As a child, I counted down the days until I would turn 12 and graduate from Primary. The worst part of Primary for me was the singing. I hated to sing. The only exception to this rule was when we sang: “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission.” I always knew I would be a missionary—only a few simple things stood in my way. I never imagined one of those barriers would be my parents.
Shortly before graduating from high school, I talked to my parents about my plans to serve. “If you want to go on a mission, then you’re on your own,” they told me. “You’ll have to do everything yourself. We’re not going to help you. Not everyone needs to serve a mission.”
I was shocked and upset. Aren’t most parents proud of their children’s decision to serve the Lord? I had prayed and asked if I should serve. My answer was clear: “You already decided long ago. You have been called.”
Why My Parents Felt Conflicted About My Mission
Years later, I asked my parents why they did not want me to go on a mission.
My father’s reasons were very practical. He never served a mission and was unfamiliar with what to expect. He was trying to look after his son and wanted his children to have access to him anytime they needed advice or support. My father related the following:
Many times I have seen young people being pressured into a prescribed outline. Often members of the Church assume it is essential for every young man to go on “that mission.” I had great concerns for your safety, both physical and mental. Those things kept me awake at night.
It was also crushing to think of you leaving home for two long years, only being able to hear your voice twice a year. I knew you would come back a different person, and I loved the person you were then . . . no changes necessary.
The MTC was a terrible experience. Leaving you there was brutal. I somehow expected to come home comforted and edified, but no such thing happened. I think it still counts as one of my worst days. Your mom and I spent the bulk of the next two years in a kind of mourning.
When I asked my mother, she responded with the following:
It is funny how two people can sit in the same room at the very same time, both exposed to the same sights, smells, and sounds and see things entirely different. I vividly remember sitting in Primary (as that’s where I served most of your growing up) and watching you sitting on a chair. Your legs did not quite touch the floor, and they would swing back and forth as you attentively watched the proceedings. There you were, in a little red sweater and tan pants singing “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission.” That’s when the stark reality hit me that perhaps, even at a very tender age, and with the best of intentions, you were being “programed” to serve a mission, whether it was right for you or not.
I felt then, as I still feel now, that deciding to serve a mission is completely the responsibility of the individual who is going to serve. I was the first person in my family that had the opportunity to go to college. My parents never finished high school. Your education was very high on my list of priorities in fulfilling my responsibility as a parent.
When you made the decision, we tried very hard to support you in any way we could but each step was agonizing. . . . So in a nutshell, that’s why I held onto your hand as you tried to fulfill your dream . . . because from my side of the room, it more closely resembled a nightmare.
When I Had to Choose Between Honoring My Parents or Serving the Lord
Sometimes in life we are faced with seemingly opposing commandments. For me, it was honor your parents or serve a mission. What do we do when commandments conflict?
Christ taught, “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” (Matthew 19:29). Sometimes, we are asked to choose between family and following the Savior. Deciding between “obeying” my parents or leaving them to serve a mission was extremely difficult for me at the time.
Looking back, however, it was also a blessing. Personally, I have seen the most growth in my life when I am faced with a choice. Will I heed the Spirit and continue to follow the path that is meant for me, or will I become distracted and take the easier way? In these moments, I return to the inspiring counsel of the prophet Nephi, who taught: “And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31: 19-20).
What Blessings Came from the Difficulty
I had wished for a Hollywood missionary farewell, but maybe my experience was not much different from thousands of other missionaries who leave their families to serve. I wonder how many other parents hide similar sentiments or concerns about their own children in a culture that places such high value on serving a full-time mission.
But even my parents, after several tense months, agreed to help me prepare for and even fund my mission. I could not have asked for more supportive parents from thereon. Looking back, I wish they would have shared their concerns to help me understand their reservations.
Even though my parents were not excited for me to leave home for two years, they still grew from the experience. My father said:
I could see a growth in your “people skills.” You developed a skill to be able to converse with ease, engaging other people who may not share your ideology. You are able to focus on what they are saying and feeling. You give other people the respect of eye-to-eye contact and your undivided attention. You are also able to respectfully disagree without demeaning the other person. All these skills were honed and purified by your mission.
We saw another side of things when we were able to go pick you up. It was a special honor to go meet some of your friends and the people you taught. It was very revealing to see you through their eyes. In their faces, I saw that you had done your job well. It made me very proud of the man that you were becoming. I saw that you had gone into the world prepared, that you came home ready to go on and build your own life, and that it was now time to let you fly.
Our prayers were answered when you came home healthy and strong. You also seemed ready to embrace your future education that we had felt was so important. Maybe you needed the two-year break.
My mother also identified several positive results:
As your mom, it was extremely gratifying to see you accomplish a goal that was very important to you, and to see you do it with all your heart, might, mind, and strength. You applied the same discipline and energy to your mission that you did with everything else that you had accomplished in your life up to that point. You set such a great example for your family.
Even though it was hard, it was good for me to see you prepare by yourself. You did all the important preparation, and we just bought the suit. . . You were the first person in my family in 100 years to serve. Perhaps you had an ally on the other side of the veil cheering you on.
I think your service to others has been immeasurable in your own personal growth. That is a blessing that will keep giving back all your life and into the eternities. . . .
Your mission was great preparation for the rest of your life, especially in your profession. Maybe all counselors, should go out into the world and serve for two years. It, almost certainly, helped you see the world in a wider, more honest way.
How We Can Prepare and Support Each Other
Missions can be difficult. I knew many missionaries who went because they did not want to disappointment their parents, because their friends were going, or because they believed no one would marry them if they were not a returned missionary. Often these pressures can be disabling. The decision to serve can be extremely challenging for the missionary as well as their family. It’s important to recognize this reality as you move forward with faith.
Although my parents were initially unsupportive, we continued to have ongoing open conversations which helped us understand each other’s perspectives more fully. Having conflict is a natural part of any relationship. Talking through differences and finding ways to connect through meaningful experiences is essential to foster healthy relationships between parents and missionaries. Remember, the eternal relationships you are cultivating with your family are more important than “winning the battle” over whether or not to serve a mission.
As a psychologist, I feel strongly that individuals receive the support they need through challenging transitions in life, including serving a mission. I hope that both missionaries and family members can be open to receiving physical and mental health treatment to adequately care for themselves as they make sacrifices to serve and support others.
In counseling, I’ve worked with many individuals who harbor lingering regrets years after returning home early from their mission due to physical or mental health concerns. Remember that the Lord is grateful for your service regardless of the length of your mission. If you struggle with this, I hope that you come to accept your service as your loving Heavenly Father already has.
I am grateful that I was able to share both the rewarding and challenging experiences of serving a mission with my friends and family. Even though I was away from home for two years, I became closer to my parents, and was extremely grateful for their support. Now as a parent, I hope what I’ve learned will help me support my children as they make decisions in the future regarding their own missionary service.
Lead photo from Getty Images.
Cameron Staley is a psychologist and author. He has written several articles about the Book of Mormon for LDS Living. His unique perspective and love for the scriptures led him to write the remarkable untold story of the Lamanites in his novel In the Hands of the Gadiantons, which is available online at deseretbook.com. You can read his LDS Living articles, and the first chapter of In the Hands of the Gadiantons, on Cameron’s blog: inthehandsofthegadiantons.wordpress.com