There is no doubt about it: missions are different for everyone.
So many variables are involved, from the missionary to the mission president to the area to the companion and beyond. To try and create a standardized set of guidelines to help all missionaries in all situations is a fairly impossible task. I have so much respect for those who serve with missionaries in any regard. Missionary work in the Church is truly a miracle!
However, as someone who faced trauma on my mission and has counseled with a lot of other missionaries in the years since I’ve been home, I’ve thought about some changes that would have greatly impacted my mission experience.
There are personal. They do not represent every missionary or every mission story. They definitely aren’t meant to be a criticism or a prideful call to change, though I can see how it would come off that way.
I share them simply as the musings from the mind of someone who loves the mandate to share the gospel and wants to see all missionaries thrive, no matter their individual circumstances.
1. Full Preparation Day
Once a week, missionaries take care of their personal needs. This includes grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning, and writing to their family. Missionaries arise at the same time (6:30), follow the same 2-3 hour study schedule, and are back out on the street by 6:00 PM to proselyte.
For me, preparation day was one of the most stressful days of the week. It felt impossible to do everything we needed to do without rushing everywhere. An added element to this hectic day is the unity companions need to have on how to spend their time. It can be easy to say just take a nap all day, but what if your companion is insistent on playing sports and games with the other missionaries? Or vice versa?
The Missionary Handbook states, “Use this day [preparation day] to prepare so that you can give full attention to proselyting during the rest of the week.” I believe one of the most personal need is resting the mind and heart. If a preparation day was a full day, those extra four hours could provide extra time for missionaries to rest, take their time, and be spiritually recharged.
2. Set Self-Care Standards
You may be surprised to learn the Missionary Handbook mentions nothing about emotional or mental health. The Adjusting to Mission Life guidebook does a better job providing resources for managing stress and emotional demands. However, self-care standards are not often regulated or talked about through a missionary’s service.
For example, I had a very clear physical exercise regimen every morning. Stretch, run, plank, stretch. It was the same, every morning as mandated by our mission president. It was wonderful for staying in physical shape to meet the physical demands of missionary service.
On the flip-side, we never really discussed self-care standards. What are some things we could do every day or every week to make sure we were staying emotionally and mentally healthy? Setting or even suggesting some standards in the missionary handbook could help mission presidents and mission leaders have a better idea to help their missionaries.
This is especially true because standards and “rules” vary by mission presidents. In my mission, we were not allowed to take naps. We did not even have furniture in our apartments because they would entice us to stay inside. We had a plastic folding table for a desk, a plastic chair, one plastic dresser, and a bed.
There were so many instances when I had a companion break down because of exhaustion and they would cry because they wanted to be exactly obedient. By setting some basic guidelines on self-care, mission presidents around the world would have a better idea on how to help their missionaries help themselves.
3. Limit Unnecessary Corrections
Speaking of being exactly obedient…
Since coming home from my mission, I have been an ordinance worker in the temple. Over the last five years, I have seen a major shift away from perfectionism and towards kindness. While we still strive to maintain correctness when it comes to the ordinances of the temple, we have been instructed by the Church to avoid any correction that is not absolutely necessary. I think this can be applied to missions as well.
The number one struggle I hear about from returned missionaries is the battle with perfectionism. Many describe mission rules and mission life as strict to the point of inducing shame.
Get out of bed at 6:31? No baptisms for you!
While serving my mission, I faced an extremely tragic and shattering loss back home. A few weeks after the death of my step-father, I went on a companion exchange with the sister leaders in our zone. It is important to note this was before sister training leaders had been implemented. Throughout those weeks, I had struggled to function. I wanted to put my best effort forward during the exchange. I tried to look nice and wore a headband a friend had sent me in a care package to try and comfort me. It was a simple band with a slightly puffy flower on it.
After a day in my sister leader’s area, we sit down at night. She proceeds to correct me and tell me how inappropriate my headband was and asked me to take it off.
I cried and cried, unbeknownst to her. I never trusted her after that. I never told her how I really was, though she had never taken the time to ask. While I recognize it is hard for young mission leaders to try and deal with very intense situations, limiting corrections and focusing on applauding effort can change the heart of all missionaries.
4. Change Key Indicators
In recent months, the Church has made changes to the key indicators recorded and reported by missionaries. Key indicators are designed to help missionaries achieve their purpose, which is:
To invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.
Currently, the key indicators are:
People baptized and confirmed
People with a baptismal date
People who attended sacrament meeting
New people being taught
I served in California, in an area rich with members and people. It isn’t the stereotypical place where you don’t think you’ll have “success.” However, we rarely had people to teach and would go months without teaching. I spent 9 months in a single area and never had a baptism. We never had more than two people to teach at a time. Every time we would stand up and say, “In this mission we…BAPTIZE!” my companion and I would shrink into our shells.
We weren’t the only ones. Preach My Gospel states:
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.
If success as a missionary is measured by internal commitment, it seems conflicting to use key indicators driven by the agency of others to measure success. Key indicators impact everyday life. You set goals around key indicators. You track key indicators daily. You report them daily, weekly, monthly. They are constantly on your mind.
Yet, while I can influence those around me, I cannot control them. I can teach about the Sabbath Day with a powerful spirit, go to someone’s door on a Sunday, and offer invitations, but I cannot make them go to church. Key indicators should be focused on measuring what a missionary does to achieve their goals. I would have been much more inspired to keep track of key indicators such as:
- How many people did you invite to be baptized?
- How much time did you dedicate to finding new people to teach?
- How many people did you invite to Church?
Of course, we need to report on the current key indicators. It is important to talk about people in this categories to ensure they continue to progress. However, setting a number of goals around these? For many in my mission, it simply became a painful joke.
5. More Companion Exchanges
Socialization is so important to staying sane! Some of the greatest blessings I received came from my interactions with other missionaries. Increasing the ability of missionaries to spend time in other areas, especially if they are struggling, can help missionaries open up and get the help they need. This is especially true of mission leaders. Had I spent more time with my sister leaders, I may have trusted them enough to talk with them about my issues.
My mission president wasn’t able to respond to my letter every week. He couldn’t talk to me for hours during an interview day; a few minutes was all we had. Utilizing mission leaders to truly connect and talk with missionaries in their area can help relieve this heavy responsibility and make sure more serious issues are being addressed.
I am eternally grateful for my mission. I would not trade away what I learned or my experience. I do not believe I know better than anyone else when it comes to how things should be done. As I stated at the start of this, I think what the Lord and the Church does with missionary work is a miracle. However, I am passionate about supporting missionaries and continually being a voice in the discussion on how we can continue to work together to support missionaries around the world.