This month 114 married couples will leave their homes, careers or retirement, and even family to serve without pay for three years in leading one of the 344 worldwide missions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They will replace mission presidents who have just completed three years of service.
A mission president, along with his wife, supervises and trains hundreds of the Church’s 52,000 missionaries assigned to a specific geographic area. Twenty-seven percent of newly called mission presidents will serve in countries outside the United States. Some newly called mission presidents have little previous experience with the language or culture of their new assignment. Others may have served in the country as a young missionary, but for most of them, assuming the role to guide a group of missionaries may seem overwhelming.
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“As you are called to this assignment, you feel inadequate in every way,” reported Wayne Miller of Kansas City, Missouri, who will serve with his wife, Loralee, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for three years beginning this July. “The only way we can say yes is that we know Heavenly Father has helped us in our past Church service and that He will help us again.”
Well over one million missionaries have served missions since the Church was organized in 1830. The mission presidents who lead them have a heavy responsibility in directing the work of individual missionaries.
Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church, reassured newly called presidents in their June 2009 training seminar. “'You may sometimes be tempted to say, ‘Will my influence make any difference?’” President Monson said. “ ‘I am just one. Will my service affect the work that dramatically?’ I testify to you that it will. You will never be able to measure the influence for good you will have as a mission president.”
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a counselor in the Church’s First Presidency, said a mission president has the potential for significant impact in the lives of their missionaries.
“One of the great gifts you will give your missionaries, a gift that will stay with them for the rest of their lives, is to teach them how to be close to the Spirit,” he said at the 2009 training seminar. “Through the Spirit, they become self-motivated and self-directed, and they find joy and satisfaction in continual growth.”
Newly called mission presidents come from all walks of life, from many geographic locations, from varied experiences in Church leadership and from diverse family compositions. A sampling of occupations among the new mission presidents includes 49 businessmen, 20 educators, 11 medical professionals and a professional golfer.
As mission leaders, they supervise and train on average from 170 to 180 missionaries during a given time period, but will work with around 600 young people during their three-year period of service.
Mission presidents share a variety of responsibilities in their service. They are directed to first maintain their own well-being and that of their families. They instruct missionaries to effectively teach gospel principles as well as to maintain their individual health. In addition, the president assumes responsibility for the baptism of new converts and their initial development as new members of the Church.
On a day-to-day basis the supervising couples oversee not only the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of their own families, but also assume responsibility for each of the missionaries assigned to their area. For example, individual missionaries arrive and depart at approximately six-week intervals, as they begin or conclude their two-year period of service. Each missionary is personally attended to, orientated to the mission environment, and then assigned to a companion.
“I hold my mission presidents in such high regard that I don’t know how I will ever measure up,” said Stan Nielson, who along with his wife, Judi, will leave their home in Las Vegas to serve in Warsaw, Poland.
When John and Augustina Buah of Accra, Ghana, learned they had been called by President Uchtdorf to preside over the Nigeria Enugu Mission, they viewed it as a humbling opportunity. The call for full-time missionary service requires numerous adjustments in both family and professional life. The Buahs have five children, one who previously served as a missionary in Nigeria and a son who is presently serving in another part of Ghana. Two of the three younger children will join them in Enugu, rearranging Church, school and personal relationships to support their parents’ call. The third daughter will maintain their Accra residence during their absence. “We are all trying to do our best in word and deed,” explained Buah, who will take a leave of absence from his work to fulfill his assignment as a mission president.
Ryan and Cristina Pagaduan, Quezon City, Philippines, will relocate with their daughters, ages 12 and 10, to another part of the country. “We will have to learn a new dialect there,” Ryan explained. Because their call is to a newly formed mission, the Philippines Iloilo Mission, the family will live in temporary housing while a new mission home is constructed. For Clark and Nora Bishop, Orem, Utah, the call to serve in Taichung, Taiwan, temporarily suspends his work as a physician. “My partners are all supportive of our decision to accept the call,” Bishop reported, “even though they are not all members of the Church.” Bishop, as a young man, served in Taiwan and has some working knowledge of the language, although he admits he’s “spent the last 35 years forgetting my Chinese, but it’s surprising how quickly it comes back. That’s one of the blessings of the call,” the physician explained.
Nora, on the other hand, has never been to Taiwan. Since the call, the couple has participated in tri-weekly language lessons at the Provo, Utah, Missionary Training Center (MTC). “My language tutor helped me access long-term goals for language usage on the mission: I need to pray, greet people, go shopping, ask for directions, etc.” Nora said. “After considering the list of tasks, they’ve helped me develop dialogs around those tasks. I learn vocabularies as well as useful phrases that will help me communicate in Taiwan.”
In addition to language training and tutoring, every newly called couple participates in weekly discussions with a personal tutor at the Provo-based MTC. Weekly conversations via telephone, computer or in person facilitate training. “We have assignments each week in Preach My Gospel, the missionary teaching guidebook,” explained Miller. “Besides studying the manual, we are invited to participate in a variety of tasks and meetings with locally serving missionaries.”
Further training for the multiple tasks as a mission president comes in a box of carefully selected materials that cover all mission operations. An intensive four-day seminar in late June completes the formal training period, and mission presidents assume their new responsibilities on 1 July. Most mission presidents come to the calling with decades of previous lay Church service experience that might include roles such as leaders of congregations (bishops and stake presidents), gospel instructors and leaders of youth.
Despite missing numerous family events during a three-year absence from home, couples are willing to accept the call to serve as mission presidents.
“People ask me why we are going,” admits Clark Bishop. “I reply we do what we are asked to do. I often think of the sacrifices of our ancestors and hope that our service can be a measure of gratitude for what they were willing to do on behalf of the gospel. They certainly didn’t have e-mail or Skype to keep in touch with their families like we have. It will definitely be easier for us than it ever was for them.”
“I wouldn’t do this if it weren’t true,” Bishop’s wife, Nora, added. “There are so many feelings of inadequacy, longing for family or homesickness, but we have confidence in the compensatory blessings that come to us as we trust in the Lord and move forward in our callings.”
Nielson spoke about the importance of having faith and how a call like this forces you to really examine your own faith. “You talk about it; now we need to go out and practice it.”