I think is very important to teach our missionaries how to advocate for themselves.
Many missionaries enter the mission field fresh from their parents’ home. Even if you’ve worked hard to encourage independence in your children, you probably still looked after their needs and advocated for them in many ways. Other missionaries are coming to the mission field from college, where they’ve been able to experience more independence. However, I think it is wise to talk to your missionary about the importance of advocating for themselves while on their mission.
There are many sections in the Missionary Handbook that address ways for our missionaries to advocate for themselves that I’ll be share, along with tips and encouragement for missionaries to take charge of their mental, phsyical and emotional well-being while serving.
What does it mean for missionaries to advocate for themselves?
An advocate is someone who “publicly supports or recomends a particular cause or policy.” In the case of a missionary, we are teaching them to advocate for themselves. They need to know that they have the ability and responsibility to seek support for themselves mentally, physically and emotionally while serving a mission.
Heavenly Father is aware of our needs, but He is not here to speak up for us when we are struggling. When our children are in our home, we can see when something is amiss and help them with their struggles. However, when they go to serve a mission, they need to know that they are capable to speak up for themselves. And not only that they are capable, but they should not feel selfish or uncomfortable when advocating for themselves.
I know several stories of missionaries put in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation with a companion. Instead of speaking up, they patiently tried to endure the companionship and ended up suffering mental or physical trauma. You can empower your missionary to speak up and have a better mission experience by talking about possible scenarios and when to involve the mission president.
6 Ways to help your missionary become their own advocate
- Help them understand what it means to advocate for yourself: Advocating for yourself as a missionary means that you recognize that you have the right to take care of yourself mentally, physically and emotionally and act upon that right by communicating needs and/or problems in order to get them resolved.
- Encourage them to follow the chain of command: We want to teach our missionaries to advocate the proper way. This will vary according to the problem, but in general they are counseled to first, talk to their companion (unless it is private and personal), then the “Young Mission Leaders” (district leader, zone leader), and finally their mission president or the mission president’s wife.
- Teach them to start conversations privately and respectfully: An important part of being an advocate is being prepared and respectful when speaking up for yourself. Instead of reacting in the heat of the moment and having a confrontation, teach your missionary to write down specific issues, interactions, worries or needs and to have conversations privately and respectfully unless they fear for their physical safety.
- Help them recognize that they can escalate problems to a higher authority if needed: If, after following the appropriate chain of command nothing is being addressed, they should move to the next higher person on the ladder.
- Reinforce their rights: Missionaries sacrifice many things to serve the Lord, however they do not have to sacrifice their health or safety. They do not need to endure situations that cause them physical, emotional or mental harm and should feel empowered to speak up for themselves.
- Let them know they can still counsel with you: Even though we are far away and they are grown-up, our missionaries should know that it is okay to counsel with their parents as they advocate for themselves. We can (and want to!) support them as they work through difficult situations. Reassure them that they can handle the situation on their own, but that you can be a sounding board, and will be there cheering them on and praying for their strength and courage.
Teaching your missionary to advocate for their health issues
Missionaries, especially those serving in foreign countries, will likely have some health issues during their mission. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a “Mission Medical Coordinator” assigned to each mission to serve as the first contact when there is a health concern, both physical and/or mental.
My aunt is currently training to be a mission medical coordinator and in her most recent letter home she said, “One valuable insight I gained during the last two weeks of training is this–‘Who is responsible for the missionary and his/her health? It is the missionary.’ All the Mission Leaders and Health Advisors can love the missionaries, guide, teach, and exhort them to follow the rules and take care of their health. But it is the missionary who makes the decision to follow the rules and take care of their health, no one else.”
We are counseled to send our missionary with their own first aid kit, including a thermometer, so they can monitor their own health and address minor illnesses or injuries. They also need to be aware when to contact the mission office or seek emergency medical help. In the handbook, Missionary Standards for Disciples of Jesus Christ: Supplemental Information Appendix 7.7, it states:
“Contact the mission medical coordinator if you experience any of the following health problems:
- Illness beyond normal colds and short-term symptoms.
- Serious injury.
- Rapid pulse (100-plus beats per minute) when you are not exercising.
- Any fever higher than 101°F (38.3°C), a fever of 101°F (38.3°C) for more than two days, or a fever that does not respond to medication.
- Rapid or extreme weight loss or weight gain.
- Excessive thirst or urination.
- Persistent vomiting, headaches, dizziness, cough, or rash.
- Swelling of feet, legs, abdomen, or face.
- Blood loss or black stools.
- Constipation or diarrhea for more than two days.
- Dental pain.
- Ingrown toenails.
When my kids aren’t feeling well, I encourage them to tell me what they need because I can’t feel how their body is feeling. In the same vein…our missionaries need to be stand up for themselves if they need to rest, talk to the mission medical coordinator or seek emergency care even if their companion thinks otherwise. On the flip side, this means that they also need to trust and respect their companion’s wishes to seek medical care.
Missionary Standards for Disciples of Jesus Christ (Section 4.4) also states: “If you have a health emergency, take common-sense actions for your immediate safety or care. Call local emergency services (such as 911 in the United States) unless you have been given other instructions in your mission. As soon as possible, contact your mission leaders.If you need non-emergency medical care, call the mission medical coordinator right away. Nonemergency visits should be approved in advance by the medical coordinator. The medical coordinator can direct you to a medical care provider in your area.”
Help your missionary to know that they can seek emergency care if they think they need it and/or if they are unable to get in contact with the mission medical coordinator.
And to give you (the parents) some peace of mind, the missionary handbook also states, “Your mission president will communicate with your stake president and family about serious injuries and health concerns.”
Teaching your missionary to advocate for their mental health
I am so grateful that we are doing better at recognizing the importance of mental health. There are several factors that make mental health a challenge for missionaries.
- They are away from home (often for the first time)
- They are in a different culture/country
- They are experiencing stress
- They are at a common age when mental illness starts manifesting
It is important to let your missionary know that they may encounter mental health issues on their mission and that they should advocate for themselves without embarrassment.
In the Missionary Standards for Disciples of Jesus Christ 7.7.3 it says (emphasis added): “emotions and behavior that prevent you from functioning effectively need to be addressed. These conditions may include:
- Mood swings.
- Excessive worry or guilt.
- Depressed mood.
- Unhealthy eating patterns.
- Difficulty managing sexual feelings.
Understand that there is no shame in recognizing and treating any health problem, including emotional or mental concerns. If you feel you or your companion needs help, talk to your mission president, his wife, or the medical coordinator. They have access to mental health resources.”
We wouldn’t tell a missionary with an open gash to “get over it” or “work through the pain.” Mental illness should also be treated with the same validity as a physical illness or injury. There are resources available and there is no shame in advocating for the use of these tools when a missionary is suffering with a mental illness.
Teaching your Missionary to advocate for themselves when they have a problem with a companion
When you throw a bunch of young adults together with different backgrounds and cultures there are bound to be personality differences, contention and other issues. Learning to get along with people who are different than you might be one of the more important life skills that missionaries gain on their mission.
Missionaries might have issues with their companion because he or she:
- Doesn’t follow mission rules*
- Has a different work ethic
- Doesn’t value their input
- Is disrespectful and/or mean
- Is abusive (either emotionally or physically)
*If not following mission rules puts your missionary in danger, they should escalate the problem immediately to Young Missionary Leaders or the Mission President or his wife.
For every bullet point issue except the last, there are steps your missionary can follow to advocate for themselves.
- Pray for empathy and understanding: Heavenly Father knows their companion’s heart and may be able to help your missionary understand why they are acting the way they are.
- Write down their concerns: This will help your missionary to communicate all of their issues in an organized way
- Speak with the companion privately and respectfully: Teach your missionary to use “I feel” statements instead of accusatory statements. For example, instead of saying, “You’re so lazy and never wake up when we are supposed to” your missionary should say, “I feel upset when I’m not able to follow the mission rules because you are oversleeping. I would like to get up and going every day, what can I do to help you with this?”
- Escalate if Necessary: If the companion does not respond well or isn’t making any effort to alleviate your missionary’s concerns, then they should take this problem to the Young Missionary Leader or write about it in their weekly letter to the Mission President in the missionary portal.
Regarding the last bullet point about abuse I want to say that missionaries are not meant to sacrifice their physical, mental or emotional well-being in order to get along with others.
To illustrate this, I want to share a story. One of my nephews was serving in a South American country with a companion from another country in South America. This companion let my nephew know that he hated people from the USA. My nephew (who is honestly one of the kindest, most easy-going young men I’ve ever known) tried SO HARD to get along with this companion. He was long-suffering and patient and he endured so much hatred directed at him because he was from the USA. The problems escalated until the companion, in a fit of rage, picked up a knife and stabbed my nephew in the back. Luckily the knife didn’t cause any serious injuries.
The craziest part of all of this was that my nephew mentioned it in a letter home (in the days before weekly calls!) and told his mom not to worry. He was doing his best to follow mission rules and get along with his companion…but in this case we all wanted him to be somewhere safe!
My sister immediately contacted the mission president’s wife and they traveled to my nephew and separated him from the violent companion (thank goodness!).
In the Missionary Handbook Section 4.5 Missionaries are counseled to (emphasis added): “Leave immediately if you or your companion feel uncomfortable about a location, person, or situation (including a teaching situation). Listen to spiritual promptings. You may leave your companion if you feel he or she may be a danger to you. If you leave your companion, call either of your mission leaders immediately.”
I think it is so important to encourage our missionaries to learn how to work and live with people that we don’t necessarily get along with. However, it is vital that missionaries know they do not have to put up with emotional or physical bullying, abuse or assault from another missionary. I imagine it could be very frightening to leave your companion and seek help, but they can turn to a local church leader, another missionary companionship, or close-by Young Missionary Leaders if necessary.
I love what it says in the Missionary Standards for Disciples of Jesus Christ about this. In Section 2.2.1, it says (emphasis added), “If you notice any inappropriate situation or behavior, discuss it with your companion. If the matter is not resolved or if your companion is being abusive, have the courage and love for your companion to ask your mission president for help.”
It will be scary to speak up if your companion isn’t following rules or is being abusive. But this is done with love and courage!
Teaching your missionary to advocate for themselves when they have a problem with a young missionary leader
Mission Presidents organize and direct their mission using young adult missionaries as leaders. In the handbook they are referred to as Young Missionary Leaders. They are also called Zone Leaders or District Leaders.
Even though Elders and Sisters are called to leadership positions, this does not mean that they are are perfect. Your missionary might have conflicts with their leaders and/or see them acting in ways that are not consistent with missionary guidelines.
The most important thing for your missionary to remember is that they can advocate for themselves if they are mistreated or have a problem that can’t be resolved directly with the youth leadership.
Missionary Standards for Disciples of Jesus Christ states (section 2.1.4), “Like all missionaries, elders and sisters with leadership assignments should practice Christlike leadership. If the conduct of any missionary, including young missionary leaders, seems inconsistent with the commandments and missionary standards, discuss the issue with the missionary. If the issue is not then resolved, share your concerns with your young missionary leaders or mission president and not with other missionaries, members, or friends.”
If your missionary has a conflict with the missionary leadership, they should first try to resolve that directly with the missionary in question. If nothing happens, then they should escalate the problem to the mission president.
When should parents contact the mission president?
Weekly calls home will give you the ability to encourage your missionary to be their own advocate for issues with physical health, mental health, companionship problems or leadership problems.
If your son or daughter appears unable to advocate for themselves and/or is in extreme duress, you should contact the mission president or his wife as soon as possible. Our missionaries are doing their best, but you know your son or daughter. Try to allow for them to be an advocate for themselves, but don’t be afraid to step in if absolutely necessary.
This missionary parent thing is HARD. It is always difficult to watch your child struggle, but by teaching them to advocate for themselves, making them aware of missionary guidelines, and supporting them through hard times, we can see that “all things shall work together for [their] good.” Doctrine and Covenants 90:24.