So you’ve decided to serve a mission? Fabulous! I hope your mission prep classes are helpful and that you’ve scheduled time to go out on splits with local elders or sisters. Your bishop has probably given you some great advice on how to prepare, and hopefully you’ll read a good mission prep book or two.
But despite all your efforts to hit the ground running, there will still be some things about missionary life that will catch you off guard. Here’s a little heads-up about three things that Church members often don’t talk about that you can expect on your mission.
1. Transformation isn’t automatic; you’ll get what you put in.
Have you ever met an RM that just really impressed you? The kind of person that somehow radiated that powerful combination of confidence, knowledge, and humility? Maybe you heard them speak in sacrament meeting and thought, “I wanna be THAT girl / guy when I get back!”
Here’s the thing—becoming that kind of person doesn’t just happen to you, as if you were driving through an automatic carwash, coming out all sparkly on the other side while you coast in neutral.
Nope, if anything a mission experience is like a “scrub it yourself” place where you pay what you want and clean your car as much (or as little) as you choose.
Some people go on missions and just wait for the mission experience to happen to them. They get set apart as a missionary and are somewhat surprised to look in the mirror and see the same person looking back at them. Nothing feels different. Then they arrive at the MTC with the same study habits they had in high school, they laugh at the same sort of jokes, and they go through all the motions of what a missionary should do, all the while just waiting for something amazing to turn them into a super missionary. And then before they know it, they go home a year and a half to two years later pretty much the same person they were before. What a missed opportunity!
What they don’t realize is that the transformative power of Christ’s grace isn’t something that just happens to us, it’s something that happens with us.
We have to be willing to change, to act and think differently than before. We have to be willing to struggle against our old selves, to put into practice new habits and new attitudes, to gain a new perspective, and to institute new behavior.
You may feel like a rookie when you begin this journey of becoming a powerful missionary. Even with little more to offer God than a few metaphorical loaves and fishes, you can find that His grace will combine with your sincere, humble efforts and somehow multiply them into a feast grand enough for all.
As Ezra Taft Benson once said, “Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life” (“Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” Ensign, Dec. 1988, 4).
To help make this transition happen, try practicing the skills of the Explorer and the Reflector.
Missionary Explorers are ready and willing to find transformation through answers from the world around them. They frequently ask “What can I learn from this person? How will this experience teach me?” They are excited to study with others, to absorb new insights and teachings, and willingly admits their ignorance and areas in which to improve.
Missionary Reflectors seek for transformation through answers found within. They regularly set aside time for pondering and introspection. They examine past choices and experiences carefully, unraveling them to find understanding and insight. They are excited to study on their own, to discover light and truth by digging deep in contemplation.
Whether you’re an Explorer or a Reflector (or sometimes both!) be sure to record your learnings in a journal and share them with others in talks and testimony meetings. Pick one or two new skills you want to put into practice and track your improvement, even if taken only in baby steps. Before you know it, you’ll be able to look back on your early self in the mission field and see just how far Christ’s enabling grace has brought you.
2. Decisions aren’t always inspired, so be forgiving, flexible, and faithful.
Sometimes we buy into an idea that missionaries are constantly being led around by inspiration from person to person, as if every single navigational choice was made by the heavens above. We’ve all heard stories of elders and sisters finding precisely the right person at just the right time or being led to just the right door, so naturally, we may expect that to be the norm, not the exception.
But the reality is that more often than not, you'll be left to make your own decisions and to figure out what the best course of action is, with no promptings one way or another. You won’t always have specific directions from leaders or promptings from the Spirit telling you what to do with every minute of your day. In charting your course through the proverbial wilderness of missionary life, you may be hoping for an iron rod but instead may find yourself with more of a Liahona—vague ideas of where you should go, but no details as to how to get there.
Such a lack of direction might feel uncomfortable for some, even downright scary! We knew some missionaries who just withered with anxiety when trying to work without supervision. They were so worried about making the wrong decision about what to do that they’d rarely arrive at any decision at all! They thought God was supposed to plot out every step of every day, and when such inspiration wasn’t forthcoming, they felt abandoned and alone. They wanted guaranteed success before taking a single step.
On the other hand, we also saw missionaries who were excited by the openness and freedom they experienced. They saw every day as a new chance to be creative and explore ideas of how to teach the Gospel and serve the people around them. Rather than asking God what He thought they should do, they studied it out in their own minds, came up with their own decision, and in their prayers basically said, “God, we think we have a good plan, so this is what we’re going to try. If we get off track along the way, please let us know.”
Sometimes they’d have success, and sometimes they didn’t. If it didn’t work out, they didn’t lose faith; they’d regroup, figure out what went wrong and what they could learn from it, and try again. They relished in the occasional inspiration that came while they were moving, even if they sometimes failed along the way.
So if you find yourself without a clear roadmap of how to do your daily missionary work or how to solve a sticky situation, don’t fret. As long as you’re trying to listen to the gentle promptings of the Spirit and humbly doing your best, you’ll keep moving forward. Now, I’m not saying that every choice or decision you make will be the best one, but that’s why God reminds us to keep working “in all patience and faith” (D&C 21:5).
So hold on to the hope that it all work out for your good, and until then, be patient with yourself and others when you get it wrong.
3. Make eye contact, not iContact.
A friend of mine has connections to the Missionary Health Committee and shared an interesting tidbit—one of the most frequently reported sources of anxiety for new missionaries at the MTC is “technological detox,” or having to suddenly face a world with no electronics, after having a phone in their hands almost non-stop for the previous several years.
Yes, you will likely have an iPad to help manage your time and contacts, and yes, you will likely have a cell phone for basic texting. But the vast majority of your time will be spent face-to-face with others, with no ready internet connection to use for quick answers, random distractions, spur-of-the-moment laughs, or meaningful connections to loved ones.
The best thing you can do now to prepare for it is to practice living it yourself. You don’t need to go cold-turkey, but perhaps you could start scheduling some tech-free time for several hours a week. (Sundays would be a great time to start.)
Try leaving your phone at home next time you go shopping or out with friends. Set a usage time-limit for yourself on your devices, and stick to it. Establish a daily routine of getting outdoors every day, tech-free. Make a hard and fast rule that you’ll only respond to messages or texts at a particular time at night, after your regular mission prep study has concluded.
Preparing to serve a mission is hard work, so remember that you’re not expected to be 100 percent perfectly prepared by day one in the MTC. You’re not just “called to serve,” but as the great anthem reminds us, you are “called to serve Him.” It’s His mission you are working on. His name is on the tag next to yours, and it’s Him you’ll try to bring people to. When you put your hands in His in full humility and faith, you’ll see Him work wonders in the lives of those you love, and especially your own.
Now get out there and teach someone, my friend. You have so little time.
Lead image from Getty Images
Ben Bernards shares additional ways you can prepare for your mission in Faith and a Life Jacket: 7 Truths for your Eternal Mission, available at Deseret Book.
Don't just be prepared—be prepared well. Ben Bernards, popular youth speaker, presents this adventurous book of seven guiding rules and lessons to help train a new generation of missionaries. These invaluable lessons, from God's measure of success to unexpected difficulties in the field, will apply to any missionary's call, readying them for the great and challenging experiences of the Lord's work.