Making Peace with Missionary Work

Tweny years ago today, June 15, 1988, I entered the Missionary Training Center and began my 24 months as a missionary assigned to the Korea Seoul West Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’d like to take this moment to offer all my mission companions, every missionary I knew, both my mission presidents, all the people I ever taught, all the members I ever interacted with, the Korean people as a whole, and the church my deepest apologies, and ask for their forgiveness…because, as a missionary, I really sucked.

This isn’t because I was one of those “jackass missionaries” that Rusty attacked so eloquently last year. Sure, there was plenty of misbehavior on my part during the 22 months I was in Korea, but nothing that approached the style, the brazeness, the pure ignorant goofball foolhardiness that some of my fellow missionaries reached for, and often obtained, back then (and which some elders continue to aspire towards today). No, I fear that the causes and consequences of my poor performance as a missionary had little about them that can be romanticized or made into a good story, which I suppose is why I’ve done so little thinking about or sharing of my mission in the years since. I did attempt to put some ideas down at first, and did attempt to stay in contact with some fellow RMs for a while, but there came a point when I managed to pack most all of it away somewhere, and throw away the rest, and I was happy with that.

Basically, I was an arrogant, self-pitying, socially inept, judgmental, doubting intellectual smart-ass, right from the start. I went on a mission because, of course, I was supposed to go on a mission, because I’d never considered not going on a mission. And so there I was, a young misfit with an enormous amount of unrepented and complicated sinful and psychological baggage and with barely a clue of how to deal with it. And so I went through the motions. But it didn’t work; within a day upon my arrival in the MTC I was bitter and confused and paranoid, even as I tried to show off my smarts and find some sort of niche. I found the rules in the MTC bizarre, the strange mix of jock culture and cheesy spirituality (two words: “MTC basketball”) distasteful. And I hated myself for not repenting hard enough, for not seeking for the spirit constantly enough, so as to be able to stop disliking it, or even to stop condemning myself for disliking it. I spent hours in private prayer (when you add it all up, that is…I’m no Enos, I’m afraid) hidden in some shrubs in back on one of the MTC buildings, pleading with the Lord to sent me an assurance of the truth of the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith or the validity of priesthood ordinances or anything. And then I would wonder: did I not receive anything because I was breaking the rules by sneaking away from my companion? Or maybe I did receive something, but I subconsciously talked myself out of it? Or maybe the trial of my faith just wasn’t over yet?

The pattern continued into the mission field. The work bored me, and then I berated myself for being bored by the work. Mission life was stultifying, and I condemned myself for not truly consecrating myself. I was desperate to ingratiate myself into what passed for cliques and networks and common points of experience amongst my fellow missionaries, but then would turn around and zealously condemn those very same things, almost just to see if going the self-righteous prick route might work. It didn’t. I didn’t have the spirit; I didn’t feel guided or inspired or blessed. (What was the cause? Was it the tape of Michael Jackson and Moody Blues and Cheap Trick songs I’d bought for cheap from a vender outside a military base? The fact that I’d desperately grab and hide for late-night reading a copy of every English-language newspaper I could find? My naughty dreams? Of course it was! So I’d give all those things away and repent of my hormones in a dramatic and heartfelt flourish, making pretentious promises and sacrifices to the Lord, and then weeks would go by, and nothing would change.) Ultimately, I was just filled with doubts, doubts that I’ve long since realized are a dime a dozen in the mission field–doubts as to why it was necessary to convert the whole world (isn’t the story that we’re going to be doing temple work 24 hours a day all through the Millennium, anyway?), doubts as to the inspiration behind the innumerable fine distinctions and regulations that plagued us as missionaries (wait, which kind of tea was it that we needed to tell people to stay away from again? I can’t wear what kind of tie? you want me just to make up a number when we didn’t give out any Books of Mormon this week?), doubts as the very notion that someone like mewas one of God’s chosen instruments to reach out to His children (oh right, like God is going to fault someone for not receiving a divine call to repentance when the messenger is a frustrated, self-aggrandizing, foolish American kid who can barely speak Korean). I suppose I could blame a lot of externalities for much of this, and I did, for a long time. But it all eventually comes back to me, to the way I was deeply divided in my feelings, the way I found myself impelled to turn from brown-noser to rulebreaker to repentant peacemaker to super-confident know-it-all at the drop of a hat. The repetitiveness and focus of missionary work demands constancy, maturity, and perspective on the part of those who perform it, and I had almost none of that.

There were good moments, or moments that I came to recognize as good, in later years. I discovered C.S. Lewis’s apologetic writings on my mission, particular The Great Divorce, which I read over and over again. I worked my way through the standard works (all except the Old Testament; I never did finish that), fell in love with the New Testament, and slowly began to develop a grasp an idea of the message behind it all (in a nutshell: thank God for His grace, because God knows we’re nothing without it). I was exposed to instances of terrible poverty, child abuse, sexual desperation, violence, gossip, unrighteous dominon, and invariably came away haunted and humbled by my own powerlessness and lack of comprehension (and even sometimes by my own unknowing, implicit participation) in the face of such. But I also met elders and sisters who maintained their balance, their confidence, their sense of humor, their testimony, through it all. More importantly, I think, I met more than a few good brothers and sisters in the wards and branches I served in, who watched us missionaries with kind bemusement and treated us with far more compassion and respect than we deserved. Finally, I was sent to a ward and thankfully, blessedly, was left there for a year, enabling me to put down some roots and actually develop some friendships that weren’t subject to the politics of the mission field. I can remember realizing one day that perhaps my greatest challenge as a missionary–and as one who feels committed to the church–was to learn how to deal with (in my doubtful, smart-ass, intellectual way) the fact that God really does sometimes, occasionally, without warning, bless people with knowledge and testimony and gifts in answer to their prayers….just not everybody, and perhaps not ever me. And there was another day, one particularly fine day, about a month before I came home, when a bunch of us were able to attend the South Korea temple, and on long the bus ride back, while looking around at everyone else (probably wondering who last had the Billy Joel tape we were surreptitiously passing around and listening to), I realized, with a surety that I’d never known before, that every single person on the bus was every bit as confused and screwed-up and sinful as I was…and yet, that God, somehow, knew us all and took care of us, just the same.

I came home, and all the good I mentioned in the previous paragraph was outweighed by the bad; it look a long time for me to sort through all the chaff, and retrieve that which I decided was worth preserving. At first I was an angry SOB, not wanting to talk about the mission or be reminded of it (except, of course, when I wanted to explain how it was the Toughest/Worst/Craziest Mission Ever, but then I realized that everyone’s mission was the Toughest/Worst/Craziest Ever, except for those who’d had the Greatest/Best/Most Successful Mission Ever). I treated much of my family and many old friends like crap (how dare they have had good mission experiences, the jerks!), closed myself off from others. Within a year I’d thrown away my mission journal (no big loss; just lots of philosophical ruminations and private, wretched confessions of all my resentments and sins), packed away my photos, got rid of most of my souvenirs. I’d survived, and now I was going to leave it all alone. I’d keep the Korean language and my fondness for kimchee, but that’s about it.

Except…I couldn’t truly leave it alone, because we’re a missionary church. Oh sure, I could avoid it for a while; for years, actually. But eventually, Melissa and I were married, and we were living ordinary lives in ordinary wards, and the assignments started coming: who is going to go out on splits with the missionaries this Wednesday? Who can help teach this investigator after church next Sunday? So I had to be active, had to articulate, when pressed, my refusal to proselytize. I won’t have anything to do with it, I said, so don’t ask. I will not teach, I will not preach, I will not put myself out as a representative of the gospel of Jesus Christ in that way; I’ve already done that, thank you, and I hated it. Oddly enough, my rigorous stand turned out to be something less than a mighty rebuke that scandalized all around me; they just stopped asking me (until somebody else would be called as ward mission leader, and then they’d start asking me again), and in the meantime, the church’s missionary program–everything that I disliked about it, as well as everything that, as I got older, I found myself sneakily admiring–just kept on rolling forward.

I’ve seen myself change, over the past two or three years. I no longer grumble when Melissa’s invites the missionaries over for dinner the way I used to, and I don’t mock them afterward with the frequency I once did. Sometimes I ponder about missionary work, and I’m more serious, and less snarky, about it than I have been in years past. The big breakthrough came when we moved to this ward in Wichita, and I was called to be a ward missionary, and I accepted. I’m still not sure why I did that. I mean, Mormonism is for me, but I’m pretty certain it’s not for everyone, and I kind of doubt you have to accept Mormonism or its ordinances–in this life or the next–for Christ to save you or perhaps even for God to exalt you. So it’s a bit of mystery to me, as I drive the missionaries around to their appointments and suggest scriptures for the curious to read and ponder. Maybe it’s because I was tired of being a member of this community, but eschewing one part of it. Maybe it’s just because I’m almost 40, and I’ve come to doubt that a lot of the things I was so emphatic about twenty years ago–even if I think my judgments from back then are still fairly legitimate today–are really worth making such a big deal about now. Or maybe it’s because I’ve figured out that I have something to share, and the context of sharing, of compassionate service, of messages of recognition and hope coming from lives touched by the goodness of Jesus Christ–or more importantly, messages that are contained in His words themselves–is often desperately needed, regardless of whether it’s accepted or whatever it leads to. That’s something, I suspect, that nearly every good missionary probably knows, even if the rhetoric and requirements of the environment they’ve thrown themselves into prevents them from saying so or even fully understanding it; the language and ideology of numbers and goals and reports and baptisms is just too strong. But that’s all right, I think: any program they commit themselves to–the Peace Corp, the military, the public school system, the job at the phone company, whatever–would have its own controlling language and ideology, and somehow, at least sometimes, the context of sharing and service shines through all the same.

I guess even I did some service, too, back then, though it’s hard to be sure how and when. (Is this where I’m supposed to put in a reference to how many people I baptized? Two.) Anyway, I’m glad I served. I can’t imagine what person I would be if I hadn’t. I have no real expectations, and no particularly strong desires here, but I do hope that the young men that I now work with will go on missions. I look at them and I think: honestly, they’re coming up on 19 years old; are they really going to try to tell me that they’ve got something better to do with their life at that age? I didn’t, and they probably don’t either. So go and serve, I say, the moderately hypocritical recovered (recovering?) missionary. Look at it this way: at worst, you’ll go, and you’ll suck at it, and the rules and the organization and your companions and the expectations will drive you mad, and maybe you’ll hate it, and maybe you’ll come home early, or maybe you’ll make it through, but either way you’ll be mixed up, and maybe you’ll be angry about it all, but then twenty years will go by, and you’ll realize that nobody–including yourself–really particularly gives a damn about your feelings or your mistakes anymore. And God will probably just be relieved, because most likely–no, most definitely— He was just happy that you were there, and He was forgiving all your little mistakes and doubts all along.

83 comments for “Making Peace with Missionary Work

  1. I am not a Mormon but I do have the Book of Mormon which I gratefully received from a missionary. I am a Christian who attends a Catholic church. I was reading your post on your other blog and came here to see the two posts related to your missionary experience in Korea. I read them in the order you wrote them. I found both to be worth my time. As part of my own spiritual journey I have come to believe that God is all knowing and all loving. The blood of Jesus has washed away my sins. Not that I deserve it nor have I in any way earned it. It is by His grace and grace alone. I believe His house has many mansions and that there are many paths that lead to Him. I always find it inspiring and helpful to hear other people\’s struggles with faith and faithfulness. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Mormonism is for me, but I’m pretty certain it’s not for everyone, and I kind of doubt you have to accept Mormonism or its ordinances–in this life or the next–for Christ to save you or perhaps even for God to exalt you

    Agreed (mostly, anyways) and this was the big breakthrough for me about missionary work when I came across teachings by Benson and others who said some individuals are purposely placed outside of the church to fulfill certain missions they otherwise could not as members (citing Alexander Doniphan and Thomas Kane as notable examples). This doesn’t change the fact that God has placed us in a church with a charge to preach the gospel to every creature, and since we can’t tell a Thomas Kane from a Wilford Woodruff just by looking at them, we’re obligated to give everyone a chance to accept it and respect their freedom to reject it.

  3. Russell, it took me about 20 years from the time I entered the MTC to come to terms with a lot of my mission-related baggage too. I had to laugh at the part about throwing out your mission journal. I did that too.

    As I started to make peace with it all, I looked up and visited one companion who was within a day’s driving distance, after almost 18 years. One of the first things I said to him was that I was sorry I wasn’t a better companion.

    I’ve made email/phone contact with a couple other comps, but haven’t gone to any reunions or had any other meetings.

    It’s interesting because I just received an email about one of the elders from my ’84-’86 mission passing away due to illness. I remember the name, but can’t place him. But I think he was a companion with one or more of my comps. I may go to his memorial service just as a way of testing the waters to see if I want to go to any mission reunions.

    I like your line: “and you’ll realize that nobody–including yourself–really particularly gives a damn about your feelings or your mistakes anymore. “

  4. I\’m sorry you had a bad mission experience, that has taken 20 years to reconcile. I have had several friends who went to Korea and pretty much all of them had a really rough mission. Something about that place, that language, that culture…the church or at least the American missionaries are just out of place there.

  5. Russell,

    You express quite well some of my own feelings and experiences.

    as a missionary, I really sucked Check.

    pure ignorant goofball foolhardiness Check.

    I was an arrogant, self-pitying, socially inept, judgmental…smart-ass Check.

    The work bored me, and then I berated myself for being bored by the work. Mission life was stultifying, and I condemned myself for not truly consecrating myself Check.

    self-righteous prick Check.

    frustrated, self-aggrandizing, foolish American kid who can barely speak [the language] Check.

    Here’s the thing. I liked all my companions (and loved some of them), I loved every ward and branch I ever served in, my mission president was a great man who never emphasized stats or numbers, and my mission was still incredibly hard. I don’t know if I would have survived a situation like the one you describe.

    I’m glad you have eventually found some peace with it all.

  6. Russell, I am envious that you could so freely throw away your mission journals. As much as I’ve wanted to do so with mine, I’ve never been able to do it.

    I went to England, and felt angry that I wasn’t called to a foreign speaking mission, but I am surprised how much my experience was like yours. You’ve done a wonderful job of putting into words what I think many of us felt as missionaries.

  7. Yeah, it took me twenty years or so to realize that the blackness I felt during my mission was the first sign of depression. Even today, when I hear the crow of a rooster in the wee hours I shudder a little with that same horror and feel–a little–that same blackness I felt at having to arise in the early morning and face one more day of hell. My only claim to glory–on my mission–is that I got up everyday and went out the door and did the work in spite of my misery.

  8. I won’t have anything to do with it, I said, so don’t ask. I will not teach, I will not preach, I will not put myself out as a representative of the gospel of Jesus Christ in that way; I’ve already done that, thank you, and I hated it.

    I used to think being a missionary was as hard as it got; now I think being ward mission leader in one of the same wards I served in as a missionary is an even greater challenge. I share some of the “been there, done that” sentiment and would prefer to sit on the bench, but find myself in the unenviable position of mediating between the demands of missionary work–we need to hold correlation meeting, we need to have joint teaches, we need to have programs, we need to have reports, etc.–and the sticks in the mud who will not be budged at any price. Since I fully understand the reluctance to put a shoulder to the wheel for the umpteenth time without apparent result, I’ve vowed to keep the badgering to a minimum and I hope the ward appreciates it!

  9. Russell, in what really counts you were a success as a missionary. One of the greatest truths in the Gospel is actually found in the Cub Scout motto, “do your best.” All we can do is what is our best at the time. You went when and where called. You kept plugging away at the job despite limitations both natural and self-imposed. you learned a few things about yourself. You came home and built a life for yourself. Anything else, while nice to have, isn’t as important.

  10. “Basically, I was an arrogant, self-pitying, socially inept, judgmental, doubting intellectual smart-ass, right from the start.”

    So pretty much the only difference between you and everyone else is that you are willing to admit to it.

  11. ‘Basically, I was an arrogant, self-pitying, socially inept, judgmental, doubting intellectual smart-ass, right from the start.’

    No! That is not the Russell I knew!

    What a great post. It has taken me about the same amount of time to process a similar kind of experience.

    And has it really been twenty years?

  12. Fantastic post, Russell. I was a very rebellious missionary, but my mission was the making of me in so many ways, I’m really glad I went.

  13. Mormonism is for me, but I’m pretty certain it’s not for everyone, and I kind of doubt you have to accept Mormonism or its ordinances–in this life or the next–for Christ to save you or perhaps even for God to exalt you

    Surely Christ\’s mercy is extended to all regardless. But ordinances aren\’t required of everyone in this or the next life? So God requires only some to partake in ordinances and for others its not required? How do we know which group we fit into? Are baptisms for the dead irrelevant? Was JS off the mark?

    I know this is not what your post is about but I\’m just really curious RAF.

  14. God really does sometimes, occasionally, without warning, bless people with knowledge and testimony and gifts in answer to their prayers….just not everybody, and perhaps not ever me.

    Wow. That made me cry. Wonderful post, RAF.

  15. Thanks, RAF. I can’t relate personally to your experience on your mission, but I really appreciate this post. It was incredibly moving and profound.

  16. Ditto on all the compliments, RAF. This reminds me of some of the ambivalent feelings I have towards my own mission, which I finished not quite five years ago. I did some really stupid, juvenile stuff and have tons of regrets, particularly about the way that I treated some people, both other missionaries and the people we were trying to teach. I tend to think about the good times more often now, and when some of these regrets come to mind, I just kind of think “what did you think was going to happen when you sent a 19-year old to do this?” But your words capture quite poetically the mixture of self-doubt, anger, and ennui I felt almost on a daily basis.

    The thing that I think about most now is what I will say to my own kids when it comes time for them to consider (emphasis on consider) serving a mission. My wife served a mission as well, and seems to have a lot less baggage from it than I do. Do I tell them the truth about my mission? (Then nobody would ever go) Or do I tell them that it was great all around and I loved it and they will too? (And then they will hate and distrust me when it turns out not to be the case.) I think a lot of the rhetoric about the “best two years” and other such ideas feeds into a false idea of what a mission is really like (in my opinion and experience, no one who has not served a mission has ANY idea what it is like, no matter how many bros., sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins went), which turns into disillusionment and compounded self-doubt for those who actually serve missions, but then turn around and perpetuate those stories when we return home just so elders and sisters will continue to go forth to serve. One of my best friends was dating a girl whose father told her that if he was not a great missionary (not just a good, sufficient one) then he would not be a good husband and father. I don’t buy that and don’t think that she did either. I think those ideas tend to complicate and multiply the anxiety of those of us who served as well as we knew how, and still were not very good.

  17. “One of my best friends was dating a girl whose father told her that if he was not a great missionary (not just a good, sufficient one) then he would not be a good husband and father.”

    Sisters Monson, Uchtdorf, and Eyring might have an opinion on that.

  18. I went to England on mine, it was probably the most difficult thing I have ever done. I can’t imagine it with a foreign language and culture. Although it was a bit deceiving in England, there were so many similarities, but always just a bit off. I sometimes thought it might have been easier if I had gone someplace where things were NOT so similar. This resonated with my own experiences. I’m looking back over almost 40 years and what you wrote here brought so much of it right back. When I got home, I remember saying something to the affect, that I thought I had a testimony when I went out. But it wasn’t strong enough, I had to struggle to make it stronger to be able to stay. I stayed and finished the two years, and my testimony did get stronger, and I had some deeply spiritual experiences, but they were little oasis’s of spirituality in what amounted to a lot of really dark frustrating times.

  19. RAF,

    Today is also the anniversary of my entrance into the MTC (14 years ago). I, too, have been thinking about the whole experience and I can say that your words stand in well enough for my own that I am comfortable offering an “amen.” Thanks.

  20. Carosgram: thanks very much for taking the time to read and comment; I’m happy that you found this story of “faith and faithfulness” to be worth your time!

    Mephibosheth: I like your summation very much: This doesn’t change the fact that God has placed us in a church with a charge to preach the gospel to every creature, and since we can’t tell a Thomas Kane from a Wilford Woodruff just by looking at them, we’re obligated to give everyone a chance to accept it and respect their freedom to reject it. I agree, though I might go further, and say that I kind of believe that the Thomas Kanes and Wilford Woodruffs of the world have, in some very fundamental sense, the same standing before the Lord, and that He has plans for all of them, however or whether they ever encounter Mormonism or not. As covenanted members of this church, we can’t help but want and believe that every Thomas Kane could be, or should be, all things being equal, a Wilford Woodruff. But while it may be my lot to embrace and work towards that end, that doesn’t necessarily make it true.

    Bookslinger, Mark IV, Kari, Jack, James, Ronan, Kevin Barney, Ann, Ray, SC Taysom: thanks for your kind words, sympathy, and thoughts, all of you.

    Ranger, I used to believe that there really was something particular about Korea, that there was some very specific combination of how the missions worked there or how the church was organized or how difficult the language was or whatever that made a mission experience there especially trying. Now, I’m kind of dubious of that. I do think, just based on anecdotal observation, that there is a greater than typical ratio of Korean RMs that turn to philosophy or some other intellectual endeavor in partial attempts to reconcile the difficulties they went through, but that doesn’t necessarily spell any conclusion; no doubt there’s dozens of other observations that could be made about other mission fields that might work out the same way.

    Peter LLC, regarding I’ve vowed to keep the badgering to a minimum and I hope the ward appreciates it–I’m sure they do (and I wish you luck, considering the priorities of the church, in being able to keep it up).

    Julie, actually I have to disagree with you: there really were, and are, humble, balanced, socially well-adjusted, selfless, tolerant, authentically believing missionaries out there. Realizing that, admitting it to myself, that the program really does work for some people–just, perhaps, maybe not me–was one of the hardest things I had to learn on my mission. And, in truth, I suppose I still haven’t fully learned it yet.

    Norbert: yes, it really has been 20 years–actually, 21 since we all met up at Deseret Towers. What can I say? I’m grateful that you remember me more fondly than I remember myself. It gives me some hope that I still have some learning to do about these times now two decades in the past.

    Kevin J., all I can say is that I’ve found myself, over the years, becoming a bit of a universalist: I really do suspect that if a Catholic, or a Baptist, or a Mennonite, confesses that Jesus is the Christ at the last day, then that’s all that matters. Do I think temple work is effacious? That is, do I think that baptizing someone for the dead gives that soul the opportunity to make a covenant to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Yes, actually, I do: it’s not something I have a firm testimony of–I don’t really have a firm testimony of anything–but it is something I believe. Do I think temple work is necessary to the salvation, exaltation, and ultimate destiny of the dead–that such covenant-making is the only way back to God’s presence? Um…I’m not sure. Very possibly not.

    AHLDuke, what you say here–Do I tell them the truth about my mission? (Then nobody would ever go) Or do I tell them that it was great all around and I loved it and they will too? (And then they will hate and distrust me when it turns out not to be the case.)–sounds very much like what goes through my mind every time there’s another mission-related lesson I have to teach as young men’s president. I don’t have any good answers. But I do agree with you that all forms of “the best two years” rhetoric are counterproductive, if not actually malicious.

    Earl: oh crap–40 years? You mean I’m still going to be processing this stuff two more decades from now?! Someone just shoot me.

  21. RAF, a great post. Your sincerity and honesty in discussing all this is palpable. Thank you for having the courage to share it.

  22. #18 – I already mentioned that I think this post is profound and moving, but I need to add one thing:

    Up to the end of my mission, it really was the best two years of my life – spiritually, but in other ways, as well. It was incredibly difficult, but it was wonderful – and not just in hindsight. I extended for an extra month, even though I was officially engaged, because I recognized the growth of the previous 24 months and wanted the extra growth that month would give me. I grew on my mission in a way that I don’t think I could have done in any other way – and it happened then and consciously.

    I truly respect greatly the way that RAF has come to terms with his mission and the way that he has articulated it here, as well as the others who have experienced similar retrospective understanding – but that is not the universal experience of all missionaries. The experience of each missionary is as varied as the missionaries who serve, and RAF’s (as profound as it was) should not stand here as the “norm” that is presented to those preparing to serve – or in the minds of those reflecting back on their own past – or those who read this post but don’t comment.

    Neither should mine.

  23. #22 – RAF, I wrote my comment without having read yours. Your response to Julie makes mine almost unnecessary, and I appreciate the overall comment as much as the original post.

  24. Russell,

    Good Stuff. Very, very good stuff. The “best two years” phrase can have many constructions and interpretations. I don’t see that your post necessarily falls outside any of them. Thanks.

  25. I do OK, you just brought it all back. I was amazed that your account reflected so closely what I experienced. There IS something, relief, liberating, in knowing that I wasn’t the only one. Especially after reading the comments here as well.

  26. Russell, there are so many ways in which I recognize myself in your experience–and I think that Julie is right, if a bit over the top: most of us are much as you were (though sometimes you are too hard on yourself). I wasn’t a good missionary; I often looked–hard–for anything else to do. I wrestled with doubts. (I continue to do so.) I didn’t speak Korean well. Etc., etc. But I was blessed with a mission president who loved me and who loved the Lord and who felt, as a mission president, many of the same things I felt. I came to love him deeply and, somehow, that made my experience also very different from yours. He helped me understand that my intellectualizing didn’t matter, though he was himself an intellectual. I think he saved my spiritual life. In any case, he made my life after my mission much easier than it would have been otherwise.

    Shanks for sharing this. As you can see, many of us have had experiences like yours. Nevertheless, MANSEI!

  27. Ray, I’m happy we can have some sort of shared understanding here. Honestly, I recognize that my self-created problems really don’t plague the majority, or even a significant minority, of missionaries. The church’s programs really do, when all is said and done, do a pretty good job of preparing missionaries, and helping them deal with what and grow from their lives as servants of the Lord. That just wasn’t my lot, I guess.

    Randy, Guy, my thanks.

    Jim, there’s no single person I was more hopeful would read and respond to these posts than you, so I’m very grateful for your comments, characterized by your typical insight and wisdom. I’ve told you this before (probably many times), but if I were to write a more detailed history of my mission, my discovery of your brilliant, honest, challenging, moving essay “Self-Image, Self-Love, and Salvation” (which had been received by mail and thrown away by one of my companions) was one of the defining moments of those 24 months, though I think I did not fully realize how until a long, long time afterwards. If I have carried anything worthwhile from the mission with me intellectually and spiritually over the years, it is summarized in that one piece.

  28. I think it is important to realize your age at the time. You were quite young and without much maturity or life experience. Hence, I think it is important not to be hard on yourself.

  29. Russell writes:

    Do I think temple work is necessary to the salvation, exaltation, and ultimate destiny of the dead–that such covenant-making is the only way back to God’s presence? Um…I’m not sure. Very possibly not.

    Just for clarity: You personally doubt the necessity of ordinances for salvation, but you don’t deny that the Church clearly proclaims their necessity, nor do you deny that the Church bases a central component of its mission on that necessity. Have I got that right?

  30. Thanks for this post and all the comments. I wasn’t going to comment until I read #18 from AHLDuke and that made me think about how I talk to my children about my mission experiences.

    I think my dad was a good example of how to share a missionary experience. He had some great times. He had some weird times. He had some bad times. He didn’t brush off the whole experience as “the best two years of my life.” We knew it was more complex than that.

    He didn’t get along with the mission president or his wife and did have real cause to dislike them because he developed a health problem while on his mission and the mission president and wife decided it was in his head and kept telling him to stop being lazy. But there was the time they set their apartment on fire (accidental of course) and his love of the culture and his puzzlement about aspects of the culture including the invisibility of the native peoples.

    His mission experience deeply affected his post mission studies and work for several years, but then his life took another turn and he mostly left that all behind for a couple of decades but at some point his work and volunteer opportunities started meshing with his mission experiences again. And then my brother went to the same mission as my dad, which provided another level of depth to his mission experience.

    My mission experience was also complex. Being a sister missionary rather than an elder could make my experience different in many regards. Personality types and mission location probably play a lot into a missionary’s experience. I loved being in Germany but I know that some of the missionaries I worked with were not so happy about it.

    At times we were tired and hungry and wet and could hardly bear the thought of knocking on one more ugly German door. And when I say “ugly” I mean ugly. Some of the doors were so awful that we would pull out our cameras and take pictures. The chorus of “keine Zeit” “kein Zweck” “kein Interesse” would build to a deafening roar. But, to the amazement of the elders that we served with, never a day would go past without being invited in by some humble or kind or cranky person to discuss religion or America or their drinking or the siege of Leningrad.

    I ate some of the most amazing food in my life. I don’t know how on a diet of Sahnequark and Sahnejogurt and Brötchen and Schokolade and Butter that I didn’t come home overweight. Actually, it was those wonderful bike rides through the German countryside and up and down the hills of my last area and walking up and down the stairs of the tenements and apartment buildings. The climb to the top of the Kölner Dom itself was a good antidote for too much good bread and cheese.

    I fought with the mission office about my refusal to memorize all six discussions. I told the mission president point blank one time that he couldn’t transfer me to the city he had just assigned me to. He said, “I’ll pray about it and get back to you.” He did and I stayed in the same area for another month and then was transferred to the city where I ended my mission and had the best four months of my life. Small, crazy, fairly apostate, isolated branch. It was an unfortunate “double dating” district with two elders and two sisters but was never the slightest problem. We were all four comfortable with missionary work and with each other and with the crazy members and the German people and enjoyed the area. We had some great street displays and knew some amazing and wonderful people and were teaching in record amounts. The mission president sent other missionaries in to do splits to see what was going on. I heard later that one of the students we met joined the church, but other than that, we just made a lot of wonderful friends and shared the first two discussions a lot and tried to strengthen a struggling branch.

    So how do I share my mission experience with my children or other church members? Probably share the good and the bad and some of the struggles and some of the fun times and tell about some of the wonderful people and some of the weird ones. I’m still trying to understand some of the experiences and lessons from my mission and there’s no reason why I should simplify my experience in either a positive or a negative way when sharing what a mission means.

    Thanks again for the interesting discussion.

  31. I served in England from 88-90 and for the most part I just remember being exhausted all the time, both mentally and physically. I like to think I was a pretty good missionary and actually enjoyed most of the time; serving in great wards and had great comps, which always made it easier. But I had a lot of stress in the beginning and the big change for me was Benson’s conference talk n Pride. That hit me like a ton of bricks and made the difference for the rest of my mission.
    I also spent the freshman year in DT – W Hall and I met my wife there as she was in U Hall.

  32. You personally doubt the necessity of ordinances for salvation, but you don’t deny that the Church clearly proclaims their necessity, nor do you deny that the Church bases a central component of its mission on that necessity. Have I got that right?

    Not entirely. I don’t doubt the necessity of ordinances for salvation; perhaps not every ordinance is necessary, but some are, surely. Christ made it clear that one had to be baptized, to be born again, to be saved, for example. I’m just not sure that I particularly believe that our ordinances–Mormon ordinances, done by Mormons–are the only ones which God will accept. That’s why I said, up above, that I kind of suspect that Catholics and Baptists and Mennonites who proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ in the last day are good to go. So maybe I should have said I tend in the direction of “Christian universalism,” rather than just plain universalism. I don’t think Muslims can make it to God’s heaven as Muslims, for instance, or Buddhists as Buddhists. (This is because I believe Islam and Buddhism, interesting as they are, are false.) But Catholics and Baptists and Mennonites and Mormons are all baptized Christians, and that means their proclamations of faith and commitment to those promises they’ve made are aligned with the will of the Father, and thus are–I think, I hope–sufficient. (Obviously there’s a lot more to the story than that, and a lot more to my own ruminations about it, but that’s kind of where I’m at right now.)

    As for the second part of your question: yes, I’m aware that the church, from Joseph Smith on down, has emphasized that it and it alone provides the ordinances sufficient for salvation, and no, I don’t teach anything in the foregoing paragraph as part of my position as young men’s president. (Though I’m not sure it would really matter if I did; as is the case in most of the Mormon world outside of Utah, from what I can tell, the primary concern of our bishop is just that people show up and do their jobs.)

  33. Russell, I also just hit my 20th MTC anniversary (May 18). You didn’t mention that splendid 4th of July Afterglow concert in the MTC. Did you arrive just before or after Ezra Taft Benson came to give the MTC devotional that June?

  34. It’s amazing how perspective changes over the years. Success in youth is defined in numbers and accolades. Success in maturity is defined in the change of heart and mind. It’s clear that you had a successful mission even though it has taken you 20 years to realize it. Your life is an evidence of the success of your mission. One of the greatest miracles in this Church is that 20 year old kids are being sent to do this work and it still gets done.

  35. You didn’t mention that splendid 4th of July Afterglow concert in the MTC. Did you arrive just before or after Ezra Taft Benson came to give the MTC devotional that June?

    Ah, Afterglow. Or, as I believe we preferred to say it, “(take deep breath; speak while exhaling) Afterglow.” When I first heard their name, I assumed it had to be an inside joke; but after I actually saw them in the flesh, and heard them perform, I genuinely believed that maybe they really didn’t know they’d named their band after the common term for post-coitus bliss. And yes, I was there for the visit by President Benson. I was, in fact, part of the choir that sang “How Great Thou Art” for him. (He wasn’t in particularly fine form for that visit, if I remember correctly.)

    Donna, I’m really glad you believe I had a successful mission. I happen to think that using words like “success” to describe it makes the term so flexible as to rob it of most meaning, but to each their own. All I can say is that I’m a better person than I was then, and if the mission was an important part of getting me from there to here, then all the better.

  36. Thanks for the post. I’ve been looking for non-traditional missionary experiences to relate to for a while, and was pointed to this and other posts on this site by my wife. Another good reference for me was the play Without Romance by Eric Samuelsen, which I actually saw at BYU when I was there, and left me very uplifted (“The truth is being told!”, I thought), though it has a downbeat trajectory . Without sounding too conspiratorial, I feel like there has been an agreed silence on the realities and difficulties of missions, barring some recent general conference talks that warn young men to get in better shape mentally and physically. At the very least ‘hard missions’ aren’t polite conversation – there are all sorts of judgmental booby-traps that keep people from relating (you didn’t work hard enough/you were’t righteous enough/you didn’t have enough faith — therefore you did not love every minute of it as you should have) maybe in the same way faltering testimonies aren’t. But it’s nice to hear more balanced experiences; a few too many times I was asked “didn’t you just love it?!?!?” at BYU (by RM’s and non-RM’s alike) and had no idea how to respond, but wondered why my experience was so different. Maybe it wasn’t.

    I also really like that you folded yourself into the problem – I’d like to blame a lot of things on my president but I was troubled when I went out and stayed troubled.

  37. Well, I certainly strongly relate to certain parts of your post, Russell (which was fantastic, by the way, as always). Scary. But I’m not admitting which ones. :)

    I still haven’t entirely moved beyond all my mission demons, but with the passage of time, I’ve made it part way. One activity I recommend: Turn your frustrating mission experiences into silly, snarky stories (even the ones that don’t initially seem funny) and share them — over and over and over again — with others, particularly with other young missionaries (really easy to do if you’re WML). Over time, it helps you put things in perspective, and prevents you from staying mired in all the old emotions and frustrations you felt at the time. At least that’s been my experience.

    Aaron B

  38. I went, I did my best. I worked very hard at times, and not so hard at others. I was always obedient, but not fanatical. I struggled with my own weaknesses; I was helped by my strengths. We did some good. We suffered a lot. I was tired, discouraged, and at times, ecstatic. It was the hardest thing I ever did (one year in Iraq, mostly in Fallujah was easy by comparison). I loved my kind, loving mission president. We struggled with lack of success. When I went home, the score stood at 3 baptized, one gone inactive. A few months after I got home another family got baptized. When I went back in 2004 (11 years later), 2 are active, 2 are inactive, one was swallowed by the earth, as far as I can tell. I had reoccurring nightmares about it for years afterward (never did about Iraq).

    But I have no regrets about by choices because I know I did my best, I tried hard, my heart was in the right place, and I was there to serve, not to slack off, or mess around, or to play politics. The same goes for my time in Iraq. My conscience is clean on both accounts, and I sleep peacefully at night. And I recommend it to the young men I teach and to the children I hope to have some day, but I want them to have a clear picture about it. And I help the missionaries in my ward as much as we can.

  39. “I feel like there has been an agreed silence on the realities and difficulties of missions, barring some recent general conference talks that warn young men to get in better shape mentally and physically.”

    I don’t know that this is true, or at least that it need be true. I have taught a number of lessons on missionary service to the YM in my ward, and in virtually all of them I talk about how extremely difficult missionary work is, while at the same time emphasizing that there is real nobility and blessing that come from sacrificing for one’s convictions and for the Lord. In short, I tell about “hard missions” because that is the only kind that I had, including stories about branches devestated by goof ball missionaries and their sexual misbehavior.

    Nor is talking about “hard” aspects of missionary service something that I have done surepticiously when authorities weren’t looking. The last lesson I gave to the YM was essentially a missions-are-the-hardest-thing-you-will-ever-do-and-you-will-probably-see-no-results kind of thing. The first counselor in our stake presidency, the head of the local CES institute and a very conservative, straight arrow kind of guy (his wife has been involved in local anti-porn campaigns), was sitting there saying “amen” through the whole lesson. My sense in the church is that when one discusses tough questions in a way that is non-iconoclastic and that ultimately affirms one’s own commitment and loyalty to the kingdom, one’s fellow saints — even those that you are inclined to think are dogmatic and overly conservative — react with charity and even gratitude.

  40. It was the hardest thing I ever did (one year in Iraq, mostly in Fallujah was easy by comparison).


  41. Twenty years later, I am still struggling about my mission (Melbourne, Australia, 1986-88). While some personalities thrived on the missionary program, I think it was a ridiculous, inhumane situation to put many of us in. The more the years go by, the more mad I seem to feel about it.

    I think one more workable alternative would be to call people for six months and then let them decide how longer they want to do it, if any. I have never felt so much unhappiness as I did during those two years, and I was so done with the mission program by the midway mark that I pretty much wasted the last year. I believe I was getting about 10-12 hours of sleep per day, as an escape. In fact, I’m amazed that I didn’t come home early. I guess I was just too worried about the social pressures, and I suppose I thought the Lord expected it of me.

    Another solution, in my opinion, would be to have local youths of mission age devote their Saturdays to contacting and some weeknights to teaching discussions but otherwise live a normal life. The JWs have a much more workable missionary system in that way, in my opinion. When I think of all the time, money, and sanity wasted on these two-year missions, it just makes me sick. Even the idea that somebody can be satisfied reading just scriptures and a handful of religious books for that long is just way beyond my capacity to fathom. The mission was so full of overblown rhetoric about obedience and purity and goal-setting and inspiration that my B.S. meter finally just shattered.

    I have four sons, and I have not yet decided what I’m going to tell them. I hated the mission and felt it was 95% a big waste of time. I consider it a more nightmarish experience than the six months of chemotherapy and one month of radiation I subsequently underwent for Hodgkin’s disease; if I had to choose which ordeal to go through, I would choose the cancer. I felt that the mission rules were mostly bogus, the companionship pressures and living conditions were ridiculous, and the practice of bothering people at their doorsteps was quite bogus, especially on weekdays when very few doors were even answered. On the other hand, I did baptize one guy who we found via tracting on a Saturday, and he later married in the temple and became a high councilman. But that doesn’t mean that the mission program had to be the way it was in order for us to have found him.

    Whenever I see missionaries now, I truly pity them, even though I know a certain percentage of them are thriving on it. Let the people who like it do it as long as they want, and let the rest of us honorably go home when we’re done. But we live in a one-size-fits-all authoritarian church, don’t we…

  42. Well that’s not an overblown reaction.

    One thing I like about RAF’s post is that he doesn’t take the easy way out and attribute everything wrong to other people and institutions. Looking around the bus and seeing that we’re all damnable down here together is powerful and true.

  43. Perhaps I just one of those smiley-eyed fools who blindly forged ahead in total self-deception and delusion. I was humiliated time and again and perhaps I just pretended that it didn’t matter. The mission life was tough; sometimes excruciating, and I made some pretty big mistakes. Perhaps it was my stubborn nature, but I charged forward in vigorous rebellion against it all. I ignored the consequences of mission life on my body, mind and soul. I spent myself there on the soil in Central America, and if I was going to spend myself in that land of poverty and nameless towns frozen in the 1800s, then I would spend dearly.

    I left a part of myself in that land. I don’t know if I will ever regain that part that was so brutally ripped from my soul. I returned to a family that was bankrupt, to parents who were divorced, and to a mother who was struggling through church and government welfare to feed, clothe and shelter my four younger siblings. I found out the last bit of my mission was paid for mostly by a special-ed teacher and father of 8 who, for the better part of a year, faithfully drove his family to church in their only car: a Volkswagen bug. I helped my family move out of our 6,000 sq ft. mansion into a much smaller, humbler home. The sports cars I enjoyed in High School were sold, and some kind members of the ward chipped in to help buy me some clothes that weren’t tattered from having been hung on rusty barbed wire. I felt I had lost everything.

    The poignancy of those moments burned deep into my heart. I faltered, and just when I was about to fail; when I was about to forsake myself to bleak nothingness; I saw.

    There was no other way, and there is also no such thing as cheap grace.

  44. Wow. Interesting to read these comments, especially #43. Certain aspects of my mission were quite difficult, and some other aspects were wonderful. Granted, the truly wonderful experiences were few and far between. When I returned from my mission I recall stating in sacrament meeting that it was not all peaches and cream.

    I have taken Pres. Kimball’s advice regarding journals and began a project (going on 26 years now) of rewriting my journal. I will not toss the original, but I think I can articulate my experiences sufficiently without using words like “piss” and “prick”, etc. I look back on the difficult parts of my mission now and laugh about them. I guess I missed out on the need for therapy.

  45. Y’all,
    there may be a comment or two that hasn’t been made in the same spirit as RAF’s post, but lets not get in the trap of fixating on that comment instead of the overall post and thread.

  46. Thanks for this, RAF. I hope that I will be able to deal with some of these experiences as positively as you have. While I expected it to be difficult, it was the quarters from which the difficulty came that was unexpected, and consequently most wounding (like many have mentioned, I felt the rules and expectations and some members of leadership often got in the way of really helping people I had come to care about). There are many parts of my mission that I want to “get over,” perhaps to forget (if I thought it possible). I share some of the same frustrations as CB in #43. I usually try not to think about it too much, and allow some more time to pass before I try to decode it; I’m still too close to see it clearly.

    [I have recently heard some scuttlebutt about folks in the hierarchy (specifically those concerned with missionary mental health–who knew there was such a committee?) considering different varieties of missionary service: there are those who thrive in proselytizing, but they tend to have very similar personalities; perhaps there are opportunities to allow for differences in personality without making value judgments about types of service.]

  47. RAF, I read this line: “I was an arrogant, self-pitying, socially inept, judgmental, doubting intellectual smart-ass, right from the start” and thought about the decision process about my mission.

    I didn’t go. Probably because I was an arrogant, self-pitying, socially inept, judgmental, doubting intellectual smart-ass. Some 30+ years later, I’ve come to terms with that decision, too, and know that when I do go with my wife, here in another 10 years or so, I will have moved beyond arrogance. The rest is still all there, but I have gotten over regrets, and look forward to it now. I think I know why I need to go, and and have in some ways come to understand that I can do a work that no one else can do, somewhere that I don’t know about yet. I think I better understand it will be hard, it will be frustrating, and will tax me in ways that I may not be prepared for. But we will go.

  48. Russell, I think I commented in your other blog that I had struggled with my own mission performance, with the futility I felt at most of my efforts, most of the time.

    And I agree with Nate Oman, in that the young men, who are still expected to apply for missionary service, should be told the full scope of that work. They\’re likelier to avoid nasty surprises and shocks while doing the work, if they\’re properly told that it will be more difficult than anything they\’ve ever tried.

    Having said that, I have yet to meet a non-member who, upon learning that I undertook missionary service, decided I was an undesirable person. More than a few have been impressed enough to say so, in embarrassingly glowing terms.

    Like you I imagine I\’ll be processing my experience for at least another 20 years. My oldest son will face this commitment in only 13 years. I don\’t know if that\’s enough time to prepare him, but I still find myself wanting him to undergo the experience.

  49. I just want to add one more “thank you” for this great post. While I would probably be considered a “successful” missionary, I too am very ambivalent about my mission (Russia, 1998-2000), and am often embaressed about how I behaved and some of the attitudes I developed. While I’m glad I went, on the whole, I often find myself de-toxing with fellow RMs who had a rough time (usually those that went to Europe or Asia). Like Earl (above) your post brings some of emotion back, which makes me think I’ll be detoxing for a while, maybe my whole life. Again, thanks for being open enough to share this.

  50. I feel deeply for those whose mission experience has resulted in such misgivings and pain. I hope there is a way for you to come to grips with it. I also agree with the most recent post that preparation for a mission has been woefully lacking, but I see many stakes and wards attempting to address it by having mission prep courses using Preach My Gospel and a rotation of returned missionaries as faculty.

    I have served 2 missions — one as a youth and one as a senior missionary — and I will probably do another. I can say that my experience is that the first mission has been one of the great building blocks of my life and the second has been extra icing on the cake. I went as a young man expecting to have Parley P. Pratt experiences. Well, I had to adjust. I guess i did adjust, because I have mostly fond memories of my mission, with some notable exceptions which arise in the dark recesses of my mind in the dark hours of night. But then again, I have the same dreadful memories about my career, which was successful enough that I retired early. So I guess part of the human condition is a bright recollection of all our guilt.

    When I went out in 1964, we were all set apart by general authorities. I drew Elder Bruce R. McConkie, which did not thrill me at the time. But when I got my blessing, I was pleased and my appreciation has grown throughout the years. About all I remember from that blessing is the admonition to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. I\’m not done with that yet, I\’m sorry to say, so I guess I will be here on earth for a while longer.

    While I have no magic solutions, I can say this. The stakes are high and they are real. Many of our young men will not make it through this life successfully without the experience of a mission. Many will love it — not just a few. I have seen them close up and personal and know their deep gratitude for the privilege. So its hard, yes, but that doesn\’t mean we shouldn\’t do it.

  51. I’m also embarrassed (maybe a bit embaressed too) about my spelling. Spellcheck has ruined me.

  52. Chris Bigelow wrote:

    I have four sons, and I have not yet decided what I’m going to tell them.

    You’ve essentially just told them, haven’t you? Or do you think they won’t have the ability and/or curiosity to Google their father?

  53. Hp, I have to agree with Nate’s comment after yours regarding the “agreed silence on the realities and difficulties of missions”; I believe honest discussions of hard and difficult mission experiences are plentiful, and strongly encouraged. But your comparison of that topic with “faltering testimonies” makes me think you’re actually talking about something else: not hard missions, but failed ones. That is, I really don’t think there’s any conscious or unconscious conspiracy out there to avoid talking about difficult and trying mission experiences, but I do think there’s a real reluctance to talk about the fact that any given missionary might, for whatever set of random reasons, fail to be up to those difficulties. Telling prospective missionaries that the work will be hard and perhaps unfruitful is one thing; telling them that it’ll be hard and unfruitful and they’ll be depressed, angry, bitter and/or confused about it, and really won’t able to handle it, is something else entirely. Though I don’t fault the church at all for discouraging such talk; as the general authorities always say, they teach the standard, not the exceptions.

    Aaron, Carlos, It’s Not Me, Latter-day Guy, Kevinf, Ron, Seabass, Joel, thanks all for your comments and memories.

    Nate, I think I basically agree with you, but see my response to Hp, just above.

    Chris and Joseph, those are…well, some pretty intense reactions. Thanks, I guess.

  54. I hope I didn’t go overboard. I think there are many who pass through these experiences, and to those who really consecrate themselves come the assurance and the peace of knowing they’ve done well according to the Lord notwithstanding weakness and stupidity. This is invariably the case.

  55. I see some evidence of what I think is PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in some of the comments. I had flashbacks (a common symptom of PTSD) about certain mission experiences for years. One of the ways I dealt with the flashbacks and post-mission stress was to focus on the atonement. The atonement covers it all, and pays for and brings about the healing of victims, not just the sins of the perpetrators. We can use the atonement to forgive the people (or the circumstances, or the church, or church policies) that hurt us. And of course we must call upon the atonement to become free of our own sins.

  56. Umm Yeah I definetly fall in the category of Greatest/Best/Most Successful Mission Ever. The most traumatic thing that ever happened was when we got cell phones. It was the end of transfer calls and my companion had the cell phone while we were waiting for the district leader to call. We ended up wrestling and my pride got hurt but I was the much better wrestler in the end and placed my companions head against the leg of a cofee table at which point he screamed “I hate you!” and tried to gouge my eyes out. I taked to my district leader and processed with him because I was so distraught! Other than that not too much trauma! haha well there was some more but this stands out!

  57. Thanks for this post RAF. It is interesting to see other people give a no-holds-barred account of their true feelings about missionary work.

    It might not surprise you that my experience was different (since I’m sure you’ve developed an image of what I’m like from our interactions on LDS blogs). I never describe my mission as “the best two years” because that is meaningless and inaccurate etc. but I think fondly of the people with whom I worked, the geographical locations where I lived, the culture in which I lived, the language that I learned, etc. very regularly. I describe it as a great experience when reflecting on it. This is interesting since I find your description of the nuts and bolts of the experience pretty accurate.

    I highly doubt that East Germany was more hospitable to missionaries than South Korea but that might be the case. Nor was I any less beset by teenage angst, self-doubt, or spiritual faltering than you describe yourself in your post. The mission rules and the attitudes of missionaries playing political games to try to get leadership positions also really annoyed me. The unimaginative and ineffective approach of knocking on doors and doing street contracting also bothered me even as I pushed through each day and felt good about the effort at the end of the day.

    I don’t know why I have ended up with a different view of my mission than you. I knew it was the right place to be and the right work to be doing. To be sure, I had and still have a deeply held belief that the ordinances as performed by the priesthood held alone by members of this Church are vital to salvation, whether received in this life or in the afterlife. (I find the Restored Gospel to be very universalist already.) Perhaps this belief in the necessity of ordinances led me to feel that the work was vital and worth doing, even if the methods we were using were ineffective and despite all of my personal shortcomings, which in turn gave me a sense of satisfaction in the work which was very stressful, difficult, and often very thankless. I felt buoyed up and sustained even though I was worn out by the end and as a result was very ineffective my last three weeks or so.

  58. Bookslinger, I think speaking of all this in terms of PSTD is taking it a bit too far, but obviously counsel to rely upon the atonement is always needed and always appropriate, so thank you.

    Ryan, that’s a pretty funny story. I fear that if I’d served my mission in today’s world of cell phones and whatnot, I probably would have spent an indefensible amount of time trying to connect them to the internet and illegally downloading movies to watch, rather than sneaking into theaters. (Note: the Korean translation accompanying the orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally” is freaking hilarious.)

    John F., I can’t say that I’ve ever thought about what your missionary experience was probably like before, but thanks for sharing. I’m glad you had the strength and self-knowledge to work faithfully through the trials you encountered as positively as you obviously did.

  59. Well, my earlier comment was definitely the most negative I’ve allowed myself to go on the mission experience, so I’ll have to prepare my sons a packet of my writings on my mission and include that comment as the far edge of my range of feelings. It is a true statement of one level of how I feel about my mission, but I could also write a positive post on my enjoyment of Australia, some good friends I made, how my last few months spent working in the safety of the mission office helped me leave on a somewhat saner note, how I felt spiritually strengthened to avoid masturbating the entire two years without a single slip-up (unlike many others), how I was involved in more baptisms than average for my mission (I forget the exact number, but in the mid-teens) and the key instrument in at least three of them, etc.

    I could also have taken a confessional tack and written about how having left behind a near-fiancée with a wobbly testimony and (very) wobbly chastity was a horrible distraction that caused me much suffering and was probably as much as half the reason why I hated my mission, how I was snobby toward other missionaries and light-minded at times and unable to study in the mornings without dozing, how I practically went inactive in the CHURCH for a couple of months on my mission (I think I kept praying but didn’t do any scripture study and often didn’t even make it to church, let alone follow the missionary program), how just six months before my mission started I was still very much in the sex-and-drugs punk/new wave scene and probably repented too fast (I’m sure I would not have qualified for service in today’s higher-bar environment), etc.

    But I stand by my assertion that the missionary program is not for everyone and that the church does a terrible disservice to a sizable minority of missionaries by putting them into such a situation without some more humane alternatives for those who don’t connect with the missionary mentality. I mean, nearly all the general authorities who set missionary policy must be the types who succeeded more than failed on their missions, so they don’t have much empathy for us personality types who fail more than succeed—and while working for the Church, I did hear one G.A. say, “It doesn’t matter if tracting gets any results; it’s good discipline for the boys.” It’s similar to how some men thrive on sports or the military and others simply don’t. The church can be both a blessing and a trial for some of us, and I’m sure the Lord is aware of this and allows it to happen, and I think the missionary program as it currently stands is FAR from ideal, the product largely of decades of one-size-fits-all reactive committee responses to missionary behavior and challenges. For me, it was a trial not a blessing, and I still question whether it was really necessary and how it could have been a more positive, productive experience.

    I also wonder what would have happened if I had come back into the church at age nineteen but not gone on a mission. I honestly don’t know—did the fact that I survived the whole two years (at least in terms of my body remaining in the missionary flats of Australia) give me some confidence that I can endure, or did the mission feed my deeply ingrained cynicism about many things related to religion? Or perhaps both…

  60. “it was a trial not a blessing”

    Chris, I’ve always understood those words to be synonyms.

  61. Eric, I’ve had the same understanding, which began during the O.J. blessing.

  62. Steve, it was a blessing for Greta Van Susteren, CNN ratings and Time Warner shareholders.

  63. RAF: I didn’t say in my comment that I had “strength and self-knowledge”. In fact, I tried to imply that, as you noted with everyone on your bus that day, I was in the same boat and no particular strength or self-knowledge.

    I also never implied that you had thought about what my mission experience was like before. Of course I know that you don’t care. Pretty funny swipe though. Kudos.

  64. I was set apart for my mission by Bruce McConkie, back when he was one of the Seven Presidents of the Seventy, and also assigned to oversee my mission in Japan. Over my two years there, he would do periodic interviews with each of us, in addition to spending a couple of hours teaching us as a group. Looking back at the three things I had jotted down on the flyleaf of my Bible from the blessing he gave me at the start, I realized that he had not promised anything spectacular but that his words accurately summed up what I accomplished. Seeing that let me feel that I had lived up to what the Lord expected me to do.

    Serving a mission in Japan was what I had always expected to do, since I was born in Japan when my Dad was an already-married missionary in the days after World War II, and my family had a lot of ongoing contact with the Japanese Saints in Japan and in Utah. Serving my mission was also a reunion for me with my mother’s family and the nation of my birth. I had a somewhat easier time speaking the language than many other missionaries, because it was really my first language before being set aside for English. So no matter what happened in my proselyting, my mission maintained my continuity with my family and my ancestral culture, and it helped me understand better who I was and what I was. Rather than creating questions of identity and purpose, it answered them.

    I certainly saw other missionaries who had much more difficult times. Exactly halfway through my mission, the mission was split and we got a new mission president, Russell Horiuchi, a geography professor from BYU. He introduced himself by telling us the story of his mission call by President N. Eldon Tanner. He thought he was going to be admonished for supporting an underground newspaper at BYU. When President Tanner said “What would you think of serving as a mission president?” his answer was “Not much.” But President Tanner told him, “This is not a request, it is a Call.” He said he suddenly realized what it meant when he raised his arm to sustain Tanner as a prophet, seer and revelator. As the new mission had been formed, there was a flurry of transfers made by the existing mission president. Almost every missionary who had had a difficult confrontation with the previous president was (to their mutual relief) sent to the Japan East Mission. When we had missionary conferences, there was always a discussion on the topic “What I did that caused me to be sent to the Japan East Mission.” One elder had asked to be sent home, and was interviewed by Gordon B. Hinckley, who gave him a pep talk that persuaded him to give it a second shot, but he asked to be transferred to the new mission.

    Another thing President Horiuchi told us was that his instructions from the First Presidency were that his most important job was to take care of the missionaries and their health and testimonies. When the missionaries were healthy physically and emotionally and spiritually, the work of proselyting could then go forward.

    We had missionaries who were depressed, who had a hard time getting motivated to proselyte. One thing I noticed was that some of the most “successful” missionaries (in terms of number of baptisms) were the ones who didn’t feel like their worth and exaltation were being judged on how many baptisms they had; their own natural optimism and enjoyment of life attracted people to them. Conversely, those of us who were gloomy and desperate were investigator repellants. Now, I don’t think anyone’s emotional state was ever altered by someone else telling him to “cheer up” or “calm down”. If we HAD conscious control over our emotions, most of us are not so masochistic that we would intentionally make ourselves depressed. So, while I recognize the Catch 22 quality of this observation, I think it is nonetheless true; missionaries who were not desperate for converts actually had more of them.

    We did have one elder for whom the pressures (mostly self-inflicted) of serving as a missionary and learning a totally new language were too much, and who started to have hallucinations. It was actually diagnosed by Bruce McConkie, who uncovered the fact that the elder was hearing voices during the interview he held with him. Elder McConkie came out of the room and told President Horiuchi to make arrangements to have that elder fly back to the US with the next missionary returning home. We were told later that, after some time in treatment, the missionary served out his two year mission in an English-speaking area.

    One of the other things I concluded was that, for me at least, the most effective way of contacting potential converts was having them walk in the door of the meetinghouse. I don’t think the 8,000 hours or so I spent on going door to door or contacting people on the street directly produced any of my baptisms. Perhaps this was a lesson for me on the difference between my own efforts and the Lord’s way of getting his program accomplished.

    I don’t know the psychology of anyone well enough to diagnose them, let alone Russell or other contributors to this blog, but I wonder if, at least in some cases, the pressures and disappointments of missionary life grow at least partially out of our own expectations for ourselves, our drive to be successful in an environment that was chaotic and confusing, and in which most of the rules don’t have anything to do with how many convert baptisms one garnered. (e.g. “Mission Rule No. 123: Hymn No. xxx is Elder Benson’s [the apostle supervising the mission] favorite hymn. Memorize it and sing it often.”) Hopefully, with the perspective of years, we will appreciate how many of our blessings (including the opportunity to be instrumental in someone else’s conversion) are simply unmerited grace from God.

    When God speaks of sending out the “weak and simple” (Bruce McConkie read that with flair, looking out at us so that we knew WE were the people being described) to preach the gospel, he is telling us we are, by definition, inadequate to the task. We only accomplish it when God does the major part of the work. We cannot force God to be more gracious by punishing ourselves, or torturing ourselves, or making ourselves go door-to-door in the rain when we have the flu. We can only make ourselves fit instruments for the work, and humbly place ourselves in his hands to take us to those who are ready to listen.

    The fact that we might spend a year of our lives doing work that seems to get us nowhere, until God sends us the person he wants us to teach and baptize, seems at first like an awful extravagance, a profligacy with our invested effort. Surely there was something better we could be doing during that time? Gaining an education, buying a car, hanging out with girls? Why not send us to Japan just for the one month when we teach the person we were meant to teach? But it seems that, to God, the worth of that one soul is greater than the worth of one year of our 20 year old lives. And if we don’t learn humility from that experience, we might need other lessons in the subsequent years of our lives.

  65. John, I meant the “strength and self-knowledge” comment as genuine praise; plainly, you were able to look past and work through your own temptations, limitations and frustrations, and feel satisfaction in the difficult and unrewarding work you were called to do nonethelss. That suggests to me that you had a firmness of purpose, a basic competence, a confidence in the Lord, that I lacked. That’s a good thing, and one to be emulated; I wouldn’t want anyone to take my poor performance as a missionary to be a standard.

    Looking back at my comment, I guess it could be interpreted as a snark, but honestly, no swipe was intended. My apologies for not writing it better.

  66. “I believe honest discussions of hard and difficult mission experiences are plentiful, and strongly encouraged” (#56).

    RAF, don’t agree with you there.

    “…but I do think there’s a real reluctance to talk about the fact that any given missionary might, for whatever set of random reasons, fail to be up to those difficulties. Telling prospective missionaries that the work will be hard and perhaps unfruitful is one thing; telling them that it’ll be hard and unfruitful and they’ll be depressed, angry, bitter and/or confused about it, and really won’t able to handle it, is something else entirely.”

    Do agree with you here. And I think that’s the problem – the second one, which in my own case was: hard work + terribly difficult + pretty randomly successful + patronizing leaders + overwhelming guilt about appropriately REPRESENTING GOD + possibly need depression medication = get bitter and go inactive years later. This is still honest. This still fits into “honest discussions of hard and difficult mission experiences.” I think that a lot more potential elders and sisters are, in fact, not a fit for the program (like many humans, agree with Chris Bigelow on this point) and ‘may fail to be up to those difficulties’, it feels to me like a silence. I applaud Nate Oman’s approach. I’ll be more that way when I start going to church again (like the Great Utah Earthquake, not if, but when).

    Bookslinger (#58) – PTSD is pretty specific – I thought I might have had it after my mission when I went a little crazy and was angry all the time for a couple of years – but it was a very, very muted version, no flashbacks, just nightmares (“Holy crap, I’m here again?”)

  67. I have just spent the better part of 2 hours reading and digesting all of the posts. Russell, your blog has opened my eyes in more ways than one. First, I am a mother who is about to send my first missionary out into the world. I will now sit down with him and be real with him about his mission. I want him to know that this may be the hardest thing he’ll ever have to do, and that he will have some utterly miserable, discouraging, horrible days, or perhaps even months. I’ll also tell him that he’ll have doubts, fears, questions, struggles, and sometimes even feelings of anger and depression. I will also tell him that this in normal. I will tell him that he will not be alone in feeling like this. I will also tell him that these feelings will be a reminder to rely on the Lord, have faith, and try to endure the best that he can. Thank you for making me see that being real about missions with our missionaries is essential.
    Secondly, I also have learned from reading your blog that I am not the only one that has come to the same conclusion about my faith. I am a Mormon. It is what I am. I can be nothing else. It is the foundation of my life. As a convert from the age of 15, it has brought me joy, answered my questions, given my life meaning, purpose, and direction, and has provided a foundation from which to serve and to learn how to love. It has given me a vehicle to learn of God the Father and Jesus Christ. HOWEVER… I have come to the conclusion that that does not mean that it will do the same for everyone. I believe that there are many paths that lead to God. Everyone must find his own way. My mother-in-law could no more find joy and peace being a Mormon, than I could, being a Catholic. I have thought about this for many years, and I have felt like I have been on the “fringe” of the LDS church because I can’t say, “I know that this is the only true church on the face of the earth.” I can say, “It is the only true church for me.” I think that many things are relative. Thank you for helping me to see that I may not be the only only one that feels this way after all. It brings me more peace.

  68. hp: the nightmares where one is back in the location/situation of the stress, is a form of flashback, and is indeed a sign of (a degree of) PTSD. Being angry all the time is another symptom.

    A “flashback” doesn’t necessarily mean one literally believes (or hallucinates) he is back in the situation. A flashback can be where one is merely replaying the video-tape in his mind, trying to edit it, attempting to re-write the video-tape to how he wished it had happened.

    That is what happened to me, replaying the tape, trying to edit it. It wasn’t until I started to apply the atonement (reminding myself that “Jesus paid for it”, and “Jesus made up for it) which allowed me to let go of the need to “re-write the tape”. Another analogy is “accepting the check” which Jesus wrote to cover it.

    By “accepting the check” that the Lord wrote, I no longer had to try to pretend the bad stuff didn’t happen, or pretend that it wasn’t bad. Kind of like accepting an insurance check when someone did $3,600 worth of damage to my car. I don’t have to pretend he didn’t crash into my car. I don’t have to pretend that wrecking my car wasn’t a bad thing. But by accepting the check, I sure feel a heck of a lot better about having my car wrecked, because it’s been paid for. The insurance company “made me whole.”

    And, that $3,600 funded a lot of copies of the Book of Mormon (while I left my car un-repaired, because it was still driveable), and put me on a path that has brought me much joy that far outweighs the temporary sadness of a car crash.

    Plus the car crash/reimbursement was an object lesson that helped me understand and apply the atonement better.

    Ray Swenson: you touched on some great points. I’ll probably write a post on my blog about them. Your last topic about God’s economy or apparent efficiency is spot on God can seem very inefficient when viewed from a temporal earthbound viewpoint. It won’t be until we get to the other side and see the overall picture that we’ll comprehend how the seemingly inefficient prelude to events was necessary.

  69. Denise S.,
    Talking about how tough missions can be is good for expectation management and planning purposes, but it is not good if it inspires fear and pointless dread. You know your son best and how best to thread this needle. I think my parents and leaders did a pretty good job, since I had a little bit of pointless dread and a little bit of disappointed expectations. The only thing I was really unprepared for was how much of a trial other missionaries could be. That, and the fact that you can’t see the elephant before you see it, no matter how much people tell you about it.

    P.S. This is the only true church.

  70. Denise,

    Thanks very much for taking the time to share that fine and thoughtful comment; I’m glad that my post and the discussion following it has been of some use to you. I wish the very best for your son’s mission. As Adam said in his comment following yours, overloading on the negative can inspire a lot of perhaps “pointless dread,” and I surely wouldn’t advocate that. But then again, as Adam also kind of implies, there’s a grey area between the sort of “best/most important two years of your life!” talk which almost invariably results in disappointed expectations, and the stort of harsh “sorry, but this is the way it is!” talk which may result mainly in fear, and it’s probably up to the parents (and maybe a few close youth leaders) to figure out to best articulate the middle ground for each particular person. I pray you’ll be able to handle that well.

    I’m also glad that my post provided some solace for your own ruminations about your faith, your own conversion, and the doctrines of the church. I didn’t imagine that short comment of mine–really just an aside voiced in the context of my “making peace” with my own missionary obligations as a member–would attract so much attention; if I had, I would have voiced it differently, because questions about truth claims and God’s purposes are complicated matters, and my own thinking about them is a continual work in progress. I guess, if I had to make a bumper-sticker-length summary, I would say that I have my doubts, and that I also doubt my doubts, if that makes sense. In any case, whatever one is comfortable with claiming in regards to Christianity or Mormonism or anything else, it can’t be disputed that this is a church worth loving, and entering faithfully into this church community can bring great joy to one’s life (and also the life to come). On that, I’m sure we all agree.

  71. I didn’t imagine that short comment of mine–really just an aside voiced in the context of my “making peace” with my own missionary obligations as a member–would attract so much attention; if I had, I would have voiced it differently, because questions about truth claims and God’s purposes are complicated matters, and my own thinking about them is a continual work in progress. I guess, if I had to make a bumper-sticker-length summary, I would say that I have my doubts, and that I also doubt my doubts, if that makes sense. In any case, whatever one is comfortable with claiming in regards to Christianity or Mormonism or anything else, it can’t be disputed that this is a church worth loving, and entering faithfully into this church community can bring great joy to one’s life (and also the life to come). On that, I’m sure we all agree.


  72. I was 24 when I began my mission in Hong Kong. Teenaged angst was not an issue. But halfway through my mission I was convinced that I could not remain a member if the examples I was being given was what I expected of me. Much of the missionary activities in which I was expected to participate, I found difficult to stomach. It was more like selling pest control than the Gospel of Christ. To make things worse, my reluctance to serve in the way I was asked weighed heavily on me. I was unworthy.
    When we got a new mission president, things turned for the better, but my former mission president was immediately called as a Seventy. It was like saying “his approach is the right one.” I came home feeling I had no place in the future leadership of the church. Even today I can’t say that I do my Home Teaching the way I am asked. It is for many of the same reasons. I befriend many in our ward that may have difficulty fitting in the complex social structure, but I just can’t believe being having someone assigned to me would help me feel the love.

  73. Russell:

    I stumbled on your blog a couple of days ago and have one thing to say: How dare you be so honest!
    As it turns out, I knew a young missionary in Korea named Elder Fox. I never thought of him as a slacker–a smartass, yes, but not a slacker. During our time in Seoul, I didn\’t think we had a lot in common but after reading your post, I\’m finding our experiences eerily similar (although mine was often fueled by Bacchus-D and/or Ativan). The difference is, you\’ve got the guts to say what I haven\’t been able to say.

  74. It is success when one endures to the end of whatever it is that’s hard. And all experiences give us growth of some kind that we didn’t have previously. And that makes it having done it worthwhile.

  75. BruceC–Thanks for the comment; while I haven’t really thought about it that way before, I suppose I can see a lot of parallels between my struggles (or, more accurately, failures) in the mission field back then, and my struggles (not quite always failures, but often close) with home teaching today. And as for your observation that “I came home feeling I had no place in the future leadership of the church”…well, I came home feeling the same way. Still, do, kind of…which I suppose is why some of the callings I’ve had of late have really surprised me (both that I’ve received them, and that I’ve accepted them). I trust, however, that as long as I keep writing confessional posts like these and keep the beard, it’ll keep the stake president or the high council away, and that’s got to count as kind of a silver lining.

    J.D.–Okay, dammit, you’ve sent me crawling back through those few mission photos I’ve saved, trying to figure out who you are. I won’t go fishing for a full name, but give me a clue: did you serve in Hwagok? Yo-Ido? Songnam? Help me out here. We weren’t companions, were we? If so, as I said before, I apologize for everything. (Oh man, Bacchus-D…that really takes me back. I only tried the stuff once; it made me want to retch. But of course plenty of elders were practically addicted to it. I wonder if it’s still available over the counter, or if the church in Korea has ever decided if it’s a Word of Wisdom violation?)

    MSG–Thanks very much for the kind thoughts.

  76. I am sorry you had such a poor experience. I on the other hand had a great experience and look back on my experience as one of the best of my life, especially because I thought it would be one of the worst. One thing I learned on my mission is that, “Your not required to like it”. My best friend on my mission was very depressed, so I requested to serve with him. I decided in my young naive mind that work was the answer to all his problems. worked him to death and things only got worse, I served him more than any man could serve someone I thought at the time. Later in his mission he tried to kill himself. No one saw it coming, he was a big tuff kid who was liked by everyone. He has always struggled with church among other things but especially the church. The lesson learned was you don’t have to like it but just do your duty. Infact I now have a great respect for my friend for enduring something so painful to him and for the most part enduring it well.

    My only concern is that your negative experience has poisoned your mind about a sacred subject. I hope you dont think that people who enjoyed their mission to the fullest are stupid for not knowing what was really going on.

  77. I hope you dont think that people who enjoyed their mission to the fullest are stupid for not knowing what was really going on.

    I certainly do not, Sumner. As I hope came out in the original post and in some of my subsequent comments, I fully accept that many missionaries–in fact, probably the majority of missionaries–have good experiences on their mission, are spiritually sustained, find happiness and strength in the midst of the all trials, struggles, doubting moments, and other sundry difficult times. I really would have liked it if I could have had a testimony of–and hence could have taken some real joy in–what I was doing, as opposed to merely enjoying some random good times or momentary insights. For any number of reasons though, anything more than that wasn’t in the cards for me. I was, to be sure, often judgmental; early on, I figured that the missionaries who were positive and upbeat felt that way because they were naive, had blinders on, remained oblivious to the silliness and hardness around them. But long before I came home I had to accept that, actually, for most of them, the program really was working the way we’d been promised it would. I envied them that blessing very much.

  78. What “level” of testimony is the minimum for one to be accepted as a full-time missionary?
    Which of the following would best match the current requirements?

    1. To know that the church is true, based on a spiritual confirmation.
    2. To
    believe that the church is true, based on experiencing spiritual evidence that supports the belief..
    3. To believe that the church is true, based on other-than-spiritual evidences, (ie, intellectual, social, or emotional thigns that support the church/gospel).
    4. To think that the church is true (ie, being of the opinion that the church is true, but not quite a firm belief).
    5. To think it might be true, sort of agnostic, but acknowledging that the church’s claims are within the realm of possibility.

    I realize that a testimony of the church doesn’t exactly or always correspond to a testimony of God/Christ/the Atonement/the Gospel, etc.

  79. Bookslinger, I read through your five possibilities, and I can’t help but feel that, ultimately, there isn’t that much difference between #2, #3, #4, and #5; the only real distinction is between #1 and all the rest. A testimony, a spiritual witness of truthfulness, a mighty change of heart, a burning in the bosom, becoming a man of Christ…all of it is encapsulated in #1, whereas everyone else is still stuck with the natural man with his mere human understanding. For those of us in that category, I suppose it can, under certain circumstances, be helpful to make certain distinctions and gradations–for example, I’m grateful for, and recognize that I am better off for having, a strong and persistent belief in the reality of Christ’s basic claims and promises about grace and forgiveness as recorded in the New Testament and Book of Mormon. No doubt I would have been an at least somewhat better missionary if I’d had a similarly strong belief–or, at least, could have more consistently aspired to and/or faked having such belief–in priesthood authority and ordinances, the exclusive claims of the church, etc. But would such a commitment or hope on my part made me radically better at my calling? I’m doubtful, I think in the end there were those missionaries who were able to feel the spirit as they testified, in one fashion or another, and then everybody else. And when you’re dealing with mere human understanding, it’s easy to let pride, frustration, forgetfulness, jealousy, boredom, resentment, and all the rest get in the way.

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