Monday, July 23, 2012

Missionary Letters

Plenty has changed in the Latter-day history of missionary work, but one thing has not changed: Missionaries love to get mail!
I’ve written on this subject before (here) and it’s one of my most-Google-searched posts. Now that I have a daughter who is serving and I’m writing to her often, it seems like a good time for an update:

I remember serving in Germany over three decades ago, and a day with a letter (ANY letter!) was brighter. It rarely mattered to me what the letter said – just having it in the mailbox when I got home meant something to me. I was fortunate that the folks who did write to me (mostly my mom and dad and siblings – oh, and the young woman who would become my wife) wrote great letters – news about what was happening in their lives, favorite scriptures, words of encouragement. But I did know a few missionaries who got awful letters, so it’s worth talking about what to write.

The New Era thought it was important to talk about, too. You can read a 2007 article on the subject here.

Here are things I liked reading about as a missionary:

1. Real life – what’s going on in the lives of the people I care about. My parents lived in Lagos, Nigeria during my mission, so my mom always had a great story of discover or adventure. My wife-to-be (I don’t really know what to call her; we had no commitment to one another when I left, so she wasn’t really even my girlfriend, though I think we both hoped from the beginning that things would work out, and fortunately (for me, anyway) they did) wrote about her schooling or work, and about the friends we had in common, and about her family. She ended up spending six months during my mission on study abroad in Austria, so she often had interesting adventures to report, too.

2. Inspiration and encouragement – one of my sisters liked to send me quotations from famous German composers about the divine inspiration they felt contributed to their work. It was cool to read those quotations while serving in their homeland. My brother, who had also served a mission, occasionally sent me ideas for scripture study or district meetings. I like to share my own mission experiences in my letters to missionaries.

3. Questions about me – I liked that letter-writers were interested in what I was doing. I never got so many letters that I could not answer them. The only letter I sent every week was to my parents. My girlfriend and I wrote about every two weeks, which allowed us to respond to one another’s letters rather than having to force a letter each week. And all the other letters were infrequent enough that I could respond to questions. I will often ask missionaries questions in my letters, but I also tell them I don’t really expect an answer. Lots of missionaries now have weekly letters posted to blogs or Facebook so their friends can keep up with what’s going on.

4. Testimony – it was helpful to me to have letter writers share their faith and testimonies, either based on their study of the scriptures or their own experience.

Here are some other observations:

1. Short letters are ok, too. Letters need not be long epistles. In fact, most missionaries don’t have time to dwell on long letters, and family emails that are long will rob a missionary from writing time. A thoughtful card might be as helpful to a missionary as a long doctrinal discourse.

2. Some subject matter is better avoided. A long standing joke with my wife is my reaction (which has expanded in the repeated telling of the story) when she told me in a letter that she had gone out with a friend of mine – an RM from my dorm. She never ever mentioned dating anyone again after that. I remember visiting another companionship’s apartment when one of the elders got a letter from a young woman who recounted in great detail (I know because he insisted on reading it to us) a pool party she’d attended with their mutual friends. As he read the letter out loud, the Spirit fled from the room and he was completely unfocused for quite some time.

3. Dear John letters stink, but like removal of a band-aid, they are better done quickly. An elder in one apartment we shared suspected for weeks that his girlfriend was dropping him. Her weekly letters stopped abruptly. For several weeks he complained about her silence. Finally he got word that she had, in fact, decided to end their relationship. How much more of a blessing it would have been to get that letter earlier on.

4. Packages are always a welcome surprise! But the New Era article reminds readers to check potential customs costs. In some countries packages are not practical. (A mission president who served in South America said they told families who were sending new shoes to missionaries to send each shoe in a separate package to reduce the risk of theft.) One of my sisters sent a spectacular package my first Christmas, filled with my favorite goodies. It was a lot of work for her to put the package together, and shipping it wasn’t cheap for her, either. Unfortunately, the day before it arrived, they had repainted the lobby of our walk-up apartment and taken down the mailboxes. When they put up new mailboxes, it took us a day to get our name on the box. In that city, if your name wasn’t on the box, they marked your mail as undeliverable and returned it. She got that large Christmas package back around Valentine’s Day. (Of course that wasn’t her fault, but it illustrates one of many possible complications with package shipments.)

Here’s my advice: write to your favorite missionary! Even a postcard or a note of encouragement will be welcome. One of my daughters wrote to her missionary friends every few months – often enough to stay in touch, but not so often to have it be an onerous task.

Feel free to share your thoughts about what, how and how often to write.


  1. The last day of the year, the mission secretary informed me that my mother was dead. Between a mail strike and a transfer, the last letters from home had arrived five weeks earlier and had been written a week or two before that. The last letter from my mother that I had read said she was seeing a doctor about unspecified discomfort, but she didn’t want me to worry about it. So I hadn’t. Later that month I had contact from my mother again; when the mail strike ended, the backlog of letters arrived at once, mostly from my mother, then from my sister when my mother could no longer write.

  2. Oh, John, that must have been difficult. It would have been for me.

    I heard consistently from my mom, much less from my dad. But they rarely heard from me, despite the fact that I wrote every week. They were living in Lagos, Nigeria and for some reason my letters were not getting through to them. When my mother called me a few days before my second Christmas (we had a phone in our apartment by then -- a rare thing for missionaries in our mission), she said she hadn't heard from me in months. I had no idea, as she had not mentioned it in her letters.

    I have no idea what happened to those letters, and wish now that I had copies of what I had written, as it likely would have been a more accurate journal of my mission than my actual journal was.

  3. I have a son serving a mission in Germany now. I write him an email each week and my husband writes him a hand-written letter each Sunday. He says he gets two different perspectives with our letters. I copy our letters and his letters to us for a sort of family history. I did that when my eldest served in Australia.

  4. Thanks for posting this. I am trying to support missionaries by writing Caitlin. I was surprised to receive a postcard from her. I didn't expect to since I know that missionaries are limited in their time. My goal is to write her a couple of times a month and this post has helped. Also, hoping to send a package sometime during the mission. Maybe you can give some ideas of what she might like.

  5. Glapha, the idea of saving letters is really a good one -- both the ones you and your husband write, and your missionary's. I think about the value of letters to historians. Good idea!

    My daughter tells us that she prefers paper letters to emails. Her email time is limited (in the MTC, anyway; maybe that changes in the mission field), but a paper letter allows her to get the correspondence any day it arrives (instead of when she checks email on P-Day) and it allows her to read it more than once. That said, ANY communication is better than none!

    Sarah, what to put in a missionary package? Chocolate, of course! What did you like getting when you were on your mission?

  6. Thank you for this blog post. I loved it. I used your picture for a blog post of mine about writing missionary letters.

  7. This is a great resource for what to write to my friend! Thank you!
    I write to 5 missionaries every week. Believe it or not, I was already following most of your guidelines before I even read this website. However, to one of them, I write A LOT. The average email I write to him has about 600 words, but never more than 800. I like writing to him because he is my adventurous buddy. I MAKE SURE that I ONLY write about 4 or 5 MAIN TOPICS though, to keep him from thinking I'm trying to overwhelm him with a big responsibility to write an email, just as long, back. I even remind him every now and then that he doesn't need to write just as long. But by writing long, I think I'm just giving him a burden. He said he really enjoyed and loved reading them, but also apologized (a lot) and emphasized that he isn't given ENOUGH TIME on the computer to respond as much as he wants to--and he seems to really want to. SO my question is: Should I write shorter? or should I write on paper and send it to him, instead of writing emails? He serves in France, and I am in Utah, USA. Wouldn't he also have to pay for postage if he plans to write back to me a lot? but I wouldn't want him to use his money for postage. he should spend it on himself and his companion. do you have any suggestions?