Missions, 15 Years Later

August 6, 2012 | 21 comments
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Today is the 15th anniversary of the end of my mission. (Note that I can’t entirely remember what I mean by that—I’m pretty sure that August 5, 1997, was my last day of proselytizing, the 6th I got on an airplane, and the 7th I arrived home. But it has been 15 years, and I’m not 100% sure.)

And what does that two years mean to me, 15 years later? On one level, not a whole lot. I don’t think about it a whole lot; my days are much more likely spent occupied by the Internal Revenue Code. Or my kids. My wife. My calling. Blogging.

But although its explicit significance has diminished in my life, I still feel fallout from my mission’s underlying repercussions. (Fallout in a good way, naturally.)

Principal among these is that my commitment to the Church and the gospel solidified over those two years. This is not to say that, without a mission, I wouldn’t be active and involved in the Church. It is to say that those two years allowed me to build a foundation I could attach to. The subsequent 15 have allowed me to continue building that foundation, to the point where I won’t be surprised or shocked out of the Church. I’m invested in it, I believe its truth-claims, and I’m happy that way.

My mission provided me with a shared experience common to many Mormons. Which is to say, even absent anything else in common, I have something in common. Examples: in college one time, my roommates and I looked at our mission journals to see what we were doing around the same day. When I first met my now-wife, we broke the ice talking about our missions.

On a much-less spiritual level, learning and speaking Portuguese has been relevant, too. I minored in Portuguese, which introduced me to a world of literature and music I otherwise wouldn’t know. Although I rarely speak anymore, I’ve used my Portuguese to fake Spanish (including helping my daughter with her Spanish class), French, and Italian.

What other 15-years-later[fn] benefits am I missing?

[fn] Even if you’ve been back more or less than 15 years. Heck, even if you didn’t go on a mission.

21 Responses to Missions, 15 Years Later

  1. Owen on August 6, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    I’m at 14 years. I work as a translator with my mission language, so I’m an outlier. I still have lots of friends in Finland and need to make sure I’m ready to speak if I show up at a sacrament meeting there, just in case the program runs short. Easy target. My network of friends and acquaintances would be much smaller without the mission. Probably wouldn’t be in the church anymore without that crucible either. On a practical level, I completely understand the clean break most people make with their mission locales and the people they knew, but it’s a real shame and reflects poorly on the supposed “love” missionaries have for the people they teach. I imagine that is improving by leaps and bounds now though due to Facebook. I’ve seen a lot of fellow missionaries to Finland reconnecting recently. Having real jobs and being out of school now probably also influences that.

  2. Andrew S. on August 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    I don’t really have my own thoughts to add on the conversation…but I am interested in hearing how many folks have or have not kept up with the folks they met at their mission locales, a la Owen’s first comment to the discussion — especially with the help of things like Facebook.

  3. Dan on August 6, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    I’m at 15 and a half years. My mission is where I truly learned about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I read the Book of Mormon 14 times, the rest of the scriptures at least twice through, and a whole host of other material. It has helped me retain my testimony over these last 15 years. These days the challenges I face are why a former stake president can get away with so much lying in public. I thought “are you honest with your fellow men” was a serious question. Maybe this person will face the consequences later for this, but it’s tough for a guy like me to see this and wonder, “why do i push myself to be honest with my fellow men, to be a good, worthy guy when there are really no consequences to doing the opposite?” I couldn’t go on a mission today because of that, no matter how much i love the Book of Mormon.

  4. Dan on August 6, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Andrew,

    I keep up with many from Romania on my facebook. They were all very happy to see Sandra Izbana win gold last night :D

  5. NewlyHousewife on August 6, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    I didn’t serve a mission and neither did my husband; but my dad did. As far as I know (he doesn’t share stories often) he not only remembers the names of the people he taught, he also remembers whether they got baptized or not, their life circumstances, and what they were up to by the time he left. For him it was definitely a life changing event–prior to that he was drinking, doing pot, and dating a girl who dumped him (and thus, to get away from the things that reminded him of her, he signed up)–that kept him in the church.

  6. Yet Another John on August 7, 2012 at 12:45 am

    I returned in 1974. You do the math, for me I almost don’t enough fingers and toes to count on. This of course was pre-internet and very poor intercountry communicaton, This was in Peru. I’ve lost touch with all investigators and members and most companions. I guess I’m just not a real needy to keep in touch kind of guy. I had GREAT mission, I wasn’t the mission gunner, but I did work hard every day and played hard when we could. Always tried to obey mission rules and most the elders I was with were the same way.
    The mission left me with a more solid foundation of faith, knowledge of gospel, and desire to know more. I honestly believe if it were not for those two year it would have taken me longer to figure things out and maybe I never would have. It also gave me strength to pick myself up when I’ve fallen and the courage to grab hold of repentance offered. A mission may not be for every young man (0r woman), but it was for me.

  7. Snyderman on August 7, 2012 at 8:57 am

    It’s been five years (and like a week or so) for me now.

    Just a quick note to Owen before I address the question posed in the original post. Not all people thrive on correspondence. As an (extreme) introvert, the most meaningful activities I did with my family involved all of us doing our own thing in each other’s presence. For example, my dad and I used to sit in the family room and read and never say a word to each other. Yet those are the times I remember the most. And I had/have similar relationships with people from my mission. Those that I really got along with were also more introverted and don’t really need correspondence to maintain the bond. Which is not to say we never speak, but we may go months and sometimes even years between correspondences. And that’s okay with us.

    One thing I learned on my mission was to appreciate the differences in people. All of my zone leaders and assistants thought that the path to unity was in all missionaries doing the exact same thing and approaching the work the exact same way. Like there was this perfect mold that we all have to fit into. I, not surprisingly, did not fit their mold and this caused me to think a lot about what unity means. I determined that life would be incredibly boring if we were all the same and started to pay particular attention to how people were different and what benefits that provided both to me and to the people my companion and I were teaching. This appreciation has affected my life in profound ways since my mission.

  8. Brian on August 7, 2012 at 9:07 am

    I just passed the 11 year mark – hard to believe. I had kept in touch with some former companions, but the last one I had communicated with semi-regularly just defriended me on facebook because we had different political views. Don’t know what to think about that. I’ve tried repeatedly to find the one person I baptized, but she seems to have dropped off the map and I don’t have any more leads. I wish I could find her. Baptisms didn’t come easy in my mission and it would sure be nice to be in touch, just to feel like I had some sort of lasting impact. That’s probably my pride talking, though. I didn’t learn a new language, but I did learn a lot about diverse groups of people and an increasingly prominent social issue (it was San Francisco – you guess) which has served me well in my interactions with people since. My testimony at times has ebbed and flowed as the years have gone by, but that experience has kept he hanging on just enough at low tide, for which I’m grateful.

  9. Owen on August 7, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Snyderman, you misunderstand me. Your description of the “silent type” fits me to a T, as it does a good half of the population of my mission country. Last month I spent three days fishing and camping with a friend in eastern Finland, and it was basically three days of being quiet together, which was exactly what we both needed. Intermittent communication is still communication, and learning not to fear silence is one of the wonderful lessons a foreigner can learn in Finland. What I was referring to are the majority of missionaries who make a complete break with their mission experience other than recounting the occasionally anecdote. Of course that isn’t a scientific observation (that a majority do this), but given the conversations I’ve had over the years, I’m pretty confident in it. I’ve also heard plenty of comments encouraging elders to “get on with their lives” and criticism of those who “haven’t really come home.” I understand some of that sentiment, and I’ve definitely seen returned missionaries who failed to reintegrate quickly with post-mission life, but it strikes me as a crying shame that so many human relationships and thousands of hours of language and other study so often go down the drain. Our mission president’s wife tried hard to teach us idiot 20-year-olds social graces (like sending a thank-you note after eating at someone’s house), but of course all of this is a lot to expect of “callow youth” as President Hinckley described them. It can be quite harmful though, since many converts think of the missionaries as their friends and are disappointed when they drop off the face of the earth. Existing members seem to be used to it, although I’m constantly surprised how often they do remember individuals despite the constant stream of new suits.

    I wonder if anyone could comment on what the messages are that are being sent to missionaries now about “getting on with their lives” given how easy it is to keep in touch and practice mission languages via Facebook. And given globalization when it is so much easier to use a specific language skill and familiarity with a foreign country in business life.

  10. Snyderman on August 7, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Hmm, perhaps I haven’t been home long enough to see that “clean break” you describe. Or maybe since all the missionaries that served the same time I did as well as all the vast majority of members where I served are now on Facebook it’s not really possible to have a clean break. I do know that many people I’ve talked to have told me that I don’t contact people from my mission often enough, but I disagree.

    Most (all) of the lessons I heard post-mission were, “Get married. Yesterday.” Of course, some of that was BYU culture, but a lot of it was Church culture. The farewell lesson/speech/whatever that my mission president gave all of us returning home was his formula (aka the one correct formula) for finding a spouse. So I don’t know that “gettin on with their lives” is the language used, but it is certainly an implicit message given. And it generally starts before the missionary even gets home.

    Also, I have found it relatively easy to practice Russian since I got home, mostly through correspondence with members from my mission, but also because of general increasing globalization. And the one companion I still keep in contact with works for a business that has a lot of dealings in Russia, so he gets to practice a lot that way.

  11. Robert Rundquist on August 7, 2012 at 11:11 am

    MP to Bob: “Do you have a girl Bob?___”I thought I did___”.
    MP, “Then that’s where you must start__find her. Make sure it’s over so you can start afresh”. I found her and we have now been married 45 years. Good advise from MP!

  12. Sam Brunson on August 7, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Owen, one of my regrets from my mission is how few people I managed to keep in touch with. And the fault is partly (largely?) mine: I got home, immediately went to school, and was busy with my post-mission life.

    But a significant part of the problem was structural: 15 years ago was pre-Facebook. On my mission, I knew either one or two families with computers, and none with internet access. Since returning, I’ve lived at at least 15 different addresses. And the Brazilian mail system may leave something to be desired: I once got a letter from a guy I knew in Brazil asking, plaintively, why I hadn’t replied to his previous four or five letters. The reason? I’d never received them. Moreover, the plaintive letter I received showed up more than a year after he’d mailed it. I responded to him and haven’t heard back (and this was probably 8 or more years ago)—I have no idea if he ever received my letter.

    Facebook has put me in touch with missionaries I served with, and one or two members in wards I was in, but, again, 15 years later, it hasn’t been a panacea.

  13. Cameron Nielsen on August 7, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    I’m at 8 years. Wow, 8 years makes me feel very old.

    I had many shortcomings during my mission, but have done a good job keeping up with friends. When I returned from Tahiti in 2004, internet there was still a luxury. A few letters a year was all I did, but it was enough to maintain relationships with my dearest friends. Then when Facebook took off and now that internet is more mainstream in Tahiti, I added even people I didn’t know on Facebook just in hopes of finding companions and friends. It worked. Now all my companions and friends that I taught are on Facebook and we have occasional email conversations. I’m aware of a part-member family that has now been sealed, as well as a sister we taught who was baptized, went inactive, and has since received her endowment. For me, things like this outweigh all the negative side effects of the information age, as they allow virtual ‘sons of Mosiah’ reunions. What could be better than that?

  14. Larry on August 7, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    We were strictly admonished by SWK not to keep in contact with folks from our mission so that they could learn to stand on their own 2 feet. That was the advice 45 years ago . . . that would be 3 time the length you’ve been away, Sam. I think the IRS would like to tax that, too. My mission also helped me to get grounded in the Gospel and face what came later.

  15. Adam Greenwood on August 7, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    We returned almost on the same day and benefited in almost the same ways. Plus, for reasons I’ve expressed elsewhere, my mission taught me to appreciate the pioneers and to see failure and misery as profoundly part of God’s plan in ways we can’t fully understand. My mission has created or reinforced my unusual virtues and gaping flaws.

  16. Suleiman on August 7, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    It’s been 27 years since I flew home. Does my mission have relevance in my life? Sure. It solidified both a testimony and a distrust of church hierarchy. If it doesn’t come from the First Presidency, it really isn’t worth worrying about.

  17. AndrewJDavis on August 9, 2012 at 10:42 am

    @Brian #8 — I also served in San Francisco, and got home 10 years ago. I too haven’t been able to keep in contact with the people I taught much. Some of them have died, I know, but not all of them (I think…). My mission actually helped me to stop doing things because I’m told to, and deciding what I want to do on my own. While it may mean I don’t always look like a missionary anymore, I think I have moved to a better spot about making decisions in my life on my own.

  18. Chadwick on August 9, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Been home eleven years now. I took my wife and two kids to visit the Kong about 18 months ago, and that was a wonderful experience. As a tourist with a wife and two kids, I saw a completely different side of the Chinese culture than I saw as a white teenage missionary. It was refreshing.

    Also, I don’t know if it’s the post-SARS world, or if it’s because I went to Hong Kong from India and not the states, but it sure seemed a lot cleaner.

    My first trainee and I still get together once a year, even though we live in different parts of the world. He even came to India to visit me. He’s still single and I’m now a working stiff with a family but we always have fun getting together and regaling mission stories.

    My mission president, in my final interview, mentioned nothing to me about marriage. He encouraged me to go home, find a career I love, but most importantly, to find a career that supports the kind of lifestyle I want to live. I think that was sage advice; much more than get married. I had enough of that at BYU. And now I’m a tax accountant, just like Sam!

    To this day, probably 3-4 times a year, I’ll have a dream I’m being called to return to the mish (notwithstanding the wife and kids). Or sometimes the dream regards China opening and needing people that speak Chinese. I usually wake from those dreams in a cold sweat!

    My mission taught me lessons in hard work and charity that I would like to think are still a part of me today.

  19. BrianKW on August 9, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    I’ve been home from Mexico for 14 years and not a day goes by that I don’t recall the many lessons I learned. Most importantly, I learned to deal with disappointment and to understand that sometimes the Lord answers my prayers with an emphatic “NO,” which has always been for my benefit.

    My mission president’s only advice regarding marriage was this, “I don’t care who you marry or when you marry, but do it in the temple.” Very sage advice from a non-meddling MP. The trials my wife and I have faced would have torn us apart if not for the knowledge that our family is sealed for eternity.

  20. whizzbang on August 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    I think about it also everyday. I guess for me the way I remember it depends on what mood I am in. I have a love/hate relationship with it. I have been back since 2000 and my mission totally screwed me up for the next 9 years of life and as a result my son’s. I was told to get married immediately and did so with disastrous results that I still live with. I don’t know what to make of it, if God was “breaking” my life in two or what he is doing or allowing and not caring-hard to say. I came to also mistrust “leadership” of all kinds and got further screwed over when I came back. I still don’t trust leadership of all kinds, yet I have had some great people in my life since then and know that not all leaders are out to get you. I just recoil at the thought of being micromanaged, judged and walked all over and used as a stepping stone in someone’s “church career”

  21. Matt Arnold on August 16, 2012 at 3:04 am

    I returned home from my mission 15 years ago about a week before Sam on July 29. I still think and ponder over different experiences and misc. details of my mission all the time. I personally feel like I already had a strong testimony and a knowledge of the doctine and the scriptures. But the mission helped to make those things deeper and more personal. I cherish the numerous spiritual experiences, the lows and the highs. I had a very hard time breaking some of my very independent ways when I had to submit in some ways being junior companion and so forth. I also learned to a good extent how to be a leader. There certainly were alot of good and very bad examples of leaders in the wards and amongst the mission leadership. I learned especially to despise people that will do anything to attain leadership. As opposed to the bad examples, my mission president was the best, I profoundly respect and love that man. May he rest in peace. With all of the profound experiences there were plenty of difficulties and unpleasant times. The climate where I went had alot of extremes in temperature. The winters were brutal with -20F or lower actual temperatures and wind chills below -70F at their worst and this is coming from a southern California native. My mission was tough but well worth it. I always knew I would serve a mission and I never looked back. I wholeheartedly would recommend others to serve. But they have to know it is tough and tests your abilities to be self motivated and to rely on the Lord and also that your efforts are not alway rewarded with fruit at least not right away.

    I feel like the valuable lessons I learned have made me a better husband and father. I feel like I learned to how tolerate and empathize with people that are not like me. I think I also sharpened my communication skills on the mission also.

    Personally I have kept in contact with some of my mission friends and companions but not so much with the people I taught or baptized.