The Convert Files: Does a Mission Define You as a Latter-day Saint?

When full-time missionaries are placed on a podium and admired as heroes, we can unwittingly hurt those that opted not to serve.

The Convert Files is a column containing musings and observations by Jeff Borders, a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

And there I was, laid up on the couch. It really was a silly injury that had put me there, dozily watching a BYU forum address by myself while my family was at church. Let me explain.

While preparing my home for a family gathering, I was replacing a torn trampoline mat (a typical activity for most of us, right?). At some point during my Ahab-like struggle to maintain a balancing act between springs and canvas, I pulled a back muscle. Badly. Now I might overplay my man flu card on occasion, but this time, it was legit. Not to humble brag it, but I am by nature a doer, so despite my ailing back, I got up Sunday morning intending to go to church, but my wife wouldn’t have it. After some cajoling (okay “threatening” would be a better term) from my wife, I begrudgingly stayed home.

As the words echoing from the Marriott center drifted me away as if a lullaby, I was unaware that my wife had experienced something painful and frustrating at church, something we have both experienced at one point and time. It wasn’t until she got home that I heard the story.

Let me give you a little more background. I am a convert to the Church. I joined when I was 19 due to the influence of my wife (my girlfriend at the time). I was in college, studying to be a respiratory therapist. Generous parents and scholarships helped fund my way through the process. I was blessed. Although it was an option, as I was certainly of age, I opted not to serve a full-time mission. Gasp! There I was, in the middle of my studies, and I decided that a mission was not the right thing for me at the time, and that I needed to continue in the direction I was going. To be honest, the thought of a mission wasn’t something I even dwelled upon, though I knew that the Prophet wanted young men to prepare and serve.

So why was my wife upset? She informed me that in his sacrament meeting remarks, a well-intentioned member of the stake high council said, “All you men who served a mission are heroes.” That seems innocuous enough. Typically things of this nature wouldn’t bother me as I’m a pretty unflappable guy, but it did bother me to see my wife upset about it. I happen to know this brother pretty well, and know that he wouldn’t say something intentionally to marginalize anyone. However, sometimes our verbiage as members can lead some to feel as outsiders or less than. By indicating that members who served a full-time proselytizing mission are somehow heroes, we may unwittingly be equating this service with being more valiant or more obedient. Imagine a new convert sitting in Sacrament meeting who didn’t serve a mission for any number of reasons, now feeling somehow less worthy or less righteous – less of a “hero.”

You might think I am being too sensitive, but perception is reality, and words do matter. My wife has had more than one person say to her, “I could never marry someone who wasn’t a returned missionary,” as if serving a full-time mission makes you somehow a more worthy priesthood holder, or a better husband and father.

Sometimes unknowingly we level the harshest judgment on those who have never served, or who have come home early. And sometimes that judgement comes upon ourselves when we believe we haven’t lived up to what has been expected of us. The Lord has called us to serve. He has asked young men and young women to heed the call to serve as missionaries. It is our priesthood duty. One I fully recognize. However, when we narrow our scope of service to only a full-time proselytizing mission, we miss the mark. Too often we forget that we believe in following the direction of our Prophet as well as our ability to receive personal revelation to direct our lives. They work in tandem. We may not know the circumstances that would lead someone not to serve a mission. And we are not called to judge, but love.

When someone has extended to me a call to serve, I have not once been asked where or if I served a mission. Our election and worthiness with God is predicated on our obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. So before you go and charge me as a heathen who doesn’t believe people should serve missions, I want to say this. I wholly believe a mission is a growth opportunity for youth, and they should try to take full advantage of it. I serve with the young men, and I want my deacons to consider seriously the call to serve and determine for themselves to go. I encourage it. I support them. I have a deep desire for my children to go and have that formative experience. I teach them that it is their priesthood duty to serve. I will try teach my children to look at the mission in the context of temple covenants. This truly is an act of consecration of ones time.

What I want to be careful of is acting as if serving a full 2 year mission is akin to automatically punching your ticket into the celestial kingdom. I will  also be careful not to berate or belittle those who choose to walk the path in a different way than me. While I want my children to serve a mission, what is more important to me is that they are progressing on the gospel path, and ultimately looking at the ordinances of the temple as their ultimate destination.

And to embrace the old adage, in the temple we all dress the same. Just as there is no distinguishing between those who are rich or poor, young or old, there is no distinguishing between those who have served a mission and those who have not. We are all equal there in the sight of God as his children, united in His house to worship.

Even though this experience and other ones like it haven’t shaken my testimony one iota, that doesn’t make it hurt any less for me or my spouse.

Sometimes I do wonder what my life would have been like had I set aside school for two years and served, but those moments are fleeting, and even if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing. My service opportunities in the Church have given me great insight and appreciation for missionary work, particularly when I’ve served as a ward mission leader (RIP?). I wouldn’t be a member of the Church were it not for missionary work! And I have been able to consecrate my time and efforts in spreading the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. I love missionary work and I love missionaries.

In the end, words matter, even when it seems like a little thing and even when our intentions are pure. We do a disservice to our youth and our converts when we embrace the wrong lexicon at church or in our dialogue with others. Are our words or actions unwittingly affecting others in a negative way?

The soapbox is vacant… for now. The Convert Files will be back!

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