Why I became a Mormon missionary-Reuben Collins

James Mormon 36 Comments

From June 2000 to July 2002, I served a full-time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Ohio Cleveland Mission. I’m supposed to say that I served an LDS mission because I loved the gospel and because the prophet commanded me to serve. Or because I prayed about it & received inspiration that God wanted me to serve. Or because I wanted other people to know the same joy I felt because of my participation in the LDS Church. But none of that was true. I felt indifferent at best about the LDS church and I had more questions about the gospel than I had answers. I had prayed numerous times to know if I should become a missionary, but had never received anything I could recognize as an answer. I had a sincere desire to help people, but I had serious doubts that convincing them to join my church was the best way to do it.

So why did I go?

I know a lot of Mormons who felt an incredible amount of pressure to serve a mission from parents or relatives. I knew my mother wanted me to become a missionary, but it wouldn’t be fair to say she pressured me – at least not explicitly. I can’t recall a single time where she so much as encouraged me to serve.

However, there is an incredible amount of institutional pressure within the LDS church to serve a mission. From a young age, all male Mormons are taught that they WILL serve missions when they are older. Primary kids age 3+ are taught songs with lyrics like “I hope the call me on a mission, when I have grown a foot or two.” A significant goal of the Young Men’s organization for boys ages 12-17 is to prepare them to serve missions. Certainly, serving a mission in the LDS church is a right-of-passage, even though the leaders of the church have taught that it shouldn’t be. Many youth programs judge their successfulness by how many of their young men serve missions. Even the Young Women are sometimes encouraged only to marry men that successfully complete an LDS mission. Indeed, all to often 19-year-old Mormon men feel like they have only two options: 1. Become a missionary 2. Leave the church entirely.

If family wards provide institutional pressure, singles wards & BYU provide the social pressure. BYU is the only college campus in the world where you won’t find many males age 19 or 20 because they’re nearly ALL off being missionaries. And since every 18 year old freshman male on campus is expected to go, it’s a fequent topic of conversation. Sacrament meetings each week are marked by announcements of who will be serving where for the next two years. Romantic relationships evolve around the common understanding that any male age 18 will be MIA for the next two years – so don’t bother getting attached. When you meet someone new on campus who is obviously not a freshman, after the obigatory, “Where are you from?” get-to-know-you question, the next question is often “Where did you serve?” Nobody wants to answer, “I didn’t.”

So why did I serve? To argue that I was immune to the insitutional and social pressures overestimates my integrity. I served a mission because I was too much of a coward to stay home. I didn’t want to be a missionary, but staying home didn’t seem like a viable option. I didn’t want to disappoint my family or friends, & I didn’t want to carry around the social stigma of not serving.  I didn’t even give serious consideration to the idea of staying home. Because everyone goes, so I did, too.  I became a missionary for the LDS church.

My decision to become a missionary for the LDS church was easy, but it was far from painless.  Although the outcome of becoming an LDS missionary was inevitable, I still navigated a process of convincing myself that it was a good idea – or trying anyway.  Like many prospective missionaries, I was scared & naive – completely unaware of what I was signing up for.  But I was not faithless.

I had faith in God – that he would accept my efforts, despite my doubts & fears regarding Him – I had faith that he knew me, my heart, my intentions.
I had faith in myself – that I could accomplish anything I set out to do – including serving an LDS mission.
I had faith in prayer – despite God’s apparent unwillingness to answer mine.

I left on my mission unsure if I was doing the right thing, but I knew I was doing something in God’s name – whether He wanted it or not.  I was terrified by the prospect of becoming a missionary – but just as terrified as choosing to stay home.  At worst, I knew it would be a trivial exercise of performing acts for a God who didn’t want them in the first place.  I wasn’t sure God wanted me to be a missionary, but I wasn’t sure he didn’t want me to be a missionary either.

I believe that having faith can be a courageous act – that believing in things not seen is a gift from God – something to be urgently sought after and cherished – that taking additional steps forward before seeing where your feet will land is part of God’s glorious plan.  But I believe that faith can also be an excuse to avoid answering difficult questions – that sometimes it’s easier to follow the crowd into the dark than wait for God’s light to shine.  Sometimes it’s not clear which is which.  I became a missionary for the LDS church as an act of faith, I’m just not sure which type of faith.

Comments

comments

Comments 36

  1. I served a Mission from June 2000 to July 2002 also. It was an awesome experience. I’d do it again in a heart beat. It was truly s gift from God.

  2. President Monson didn’t serve and look how he turned out. However, I think that for the vast majority of young men it helps alot more than if they didn’t go.

  3. Yes, missions are wonderful for the majority of the men and women who go. For a minority though (which happens to include me) they can be horrible experiences. On my worst post-mission days all I have to do to improve my mood is think, “At least I’m not on my mission.” I’ve met a few other people who feel the same way. If I had to go back and do it again, I wouldn’t.

    I wish the missionary program was more diverse. More options for service other than learning discussions and going out to find investigators. I served in an area where we had extremely low baptism rates and most days I didn’t feel I was doing any good for anyone. On top of that, the rigidity of the rules, always having to be with a companion, the focus on numbers, the boys’ club of elders…it all really got to me. There are lots of different types of missionaries, why aren’t there different types of missions for those who go between 19-21?

  4. I wish there was a more diverse set of options as well. Many thrive, but certainly not everyone fits into the mold, and for some of those who don’t the experience seems to be crushing.

    I didn’t have a problem with the rules though, and for the most part could see the reasoning behind all of them.

  5. My brother went for the same reasons. My husband too.

    It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, trying to decide whether we should raise our son in the church. We’re leaning towards not.

    I completely agree with #3. If there were missions focused on service and not just conversion I might feel differently about it. Imagine how much good we could do in the world if all those young people were out just helping people without requiring anything in return.

  6. I’m looking forward to serving another mission, maybe more. Why? Because I know the church is true. I’ve put it to the test for over forty years and found it to be what it claims. The Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion. I’ve read and applied its teaching in my life and have had many of the same, or like experiences as the writer prophets like Nephi, Enos, Alma, and so forth.

    Did I enjoy my mission? Yes, and no. I experienced some intense pain, but it helped me grow as I pleaded for help from Heavenly Father to conquer the natural man. I never doubted the truthfulness of the church, I struggled with doubt about my ability to be an effective missionary and live up to all that was expected of me.

    Many wonderful people benefited from my work as a missionary. I’ve had contact with some of them after all these years and they are very thankful they learned about the church from my efforts.

  7. I think this post summarizes my pre-mission “should I, Shouldn’t I” debate pretty well. I recieved little to no pressure from my family members to go, largely because I’m the only member of my family who did go. They really can’t pressure you into do something they wouldn’t do themselves. Even still, I went with the faith that mabey God would bless my efforts, but largely because all of my friends were going, and I didn’t want to be the person who would have to say (toe tipped in the sand) “well, I actually didn’t serve a mission” to all of the young women I wanted to date later on. Ironically, I no longer believe the Church is “true” as I taught on my mission, but even still if I had to back and make the decision again, I would still probably go on my mission. Not that I would serve another one in the future, but that mission was essential to my development. I think I would proabably be living with regret right now if I hadn’t because I doubt that I would have ever taken religion serious enough to feel anything more than guilt about it.

  8. Back when I was young and dating (long ago), I remember how many of us girls automatically assumed a guy was wonderful if he was a RM. It wasn’t until I dated enough RM’s that I learned quickly that serving a mission had very little to do with the caliber of the person. In fact, sadly, in my case I found that some of my non-member guy friends treated me better than some of the RM’s I dated (not all, but some).

    My point in bringing this up is that just as you felt social pressure to go on a mission, I remember as a young woman feeling the social pressure to only date RM’s (compared to those who chose not to go or were less active, etc.). At times, I think being an RM was used as leverage to get a young woman (who has been taught to look for a young man who had served a mission) to date him. I hope young women are smarter nowadays, but I know that the whole RM status can be deceiving to girls. I hope that raising the bar and not allowing some young men to go (that may have got away with it years ago) helps in keeping girls from getting into relationships that they may have not chosen otherwise.

    I want to ask this question and I hope it doesn’t come across negatively, because that is not my intention. Do you think that you did not want to serve a mission in part because of a lack of preparation on your part? The reason I ask this is because I have several teenage boys who, even though I remind them and talk to them about studying and preparing for a mission, don’t always make it a priority. I wonder if when the time comes to decide about serving a mission, if lack of preparation will be a big factor in that decision. I know that I wouldn’t want to go do something that big and for that long if I hadn’t prepared for it.

  9. Re-read the first half of the post, inserting the words “encouragement and support” for “institutional/social pressure” and “support” for “pressure.”
    The point of view difference could be enlightening.

  10. N.,

    The problem with that is that much of the pressure young men face doesn’t qualify as benevolent support, but is rather manipulative and dishonest – it amounts to the emotional blackmail of unripe young men who haven’t developed the tools to deal with such.

    I faced what felt to me was intense pressure to serve a mission. Part of this was just do to the fact that I loved my parents. If I hadn’t loved my parents, I would have felt less pressure because I did not love the church. I could find no avenue for honesty. I avoided the question by getting married way too young- a potential disaster for me and my former wife.

    I value my discipleship now above every other thing. But this came to me much later. The efforts that were exerted on me had a profoundly negative impact on me that lasted many many years. ~

  11. I joined the church December 20, 1975 as an 18 year old. I knew that when I got baptized I was also making the commitment to serve a mission which I began 15 months later. I have just sent my oldest son to the MTC where he will learn the Russian language and report to Saint Petersburg on October 5th.

    This experience has allowed for a reminiscence and perspective that maybe others might not have. First and foremost, had I not chosen to join the church and dedicate my life to it, my son might never have been born, at least to the parents he currently has. I have struggled with the issues of “brain-washing” and coercion. Its not my style. Freedom is a top value in my life and I believe in free agency as important as life itself. I raised my son in the church and tried to instill in him my values. I don’t think its possible to “endure” in this religion unless you have the kind of transcendent experiences that allow for the faith to accept the truthfulness of the gospel. I believe that the Gospel saved my life, and that it is my duty and obligation to give my children the benefit of my perspective and testimony. I told my son that if he chose not to go, I would love him the same. I hope that is true. I cannot honestly say that I wouldn’t have treated him differently or love him a little less had he chosen not to go. I hope not. The bottom line here is that life is so important and meaningful that each individual needs to find out the truth about it for themselves and to embrace that truth with their whole soul. Life is hard. Truth is often elusive. Where do we search, how do we find it. I am satisfied that I have found life’s most important answers within the confines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in the LDS church. Everyone needs to find their own answer. I am proud of my son’s choice to serve a mission. I am the person I am today because of my choice to do so. I hope we can all trust in God, or whatever order of the universe we choose to embrace to sort out our decisions and lead us down the proper path. Those who find truth should not use it as a bludgeon against those who are struggling, to the contrary, it should be a beacon.

  12. All – I hope it is clear in the post that I am not describing my experiences AS a missionary, only the experiences that led to my BECOMING a missionary.

    @ Sister Missionary, AdamF, Mytha – Yes, much of my indifference about becoming a missionary stemmed from what I understood at that time to be the purpose of the missionary program – to convert people to Mormonism. I am downright certain that had purely service missions been an option at the time, I would have been quite excited to serve. Part of my struggle was that I failed to see any connection between converting someone to Mormonism and serving God.

    @ Cowboy – I have often asked myself if I would make the same decision now. I agree it would have been a major source of guilt for me.

    @ Jen – It is certainly true that I had done very little (if anything) to prepare myself to serve a mission. I’m not entirely sure how someone would prepare for a mission, though. I was a seminary graduate, BYU student, & Eagle Scout. I’d read & prayed about the BOM – even taken a semester of “Sharing the Gospel” at BYU before I left. Encouraging prospective missionaries to prepare is a wonderful thing, but it’s something that happens internally – something I didn’t experience before my mission.

  13. missions focused on service … err, there are, I know a number of service missionaries. My sister negotiated with them, they agreed to let her do both on her mission (she was an RN and they were asking her to do service 100% but she wanted some missionary work too).

    Just FYI

    For myself, I’m glad I went. My parents weren’t able to go on a mission until they retired, then they did several (Kenya, Washington, D.C., Philippines, Korea). They seem to have been nourished by the process.

  14. “it’s something that happens internally”

    Agreed. In some cases, I think the best preparation for a mission is someone who has been through the fire, so to speak, beforehand. Often, missions are just plain difficult, with trials WAY beyond anything the 19 or 21 year-old has ever faced. Sometimes I wonder if part of the lack of preparation is the lack of really facing anything difficult in one’s life up to that point. I know my life, for the most part, was fairly cushy, so the MTC was incredibly difficult for the first 4-5 weeks, although overall I loved it. Also the first 4-5 months in the field were very taxing as well. People can go through all the steps to prepare, but have they really had that internal change or trial by fire?

  15. Imo, not being prepared for a mission often is an extension of treating our Young Men as boys – not taking the description of their authoirty in the AP seriously and limiting their service to passing the sacrament and, in some cases, collecting fast offerings. If we really believed they hold real power and authority, and if we allowed them to exercise it for 6 years prior to becoming an Elder at 18 (and then allowed them to act as men holding the MP for at least a year prior to their missions), I think this would be a different discussion for most.

    That was the intent of the “raise the bar” effort – as well as the heightened emphasis on other types of missions being perfectly acceptable for those who can’t serve a traditional mission for some reason. The biggest issue I see in that regard is the local leaders not listening to and following the council that has been given from the top – and that general issue lies at the heart of SO much of what tends to get blamed on the global leadership.

    Local, lay leadership is one of the real geniuses of the Church, imo – but it also is one of the largest stumblingblocks, as well.

  16. I’m along the same lines as Cowboy here. I’m not a believer but I don’t regret serving and I agree that it was beneficial to my development and maturity. Most of my children have served or are currently serving and I haven’t tried to discourage that as I think it’s been good for them as well. After all, it’s taken me over 40 years to figure out that the church isn’t the “only true church” and serving a mission was one of those line upon line learning experiences needed to get me where I’m at now.

    RM- My son is currently serving in the St. Petersburg mission. I think your son will enjoy the history and culture of those people and he’ll get lots of opportunities to provide community service as well as doing missionary work. We didn’t do much of community service when I was out, but I believe it’s a step in the right direction…

  17. Ray,

    Amen. Along the same lines: the emphasis on Scouting over Aaronic Priesthood is easy because we think we know Scouting does to make a man, but we know almost nothing about how AP actually might prepare a young man for the awesome responsibilities of being an Elder. The have too little faith in spiritual matters, and too much faith in routine ‘goodness.’ ~

  18. Post
    Author

    It seems to me their is a growing number of young men that are choosing not to serve missions. I live in the mission field here in England so the stigma isn’t maybe as bad as Utah or other states where the church is densely populated.

    I wonder how young women look at these guys? In their minds do they say ” Nice guy but me and my family need me to marry an RM” If so this says volumes about our so called Christian religion.

    Are they treated in the wards as silent out castes where they have lost much of the respect the members had for them now they have stayed at home.

  19. While I DO NOT think “marrying an RM” should be the standard for women in the church, I do think they need to know WHY a man didn’t serve a mission. There are plenty of good reasons not to go/reasons why they cannot. I would be concerned, if I had a daughter who was thinking about marrying in the church to someone who was not an RM, I would want to make sure it wasn’t due to just plain laziness/selfishness, misplaced rebellion, etc. As I said there are good reasons not to go, but there are a lot of lame reasons not to go as well. I had a friend who had to come home from the MTC due to anxiety and panic attacks. If someone had shunned him because he wasn’t an RM they would have missed out on a great guy… all this keeping in mind, however, that just being an RM doesn’t necessarily mean anything about one’s character.

  20. I agree with Ray’s perspective that when we treat the youth (YW and YM) as children to be protected, coddled and entertained, not as the leaders they often are, we contribute to that lack of preparation. But I would add that the MTC and mission field at times perpetuate that coddling. The white bible in particular is full of “being commanded in all things.”

    Back to Reuben’s post, my sense is that this honest confession is probably shared by over 80% of the elders who go out. If you simply “go with the flow,” you will follow the path Reuben describes, right onto a mission. And it may end up being a great experience or not. That depends on many factors.

  21. i am so happy to see this honest and thoughtful spin on the missionary experience. in a culture that loves the whole cookie cutter approach to so many aspects of our lives, this post is truly refreshing. even when i was in the young women’s program, i thought the pressure to set the goal to marry only a return missionary was contrary to the Christ-like values we are supposed to embrace. there are so many reasons, some valid, some not, that a man might not serve a mission. dont throw the baby out with the bath water!

  22. I heard you can’t be a seminary/institute teacher without having served a mission.

    Not true. Aside from the obvious exceptions (i.e. those who converted and were baptized after missionary age), I had several teachers who did not serve missions. When I asked them, each one had very good reasons for not serving a mission. Even among RMs, you get a bad apple sometimes, and it doesn’t seem that the mission would have changed that.

    I agree with Adam, the standard presented to the young women seems to focus on the wrong thing. Teaching them how to find a strongly spiritual husband would seem to have a better result. But, I’m not in young women and can’t say exactly what is taught. I can say, however, that as a missionary who returned home early with health issues I didn’t have time in the missionary schedule to take care of (which I also think that realistically should have kept me home and/or directed me to alternative service), explaining what happened isn’t always easy. I know for certain that there are people who doubt the veracity of the reasons for all missionaries who return early, for whatever reason. I do hope that focusing our on being prepared for a mission, even if it means they leave a little later than others (or don’t go at all, for that matter), will lead to more effective missionaries in general, and young men that clearly understand their own reasons for choosing missionary service.

  23. I agree with several of the commenters that encouraging young men and women to serve missions is a good thing. I think it’s definitely true that even missionaries who serve for the ‘wrong’ reasons can have wonderful, life-changing experiences. I also think it’s probably safe to say that very few of our young men will ever be fully prepared for full-time missionary service. It’s just the sort of work that’s very difficult to prepare for. There are a lot of changes I’d like to see to the full-time missionary program, but that’s probably a topic for another thread.

    @ Hawkgrrl – I suspect you are correct that my experiences are not unique. Anecdotally, I can vouch that the majority of my mission companions were about as excited about missionary work as I was (not at all excited…).

  24. Wow. This post brings back memories for me. I so didn’t want to go on a mission at first. The thought terrified me. I remember slipping in the word “don’t” while singing “I hope they call me on a mission” in primary. As for the pressure, sure, I felt it. However, I did not feel it from my parents. They wanted me to know unequivically that they loved me regardless of what I chose to do. So I went to college for a few years and intended to stay there. It was through a very strong experience helping to teach a dear friend the gospel that I had a change of heart and the fears and apprehensions quickly vanished. I ended up serving my mission to the complete surprise of my family. I loved it. I don’t know what I would be without that experience.

  25. If a service mission was an option for everyone, I suspect that most “young” missionaries would choose it over knocking doors and teaching discussions, which would probably drive down convert baptisms. I know that at 19, I would have chosen that kind of mission. That said, I knocked a lot of doors on my mission, and I empathize with the comments above about the difficulty of that kind of mission. But I’m not sure letting people design their own missions is a good idea for the church.

  26. (7) My father in law has been a seminary teacher for years and never served a mission. Many general authorities haven’t either.

    (15) I know that service missions are out there, but it certainly wasn’t an option presented to me as a young woman getting ready to go.

    (27) Why not? What harm do you think would come from missionaries having more choice about what type of mission they serve?

  27. “What harm do you think would come from missionaries having more choice about what type of mission they serve?”

    My guess is most 19-year olds would choose service missions, so as to avoid the rigors of proselyting, and that would result in less baptisms.

    I lived in New Orleans for a while, and still know many members of the church down there. After Katrina hit, Mormons descended on the town in huge numbers to help clean up. Waves and waves of “service missionaries” came, if you will, all of whom worked hard in very visible ways (literally tens of thousands). But according to the branch president of the branch I attended, which covers most of New Orleans proper, not one baptism occurred in his branch as a result. Was it charitable? Sure. Did it help the church grow? Not in any measurable way.

  28. I see what you’re saying, but I’m not so sure that most missionaries would choose service missions. Maybe.

    I guess from my perspective, getting people to join the church isn’t the only goal of sending young people on missions. I think it’s just as much about the missionaries themselves as it is about potential converts. But maybe that’s because I served my mission in a place where a good portion of missionaries never saw a single baptism; if the only goal of a mission was to get converts, all of us would be considered failures.

    I think full-time service among the poor and needy would teach those missionaries a lot about Christlike attributes – maybe even more than knocking on doors and bearing testimony would.

    About the New Orleans service not producing any converts, I would say…so what? That’s not the purpose of service. We should serve just because we love our fellow human beings.

  29. It’s also possible/likely that more young people would choose to serve missions in the first place if they had more options.

  30. If more members chose service missions than proselyting missions, then that would be a sign that the church needs to raise the appeal of proselyting missions.

    Meanwhile, if kids don’t want to do proselyting missions…it seems like this is the best way to self-select those who are most worthy to do them vs. those who don’t. The ones who would want to proselyte would be most effective, I’m guessing.

  31. I served a mission. When I look back I think one thing that led me to wanting to go was I had some women in my ward that had served missions and they seemed competent and talented and confident. I wanted to be like that. Was it easy? Hell no. But I wasn’t expecting it to be easy either because I knew growth comes from challenges. Would I do it again? I sure would!

    As for young men and the expectation to serve, I am not sure what is wrong with serving because you feel a sense of duty. There are plenty of things I do to because I have a great desire to do so, but because I know it’s my duty. Life is full of instances where we do things out of duty.

  32. I have always had a difficult time with the Church’s intense emphasis on missionary work. I did not go on a mission, due to anxiety issues outside my control, and have never been able to get past the feeling of isolation I get within Mormon Culture. Perhaps my isolation has obscured my beliefs as far as missionary work in general is concerned, but I think General Authorities, and members alike, need to do more to make men who chose not to serve a mission, or were unable to, to feel more welcome in the LDS community.

  33. Hmm. To this person I say … not really. I think you became a missionary because of doubt. Not because of faith. You doubted it would work out well for you if you stayed, and you doubted that going was the best way to make you, or anyone else, more happy. It is not a surprise that it was an ordeal for you to go through. That being said, I do admire you for going through with it. If you never did gain a deep testimony while out there, then I imagine the experience would have remained tough all the way through.

    Strangely happiness seems to require some kind of commitment. I hope you found a way to solidify your understanding of the gospel and truly gain faith to replace your doubts.

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