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All over the world envelopes are getting torn open, young men and women are reading aloud to their gathered families, and shouts of excitement are filling the air. Few events are as intensely exciting as a mission call, as families and prospective missionaries dive headlong into preparations for serving 18 months or two years in the service of the Lord.

Also in that envelope will be information about clothing, vaccinations, luggage, dental appointments, interviews, and passports, to say nothing of years of spiritual preparation. Also, many elders and sisters have been reared with practical living skills to help them live independently: Laundry, housekeeping, cooking, managing a budget. Advice will pour in, tears of both joy and longing will be shed, farewell talks will be given, airplanes will be boarded.

And then comes the Mission Training Center, or MTC. Most feel they have a pretty good idea of what to expect: Hours of study and hard work, new food, possibly a new language to learn, the thrill of regular visits from church authorities, letters to write home. My daughter, a returned missionary who served in Norway, now attends BYU and works at the MTC in Provo, Utah. She’s had the opportunity to speak with countless new missionaries, and when I asked her if anything seemed to surprise them, she said nearly everyone was amazed by the same three things:

  1. You aren’t as inexperienced as you think. Many incoming missionaries, keenly aware of their youth, feel a bit intimidated. They wonder if they’ll be able to relate to the vast and varied people they’ll be teaching, people with more life experiences, and even hardships, than they’ve had. They may teach people with greater education. Some of them even worry that their grasp of a new language will be inadequate. But they discover that they have been through enough.They’ve gained a testimony. They’ve lived many years in thoughtful preparation. They’ve navigated tricky relationships and social situations, and have far more experience under their belt than they realized. As they practice teaching, they find they can draw upon their life experience much more often than they expected. And, as for learning a new language, my daughter told a group of sisters, “No one ever joined the church because someone pronounced a word perfectly.” Reflecting the Spirit of Christ and being able to convey gospel truths to another person’s heart is what it’s all about.
  2. You learn through application, not just study. Missionaries are surprised by how much they apply what they’re learning, rather than spending all their time sitting at a desk, taking notes. Yes, there’s classroom instruction, but most are delighted to have so many opportunities to work, hands-on, teaching. By the time a missionary leaves the MTC for his or her actual mission, they have hours and hours of accumulated practice, and are ready and eager to teach “for real.”
  3. You find comfort and closeness away from home. The elders and sisters are stunned at how close they feel to their district. They thought it would feel uncomfortable, they’d die of homesickness, they wouldn’t click with anyone. But instead, they feel as if they’re in a new family. They’re surprised by how much they love one another, as well as their teachers. Yes, there’s still some homesickness, but not as much as they expected, and in its place is a profound sense of belonging, loyalty, and deep friendship. The bond is a wonderful outcome they didn’t expect, and it makes the work even more enjoyable.

Often when we undertake a new endeavor, we soon see the down side of our career or pursuit. We’re negatively surprised. But the Lord is watching over his servants and grants tender mercies to those in his service. Every one of these surprises is a plus.

Hilton’s new LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as a Relief Society President.