Thoughts on a Mission – 15 Years Later

Fifteen years ago today, I entered the MTC. I wrote previously about the 10 year anniversary of returning home, but I still feel like the 15 year anniversary of beginning a mission deserves its own post.

Some things have changed over the years in how I view my missionary service. The memories have dimmed, and while it was still an important time in my life, it has become less ever-present in my thoughts. It’s almost like the hazy memories of summer camp – a place apart from the normal world where things don’t work the same way as at home.

I rarely start off stories with “When I was on my mission…” anymore. I have new stories to tell that happened afterward. I haven’t had a dream about my mission in years. I’ve lost touch with most of the people I met while I was there. Some on purpose, some just to the mists of time. Even the ones I do still keep in touch with are simply acquaintances on my Facebook friend list.

The intersection of my church life and having served a mission is less pronounced now, too. I’m old enough that people rarely ask if I served a mission. They’re more concerned with what I have going on now than what I did a decade and a half ago. Previously, when people found out I served in the United States, I was automatically relegated to the status of second-class RM. There was definitely a hierarchy of missionary service with people who went to Latin America or Asia at the top, Europe and other places in the middle, and the US at the very bottom. It seems to matter less to people now that it was so far in the past. I’m glad for that; I got kind of sick of my missionary service being belittled because of where I was called to serve. (Besides, if we truly believe that everyone deserves to hear the gospel, that includes the people of the US, too.)

When I went on a mission, there was still a stigma against women who served as missionaries. We were the uppity women who couldn’t land a husband. That stigma has abated now that the age for missionary service has been lowered and more women are serving. And some of that reframing has spilled over into women of my era who served, too. I still haven’t married, but people don’t connect that to my missionary service anymore. They’ve come up with a whole new list of reasons.

Even though my mission has faded a bit in my mind, it still gave me some formative experiences. It was the first time I saw poverty up close. It was the first time I saw exactly how essential education and career are for women because I saw women trapped in bad marriages because they were incapable of financially supporting themselves. I vowed to myself that I would never be without means of being able to provide for myself, even if I marry. It was the first time someone told me that I couldn’t do something because of my sex, and it made me angry. How dare they take Bible verses out of their historical context to try to silence me when God Himself called me to preach the word?

My mission gave me life skills that I didn’t know I would need. I had to plan my days with little oversight. I had to select goals, figure out how to accomplish them, and manage my time without a boss hovering over my shoulders to make sure I was doing my work. Now that I’m self-employed, I do all that in my daily life. It also helped me to be able to connect with people from all walks of life, which is a skill I use in my law practice. And while I haven’t needed to ride a bicycle in a skirt since returning home, that lesson taught me to avoid taking myself too seriously. It’s impossible to ride a bike in a skirt without looking at least a little silly.

It will be interesting to see how my thoughts and memories of my mission continue to change and grow over time. I wasn’t fully prepared for the reality of it all. I had only heard missions spoken of in glowing terms about how they were filled with unbridled joy. Nobody talked about the bad parts, at least not the actual bad parts. The worst things I ever heard about were weird food and homesickness. Even now, as I’m writing this paragraph, I’m finding myself unable to describe the parts of a mission that wounded my soul and took years to heal from. The taboo against discussing negative mission experiences is that strong. I hope someday that taboo will be lifted so people can go in with eyes open.

I don’t know if I would have gone if I had known everything that was going to happen, but time heals all wounds, and looking back, I’m glad I went. But if I have another dream where I’m back there, I’ll still be glad to wake up and realize that I’m 30-something with a job, and I don’t have to wear a skirt or stick with another person 24/7.

Trudy

Trudy is a lawyer living in the southwestern US. She has two cats who allow her to live in their apartment in exchange for a steady supply of food and treats.

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8 Responses

  1. SC says:

    Thanks for sharing, Trudy. I served two decades ago, in a place where sisters outbaptized elders 6-to-1 yet we weren’t allowed to speak in zone conference because of our gender, so we had to sit and listen to “how to do missionary work” instructions each month from elders who were way less effective missionaries than we sisters were. It was beyond ridiculous. And church leaders wonder why my generation is now stomping for more leadership inclusion for my and my daughters’ generation? No, we aren’t power hungry, guys. It is because the men we serve alongside are just grown-up versions of those less-effective elders from our missions. Watching them flounder in our wards as badly as they screwed up our missions is is actual mental torture. No woman should spend her life watching things fall apart like this when she has the talents, skills, experience, and abilities (but not the authority) to help make things better!

  2. jlrowse says:

    When I got home, I spent some time with a friend who helped me make the decision to go. I asked her, “Why didn’t you tell me how awful and hard it would be?” She said, “If missionaries did that, no one would ever go.” Yet I do think it is important to be more honest with missionaries about some of the struggles. I think I would’ve been a bit more gentle with myself if that friend had said “You might feel x, y, and z. Here’s how I handled it.”

  3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer says:

    About 10-15 years ago I was talking with a couple of my student employees. Both were male, LDS, RM’s. BOTH of them said “No, it was NOT the best two years of my life and NO, you didn’t hear me say that when I gave me return report.” We were all laughing at the time, but I think it was truly the first time I had ever heard a missionary say how terrible it was.

  4. Mike says:

    I entered the MTC 20 years ago next month, and I resonate with many of the feelings expressed here and in the comments.

    Recently, I swapped detailed stories about my mission 20 years in the past with a good non-member friend who served in the Peace Corps at about the same time. Telling those experiences to a non-member audience helped me realize how much we self censor our internal discourse about missions, and not adhering to the script is definitely frowned on.

    I’ve since decided that my kids will hear the uncensored stories, and if they choose to go, they will go with eyes wide open.

  5. Em says:

    It was also an eye-opening experience for me about my second-class status in the church. Before my mission I had thought it was because I hadn’t served a mission — all the guys in my singles ward spoke with such confidence about the scriptures, and at parties they’d all swap stories while I sat silently by. I thought that by serving I’d be their equal. Ha. That wasn’t the only reason I went, and it was a good experience in other ways, but I definitely saw very clearly that the primary qualification for leadership was sex, not ability or education or dedication or obedience or any other measure.

  6. Rebecca says:

    It has been 14 years since I entered the MTC and I feel a lot of the same things as you. I hated defending my state-side mission. I hated how many times my stake president asked me, “Are you SURE there’s nobody you MIGHT consider EVER marrying? Are you SURE this mission won’t keep you from getting married right now?” I hated trying to overcome the terrible stereotypes of sister missionaries being whiny, flirty, frumpy, distracting, or in the way. I hated that I had to work so hard to be seen equal to the elders, even when my numbers and efforts sometimes doubled theirs.

    It hurt my heart to see poverty, hatefulness, racism, heartache, and abuse so up close and personal. But I loved knowing I was teaching of Christ. I loved sharing the restored gospel. I loved the confidence of knowing I was in the right place at the right time. My mission taught me how to organize myself, how to study, how to stick with difficult tasks, and how to be patient with some of the most difficult people. It was hard, and sad, and heartbreaking, but also enlightening, joyful, and strengthening.

    It’s weird that it was so long ago, and yet I still think about it so regularly. I’m so glad I got to go. And I’m so glad for the impact it has had on my life, and hopefully on others’ lives as well.

  7. ST says:

    Thank you for sharing your memories of your mission. My mission was also stateside and after having a brother get called to the Ukraine shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain, I was an also ran for sure. One of my greatest lessons I learned from my mission was how to respond to unrighteous dominion from mission leadership. I was grateful that I spent some time serving in the Visitor’s Centre partway through my mission so that I could serve with more sisters and rebuild my confidence before serving in the field full time again under the leadership of power hungry elders. I also had some tough experiences with very unstable companions who would not have made it into the field today, which has given me more compassion for those who choose not to serve, and more flexibility in presenting my son with a mission as an option, not a be all and end all.

    Some of my greatest lessons I learned and best experiences I had were when we went off script (I was in the era where we had to pass off discussions, including memorising all the scriptures to our district leader, who wouldn’t expect anything less than perfection) and I am grateful I learned to push the envelope, meet people where they were, and question if someone was truly ready for baptism, or just converted to the missionaries.

    Was it the best years of my life, far from it. And I make sure that I tell future missionaries the good and the bad, and write to the sisters that I know are struggling to let them know they are doing their best and that is good enough.

  8. Mary says:

    It’s been almost 18 years since I entered the MTC. When my mission president asked, upon my release, if I’d do it all over again, I said ‘no way.’ He was shocked, but it was a very difficult eighteen months and I had no desire to endure it again. I was also first truly exposed to the sexism in the hierarchy of the church; AP elders abused their authority with me, chastising me for daring to question them in front of my companion. We were taught not to teach women without men present, i.e., don’t teach a woman if you can’t teach her husband or partner. This is because the church needed priesthood holders, not more women. These practices positioned women’s souls as worth less.

    I started therapy on my mission. The structured lifestyle where blessings are only based on the amount of hard work and sacrifice was too much. We were tracting 18 hours at a minimum per week, following every rule, and skipping meal breaks to make sure we were putting in the necessary time and, well, we still weren’t being blessed with baptisms and it was made out to be our fault because we weren’t doing something right. Isn’t God bound to bless when you are obedient? Teachings like this are harmful and I watched one companion literally make herself sick because of her unchecked anxiety.

    With all of that being said, I did learn how to communicate with people of all types and I got really good in the art of ‘sales’ (and swore I would never, ever be in sales as a career.) I also met so many amazing people and I honestly wish I could’ve had those relationships without the strings attached (i.e., we can only visit you if we are actively teaching you, so you have to be interested in our product for us to spend time with you.) I still hurt because of things I taught one family because I was instructed to teach them those things. I never should’ve said anything and gone with my heart, but I was trying to be obedient to a fault. I still associate a lot of sadness and guilt with my mission.

    Anyway, missions are definitely not for everyone. It seems like a completely separate life and when I look back over my life, it sometimes doesn’t even register as it’s so far removed from everything else.

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