An aura of joy surrounds a mission home when new elders and sisters arrive. Fresh from the Missionary Training Center, the newcomers are eager to put their training into practice. The mission staff is enthusiastic about helping the new arrivals adjust quickly to the full-time proselyting environment. And the mission president is anxious to ensure that each missionary will have a full and rewarding experience serving the Lord.
The mission president conducts individual interviews with his new elders and sisters and quickly discovers that some are excited, some worried, some shy, some proud—but all are curious about how to best fulfill their callings. As they grow and learn, just about all of them become successful missionaries.
And yet some missionaries seem to be exceptionally well-prepared right from the beginning of their mission. If a president had a chance to share his observations about his most effective workers, what would he say?
Interviews with five presidents and former presidents from missions around the world indicate that many of the happiest and most successful missionaries begin preparing for their service long before the envelope from 47 East South Temple Street is delivered to their mailbox. We spoke with President Roland R. Wright of the New York New York City Mission, President Marion C. Robinson of the Uruguay Montevideo Mission, President Ben E. Lewis of the England London Mission, President Lindsay R. Curtis of the California Oakland Mission, and President R. Dean Robinson of the France Paris Mission. Here is a summary of their suggestions for those who anticipate embarking in the service of the Lord.
“They should have a desire to be of service to others,” said President Lewis. “They should develop an attitude of optimism and happiness and be able to see the good things in people rather than their failings and faults. They need to be obedient to the commandments of the Lord without trying to fight the rules. They will need to have firm testimonies of the Savior and should spend time preparing themselves so that they know what is in the scriptures.”
President Dean Robinson agreed. “My best missionaries have faith the Lord will direct their efforts if they will set goals. They literally call down the powers of heaven.” President Robinson also said good missionaries have learned to get along with their companions and to avoid contention and that “they love to talk to their Father in Heaven and do it often during the day.”
President Lewis also advised that elders and sisters who perform well seem to have conquered homesickness—“They know how to survive it.” Sometimes, he said, a little time in college helps provide “a broader base” from which to understand other cultures and people, but college should not be chosen at the expense of fulfilling a mission by one who is qualified to serve.
All of the presidents agreed that worthiness is essential. “Missionaries must be living a righteous life prior to coming; they must know how to keep themselves under control. Speech and personal habits must be above reproach,” President Lewis said.
“Five basic areas would include learning obedience, sacrifice, hard work, prayer, and faith. Faith makes the impossible possible and opens closed minds and doors. Until missionaries learn to understand and walk by faith, they are not effective,” said President Dean Robinson.
“They need to realize that a mission is a lot of hard work!” said President Curtis. “They should try to gain teaching experience and an understanding of the nature of the Spirit. Some young people are convinced they do not have a testimony when in fact they do, but it is a small one that needs some work.”
President Marion Robinson noted that missionaries need a knowledge of the scriptures and how to study them. And President Lewis agreed. “They should have read the Book of Mormon and put it to the test,” he said. “They need to learn to study, to become fluent in reading and writing and spelling. They should also have an awareness of what the Holy Ghost is, how he operates, and how to receive a spiritual witness.” He said that the best way to prepare to bear testimony in the mission field is to bear it now whenever you can. He also advised future missionaries “to learn now to make commitments and keep them.”
President Curtis reminded prospective missionaries that physical and emotional preparation should also be considered. “Those who are overweight should get their weight down to normal before entering the mission field,” he said. “All prospective missionaries should work on manners, personal appearance, grooming, and dress habits. Any emotional problems should be settled before leaving home.”
And President Wright added that it is vital for missionaries to have “an understanding of the importance of personal righteousness and discipline and the need for being totally honest with themselves and others—especially their bishops and stake presidents.”
“In the rare case where a missionary hasn’t fully cleared the slate with his bishop, he carries a burden of unrepented sin into his mission,” President Curtis warned. Such a burden makes it impossible to follow the Spirit, bear testimony, and feel good about oneself, and so the work seems hard.
“I would suggest that before a missionary leaves home, parents sit down with him and plan a budget and have a clear understanding of how finances will be handled,” President Curtis said. Information is available about how much money is needed each month and about the best way of getting it to the missionary, and that information is included in a letter from the Missionary Department to the missionary.
“Adequate funds should be provided for missionaries to do productive work. A reserve fund alleviates anxiety so the missionary is not always on the thin edge wondering where the funds will come from,” President Curtis said. “But at the same time, receiving too much money each month can encourage spending for things that aren’t really needed.”
President Lewis stated an opinion shared by all five presidents when he said, “Start working and saving now and set up a mission bank account so that to the maximum extent you can support yourself on your mission. This makes a mission much more meaningful.”
“Parents should spend more effort in developing a feeling of trust with their children, starting at a very young age, counseling them regarding personal habits and the great blessings that come from living righteously,” President Wright said. “I find that many young people have never been counseled by their parents because the parents expected priesthood leaders to do it for them.”
“I feel all parents should understand what it takes to be a good missionary and then teach their children accordingly,” said President Dean Robinson. “Parents need to follow up on their missionary and his obedience.”
“Suggest that the missionary support his companion and his leaders. Suggest that he draw close to the members. If a missionary writes that he is having trouble with a companion, instead of taking sides, have him evaluate himself and suggest ways the relationship might be improved,” President Curtis said.
“Parents should do everything they can to ‘come on a mission’ with their son or daughter (through letters) rather than ‘bringing them home,’ when they don’t really want them home,”
President Lewis suggested.
“Use the titles ‘elder’ and ‘sister’ often, to remind missionaries of their calling. I would not write more than once a week, but be consistent in writing every week.
“Maintain love and harmony in the home and convey this to the missionary,” said President Marion Robinson. “I think that a missionary needs to know to a degree what’s going on at home, but parents should not write about all of their difficulties in detail. Nothing helps like support from the folks at home.”
“Don’t talk as much of home as you do about what is happening to the missionary, the missionary programs, his investigators, his field of labor,” advised President Curtis. “It does not help to tell of fishing trips, hunting trips, or other things the family is planning that will make him homesick. Write about what is happening in the Church, messages you have heard in meetings, ideas about more effective proselyting methods. I would counsel parents not to telephone (except in extreme emergencies and with the approval of the mission president) or visit their missionary son or daughter in the mission field and in general to let their missionary come home when released rather than planning travel together.”
“Be obedient to the small rules,” President Dean Robinson said. “Don’t be just plain lazy, and avoid the temptation to be constantly thinking about yourself.”
“If a missionary is homesick or lovesick, it’s easier to get discouraged,” President Lewis said. “Criticizing and faultfinding can also lead to discouragement. Missionaries have to be willing to sacrifice.”
“A certain elder I knew had as a goal that he would perform each day so that at the end of the day he would have no regrets about his actions,” President Wright said. “This was a rather simple guideline he was able to follow, and he became a truly outstanding missionary.”
“This can work for either good or evil. A girl who is supportive but insists that her boyfriend keep his mind on his work can be a positive influence. Those who write too frequently or too lovingly serve to distract the missionary. It does not help to have a girl friend tell a missionary how much she misses him. It would be far better to have her tell him how proud she is to have him on his mission and be interested in his investigators, baptisms, companions, and mission programs,” said President Curtis.
President Marion Robinson suggested that sometimes a missionary needs to “pass the test of dedicating himself to the work and focusing totally on the work,” and that such commitment is often difficult when he is constantly worrying about someone back home.
President Wright said that new arrivals in his mission are asked to read President Kimball’s discourse, “Lock Your Heart.” “Until missionaries learn to bring their heart into the mission field, which I think means their affections, I find that they generally limit their ability to progress spiritually. It’s difficult to be overly committed to someone at home and bring your mind into the mission field,” President Wright commented.
Whether or not there is someone waiting at home, the presidents agreed that missionaries perform better when they have learned to discipline themselves: they write to their families weekly and to friends from time to time, they realize there will be plenty of time for dating after their missions, and they resist the urge to daydream or to spend money buying “reminders” to let people back home know where they are.
“Learn to discipline your life and gain a spiritual testimony of the truth of the gospel. As you learn to understand the gospel and the powerful influence that the Holy Ghost can be in your life, you will have a resource on which to draw and you will be able to receive guidance and assurance whether or not you should devote some time to full-time missionary service,” President Wright advised.
“The prophet has reminded us that every member is a missionary, so my counsel would be that she prepare herself for a mission,” said President Lewis. “But if the opportunity does not come and she has the opportunity to marry instead, and to marry in the temple, then she should consider this as her important mission and that a proselyting mission might come later when she and her husband can serve.
“I would remind the young lady that when she prepares for a mission she is actually preparing for marriage and that all the things she learns from missionary work can be productive in her marriage. I would counsel her to be spiritually minded and to keep the commandments of the Lord so she can be worthy either to be married in the temple or to go on a mission. She should keep morally clean and avoid engaging in any kinds of practices that would rob her of her virtue.
“I would also remind her (or anyone thinking of going on a mission) not to consider going on a mission to get away from something or someone. A mission is hard work and is not easy. For those who have failed to prepare it can be most difficult. She should study the scriptures and gain a personal testimony of the Savior and of the Prophet Joseph Smith and of our present living prophet. Then the Lord will help her to know if she should accept a mission call.”
“I would do everything in my power to convince them of the need for answering the mission call,” said President Marion Robinson. “I would counsel them to stay close to their bishop, to follow the counsel of the prophet, to keep the commandments, and to pray to the Lord for guidance so that when the call comes they will be fully prepared spiritually, morally, mentally, physically, and economically. I think the missionary program is the greatest way on the earth today to prepare young people for leadership in all walks of life and especially in the Church and in marriage. These are fringe benefits one gains in addition to the blessings one receives through serving others by sharing the gospel.”
“First, I would tell them to definitely prepare for a mission,” said President Curtis. “Second, remember a mission is definitely a lot of work. Although it has many joys, it also has some sorrows and disappointments, low points mixed in with the highs. The most important thing is their attitude—their desire to be good missionaries and their dedication to the work. Last, and most important, they should be taught to obey all of the rules. Missionaries who obey all of the rules enjoy the Spirit and in general are successful missionaries.”
President Lewis said, “I would tell them to keep the commandments, attend church, participate every year in seminary, pray, and study the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon. If they stay on the inside track, they will avoid getting on the outer edge where they might fall off. They must live worthily, especially with regard to chastity, so they don’t get the idea they can do whatever they want and then repent.”
And he continued: “They should write a personal journal so they get in the habit of doing it. They could take public speaking classes so that they learn how to speak up and speak out. If they prepare a talk every day or week, even a short one, they learn how to put one together. I would invite them to write to a missionary as they grow up so they have a first-hand relationship with someone on a mission.
“They should learn something about nutrition, the kind of food they should eat and the kind they should avoid. They should learn to cook at least some of the basics and learn to sew. They should keep the Word of Wisdom, have regular exercise and the proper amount of sleep, and keep physically fit. If they have an interest in sports, I would encourage them to participate and learn the discipline that sports require.”
“In speaking to young teenagers today,” said President Wright, “I would try to help them understand how important it is to plan their lives so that they have no regrets concerning their choices. Full-time missionary service is definitely something they should plan for.”
“I would like the youth of the Church to know how blessed they are to be members and to have all the blessings of the gospel,” said President Dean Robinson. “They are chosen to help build the Lord’s kingdom on the earth in every nation. They have a great responsibility to be loyal to this great trust the Lord has placed in them. The Lord needs us and is waiting for us to put our lives in order so he can direct us. He is depending on this royal generation to rise up and put on the full armor of God. They need to sense this responsibility personally and prepare to meet the challenge.”