Four new missionaries had just arrived from the MTC with all their luggage, hair cuts, anticipation, and enthusiasm. They were seated in the study of the Canada Calgary Mission Home, waiting anxiously for their first assignments. How could I, as their mission president, know where to send them and who to assign them to? Of course I prayed diligently and prepared spiritually to receive inspiration, and inspiration came.
But I also knew that as I talked individually with these missionaries, I would discover that some were better prepared for the mission field than others, that some brought certain traits with them that would help them succeed as a missionary, while others brought with them challenges they would have to overcome in order to be effective.
Let me give you several examples. I’ve used made-up names, but the stories are all true.
When I asked Elder Werker to tell me about himself, I found out he had worked for his father.
“Was it hard work?”
“Dad expected us to go to work as soon as it was light enough to see, and to work until the job was finished or until it was too dark to see.”
“Do you think you’ll have to work that hard here?”
“I don’t think I should work any less for the Lord than I do for my father. Do you?”
The answer was obvious.
Four or five weeks later at a zone conference, Elder Werker’s companion, who was a hard worker too, said, “President, how long do I have to train Elder Werker? The pace is killing me!”
By the end of his mission, Elder Werker had helped bring 56 people into the Church.
Elder Werker had something in common with a lot of successful missionaries. He came into the mission field with a knowledge of work. He knew what it meant to keep going even when he was tired or discouraged. He would stick with a job until it was completed.
President Benson has stated, “I have often said one of the greatest secrets of missionary work is work! If a missionary works, he will get the Spirit; if he gets the Spirit, he will teach by the Spirit; and if he teaches by the Spirit, he will touch the hearts of the people and he will be happy. There will be no homesickness, no worrying about families, for all time and talents and interests are centered on the work of the ministry. Work, work, work—there is no satisfactory substitute, especially in missionary work” (Texas San Antonio Mission, Mar. 2, 1986, in TheTeachings of Ezra Taft Benson, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988, p. 200).
Elder Strong was six feet, two inches tall and weighed 220 pounds. He looked like he should be a linebacker for an American football team. But he seemed very unsure of himself when I asked what his strengths as a missionary would be.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, do you have some goals, something you’d like to accomplish while you’re here?”
“Uhm, well, I haven’t really … I don’t know.”
That night, after the missionaries were in bed, I went to my office. I always did this, in case someone felt a need to talk with me. The office was just down the stairs and two doors away from the room where the elders were sleeping.
In a few minutes, I heard someone tap on the door.
It was Elder Strong.
“I have to go home, president.”
“Tell me about it.”
After tears and a tender moment or two, he said at first that he didn’t have a testimony, that he was unsure of himself, that he couldn’t learn the scriptures, and a number of other excuses. But after we talked a little longer, it became evident that the real problem was that Elder Strong was homesick.
Until he entered the MTC, he had never been away from home overnight. He was so attached to his mother that even though he had just seen her at the airport a few hours ago, he felt he had to phone her and tell her that everything was all right. She had insisted that he call when he arrived, and he hadn’t.
So I talked to his mother for him.
Elder Strong had a problem that a lot of missionaries have to deal with—homesickness. It isn’t wrong to love your family. And it’s all right to miss them when you’re apart. But until you can stop constantly thinking about home and get on with your work, you’re not going to be fully involved as a missionary.
I think parents can do a lot in this area to help their sons (or daughters) be better prepared. Chaperoned and supervised Church programs offer young people the opportunity to learn what it’s like to be out on their own at youth conference, summer camp, or Scout camp.
A young person would benefit from visiting aunts and uncles or grandparents, staying overnight or over a weekend, gradually adjusting to the experience of being apart from the immediate family. If it’s feasible, attending college for a semester or two before entering the mission field may help a prospective missionary get used to living away from home.
Another tip: learn to write letters. This is the approved method for missionaries and parents to keep in touch. Missionaries and their parents should exchange letters, but only once a week.
In addition to questions about his goals and strengths, I asked Elder Handsome about his social life.
“Tell me about your girlfriends.”
He virtually leaped out of his chair.
“Girlfriend, not friends. There is a one and only. She’s the greatest. I can’t live without her.”
“What will it do to your mission when she marries someone else?”
“If I hear of her even dating anybody else, I am gone, I am history, I am out of here. I’ll go straight home.”
For months Elder Handsome struggled to become involved in his mission. He was continually figuring out clever things to write to his “one and only.” He spent much of his time thinking about her instead of the work.
When the “Dear John” came, Elder Handsome struggled even more. But he did not go home. He eventually became an outstanding missionary and a dedicated district and zone leader. He learned to love his mission, his area, the prospective members, and the local members.
A lot of elders have trouble leaving a girlfriend behind. And in this area, I think young women can help a lot. Recall the words of President Benson: “You can have a positive influence in motivating young men to serve full-time missions. Let the young men of your acquaintance know that you expect them to assume their missionary responsibilities, that you personally want them to serve in mission field, because you know that’s where the Lord wants them.
“Avoid steady dating with a young man prior to the time of his mission call. If your relationship with him is more casual, then he can make that decision to serve more easily and also can concentrate his full energies on his missionary work instead of the girlfriend back home” (Ensign, Nov. 1986, pp. 82–83).
And you young men may want to remember this example: Some years ago in our ward, the priests quorum adviser and his wife would go on double dates with the priests. They urged the young men to enjoy dating a number of young women, and cautioned them not to become involved with just one person at a time when such involvement could preclude a mission.
The adviser often reminded the young men before their mission, they weren’t ready to compete for jobs and success. “Neighbors look after you when you’re the neighbor’s kid,” he said. “But you become a married adult, you enter a business and professional world that’s highly competitive—you need the growth, activities, and training that come from a mission, school, and apprenticeships or other training before you’re ready for the awesome responsibilities of earning a living, raising a family, and competing in an adult world.”
Elder Newcome was a little bit nervous when he entered the office for his personal interview. Earlier, when all of us met together, I had noticed that he had trouble reading the scriptures.
“I’m a new convert. I’ve only been a member of the Church for a little over a year.”
“And you feel like you’ll never catch up with the others?”
“I’ve always had a hard time learning. I don’t know a lot about the details of the Church.”
“How do you feel about the Book of Mormon and the gospel?”
“The Spirit has born witness to me. I know they’re true.”
When I heard that, I knew he’d do well.
Elder Newcome was assigned to an area where a counselor in the stake presidency lived. That counselor came to me as the mission president and said, “I have a very well educated 29-year-old friend who has had a lot of problems in his life. He’s finally searching for some answers, and he’s anxious to be taught the gospel. Do you have some good elders who can teach him?”
At first I thought about sending my assistants. But the Spirit whispered to me that this was the assigned area for Elder Newcome and his companion, and this was a job for them.
Two weeks later, I had the opportunity of meeting with this member of the stake presidency and the investigator as well. They were both very complimentary of the missionaries and their ability to teach. A short time later, the investigator was baptized, and I spoke with him and the counselor again.
“Did you know that Elder Newcome cannot read?” the counselor asked me.
“Yes, I know,” I said with emotion. “But he knows our Father in Heaven and his Son.”
“And he teaches with the Spirit,” said our newly baptized friend.
Most missionaries have more time to prepare than Elder Newcome did. Yet some of them fail to use their preparation time wisely. Missionaries should learn what it means to have faith, to repent, to feel the Holy Ghost, and to search the scriptures. Even those who have not known the gospel for a long time can begin now to learn and grow, so that they have some background in these areas when they arrive in the mission field.
I can think of a lot of other missionaries who sat in my office during the three years I served in Canada. Some struggled with shyness or fear of meeting people, and eventually overcame it. Some were unprepared financially and wished they had saved more money, while others had saved for years and paid for their entire mission themselves. Some spent their whole mission reliving high school successes. Some looked for excuses to stay in their apartment if it was raining, snowing, or cold. Some had a natural ability to understand others. And some had a deep knowledge of doctrine and principles.
Eventually, most of them grew to understand the real reason they were on a mission—to bring souls to Christ, to ensure that those baptized were truly converted, to love and serve others.
“And now, behold, I say unto you, that the thing which will be of the most worth unto you will be to declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me, that you may rest with them in the kingdom of my Father” (D&C 15:6 and D&C 16:6).
Over the three years I observed another common trait that I think distinguished those who gave the best service. They had participated in things that require consistent doing—music, competitive sports, farming, academics, scripture study (especially the Book of Mormon), seminary—and as a result had embedded in their lives the understanding that work is worthwhile. They had learned that dedication pays, that self-discipline is not a dirty word.
I also learned that most of those who came to mission field were surprised that their preparation time passed so rapidly. They seemed to be saying “Get ready, get set … wait a minute, I’m already here!”
Don’t let yourself get caught in that situation. You can begin preparing today.