On a mission: Sharing the scriptures of the Latter-day saints

Art by Addy Cameron. Photo courtesy of Rodney Dial.

Art by Addy Cameron. Photo courtesy of Rodney Dial.

No two post-secondary plans are the same. Some high school graduates head straight to a four-year university, some opt for trade school or community college and others take a gap year to travel or work — but students like Palo Alto High School senior Allison Dayton, are called to embark on religious missions.

Dayton is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a faith colloquially known as Mormonism — and she plans on serving an 18-month mission after her first year of college.

The Church of Jesus Christ defines a mission as a “period of volunteer service … when Church members devote themselves part-time or full-time to proselytizing, humanitarian assistance or other service.”

Missions are generally 18 months long for women and 24 months for men, and are spent serving at one of the Church’s hundreds of locations across the world. According to the Church, 36,639 members embarked on a mission in 2021.

Men and women are allowed to start their missions at ages 18 and 19, respectively, meaning members often spend a year at college before departing.

Though this may disrupt what many perceive as the “normal” four year college path, schools with large Latter-day Saint populations like Brigham Young University offer a flexible calendar with courses throughout the year to accommodate student missionaries. Ambitious students may even get ahead before they depart, like Dayton hopes to; she said she is planning on earning her associates degree through community college courses before she graduates high school.

You get to learn so much about your religion … It’s just a totally life changing experience.

— Allison Dayton, church member

Missionaries are assigned their destination by the Church, and spend 3-9 weeks in training centers before they depart, sometimes learning a new language native to their location. Many of the lessons include Bible and scripture reading sessions to further missionaries’ knowledge of their religion.

While some may assume that students going on missions are swayed by pressures from their family and community, Paly senior and church member Sawyer Mickelsen described it differently.

“It’s more like ‘This movie was so good, you have to see it,’” Mickelsen said. “That’s the type of pressure you feel. Everyone who’s gone on missions is like, ‘You have to go, because it’s gonna be so amazing.’”

Many members view the trip as a period of life to immerse themselves in their faith. “[On a mission] you get to learn so much about your religion, which makes up a pretty big part of your identity, especially if you grow up in the church or are a convert,” Dayton said. “It’s just a totally life changing experience.”

Evangelism is also a keystone of missionary work, as the doctrine of Latter-day Saints calls them to share their beliefs with others.

“We believe you’ve been given a lot of blessings by God, so you give these two years of your life sort of in a sacrifice back to God,” Mickelsen said. “It [a mission] is for sharing the gospel. We believe that the gospel is really good for people, and so spreading it is helping a lot of people.”

However, the decision to sacrifice this time is not always easy, and the process can require significant deliberation.

“I kind of didn’t want to go on a mission,” said Julia Jacobsen, a Palo Alto resident and Latter-day Saint. “I was 21, the age girls could go [at the time] … and I felt a pull to go, but I sort of didn’t know if I wanted to do it. So I prayed and I was reading the Scriptures, and a verse popped out at me. And I was like ‘Oh, I’m supposed to go on a mission.’”

After reaching her decision, Jacobsen spent 18 months in Finland. 30 years later, she is still in touch with the people she met while serving.

“You feel a lot of love for the people wherever you’re serving a mission, because you do a lot of service and you’re in people’s homes, giving them messages that are important to you and hopefully to them, and you feel a lot of desire for them to have happy lives,” Jacobsen said. “So you do build a community.”

[Missions are] a balance of local needs, and every day is a little bit different.

— Nicole Jacobsen, church member

Missionaries’ everyday activities and goals vary depending on their location. According to Jacobsen, a typical day is spent volunteering in local communities or visiting homes and public areas to spread the word about the beliefs of Latter-day Saints.

“France is more of a secular country, so there’s not as many people consistently interested in hearing from you,” said Nicole Jacobsen, Julia Jacobsen’s daughter and a Gunn High School graduate who served a mission in France. “[I spent] a lot more time walking around trying to meet people… whereas my sister who was in Washington state spent a lot more time teaching people who were already interested in the church. It’s a balance of local needs, and every day is a little bit different.”

According to Julia Jacobsen, the self-structured design of missions leaves participants with many valuable skills.

“My whole life was much more disciplined after my mission, and I performed better in college than I had previously,” Jacobsen said. “I wasn’t expecting to gain better work ethic and discipline.”

Missions can also provide unique leadership opportunities that young adults would not find in university.

“I had 200 missionaries that I was responsible for [on my mission],” Palo Alto Bishop Rodney Dial said. “[On a mission], you learn how to lead at an age when most of your peers are at the bottom of the totem pole in their internships.”

Dial’s mission took place in New York, between his freshman and sophomore year at Brigham Young University. He said that the leadership skills he gained from his mission have been very helpful throughout his career; after his trip, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Economics at Brigham Young University, and an MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Dial currently serves as chief executive officer of his startup, Legacy Lending, in addition to his work as a Bishop, which is entirely volunteer.

“You go on a mission with a kind of belief, or as we call it, faith,” Dial said. “You hope it’s true, you believe it’s true. Now you’re going to go and put it to the test as a missionary yourself.”