When I started BYU as a freshman in 2019, everyone around me seemed to either be a returned missionary, waiting on their call or getting engaged. I was fresh out of high school and uncertain about my future. I felt terrifyingly out of place.
I submitted mission papers in June 2020 after months of wrestling with comparison. I didn’t know whether or not I should serve but wanted to show God I was willing to do so. Five months later my mission papers were rejected because of health concerns. By then I was already committed to another semester at BYU and a job at The Daily Universe, but I still felt crushed: I felt I wasn’t good enough to serve God.
Since then I’ve had the same conversation far too many times with well-meaning peers: They ask where I served, I tell them I didn’t and they give me reassurance and pity I didn’t ask for. I am exhausted from feeling inadequate and having to explain myself over and over again.
I know I’m not alone in this struggle. The way we talk about missions in the Church needs to change. Too many individuals are hurt by common stereotypes and assumptions.
The intensifying mission application process now takes a more meticulous look at whether individuals make good missionary candidates. This process keeps at-risk individuals from being harmed by a mission’s rigor, but I believe it also keeps earnest youth from being able to serve. I know many who have had their applications postponed or rejected for past physical and mental health concerns, despite their willingness to serve.
Many young men benefit from the policy change made in October 2012 allowing young men to serve at age 18 instead of 19. Others experience increased pressure and judgment when they choose to work or attend college before putting in their papers. “I am not suggesting that all young men will—or should—serve at this earlier age. Rather, based on individual circumstances as well as upon a determination by priesthood leaders, this option is now available,” President Thomas S. Monson said during the October 2012 General Conference session.
Some missionaries come home early because of health concerns, family problems, worthiness issues or homesickness. Others receive calls but postpone them or cancel them when they get engaged instead. Some simply do not feel called or compelled to serve a traditional mission but instead devote themselves to building up the Kingdom of God in other ways. I have seen missions change some of my friends’ lives for the better, enriching their testimonies and strengthening their resolve. Doctrine & Covenants 4:3 says, “if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work.” But I’ve also seen missionaries come home broken and scarred by difficult experiences.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to living the gospel. There is no singular right way to serve God. In every instance it is a personal decision.
The sorrow I once felt over my rejected mission papers has diminished as I have discovered other ways I feel called to serve God and others. My empathy and understanding for others has increased through this hardship.
My hope is simply that others will also find this level of compassion for each other. I hope we can all learn to change the way we talk about missions in the Church.
I hope we can learn to listen more than we talk.