My first child to leave on a mission was my son Ryan. I handled his departure in a very masculine way: at his farewell and at the airport I remained in control of my feelings. But the pain of separation was killing me.
The next morning, the pain of his leaving was so great that I went home in the middle of the workday and rummaged through our videos until I found one with footage of armies of missionaries at the Missionary Training Center singing “Called to Serve.” I cried for 30 minutes.
Those tears were complicated. I felt pain that he was gone and joy because he was where I thought he should be. There was concern for his safety and the challenges I knew he would face and for his learning, growth, and development.
The pain and fear made me pray with more intensity. My son’s departure opened a window between God and me. I had a desire for God to not only protect my son but to support me and to inspire me as to how I could help him.
That was 25 years ago. Missionaries today still face the challenge of separation, and at an even younger age. Unlike Ryan, who was able to leave home for a year and attend college before serving his mission, today’s missionaries likely have less experience with living away from home and may need more support than ever before. Therefore the question arises, is there anything more that we as parents can do?
Don’t underestimate the power of weekly letters.
When a missionary departs to serve, the spiritual development of the entire family can be accelerated, as the whole family grows closer than ever before. Letters, notes, and journal entries from this time can become a sacred record for posterity.
The key to such growth is communicating with your missionary in a way that is authentic and inspired. That begins when we ponder our missionary’s letters and prayerfully discern their deeper spiritual needs. The only person who knows our sons and daughters better than us is our Heavenly Father, and He can inspire our thoughts. As we study and pray about what our missionary needs, we become spiritually animated and, like Nephi, write the things of the Spirit for “the learning and the profit of [our] children” (2 Ne. 4:15).
Of course, letters don’t have to come from parents to have impact. In the 10 years it took for five of my children to serve missions, we developed a way for our whole family to get involved in writing inspired letters, including mom, dad, siblings, and siblings-in-law, which broadened the opportunity for inspiration and brings the entire family closer together.
Be your missionary’s best investigator.
While serving as a mission president in Australia, I asked our missionaries to do the same thing I asked my children to do: write letters of increased spiritual power to their families and friends back home. We told them their most golden investigators were the people that run to the computer every week to check for their letters. Their loved ones at home were hungry for information and therefore open to powerful messages.
Their first job was to know Christ and to effectively invite their loved ones to Christ. They could do this by recognizing, cherishing and sharing their most important stories and experiences that shape who they are spiritually.
We told them that if they did this, they would soon get letters describing how their service in Australia was converting people at home. Three things happened.
First, they willingly accepted the idea of making a difference in the lives of those they loved. Second, finding, cherishing and sharing their core stories with loved ones back home made them more effective teachers in Australia. Third, the lives of family members and friends were altered in significant and even eternal ways.
One missionary, for example, was worried about his sister back home who was inactive and facing difficult challenges. Each week he wrote of his most Atonement-centered experiences. He shared the following story:
One day she read one of my emails that talked about how the Savior not only took upon Himself our sins, but that He also felt every emotion we felt, that he experienced all the trials in life that we would go through so that He could personally help us in our times of need. She was a little skeptical about this. However I kept writing to her about the Atonement. One day she couldn’t carry her heavy load by herself anymore and thought she would go and try to put what I had been sharing into practice. She applied those things that I had written in my email and this is what she wrote to me:
“I had the most sacred and spiritual experience of my life. For the first time, I have gained my own personal testimony of the reality of our Savior. He is very real and I know He has a personal love for me."
She went on to say, “Oh, by the way I thought you should know, because of you and your emails, I am now back at church and I am loving it!”
Of all my converts that I had helped, my sister was the most important. This was one of the sweetest moments of my life.
But missionaries don’t need to be the only ones to share these life-changing stories. One of our missionaries learned to appreciate the impact of writing and receiving this kind of letter while she served her mission. After returning home, she resolved to continue the tradition during her younger sister’s mission. The younger sister wrote home:
I loved the letters and felt like they were scriptures and would study them during my morning studies. For me they were a great spiritual feast and I would get so excited. . . . I am so grateful that my sister sent these to me EVERY WEEK.
Encourage your missionary to share their experiences with friends and family members, and share your own testimony-building experiences with them in return. You will both find an increased joy in and connection to the Savior and the Atonement.
Strive to write more meaningful letters.
You can do for your missionary, what the before mentioned missionary did for her sister. By looking for the hand of God in your life, studying the scriptures, praying, and following the guidance of the Spirit as you write to your missionary, you can become more spiritually intimate with your missionary and begin a positive cycle that will bless generations.
Here are some steps that you can take to write more meaningful letters to your child:
1. Step out of the “expert parent role” and become an equal with your missionary in the search for Christ. Communicate as an adult speaking to another adult.
2. Ask them to authentically share the real challenges they face and commit to not judge them or interfere with their mission.
3. Purify yourself and prepare to be open to the Spirit.
4. Read their weekly email or letter and highlight any concerns or questions.
5. Look for, record, and share your experiences with God.
6. Keep track of inspired messages you hear in talks, lessons, and in your daily scripture study.
7. Create a mind map of the topics you highlighted from their letter and associated experiences, scriptures, and impressions.
8. Write a draft of the letter early in the week and then continue to pray about it and think about it and re-read and re-write it. Let the letter evolve as revelation enters your life. Embrace this as scripture study with a new focus.
9. Be sure to share your own personal “core stories.” These are the moments in your life where you see God’s hand. Committing to do so will also help you to search and find the hand of God. Writing them will make your communication more sacred. Your missionary will eventually respond in kind and the record will bless everyone—even long after their time as a full-time missionary is over.
10. Explore the idea of having others (family members, friends, ward members, even nonmembers) join you in a small, spiritual community that focuses on the missionary and shares with each other.
My wife once observed this positive outcome from the collective writing process. She said: “I now have what every mother wants but never gets: I know what each of my children is thinking and feeling.” As I stopped to consider this, I realized it was no small miracle. As we take time each week to write to our missionary children, we can become of “one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18).
You can read more about how to lift your missionary and unify your family by reading the authors’ book: Letters from Home. The book includes helps on how to write and 24 letters written to missionaries about specific challenges they face in the mission field. These letters can help you better understand what your missionary is experiencing and also inspire your own letters to them. You can find more information at www.lettersfromhomebook.com, or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.