A Conversation with President Paul H. Dunn on What It’s Like to Be a Missionary

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“A Conversation with President Paul H. Dunn on What It’s Like to Be a Missionary,” New Era, July 1971, 34

A Conversation with President Paul H. Dunn on What It’s Like to Be a Missionary

The life of a missionary and the influence of his mission on him, on those left at home, and on those he meets are of such undeniable significance and interest that the New Era arranged an occasion to explore the topic. The chief participant was President Paul H. Dunn of the First Council of the Seventy, who was serving as president of the New England States Mission, located in the northeastern United States. President Dunn is being released from his mission presidency this month and will return to Church headquarters to continue his labors in the First Council of the Seventy. He is loved throughout the Church as a courageous and imaginative leader and one who understands youth and the issues of the day.

Also participating in the conversation were Kelly Jensen, a Harvard freshman from Gresham, Oregon; Paul Terry, a physics major at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sherry Hill, a young teacher of the deaf and blind in Massachusetts; Leo Brown, second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, stationed in Boston; Robert Haring, a U.S. Navy enlistee stationed in Massachusetts; Briant Kimball, a freshman at Harvard, from Salt Lake City; Becky Green, a student at Radcliffe, from Richmond, Virginia; Dwight Monson, a Harvard sophomore majoring in English; and Don McAffee, a mathematics major at MIT.

Q: What can a person do to prepare himself or herself for a mission?

President Dunn: Get a desire to serve! A missionary needs to want to follow the admonition of the Savior, to lose himself in the service of someone else. If that characteristic is in his life, all the other things can be added to it very quickly. To have a desire to serve and to be in the right frame of mind are the most important characteristics a missionary can have. This to me presupposes that he has a testimony, a belief in God and the Savior, and the realization that Joseph Smith is a prophet, because immediately upon arrival in the field, a missionary has to bear witness to these things. Many times our most successful missionaries are converts of just a year or two. I don’t think the amount of time spent in the Church is as important as the fact that good missionaries have an active testimony and a real desire to serve.

Q: There may be obstacles in preparing for a mission. With some, it may be the cost of a mission; with others it may be opposition from home. What can a person do to overcome such obstacles?

President Dunn: Well, of course the total cost of a mission doesn’t have to be prohibitive. We have missions that cost around $65 to $70 a month in the far reaches of the Pacific Isles, and others that cost from $125 to $130 in other areas of the world. We find that many of our youth have had the ability from their own earning power to set aside as much as half or three-fourths of the total amount needed. In fact, the missionary who seems to succeed earliest and with the most enthusiasm is the one who’s putting himself through the mission rather than having somebody else pick up the tab. And I think that’s just a basic law of life. That is, where you have earned your own way, you’re more likely to protect your investment. A missionary is no different.

If money is a problem, and it can be, the bishop, the elders quorum, or the seventies quorum is often a source of help. Cost is not the major factor, although it often is in the minds of many who don’t understand what is available.

As to opposition from parents, every set of parents responds to a mission a little differently. I think good communication is the best answer, rather than arguing or demanding or threatening, which never works and isn’t the Lord’s way. Too often, I think, it’s a matter of emotional conflict—threats of “I’m gonna do this in spite of what you decide” and this sort of thing only makes the problem grow. A mission is something that has to be worked out individually. Friends, and particularly bishops and stake presidents, can often intercede in the young person’s behalf. The home teacher’s help is ideal at this point, even in dealing with a nonmember father or mother who’s antagonistic.

Every mission president finds that once a young boy or girl who has nonsupportive parents goes on his mission, the parents often begin to change. The son or daughter is often brought closer to the parents. A mission binds families together rather than tears them apart. One of my greatest thrills is to discover how many antagonistic parents or nonmember or inactive parents become active or interested in the gospel because a mission was part of their experience. Many inactive mothers and fathers have come to me and thanked me for what has happened in their home; usually they’ve prepared themselves to go to the temple. That is the case more often than you might realize.

Q: Should girls go on missions? Is this encouraged by the Church, and are they as effective as the elders?

President Dunn: I think lady missionaries make a great contribution. I’m particularly impressed after having supervised this mission for the past three years.

The Church doesn’t openly encourage girls to go on missions to the extent that it does young men. Their first and primary calling is marriage, and that’s been stated by a number of presidents of the Church. But should a young lady desire to go on a mission, we do everything to see to it that she is sent. That philosophy is the reason that elders are called at nineteen and sisters at twenty-one.

Lady missionaries are as effective as elders. I don’t think I’d ever be able to say that the elders outdo the sisters or that the sisters outdo the elders. There are certain times when one is more effective than the other. For example, lady missionaries can often get into a home where elders never could; and in fact, they do get into homes far more often than an elder on door-to-door contacting. Perhaps people look on them a little differently.

Lady missionaries have one or two disadvantages; since they do not hold the priesthood, they sometimes have to depend on elders to do some of their work.

Lady missionaries seem to be more tolerant and understanding than the elders. A lady missionary also seems to have far less of a challenge in getting motivated and putting in hours that are dedicated to the Lord.

Q: What if a missionary is assigned to a companion whom he just can’t get along with?

President Dunn: We have that problem occasionally, as do all missions. I think it goes back to an approach that we perhaps ought to be using prior to the mission call. I don’t mean to sound negative or critical, but I think that too often only the positive aspects of a mission are talked about, and I understand why this is so—this is human nature. But I tell my missionaries that a mission is life in miniature. You have to really get in and dig and learn.

What I’m saying is that challenges loom up constantly in life, and they will not be resolved until the young person learns that life is made up of these kinds of challenges. It isn’t just that a missionary should try to learn to love a companion who doesn’t seem as good as the former one, or the one he hoped to get; but he needs to learn to make some adjustments, to live with some difficulties, and to cope with some things that he might not have chosen if he had had his freedom of choice in every case. In other words, it’s a matter of trying not to run from a problem and of trying to resolve it.

So we teach the fact that a mission is life in miniature, that what you’re going to do in solving a problem of this kind will help you in your marriage, in your business, in your education, in everything that you do.

Q: What are the most common problems and frustrations that missionaries face, and what advice do you give them?

President Dunn: One problem, of course, is homesickness. A fair number of missionaries, both ladies and elders, haven’t been away from home before in their lives and all of a sudden they’re thrown into an environment one thousand or ten thousand miles away from home and the security of family and community. They’re having to shift for themselves for the first time, and that adjustment requires anywhere from one day to three months, depending on the emotional stability of the person involved.

Some missionaries come ready to work, already adjusted; some make it in a day or two; some require a few weeks; and some even take months. We have a Church missionary policy that suggests that a missionary write home just once a week. To some missionaries who love their family dearly, or their young lady at home, that may seem cruel. But the Church has found over the years that if a missionary can devote six hard days to missionary work and then take one day to do his writing and share his feelings, he becomes far more effective than when he is thinking of home all the time.

Finding the Lord is also a problem for some. It’s amazing how many young people do not really know how to pray, for example. They have been in the family situation where prayer and gospel discussions have been rather common, but they’ve never had a real experience with prayer. They’ve never had an answer—that they’ve recognized as one—to prayer. So one of our great challenges is to help the young man or young woman find that God is really what we say he is, to help the missionary have a spiritual experience in prayer—an answer to his prayer. It’s not uncommon for me, and I’m sure it’s not for other presidents, to close the office door, kneel down with a missionary, and pray with him. It’s interesting to find that some of these young people just haven’t learned how to approach the Lord. I’m not worried about their language style so much as I am about their knowing how to pour their hearts out, to ask a question, to get a confirmation spiritually.

I suppose there are some other technical challenges that exist in the mission field—using the discussions properly, working with members and with leaders, seeing one’s ecclesiastical role in proper perspective—but these concerns are easily worked out and are easier to adjust to.

Q: What you’re saying, then, is that a mission may be the best two years of your life thus far, but it won’t be the easiest. Is that right?

President Dunn: Yes, sir! A mission is tough! We ought to shout that in every priesthood quorum and from every Mormon housetop in the world.

I think one of the great challenges to the missionary is that we take him out of a normal environment—by normal environment I’m thinking now of boy-girl relationships. We’re saying that he can’t date, he can’t hold hands, he can’t kiss, he can’t dance, he can’t swim, he can’t shoot, he can’t motorcycle, he can’t ski, he can’t skate—and there are other can’ts.

So here he is now, committed to a new way of life. He can’t do certain things for his own spiritual protection, and that plays on some persons. I’m just as sure as I’m sitting here that the adversary uses this as a great device. So a missionary has two or three things working against him: restrictions that are abnormal in his present state of life, the adversary who’ll try harder to get him in areas where he knows the missionary might be tempted, and the restricted free agency that he must learn to live with.

I have found that almost any problem that a young person has at home—morality, language, profanity, slang, dress, weight, anxiety, or an emotional problem—will become much more pronounced when he comes on a mission. The weak areas get weaker and the strong areas get stronger unless the missionary takes steps to see that his conscience truly rules his life.

Now that’s what we ought to teach about a mission, and we ought to help a young person prepare to become strong in his weak areas. Thank goodness we in the Church do spend a lot of time on “how to overcome.” Many problems can be solved when one finds out who he is. Much is solved when he can communicate adequately with the Lord. A lot of help comes when he discovers he has a testimony of the gospel. We must recognize that whatever was a limitation at home will be a limitation on a mission; and recognizing that is the first step in solving a problem.

Q: Would you elaborate a little upon the role of the girl in a missionary’s life and what kind of relationship should be maintained?

President Dunn: I think that’s an excellent request, and there’s no question in my mind but that the young ladies or young men writing to their missionaries will have a profound effect for good or for ill, depending on the kind of letters they write.

If the girl in her letters to a missionary could emphasize the positive and write the good things that have occurred in her life as a result of the mission, it would be the best kind of letter writing. Often a girl will see more of the spiritual side of life as a result of a boy’s serving on a mission. To share these things and to indicate what it’s done for the family or the community is the thing that really builds.

Girls at home can write the wrong kind of letter by telling the missionary how much he’s missed, and writing “Oh, if you were only home.”

But if we turn the situation around, girl friends can really help if they’ll write some positive things. My counsel to anyone anytime would be to write good, positive, encouraging letters. Now that doesn’t mean that they can’t tell some bad news. In fact, if a crisis comes, I think a missionary ought to know. He suspects it if he isn’t told; he can read between the lines. And he’ll worry ten times more if he doesn’t know the truth than he will if you tell him the truth and put it in its proper perspective.

Tell the things that are going on in the ward and community. Make it more than just busy talk, although that has its place. Excerpt a talk that somebody gave in church or send a poem that lifts or solves a problem. Send him a gem of a thought: “The bishop the other day gave us this thought, and we’ve been thinking about how we could try it on for size.” Elders come and show me their letters when this happens. And the same things hold true for the young lady, for young men frequently are writing to lady missionaries.

Boyfriends and girl friends at home should put their feelings on a high spiritual plane. That doesn’t mean they can’t share an honest feeling of love and respect; if it’s there, they ought to say it. But to write romantic letters just for the sake of being romantic actually has a reverse effect. It reduces the effectiveness of the missionary and it’s a cruel thing to do to him, because he’s not in a position to do much about his romantic feelings. Letters can either build or tear down a missionary’s spirit. Please write your missionary the kind that build.

Q: How does the physical appearance of a missionary affect the missionary program?

President Dunn: Well, I can speak more authoritatively for New England and its communities than I can for other places. In all honesty, I can say that I have not had a negative report about how our missionaries look. Sometimes their physical appearance raises eyebrows, but this brings some wonderful questions.

For example, to see here in Boston two young men in suits—to use the old cliché, clean-cut and all-American—is such a novelty that on occasion this invites inquiry. The fact that our missionaries are different makes them stand out. To dress like this now is the way to be unique. In fact, to many people our missionaries are so far “out” that they’re “in.” Clothing trends have reversed so much in the last few years that our kinds of dress and manners bring the attention others are seeking. I want those shoes shined. I want those ties and shirts pressed. I want our missionaries to look sharp, by what my standards call sharp. This builds goodwill. Many, many times our missionaries have been invited into a home because of their appearance. And, of course, in all missions we’re dealing with many types of people. Any person at the door who is forty years of age or over would be much more receptive to the appearance of our missionaries. And any person who identifies with the “going” crowd, from twenty to forty years of age, would be curious and interested enough to invite the missionaries in.

Q: Could you describe the daily schedule of a missionary, and could you also give us some insight as to why missionaries are on such strict schedules?

President Dunn: All missions are run on pretty much the same basic kind of schedule, although the details may vary according to the geography and the culture. In New England we have each missionary up at 6:00 in the morning. This gives him a good start on the day and gets him invigorated in mind, body, and spirit, and there are a number of chores, both spiritual and physical, to perform before he is ready to do a day’s work. To do all that needs to be done, we find that 6:00 A.M. is the time to begin. This gives from an hour to an hour and a half for personal grooming, cleaning the apartment, eating breakfast, and the other normal activities.

Two hours, from 7:30 until 9:30, will be spent in private and joint study. We require, and I think most missions do, one hour of joint study where companions sit at a table and, in the case of a foreign mission, review the language. They also review the discussion; they review their scriptures; they review the flannelboard approach; they review their door-to-door dialogue, hopefully building up a repertoire of approaches so they won’t fall prey to the same old thing every time. In other words, they learn to be creative.

The hour of private study is devoted to mastery of the standard works, with time also given to such books as Jesus the Christ, The Articles of Faith, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and perhaps some study program incorporating these books.

At 9:30 A.M. they are free to leave the apartment—we put great stress on leaving the apartment on time. Punctuality is very important in the life of a missionary. It helps to discipline him and to keep him organized. The real personal complaints come from missionaries with poorly organized lives, not from those who are well organized. For the next two and a half hours the missionaries tract—or “door-to-door,” as we call it—look up referrals, or do some other type of proselyting activity.

After lunch come more referrals, “door-to-dooring,” and contacting different members for group meetings. The missionaries are back home again by 5:00 P.M. for their evening meal. We place great stress, as I’m sure every mission does, upon proper nutrition. We don’t always succeed. Lots of jokes and amusing stories go around about 400 straight peanut butter sandwiches. I’m sure there’s a lot to that, unfortunately, but it isn’t because we haven’t tried to teach the basic skills of how to prepare an inexpensive, nutritious meal. We hope that in the evening particularly the missionaries will prepare an adequate meal.

From 6:30 P.M. until 9:30 P.M. is the most productive teaching time. This is when the appointments that were set up earlier are met and when the discussions are taught to families. The Church puts great emphasis on the family unit. As you know, we’ve had some problems in the past when a woman would join the Church but her husband wouldn’t, or vice versa. We’re trying to bring families together, not divide them, so we place a great deal of emphasis on teaching the family with the father at the head. We’re having great success with teaching families in the evening.

At 9:30 P.M., all things being equal, and there are exceptions, of course—sometimes a wonderful discussion goes overtime—the missionaries are to be back in their apartments, and they are to be in bed by 10:30. Our findings are that if a missionary will sleep from 10:30 P.M. until 6:00 A.M., he’ll be invigorated, active, productive. If he cheats on himself by not sleeping this long or by sleeping too long, he begins to drag, he gets sluggish and tired, and he often catches every flu bug or cold that comes around.

We’re quite strict on these rules, not because we’re trying to be army sergeants, but because these rules have proven to be the most effective way of getting missionaries spiritually, physically, and mentally ready to do their best. The Church has had 140 years of experience at this, so it isn’t just a trial-and-error method; it really works.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about the development of the current missionary program and any recent changes you have seen while you’ve been mission president here?

President Dunn: The general philosophy has not changed since missionary work began 140 years ago. The Lord has given us a divine injunction to take the gospel to all nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples. That’s what we’re about. He has, however, placed some priorities; that is, to go first to the House of Joseph and then to the Jews and other races, as directed by the prophet. The gospel is for all people; that’s our general frame of reference.

Some years ago, the Church inaugurated the now-famous six-discussion approach. That approach has been very effective in reaching what we would call the honest in heart. Different plans have been used in the past, and they have run anywhere from thirty to sixty lessons—some over a hundred lessons. Years ago it was not uncommon to have a family taught for two or three years, being fellowshiped between discussions, only to find that they were not honest in heart. And so it was thought advisable to refine the presentation into a system that would sift people. By sifting, I don’t mean that the Lord doesn’t care about everyone or that we don’t care; but we are looking first for those who are genuinely interested in hearing the Lord’s word. These six discussions have done just that. A missionary who is well prepared, trained, and sensitive to the Spirit can realize in just a few hours of discussion whether a person wants to hear the gospel or is just hungering for fellowship or companionship.

Now please get one thing straight: We’re not trying to teach the gospel in five or six discussions. We could never do that. The gospel is a lifetime study, and there isn’t one of us who has learned it all. But that doesn’t prevent us from being active Latter-day Saints. Activity is in proportion to testimony, isn’t it? The strength of the Church is the individual testimonies of its members. What we’re trying to do with the six discussions is very simple. We’re trying to get a person who is not acquainted with the Church to discover for himself, through the Lord’s help, that Joseph Smith is a prophet—to get on his knees and find out if Joseph Smith is a prophet. If he understands in his heart by the inner conviction from the Lord that Joseph Smith is a prophet, everything else falls into place. Then we can teach him—and ourselves—the rest of our lives, and that’s what the priesthood and all the other programs of the Church are designed to do.

Q: Can missionaries adapt their message for different individuals when they use the six discussions?

President Dunn: I think the genius of our missionary program is its flexibility. We put a lot of stress on a missionary’s learning the discussions and scriptures letter-perfect—not to become a robot, not just to parrot back, but so he will be skilled in the tools he must use. After he has done this, he is to try to teach as the Spirit directs. In other words, with the Spirit, whether it be in an army barracks or a dorm room or a home, he can adapt to the immediate situation.

I have taught many people, and I don’t think I’ve used the same method twice. I’ve tried to find out what each one needed, and then to adapt the method accordingly, using the tools I’ve been given. I think the desire of the Church is to make the gospel personal. And it is personal.

Q: You’ve talked about the problem of adjusting to a mission and the schedule. But isn’t it just as much a problem to get off the schedule once you return home?

President Dunn: Yes, for some people there are some hard adjustments. For others, it is easy. One of the real challenges is that the missionary has been in a kind of protective spiritual cocoon for two years; he hasn’t had to face the world. He hasn’t had to compete for a job to earn money. Now we suddenly put him back into the real world, and that’s a real frustration for some. In the process of competing in the world, the returned missionary finds that the rosy missionary life he’s been leading isn’t quite the same as that of the rest of the world. He’s been on a spiritual plane. Interestingly, the world really hasn’t changed that much, but he has. He’s seeing life through his missionary glasses, which is normal, but he needs to be eased back into life in a normal way.

Another problem is that he’s been out of the natural environment of boy-girl relationships. Now he wants to relate to a young lady—or a sister wants to relate to a young man—but it’s been taboo for two years; and all of a sudden to pick up a girl’s hand in a car or a movie somewhere seems blasphemous, if not downright vulgar. So he has a few social adjustments to make. But we have found that if the ward or branch at home, the family, and the missionary work together, the adjustment is beautiful, sweet, and great. And for most missionaries, it really is a nice and casual adjustment with no problems except a few normal anxieties.

Q: Let’s look at the other side. In what ways is the returned missionary better prepared to meet the challenges he’ll face after his mission?

President Dunn: Nine out of ten missionaries go home better equipped for a number of reasons. They have better self-mastery. They’re in control of their minds and bodies in a way that they’ve never been before, and so they can better handle certain situations. They have a love and appreciation for the gospel that’s second to none, and many of them have changed their vocational plans. They’ve seen enough of life to know that money isn’t everything, and they have learned something about service to others. No matter what vocational plans they have, their sights and commitments seem to be raised and strengthened as a result of their mission experience.

And lastly, of course, they are just basically more mature, so they are far better prepared to meet life’s challenges. They’ve been exposed to conditions and experiences that most people will need a lifetime to experience. Missionaries have them already computerized into their systems and are capable of responding to many problems in the years ahead with a maturity and calmness that many people find remarkable. Furthermore, they have grown in some areas to the point that they are ahead of many of their peers in certain skills and in their appreciation and application of eternal truths.

Q: What has been the most rewarding experience during your mission?

President Dunn: It would be hard to single out one, but I would say that seeing the scores and scores of missionaries who have found both themselves and the Lord has been my most rewarding experience. I would couple that with a second blessing: seeing what these same missionaries can do with their knowledge and testimony in reaching others who aren’t members of the Church. To have the people they have touched sit in my living room with tears rolling down their faces, thanking the Church and all of us for being part of this thing, is something you don’t measure in dollars or pay envelopes or high positions or anything else. It all boils down to simply sharing what you have in a sincere way so that people can discover for themselves, with the help of the Lord, that it’s true. And believe me, the gospel is true. God does live, and all of us in the Church are, in very fact, his trusted servants—of that none of you need be doubtful for one second. All of us are called to preach the gospel—daily, throughout life, in word and deed—to bring joy and peace to all who desire it.

Photos by Daniel Driscoll, Jim Barnes

President Paul H. Dunn