you are not vile sinner. Repent and get up on time tomorrow. The mission rules are strict and can be difficult to keep – do your very best.
5. Be obedient.
The rules outlined in the white handbook and others implemented by your mission president are in place to protect you and your companion and help you keep the spirit that missionaries need to be successful. Don’t ever think that a rule doesn’t apply to you. If you obey the mission rules with the same zeal and dedication that you would approach any other commandment, you will be a better missionary.
6. Spirit of the law vs letter of the law.
In our mission, we were supposed to be in our apartment at 10:30pm. One night we ended up back at our apartment door at 10:25pm. We decided to be exactly obedient and stay out for 5 more minutes. We decided to make a quick lap around a park that was close to our apartment. We ended up making a street contact around 10:28pm which would cause us to be out late. My companion and I followed the spirit and decided to stay out and finish this contact. Had we not been obedient and stayed out those 5 extra minutes, we never would have made that contact. Had we not followed the spirit and stayed out past 10:30pm, we would have never made that contact. This one contact led to a family being baptized. Follow the mission rules, and follow the spirit.
7. People aren’t rejecting you, they’re rejecting your message.
I remember walking through a park once and making an attempt to contact a man walking with his wife. As I started, “Hello, we are missionaries for the Ch…” he cut me off and waved his index finger in my face and just said, “No.” Despite my attempt at a rebuttal, he persisted in his finger waving inches from my face just saying, “No.” As my frustration mounted at his less than polite gesture, I remembered an important principle I had been taught earlier in my mission – he wasn’t rejecting me personally, he was rejecting the message I was trying to deliver. Don’t take rejection personal.
8. Missionary work is work!
You will never work harder in your life than you will as a full-time missionary for the church. I remember being in shock my first Sunday in the mission field when I learned that the Sabbath would no longer be a day of rest full of naps and relaxing dinners with my family. Missionary work can often involve walking on your feet for hours or bicycling dozens of miles on little sleep. For service in one area, we would push adults in wheelchairs around the block, uphill both ways. On top all that, when you are not on your feet or a bike, you are studying and learning.
9. Your mission isn’t just for those without the gospel.
I remember feeling discouraged while serving my mission because our investigator pool had drained to virtually nothing. As I was sharing this with a leader in my mission, they taught me that a mission is also an opportunity to serve all people, not just those without the gospel. This can include your companions, the members, and even yourself. Even when you don’t have investigators, you can still focus on helping those around you grow in the gospel.
10. Be yourself.
I will never forget Elder Reader. He loved video games more than anyone I knew. He loved talking about video games with anyone that would listen – members, non-members, and fellow missionaries. Elder Reader taught me to be myself and to use it to advance the Lord’s work. It took me a bit to understand this concept, but once I finally figured it out I became a better missionary. I love basketball. While tracting, we would often challenge teenage boys to a friendly basketball game in the park. We would always make the deal with them that if we won, (my companion was 6’4” and played basketball in high school, as did I) they would have to let us teach them about Jesus. If they won (which they never did) we would go on our way. We taught dozens of first discussions using this technique. The Lord blessed you with a love of video games, soccer, dancing, singing, computers, whatever it may be. Be yourself and use it to advance His great work.
11. The conversion process takes time.
The conversion process may take several days, or several years. You might want someone to get baptized next week, but they might not be ready until next year. Understand you are on their time and the Lord’s time. Help them progress as far as they are willing, but understand they have their agency.
12. Follow the counsel of your leaders.
Listen to your district leader, zone leader, mission president, stake president, bishop, and anyone that might have stewardship over you. Odds are they know something you don’t and they want what is best for you and for the work. Follow their council.
13. Have fun.
Men (and missionaries) are that they might have Joy. Find something that you consider fun (that is responsible and within the mission rules) and do it. Basketball tracting was fun for me. Playing ping pong at the chapel with the youth in the ward on preparation days was fun for me. Eating ice cream and sharing mission stories with other m
issionaries was fun for me. These things will help you stay sane as a missionary.
14. Plant seeds (testify) wherever you can.
Odds are you won’t have the opportunity to see everyone you come in contact with enter the waters of baptism. You do however have the opportunity to testify and plant seeds with everyone you come in contact with. While on my mission I gave someone a Book of Mormon with my testimony written in it while knocking doors. Months later a missionary serving in that same area had informed me that the individual I gave the book to moved out and left the book in the apartment. The individual that moved in to the apartment picked up the book, read my testimony and started reading it. I testified and planted the seed and someone was able to nurture the seed later. Plant seeds and have faith in the Lord’s timing.
15. Allow the missionary work to continue long after you’re gone.
As a missionary, you will someday return home. Try to avoid having those you teach convert to, or because of you. Make sure they have a firm testimony in the gospel of Jesus Christ, not the gospel of Elder Jones. Let your personality shine through and build friendships with those you come in contact with, but know that the most important thing you can do is ensure that when you depart, they don’t. Make sure that the members have strong friendships with your investigators and converts. Be sure to keep good records for the missionaries that come after you.
16. Set realistic goals that you can control.
Set SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. I struggled with goals at the beginning of my mission simply because I forgot people have their agency to choose. You can make a goal to baptize 35 people in one transfer, but that goal may not be realistic. It’s not because you’re not working hard or you’re not a great missionary, but simply because that goal does not take into consideration the agency of 35 other individuals. Set goals that you have control over, like contacting and testifying about the prophet Joseph Smith or getting 5 hours of weekly service.
17. Trust your trainer.
As a new missionary fresh out of mission prep and the MTC, you will think you have this mission stuff all figured out. If you have that attitude like I did, you will be in for a shock. Your trainer has been prayerfully considered and called to act as your mentor – trust them. Your trainer only wants what is best for you and will not lead you astray. Hopefully they will ask your opinion and consider it. But if your companion says that you are going to go help a less-active member move rocks in a field, don’t think that because it isn’t gospel related that you shouldn’t be doing it.
18. Be teachable.
Be willing to learn and try new things both spiritually and temporally. Having an open mind is important when you are hundreds or thousands of miles from home living with a stranger possibly speaking a different language. Be humble and let those that are more experienced teach you.
19. Embrace the culture.
Love and embrace the traditions, language, food, living conditions, and personalities of those where you serve. Where I served, people would often end up inches from my face during a conversation. When this first started happening, I felt very uncomfortable would often back up to keep my personal space. Eventually I learned this is how they were. It was part of their culture and a sign of an intimate, personal conversation. I accepted the fact, embraced it, and often found myself doing the same. If they serve you a traditional meal of morcilla with criadillas (blood sausage with bull testicles) grab a fork and knife and dig in! If you love the people and how they are, they will love you and hopefully accept your message.
20. You will reflect on these 18 or 24 months for the rest of your life.
You may think that 18 or 24 months is a long time, but the decades that come after are much longer. If you keep in mind that you will think about the time you served as a missionary for the rest of your life, you will be a much better missionary. Make the most of the time you have as an authorized servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.
21. Don’t “grade” your mission by the number of people you see get baptized.
Many missionaries will judge how good of a missionary they were by their number of baptisms. This is wrong. There are many great missionaries that have very few baptisms. The number of baptisms you may or may not have is not only subject to the principle of agency, but other external factors including family circumstances, and the religious history or prominence in the area you serve. If you are testifying, working hard, serving others, and keeping the mission rules, you will be a great missionary, regardless of how many people you baptize.
22. Missionaries that pay for their missions are better missionaries.
One of my young men’s leaders told me this before I served – I made a goal to pay for my mission. I worked incredibly hard before my mission and saved enough to pay for my mission. Not only did I learn how to work hard before my mission by working several jobs to save, I also valued my mission more as it was coming out of my own pocket.
23. Keep a journal.
You will have incredibly spiritual experiences that you will never want to forget while serving as a missionary. Write these feelings and impressions down so that you can recall them and share them with others after your mission. I am proud to say that I didn’t miss a single day of writing in my journal for two years straight. I challenge you to do the same!
Agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your opinion. Feel free to comment below!
Brandon is the husband to an incredibly talented soccer mom, a father to the cutest 4-year old twins you have ever seen, and the doggy daddy to two Goldendoodles named Jake and Penny. Brandon has served in various church capacities including full-time missionary in Madrid, Spain, youth instructor, Young Men’s Presidency, Executive Secretary, temple worker, and Elders Quorum Presidency. Brandon is the owner of LDSBookstore.com which has been featured as one of the fastest-growing companies in Utah. He enjoys playing basketball, ping-pong, and throwing his twins in the air.