Recent communications with our missionary son have brought back a complex mix of thoughts and emotions. He's in a challenging situation right now. It seems that his companion suffers from some kind of disorder that keeps him in bed for up to 12 (or more) hours a day. So he's often not ready to leave the apartment until lunchtime. The work is suffering. They have no steady investigators. The church's new missionary technology program has not yet reached our son's mission, so his ability to do any kind of effective work while his companion slumbers is quite limited.
The mission where our son serves is notoriously challenging. It is very similar to Norway, where I served. There is a general apathy about religion. Finding people to teach is difficult. Getting those that will listen to the point that they become interested in joining the church is exceedingly more difficult. It is quite common for missionaries in our son's mission to return home having not contributed directly to any convert baptisms.
I sensed the level of our son's discouragement when he recently wrote that he couldn't imagine ever saying that his mission was the best two years of his life. That hit home with me because my mission experience was not much different.
At the time I returned from my mission I could not say that my mission was the best two years of my life. Nor have I ever been able to honestly say that. I had some amazing experiences on my mission. I am ever so grateful that I served. I held every leadership position that any young elder in my mission could hold (whoop-te-doo), but I still came home feeling like I was a failure as a missionary. It took years for me to see my mission in a different light.
My son recently wrote that he feels ineffective as a missionary. He regrets his lack of boldness. Well, he is his father's son. We were supposed to make something like 125 street contacts per week back in the day. I averaged more like 5-6. I just did not like getting into people's faces. It was one thing to have people walk up to a street display to talk to (or heckle) us. It was quite another to initiate the contact. Once I got used to people rejecting us on the doorstep, I didn't mind going door-to-door so much. But I hated street contacting.
All of these contacting activities seemed horribly ineffective to me when I was a missionary. It turns out that I was right. At least from a direct viewpoint. One non-LDS researcher has studied the purpose of LDS missionaries. He says that in reality, young missionaries serve the same purpose as billboards. They are the most public face of the church. While their finding activities may be directly ineffective, it is important for them to be out there interfacing with the public. He says it has great indirect marketing value.
Other research has shown that LDS missionaries help bolster the faith and function of members where they serve. Returned missionaries also make up a significant and important part of the church infrastructure, even when they weren't very successful at baptizing new converts. Some researchers have gone so far as to say that these elements are the real products of LDS missions and that the focus on teaching and baptizing is really just a side light. The rank and file members are more important as far as that goes.
I think that repeated training, cultural imprinting, and years of direct and indirect messages convey an idea of what an LDS mission should be like. There is a lot of good in this. But the problem with the 'one true mission' (OTM) paradigm is that if your mission doesn't closely match that picture, it's easy to see your mission as a failure. In reality, each missionary has a unique blend gifts, talents, abilities, and shortcomings. Only a certain percentage of them are likely to match the OTM model.
For example, I have a brother that is the COO of a multi-national company. He says that he is always concerned about the educational credentials of any job candidate, except for when he is interviewing a candidate for a sales job. Then he doesn't give one iota about education. He says that salesmanship is inborn. You either have it or you don't. If you have it, much can be done to hone and build upon that talent. But if you don't have it, no amount of training will help you get it. He only needs 10 minutes with a candidate to know whether they have it or not.
There are lots of opinions on this matter and my brother's is just one of them. But behavioral scientists know that every person falls somewhere along the introversion-extroversion scale. Salesmanship comes far more naturally to those at the extrovert end of the scale. If you're toward the introvert end you will always find the sales element of missionary work to be difficult and challenging.
That's how it was for me. But it turned out that I had a lot of administrative skill. I ended up serving nearly a year in the mission office, where I excelled at the various administrative tasks I was assigned. We did regular missionary work in the evenings and on the weekends. That went pretty much like the rest of my mission.
I was no slacker while on my mission. But I knew that I wasn't very effective. I often filled time with less productive activities. We would stop by nonmembers that would reliably talk to us but that had no interest in improving their spiritual lives. We weren't immune to ducking into shops instead of doing street contacting. Or we'd schmooze members.
But frankly, the 'productive' activities weren't very productive either. We generally managed to keep a small pool of investigators, but none of them would make it past the third lesson. Most of the time I felt like we were spinning our wheels trying to look busy.
I spent five months with a companion that had some serious problems. The longer we were together, the less well we communicated and worked with each other. He wouldn't study. His Norwegian skills were so rudimentary that people simply couldn't understand anything he said. It was a tough time for both of us. Only years later would I gain some compassion when I realized the tremendous challenges this young man faced.
By the end of my mission I had stood in the baptismal font exactly one time. The young lady I baptized stopped attending church three weeks after her baptism. I had made a handful of street contacts and countless door-to-door contacts. I had taught a number of lessons, none of which went anything like the lessons I had memorized in the MTC. (Exact memorization of lessons was the way we did it back then.) I had acted in leadership roles and had seen much of Norway. I had done a lot of administrative work. But because my mission didn't match the OTM picture, I felt like a failure for many years after my mission.
Through much prayer and years of maturation, I eventually gained a different understanding of my mission. The Spirit has warmly whispered to me that the Lord is very pleased with my missionary service. Not that I did any great thing. He is pleased with my service in the way that parents are pleased when their kindergartener comes home with a pencil holder made of a can decorated with dry macaroni and spray paint. This is an apt analogy, because President Dieter F. Uchtdorf tells us that we are all spiritual toddlers.
If God is happy with my inept missionary service, what right have I to be unhappy about it?
Not everyone that serves a mission can excel at salesmanship. Missions don't run without administrative work. Not every missionary can do that effectively either. Many different skill sets are needed (see 1 Corinthians 12:20-21). Only a narrow percentage of missionaries are going to have OTM experiences. But the rest need not view their missions as failures. I suspect that many that now feel like missionary failures would be surprised to learn how God views their service.
Of course, this perspective likely won't help my son much in his current situation. It seems that we are destined to learn some lessons first hand. Some lessons can only be realized after many layers of perspective are added to the original experience.
I would like to reach across the world, embrace my son, and tell him how much the Lord loves him and appreciates his meager efforts. But I can't. I can pray and hope that God will somehow convey this important message to my son. But if he's as thick headed as me, it may take years.