A few weeks before a good friend entered the Missionary Training Center, she asked my advice about being a missionary—specifically, she wanted to know the expectations I had entering the MTC versus the reality of my experience in the field. I told her that “Expectations vs. Reality” could have been the alternate title of my book about serving a mission! (affiliate link) Like any missionary, I have some regrets about things I wish I’d done differently. If you’re preparing to serve an LDS mission, learn from my mistakes and be the best possible servant of the Lord.
Ask RMs About Their Trials, Not Miracles
People love to gush about all the amazing conversion stories they saw in the mission field, but they may not be so willing to open up about their struggles. If they do, it’s an amazing opportunity to hear about real missionary life and get advice for when your own mission will be hard. (It will be!)
Asking someone “What’s your advice for a future missionary?” is likely to get you some generic answers about having faith, praying, loving the people, and loving your companions. Asking a personal question about someone’s specific missionary experiences like “What did you personally struggle with and how did you overcome it?” is the best way to get real, helpful, loving advice if people are willing to open up to you.
Buy an Address Book
Most of the time, we had our investigators’ emails already, and I just didn’t think to write them down! I’m planning a trip back to my mission areas in Japan this September, and I get so sad thinking about the friends I want to visit but can’t contact because I have no way to reach them. Future missionaries, write everything down!
Teach People, Not Lessons
I think about my mission a lot, and when I think of things I could have done better, teaching is near the top of my list. I would have had more compassion and taken more time to deeply consider the feelings of those I taught, not just the information I was teaching with the hopes that they’d absorb it all. Especially because I taught in a non-Christian country, I often failed to develop my investigators’ blossoming relationship with God because I was so eager to teach all the aspects of the gospel they needed to know.
Looking back, I needed to have taken more time with the basics, focusing more on the general spirit of my lessons rather than the content. At the time, I was doing the best that I could, but now I have the benefit of years of hindsight.
Take Care of Your Mental Health
The other day, I was listening to Elder Holland’s “Like a Broken Vessel,” and this comic came to mind. As a missionary, I didn’t bat an eye if an elder went to the doctor for a broken arm or a sister went to the chiropractor for her back. If you’re sick, you get professional help. But for some reason, I just didn’t make that connection for mental issues. I prayed to feel better and that was about it. Now, I understand so much better the power of therapy and the associated treatments.
I wish I had taken advantage of counseling as a missionary because I’m sure it would have helped me during some truly rough patches of my time in Japan. If I’d broken my arm, I surely would have gone to the doctor. I should have seen a doctor for a broken heart and soul too.
All You Need Is Love
One mission companion criticized me for being too “cold.” I was too stiff and professional, which contrasted her warm and friendly personality and made it harder to get work done. While you don’t want people joining the church just because you’re their friend, being loving will open so many more doors, both literally and figuratively.
I felt a lot of love in my heart for people, but showing that love did not come naturally to me. It took a lot of work to learn how people wanted to be shown love–for some, it was a thoughtful act of service or a phone call, and for others it was a reassuring hug or the words “I love you!” (Students of the 5 Love Languages, sound familiar?) Learning how people wanted to be loved and then doing it formed some of the most helpful and long-lasting studies of my entire mission. And the more I worked to show specific people that I cared about them, the more the love in my heart grew for them.
God wants you to be obedient and keep the commandments and follow all your mission president’s rules, but more than anything, He wants you to love His children.
I wish you the best as you prepare to serve a mission wherever in the world you are assigned!
Author bio: Brittany Long Olsen served in the Japan Tokyo Mission from February 2012 – August 2013, and she kept a daily comic journal all about her experiences: “DENDO: One Year and One Half in Tokyo.”