What Parents Can Do … Before the Call Comes

The cauliflower on my plate was getting colder and colder by the minute. Every time I peeked open my eyes, I really expected it to be gone. I had sure been hoping hard enough.

The rest of the family had long since left the table—the dishes washed, the kitchen floor swept. But there I sat, agonizing over that huge, immovable pile of cauliflower.

I wasn’t just being stubborn. I was honestly afraid to eat the stuff, afraid that the rest of the food in my stomach would revolt at the intrusion of something as nasty as cauliflower.

I could have sat there forever; no appeals to my sense of guilt for wasting perfectly good food would have helped. But mother had a better method.

“It looks like you’re having a tough time eating your cauliflower,” she said.

I knew better than to reply with something smart.

“You know,” she said, “missionaries eat everything on their plate whether they like it or not because that’s the polite thing to do. When you’re a missionary, somebody will eventually serve you something you won’t like. If you don’t eat it, you’ll hurt their feelings. So you might as well get into the habit now of eating everything on your plate.”

I did, reluctantly—and found that it wasn’t so bad after all.

As I look back now, I can see a lot of things dad and mother did—sometimes subtly and other times not so subtly—to help us get ready for our missions. They made missionary training a natural part of life.

That’s how they got their eight sons to help out with the washing, the ironing, the cleaning, and the cooking. (Our little sister came last.) It was all good experience, they kept telling us—experience for marriage, yes. But first, experience for the time we’d have to fend for ourselves on a mission.

That’s how they were able to keep some semblance of cooperation, harmony, and love at home in a household of eight sons, each with a different personality. We would have lots of companions during our missions, they told us, so we might as well “learn to get along” with others now as struggle with it later.

That’s how they kept us from getting too serious with a girl too soon. During high school, it’s best to date lots of girls instead of just one, they said, to avoid the possibility of having to choose between marriage and a mission.

That’s how they got us to save our money instead of spending it all the minute we made it. I still remember the family home evening (I was about eight) when dad gave us each our own bankbook and told us that he had opened mission savings accounts for us. I transferred all my savings to it and eagerly fed the fund over the years.

Once when I was being paid for a couple of weeks’ work at dad’s grocery store, mother gave me an extra twenty-five dollars. “We’ve had a good month,” she told me, “and while we have the extra money, we want to divide it among you boys for your mission funds.” How could I spend my savings frivolously after that?

By the time we had each turned nineteen, all eight of us had saved enough money to fully pay for our missions. But then dad told us to keep the money in the bank—he wanted the blessing of supporting us. The money we had saved was there in case of emergency, he said, and it would be nice to come home to after our missions.

I’m not saying that dad and mother brought up the word mission every time they corrected us or tried to get us to do something; they didn’t have to. A mission was only one of the many things they were helping us prepare for. But they helped us see that preparation for a mission was good preparation for the rest of our lives. That’s why I never thought dad and mother had one-track minds stuck on missionary work. That’s why I don’t remember ever feeling pushed or coerced to serve a mission. We all expected to go on a mission just like we all expected to be Eagle Scouts like dad and get married in the temple. So it was no big surprise when all eight of us did go on missions, become Eagles, and, along with our little sister, get married in the temple.

There were times when a couple of the brothers went through a stage of making some noise about not going. Dad was wise enough to stay calm about it, to tell them they didn’t have to go just because all the other brothers had gone, to let them know that the decision was theirs. I remember getting all upset at him once because I thought he wasn’t being forceful enough with one of them. But dad knew what he was doing. When my brother realized that nobody was going to make him go, that we would all love him whether he went or not, he remembered his previous commitments and served a successful mission.

It seems we always had at least one missionary brother to pray for. Listening to several years’ worth of farewell and homecoming speeches, missionary letters, reports from newly returned missionary brothers during the two-hundred-mile trips home from the airport, and many mealtime mission-memory monologues increased my desire to serve—as did going home teaching with dad and to Church meetings with the family, listening to dad and mother’s own missionary experiences, reading A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and taking a Spanish class as a freshman in college.

On my twelfth birthday, dad and mother gave me a triple combination, and I later received a missionary Bible—along with gentle encouragement to read the books, pray about them, and discuss them. And I’ll always remember the many mother/son and father/son talks we had over the years. A consistent, yet not annoyingly repetitive, topic was my preparation for a mission and for temple marriage.

That’s why I was taken aback one day soon after my mission, while teaching at the Missionary Training Center. A new missionary informed me after about two days of classes that he was going to be the slowest one in the group and that he never really did expect to learn Spanish or the missionary discussions. He just didn’t think he could do it. And, furthermore, he couldn’t figure out why he was even there. Who was he, he asked, to try to convert anybody? He hadn’t even read the Book of Mormon!

We talked about his mission preparation for a few minutes. He had always thought he’d probably go on a mission but hadn’t made any real effort to get ready for it. Consequently, when he entered the Missionary Training Center, he was amazed at how much he needed to do in a mere eight weeks. Discouragement easily set in.

In contrast, I saw many other new missionaries who, having prepared for their missions little by little over the years, were now ready to concentrate fully on the more specific training given at the MTC. They didn’t have to spend time and effort on the things they could have done earlier.

I asked Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and a managing director of the Missionary Department, what kind of preparation he’d like to see every new missionary have.

“A prepared missionary,” he said, “(and I’m talking about lady missionaries as well as elders) is one who has developed a sweet relationship with the Savior prior to his mission. In fact, that should be the thing that motivates him to serve. And he should go because he wants to—not because he feels pressured into going. He ought to really have a desire to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people in whatever mission he may be called to.”

The prepared missionary has also done some studying before entering the field: “He ought to be familiar with the scriptures,” said Elder Featherstone, “hopefully having read at least the Book of Mormon and studied the others. And he ought to be familiar with the missionary discussions—they are available, and almost anyone can get a copy if he desires.” (They can be ordered from Church distribution centers, stock no. PBMI8053, $1.75.)

Elder Featherstone recalled that when he was mission president in Texas, one new missionary, Elder Brad Hunsaker of Salt Lake City, had all eight discussions memorized when he arrived—and that was back when those going to English-speaking missions spent only four days in the Salt Lake mission home. “Since he had used his time wisely before coming on his mission,” said Elder Featherstone, “he didn’t have to spend that first two or three months memorizing the discussions. It put him leaps and bounds ahead of others.”

Familiarity with the discussions is an advantage even for missionaries going to foreign-speaking missions—since their Missionary Training Center experience will concentrate on memorizing the discussions in another language.

A prepared missionary, according to Elder Featherstone, is also one who has learned to work and has a lot of ambition. He should have earned most of his own money. He ought to be in good physical condition. And he should know how to sacrifice—“he ought to realize that there will be no swimming, no horseback riding, no television—those kinds of things—that music will be restricted, and that he’ll have to control his budget.”

He also ought to be emotionally prepared for his mission, Elder Featherstone said, “meaning that he has cast off his introverted feelings and is not afraid to go out and meet people. He needs to decide that he can get along with a companion twenty-four hours a day, and that he will accept counsel, constructive criticism, and responsibility.”

All of this kind of preparation can occur before he ever enters the Missionary Training Center.

But how about converts who accept mission calls only a year or two after their baptism? Priesthood and auxiliary leaders, home teachers, and other ward members are examples and can give invaluable help during whatever preparation time is available. Those who are born in the Church or who are baptized while young can begin mission preparation long before the nineteenth birthday—and parents should be helping.

Besides the ideas already mentioned, what can parents do?

Teach children to pray for the opportunity to serve a mission, Elder Featherstone suggested. Involve them in writing individual and family letters to missionaries. Teach them “the purging, cleansing value of hard work.” Explain to them that the things they’re learning in Aaronic Priesthood and Scouting will help them to make many contributions—including a mission. Encourage them to read their patriarchal blessings for information regarding their mission. When they are involved in sports and other competition, help them learn resiliency—the ability to bounce back after discouragement or disappointment. Encourage them to attend seminary and Church meetings—“it’s hard to estimate the impact of one great teacher in someone’s life. That one great teacher may be responsible for sending several young men on missions.”

Individual time together and much personal interaction between parents and children are also important, according to Elder Featherstone: “On a regular basis, a father ought to monitor his son to make sure he’s always heading in the direction of a mission. And then he ought to spend some time doing things with his son, like working in the yard, where they can talk about these things in an unpressured, but structured, interview. The father, needing some real answers, gives the son a chance to air his emotions and his feelings. And then he can help his son keep things in the right perspective.”

Through these interviews, parents can help their son avoid making the kinds of mistakes that might cause him to delay, or even to forfeit, his mission opportunity. “If they’re watching him carefully,” Elder Featherstone said, “the Spirit will let them know when anything is wrong in his life. And then they can help him come back close to the Church.

“And I think parents would do well to monitor the friends that their children have. As soon as uncouthness or harshness or vulgarity begin to enter in, they ought to help their children make a change.”

They should also help their newly called missionary see that the few weeks after receiving his call and before leaving for the mission field should be carefully planned—with lots of time spent with the family and studying the scriptures. “In this way, they can help him avoid the sometimes tragic mistake of feeling that it’s a time for ‘one last fling.’”

Parents can help prepare their sons for the strict, disciplined life of a missionary, Elder Featherstone said, by teaching faith—faith in the Lord and also in the Church leaders at all levels. “Any parent would be unwise to ever criticize a priesthood leader in front of the children. Often parents sow ‘negative talk’ about priesthood leaders and reap the harvest when their children in the mission field don’t support their leaders any more than the parents do. But if the parents support the local priesthood leaders without reservation (they might not always agree with them, but they always sustain them), the children will generally do the same. I think that is critical.”

The parents’ example can never be overlooked: “If the parents would do their part,” Elder Featherstone said, “and attend meetings even when they’re not feeling all that well and fill their assignments in the Church even when they’re hard to fill, they will become a model that their children will follow when they grow up and get out into the mission field. You’d be surprised how many missionaries ask themselves what their dad would do if he were in their situation, and then try to measure up.”

If preparing sons for missions sounds like a big job, it’s because it is. But the challenge is not beyond reach—and the blessings are truly great, both in the home and in the lives of those involved. Rewards don’t come without effort, though, so parents should start preparing their sons now, no matter how young they are. My present concern is teaching my two-year-old son to like cauliflower. The next step will be the scriptures!

[photo] Photography by Michal M. Uterback