Zelophehad’s Daughters

Questions From and For Our Readers: Feminism and Serving a Mission

Posted by Galdralag

A few days ago one of our readers, a 20-year-old college student and feminist who is considering serving a mission, sent in some questions about feminism and missionary service. With her permission I’m posting them here for you, our excellent readers, to weigh in on:

  1. Did you know you were feminist/ have feminist beliefs before the mission?
  2. Were you aware of the apparent disjoint between those views and the teachings of the church? If so, how did that impact your decision to go on a mission?
  3. Once on your mission, as you’re mostly teaching the basics, do those somewhat “controversial” beliefs even make much of a difference? How much do they matter?
  4. Were you preoccupied with the idea of where you’d be called?
  5. A close friend said that he thought I’d be a great missionary, but that I’d be really bothered by things like not being able to baptize the people I’d be teaching. I’m fairly openly in favor of wanting the priesthood. Were you ever hurt or troubled by not having priesthood authority on the mission? If so, in what ways, and how did you deal with that emotionally and spiritually?
  6. What were the best/worst parts of mission? Do you have any regrets or things you wish you’d done/done better?
  7. What were your reasons for wanting to go?
  8. Were there reasons your fellow sister missionaries went that might not have been the best?
  9. Did encountering unsympathetic authorities, elders, or sisters in the mission have much impact on you? Did you have any companions that were unsympathetic? How was that?
  10. How did the mission impact you personally? In what ways have those experiences helped you become your best self?
  11. What was it like coming back?

25 Responses to “Questions From and For Our Readers: Feminism and Serving a Mission”

  1. 1.

    1. Did you know you were feminist/ have feminist beliefs before the mission?

    Yes and yes. Serving was hard for me for precisely these reasons, but I felt called in a way that is hard to describe even now.

    2. Were you aware of the apparent disjoint between those views and the teachings of the church? If so, how did that impact your decision to go on a mission?

    I was raised in an egalitarian family in a majority non-LDS community, so it took going to BYU for me to really confront these issues. Choosing to go was very, very hard. I asked God constantly why He thought it was good for me to go.

    3. Once on your mission, as you’re mostly teaching the basics, do those somewhat “controversial” beliefs even make much of a difference? How much do they matter?

    I talked about some of them with my companions, but they rarely came up in discussions. This is at least in part because I served in a Catholic country, so most people were raised with a male-only priesthood.

    4. Were you preoccupied with the idea of where you’d be called?

    Yes! I was soooo preoccupied with where I’d go! I spent all of this time with a map of the world, thinking about different places. I was called to literally the only place on the globe that I hadn’t given much thought to. Afterward I realized that it really doesn’t matter where you serve, but I totally understand the concern.

    5. A close friend said that he thought I’d be a great missionary, but that I’d be really bothered by things like not being able to baptize the people I’d be teaching. I’m fairly openly in favor of wanting the priesthood. Were you ever hurt or troubled by not having priesthood authority on the mission? If so, in what ways, and how did you deal with that emotionally and spiritually?

    I’ll be blunt: Sexism can be a very real part of the mission. In fact, I think I experienced more blatant sexism, and more in-your-face sexist treatment, on my mission than at any other time in my life before. It was painful, and caused me to question my place in the church and what it meant to be a daughter of God. That said, I think the influx of sister missionaries will completely alter many of the overt and subtle sexist elements of mission culture.

    In terms of not baptizing people and other structural gender inequalities: I went to a notoriously low-baptizing mission, so that’s an issue that I didn’t confront just because of how few members and converts we had. And we had a mission policy that new converts would be baptized by members of the ward, so Elders didn’t baptize their investigators either.

    7. What were your reasons for wanting to go?

    I felt called. I have never had a similar experience, but I have met some other sisters who felt the same way, like it wasn’t really a choice.

    8. Were there reasons your fellow sister missionaries went that might not have been the best?

    You know, I heard a lot of rumors about sisters going on missions because they couldn’t get married or because they had nothing better to do, and I’m happy to say that in my experience the rumors were completely false. The sisters in my mission were almost universally educated, either with their BAs or juniors in college, and at least half had bfs waiting or had been engaged before their mission and realized it wasn’t the right relationship and broke it off (I fall into the latter category). They were all interesting, talented people who had a lot going for them. I was both relieved to be around such awesome people, and also upset at the rumors.

  2. 2.

    1. Yes, but not as profoundly as I am now. 20 years post-mission and having children has shaped me.
    2. Yes. I was able to hold the dissonance without much problem. In fact, I felt like, given my personal background, the unique conclusions I’d drawn, that I was in a position to lend a unique voice to the missionary effort.
    3. Didn’t matter at all, in my recollection. It was on my mission that I truly understood the difference between church culture and the atonement of Christ.
    4. No.
    5. The only conflict I had was with our district leader in the MTC who had asked all the elders to give a talk (or something like that) in a Sunday meeting. I ripped him a new one for not including us sisters. He told me he would have, if he had thought to do so before we were already in separate quarters for the night (the meeting was the next day). I chastised him pretty strongly for that, too. In retrospect, I wished I would have handled it with more compassion–he was just a 19 year old kid doing his best, too.
    6. Best parts: grounded me in the Gospel (again, separate from church culture); foreign language training (I went on to add Spanish as a second major and taught it for awhile); understanding my husband’s experience (I felt I know longer had to rely on, “So what was the food like” in order to sustain a conversation with a fellow RM); some great interactions with Elders that taught me what I wanted in my future husband; some long-lasting friendships that will always hold meaning for me; meeting some incredible families and loving people I’d never thought I’d love; experiencing another country and culture for relatively little money
    Worst: throwing up in the middle of the night; not getting along with my companions; the kidney stone I got, at a period of time when I wasn’t receiving any mail, either (technical issues); blood sausage
    Regrets: Only as part of a larger mid-life crisis that I”m having now, wishing I could have lived my life throughout my 20’s more the way I do now (more wholeheartedly, more relaxed, more value on little moments). I think I did the best I could have for age 21.
    7. Felt called. Heard a friend of mine talking about her horrible experience and knew I’d handle things differently. I was at a point in my life where I needed to do something besides school, needed a little soul-searching.
    8. No idea. Never had anyone tell me that they were on a mission for a reason that I deemed “not ok.” Who knows whether that was because I was withholding judgement or if they were really all that noble.
    9. Most of my experiences with elders (see above, MTC) were profound and fantastic. And I’m not kidding. They respected me and deferred to my judgement. I very much felt like I was on equitable footing in the missionary effort, despite not being the one to do the ordinance work. I think even now I’d say the same. Our mission president respected the sisters, too, though I wished we could have had some sisters’ conferences like they do now (in some missions). In the mission I received a letter from one of my close friends informing me that her father had finally passed away from complications from AIDS (this was early ’90’s, mind you), and I had a companion at the time say that all the homosexuals ought to be tossed out into a field and burned. That was exceptionally difficult, but I somehow managed to understand that it was more about her and was able not to take it personally (thanks to some other sisters’ words). In the end, it wasn’t the thing that made being companions with her difficult, I didn’t harbor resentment.
    10. Too many ways to enumerate here. By far and away one of the best things I ever did for my life.
    11. I had a new network of friends from my mission and I felt like I was more grounded in what direction I wanted to take coming home. And, I made-out with the only other Elder who was coming home with me on the plane ride. It wasn’t that difficult coming back. ;)

  3. 3.

    I’m a dude so I can’t answer these questions. Just wanted to say that I had nothing but the highest respect for the sisters in my mission. They were (almost) universally among the very best missionaries we had. I was sort of in awe of them because they weren’t there due to the kinds of pressures that led many of the elders to come, but because they genuinely wanted to be there. I figured that was what made them such good missionaries.

  4. 4.

    The pink issue of Dialogue from fall 2003 (available online) had several personal essays about being sister missionaries. One of my favorites is “How My Mission Saved My Membership” written by Tania Rands Lyon. She enters her mission as a feminist and describes how being a missionary led to some of the most empowering experiences of her life. Although my experiences as a missionary were very different than hers, I too felt that being a missionary is one of the least gendered experiences in the church (though of course gendered dynamics exist). But, as I see it, it is one of the most beneficial experiences a woman can have in the church. And for someone with a testimony and with a desire to serve, I would recommend it.

  5. 5.

    I definitely thought of myself as a femenist when I served, although many sisters, I am sure, do not. I do think it is a powerful experience to have, not only because it can be darn hard (which it is), but because it demystifies the priesthood if you are at all in need of such demystification. It plainly lays out men and women doing and succeeding at the very same work. As Kevin mentioned, the sister missionaries are often more successful and smarter than their priesthood leadership working beside them. My experience after service has been altogether positive–there is nothing the leadership in my ward has on me–we’ve done the exact same work.

    That said, my mission also made me very aware of how little many LDS men thought of women. My mission president really didn’t care for us, I overheard many rude comments made by elders about women there and at home, and I was actually sexually harassed by an elder–that was my first such experience and I wish I had said something to the MP (this happened at a Zone conference, so he was there) but since he didn’t seem particularly supportive of sisters, I did not say anything because I did not want to be seen as a “problem.” Other elders witnessed this and, to my knowledge, also did not say anything. I really wish I could go back in time and handle it differently, but I have learned from it. Incidentally, the elder who did it was later excommunicated and sent home early–he was a bum.

    It is my opinion that NO missionary should baptize an investigator! The missionaries should instead work to build a relationship between the investigator and their unit and someone who will be a more permanant part of their lives than a missionary should baptize them. I never felt bad that I could not baptize someone and always felt that missioanries who performed baptisms were doing their investigators a real disservice.

    I didn’t know any sisters who served for any “bad” or “wrong” reasons. They were all there because they wanted to be. That was not true of the elders.

    Coming back was pretty depressing. I went from feeling like I was doing Gods work 24/7 to US gluttony and sloth at Christmas time. It was a real downer. Getting back into school within a few weeks was a big help.

    I would strongly encouarge anyone who even thinks they might want to to serve a mission. It is hard (MUCH harder than Peace Corps, which I also did for 3 years), but such a great experience that you really cannot duplicate later on a couples mission.

  6. 6.

    1. Did you know you were feminist/ have feminist beliefs before the mission?
    I had feminist beliefs (belief in the equality of the sexes, a desire to have a career, a refusal to accept special treatment as a result of femaleness), but I explicitly did not identify as a feminist. I had never personally experienced sex discrimination, so I thought that feminists were whiners with a victim complex who didn’t work hard enough. While I was on my mission, I saw sexism rear its ugly head. I also met my first Mormon feminist, and I accepted the label as well.

    2. Were you aware of the apparent disjoint between those views and the teachings of the church? If so, how did that impact your decision to go on a mission?
    I was aware that my desire to have a career was at odds with the culture of the church, though I maintained that it wasn’t against the gospel. I was also aware that men were expected to make the sacrifice to serve a mission, but women were not. I felt that was unfair to the men to be expected to do something that I wasn’t, so part of my decision to serve was so that I wouldn’t be benefiting from my femaleness. (Incidentally, that was also how I felt about the military draft. If a draft had been instituted at a time when man who was similarly situated to me would have been drafted, I would have volunteered to serve because I don’t think similarly situated men and women should be treated differently.)

    I received my temple endowment when I was 19, but not in connection with an impending marriage. So, I was aware of the disparity in men’s and women’s temple covenants. It bothered me, but since I wasn’t married, I decided it didn’t apply to me, and I shelved it to deal with it later.

    3. Once on your mission, as you’re mostly teaching the basics, do those somewhat “controversial” beliefs even make much of a difference? How much do they matter?
    My more controversial beliefs didn’t really matter much to the investigators, but occasionally ruffled some feathers with missionaries and members.

    My first mission companion was somewhat misogynistic (and it still baffles me that a woman can be a misogynist, but she was), and she thought I was a heretic for having gone to college and for believing in the equality of the sexes. She spent the six weeks we served together trying to break me down and convert me to her viewpoint. She even went so far as to exaggerate my views to the mission president (saying that I didn’t think anyone should be a stay at home parent, etc., which I never said). I felt like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. (It was much later that I realized that she was being abusive; what I’ve written here is a really abbreviated version of the story.)
    In my last area, there was a woman (the previously mentioned feminist) who wore pants to church. The Relief Society president confided in me that she really wanted to call that woman to be a teacher in RS, but that she wasn’t going to do it because she thought it would set a bad example for the sisters because she wore pants. I defended the pants-wearing woman, and that ruffled some feathers in the ward.

    4. Were you preoccupied with the idea of where you’d be called?
    I wouldn’t say I was preoccupied, but I did experience some concern. I wanted to serve in the United States, and a lot of my friends were upset by this desire. They said I was being selfish for not wanting to share my talents with a foreign country. I responded that people in the US need to hear the gospel, too, and that I was grateful for two missionaries who served in California and brought me the gospel. (Even now, I often feel like a second-class RM because I served stateside instead of in a foreign country.)
    I was afraid of getting called to Temple Square because I heard that all of the “attractive” sisters get called there, and I was a model in high school. I really really didn’t want to go to Temple Square because I wanted to go on a “real” mission. (I know the sisters there do great work, but my 21-year-old self didn’t want to be a glorified tour guide.)

    5. A close friend said that he thought I’d be a great missionary, but that I’d be really bothered by things like not being able to baptize the people I’d be teaching. I’m fairly openly in favor of wanting the priesthood. Were you ever hurt or troubled by not having priesthood authority on the mission? If so, in what ways, and how did you deal with that emotionally and spiritually?
    At first, I wasn’t too bothered by it. But there was a time when one of my investigators was quite sick. The doctor said that she was terminally ill and had only six months to live. She was going in for some experimental surgery, and she wanted a blessing. We called up the elders to come over and bless her. It was one of the most moving spiritual experiences of my life, and it stabbed me in the heart to know that this was a kind of service that I wasn’t able to render. That was the moment that I allowed myself to first admit that I wanted to hold the priesthood. (I had wanted it for a while, but I convinced myself that I didn’t, because I was taught that I wasn’t supposed to want it.) I struggled with that desire because years of acculturation taught me that the desire was unrighteous. It wasn’t until a few years later that the Spirit witnessed to me that it is a righteous desire.

    6. What were the best/worst parts of mission? Do you have any regrets or things you wish you’d done/done better?
    The best part of my mission was that it showed me that I’m capable of doing hard things. The worst part was the six weeks of hell with my first companion. My biggest regret was that I allowed myself to be convinced that my unique talents weren’t acceptable to God, and that I needed to be someone else in order to be a good missionary. If I could do it all over again, I would have been myself.

    7. What were your reasons for wanting to go?
    I wanted to go for a few reasons. The first is that I felt equality demanded it. The second is that I love the gospel and wanted to share it with others. The third is that I had heard and seen stories of a missionary’s family being blessed by the missionary’s service, and my family needed the blessings.

    8. Were there reasons your fellow sister missionaries went that might not have been the best?
    Most of the sisters I knew in my mission went for the right reasons – a desire to serve and share the gospel, or a prompting from God. I wasn’t aware of any serving by default. Though, my first companion was a piece of work. She said that she didn’t want to serve a mission and thought that women shouldn’t serve. But she was on a mission because she felt that God told her to go. (I never did figure out how she dealt with the logical inconsistency in her statements that women shouldn’t serve missions but God told her to serve one.)

    9. Did encountering unsympathetic authorities, elders, or sisters in the mission have much impact on you? Did you have any companions that were unsympathetic? How was that?
    The elders were great, and my mission president was mostly great, too. Most of my companions were good, and I’m still friends with a few of them. However, I did have an emotionally and spiritually abusive trainer, and the six weeks I spent with her were miserable. It took me years to recover from the effects of that abuse; my self-confidence was shot.

    10. How did the mission impact you personally? In what ways have those experiences helped you become your best self?
    My mission brought me closer to God. Because I served in rural, isolated areas, God was the only person I could rely on. This has helped me become self-sufficient and has helped me overcome huge challenges that have happened to me since I returned. Unfortunately, it has also made it harder for me to rely on and accept help from others. I’m working on that.

    11. What was it like coming back?
    I was physically and emotionally spent by the end of my mission, so in one sense, it was a relief. I started law school three weeks after coming home, which I think was too soon. I hadn’t had a chance to fully decompress and return to myself yet. As a result, my first semester of law school was harder than it should have been. I struggled with depression and I felt lost. (I recovered from the depression in a few months; fortunately for me, it was situational and not chemical.)

    My dating life suffered as well. Before my mission, I had a robust social life. I had three serious relationships (not at the same time, obviously). I’ve been home for eight years, and in that time, I haven’t had a serious relationship, and I only go on dates a few times per year. I’ve found that being a returned missionary is a turn-off to LDS men.

  7. 7.

    Most of my answers echo others’ experiences. Although, regarding #9, I had one incredibly misogynist companion. It was so strange living with a woman that hated other women so intensely. She was definitely an exception, though. All of my other companions were whip-smart, and although they may not have called themselves feminists, the fact that they were there, “administering” and “ministering” speaks to their independence and empowerment. The brother missionaries were more of a gamble though. I’d say about half of my DLs and ZLs were great. The other half might have been just really, really, young.

  8. 8.

    1. Yes, but I am more “radical” now.

    2. Not exactly. At the time, I saw the sexism as mostly culture and policy-based, and now I feel more like there are important doctrinal problems.

    3. Where I served, this was not an issue. I served in a country where women were treated like dirt and benevolent patriarchy was actually an improvement. when people asked questions about gender roles, it was more likely to be, “Why can’t Mormon men hit their wives?” than “Why don’t Mormon women hold the priesthood?”

    4. Yes. I desperately wanted to go foreign. I don’t know if this is still the case, but when I applied, sisters had an essay page in the application that elders did not, and I used the page to write about my preference to learn a language and experience a new culture. My SP told me that 2/3 of sisters in their stake had been called to American missions, but he would write in his recommendation that I was studying public health and had skills that would be useful in a third world country, in case that would help me get my preference. I was called to a third world country.

    5. I liked having local members perform baptisms. i thought this was a good way to involve them. I did not like that women were excluded from mission leadership. It was somewhat humiliating that adult women were disqualified from leadership roles, and required to be supervised by teen boys.

    6. It was a wonderful experience and I do not have regrets. Yet, if I had felt as strongly about feminism then as I do now, I may have joined the Peace Corp instead, so I could experience the service and cultural opportunities without the doctrinal issues.

    7. I wanted to grow spiritually, help people, experience a new culture, and learn a language.

    8. I don’t think any of them were there for a “bad” reason.

    9. During my whole mission, ! worked with one elder who was a misogynist and one sister who was racist. Both experiences were hard. However, most of the people I worked with did not have such extreme issues. Some of us became close friends. Some of us had reasonable business relationships.

    10. The mission widened my world view and helped me develop skills I did not have before and improved my expertise in the scriptures.

    11. Coming back was a breeze. It was nice to be allowed to be alone without a comp and control my own schedule again. I kept in touch with many friends from the mission. And, now that I am a more active feminist, I am not intimidated by RMs who try to use their “greater religious experience” to hush up women who disagree with them.

  9. 9.

    Thank you everyone! I really appreciate all your responses. It’s been extremely helpful to read about all your experiences.

    I have one more question:

    What happens when there is conflict between you and someone in your mission (something that you object to on personal/feminist grounds)? Are you expected to stay silent? Have you had experiences where you challenged your companion, leader, or other authority on subjects? Were there any instances that put you in a place where you had to choose between being true to your beliefs and doing what your leaders told you to?

    Thank you so much again!

  10. 10.

    I don’t usually comment here, but when I read your last question, Prospective, I felt I should share a little about an experience I had.

    I have had just such an experience. Towards the end of my mission, my brand-new mission president almost sent me home (honorably) because he felt I was too emotional to stay. The trick was I had had a strong impression I needed to stay until the final date.

    I plead with him for three hours. In the end, the Spirit touched his heart and he let me stay. My very last week on my mission I was able to see a person I cared very much about be baptized.

    If you have a conviction in contrast to your church leaders, I would exhort you (sorry, I couldn’t think of a better word) to take it to them directly. Counsel with them. Keep a heart open to their perspective, but mostly to the Spirit. Things won’t always go the way you want them to, but they will always be turned for your good.

    And for theirs.

  11. 11.

    I was never expected to stay silent. I do think that in any area of human relations, however, that dialogue, not “challenging” is more effective when you need to speak up. I found my own mission president very helpful when I expressed concerns. I hope yours is a good listener too.

    Both I and one of my MTC companions were of the feminist persuasion (I was in a trio in the MTC). I enjoyed her immensely. We served in the same mission with the same mission president but in different areas. We came home with very different takes on the mission experience and I have thought about why that was.

    Both she and I chaffed when we encountered elders or members in the mission who failed our expectations, believed differently than we did or were sure that the traditional deference of women in the culture in which I served was part of the gospel. Both of us worked with elders who didn’t get it. Our mission president was an excellent one who treated the sisters as he treated the elders, but we saw him only occasionally due to the huge geographic size of our mission. I think what caused my companion to become bitter was her frustration at her inability to get people to live up to the hopes and expectations she had and her anger at what she saw as the difference between what she thought a mission could be if everyone “got it” and what it really was.

    Mission work in my mission was work with a bunch of 19 year old guys. Teenagers. Most of them were not grown up yet, homesick, full of bravado or overwhelmed by the task before them and carrying on anyway. Most of the ecclesiastical leaders were young and struggling to balance their work and church service the best way they knew how. In such a situation mission work and church leadership was never perfect and sometimes sloppy and inadequate. Sometimes the zone leader resorted to carrot and stick tactics instead of inspiration. Sometimes the elders dinked around instead of helping. Sometimes the members taught false doctrine to good smart investigators and the investigators stopped investigating.

    You know yourself. You can determine whether you are the sort of person who can handle imperfection, sometimes gross imperfection, while lovingly maintaining your personal integrity and loving the people who are messing up. You can tell if you are the sort of person whose levels of frustration do not overwhelm your ability to be patient and to do what you feel is best and good despite the expectations or judgments of others and whether or not you can muster the spiritual discernment as to when you need to make a point and when you can let it go. You know if you have the ability to love, enjoy and be friends with people who do things that make you think “He should KNOW better” and not let their behaviors antagonize you. You know if you are the sort of person who can live peacefully with yourself and your convictions without needing authority figures to comply with or approve of them. If you are comfortable in your own skin and with your own self as well as unflustered by the errors or wrongheaded thinking of others, then you will be able to manage the challenges. It helps if you really know how to love your messy neighbor without requiring him to change his mind first. It helps if you assume that people are trying to do the best they can.

    My mission work was pivotal in my life. It was the hardest thing I had done up to that point. It included the greatest joys I had experienced up to that point as well as the lowest lows. I learned more about the Holy Ghost and its reality than I imagined possible.

    Looking back I realize that not only was I working with a bunch of imperfect, sometimes frustrating co-workers, but I was just as imperfect and occasionally frustrating in my own way. In hindsight I appreciate their efforts at goodwill in spite of that and hope I my efforts at peaceful co-existence and friendship were helpful to them too.

  12. 12.

    As with Kevin, I admired our sister missionaries. They were able to get into homes and touch hearts in ways elders could not. We would gladly have welcomed more sisters into the mission 35 years ago.
    That said, I would hope that all missionaries go because they have a testimony of Jesus Christ and wish to share that witness to others. I would also hope that missionaries keep their personal views at home, and focus only on teaching the doctrine.
    There is plenty of time for political and social issues after the mission.

  13. 13.

    I’m not sure if I can add anything very helpful; the main points have already been covered quite eloquently. But I’ll try.

    I too left on my mission nearly twenty years ago (gasp, I’m old). A lot has changed since then, so I don’t know how relevant my experiences are to someone leaving now. There were some very hard things (as there are in every mission), but overall it was a good experience and I’m glad I went. My mission has been pivotal in shaping my life since. It really helped me grow up and think about other people besides myself. I still feel bad for those at whose expense I matured. ;)

    That said, going in with feminist convictions and liberalish sensibilities set me deeply at odds with mission culture, particularly in the MTC. I grew up in Utah and endured CES-run seminary so when it came to overzealously applied space doctrine mingled with political paranoia I thought I’d heard it all. I so hadn’t. I vividly remember being in a meeting my second day there in which we all had to stand up and recite our purpose at the top of our lungs: “To bring souls to Christ through the ordinances of baptism and confirmation!” The response: “I can’t HEAR you…” I was gobsmacked. I had come out of a liberal arts program in which everything–well, most things–were up for grabs. I’d spent the previous four years of my life thinking, questioning, arguing, critiquing, and I felt as if I’d wandered into an unusually bizarre cult. My DL was openly contemptuous of “feminazis” and some of the elders in my district were suspicious that I had studied philosophy, which they considered evil (although they got it mixed up with psychology, also evil). To restate the obvious, missionaries are young and often very black-and-white in their thinking; most are not in a place to entertain complications or cognitive dissonance or complexity. I was really disoriented and often deeply lonely, both in the MTC and in the mission itself. But I also think most missionaries endure a fair amount of loneliness; I don’t know that my experience was atypical in that regard, just inflected differently.

  14. 14.

    “What happens when there is conflict between you and someone in your mission (something that you object to on personal/feminist grounds)? Are you expected to stay silent? Have you had experiences where you challenged your companion, leader, or other authority on subjects? Were there any instances that put you in a place where you had to choose between being true to your beliefs and doing what your leaders told you to?”

    This is such a good question, and it’s so hard to answer because experiences vary enormously from mission to mission. Something I’ve realized much more clearly in years since my mission is that the true church of God on the earth today is also a deeply patriarchal organizational structure run by human beings, and it pays to figure out all avenues for exercising power (if any). For example: is the mission president’s wife someone you could talk to? Sisters’ conferences are a good sign and might be a good place to make a few carefully worded suggestions. And it’s good to figure out who the sympathetic elders in power are, in the office or in the hierarchy. Some companions are people you can talk to; others aren’t.

    The only time I felt really pressured to do something I considered wrong was in my last area, which happened to be mission headquarters. The APs had recently baptized a very shaky new convert, and when I went back through the records I found irregularities in the way she had been taught that actually violated church rules. More important, she wasn’t all that invested in the church. The APs pushed me very hard to lean on this woman’s fourteen-year-old daughter and get her taking the discussions and baptized. I refused. As I saw it we had plenty of work to do cleaning up the mess that the elders had made, although I was a much politer Mormon girl then and didn’t tell them that in so many words. In that rare case I had the power to call the shots: in our mission the elders weren’t allowed to teach women alone, and we were the only sisters in the city. It’s good to be aware of any rule like that that can work in your favor.

    In my experience you can always speak up and say what you think, but you risk being labelled an elder-hater and a bitch, so you have to think very hard about how you want to spend your social capital. And in some missions sister missionaries are held in such low esteem you might not have much, or any, to begin with. But I’m hopeful that will change with the age-change rules.

    All that said, I loved my mission. For all the painful difficulties, it was a life-changing adventure for me. If you decide to go I wish you all the best and hope it’s the same for you.

  15. 15.

    1. Yes. Hoo boy, yes. I went when I was 25, after I’d done a few years of grad school, so I even had some technical vocabulary to describe things I found odious. (nb: No one wants to hear about hegemony in the MTC.) Both my branch president and stake president were pretty skeptical that I’d be able to handle the gender dynamics of the mission.

    2. The spring I put my papers in was the GC when President Hinckley described women as men’s “most precious possessions.” I remember being way less disturbed by the statement itself — it seemed like extemporaneous poor phrasing from someone who probably grew up thinking it was fine to call women possessions — than by the way church members leapt to defend it (if the Prophet said it we have to find a way to make it true!!) Anyway, I was totally clear that there was a huge disconnect between what I thought the gospel was (in terms of gender) and what I was hearing the gospel was from manuals and GC and other members. I just had this sort of optimistic confidence that I was right and they were wrong, so it wouldn’t matter much.

    3. I was in Sweden, so we mostly taught immigrants anyway, and most of those immigrants came from cultural backgrounds where discriminating against women and gay people wasn’t anything really new or surprising. And we so rarely got that far — I think I spent half the lessons I taught getting stuck on the word “prophet” with Muslim investigators who weren’t going to let any post-Mohammad prophet talk slide by. (Erm, “investigators” is a strong word for immigrants who let you in to their house because they’re lonely.)

    I do remember my MTC comp calling from another area once (strictly verboten, which made me a little impressed that she did it) so that I could tell the Swedish woman she was teaching how I resolved the issue of women’s non-ordination. I honestly had no good answer. It comes across as a little facile to tell someone on the outside, “This is the sort of mysterious discrimination we’re making right now, and I know it’s dumb, but I have every confidence God has plans to set things right, now or after we’re dead, or whatever” — even though that was genuinely how I felt. She was unconvinced and offended, and I couldn’t blame her.

    4. I was sure I’d go to Romania, and I super wanted to go to Prague. And I was terrified I’d end up in Nebraska. Not that I’d have turned up my nose at a stateside mission call, but I really wanted to learn a foreign language, and I think I needed that sense of adventure that comes with moving to a different country to bear me through a lot of the bureaucratic crap.

    5. I wasn’t bothered by not having the priesthood or the authority myself (I mean, more than ideologically), though I was bothered by a few of the dimwits around me who did have it. (And not just missionaries — there was a branch president in my second area who was a well-meaning tool and about gave me a nervous breakdown.) In fact, the priesthood was deeply de-mystified for me by my mission: these twenty-year-old dudes running rampant with the Priesthood doesn’t actually suggest we take the power of God all that seriously.

  16. 16.

    I think when there is conflict, or when dealing with people who can’t handle you, that it’s important to remember that their response has more to do with them. Sure, there may be some hot-button topics, the discussion of which causes everyone’s blood to run a little warmly. But if an elder finds your feminist sensibilities challenging, it has nothing to do with you. This is not permission to go out and do and say whatever you feel like, being un-Christlike and then saying, “Well, whatever, if you have a problem with me, then deal with it.” But even if you did, people can still choose how they want to respond to you.

    There’s a saying “If you spot it, you got it. If it makes you mad, you got it bad.” This can be kind of painful because it forces me to look at my own stuff instead of focusing on others’ stuff, but it helps me to find compassion in the middle of an argument. For instance, if I get upset at someone who drives poorly, I need to look at how I drive. It may not be that necessarily I drive bad (though it also may be), but it may be that I, too, live my life in ways that are sometimes inconsiderate of others. So if an Elder has a problem with your opinions (gracefully expressed) about females in the church, it more than likely has to do with the fact that he, himself is uncomfortable/insecure with his own position with the church (stemming from, as we’ve mentioned, the fact that they still quite immature and just trying their best). When I calm down from an angry moment, thinking about the fact that we are more alike than different helps me to have compassion for my “opponent” and also for myself, and allows me to move through towards a more healthy relationship with that person.

  17. 17.

    I find myself thinking a couple of things (that maybe should be their own post):

    First, we tend to have a pretty limited culturally approved script for talking about missions. They’re supposed to be wonderful, amazing, formative, etc., “the best two years,” “the best thing I ever did,” “how I learned the scriptures.” Because a lot of the mission rules are pretty uniform church-wide, we also tend to talk about missions as if they are homogenous. I think we may be doing each other a disservice by rarely talking about the down sides and by not acknowledging that each individual’s mission experience is going to be unique, and sometimes those experiences are bad.

    Around the time I put in my papers I received three pieces of advice – or maybe I should say words of caution – that stuck with me.

    1. A friend who had recently returned from a mission in Germany said, “The mission program isn’t interested in you or your unique talents. The program is designed for everyone to do the same thing. You’ll be a drone, because they want drones.” I was startled to hear this, because it was so blunt, so negative, and so incredibly unlike the kinds of things that most RMs say. This particular friend had a rougher time of it than most and she phrased it harshly, but after serving I could see what she meant. Rocking the boat, or suggesting even minor changes, is often perceived as being difficult. They want compliance and uniformity.

    For example – When I was called (to a tropical country) I received a packet with instructions about precisely what to bring and was told not to try to contact my mission president directly, but to communicate with the Salt Lake office if I had any questions. My packet included directions to bring a heavy winter coat, a rain coat, two pairs of woolen stockings, etc. -things that just didn’t make sense in a place where nighttime temperatures don’t fall below 80 degrees. I called the Salt Lake office and asked if it was possible that I may have been sent the wrong packet. I was informed by a very frazzled and indignant man that I needed to have more faith and that my mission clothing assignment had been inspired by the Lord and prayed about by my mission president, etc. He actually called me to repentance in a raised voice over the phone, which shocked me a little bit since I had just assumed there was some sort of clerical error. I foolishly went ahead and brought a bunch of useless clothes, against my better judgment.

    When I finally arrived to the mission and had the chance to meet my MP’s wife and ask her about it, she explained that we had been sent a packet with the generic missionary guidelines. What struck me as interesting was that she said that she understood it was a burden and people were buying and bringing things that they couldn’t use, but that if she were to send a more detailed and precise listing of reasonable clothing it would have to be approved by the Quorum of the 12, would take months to go through, and may have negative personal consequences for her because she would be perceived as some kind of rabble rouser. She intimated that she had attempted to communicate some other minor, location-specific suggestions for change earlier and had been met with raised eyebrows and rebuke, and she “didn’t want to get her husband in trouble.”

    2. My older brother told me that “a mission is a good thing to remember, but not necessarily a good thing to experience.” Again, I don’t know that we often hear the frank acknowledgement that missions can be hard and painful. It was the first time I had ever heard him say anything that wasn’t positively glowing about his experience.

    (Of course, he did have glowing things to say after he came home, so just because it can be grueling doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it for a lot of people.)

    3. My cousin’s wife, who had served in the same mission that I was called to, phoned me right after I received my call and said, “Missions are hard! No one tells you this. It’s just like motherhood – everyone always goes on and on about how amazing it is, but they never tell you that it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” I think there’s a lot of truth to this, and that it’s true whether you’re male or female, feminist or not.

  18. 18.

    6, 7, 10, 11. I went on a mission because God told me to. That sense of being specifically and personally told by God that I had to do this was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever experienced. And it made the whole mission feel like I was, very literally, on a mission from God. Obviously this was nice for my ego, but it also gave me a sense of purpose and determination, that I was doing the right thing for the right reasons, that bolstered me through a lot of frustration.

    My mission was the period of my life when I felt most at peace with the Church, most sure that God was running things and that they would work out, most able to put aside my difficulties with the temple and love the lovable aspects of it — a gift of grace if ever there was one. I came to understand the gospel in a way I never had before, as being about Christ and people and nothing else. Not a single person I taught got baptized, but that seemed genuinely irrelevant (most of the time — zone conference can bring out the worst in even the best people). I felt like I did a lot of good things, and worked with a lot of people I could help, regardless of whether people signed up to be Mormon or not.

    Coming home was crazy hard, and I probably jumped back into grad school too quickly, but to whatever extent I’m still hanging on to Mormonism (more some days than others), I think it can be credited to my mission.

  19. 19.

    “Missions are hard! No one tells you this. It’s just like motherhood – everyone always goes on and on about how amazing it is, but they never tell you that it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”

    I’ve often thought that missions and motherhood are amazingly similar–so amazingly similar I’m (sort of) surprised the church doesn’t push missions harder for YW.

  20. 20.

    Can I first just say wow, and thanks to all the commenters on this thread. I’m a guy, so it’s not all directly related to my experience, but y’all have made so many thoughtful, interesting points. I want to read everything several times just to process it all.

    Second, this is a complete tangent, but Galdralag, you said,

    we tend to have a pretty limited culturally approved script for talking about missions. They’re supposed to be wonderful, amazing, formative, etc.

    which I think is an excellent point. What it got me to thinking is that just like wearing a white shirt to church (for a man) or wearing a skirt/dress (for a woman), the fact that it’s a cultural script means that when you violate it, you’re sending a pretty strong signal. (For example with the white shirt, Scott B. discussed this at BCC a couple of years ago.) And that point got me to thinking that that’s why I feel myself drawn to people who say they didn’t like their missions (or didn’t like parts of them). It’s not because I’m a negative Nelly (although I kind of am); it’s because people who violate that script are signaling a willingness to violate other Church culture scripts that I don’t like.

    Sorry for the tangent. It was just an interesting realization.

  21. 21.

    […] Ziff: Questions From and For Our Readers: Feminism and Serving a Mission […]

  22. 22.

    I’ll agree that there seems to be a don’t-talk-about-how-hard-a-mission-is-because-they’ll-never-go-if-they-know-the-truth idea floating around. And then there’s a disconnect between expectations and reality, and this disconnect leads to suffering while on a mission.

    I was raised in the quintessential Jack-Mormon home, so I didn’t have an expectation that I’d ever even serve a mission, let alone hear stories from my dad about how wonderful his mission was. That may account for some of why I wasn’t surprised that my mission had very difficult aspects to it.

    The best advice I got was from a sister RM who said that it wasn’t, in fact, the best 18 months of her life. But it was the best 18 months FOR her life. To this I can heartily agree.

    But just as with motherhood, I’m not sure that anyone can fully understand why it’s hard until you’re in the middle of it. (Not that this should exempt us from even acknowledging that there are difficulties). And it’s hard for different people for different reasons–some people have physical challenges in a mission while others have spiritual and others have emotional.

  23. 23.

    This question has been eating at me all day, but I was hesitant to give my own answer as serving a mission as an educated, liberal, feminist, and very open minded woman was not a good experience for me, but I don’t want to sway other people too much (OK, I do, but sometimes I try to hold it in at least a little bit).

    I just stumbled upon a similar question at another website and I think the answers in the comment section are very helpful. I hope this will help you in your decision.

    http://askmormongirl.wordpress.com/2011/07/18/im-an-unorthodox-21-year-old-mormon-gal-and-im-considering-serving-a-mission-should-i-go/

  24. 24.

    […] By Galdralag […]

  25. 25.

    For those who have been following this and other threads about mission service and mental health, feminism, and related matters: see this excellent post by Rachel at Exponent II: http://www.the-exponent.com/sometimes-it-is-okay-to-go-home/

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