Missionary work is a new world for most young missionaries, a radical change of lifestyle. Many wish they had been better prepared. But how should prospective missionaries prepare for the experiences that await them in the mission field? And how can parents help?
Clearly the most important kind of preparation is spiritual. Prospective missionaries should do all they can to develop their testimonies and to ensure that they are worthy of representing the Lord. But practical skills are also important in determining how successful a missionary is in the mission field.
In an address to Church leaders and parents of prospective missionaries, President Gordon B. Hinckley shared cautions about the demands of the work and the importance of adequate preparation. “This work is rigorous,” he said. “It demands mental sharpness and capacity. It demands faith, desire, and consecration. It demands clean hands and a pure heart. The time has come when we must raise the standards of those who are called to serve as ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ. … We need missionaries, but they must be capable of doing the work.”1
In addition to nurturing their children’s spiritual development, parents can help their children become successful missionaries by guiding and encouraging them in at least three areas: setting goals, learning how to work, and taking care of their emotional health.
It is a fortunate missionary whose parents have helped him learn to set age-appropriate goals and to meet those goals or adjust them when needed. The Primary Faith in God program, Scouting and Duty to God programs for young men, and the Personal Progress program for young women can help in this area. The First Presidency stated in a letter to priesthood leaders, “As youth work on these goals, they will develop skills and attributes that will lead them to the temple and prepare them for a lifetime of service to their families and the Lord.”2
Successful missionaries have learned to accurately assess their circumstances, evaluate their abilities, determine what is required to solve a problem, and take confident action. Achieving temporal goals such as learning a difficult musical piece, achieving a certain skill level in a favorite sport, or learning basic auto mechanics or home repair can help increase confidence. At times there are valid reasons for modifying a goal—perhaps sickness, lack of time, or inadequate training. Parents can help children know when a goal exceeds current abilities or when additional effort is needed.
Mission presidents report that the ability to work hard may be one of the most valuable qualities a young person can develop. Years ago, many prospective missionaries could work on a farm or do other physical labor and observe the natural consequences that follow planning and effort. Such opportunities are not as common today, but anyone can master the traits of responsibility, dependability, and persistence by performing regularly assigned tasks at home or working at a full- or part-time job.
President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, described the benefits he received when family members taught him to work: “For me work became a joy when I first worked alongside my father, grandfather, uncles, and brothers. I am sure that I was often more of an aggravation than a help, but the memories are sweet and the lessons learned are valuable. Children need to learn responsibility and independence. Are the parents personally taking the time to show and demonstrate and explain so that children can, as Lehi taught, ‘act for themselves and not … be acted upon’?” (2 Ne. 2:26).3
Many young people today spend hours of unsupervised leisure time watching television, playing computer games, or engaging in other similar pursuits. Certainly everyone needs a certain amount of recreational time. But parents should not expect their children to automatically learn how to work in the Missionary Training Center. If their children do not already have work experience, it is not likely that they will know how to manage their time effectively on their missions, and they—and their companions as well—may experience much unnecessary frustration.
As President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) taught: “Children must be taught to work at home. They should learn there that honest labor develops dignity and self-respect. They should learn the pleasure of work, of doing a job well.”4
President Hinckley has stated that a missionary needs to have good physical and mental health, because any “ailment or physical or mental shortcoming a missionary has when he comes into the field only becomes aggravated under the stress of the work.”5
Depression is the most common emotional problem experienced by missionaries. Most periods of depression pass with time, problem solving, and prayer. President Boyd K. Packer has said:
“There is in the mission field the tendency to be discouraged. Sometimes a missionary will tell me, ‘I have had just a miserable day. Everything has gone wrong, and I am discouraged. It just isn’t going to go right. I feel very depressed.’’ …
“Learn that there must be ups and downs in your life. You can find that explained to you in the doctrine: ‘For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things’ … (2 Ne. 2:11). That is part of life!”6
Discouragement comes to all missionaries at one time or another. It is not the same thing as depression. Individuals who are prone to serious states of depression and who have previously required counseling and medication should consult with their leaders prior to submitting an application for missionary service. The application must include an honest history. If medication has been prescribed, it should be continued while serving.
In many areas of the world, LDS Family Services is available to help families and leaders learn to differentiate between everyday ups and downs and clinical depression. Your bishop or branch president can help you contact the nearest LDS Family Services office. For more information, see the Web site www.ldsfamilyservices.org.
Mission presidents report that some missionaries experience difficulty because they have set unrealistic standards for themselves. Elder Cecil O. Samuelson of the Seventy said in a talk to missionaries: “Interestingly, often those who struggle the most with issues of perfectionism are among the most talented missionaries and people. They are often ones who have been excellent students and have been model children and outstanding young people. Frequently, they have looked forward to being missionaries, are well prepared, and come with the expectation that they will do everything to be successful. For some, they become so obsessed or consumed with their every thought, action and response, that they may become far too extreme in their own perceptions of what is expected of them.”7
When young people develop realistic expectations for themselves and learn that perfection is a lifetime process, they will be better able to enjoy their experience in the mission field.
Speaking in the October 2002 general conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “What we need now is the greatest generation of missionaries in the history of the Church. We need worthy, qualified, spiritually energized missionaries who, like Helaman’s 2,000 stripling warriors, are ‘exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity’ and who are ‘true at all times in whatsoever thing they [are] entrusted’ (Alma 53:20).”8 With the support of parents and Church leaders, our young people can accomplish this goal.
It is not surprising that many of the skills that contribute to successful missions can also help individuals succeed in college, military service, athletics, on the job, or in marriage. Here are some additional ideas for helping young people prepare for missions:
Help them develop positive social skills. In many ways a mission is a social experience. Group dating and associating with a diverse mix of peers will help build necessary skills.
Teach young men to fulfill their priesthood duties well and with enthusiasm. Help them understand the significance of their roles in preparing, blessing, or passing the sacrament. Encourage deacons to participate faithfully in collecting fast offerings, and encourage teachers and priests to be diligent home teachers. Where appropriate, allow newly ordained elders to perform baptisms or participate in giving blessings.
Assist them in developing independence. Perhaps the most frustrated of all missionaries are those who desire to serve and who have developed a deep love of the gospel but who struggle with severe homesickness. To a young person, two years can seem like an eternity. Parents can enhance independence by encouraging their children to successfully complete Scout or Young Women overnight camps. Some have opportunities to live away from home during college.
Encourage them to develop leadership experience. Help them take advantage of opportunities to conduct Church meetings, participate in athletics and in musical events, join school clubs, do volunteer work, participate actively in school and Church classes, and take Church callings seriously.
Show them how to be good money managers. Experience in making and managing money can help them develop more realistic lifestyle expectations as a missionary. Young people should have the opportunity to make money, contribute to a savings account, manage a checking account, learn to pay bills on time, and help pay for their mission.
Teach basic domestic skills such as cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry.
Parents and leaders can help youth look forward with anticipation to serving a mission. The following ideas may be useful:
While children are young, use family home evening to role-play various activities that might be part of a mission such as meeting new people or teaching a discussion.
If you have served a mission, show children your own missionary journal or share your missionary experiences.
Invite the local missionaries to your home for dinner and a teaching experience.
Encourage young men in the priests quorum to participate in teaching with local missionaries.
If you live near a Church visitors’ center, visit as a family or with friends who may be interested in learning more about the Savior and His restored Church.
Pray for missionary opportunities.
Discuss with family members their feelings about serving a full-time mission. Ask them why they want or hesitate to serve. List and read about the three areas of mission preparation from this article. Work towards achieving several family or personal goals in each area. Read or sing “Called to Serve” (Hymns, no. 249). Follow up on the goals at a future family home evening.
Ask family members to offer ideas or solutions to the following issues often faced by full-time missionaries: How can you find joy in working hard each day? How would you help a companion who is discouraged? Read together this article looking for additional ideas and solutions. How can preparing for a mission now help one throughout life?