When my son had been serving as a missionary for just a few months, a friend shared this AMAZING letter written by a former mission president and wife, Kevin and Nancy Duncan of the Chile Santiago North Mission. It gives 10 things that every missionary should know. It is great for new missionaries, missionary parents, and even experienced missionaries (my brother sent it to his son who was training his last few months). The Duncans have given their permission to share this, with the hope that it will help other missionaries. Enjoy!
Dear New Missionary,
Welcome to the greatest mission in the world! We have anxiously awaited your arrival! We are thrilled that you are here at last! First and foremost, we want you to know of the love we have for YOU individually. We know you are an elect and valiant servant of God and we consider it one of the greatest privileges of our lives to simply serve along side you.
This letter is meant to be a source of comfort and support to you as you adjust to life as a missionary. It is also meant to be a means of sharing with you some important “secrets of success” in missionary work. During the time we have presided over this mission we have learned what makes missionaries happy and successful and we are eager to share these principles with you in order that you may experience happiness and success in your service as well. Please read this letter in its entirety when you arrive, and refer to it from time to time in the future.
10 important things every new missionary should know:
1. Expect an adjustment period. No matter how excited you have been about serving a mission, and no matter how strong your testimony is, the realities of the mission field can be a bit of a shock. When missionaries receive their call they begin to imagine what their experience will be like. They imagine about all the wonderful things – but seldom ponder about the hardships. When missionaries arrive and things aren’t exactly as they had imagined, there is a time of uneasiness and conflict in the mind. Missionaries learning a new language and living in a new culture experience even greater challenges. Sometimes missionaries begin to doubt themselves and their abilities and begin to wonder if serving a mission was really the right decision for them. Be assured that these emotions are normal and common. Even President Hinckley felt the same way as a new missionary. He wrote his father and expressed a desire to return home. His wise father wrote back, “Gordon, I have but one bit of advice to give you, forget yourself and go to work.” President Hinckley said he resolved to do that and in prayer committed to the Lord to do his best. He said that experience was a turning point in his life and that every good thing that happened to him later in life was the result of that decision at that time.
As a missionary you will go through a series of emotional adjustments. You will go from imagination, to reality, then accepting the mission, liking it, and finally loving it. This process is different for everybody, but generally it takes most missionaries about 90 days or 3 months to feel “at home” or hit the “reality” stage of their mission. They say for every tear you shed when you arrive, you will shed twice as many when it is time to go home. So number one, be patient with yourself and this adjustment period.
2. Develop a positive attitude. The mission field is a great place to learn how to take control of your own attitude. If you let yourself, you can find 101 reasons everyday to get down or feel discouraged. However, successful missionaries refuse to let circumstances get them down. They learn the technique of learning to accentuate the positive and be happy – to decide how they will “act” rather than how the will “re-act” to situations. President Hinckley has counseled us to “Be Optimistic.” How does one learn to be optimistic? It all starts with the way we think. Our faith in God alone is reason enough to be optimistic.
A negative missionary will say things like, “It is sunny today – that means it will be super hot out in our area,” or, “It is cloudy today – I always feel depressed when it’s cloudy.” Or “It’s raining today – I hate going out in the rain.” A negative missionary will say, “My garage back home is better than the apartment we live in,” and “I’m so sick and tired of all the stray dogs running around.” On the other hand, a positive missionary will say, “How great, the sun is shining today – the world is always better and brighter with the sun out,” or “How great, it’s cloudy today – that will keep us from getting too hot while we’re out,” or “Fantastic, it’s raining – the rain cleans away the pollution and people are always more compassionate and let us in their homes more readily when it’s raining.” A positive missionary says, “We are so fortunate to have a roof over our head. Our apartment is better than many of the homes in our area.” Or “I love this country – even stray dogs have the freedom to roam and wander as they wish. What a tolerant people.”
Satan will try to get you down and get you discouraged. He has an advantage if you have a negative attitude. Joseph Smith and Nephi are both exceptional examples of remaining optimistic during the most trying circumstances. The following two scriptures are powerful. Please take the time to ponder them. D&C 127:2 and 1 Nephi 19:15-16.
3. Smiling will increase success. This is powerful counsel from President Spencer W. Kimball to missionaries. He said, “You should always talk with a smile. A smile goes a long way. If you can’t do anything else you can smile. You will increase your success if you will. If you are monotone, give your voice inflection. Be enthusiastic.” Studies have shown that if you smile when trying to sell something, you will sell 30 to 50% more. While missionaries aren’t exactly sales people, they do have the greatest message of joy in the world to share, and they should reflect that feeling by expressions on their faces. People who smile come across as more believable, friendly and trustworthy. Plus, smiling has another hidden advantage. The person smiling just feels better. Psychologists have found that if you smile, your brain doesn’t know the difference and you can put yourself in a good mood, simply by smiling.
Many investigators tell missionaries that they listened to their message because they first liked the spirit of joy that they radiated. Look in the mirror sometime and see how you look when you speak with a smile. Then see how you look when you speak without a smile. You’ll be surprised at the difference.
4. Don’t be afraid to be bold. For some, approaching a stranger and talking about religion can be a very scary experience. I know, as a new missionary, I was afraid. Overcoming fear takes some time and effort. The most effective way to gain courage and then confidence is to just dive in. A little practice will go a long way in helping you develop the courage it takes to be an effective missionary. And even if you do something wrong you will learn and grow from the experience and be better because of it.
You may not recognize it, but the Lord in His wisdom carries the message of salvation to the world through young men and women for a very unique reason. It is easier for young missionaries to be bold without being overbearing. Missionaries age 18 and up have some hidden advantages – merely because of their age. Children and teenagers look up to them and want to be just like them. Peers their own age feel a connection with them and find it easy to believe their message. Older adults don’t feel threatened or intimidated when approached or taught by 2 young adults. You can always be bold without being offensive. People expect it of missionaries. Alma’s counsel is to, “Use boldness, but not overbearance” (Alma 38:12). By the end of their mission, most missionaries learn to be bold. But it is such an advantage if you learn how to be bold early in your mission.
5. Learn to be flexible. Another trait of a good missionary is to learn to be flexible, to be able to “read” a situation and be ready to adapt. Missionaries need to be ready to shorten or lengthen talks in Sacrament Meeting, lessons, contacts, etc. Develop the sense to be sensitive. If someone says they only have 5 minutes to hear your message – respect that. After 5 minutes ask for permission to take more time if it feels right. If the bishop asks you to take 10 minutes in Sacrament Meeting, take 9. There is no faster way to lose the confidence of your bishop, investigators or members than to not be sensitive to their requests and time.
6. Make 10 contacts daily (20 as a companionship) and watch your baptisms double. This is a promise from Elder Ballard. When missionaries are making 10 contacts a day, they are not losing focus of their purpose – they are not day dreaming, talking about home or just passing the time. It is even better to just talk to everyone that you can, like it suggests doing in Preach My Gospel. One missionary said, “Since we started to just talk to everybody, it has been amazing to see the difference. While before we would debate with each other over whether or not we should approach a certain person, now we just do it. It makes missionary work a lot more fruitful.” The Lord will put prepared people in your path, so be ready to open your mouth and share.
7. Study and pray faithfully daily – both during and after your mission. That may seem like obvious advice, but it is surprising that some missionaries think, “I have a testimony, I have read the scriptures before, I have read every chapter in Preach My Gospel, and I don’t’ need to read it again – it’s the same old thing.” We study and pray daily because this is the way we keep our testimonies strong. This is the way the Lord can communicate to us personally. Most importantly, this is the way we resist temptation. It is the way, as Lehi explained in his dream of the Tree of Life, that we “hold to the rod” and endure to the end. It is critical that you read the scriptures daily. One general authority promised that those who read the scriptures daily will never stray very far from the gospel path. We all need that type of gospel “insurance” to help us endure to the end.
8. Be grateful you have a companion. It would be extremely difficult to go out and do missionary work all by yourself. Some of your companions will be some of your dearest, life-long friends. Others may be hard to live with. Every companion can teach you something. Even a difficult companion can teach you patience. The rule to stay with your companion at all times is of paramount importance. Never become lax in this counsel. Train yourself to focus on your companion’s strengths rather than his or her weaknesses. None of us are perfect. Resolve yourself to be the best companion in the world. Be the kind of companion you would want to have.
9. Be absolutely obedient. Follow the counsel in the missionary hand-book with absolute obedience. Never make excuses or make exceptions. It is impossible to be disobedient and successful. The counsel from Elder Boyd K. Packer is true. “Obedience is strong spiritual medicine. It comes close to being a cure-all.” Show the Lord that he can trust you, and remember that he has said, “I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say, but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.”
10. Be grateful for the supreme privilege which is yours and remember whose work this is. God has said, “This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” As a missionary, it is your supreme privilege to assist the Lord in this great work. When one considers the unconditional love of our Father in Heaven, His plan of salvation and the privilege it is to go to Him in person prayer, when one considers the supreme love of the Savior Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice and His ability to understand and share our burdens, and when one considers the supreme gift of the Holy Ghost to act as a comforter, protector and teacher, one truly feels humbled at the opportunity to be in partnership with the very Godhead itself in helping them accomplish their great work. Serve with no regrets. Your time is short, your impact on others’ lives is eternal. They deserve to understand these truths and have this hope and salvation. When you consider the history of the world and how few people have been chosen to serve full-time missions, you see that yours is a very special privilege. Thank God each day for the opportunity to be a missionary and to share His glorious message.
BONUS: Use hymns when you are teaching. Elder Jay Jensen, one of the seven presidents of the Seventy, attended a stake conference in our mission last fall. While he was speaking to members of the stake he stopped for a moment and then said, “Missionaries, if you are not singing a hymn as part of your lesson you need to repent. Use the hymns, and especially the ones used in Primary.” If you will sing a song like “I am a Child of God” or “Teach me to Walk in the Light of His Love” to an investigator as you begin teaching, the Holy Ghost will bear strong witness that what you are there doing is from God. Utilize it. Don’t feel like you cannot sing. The message and the Spirit it brings are far more important than the quality with which you sing. And, angels might join you from time to time to help strengthen the message you share through hymns.
Again, we love you. We have confidence in you. Enjoy your mission. We know it will be a success.