I’ve reflected on that reality over the three-plus decades since my mission. This week, my niece, whose brother is leaving the MTC this week for his own mission, pointed me to an article that captures some of the secrets beautifully. You can read it here. Betsy VanDenBerge gets it just right as she contrasts real mission life with the caricatures we sometimes encounter. She busts a few popular myths, including:
1. It’s all about convertingIndeed, she points out what missionaries learn, including the fact that they don’t convert anyone.
2. It’s an insular bubble protected from the world
3. Missions foster intolerance
Of course there are other mysteries of mission life, including how hard it really is. And one reason it’s an unspoken secret is not that anyone is trying to hide the truth, but rather that experience is the only way to learn it. I will never know the pain of childbirth, even though I’ve observed my wife give birth seven times. Why? I’ve not experienced it. Similarly, I would never have known the pain of mission growth had I not lived through it.
That’s not to say missions are miserable. Quite the contrary, I still speak of my mission with almost a romantic enthusiasm, highlighting the miracles I witnessed (including real live miracles of healing), the conversions I saw (including my own), and the growth I felt in myself over those two years. To say the experience was transformational for me is to master the obvious.
To say I left a boy and came home a man is far too simple, however accurate the description may be from 50,000 feet up. The growth was in the day-to-day journey, negotiating my relationship with companions, mission leaders, church members and non-members, both interested in the church and not. And it was in my negotiating with my own sense of who I was and what I was doing – a vision that was in constant flux during my term of service.
I did not come home an expert in the country where I served, nor was I fully fluent in my mission language (though I’m sure I told myself I was; in truth I was pretty good at church German and had shed most of the most offensive parts of my American accent by the time I came home). I was not a gospel scholar nor a master of the scriptures, though I had developed a pretty clear sense of testimony and could teach the missionary lessons with confidence. I was not the hardest working or highest baptizing missionary in my mission. (Actually I have no idea if I was; my mission didn’t publish any kind of statistics, but I assume I wasn’t.) I was probably a pretty average missionary – far more effective at the end than at the beginning. By the time I came home I had a pretty clear sense of what I was doing as a missionary and how to do it. I felt comfortable in my nametag and my missionary suit, and I knew that I loved the gospel and the church, and I loved teaching.
My mission president taught us that the first soul we’d bring to God (see D&C 18:15) would be our own. I think that was true for me, and I think my mission experience had a great deal to do with that process.
As I write now to young friends and relatives who are serving missions, I often reflect on my own experiences. I share probably more than these young missionaries want to read – after all, the learning is in the doing – but I hope that by sharing my experiences I can offer some perspective on theirs. Their feedback tells me sometimes I get it right. (And they’re kind enough to say nothing when I don’t.)