The Dying Notion of a Sister Missionary

Elder Richard G. Scott quote

In the kitchen, bare foot and pregnant, was how one missionary suggested my life would be better served. As a new missionary it shook me to my boots to think that my sacrifice was not as valid as the Elder’s standing next to me.  In my eyes the only difference between he and me was our gender (and certain priesthood responsibilities). But in a day where sister missionaries were the exception rather than the rule, it highlighted a misconception within church membership that suggested a divide.

But when I look at the statistics quoted recently – within two weeks of the October 6th 2012 announcement there was a 471% jump in mission applications and more than half of those were women – it screams at me that the notion of sisters serving missions has come a long way.

I was delighted to read recently an article titled  A Letter to Girls About Lady Missionaries’  – written by a returned lady missionary way back in 1972 (even before my time as a missionary). While it was on the whole a fair depiction of what it meant to be a missionary in the 70s, the thing that jumped out at me was the suggestion that a sister’s success was based more on how well groomed and presented she was than on what she could do to prepare herself spiritually to teach the saving ordinances of the Gospel. It threw me straight back to that gender comment by the Elder in my mission.

I’m confident we ‘ve come further along the scale of understanding today to be able to identify that there are far more pressing concerns for a missionary sister than how long her hair is, or whether or not she outwardly presents a perfect persona to the mission president after having ridden a motor cycle to an interview in the pouring rain.

Indeed, on further introspection, I realised that I had had similar comments tossed to me when I was determining whether, as a young 20 year old, a mission was the right thing for me. “Oh, a mission is only for those girls who can’t get married”, or “You’re too young and good looking to serve a mission”. As much as that last comment fed my ego, it fell short of allowing me to understand that the decision to serve a mission for a sister is based purely on spiritual enlightenment and inspiration from the Lord – nothing to do with age, marriageable potential or looks.

As the parents of three daughters my husband and I may have unwittingly reinforced this barefoot and pregnant notion. Suggesting to our girls during their teenage years that if they were not married by the age of 21 then we would be encouraging them to consider serving a mission. But let me say in my defence, it was spoken more in excitement on our part. As parents we had both experienced the joys of serving a mission and knew that such an event in their life would not only bless the lives of countless sons and daughters of God, but also bless the lives of each of our daughters. In my heart I really wanted them to taste the bitter/sweet fruits of missionary labour.

However, I’m not here to slander the deeds of the past – be them mine or anyone else’s – just to highlight the changes that have occurred.  History describes our progression as a people. It’s our progression that describes the things we have learnt along the way…

When my daughter announced she was preparing to serve a mission in 2010, much had changed in terms of attitudes and expectations.  Of course as parents we were over-joyed at her decision. But more importantly, amongst her friends and peers there was generally an overall sense of excitement and support; a recognition that this decision had come through sincere prayer and preparation on her part, and not because she had been ‘left on the shelf’.

In 2010, the words of one LDS returned missionary sister, when asked, ‘How is missionary preparation different for women than men?’ reveal the changes in thinking that have occurred in the last 40 years,

“I don’t know that preparation for a mission is much different. You have to be physically and spiritually strong, you have to know the gospel, you have to have a deeply rooted testimony, you have to have a desire to serve and share the gospel. Both young men and young women need all of these things.
Wendi Condie, Montana Billings Mission

More recently, with the announcement of age changes, and new leadership roles for sister missionaries, prospective sister missionaries have greater flexibility of choice, and greater opportunity for input and service. It is wonderful to see that mission organization is fitting in more with the pattern of ward and stake councils. Sisters will now not only have the opportunity serve at an earlier age but also contribute to the success of the Lord’s work worldwide in a more focused and united way.

While I would change nothing about my experiences as a missionary, I welcome the dying notion of the sister missionary of the past. I think it opens the door to a wave of more focused missionaries and closes the divide of the past; missionaries – both male and female – who understand their role, are prepared spiritually to perform their labours wherever they serve, and who work in harmony to extend the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ to every one of His children on earth.

Helping Them Find Their Voice

There have been some words and ideas revolving around in my head over the last six or so years. I think it is time for me to release them to the wind and hopefully find a home with someone out there.

Mormon Temple Sydney Australia

Mormon Temple Sydney Australia (Photo credit: More Good Foundation)

When my oldest child turned 18, my thoughts turned to the idea that at any time we could be faced with the prospect of she, and some special person in her life, approaching my husband and I with the announcement that they were engaged. At the time there was no special person in her life but, as mothers do, I was mentally preparing myself for that day.

The thought that struck me at the time was whether she was ready for it or not. Or maybe whether I was ready for it. I wondered if we as parents had been able to prepare her for such a responsibility. I pondered on this, and wondered if we had missed something in that preparation (I figured that if I did come up with something, then I would still have time to make it right – ever the mother who thinks she can make everything alright).

What I came up with scarred me almost to death.

She was beautiful, well mannered, making all the right choices in her life, and, most importantly, had a strong testimony of, and grounding in, the gospel. As parents we had ensured that she had been provided with all that she needed as guidance along the way.

But what she needed now, was something we couldn’t give her. It was something that only she could find for herself.

What I feared the most was that I wasn’t sure she had found her own voice.

What do I mean by this?

Elder Dieter F Uchtdorf Mormon

Elder Dieter F Uchtdorf Mormon (Photo credit: More Good Foundation)

Elder Uchtdorf gave a wonderful talk in April 2010, where he addressed the fairytale term Happily Ever After. He suggested that for each of us to find that happily ever after, it would mean facing certain things in our lives. The main thing being trials. He said,

 “Our loving Heavenly Father has set us in a world filled with challenges and trials so that we, through opposition, can learn wisdom, become stronger, and experience joy”.

Indeed, the scriptures teach us that, “…there is an opposition in all things…” 2 Nephi 2:11

But, there is more to what I mean than even just this. It is buried deep in the words, “come unto Christ”. In these three simple words there is locked away a multiplicity of deeds, actions, and strength of beliefs. Sherry L. Dew, spoke about this in 1997 at the October General Relief Society Meeting, when she said,

“…there is a direct relationship between how we feel about Jesus Christ and how we see ourselves. We cannot increase our devotion to the Savior without also obtaining a greater sense of purpose, identity, and conviction”.

Those words resonate with me, “…how we see ourselves“. I knew our daughter knew and understood how we saw her, but I wasn’t sure that she was clear on how she saw herself. Did she know that her opinion mattered? Did she know that she had something to contribute to this world? Did she know that her voice mattered in the scheme of things?

Well, as I pondered on what it would take for her to find purpose, identity, and conviction, I thought about the amazing young men in the church. At 19 years of age, they pack up suitcases, leave home and venture into the unknown world, to preach the gospel, find routine in their days, learn to rely on their own testimonies and make complex decisions for themselves and for others. It is within this kinds of individual and personal journey that they are able to expand purpose, identity, strength, conviction, wisdom, and experience the resulting joys.

I wondered where my daughter was going to get this kind of experience. Yes, she could wait another couple of years and she would be able to serve a mission too. But I wasn’t sure that she would get to that point before that special young man came into her life. How was she to navigate the complexities of marriage and family if she had not found such depth through similar experiences. Was her voice going to be heard above the tests of life that lay ahead of her, or was it going to be drowned out by those challenges?

What I did come to realise, is that it was going to take a change on my part to allow her to find that voice. A determination to step back and allow her to make serious decisions about her future, without my intervention or unsolicited promptings. But, even more so, it took a determination on my part to encourage her to step outside her comfort zone, so that she could come to understand her purpose, her identity, and the strength of her convictions, without the daily promptings of a protective mother and father.

So, as I have moved down the path since that realisation six years ago, I have recognised the wisdom of it all. At age 20 our oldest daughter made the choice to move out of home, and relocate to another state. She determined to meet any challenges placed before her, and to find the individual voice she so clearly has. She was placed in situations in that time that required her to find out for herself who the Savior was in her life and, more completely, what it means to come unto Him. I have seen the difference it has made in her sense of purpose, in her sense of identity, and her courage of conviction.

That voice has since expanded into a duet. Now, with her eternal companion, my daughter works in harmony with the Lord to prepare for the challenges that lay before them.

Since that time we have also fair welled another daughter on a mission, and yet a third one to study in another country. As hard as it has been to let each of them go, I know that as they exercise the voice they have, they will be prepared to sing the songs of life in harmony, expressing their testimony of the Lord and His restored gospel along the way.