Monday, December 12, 2011

My Mission...10 Years Later

With my brother just before I officially entered the MTC
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of my mission.  I entered the Provo Missionary Training Center (MTC) on December 12, 2001.  Like with anything that marks the passage of time, in some ways it's hard to believe it's been 10 years while in others, it seems like a lifetime ago that my mission started.  I often reflect on my mission and the experiences I had, especially around this time.  Since I entered the MTC on December 12 (12/12), it's easy to remember! My mission really taught me about missionary work (what it is and what it isn't and why we do it) and tons about the difference between doctrine and culture.  I also learned a lot about what it means to sustain our leaders and how to be more direct with my own views and concerns.

MTC Referral Center
When I look at pictures of myself at the MTC (the few that still exist...most were lost when my luggage was stolen January 3 just after arriving in Tucson), I often think "wow, you have no idea what's coming!"  Indeed, I really didn't.  Going on a mission was something I was definitely ready for.  When my brother dropped me off at the MTC, he was far more emotional about it than I was.  I was more of the "OK, here we go" mentality.  Basically, it was a new phase in my life that I was ready for, so there wasn't a lot of emotion involved for me.  As emotional as my brother was, even so he gave me some blunt, but sound, advice: "Make sure to have fun...if people around you don't want to, they can go to hell!" or something like that.  I still laugh about it, but it was something I tried to hold to my entire time.  Yes, missionary work is important and serious, but it is also fun (or should be).  I saw too many missionaries around me make it into something unenjoyable.

On the MTC campus Christmas Day
The hardest thing for me on my mission was the whole process of filling time every day.  You really get to the point that if you aren't actively doing something like tracting or visiting someone that you're "slacking off" or "wasting time".  Especially as a senior companion (when I was in charge of what we were doing), I would just agonize over how to spend the day.  As a junior companion, I remember many times my senior comp would fill time with tracting (going door to door).  Not only was tracting the least effective way to reach people, but the whole monotony of it drove me insane.  I usually resorted to tracting only in the rarest of circumstances; basically there was nothing else to do and/or we had no one to teach.  I tended to focus more on us being seen in public and getting to know the members more.  Along with that, getting to know families that members who weren't LDS was something I focused on.  It wasn't a "schmooz them so we can baptize them" kind of thing, but rather a "get to know them so we're more than just recruiters" kind of thing.  We called that "building relationships of trust" or "BRT".  Even so, I did my share of tracting in the Arizona Tucson Mission.  I never really had any success from it in any area.

Article that ran right before I left for the of those pictures I look and think "you have no idea what's coming!"

Before I left...
Success was another thing I have thought a lot about.  In most of the LDS culture, "success" on a mission is defined by the number of baptisms you have on your mission and/or by the positions you hold.  I really don't even know the number of baptisms I "had" since there are many ways you could count them.  There were some that I taught from the very beginning, some I came in near the beginning, and some I barely even knew before they were baptized; I just happened to get transferred in at a certain point.  And heck, there were some I taught that got baptized after (in some cases LONG after) I left.  Even then, who cares?  The number isn't what's important.  The important thing is that I got to know the person as a friend and was able to teach them.  I still try to keep in touch with as many of the people I taught as I can.  Why?  Because I consider them friends.  And really, what happened after the statistic of the baptism?  Did they stay active?  Were they baptized because they were really making a new commitment in their lives or were they doing it for some other reason?  No, the real measure of success of a mission is not only in how the people you taught are doing years later, but also how well you are remembered by them and the others you worked with.  In that sense, I feel like I had a very successful mission.  I also feel like there were definitely points on my mission that I was so concerned with getting that "statistic" that I ignored that fact that the people we were teaching weren't ready to be baptized.  There was an instance in Las Cruces, New Mexico that I will never forget.  We were teaching this guy who was pretty interesting (I'd say CRAZY...I could write an entire blog post just on my experiences teaching this guy!) and he expressed an interest in being baptized, so we got everything ready to go, which included an interview with the zone leader (a fellow missionary).  Well, he "failed" the interview, meaning the zone leader didn't think this guy was ready.  I remember being pretty upset about it and feeling like he was being too picky, worrying too much, etc.  At that point, I just wanted that golden baptism stat so it looked like my companion and I were accomplishing something (even though in reality we were accomplishing quite a bit).  Not too long after, we found out this guy had been meeting with people from other churches too and was basically just trying to find someone to give him a welfare handout. He had no interest in taking any of the baptismal commitments seriously.  On the flip side, I and this same companion also taught a guy in Las Cruces who never got baptized while we were there (I was in Las Cruces for 12 weeks and my companion had been there 6 weeks prior to me getting there...I taught him every week I was there and my companion had taught him for the first time the week before I arrived).  We asked him a number of times, but he always hesitated.  Basically, I remember telling him that if he wasn't sure, to wait until he was sure or it wouldn't be worth it.  Well, I had been home in Ohio about 6 months when I got a call that he was going to be baptized that weekend.  It was almost a year after I had been teaching him.  He's still active in the church and was sealed in the temple.  Is that my success story?  Hardly, but I'm glad I was able to play a part in that.  THAT is success on a mission; being an instrument in the hand of the Lord to help bring people closer to him, whatever step in coming closer that may be.

The mission was full of fun and new experiences...
This one's for you Jensens!!
My mission also was my first real taste of the "Utah" culture I've blogged about before.  Prior to that, I had only even visited Utah a few times on family trips and we were only there for a week or two at the most.  I mostly interacted with my cousins, who were all at least 4 years younger than me.  My mission is also where I first heard the term "Utard" and saw real-life examples of it. That said, of the 15 different companions I had, one of the worst I had was from Utah and one of the best I had was also from Utah, but I had extremes from other places too.  Even so, I definitely noticed a general trend among the attitudes, particularly in how they regarded members and themselves, and their general ignorance of other religious beliefs and customs.  My first mission president wasn't immune from those attitudes either.  In fact, from what I heard from my own companions (my first 4 companions were zone leaders, meaning they interacted with the president much more than your typical missionary since they were in charge of several companionships), he pretty much promoted what I felt were very condescending and arrogant attitudes, like the missionaries (particularly those from Utah) were more knowledgeable about how the church operates than any member in the area.  Ummmm, no.  As I've said before, it's like me saying I'm more knowledgeable about how our country runs because I'm closer to Washington, DC, than someone from, say, Utah.  And as I've said before, in no way do I consider this a general view of everyone from Utah; I have many very good friends from Utah who are in no way like this.  But I saw it enough that I knew it wasn't isolated to a few people.  
Elder Huwe, far left, was my last companion, and someone I still keep in touch with.  We were about as opposite as two people could be, but we got along very well and got tons done in Ruidoso!

My companion Elder Graff in Las Cruces, who I still
keep in touch with.  We were cool like that
I also made tons of friends on my mission who I do my best to still keep in touch with.  Many are people I worked with who were members of the various wards and branches I served in.  Others are former companions or other missionaries I served with somewhere in the mission.  Of the 15 companions I mentioned earlier, I am still in touch in some way with 10 of them (via Facebook and some have blogs...well, their respective wife has a blog!).  Of the other 5 I simply haven't been able to track down 4 of them and 1 decided he didn't want to stay in touch with me via Facebook.  I try to visit many of them as often as time and means permit.  Of course there are many experiences that bring people together and a mission is one of many chapters of my life that has brought people into my life that I still consider great friends.

Elder Kay was one of my favorite companions.
We served together for 6 weeks in Safford, AZ.
I learned a great deal about myself and really refined my personal ideology and general beliefs.  That's not to say I haven't had any refinements since then, but the mission definitely exposed me to a lot of new ideas and concepts and made me analyze many of the ideas I came on my mission with.  One thing I really saw refined was my view on sustaining church leaders.  Being on a mission showed me the humanity of church leaders, so it made me even more of a person who questions authority than someone who easily submits.  That's not to say I question everything, but I definitely think it over and generally say something if I don't think it's the best course of action or that it could be improved somehow.  Just ask the guys I served in bishopric with during my one-year tenure as ward executive secretary!  You can also ask my second mission president.  In all honesty, my first mission president intimidated me to the extreme.  Not only was I a new missionary, but his personality didn't exactly come across as warm and caring.  Plus, he left when I had been on my mission all of 7 months, so I never really got to interact with him all that much.  My second mission president, however, was much different.  Not only was he more approachable in terms of personality, but since I had been out on my mission 7 months already AND I knew he had never served a full-time mission, I wasn't intimidated at all.  This helped me be more direct in addressing concerns than I had been before my mission. I'd say we began and ended on a good relationship.  In the middle there were definitely some rocky points, which shaped my views on leadership, how it works, and how I choose to deal with it.  I think our relationship was at its lowest point when I was in the latter half of my mission, mostly because he had heard some rather ridiculous things about how I was as a missionary and interpreted my very laid back and hard-to-impress attitude (which I still have) as not being excited about missionary work.  Even when I was about to get transferred to my final area, he asked me where I wanted to go so I would be most effective, but it was preceded with a "do you plan on being sick the rest of your mission".  Apparently, he had heard (who knows WHERE) that I had been staying in until like 1 PM every day.  It was ridiculous because we had morning appointments at that time every day except one.  The heat definitely got to me throughout my mission, so I would take naps at lunch, but it was rare that it took multiple hours.   In the transfer leading up to that, I remember staying in a few times when I didn't feel good, but it was hardly anything remotely unusual.  Anyway, I ended up going to my last area, Ruidoso, New Mexico, and did very well there.  The comments he got from members there about how my companion and I were doing combined with some positive comments he had been getting the tail end of my time in Alamogordo, NM (area I was in before Ruidoso) really helped turn my reputation around with him.  Plus I know he was under his own stress and was learning a lot "on the job" too.  I think being out far away from mission headquarters and in an area that I seemed to understand what they needed as far as missionary work went was the difference.  I'll definitely give him the credit for being inspired to ask me where I wanted to go, but I take the credit for being inspired as to where I should've gone!

My 21st birthday in Alamogordo, New Mexico.  I've always loved this picture
I definitely tried to follow my brother's advice and have
fun...PLUS I did see snow 3 times the entire mission!
I could probably go on for quite awhile about things I learned and experienced on my mission.  I think what  I want to drive home the most is being honest about what a mission really is.  The general culture of the church really tends to frown on talking negatively about one's mission, like we're supposed to pretend that nothing bad happens and only pass along the faith-promoting and positive experiences.  I had tons of that, but to sit here and pretend like that's all I had would be not only disingenuous, but dishonest.  There are LOTS of things that I didn't like about my mission.  To be honest, most days totally sucked or were rather ordinary.  The difference, though, is that the great days and experiences that accompanied them were so wonderful that they were able to carry me through the more mundane and discouraging days.  Going on a mission is rough and there were many days that I wondered what on Earth I was doing, why I was there, how I could possibly last one more minute, and just wanted to throw in the towel and head home.  I didn't like seeing missionaries seemingly blamed when they didn't get baptism numbers or when they were having a rough time finding people to teach.  I also didn't like how so many elders were complete brown nosers, but in reality were completely out of touch with the realities of what they were there for and how to really be the most effective and genuine missionaries they could be.  Too many were concerned with the stats and statures of the mission.  That led to the whole mission politics aspect, which I could've easily done without as well!  That said, I never regret serving a mission.  It is an accomplishment I am proud of and cherish for what I have learned and the lifelong connections I have made.  Would I do it again knowing what I know?  Eh, probably not.  It's not being negative, just being honest and real.  It's tough work...and if all I had to worry about was just missionary work, I'd definitely do it again!
Elder Miles is another companion I keep in touch with.  We served together for 12 exciting weeks in Alamogordo, NM.  I was seriously depressed when he got transferred.  My mission president can be seen on the far left
But here I am, 10 years after it all started.  It's good to reflect both on how far I've come and where I still would like to go from here.  Things definitely haven't worked out the way I always envisioned them, but hopefully 2012 will bring some positive developments!  As for missionary work, we just got two missionary elders in my ward, the first time we've had elders in a few years.  It's interesting that this happened right when I was really thinking a lot about my own mission and now I can more actively participate in missionary work again.  Not that I couldn't with the awesome sister missionaries we've had here the last few years, but there were some limitations for sure that I don't have to worry about with the elders.  To any of my many mission friends (members and missionaries alike) who may read this, I would love to hear from you in the comments!


Granny J said...

Loved reading this! Missions are faith building experiences for everyone. (IMHO) I kept thinking "Ammon" as I read your post. I wanted my sons to throw the statistics out the window and become friends BUT one son served as an Assistant and found stats to be very helpful. Finding balance in all that one of the many lessons we all need to learn?

We loved having you and Huwe serve here! And come on, you know the whole butchering afternoon was your favorite experience ever! As a matter of fact Jared (the kid on the far left in camo) has 80 animals hanging in the reefer now. He's a little stressed out! Hey since you have some experience he could use some help. ;)

CuriousCity said...

Your mission is a success because you came from the experience as a better member. It succeeds every time someone you touched succeeds. That's a hard lesson to learn that we don't succeed on our own.


Jon said...

@Granny J...I loved serving in Ruidoso...I was pretty happy everywhere I served, but Ruidoso is where I felt like everything clicked in terms of my confidence as a missionary and just being in the right place at the right time.

As for stats, I think I disliked how they were used more than stats period. They were usually used as weapons ("you're not doing enough!") rather than as improvement tools. It's the same way with any stats; they often don't tell the whole picture. And our mission kept some insane stats, especially my first mission president.

Jon said...

@CuriousCity, I totally agree. Unfortunately, the overall church culture doesn't seem to measure success by things that can't be tangibly measured like a baptism number. I have always felt like I had a successful mission! :)

Jon said...

Oh, and when I visited Ruidoso back in 2006 for the opening of the new chapel, I really did feel like I had "come home" to a degree. Part of it was Ruidoso has a lot of people that are still there from my days there, while most of my other areas have hardly anyone left I knew.