Today I am going to talk about a topic that hits really close to home. My daughter is a senior in high school and is in the process of deciding between between going to college in the fall or going on a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She knows that we would support her doing either or both, but she can’t do them both at the same time, so she knows she has an important decision that must be made soon. There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding between college and a mission, and so I have written the following open letter to my daughter and all the other young women out there facing a similar decision.
I know you have a difficult and important decision to make soon and the fact that you are at this point is actually a great sign of your talent, intelligence, and spirituality. It is a great blessing from the Lord to have the opportunity before you to choose to go to college or go on a mission–both can be tremendous opportunities for growth and blessing to your life. And while I have some advice for you as you make that decision, I do want you to know that I am not trying to influence you one way or the other. The choice is ultimately yours and I don’t want you to pick college or a mission because you think one of those options is what I want you to do. I am happy to support you in either or both. I do, however, want to help you think through the decision and help you come to your own conclusions about what you want and about what the Lord would have you do.
Doctrinal Foundations for the Decision
Let’s also start by reviewing some of the doctrines of full-time missionary work. Since President Kimball’s landmark address on missionary work in 1974, every Church president has reiterated that full-time missionary work is a priesthood duty and that every worthy, able young man should serve a mission. In 2012, President Thomas S. Monson said that “We affirm that missionary work is a priesthood duty. … Many young women also serve, but they are not under the same mandate to serve as are the young men. We assure the young sisters of the Church, however, that they make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome their service.” (“Welcome to Conference,” Ensign, Nov. 2012). As wonderful as it is when young women decide to be full-time missionaries, we should remember that they are under no obligation to serve and they should not be made to feel guilty for choosing not to be a full-time missionary.
Also remember that the prophet has counseled young women to prepare spiritually for life, regardless of whether or not they serve a mission. In the 2010 Young Women Personal Progress manual, the First Presidency said that all young women should be “preparing to receive the sacred ordinances of the temple, to become a faithful wife and mother, and to strengthen your home and family.” Preparing for the temple, growing your knowledge of the scriptures, and otherwise improving your relationship with God will help you in life whether as a college student, a missionary, a spouse, a mother, or all of the above and other roles you will play throughout your life as a Latter-day Saint.
Seeking and Finding Revelation from God
Okay, now having set the stage, Dear Daughter, my next piece of advice is to seek the information you will need that will help inform your decision. In my experience, information often leads to inspiration, and revelation rarely happens in a vacuum. So think about the kind of information can you gather that will help you make your decision.
As you gather the relevant information to help guide your decision, you will need to prayerfully consider it and ask God to help you know what to do. You will need inspiration from the Spirit of God and you are entitled that. As you seek that revelation, you may want to study what happened to Oliver Cowdery who was once struggling to receive revelation. To him, the Lord said, “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong” (D&C 9:7-9).
Questions to Consider/Information to Gather
Here are some of the factors you may want to consider in making this decision between going to college this fall or going on a mission.
- What do you want to do? What is your personal desire? Do you want to go on a mission? If so, perhaps that desire was planted in your heart by God. D&C 4:3 says “if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work.” But be sure your desires to serve a mission are pure, with your “eye single to the glory of God” (D&C 4:5). If your desire to serve a mission is to be able to visit cool places, meet new people, see the world, and maybe learn a foreign language, there is nothing wrong with that per se, but those shouldn’t be your primary motivation. Your primary motivation to be a missionary should be to help God in His role “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39) and “invite all to come unto Christ” (D&C 20:59). If that is not your primary reason for wanting to serve a mission, then as a young woman for whom missionary service is not a duty, you should consider opting out.
- Are there time sensitive reasons to serve a mission now or go to college now? For example, you could have a scholarship that cannot be deferred, and it may make sense to use the scholarship first, and then go on a mission after a year of college. Or you may feel an urgency to serve a mission right away. We believe in God and we believe in God’s timing. God can also light a fire under you to do something at one time, but that window of opportunity could pass if not acted on.
- How do you plan to pay for college or a mission or both? The Brethren have said that the lack of finances should not stop a worthy individual from serving a mission (see my post on the cost of a mission) and I heartily endorse that statement. Do remember, however, that both a college and a mission have to be paid for. Before submitting your mission papers, you have to show your bishop your plan to pay for it. Similarly, it would also be wise to discuss with your parents how you plan to finance college, including tuition, fees, housing, transportation, food, and other living expenses. Again, I don’t think the money situation should dictate your decision, but it is information that can help lead to the inspiration you need. You may even think about what you would do if money was no object, and then prayerfully go forth, and with the help of the Lord, figure out how to make that happen, financially.
- What are the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on missionary work and college life? At the time of this writing, early 2021, most nations are still feeling major effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, changing the way we are able to interact with one another, limiting the sizes of gathers, requiring facemasks, etc. The rules and regulations enacted by governments, businesses, and private organizations have been impacting the way missionary work and college courses are conducted for the last year. Perhaps that will ease up soon, perhaps not. With the pandemic, missionary work is being done largely online via social media and video conferences, and perhaps now would not be your preferred time to serve a mission. But then again, similar restrictions are happening on college campuses, so maybe now is a good opportunity to take time away from school. You’ll have to think through that and decide for yourself.
- Are you willing to go anywhere in the world the Lord might send you on a mission? With college, you get to decide where you go (for the most part, assuming you get accepted to the college of your choice). But a mission is different. When you put in your mission application, you agree to go wherever in the world that the Lord might send you through the inspiration of the prophet. You could be assigned to labor on the other side of the globe, or in your own home city/state/country. You do not get to choose you mission destination, so it takes great faith to trust that the Lord wants you and the people need you, wherever you are assigned to serve.
- What does God want you to do? I saved perhaps the most important question for last. Ultimately, I recommend finding out and doing whatever God wants you to do. God wants you to get an education and he wants to be involved in building his kingdom. What he wants you to do most immediately, though, is something the two of you will have to work out together. You will need to further develop your relationship with God as you ask, seek, and receive revelation on what to do. As you study this situation out in your mind, gather information to answer these questions, are prayerful and remain worth of the companionship of the Holy Ghost, I know inspiration and answers will come. You will know by the Spirit of God what to do.
What If the Answers Don’t Come?
If you have trouble discerning between your own thoughts and the inspiration of God, or you simply don’t feel confident that you have received a clear answer from God, I would recommend following the advice of Elder Richard G. Scott. He said, “What do you do when you have prepared carefully, have prayed fervently, waited a reasonable time for a response, and still do not feel an answer? You may want to express thanks when that occurs, for it is an evidence of His trust. When you are living worthily and your choice is consistent with the Savior’s teachings and you need to act, proceed with trust. …When you are living righteously and are acting with trust, God will not let you proceed too far without a warning impression if you have made the wrong decision” (Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer, Ensign, May 2007). I would also recommend the process outlined by Elder Scott on how to receive spiritual guidance from an article I wrote last year.
In conclusion, Dear Daughter, remember that your mother and I love you and your Father in Heaven loves you no matter what. Find quite times and places to study this out, ponder and prayer for inspiration. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). During this time of gathering information and prayerfully considering your options, I also recommend you discuss the options with your parents, church leaders, and other trusted family and friends. Sometimes just talking it over with others will help you see things more clearly, and occasionally others will have precious nuggets of advice that will help you make the right decision. When you have come to a decision, ask Heavenly Father to confirm your choice so you can proceed with confidence. Throughout it all, remember to “Be thou humble; and the Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand, and give thee answer to thy prayers” (D&C 112:10).