The Unauthorized Investigator's Guide to
The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints

Mormon Missionary Life

When your 19th birthday approaches, you meet with the ecclesiastical leader of your congregation (i.e. your bishop) and express your desire to fulfill your responsibility to the church and to God and serve a mission.  He will try to ascertain if you are emotionally and morally ready, and if he thinks you are he will give you an application to fill out.  You take sections of the application to your doctor and dentist to sign off stating that your body is in good working order.  You fill out your section, attach several passport photos, and give it to your bishop.  He signs it, stating that he believes you are up to the task.  He then forwards it to his leader, the Stake President (the leader of a group of about 10 congregations).  The Stake President interviews you at this point and signs your application.  The Stake President then sends the application package to church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

You patiently wait.  People tell you that the church headquarters needs about 3 weeks to process your application and that batches of callings are postmarked Salt Lake City Utah every Friday.  You estimate that it will take 1 day for mail to go from Salt Lake City Utah to your home in Sandy Utah, and you predict that the letter will come on a particular Saturday.  Your friends and family all joke about where you will go.  Will it be someplace exotic like Taiwan? Or perhaps Hawaii!  Will you go to a place like Guatamala where you might actually convert a few people?  Or will you go to a place like Parris where you probably won't convert anybody?  Perhaps you'll be called to Finland and will learn to speak Finnish!   Or perhaps you will be called to Pocatello Idaho.  You cringe at the thought.  Everyone else laughs.  3 weeks finally go by, and one Saturday morning a conspicuous letter in a 6x9 envelope is in the mail.  The letter says:

  • Which geographical location (mission) you will serve in,
  • the primary language you will speak there,
  • the length of the commitment (24 months for young men, 18 for young women), and
  • the date you are to report to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) to begin your Mormon missionary life, usually about 2 months from the date of the letter. 

It is signed by the signature machine of the president of the church.  Included with the letter is a letter you are supposed to sign and return to the church, indicating that you accept the call.  Also included are a list of items you need to bring (2 suitcases, 8 white dress shirts, 10 conservative ties...), the missionary dress code, and the amount of money that you, your family, and your congregation need to pay monthly to support you while you are gone.  It also tells you other things you need to do to prepare for your particular call, such as obtaining a passport and immunizations.

You struggle to comprehend yourself living a Mormon missionary life in this unfamiliar location for 2 entire years.

During these 2 months before you report the the MTC, you spend your time running around trying to purchase all of the stuff on the list and wrap up all of your personal business for the next 2 years.  You also go to the temple to be initiated in the secret ceremony of the endowment.  Mormon girls tend to find Mormon boys who are about to go on a mission irresistible, so you naturally find a girlfriend during this time period as well. 

A week or two before you report to the MTC, an entire worship service is dedicated to you.  A couple of your siblings give 3 minute talks, your other siblings sing a musical number, and your mom and dad give 10 minute talks.  You are the keynote speaker.  You have been told that it is against church policy to announce to the ward that there will be an open house at your home following the service, but you do so anyway.  A lot of people show up for the open house, and several people slip you money for your mission.  The attention is exciting.

The night before you report to the MTC, the stake president has another interview with you to make sure that everything is ok and that you don't have any sins that you aren't confessing.  He then gives you a blessing and "sets you apart" as a missionary.  Once you receive this blessing, you are officially a missionary, and are supposed to live the mission rules: from that moment you won't be able to kiss your girlfriend or be alone with her until you complete your mission 2 years later.  After the blessing, she gives you a handshake rather than a hug.  Forbidden touches already seem more enticing.

The next day you get up, put on your brand new missionary suit, and go to the Missionary Training Center in Provo at the appointed hour.  About 150 other missionaries show up at the same time, and over 500 show up over the course of the day.  Upon arrival, the MTC staff efficiently checks you in and takes your luggage.  You are taken with your parents to a large rectangular shaped classroom with brick walls, folding chairs, and a podium in the front.  Once the room is filled with the sparkling new missionaries and their proud yet worried parents, a 10-minute orientation speech is given about how wonderful missionary life will be and how well the church will take care of the missionaries.  You learn that yes, the training and mission will be rigorous.  But with the help of the Lord, the fine-tuned MTC program will modify the missionary's thoughts, behaviors, and emotions into the precise thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that a servant of the Lord ought to have. They promise you that if you have faith and are obedient then both the MTC and the mission will be among the most wonderful experiences of your life. The meeting quickly ends, and the parents are instructed to immediately exit the room through the doors on the left, and the missionaries are to immediately exit through the doors on the right.  Your mother is crying.  All of the mothers are crying.  Some of the missionaries quickly say goodbye and go straight to the doors.  Others linger and cry with their parents. 

And then you find yourself standing in a line on the other side of the doors on the right.  The glamour and attention you relished is gone, and you are now among a herd of scared 19-year old boys being efficiently processed for life in the MTC.  You are channeled from line to line, filling out paperwork, receiving packets of information, and acquiring books and manuals.  You eventually learn who will be your assigned companion while at the MTC, and in which specific rooms you will eat, sleep, and be trained.

If you are learning a foreign language then you stay for 8 weeks, if not then 3 weeks.  You spend 12 hours a day in a small classroom with about 10 other missionaries where you learn the discussions, the commitment pattern, and the objective of missionary work.  The instructors repeatedly emphasize that nothing is more important than obeying the rules.  You are promised that it will be hard work, but that if you are sufficiently obedient and dedicated that it will be the most pristine and fulfilling experiences of your life.  You are taught that God literally called you to be his representative to the world, and that colossal responsibilities are associated with such a responsibility.  If you rise to the task and diligently do your duty, have faith, and strictly obey the rules, you will make God happy and will be richly rewarded. 

You look at the missionaries who got to the MTC a few weeks before you did and fantasize about eventually getting to that stage of your mission so that you'll be a few weeks closer to going home. 

You are then shipped out with about 8 others to your mission, and families are invited to see you one last time at the Salt Lake City airport while you are en route from the MTC to "the mission field".  You say goodbye again and fly to your destination, where you are greeted at the airport by the Mission President and the top-ranking missionaries, the 2 Assistants to the President.  The mission president is a married, successful man who is in charge of you and some 200 other missionaries in that area.  He presides over the mission for a period of three years.  The church furnishes the Mission President with a relatively luxurious house where you go for an orientation.  You are taught that you are in the greatest mission in the world, and that it is essential that you obey the rules. 

The Mission President meets with you individually for a few minutes, and takes a Polaroid with him, his wife, and you for the president to send to your parents and reassure them that you are fine.

You are assigned an area in which you are to proselyte and a companion who will be your shadow 24-7 for the next 2 or 3 months.  You see your apartment for the first time, and it is a dump.  You feel extraordinarily home sick.

You spend the rest of the 2 years trying to find people to teach, trying to get the ones who listen to you to commit to baptism, and trying to integrate those people into the church.  Few people want to talk to you.  Those who want to talk to you are more interested in converting you to their views than converting to your views. 

You rotate companions every 2 or 3 months and areas every 4 to 6 months.  You don't know the details of exactly when, to where and with whom you will be transferred until a couple of days before it happens.

You like some of your companions, and struggle to merely tolerate others.  You find a few friends among the local members who feed you good meals and build you up.  But most of your life is drudgery as you try to confine all of your thoughts and actions to the minute details in the rule book.

Every week you sit down with your companion and set goals for the week. You have been taught that if you pray about the goals as you set them, obey the rules, work hard, and have faith, that through divine intervention God will cause your goals to be accomplished.  Every week you set goals.  Every week you fail miserably at achieving them.  You feel guilt and frustration.  You believe that people need to accept your message in order to be saved.  If they don't accept your message it is because you don't have enough faith and aren't being obedient enough.  God gets the credit for your occasional successes, and you get the blame for your frequent failures.

Time passes slowly.  You try to have a good attitude.  You work hard.  You count down the days until you can go home.  You dream of buying a motorcycle when you get home.  You imagine wind in your face as you cruise down lonely roads.

Your girlfriend sends you a Dear John letter--she is marrying a returned missionary she met at BYU.  You are jealous that she is apparently having such a good time while you are having such a bad time.  And it hurts your ego that she decided that you weren't worth waiting for.  A local girl thinks you look dashing in your missionary uniform, and she flirts with you.  You find temporary escape in the rush of hormones you feel thinking about her.  You feel guilty for not locking your heart--for committing the grave sin of feeling romantic love.  Maybe something happens with her.  Maybe it doesn't.

Time passes extraordinarily slowly.

But it passes.

You find yourself going home.  You meet with the mission president who strokes your feathers and tells you about how wonderful you are for having honorably completed your mission.  Going from 2 years of guilt-filled messages about not baptizing enough to this praise gives you emotional whiplash.

But you don't care.  You are going home.

You get on the plane and return home.  Family and friends are waiting at the airport and give you a hero's welcome.  You meet with the stake president who "releases" you--thus freeing you from the obligations to obey the rigorous rules that he put you under when he set you apart 2 years earlier.  Another sacrament meeting is held in your honor.  This time you are expected to speak to the congregation for 30 to 40 minutes rather than 5 to 10.  They remember how you were an insecure little boy when you left, and now they expect to see a man oozing with confidence and spirituality.  You hope you can put the best possible spin on the few positive aspects of your mission and stretch it into a 30 minute talk.  It works well.  Nobody is too interested in the details.  They're just thrilled that you are home, and stand in awe just thinking about the intense spiritual journey from which you are returning.

You made a promise, either implied or explicit, that you would see the girl from your mission again and marry her.  But now that you are home, the home-town girls seem much more attractive.  Refreshingly, your returned-missionary status makes them more are interested in you.  You contemplate the shame that you would feel if people knew you fell in love as a missionary. 

The girl who helped you get through it becomes just another detail you try to forget.

You are glad to be home.  You enjoy the prestige that accompanies honorably released missionaries.  But you have a recurring nightmare of the church calling you to go on another mission.  And it is terrifying.

(July 11, 2002) A site visitor said,

My mission was miserable most of the time too, and I have taken to describing it as "Two years of drudgery, monotony and guilt, punctuated with days of deep despair and brilliant flashes of light." I know guys who had more moments of light than me, and I think you might make clear that some (maybe most?) people really do have those flashes of light. It's beyond me how, but they do, and I did. To be fair I must admit that, even if the rest of the stuff is bunk.

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