Ten Things Not to Do on Your Mission (That I Did on Mine)

My stepson Derek recently set out for Seville, Spain, on a mission. Seeing his anticipation and anxiety took me back to 1968 and my own call. Bolivia, southern Peru, and northern Chile mad up my mission then (I tell surprised young elders, like Derek, I arrived right after Orson Pratt opened things up).

It’s been 20 years, yet the lessons I learned—and didn’t learn—still seem relevant.

This is an open letter to Derek: 10 things not to do on a mission, that I did do on mine. To the relief of many—and disappointment of others—I won’t include winking at women or sampling the local wines, though some might say the mistakes I made were just as grave.

1. Don’t think you represent a country when you represent a Kingdom.

Getting American culture and international policies scrambled with the gospel is a problem that often hampers American missionaries on foreign soil, especially those in third-world countries.

Born-and-bred American elders and sisters often get confused and annoyed at the differences found in other cultures. The coyness of the Bolivians, for instance—their gentle handshakes, their darting eyes and evasive answers—have frustrated more than a few missionaries. Including me.

It’s easy to be ethnocentric, to think the American Way is always God’s way.

I remember walking through La Paz and looking at the helter-skelter traffic, the odd color schemes, the inefficiency, and deciding if I weren’t a missionary I’d run for president, win, then set things straight—make Bolivia more like Bountiful, Utah.

At the time, it seemed like a noble thought.

It was condescending and silly. I forgot I represented a way of life, not a lifestyle. I was rendering unto God what was Caesar’s.

2. Don’t just teach people; learn from them.

I would love to serve a “learning mission,” spend two years doing nothing but meeting people and studying their culture.

I learned tidbits here and there about Bolivia, but used the information mainly to impress companions or manipulate conversations. I studied the legend of Vidacocha—an Indian Christ figure—but only because I could use the story as a door approach.

I should have studied Bolivian culture in order to love and appreciate each person more.

Many returned missionaries talk about the love that they feel for the Southern people, or the Canadians, or the Bolivians. And that’s admirable. But real love, I’m convinced, happens on a one-to-one basis. We may feel great affection or good-will toward a country and its culture, but we can only truly “love” a Brother Vargas or a Sister Yamasaki or a President Alliprandi.

Love, like justice, must be meted out case-by-case.

If I’d spent more time listening to people and less time talking to them, I’d have learned more about each one, and learned to love each more.

3. Don’t think big.

If missionaries today are anything like those in my era, they can develop a self-confidence that borders on feelings of invincibility.

I loved strapping on the whole armor of God. I reveled in being a Christian soldier taking inspiration from the Book of Mormon military martyrs. I hoped to conquer the Inca nation—for the Lord.

And each time I felt larger than life, I was whittled down to size.

My companion and I once rented a huge movie theater, posted handbills all over town and invited everyone to attend a free film. Hundreds of people came. We showed a short film on the 1969 Moon Landing (note #1), showed an LDS film, then demanded everyone’s name and address.

Nobody joined the Church because of that. In fact, 90 percent of the addresses were bogus.

Sometimes we’d organize sports extravaganzas and major musical galas, usually starring the invincible elders. I don’t remember one conversion coming from such things.

What I do remember is the heart-to-heart talk I had with Brother Iglesias about the delicate balance between Mormonism and Catholicism, just before he agreed to be baptized. I remember spending quiet afternoons discussing books with 80-year-old Julio Arroyo, who was later baptized.

The difference between shepherds and sheep-herders is the shepherd knows each of his sheep while sheep-herders drive them about in great, wooly waves.

Be a shepherd.

4. Don’t serve your mission; serve the people.

One morning as we left our La Paz apartment, the man next door, who’d never shown interest in the Church, was making adobe bricks. The process was so fascinating—the simple molds, the muddy ooze between his toes—we watched him for several minutes, then went off looking for investigators.

What if we’d taken off our shoes, helped him make his bricks, then invited him to church? What if we’d served him instead of being so intent on serving our missions?

Mission service should entail more than teaching. Serving a mission means sharing a person’s physical burdens as well as the spiritual ones.

When you’re teaching people about good-will, I’ve found they pay more attention if you’re wheeling their wheelbarrow at the time.

5. Don’t lose focus of the foe.

In Bolivia, where 99 percent of the country is Catholic, I spent a good deal of my mission thinking the Catholic Church was the Mormon missionary’s nemesis.

I made light of the Catholic penchant for pomp, laughed at notions of limbo.

It never occurred to me that it was the people in the Great and Spacious Building who pointed and laughed at those eating from the Tree of Life.

Ridiculing others for what they believe—no matter how odd—simply opens you up for ridicule. If you belittle Catholics for changing baptism from immersion to sprinkling, they’ll chide you for changing Christ’s sacrament wine back into water.

A missionary’s enemy is never other forms of heartfelt Christianity. The enemy is tougher to spot. The enemy is “spiritual homelessness”—a religious hunger and restlessness that can lead people into apathy or turn them toward hate.

Back in 1968, my military draft card read “Minister of the Gospel.” Only when I started “ministering” to the spiritual ills about me did I understand Christ’s comment that He, like a doctor, searched for the afflicted.

6. Beware of “righteous anger.”

I had no trouble being patient with Bolivian Indians who struggled to grasp the most elementary principles of the gospel. But I let a couple of my junior companions have it now and then. And each time I felt my outbursts were totally justified as righteous anger.

Heaven protect us from people who show righteous anger.

The term comes from what I call the “Power and Glory” side of religion. The militaristic hymns are on that side (“We Are All Enlisted,” “Onward Christian Soldiers”). It’s also the side where God is described as “omnipotent,” “omnipresent” and “omniscient.” I often wonder why serious dictionaries never include other “omni” words for God: “omni-patient,” for instance, “omni-understanding,” “omni-forgiving.”

Yes, Jesus did show anger. But Jesus could see the total picture. Mormon missionaries see through a glass darkly.

In my case, anger and impatience were usually a form of arrogance. When I got annoyed at others, I was really saying “Why can’t you be a better person, like me?” When I got angry at myself, I was saying “I think I’m a better person than I really am.”

I wish I’d shown more “righteous sadness” instead.

7. Don’t just figure things out, feel things out.

Missionaries, like most people, prefer black-and-white answers. And just as members of the Church debate which soft drinks to use, many elders and sisters spend hours trying to reason out proper behavior.

In Bolivia, we had a member named Brother Espinoza who spent his evenings at his brother’s bar drinking “chicha.” We debated what to do. Jesus wasn’t afraid to go after souls in unsavory environments, we said. On the other hand, we were counseled to “avoid the appearance of evil” and “stand in holy places.”

We debated the issue without reaching a conclusion.

And that was the problem. We were trying to “figure out” answers instead of “listening” for them.

Choices are seldom all black or all white. Most choices, like dalmation dogs and zebras, have both black and white about them. It’s up to each missionary to discover which is best. That doesn’t always mean looking for the “lesser evil” either. Sometimes it means choosing the greater of two goods.

God didn’t write down explicit instructions for every situation. He didn’t need to. He has a “ghost writer” working for Him—the Holy Ghost. The spirit will write answers in your heart. Study the scriptures, but let yourself be taught—like Jesus—by the spirit.

8. Never stop making lemonade.

Not long ago, a slogan was so prominent on T-shirts, postcards and posters it became hackneyed overnight: “When the world gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

It’s good advice. Here’s another way of putting it: Like Judo masters, missionaries should turn the force of an adversary’s blow to their own advantage.

I was never very good at it. Elder Jay Sitterud was.

Elder Sitterud and I were working a street corner in Oruro, Bolivia, one afternoon. We had our “biombo” out—a large wooden bulletin board that had gospel pictures tacked to it.

In the time it takes to say “buenas tardes,” a policeman came by and whisked Elder Sitterud off to jail.

It seems we were violating a public-meeting ordinance we knew nothing about.

Elder Sitterud spent the night in the drunk tank with some of the roughest characters in the city. He didn’t dare sleep, or even close his eyes because of the hard, angry stars. He had no idea when—or even if—he’d get out.

But the fiery furnace can also be a refiner’s fire. And Elder Sitterud was an expert at making lemonade from lemons.

The next day, after offering several humiliating apologies, we were able to spring Elder Sitterud. He came out a mess. His clothes smelled like cheap liquor, his face was pale and spattered with soot and his hair was a fright wig.

But he seemed strong, even valiant. He had a quiet confidence about him—a spiritual fierceness that Daniel must have shown to keep the lions at bay.

Elder Sitterud had spent the night talking to several Bolivian criminals about Joseph Smith and Jesus.

And they had listened to him.

9. Don’t forget to write.

About those letters home. Do what your mother told you. Write often.

And give more than a general overview (“We teach a lot of poor people”). Write in specifics (“Let me tell you about my experiences with the James family, one of the many poor families we teach”). Such anecdotes will personalize your work for your parents and for you. Not just while you’re on your mission, but years later when you try to re-create it.

Write about people more than about places and duties. Quote people, include the stories they tell you, the way they tell them. Include the feelings they share.

As I go back through my missionary journal and the letters I sent my parents, I find myself thinking about things I left out more than the things I included. What I often neglected to mention were feelings. What I generally sent were pages of my daily itinerary.

(Note to Bolivian elders: If you decide to sample the llama or guinea pig meat, you don’t need to mention it in letters to your mothers.)

10. Never forget who you are (and who you’re not).

As you look back at these 10 “thou shalt nots,” you’ll see most of them are about humility. But then, I’ve noticed that 80 percent of what Jesus taught is about humility on one level or another.

Humility is the key to missionary work. It is the frequency where the spirit does its broadcasting.

In the LDS culture we call inspiration “the still, small voice.” And God made that voice “still” and “small” for a reason. Noise drowns it out. Not the noise of crowds and cars, but the noise of the ego; the noise of all those “self” words—self-importance, self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement.

When I felt proud and self-important on my mission, I couldn’t have heard the still, small voice in the Sahara Desert. The din of my ego was too loud. Yet, in the proper frame of mind—or frame of spirit—I could hear that voice above the clatter and clamor of train stations.

The things I’ve mentioned in this article—“nationalism” “personal ambition,” “impatience,” “feelings of superiority”—drown out the still, small voice.

And writing all this for Derek has been especially humbling for me.

I realize I’m just beginning to learn—at 41—things I wish I’d known as a 19-year-old elder.


The author is a columnist for the Deseret News.

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