Why I Became a Mormon Missionary

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. In fact, 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 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 get 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 of 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.  I became a missionary for the LDS church as an act of faith, I’m just not sure which type of faith.

26 thoughts on “Why I Became a Mormon Missionary”

  1. Very interesting post. If I was a male, I would have probably had the exact same feelings and reasons for going (which explains why, as a female, I didn't go when I was 21).

    I wonder how many other missionaries have/had a similar experience?

  2. Darcey, I suspect my experience was not at all unique. I hesitate to say it is typical of MOST missionaries, but still far from unique. Thanks for reading.

  3. One wonders how you might feel now if you had the immersion experience of a different culture where you were forced to learn a different language, etc.
    But you served in the OCM.
    You did your time.

    I suppose that if I wasn't so dumb I would have found ways to leave. As it was, there was only one story that I can recollect where a missionary left the OCM mission without having transgressed. It was the stuff of legends, and may have happened years before, if at all. Supposedly, on transfer day, he packed his backs because he was being moved. But after his luggage was loaded, and while his companion went up to the apartment, he took the car and drove straight to the airport. He boarded a plane before anyone could stop him or try to talk him out of it. How I admired his plan! But I could never do that, because I didn't know how easy it would have been to get a credit card mailed straight to my apartment with enough credit to purchase a plane ticket.

    When my Stake President came to my home to release me the evening that I came home (after 2 years), he asked me how my mission experience was. I told him the truth. And I couldn't sugar coat it. He thanked me for my service and released me for serving a full and honorable mission. My head was spinning, and for the next several months, anytime someone asked how my mission was, I could only give platitudes.

    I will say this: I had one genuine experience on the night before I left the field that I will never forget. It was what I needed to *feel* to remain active for the rest of my life.

  4. Anonymous, thanks for commenting. When I was filling out the paperwork to become a missionary, I made it very clear that I was not interested in learning a language or traveling abroad. At the time, I would have chosen an english-speaking, stateside mission for myself if I had the option.

    As for the missionary who left on a plane, I was involved in a similar incident. I'll probably write a post about it sometime soon.

    I'm glad you had a good experience on your mission before you came home. I also had some wonderful experiences as a missionary. I hope the post is clear that I was not saying anything of my experiences as a missionary, only of my experiences that led to my becoming a missionary.

  5. Reuben, I agree that it seems many go for the same reasons. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the same subject after you returned from your mission. Did you feel any differently about the experience afterward?

    These types of cultural pressures are at least irksome, but have the potential to be much worse. (I compare it to the pressure put on new members to go to the temple a.s.a.p., with little regard to their actual spiritual readiness and preparation.) At least some people are pushed away from the church because of the pressure itself, let alone those who go (temple or mission) for the wrong reasons and later leave the church. It can be difficult to bear.

    I left my mission early (no transgressions), following several experiences where companions or close friends left (one for medical reasons, others for transgressions). I experienced anxiety that I can only fathom living through now and in hind-sight believe that I may have been pretty close to a complete emotional/mental breakdown. I simply told my mission president one day that I needed to go home. He and his wife were both loving people who helped me to understand what I was doing and why. Although they disagreed with my decision, they supported it and loved me. I have a profound love and respect for them both.

    After I came home early, I remember feeling as if every person in the church was silently judging me with no idea of the actual circumstances surrounding my return. Although that pressure was probably more my perception than it was reality, it was still very real to me and was a source of much stress and anxiety in my life. If I hadn’t had a very prescient, loving, and kind bishop at the time, I don’t know where I would stand today with regard to the church.

    That fact notwithstanding, I am a better person because of my mission and I have a much stronger relationship with God. I guess that I just wish people would be less judging of others and understand that we all grow and learn in different ways.

  6. One other note: My first calling upon returning was as a 5-6 year old primary teacher. My bishop must have been inspired to place me there. Those children will probably never know it, but they saved my life and my relationship with God. They couldn't judge me, they just loved me.

    It's sad to think that as people, we can never really understand what is going on in other people's lives. If only we could all love each other unconditionally like those children loved me as their teacher, I think we would all be much better for it.

  7. Jimmy, thanks for sharing your experiences. I'm happy to hear about your experiences teaching the 5-6 year olds. I agree that we would all be a lot better of (and with less anxiety) if we would all stop judging each other and admit that there is sufficient freedom in the gospel for people to choose their own paths.

    As for how I feel about the mission now… well… you'll just have to wait for future posts for the answer to that one.

  8. I am fascinated by this post and the comments. I served a mission because I felt it was what the Lord wanted me to do, and because I thought doing what [I thought] he wanted made me to do would make me happy. but. it was not what I wanted (which was to get married). And it did not "make" me happy.

    Five years later, I am extremely grateful that I didn't get my first wish (marriage at a young age). I have mixed, complicated feelings about my mission, my membership in the church, and the social culture and pressures within the church.

    Anyway, so thanks for sharing.

  9. Probably better that you went rather than burning things…might have burned down the campus…yes, that would have been bad:)

  10. Ok, all joking aside. I also really liked your post and appreciate the comments left. You have some thoughtful readers (sorry if I ruined the trend).

    I'm sure your reasons aren't abnormal and I think the pressure is great. Just like men going on missions, getting married and having babies marriage babies and family is what is primarily taught as the woman's duty and somehow if you are missing something of that equation there is something wrong with you. You know my issues, and I'm sure for some those ideals help them live close to God. For others (maybe just myself) I feel like it limits the varied ways to live close to God. I especially liked your thought that you wanted to help people but didn't know if teaching the religion was the way to do it, I felt the same way when I was out on the mission and saw many people get caught up in the religion/book part and not the human/spirit part of it. Ok, I will stop babbling now….

  11. New to the church and what not this is one of the best blog I have read of yours. I have noticed the pressure put on the young men. Sometimes hearing all the mission stories from friends in the church I wonder what it would of been like.
    Thank you for your story.

  12. Interesting post Reuben. I remember being 18,19,20,21, even as late as 25 and people asking when I was going on a mission. I always told them I wasn't ready yet.

    It was weird, all of my friends leaving for the mission field, and then two years later watch them all returning.

    I can't say I ever felt pressure so intense that I felt forced to go – nothing like the pressure I felt to graduate from seminary.

    I often feel left out at church though. In EQ when the teacher says "you all remember … from the mission" well, it turns out I don't. Its often a conversation starter, or a way to find common ground with other guys at church that I feel left out of. And when I go on dates I often feel like I have one strike against because I didn't go on a mission, but that is probably just my own self doubts.

    To be completely honest, reading this makes me think less of you. I thought that you, and my other friends, went on missions because you all felt something that I didn't, or at least more strongly than I did. My sister went on a mission and had to come back early for medical issues. She was completely devastated that she couldn't continue the mission. My parents are housing some missionairies in Elko, and in the time I've spent with them I know that they are committed to teaching the gospel, because they believe it to be true, and want to share it with others. Its pretty disappointing to find out that you caved to peer/social pressure.

    Even though I didn't go on a mission I never felt like people were judging me, or whispering behind my back. I went to church every week, and taught 7-8 year old primary.

    I still go to church, but mostly its for the social interaction, and that is the culture I was raised with; part of me hopes to find the spark that some many others have. I'm not Peter Priesthood – Heck, I work for a liquor company!

    I suppose you get points for manning up to it 7 years later, but still…
    You definitely went for the wrong reason.

  13. Howdy Reuben! I love how you're always so candid! As you know, I'm not from Utah, never grew up in the church and never experienced the pressure put on young men to serve. However, when I moved out to Utah I met many females who said they wouldn't date someone who wasn't an RM. I think there is THAT underlying pressure too. I feel bad for those like my husband who wanted soooooooo desperately to go on a mission but was denied. He's only now finding some sort of peace with it. I also know some who went on their missions at the last possible chance they could … because they weren't ready. I've come to realize, that even though it's "intended" for all young men to go on a mission, it's not a perfect world and not all are cut out for it… and those people should not be forced (or feel like they are forced). Those who don't go on missions are still amazing people and should never be judged, the timing just wasn't right for them, and that's OK!

  14. Simplysarah,
    I also have very mixed, complicated feelings about the mission. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Tara, oh jeez – you've got some serious issues. HA. Just kidding. There is a lot of pressure to do a lot of things in the church. What makes it difficult is that the pressure originates form those with only the best intentions…

  15. Curtis, welcome to the blog. I'm proud to have you as a reader. It's good to hear your perspective as a new member.

    BJ, thanks for sharing your perspective. It's unfortunate to hear that you feel left out in the some social situations. I'm sorry to disappoint you.

    Casey, the pressure (or perceived pressure) from LDS women who won't consider dating men who have not completed missions cannot be easily overestimated. Sounds like your husband is lucky to have met you.

  16. I appreciate your honesty, it is refreshing, and I suspect that many others had almost identical experiences and emotions surrounding going versus not.

    As a person who was a member for a short period of time, I just don't "get it."

    I think 19-21 are fundamental years. For men and women, but especially for men. I get that they are out there- often learning a new language, a new city, and new cultures. That is good. I think most people I know would benefit from a little change in their comfort zone.

    That being said, I personally believe that many men go for the wrong reasons. Their parents/families have "carried their testimonies," and if they don't know- well, the worst thing that could ever happen to you (at least in the LDS perspective) would occur- no one would want to marry you. So, I often came to the conclusion that a good chunk of missionaries were out there to just do it, get it done, and go home to "start their lives." You can tell when people are genuine, and there certainly have been really in tune and spiritual elders and sisters that I have met throughout the years, but many (mostly the boys) seemed lost- a little sad when tracking on campus looking at people having fun (and here we go with the "great and spacious building" thing).

    Anyway, I liked your entry, and your honesty is real!


  17. Katie, thanks for the kind words. I think that in many ways, converts to the church experience Mormonism entirely different than those who were raised in the church. Thanks for your perspective.

  18. Reuben, has 'raising the bar' changed any of this? I met many missionaries that had similar stories (I was a missionary at roughly the same time as Reuben). In October '02 the missionary 'bar' was supposedly raised. I wonder if anything is different with the higher bar?

  19. On reading this post, my reaction was similar to Jimmy's… Maybe you went for the wrong reasons, but did you get anything out of serving your mission that later left you feeling it was worthwhile after all?

    I went for the "right" reasons, I suppose… I had a strong testimony of the gospel, and I fervently believed not only that converting people to the Church of Jesus Christ was the right thing to do for them individually, but also for the world as a whole. I really believed that converting people to Jesus Christ would promote world peace, an end to slavery and oppression… I guess I still actually believe that.

    Even after I left the Church, I always felt that my mission was worthwhile. It was VERY PAINFUL in some ways — especially struggling with same-sex orientation issues. I felt I learned incredibly important lessons about the value and sanctity of human life and free agency and love as the only really true way to do missionary work. And I loved the people I interacted with.

    For a time, I questioned whether converting people to the Church was the right thing to do. But I've come around to being grateful that I did that too (baptized 5 individuals during my term of service, some of whom served missions later on themselves…). I still consider myself a missionary, still share my testimony and copies of the Book of Mormon with friends…

    Maybe your evaluation of your own missionary service will evolve too, as you continue to evolve and grow…

  20. i still have missionary nightmares. 🙂 i had one just the other night. i never felt super confident on my mission, so much rejection. it was the hardest thing i’ve ever done, but it helped me to conquer other fears… because now i say to myself, you served a mission in the face of great adversity, you can do anything. i like what you said about prayer and that you knew God could help you do hard things. i like this post. very honest. also i loved the general conference talk that was given last year about how the mission was the ‘best two years FOR his life’ instead of OF my life. big difference.

    also, quite petty, but the BJ comment bothered me greatly. way too harsh. judgey much?

  21. ps i’ve often wondered if my mission would’ve been different had i gone foreign. the state side missions seem so hard because americans… well they are pretty rude. the pollyanna perspective is that it makes me go out of my way to be more kind to others.

    in institute today we talked about how sometimes you don’t realize the purpose for things until a long time after… i feel like this about my mission. it has garnered a lot of reflection and the passing of time helps me process some of my experiences there. i did have a lot of good, i just had no idea what i was getting in to — kind of like parenthood. 😉

  22. @marla – thanks for reading, it’s good to see that someone is getting some use out of the ReubensCube archives! In hindsight, I can clearly see some of the benefits of serving a foreign mission (learning languages, sightseeing, culture, etc.), but I didn’t care about any of that at 19. Thanks for sharing some of your thoughts about your experiences.

  23. In my ward there was HUGE pressure not just to serve a mission, but to be excited about serving. I think I left the church in part to avoid going on a mission (although I didn’t realize it at the time). Like marla, I don’t think I could have handled the daily rejection and I would have felt uncomfortable with the high pressure salesman techniques, like asking “Will you” questions that put investigators on the spot.

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