Monday, March 4, 2013

Guest Post: How To Help Your Daughter Be A Great Missionary



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Sara K.S. Hanks grew up in St. George, Utah and currently lives with her husband and cat near Seattle, where she reads, writes, and prepares to welcome a new baby. Her loves include all-you-can-eat shrimp, Pink Lady apples, the words of Chieko Okazaki and Carol Lynn Pearson, and well-made leather boots.

In October, when President Monson announced the age change for proselyting missionaries, the ripples were immediate. There were texts to bishops and family members -- "Time to get my papers ready!" Heck, the camera operators even turned to the conference center audience for reaction shots. The news that men could serve at 18 instead of 19, and women at 19 instead of 21, inspired a flurry of excitement.


And with the general fervor came special curiosity for what this would mean to young Mormon women. How many more would serve? How would this impact their education, their lives? How would this change the dynamics of Mormon missions (and, ahem, dating)? My own curiosity wandered to the Mormonism of 20 or 50 years from now, a Mormonism with Relief Societies and Primaries full of women who are returned missionaries. What a difference two years can make -- no longer just the two years that young men are expected to serve, but the two-year backstep from 21 to 19, the hastening of an opportunity.

I didn't serve a mission myself, but I can say with 92% certainty that if this age change had come in 2005, I would have been out there. Now I just watch with anticipation (and a little bit of envy) as young women receive mission calls that will completely change their lives, as they perform work that will challenge them in new ways. Suddenly, the conversations we've long been having about preparing for a full-time mission aren't just directed at the boys with the girls as an honored footnote; this narrowed gap in the age of service requires new thinking and thoughtful speaking about missionary work. This is true churchwide, at the ward/branch level, and especially in our own homes. If you've got a daughter (or a granddaughter, niece, treasured young female friend), the decision of whether or not to become a missionary is on the docket for her in a way it simply wasn't before. Here are some ways to encourage her to become a simply amazing missionary, if she so chooses.

Put missionary service on the table
From the time she's little, acknowledge the possibility of a mission. You'll have conversations about college, dream jobs, parenthood, travel, a variety of life goals; missionary work belongs in those conversations. (How about dressing up as a missionary for Halloween? A little purple cardigan, a dress, sturdy black shoes and a black nametag: adorable.) The pre-teen and teen years will give opportunities for talking more concretely about the idea. Consider helping her start a savings account for her future endeavors, and talk about how that may include a mission. There needn't be any particular pressure to choose this path over another, but acknowledging that it's an available option will allow her to consider her own feelings and desires.

Emphasize personal revelation and self-understanding
A recently-posted article from LDS.org, Preparing to Serve: Suggestions for Young Women, begins this way: "If a mission is the right thing for you, here are some ways you can continue the preparation you've already begun as a disciple of Christ." That big ol' IF represents the primary distinction between how Mormon missionary work is approached for women as opposed to men. For fellas, the counsel is clear: get thyself on a mission. For ladykind, we generally acknowledge that everyone's path is different, and it's up to each individual woman to figure out if a mission is part of her path. While she can counsel with her parents and religious advisors about the decision, knowing what's right or best is really her responsibility. She'll need to be well-versed in personal prayer, how the Holy Ghost speaks to her, and her own abilities/desires in order to make a choice she's comfortable with. Help her in developing that knowledge.

Respect her choices
This is an area where, in my opinion, little things count in a big way. Allow me to make a comparison: when I was single and dating, I started paying attention to how guys reacted when I said "No." "No" to anything -- to a piece of cake, to one movie choice over another, to an idea about how to approach a school assignment. I had been advised by a very wise woman that if someone I was interested in didn't know how to respect a clear "No" about something as inconsequential as a movie, then I couldn't trust him to respect my wishes in weightier matters. HERE'S THE COMPARISON: Your daughter is going to make choices, and sometimes, you'll be around for them. She might think potato salad is gross and choose not to add any to her plate at the family potluck. She might choose to take an elective auto shop class. Now, regardless of your opinions on potato salad or auto shop, these are fine choices. Respecting them, rather than second-guessing them, sends a message: "Daughter, you are smart and competent and able to make your own choices. Way to go." And believe me, this is gonna matter. The mission option is just one example of a time when she'll thrive knowing that she's qualified to be in charge of her own life (and that her dad has faith in her).

Encourage her spiritual curiosity
This girl's gonna go places. Maybe she'll go there with Preach My Gospel in hand, and maybe not, but in either case, spiritual curiosity is going to serve her well. If she does end up serving a mission, it will be a chance for her to capitalize on previous scripture study, contemplation, and doctrinal understanding. Let Family Home Evenings, seminary, and your family conversations be a time for asking questions and searching together for answers.

Pay attention to cultural cues and messages about missionaries
The default mental image of a Mormon missionary is of a young man with a trimmed haircut, white shirt, and tie. That's what we assume a missionary to be. This assumption may become less automatic in future years, thanks to young women who are now flooding church headquarters with their applications. In the meantime, I recommend that you keep your eyes open for the messages your daughter receives about who missionaries are and aren't, and if appropriate, make a change. Most mission-related anecdotes in church magazines and lessons reference male missionaries, which makes sense given the history of missionary service in our church, but as a reflection of this recent change, consider changing the characters in a few of these stories, from "Elder Jensen" to "Sister Jensen." Another example: ever notice how the elders in your stake are called "the missionaries," but the sisters are called "the sister missionaries"? It's akin to how we assume nurses are female, so we call male nurses "male nurses." This is a habit of ours -- not a malicious or senseless habit, but a habit nonetheless -- and it can subtly indicate that male missionaries are the real thing, while female missionaries are an errant subset. We can change the language here with a little forethought and no harm. If you favor the term "sister missionaries," try using "brother missionaries" as its counterpart. You can also call them "sisters" and "elders," or just call all missionaries "missionaries" in your home and ward interactions. You can also seek out interactions with different kinds of missionaries (male and female, young and old, service and proselyting, full-time and part-time) to broaden her understanding of who missionaries are and what missionaries do.

Show by your words and actions that you recognize the leadership and wisdom of women
Women aren't often thought of as spiritual authorities, doctrinal scholars, or powerful missionaries in the way men are. Turn the tide on this in your home and ward callings. How? Consider the women who have been positive examples for you, especially in a religious context, and talk about them. Quote women in your talks and lessons. Collaborate on church projects with sisters in your ward. Look for sisters who are particularly outstanding in a certain way, then express your admiration for them in your daughter's presence. Habits like these demonstrate to your daughter that women can lead, teach, advise, and inspire -- all things she'll be able to do herself in the future, whether as a missionary or in other roles. Seeing this behavior also teaches her to look for similar examples in her own life.

Find diverse ways to serve
Each family and ward is a little different; some put a big emphasis on service, and for others, it's not a big focus. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, pay attention to the kinds of service opportunities that are coming your way. In trying out a wide variety of kindnesses -- delivering meals, cleaning yards, home repair, fundraising, activism, writing nice notes, organizing events, mentoring, and so forth -- your daughter will be more likely to find the sorts of service for which she is best suited. She'll also develop a habit of looking for ways to help. This will allow her to determine future goals and maximize her skills as a missionary.

Point out her talents and spiritual gifts
You know this kid is special. Tell her how. What a confidence boost! If you notice her natural ability to lead, look her in the eye and say so. If she has a way of tenderly comforting her siblings when they're sad, let your heart swell with joy and then express your feelings in a letter to her (I'm telling you, she'll keep it forever). Maybe she's thoughtful or gregarious or humble or quick-witted; the Lord needs all these attributes in abundance. Most of us need a little coaching to recognize our own awesomeness. If you can get the ball rolling, she'll eventually notice these great characteristics all on her own, making her more self-aware and ready to serve with boldness.

**

As I said, I wasn't a sister missionary. I'm also not a parent. Whatever insights I have came by observing others. What are your personal experiences?

For the parents out there: does this age change affect the way you look at your daughters and what you'll expect from them? Do you want to approach the mission issue in the same way with daughters and sons, or are there key differences?

For those beyond mission age (male or female): how did your parents influence your choice to serve a mission or skip it? In what ways did they excel? In what ways did they fall short? Or was it a decision you made all on your own?

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