Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon mission failure

WayBelowAngelsOne of my favorite Mormon books this year has been BYU historian Craig Harline’s funny and wise memoir Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary.

Here’s the endorsement I gave the book, and a Q&A with the author:

Craig Harline’s experiences as a Mormon missionary in Belgium in the mid-1970s are ingeniously funny, but they also point to important issues: how religious people deal with apparent failure and navigate grown-up faith after childish certainties have proven inadequate.

RNS: When you left for your mission, you had sky-high expectations about what you’d accomplish in Belgium. What were you hoping for?

Craig Harline: It was to make a lot of converts. And unusually, I did have a specific number in mind: 84 converts. It just came in to my head, as I describe it in the book.

I think a lot of missionaries just expect people to immediately respond to what you have always believed to be true. I just thought people would be so glad to see us, and hear us.

RNS: You say you felt like a failure most of the time. What was the most discouraging part?

Harline: When people did not respond in the way that I hoped. I really expected that they would be thrilled. The first family we went to see were so kind to us, I was just sure they would convert. But that happened over and over again, where people were kind but did not want our religion.

It just made you feel really lousy, like you were doing a bad job or there was something wrong with you.

RNS: In a time of great discouragement you had an epiphany of sorts: that you were supposed to just be yourself on your mission. But the answer to prayer you’d really been hoping for was “magical proselyting techniques” or a “new dose of heroic resolve” to get those 84 converts. The idea that God wanted you to just be yourself seemed to fly in the face of the idea you’d had growing up that you’d transform into some kind of super-missionary.

Harline: I imagined that I was going to become this other stupendous person, rather than what I’d been so far. I had definitely failed at some things – at sports, or with girls, or even at religious things. I just imagined that a mission would transform that. I was going to morph into the kind of missionary who would “overcome objections”—that was the language we used—and magically make these people convert. I always thought that if I just had the right answers, others would see that.

Just being yourself is hard to accept at first, because it’s so much less than what you imagined yourself becoming.

RNS: What happens if your mission doesn’t work out according to the “One True Missionary Story” that says if you stay righteous and work hard, you’ll make converts?

Harline, Craig (color)Harline: Yeah, that’s when you have the crisis. That’s when you have to find some other way of coping. The first thing you do is to fix the things that might be wrong with you, and there are lots of those. You can keep doing that forever. The next thing is that you lose faith. Maybe you lose faith in that missionary story, or even faith in all of it.

Or a third path is that you just alter the missionary story. And that’s part of maturing. It’s hard to do. But adjusting your ideals and accepting yourself is an important part of growing up. You begin to realize that your missionary story is the One True Missionary Story. You help create this new ideal of beauty and truth. It’s not a selling out. You still have an ideal, but you have taken responsibility for creating it.

RNS: I was totally fascinated to read that you, and other RMs, still have nightmares that you’re suddenly called back on a mission.

Harline: I started asking people about it maybe 10 or 15 years after I got home. Some people had no idea what I was talking about, but so many others had the same kind of dreams. People who have the dream never felt quite good enough on their mission.

A 60-year-old man, a university professor, emailed me last week and said, “I thought that was own my private struggle all these years.” And even though he hasn’t been in the Church for years, in the dream he always agrees to go when he’s told that he has to serve another mission!

It helps just knowing that someone else has also experienced all this, that their mission was really difficult for them. There are plenty of us who are happy to be Mormon, but didn’t like everything about our mission.


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • This is one man’s experience but certainly not mine or many others I know. For us the mission was the number one most positive and transformative experience of our lives. It’s about perspective, foresight, outlook and attitude.

  • Bob,

    There is plenty of “perspective . . . outlook, and attitude” among people whose mission experiences were less idyllic than yours. We can talk through and assimilate the rough stuff along with the good. It’s great that you had such a positive experience, but not everyone’s is like that, and it’s not simply because they lacked perspective or had poor attitudes.

  • My mission experience was very discouraging for the first two or so months out of the MTC but then got much better as my perspective changed. For me it was important that I understand that I ultimately only have control over what I do and not whether the people I speak to actually convert. Once I got that through my head, I could focus on working hard and trying my best without feeling bad that many people ignored or rejected my message. That perspective also helped me realize how miraculous it was when people’s hearts really did change and people did accept the gospel or returned to church. Conversion is much less about the missionary and much more about the individual’s relationship with God.

  • That missionary perspective falls like scales from the eyes once a person realizes that the church is false and their mission was 18 months spent in the service of a corporation, recruiting converts who could hardly feed themselves, let alone pay 10% of their income to their church. Once a person realizes that they’ve misled people into joining a cult there is great sorrow.

  • Yes. I loved my mission. But I would never suggest that those who didn’t merely lacked the right perspective and attitude. Yeesh.

  • Harline, thank you for your words. They resonated with me a great deal. I had some thirty converts, I had each one sign my scriptures do it was unintendedly easy to track. I’m so embarrassed at the methods we used. Now that I’m approaching 50, I still can’t believe that adult leaders such as our mission president didn’t advise us better.

    I still occasionally dream about returning to my mission and having it actually be about improving other people’s lives and not having it be about the numbers or tricking people into listening to us.

  • I’m almost done reading it, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

    And yes, I used to have that missionary dream. Thankfully it has been years since I have had one.

  • I really enjoyed my mission in Germany but would have never had 84 as a number. I was there the same time Craig was in Belgium. When I have my ‘nightmare’ that I go back on another mission, I TOTALLY suck at being a missionary this time around.

  • Thanks for your comment and prospective. That prospective is the residue of faith, study and prayer. The numbers game is a common but destructive view that leads to disappointment at best and at worse baptisms without conversion and/or testimony.

  • I taught public junior high and middle school for 39 years: 12 years of history, `12 years of special ed, and 15 years of math. I had a wonderful career, my last 5 years were my best 5 years, and my last year was my best year. 5 years later I still have teacher dreams (nightmares) almost every night. The worst students in the worst situations possible. I do not expect such nightmares to disappear. I always awake to my rewarding current life. It is a small price to pay to for what I learned.

    I also had the privilege of serving as a bishop of a local ward for 5+ years. I periodically have bishop dreams (nightmares) about impossible situations and angry ward members. I loved and was loved by the members of our ward and felt supported by them and the Lord through the difficult situations. Again, I see it as a small price to pay for the experiences.

    I appreciate articles like this about the real difficulties people encounter. The Lord does Not promise us an easy life. This last week we studied the Book of Job in Gospel Doctrine class. It reminded me that God does promise us that if we are faithful he will cause all things to give us experience and be for our good. He sets His angles round about us and will strengthen us. Too many Mormons, especially young Mormons, expect life to be smooth and pleasant as long as they keep the commandments. Such expectations are false and too often contribute to shaken-faith syndrome. Ether 12: 27 -28 has become a favorite scriptural passage to me. “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness, and I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me—the fountain of all righteousness.” It will Not be easy, but it will be worth it because it leads to the fountain of all righteousness.

  • I am a colleague and friend of Craig Harline’s and have always appreciated his ability to gently articulate feelings and experiences that are less discussed within a given culture; I think his experience is valuable but as some have expressed, it may not be shared by all missionaries. My two sons also served LDS missions and had meaningful, life-changing experiences. In fact, their love for the country, culture, people, LDS members, other missionaries, and the Work was so great, it was difficult for them to transition to life post-mission. One served in southern Chile; the other served in Jamaica. As a psychologist and researcher, I am certain there are many variables to consider when evaluating the mission experience. The area/culture in which an individual serves is certainly a significant consideration. I also know that the LDS Church has increased the service missionaries provide to members and non-members alike. To my knowledge, this was not the practice when Craig (Harline) served. This is a significant change, I believe, because it allows missionaries to relate to people in ways that demonstrate their charity and love towards them rather than approaching them in an effort to discuss, teach, and convert. I also think it is rewarding for the missionary because serving and helping others in need is another measurable outcome (in addition to measuring the number of conversions) and is an area in which all missionaries can feel they were a success. Personally, I asked my boys to first love and serve the people of these nations before ever attempting to convert them. I was especially pleased to hear stories of my sons meeting with missionaries of other faiths to celebrate birthdays, building roofs for the people following floods in the area, and other acts of service provided to people in need—not just potential converts. I would really like to hear from other missionaries to learn if this practice, of providing service, enhanced their missionary experience. Just a thought. . .

  • I served a mission in Europe in the mid-90’s. I loved some parts of it, but the negatives far outweighed the positives. I, too, have had the nightmare Harline is talking about–several times.

    I’ve wondered in the years since then whether there is an unhealthy South American bias towards our cultural discourse about the mission experience. So much of what I heard growing up were stories about South American missions–and those stories tend to end with a happy ending (usually a baptism). But missionaries who serve elsewhere don’t tend to have those happy endings. As a result, they often feel like failures–not necessarily because of anything they did, but instead because they had been led to believe that there was some correlation between worthiness/mission performance and quantifiable results. If the results don’t follow, the implication they’re left with is often that it was somehow their fault.

    I wish I had heard a few more stories like Harline’s before I left. Maybe I (and many, many of my peers) still wouldn’t be struggling with feelings of personal failure decades after the fact.

  • Yes I have also had that dream many times, except for me it is not a nightmare. My mission was a wonderful experience, a truly transformative time for me. I made so many changes in my life and came to know my Savior in ways that I could not have imagined before then. My dreams are wonderful experiences as well, that I really don[t want to wake from. And in about 2 years I will be able to start serving again, this time at my wife´s side. I will serve until the day I die or until health no longer permits. I understand why some people do not have this experience, but I can assure you, they are a very small minority.

  • Thanks for these thoughts. Craig did talk about some of the changes to missionary service — such as volunteering and humanitarian outreach — in our interview, but that part got cut. Sorry.

  • Craig’s experience while not unheard of, is pretty atypical. Interestingly I too have dreams about being called back on a mission, 40 years after I served; but I would not call them nightmares. I look forward to serving my next mission(s) with my wife in just a few years.

  • Again–why do you say that’s “atypical”? Based on what?

    I’m about halfway through his book, and his experience tracks the one I had in Europe. It also tracks the experiences of an awful lot of my family and friends–at least, those who didn’t serve in South or Central America.

    I understand that this less positive kind of tale doesn’t fit the mission narrative we’ve created and mythologized in the church. And I understand that it’s not how we would like our mission experiences to turn out. But if that’s what’s happening (for some of us, anyway), then that’s what’s happening. Wishing those experiences away because we would prefer them not be true does us no good.

    So again, to the extent that any of you are saying that this kind of experience is somehow “a small minority” or “atypical,” my question would be: based on what? Because if all we’re going to go on is our own personal small-sample size anecdotal backgrounds, mine, at least, would suggest that this is a very real kind of missionary experience.

  • Atypical based on my experience, those of my siblings, my children and my associates in the church. Was my mission difficult? You bet. But it was one of the most satisfying and beneficial experiences of my life.

  • Thanks for interesting comments, all. Just to clarify a few things, if I might step in.

    First, the book doesn’t claim to be every missionary’s experience. I’ve been talking to all sorts of missionaries about these topics for 35 years (maybe around a thousand?), since shortly after I came home, and as I say in the interview, some have no idea what I’m talking about, but plenty more do. For someone to claim that one experience or another is typical would obviously require a truly scientific sort of sampling, but I felt pretty confident that a lot of people would be able to relate to this story, which was one reason I decided to write it.

    Second, place certainly plays a role in one’s experience, but in my conversations it didn’t determine who had the bad dream and who didn’t: high-baptizing missionaries to Latin America had it too. My impression is that personality and expectations matter even more.

    Third, there’s no doubt that my mission was a life-changing experience. Admitting the difficulties doesn’t negate that. What helped me, and what I thought might help others, was to accept the entirety of the experience, rather than just conclude it was good or bad. It just was, with lots of consequences that I’ve learned from.

    Thanks again for comments, and giving me a chance to think about it more.

  • I served in the early 90 ‘s. My mother was inactive and did not care if I served a mission. So I had no idea ,as a convert myself , what to expect. That was the easy part on my psyche. I do have those dreams of serving again once in a while. My problem is not “then” but “now”. I have 6 sons and the “expectations” and constant questions about them serving missions is driving me insane. I have distanced myself from other missionary moms because I don’t have many things in common only that we belong to the same church. The expectations that the church places upon the members is very unhealthy. 30 years later, I can see why my mother left the church and never regretted it. I am active but keep these ideas to myself.

  • If you read the experiences of missionaries in the first hundred years of the LDS Church, you will find the same kind of diversity of experiences, and different receptivity in different cultures and communities, as people have talked about in their own mission experiences over the last few decades.

    I served in Japan, which was my birthplace and my mother’s homeland. I had opportunities to visit my Japanese family a couple of times on my mission. I returned to Japan ten years later as a US Air Force officer, and saw my family and people i had known as a missionary, and was involved in activities supporting the missionaries there then.

    People in my own mission had widely varying experiences, depending on the particularly communities where they labored, the personalities of their assigned companions, and their own expectations and abilities. One of the greatest challenges was learning to communicate in Japanese, including understanding what people are thinkinig that they don’t articulate. (Japanese culture assumes you can understand the things that people are NOT saying, because they don’t want to express their emotions to strangers.) Some missionaries I knew were enthusiastic, others got depressed. One had a severe mental breakdown with schizophrenic symptoms and was sent home to the US, where he later completed his missionary term in a state-side mission where the language challenge was not there.

    Bruce McConkie, when he was still one of the Presidents of the Seventy, was supervisor of the missions in Japan while I was there. He would come through every six months and interview all the missionaries. In the training he gave us, he would quote from the D&C and remind us we were the “weak and simple” whom the Lord was entrusting with the work of sharing the gospel. The expectation of the Church’s leaders was not that we would be oh so clever in persuading people to accept our message, but rather that we would be humble enough to invite God to work through us, to find the people who were ready to receive our message. Bumping up against the reality of the difficulty of having people listen to a religious message in a modern society was part of the education you get from the mission experience. Hopefully it helps you learn that you cannot lead people already within the Church who are not volunteers, that you can only lead and teach “by gentleness, and meekness, and love unfeigned.” You learn to get your satisfaction and reward for your work and self-sacrifice from the Holy Ghost, and not from the praise of your peers and superiors. You learn to love people as they are, before they accept you or your message. You learn that you can have revelatory experiences when you are not expecting them.

    I am sure that I would be ten times as effective a missionary if I could go back in time with my experiences and learning intact. But my stupidity, and sometimes my arroagance, were elements of the education I received, and for which I am grateful, along with the experience of playing a role in the lives of the people who, despite my weakness, took my message seriously and changed their lives.

  • I’m sad I’m stumbling on this post too late to be part of the comment conversation, but can’t resist commenting anyway, since I served in Belgium in the early 90s AND have had many variations of dreams about being called on a mission again. I would consider my mission “successful”–extremely challenging, but also highly rewarding–but my dreams are mostly anxious, stressful dreams.

    There’s one in which I’ve been called on a second mission, and I’m torn because I would like to go, but I’m also getting older and am still single, and a mission will delay any marriage possibilities at *least* another eighteen months, which worries me.

    There’s one in which I’ve been called, but not to speak French, like I spoke on my first mission, but a new language I’ve never studied. My fluent companion refuses to help me learn or even speak of in the language with me.

    There’s one in which I’ve been called back and at first I’m fine with it, but then I start worrying about who will care for my children while I’m away–and, wait, how do I have children, if I’m not married? And how could they have called a woman with children in a mission?

    There’s one in which an elder and I have had sex (a random, anonymous elder) and at first it seems completely normal, but then I gradually realize that we’re going to have to tell the mission president, and he’s going to have to send us home, and our plan to get married in the temple won’t be possible anymore.

    –By the way, it’s actually allowable for sister missionaries to serve a second mission after a length of time at home, which I think is part of what fueled all these dreams–the mixture of desire and anxiety I had about that possibility.

    I’ve been home from my mission for twenty-one years, and after having so many of the kinds of dreams I described above, just a few months ago, for the first time ever, I dreamed that I went on another mission, and everything was wonderful. My French was fluent, I had more wisdom and better teaching skills than ony first mission, and I loved my companion and the people we worked with. That dream was a really nice change from my previous ones.

  • In a religion in which one’s worthiness is assessed by personal achievement, such anxiety is completely understandable. And sad.

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