For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, missionary experiences are often anecdotally described as the best two years of their life.
That is not the case for everyone, where often, the mission experience was full of unbearable struggle and difficulty.
The BYU Mission Inclusivity Club aims to provide a community and a safe space for those experiencing atypical missions, including those who returned home early for mental and physical health reasons, those who went on service missions, two-transfer missions, or any other mission that is not “typically discussed in sacrament meeting,” president Sydney Springer said.
The club was founded in October 2019 by BYU student Lane Gibbons, who knew she needed to start it after going to a forum about atypical missions. While attending this forum, she realized how validating it can be to be in a room full of people who have shared experience, and thus started the process of creating the Mission Inclusivity Club.
“The first club meeting was powerful – just being able to be in a safe space, where I felt like I could say whatever I needed,” Gibbons said.
Up until this point, Gibbons didn’t really talk about her mission experience, which was cut short due to struggles with mental health, an experience that is common for those who decide to serve.
“One thing we do in this club is vent. We have to be honest about how at times the mission was really traumatizing for us,” she said.
Gibbons also wanted her club members to know that it’s OK to be transparent about the struggles of the mission. “Every reason [for struggle] is valid and important,” she said.
Members meet weekly to talk about the difficult aspects of their mission experiences, which Springer said is something that is needed in a culture where people often equate negative feelings towards missions as being ungrateful.
“There’s lots of us,” she said. “It’s very heartwarming to know that I’m not alone. It’s such a basic human need to not be alone.”
In the club, they discuss a principle called “grieving the ideal,” a concept that Springer explained as the idea that no one goes out on missions to struggle and be miserable. In fact, many people believe that they deserved a better mission based on their preparation and desire to serve.
“That was not my intention, to go out on a mission and have a really hard, terrible experience and come home,” Springer said. However, Springer believes it is possible to increase retention and improve the experience for missionaries by adding improved mental health accessibility to missions.
She thinks there should be better training for mission presidents, district leaders, sister training leaders, zone leaders and companionships. She also thinks there needs to be a broader understanding of mental health in the mission, despite varied cultural perception.
Some cultures write mental health struggles off to be lack of faith, or being unworthy, or not serving enough, she said. A solution to this completely wrong misperception can be accomplished through increased training, along with more access to in-person therapy in every area during the missionary experience, she said.
“Missions are supposed to be hard, but they aren’t supposed to be unbearable. Right now, they are unbearable for too many people,” Springer said.
Nathan Seal, the vice president of the Mission Inclusivity Club, values the openness and vulnerability that connects members in this club. “We’re confidential and empathetic, and not afraid to address the feelings of anger, resentment or other negative feelings we may have,” he said.
Seal explained an assumption many people have at BYU: if you are a male over 21, you have served a mission. When that answer is not always yes, some feel cut out of the culture and community. For those who might feel cut out, he said, it’s important to have this group to fall on, to talk and to feel open and safe.
“It’s a real good thing we’ve got going at BYU, and it’s important that people know that this club exists,” he said.
Club member Randy Openshaw said his main purpose in attending the club is to have that safe space to talk about his mission experience. “I can relate and be real about the struggles that we had as missionaries and help other people understand that they weren’t alone.”
Club member Coco Olson-Paul describes it as a place to be surrounded by people who also have mixed feelings about their missions. “It’s helped me contextualize my faith and hardship in the Church in a positive way,” she said.
Springer said the club isn’t just for people who have experienced difficulty on their mission, but it is for anyone who wants to follow Christ’s model of empathy and love.
“One of the ways you can listen and have empathy for people is by coming to our meetings and listening to people who have really struggled,” she said.
Springer said the club is opening a chapter in Rexburg, with the same aim to help people connect and heal from their mission experiences. The club’s Instagram page has updated information on when the meetings are and how you can join and be involved.