Several years ago a bishop stopped me in the hallway and said, "President Bott, I’m not interested in a 28-hour lecture (the number of hours I teach Missionary Preparation classes each semester). I’ve been asked to speak at sacrament meeting on what makes a successful missionary. I want to focus on the one characteristic most likely to result in a successful mission."
He obviously didn’t want to hear about my lifetime of missionary experiences. Putting my wounded ego aside, I answered: "I can’t give you one, but I can give you two!"
"From you, that’ll probably be good enough,” he said. “Shoot."
"Diligence and obedience," was my response. Then I elaborated: "If a missionary is diligent, but not obedient, he’ll not be sensitive to the whisperings of the ‘Still Small Voice’ so essential to doing the Lord’s work His way. If the missionary isn’t diligent, he may be obeying the mission rules—but won’t be where he needs to be, when he needs to be there in order to be the instrument in the Lord’s hands to accomplish His will."
That answer seemed to satisfy the bishop, who thanked me and left. Then this question crossed my mind: "What should parents do to help their son or daughter serve an honorable mission?" There are three basic preparation periods, each requiring constant vigilance.
Although mission preparation begins at birth, it should intensify by the time the child reaches the age of twelve. Think about what missionaries do, and you’ll be able to identify needed areas of attention. For instance, missionaries teach. Help your future missionary learn to organize a talk, use effective body language, and control voice inflection and volume. Teach him to be sensitive to the audience, and how to fit the talk into the allotted time.
Right now you may be saying, "but I don’t know how to do those things myself." Maybe not, but you’ve attended many more meetings than your child has, and likely have a built-in sensor of what works. Give your budding missionary multiple opportunities to speak in public. Family Home Evening lessons provide a friendly (sometimes only semi-friendly) audience and what may be a very willing and vocal group of critics. Nothing comes closer to real missionary work than Home Teaching or Visiting Teaching. Encourage your child to teach most of the lessons to the assigned families.
Primary and sacrament meeting talks, firesides, youth conferences, substitute teaching at Primary and a hundred other opportunities are available.
Young people sometimes need serious training in using appropriate language, especially when speaking with adults. Terms such as "dude," "rad," "cool," may endear them to their peers, but ostracize them from adults they’ll be called to teach. If tics or habits need to be eliminated or modified, you’re in the best position to help.
Washing their own laundry (no colored with whites!), keeping their rooms tidy, doing their own grocery shopping, and cooking their own meals give teenagers a huge head start when they enter the mission field.
Teaching personal hygiene and grooming habits early eliminates the need for the mission president to spend valuable time training your missionary in the basics of living with companions. These necessary life skills allow him appear in public without offending those he’s called to serve.
Make sure fledgling missionaries have ample experience in following through on difficult tasks, even when they don’t understand their relevance. This gives them valuable experience in following mission programs and policies that may sometimes seem illogical. Teach them to work faithfully all day long, day after day, and they’ll excel as missionaries.
#2: Full-Time Service
It’s vital to continue your support while your missionary serves. Writing to your missionary every week—whether or not you get letters in return—is essential. It broke Sister Bott’s heart when she had to write some parents and ask them to send letters to their missionary at Christmastime. Each year we wrote two dozen such letters because parents failed to respond. What message does that send to the missionary?
Avoid making missionaries homesick by providing too many details of family vacations and special events. However, don’t try to isolate them from some of the tragedies of life. When a grandparent or significant other faces a terminal sickness, keep your missionary informed. If you have a troubled marriage that’s likely to end, let the mission president know so he can offer your missionary needed support.
Encourage your missionary to focus on the day. Let the mission end only after it’s been fully served. Remind him to obey all mission rules. Try to read between the lines when your missionary writes. When she’s feeling down, write words of encouragement. When he’s being kicked around by the adversary, send scriptures and quotes to help him through the tough times. Help her to always remember that she represents the Savior—and that He didn’t have it so easy, either. If she wants the same reward (exaltation), she must be willing to go through the mini-Gethsemanes and Calvarys He endured. Teach your missionary to finish strong, as the Savior did. Remind him that only one in every 110,000 people on earth have the honor of serving the Savior as full time missionaries.
Return with Honor
Finally, help your missionary return home with honor, then readjust to normal post-mission life. It’s time for her to move ahead to the next exciting chapter in her life. When you meet at the airport is a good time to note, "Stewardship goes downward, not upward.” Gently remind him he doesn’t have priesthood responsibility to call to repentance members of the family—especially his parents!
“Returned missionary" is a misnomer. The concept doesn’t really exist. While missionaries are released from their missions, they can never return to where they were before they had that experience. That ground evaporated they day they entered the MTC. Far too many returned missionaries try to regress to their pre-mission days. Their dress deteriorates, crudities begin sprinkling their speech, and their recreation becomes increasingly worldly. They may have gone through the mission—but in too many cases the mission hasn’t gone through them.
Keep them focused on the temple, on Church service, on daily scripture reading and on fervent prayer several times each day—just as they did in the mission field. The key to post-mission life is balance. It’s like walking a tightrope—you can fall off on either side. Too often, returning missionaries attempt to remain on their mission. Others try to recapture pre-mission life. Neither course will bring happiness.
Helping missionaries come home without losing the spiritual edge honed on their mission can require more effort than it took to prepare them for full-time service. It’s time to focus on preparing them for marriage, adult Church responsibility, rewarding careers and eternal life.
Encourage your missionary to capitalize on gains made in the mission field and apply them to all vital aspects of life: intellectual, physical, spiritual and social. Your returned missionary can then move moving ahead, confident the promised blessings for faithful service are his or hers for the claiming.