Has this ever happened to you? You hear a great sacrament meeting presentation on being a missionary and, all fired up, you mentally run over your list of nonmember friends: “Yeah, Tom and Judy Nelson. They’d be great. And Mrs. Rossiter. And Elaine and Ellen. Great! And Uncle Julian. And who’s that new family down the street? Right, the Hansens.” You scribble down the names, hand the list to the missionaries, and the next thing you hear is that your friends were astonished to see the missionaries on their doorstep, even more astonished when the missionaries mentioned your name, and you notice they’re pretty chilly the next time they see you. What do you do now?
Well, the first thing may be to resolve to give names to missionaries only after you’ve prepared your friends to meet them. The second thing is to find out what went wrong and work on preserving the friendship.
Let’s talk about the first point first—preparing your friends to meet the missionaries. We could call this “how to make the perfect referral.” It begins long before the referral. It begins, oddly enough, with how we feel about ourselves. To start with, we usually have to like ourselves and know that we are spirit children of our Father in heaven. At that point we will not need our friends to feed our egos, flatter our self-images, or assure us that we are worthwhile persons.
If we don’t have this kind of self-assurance and security two things could happen: (1) We could approach our friends about the Church because we are trying to prove to God, to the Church, or to the ward mission leader that we really are “good” members of the Church. That’s exploitation of our friendship—and believe me, there’s no way to hide that kind of insincerity. (2) The second thing is that if our friends respond negatively to our invitation we will feel angry or hurt and, thinking that they are rejecting us personally, will withdraw our friendship. Of course that closes the door forever on sharing the gospel with them and may lead to our criticizing them or, depending on how insecure we feel, even criticizing the member missionary program.
If we have these insecurities, what can we do about them? The same things that we do to gain a testimony of a principle of the gospel: study, prayer, and hard work. I testify that really understanding our own individual worth in the sight of our loving Father is one of the most humbling and exciting experiences we can have. We sense our own sacredness, our own nobility and dignity. And no external occurrence can really hurt that feeling.
Once we feel this way about ourselves, we can understand that our friend is equally precious to the Lord and, consequently, infinitely precious to us. When we treat people with that kind of care and thoughtfulness, they respond; when we tell them in that context that we’d like to share with them something very precious to us—the gospel—they respond with the same kind of respect that we have shown them. But in addition to making the invitation to learn about the gospel in this atmosphere of good feelings, let’s be sure that we make it clearly. A simple way is to restate in one way or another what the agreement is: “Then you’d like to have the missionaries show their films and present their half dozen lessons to you at our home, right?” This clear restatement leaves little room for misunderstandings and future hurt feelings.
The last step in making the referral is usually (there may be exceptions, depending on the circumstances) to have your friend taught in your presence. You know him best; you can read his clues if he begins to feel pressured or uncomfortable. Later, you can help explain doctrines from the background of your shared experience and feelings. What a boost you can give the spirit that the missionaries will bring with them!
Okay, that’s what you’ll do next time. But right now, Tom and Judy have canceled their Saturday afternoon swim with you, Mrs. Rossiter crosses the street when she sees you coming, Elaine hung up on you the last time you called, and Uncle Julian sicked the dog on you when you got out of the car! Of course, it’s not all that bad, but how can you repair these relationships?
First of all, realize that it’s okay to make a mistake—even one as painful as this. One of Satan’s greatest lies is that trial and error learning is wrong. It’s true that it hurts, but much of our mortal experience is composed of trial and error learning. Repentance wouldn’t even be possible if our Father hadn’t known before we started that mistakes would be a part of our learning process.
Second, do what you can to rectify the mistake—as quickly and as openly as possible. Something like this is great: “I’m sorry if you were offended by my giving your name to the Mormon missionaries without asking you first. Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t have liked it either.” This is a chance for them to tell you how they feel. Don’t interrupt. Don’t become defensive. And don’t keep apologizing. All three of those things focus the attention back on you and your feelings; what you need to find out is how they feel.
Next, let them know very clearly what is most important to you: their love and continued friendship, not your own hurt feelings. Say something like this: “I hope this won’t harm our friendship.”
Third, clear the ground for the future. Are there ways you can make the gospel a comfortable topic to discuss without threatening them? Possibly you could ask, “We’ve had religious discussions often in the past and I’ve really enjoyed them. Do you think you’d be comfortable continuing them when the subject naturally comes up, or has this whole episode been difficult enough that you’d rather we just concentrated on some of our other favorite topics for awhile?” It’s important to rebuild that initial trust. If they wonder about your motives every time the Church comes up in normal conversation, both of you are going to be very uncomfortable.
And fourth, follow through with your behavior. All of the ways that you showed you cared before are the mortar that will hold your relationship in place through this little earthquake. By body language, facial expression, tone of voice, by the amount of time spent together, and the quality of that time, you reaffirm your love.
And what if none of this works? Well, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes you really will lose a friend over it. If that happens, it means that the friendship was not a healthy one. A real friend can understand and forgive your mistakes—and you can his; a false one can’t, no matter how perfect the repentance is. It will hurt; we’ll feel a little bit of our Father’s sorrow when we willfully reject his love and limit the ways in which he can bless us, but even there, respect for agency is a divine law. We, too, learn obedience by the things we sometimes suffer.
But usually we find a new freedom and a new joy in that repaired relationship, and a greater gratitude for the marvelous joys of the gospel.