"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
January 17, 2013
Not Going on a Mission
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

My young adult son, for reasons that have nothing to do with worthiness, will not be serving a full-time mission.

How do we handle questions and comments about his missionary status truthfully without giving too much personal information?

Answer:

I am assuming from your question that your son is and wishes to remain an active church member, but is prevented from full-time missionary service by some personal issue that is neither widely known nor readily apparent.

He can therefore expect to be asked by countless people who do not understand his situation if he has put in his mission papers, when he will put in his mission papers, if he has a mission call, if he has been on a mission, and where he served his mission. These are very normal questions to ask an active church member, and he should not be offended or irritated by them. (Although, irritation would be understandable if the same person kept asking the same question.)

The simplest way for you and your son to answer these questions is with as much of the truth as you wish to make public. You want to craft an explanation that people can understand without any details that are too personal. Try practicing out loud whatever explanation you choose so you are ready to use it when the time comes.

For example, “He’s having some problems with his ankle and couldn’t get approved for full-time service.” Or, “He’s in the middle of a medical treatment that can’t be postponed or easily transferred.” Or, “He’s been excused from full-time missionary service.” Or, if none of that will do, simply, “No.”

Then—and this is critical—say something positive about what he will be doing. This will communicate that you are pleased with his prospects and not embarrassed. It will demonstrate loyalty to your son, and set a tone for others to follow. Saying something positive will also help you change the subject.

If your son does not have a plan, he should make one. Everyone needs a plan.

You should expect some people to ask further questions, such as what the medical problem is. You should respond, “Oh, it’s nothing you have to worry about. Please don’t worry about him.” If the person pleads that he needs to know because his own son or daughter has medical problems, tell him that the bishop can help him get the information he needs.

There are some situations where the full story should be told. His bishop, for example, should know the whole story. And a very serious girlfriend should be told the whole story if the relationship is heading towards marriage. If her parents are church members, they will certainly want to know, and it is probably best if your son tells them directly.

As with any issue of personal information, remember that once you tell one person, the information is out. Also remember that it is easy to reveal more information later, but impossible to take anything back.

Unfortunately, you will almost certainly hear unpleasant comments from some of your church acquaintances. Expect nosy questions. Expect other parents to imply that you are somehow at fault for his inability to serve full time. Expect fewer social invitations to him from other youth, whose parents want them “to spend time with kids whose lives are on track.” Expect rumors that run the gamut of reasons a young man cannot serve full time.

Expect to be hurt and offended when these things happen at the hands of people who should know better and who you thought were your friends.

And expect his situation to be a problem when he wants to start dating seriously. There are young women who will be put off by his situation. There are parents of young women who will strenuously object to their daughter seriously dating a young man in his situation. They will tell their daughter to beware, they will say that he is not being honest with her, and they will imply that he is unfit to get married in the temple or at all.

What can you do?

You can live your life—and he can live his—without reference to such people. Your son’s good life will be its own best evidence of his worthiness. You should speak of him approvingly and show that you are proud of him.

You can strive to not overreact to thoughtless comments that are not malicious. For example, imagine that a sister in your ward asks if your son will be serving a mission. You respond with your thoughtfully crafted explanation, and she replies, “I never thought it would be Paul who didn’t go on a mission. He was always such a good kid!”

This comment is hurtful, but she probably did not mean it to be hurtful. Respond by agreeing with the part of her statement that is flattering to Paul: “He is a wonderful kid. He has such a gift for . . .” and then say something sincere and complimentary about your son.

If you are confronted with a blatantly unkind comment, you have several options. Shocked silence is a wonderful option. As is a quiet,“No. You’re quite wrong,” or “Excuse me.” Remain polite. If you bite back, you will escalate an unkind remark into a contentious confrontation, which will allow the speaker to excuse his behavior by comparing it to yours.

So imagine a brother says to you, “I hear Paul can’t make it on a mission. Young people today are so coddled. They just need to get out there, stop complaining, and make it happen. He just needs to have some faith!” You can look at him in shocked silence. Then say, calmly, “That’s not Paul’s situation at all. (Pause.) Will you excuse me, please?”

If you hear an unfounded rumor about your son, respond directly by approaching the rumormonger and confronting him with specifics: “Jessie, I know you told Linda that Paul is not on a mission because of his relationship with his high school girlfriend. That is not true. Please don’t say that anymore.” But be sure you have your facts straight before you accuse someone of spreading rumors.

You may be tempted, in the heat of the moment, to set someone straight by divulging the personal information you wish to keep confidential. Don’t do it! Although it may seem satisfying in the moment, once you make the information public, it will be public forever.

But over time, you may find that telling people the actual reason he did not go is the simplest way to handle questions. Of course, this depends on the nature of his reason, but if the reason is something that you would not conceal under ordinary circumstances, you may decide there is no reason to conceal it in this circumstance, either.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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