When young men and women choose to honor a call to serve a full-time mission, they embark upon a life-changing adventure. They can no longer be just the carefree teenagers, friends, or sons and daughters you have come to love. They are earthly representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ. They have made important covenants and are asked to do their best to fulfill serious responsibilities. You will probably need to make some changes as well, particularly in the ways you regard and treat them.
During our experiences as mission president and companion, we learned some things we know can help you support your loved ones as they serve a full-time mission. We encourage you to do all you can to help them come to understand the wonderful and unique relationship they can have with Heavenly Father and His Son. You can help by respecting and reinforcing the dignity, obedience, and sense of responsibility required of a missionary. Your crucial role begins before they report to a missionary training center (MTC); carries on through letters, packages, and twice-a-year telephone calls; and continues after they return home.
Preparing for the MTC
The Lord set the standard for full-time missionary service when He said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:23–24).
Before missionaries arrive at a missionary training center, they must begin the process of choosing to “deny themselves” for the sake of the Lord. This can be done by giving up their involvement in most of the secular hobbies and interests that have occupied their time and energy. Uplifting and enriching substitute activities include prayer, study of the scriptures and missionary discussions, missionary work, and attending Church meetings and activities.
Denying oneself does not always come easily. We are aware of a young man who called his mission president as he was packing his bags to enter the MTC. “President, it will be okay for me to bring my video game, won’t it?”
“No, Elder, you should leave it home.”
“Oh, President, I won’t use it at the MTC, and I promise that I will only take it out on preparation day!”
“No, Elder, you should leave it home.”
“Well, okay. I’ll just bring it on the plane and send it home when I get to the mission field.”
“No, Elder, you should leave it home.”
This obedient missionary left his video game home, and it was never mentioned again. He was beginning the beautiful transformation of losing himself in the service of the Lord.
The principle of “losing oneself” can apply to many aspects of behavior, including dress and grooming. When some of our elders arrived at the mission home, they were still struggling with faddish hairstyles. When counseled about her inappropriately trendy clothing, one sister complained that the acceptable missionary clothing for sisters was “not me.”
As a family member or friend, you can help your missionary forgo worldly habits and possessions. Each missionary receives a packet of instructions with the mission call. Parents should read these instructions with their missionary. Others could also become familiar with these instructions. All can encourage the missionary to remember and follow them during this crucial time of preparation. After your missionary has been set apart, you might use the title elder or sister to refer to him or her. When you show that you respect the sacred missionary calling, you help these young people better understand that they are, indeed, chosen disciples of the Savior.
Letters and Packages
The Lord taught a principle that can be applied to missionaries and their families and friends when He admonished, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Once your missionary enters the MTC, everything you say and do should help him or her stay focused on the task and challenges ahead.
The letters and packages you send carry powerful messages to your missionary and to his or her companion. A letter from home can be like pure spring water to the thirsty soul. What you say in a letter may very well be the highlight of the week.
It is natural when writing a letter to write about those things in which you are involved. May we suggest, however, that when you write your missionary, you try to limit describing what is going on at home. Rather than telling about sporting events or who is dating whom, center your comments on the gospel of Jesus Christ and missionary work. Ask for whom you could pray. Follow with interest the progress of your missionary’s investigators. Share a favorite scripture or describe a lesson from your life that might apply to a situation the missionary is facing. This will help your faithful missionary to continue putting his hand to the plough without looking back and being distracted by events at home.
A former mission president shared with us how a new missionary and one of his friends back home learned this important lesson. The elder had been called to a mission far away from home. This was a fine young missionary with a strong background in the gospel. At his first interview with his mission president, it became evident that he was lonely and suffering emotionally. He asked to be reassigned to a mission closer to home. After some counsel from the mission president, the missionary agreed to stay. When it was reported later that the missionary was receiving a letter almost every day and a package every week from a young woman back home, the mission president realized why the missionary was having trouble focusing on the work. The young woman was contacted and readily agreed to do anything to help the missionary—even if it meant limiting her letters and packages to once a week or less. The effect of this change on the elder was remarkable, and he served an honorable mission.
There are frequently difficult issues at home about which a missionary should be notified. Whenever there is the death of an immediate family member, the mission president should be called first, preferably by the missionary’s home stake president. In times when a less intimately known person dies or suffers a tragedy, it may be more appropriate to notify the missionary in a brief letter. A considerate bishop or home teacher might also send a letter assuring the missionary that “these matters at home are being taken care of. You keep your focus and energy on your mission, and we will take care of the situation.”
It is probable that your missionary will at some time write to complain about one thing or another. If you encourage the complaining, the missionary could become less effective. Advise your missionary to focus on the work. Remember the letter sent to a complaining young Elder Gordon B. Hinckley by his father: “Dear Gordon, I have your recent letter. I have only one suggestion: forget yourself and go to work.” 1
Missionaries are now authorized to communicate with the home front using e-mail. This can be a wonderful blessing, especially for families who have missionaries in areas of the world where traditional mail service is unreliable. There are, however, some specific guidelines on how this new tool is to be used (see sidebar, “Use of E-Mail for Missionaries”). Acquaint yourself with them, and follow them as a protection to yourself and your missionary.
Sending certain kinds of packages can have unexpectedly adverse effects. One mission president explained how difficult it was for one missionary who had a companion from a wealthy background. Each time the family sent a package filled with goodies, clothes, books, and money, the less-affluent companion was pointedly reminded that his family would never be able to send such packages. When you decide to send a package, consider including something of equal or greater value for your missionary’s companion. Make birthday or holiday gifts modest and appropriate to the missionary lifestyle.
Visits or Calls to Your Missionary
Family and friends who travel to where their missionary is located, such as to an MTC, airport, or area in the mission, most often want to make just a brief visit. They view it as a wonderful opportunity to encourage the missionary and express their love and best wishes. Most often, however, these visits cause the missionary’s thoughts to turn toward the home front. And for the duration of the visit, your missionary will have to “take the hand off the plough” (see Luke 9:62).
As you contemplate whether to visit your missionary, consider the impact such a visit will likely have on a companion or other missionaries in the district or mission. It has been our experience that the distractions almost always far outweigh the value of the visit. We suggest you contact the missionary’s home stake president before planning the visit. He may choose to discuss the matter with the mission president and then advise you on what would be best for your missionary.
Parents and immediate family members are permitted, even encouraged, to telephone their missionaries twice a year, usually on Mother’s Day and Christmas. As with your letters, we encourage you to focus these conversations on the well-being of your missionary, the status of the work in his or her area, and the investigators and new members he or she is teaching. Resist the temptation to bring the missionary up to date on news of the family, the ward, or other friends.
If you are not careful, these phone calls can have a distracting effect upon your missionary. We are aware of situations when these calls became “dumping sessions” with all the bad news from home. Well-meaning parents also sometimes invite the missionary’s close friends to their home for the phone call. This puts the missionary in an uncomfortable position, for mission rules restrict missionaries from calling or e-mailing friends. Make these phone calls an uplifting family-only occasion for expressions of love, gratitude, and testimony.
Recently Church leaders have instructed that these calls should be brief. Many families cannot afford the expense of long-distance telephone calls. Even if you can afford it, your missionary’s companion may come from a family that cannot. A lengthy phone conversation could make such a companion feel deeply disappointed.
You will probably be more excited and ready for your missionary’s homecoming than he or she will be! Often your calendar is marked and you are counting the days long before the missionary even begins to think about coming home. This is normal, but don’t let your enthusiasm carry over too much into your letters. Your missionary needs to remain focused on serving the Lord and the people he or she has come to love. We knew a missionary who stopped reading his mother’s letters during the last few weeks of his mission because, as he said, “She is so trunky!” Help your missionary remain involved in his mission up to the very last day.
It’s also important to expect that your missionary will return a changed person as a result of serving the Lord. Give yourself and your missionary some time to get reacquainted. One father called his son’s mission president the week the son was to arrive home and excitedly reported: “We’ve put his room back just the way it was before he left. We put his stereo system back in place and gathered his CDs from around the house to be all ready for his return home.”
“No, no,” the president replied in alarm. “Your son is a different person. He has been tutored by the scriptures and by the Spirit of the Lord. We hope his taste in music has changed. Please give him a chance to demonstrate how his mission has made a difference in his life.”
Wise parents will give their returning son or daughter time to make the transition into “civilian” life. We are aware of a parent who arranged a surprise date for the missionary on the night of his arrival home, immediately after his release by the stake president. This caused the missionary great embarrassment (and made his date uncomfortable as well).
Encourage your returned missionary to continue living the lessons learned on the mission. Your son or daughter need not continue the manner of dress followed by full-time missionaries, but returned missionaries are expected to continue to be a good example, especially to the youth. The standard we suggested was that they dress and act in a way that would not embarrass them if they should happen to meet someone they baptized.
You Can Make a Difference
Generally, the greatest desire of family and friends is that the young men and women who accept the call to serve as representatives of Jesus Christ will recognize and honor the extraordinary nature of their duties. Those of us who remain on the home front have the responsibility and opportunity to support them. Fulfilling this responsibility often requires significant changes in the way we regard and treat them. As we give our missionaries the degree of respect they deserve in their sacred calling, we can help them become all that the Lord intends for them to be.
Use of E-Mail for Missionaries
Missionaries may use e-mail only on preparation day to communicate with family members.
Missionaries may use computers in public facilities such as libraries or appropriate commercial outlets.
Companions should always be together while using a computer.
Missionaries should not impose on Church members who may have computers.
Any cost for using e-mail is to be paid by the missionary.
Missionaries should exercise caution in the content and language of the e-mail, making certain that no confidential or sensitive information is included. The potential abuse of e-mail through multiple mailings can spread such information widely.
Due to limited resources, missionary training centers will not provide e-mail service for missionaries.
An individual missionary who abuses the privilege may be prohibited from using e-mail by his or her mission president.
Under the direction of area presidencies, mission presidents will establish other guidelines as needed.
We All Can Support Them
“The missionaries need our faith and prayers. Pray fervently every day for their safety and protection, for this is one very important way we all can support them in accomplishing their essential assignment of proclaiming the gospel to all the world.” Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Duties, Rewards, and Risks,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 35.
Let’s Talk about It
Ask a family member to walk forward while looking backward. How straight was he or she able to walk? Have someone walk forward while looking forward. Why is it easier to walk in a straight line this way? How could this lesson be applied to full-time missionaries and their families and friends? (See Luke 9:62.)
Ask family members to list ways suggested in this article to help support missionaries as they prepare to enter the MTC, while on the mission, and after returning home. Discuss why each suggestion would be helpful. Choose two or three items on the list and do them for a missionary from your ward or branch.
In Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (1996), 64.