A few days ago, I put out a quick survey for one of my classes. The purpose of the assignment was to collect information that we could use to prepare a persuasive speech. The topic I chose concerned the LDS culture and how we talk about missions and unintentionally (hopefully never intentionally) disaffect those who have chosen not to serve or have returned early from a “full-time mission.” Before I continue, I would like to say that by no means do I think it is a bad thing to talk about a mission and the blessings gained from it. I just know that there is moderation in all things and sometimes people may tend to overglorify it and rely on their experiences too much rather than continue to create new experiences.
I didn’t expect much of a response after I put the survey out; after all, it was a school survey. But within a few days, I was overwhelmed as dozens of responses continued to come in. I asked 6 simple questions with a short, free response at the end (some of the free responses are quoted and interspersed throughout the article). The answers given were somewhat surprising and disheartening. Although I didn’t originally intend to share what I collected, I felt that I needed to share the information and hopefully raise awareness to an issue that is likely being caused unintentionally. These are the following questions I used and the results (at the time of this writing):
On a scale of 1-10 (1 being never, 10 being always), how often does the topic of a mission come up in daily conversation?
On a scale of 1-10 (1 being never, 10 being always), how often does the topic of a mission come up in church?
Do you know someone who has felt uncomfortable in social situations because they did not serve a mission or returned early? Yes – 89% No – 11%
Have you ever been in a social situation where the speaker has asked by a raise of hands who has served a mission? Yes – 92% No – 8%
Concerning dating, do you know of someone who will not consider dating another person simply because they did not serve a mission? Yes – 84% No – 16%
Do you know people who served a full mission who probably should not have due to their behaviors and attitudes? Yes – 87% No – 13%
There is no doubt that the topic of a mission comes up frequently, especially within a highly concentrated LDS population. The topic arises even more frequently during church as people share experiences from their mission which relate to the lesson. It is easy to begin sharing mission stories and advice that the mission president shared (the advice about having to get married within 6 months of returning is just a poor pick-up line). When we are in these groups, we need to be mindful of those who have not served by not assuming they know what we’re talking about or making them feel excluded.
“I’m a woman who has been married for two years and the social situations where everyone had served a mission including the other women are getting worse. I feel like I have to change the topic (which is difficult to do) or leave the room. And I have something to prove because I didn’t serve a mission and getting married apparently isn’t on the ‘same level’.”
When we are in large groups and asking others if they have served missions, it can put people on the spot and make them feel uncomfortable if they reply no. I have attended a number of sacrament meetings, firesides, and devotionals where the speaker has asked by a raise of hands who has served missions (in some instances who has not served a mission). I attended a family home evening at a local leader’s house at the beginning of a semester when we were getting to know everyone there. To introduce ourselves, we were asked to give general information about ourselves as well as if we had served a mission or not. It was noticeable how uncomfortable some people felt responding no after others were responding yes. In these instances, while there may have been good intentions in asking, there really wasn’t the need to bring up the question.
“I’ve been in many conversations where people have not served missions and have felt very uncomfortable because of the inability to be a part of the conversation. I’ve always tried to change the subject when I realize the exclusion. Just the other day someone asked me “where did you serve your mission?” And then someone asked if I served. I immediately thanked the person who asked me if I served for being sensitive to those who haven’t….even though I did.”
My sister is one of the many who came home early due to medical reasons. She struggled when she came home and experienced feelings of guilt, regret, and shame; although she had done nothing wrong. A few weeks after returning, she attended a fireside where the keynote speaker was a collegiate athlete who spoke of his mission. He spoke very highly of his experiences and kept referring to it as “the best two years.” My sister left early from the fireside in tears, feeling that she had been robbed of her experience and wouldn’t get to know what those best two years were. I have an uncle that says “whoever said a mission was the best two years didn’t have a very happy childhood.” While a mission is filled with wonderful and spiritual experiences, a lot of it was spent in disappointment, getting rejected, spit on, yelled at, and wading through floods. Not very happy things.
“This actually is more about how MRs treat sisters who did not serve a mission. It really hurts us if you nag in us about our spirituality because we didn’t feel right about serving a mission. It also hurts that some believe that because we don’t serve missions we aren’t good enough to date or aren’t as worthy as other girls because they served missions. We try not to let it show, but due to this, our self esteem, self worth, and confidence have been shot down and some of us don’t see the point of going on dates anymore due to this issue.”
I heard it said once that “a mission is the church’s best kept secret.” While I was on my mission, I came to understand this phrase after seeing the behavior of other missionaries. Friends and family have also shared that there were many issues and problems that arose in their missions due to unruly missionaries. From the survey question asked above, 87% of respondents said that they knew someone who served a mission who probably should not have due to their poor attitudes and behaviors. What is unfortunate is that back home, many people only see two different kinds of labels: “Returned Missionary,” and “Did Not Serve (or came home early).” Although someone may have served an “honorable” full-time mission, it in no way means that they served honorably. Back home, people see them as having served a full two years (or eighteen months) and place them above those who have not served at all or returned early.
The situation for those who have not served or have returned early can be extremely unfortunate as they attempt to move on and focus on finding a worthy spouse they can find happiness with. 84% of those who responded to the survey said that they knew someone who would not consider dating someone because they had not served a mission. This is very disheartening. Do you think someone would consider dating a returned missionary if they knew the negative, unruly, and disobedient behavior he/she displayed? It comes down to labels again.
“I think constantly talking about missions like it was the vital thing in life, in front of these men who have not served, makes it harder for them to live the gospel confidently. I do not think people shouldn’t be allowed to talk about their missions but I don’t think it should be over glorified.”
Once again, I don’t want to downplay the importance of serving a mission, because I am grateful I went. However, now that I have been home for almost four years, I have tried to be more conscious in when it is appropriate to talk about my mission. I am constantly trying to create positive, spiritual experiences that I can share with others besides simply mission stories. Remember, no one in the First Presidency served a mission, but does anyone think less of them? They are always sharing examples which occurred later on in their life. They are examples we can live by. My good friend Tori said that “each year of our life can be the best two years.” But only if we make it so.