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Elder Jeffrey Holland: LDS Church desperately needs more senior missionaries

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 14 2011 11:28 p.m. MDT

In some of the historic sites, during the Christmas Walk, senior missionaries related Christmas stories from old Nauvoo. Here, in the Stoddar Tin Shop, Elder Gary Saville entertains his visitors.

Dean Hughes

SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time in 40 years, former University of Utah sports information director Bruce Woodbury has no idea what is going on with the Ute football team.

And he's just fine with that.

"I hope they do well," he said. "But I wouldn't trade what I'm doing now for anything in the world."

What he's doing now is working with his wife, Nancy, as full-time missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the church's Mormon Battalion Visitor's Center in San Diego.

"There isn't anything better than this," Woodbury said, relaxing for a moment between shifts at the visitor's center. "I'm here with my wife, doing work that is important and meaningful. And the best thing is, you know you're exactly where the Lord wants you to be, doing exactly what he wants you to be doing. What could be better than that?"

Woodbury's bouyant attitude toward his service as a senior missionary comes as no surprise in a church that values and honors missionary service as much as the LDS Church does. The first full-time LDS missionaries were called in 1830, the same year the church was organized. Since that time more than 1 million members have devoted months and years of their lives to full-time missionary service, with more than 52,000 missionaries currently serving in 340 missions around the world. For most of the past decade the number of full-time missionaries called each year has hovered right around 30,000. Although the church does not release statistical information based on the age or gender of full-time missionaries, the vast majority of the million-plus members who have served as missionaries are young men and women between 19 and 25 years of age.

And that's something church leaders are anxious to change— dramatically. Currently, there are an estimated 4,244 senior missionaries serving around the world.

"We have made a few adjustments in policy recently because, frankly, we want it to be easier for our more mature members to go on missions," said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a member of the church's missionary executive council. "We are aware that it interrupts family life for a few months. We are aware that it is a sacrifice. It is, after all, missionary work. But we want to make it as easy as we possibly can because these senior missionaries are so needed — because they make such a difference."

The policy adjustments to which Elder Holland refers were announced in May and took effect earlier this month. They include latitude in the time of service, ranging from six months to 23 months, and a cap of $1,400 (US) per month for housing costs. (Please see accompanying box for a more detailed view of the changes.)

"The single biggest obstacle for most couples who are considering a mission is financial," Elder Holland said, sitting at a small table in his Salt Lake City office. "Although the missionary lifestyle is simple, the cost of housing in a particular area is something over which we have no control. In many places of the world the cost is just astronomical.

"So the (church leadership) have said, 'Let's cap that.' We won't ask anyone to pay more than $1,400 per month for housing. In many geographical areas it will be less than that. We don't want financial considerations to trump everything else in the decision to serve a mission."

The same philosophy led to the decision to allow some flexibility in the time of service.

"We have generally asked our senior missionaries who serve internationally to serve for 18 months, but to some people that seemed like a long time," Elder Holland said. "So we have carved out a policy that says, 'You can go for six months or you can go for a year, if that is best for you, as long as you are willing to pay your own way to and from the field.' We are doing everything we can to remove the obstacles to missionary service for these wonderful couples who mean so much to our missionary efforts."

And make no mistake about it, Elder Holland said. Senior missionaries do mean a lot to the LDS Church's overall missionary effort.

"It's almost impossible to say how much these couples mean to the work," he said. "Every mission president in the church, all 340 of them, wishes he had more of them."

Michael L. Rawson of Salem, Utah, who up until a year ago was one of those mission presidents, agreed.

"I kept asking for more couples," said the former president of the LDS Detroit mission, "but they kept telling me they didn't have more to give me."

"The couples we worked with were amazing," Rawson continued. "They report to the field with strength that the young single missionaries do not have due primarily to age, experience and maturity in the gospel...The only problem was," he added, "we didn't have enough of them."

For that reason, Elder Holland said mission presidents learn to be very skillful in how they deploy couples around their respective missions. "It's something we talk about during mission president training. You only have a few couples, so you need to use them wisely," he said. "Although it isn't technically part of their calling, these couples become an extension of the mission president throughout the mission. Their maturity and experience is not only a blessing to the wards and branches to which they are assigned, but it is also a good influence on the young missionaries. This important element is not often spoken, but it is nonetheless significant."

He remembered a time during his service in Chile when the parent of one of the Chilean missionaries died. The mission president was far enough away that he couldn't get to the missionary quickly.

"But there was a sweet older missionary couple serving in the area. They came and sat with that missionary and tenderly cared for and comforted him until the mission president could make personal contact," Elder Holland recalled. "We had great young missionaries in our missions, but no young single missionary could have done for that elder what that couple was able to do."

Similarly, senior couples are often "literally an answer to prayer" for bishops and branch presidents in the areas to which they are assigned.

"Our numbers are small in many areas of the world, and our local leaders are relatively new to the church and somewhat inexperienced," Elder Holland said. "Can you imagine what it means to a branch president who has only been a member of the church for a few years to have ready access to veteran church members who have served as bishops and high councilors and auxiliary presidents and teachers? The value of that resource is absolutely incalculable."

Ronald B. Funk Sr., who is currently serving in the New Zealand Temple Visitors Center, spoke of a time when he was president of the Washington Spokane Mission a few years ago. A certain ward had a long history of being uninvolved and disinterested in missionary work. Several sets of young missionaries had tried everything they could think of to kick start missionary work in the ward, but nothing had worked. Local leaders asked for help in dealing with this challenge, and President Funk decided to send a couple to serve in the ward, and challenged them to focus on less-active members, making short visits that included a gospel message, a hymn and a prayer.

"We will do what you have asked because we want to be obedient missionaries," the sister said. "Neither of us are singers— we just can't sing. But we will do it because you have asked us to."

"Many lives were touched because of the spirit this great couple brought into those homes," Funk said. "Families were re-activated, and they shared the gospel with their neighbors and friends. Not many months later that ward had to be divided."

Of course, not all senior missionaries serve in the field working with wards and branches. Many also serve in temples, visitors centers, mission offices, in medical assignments, military relations and more. A recent edition of the church's Senior Missionary Opportunities Bulletin included the following requests for senior missionaries with specific skills and interests:

A radio station production professional to help develop new audio material for broadcast and distribution throughout the world

Couples with computer experience to work in Canada and Mexico helping to customize lds.org for those areas

Couples to work with the Church Educational System in Europe, coordinating Centers for Young Adults in various areas

Full-time live-at-home sisters or couples to respond to feedback received through lds.org and to comments posted on the church's Facebook page

And that's just from the first four pages of an 11-page document.

"We're not saying that couples can pick and choose their own missionary assignments," Elder Holland said. "A call is still a call. The prophetic role is still the prophetic role. But different from our 19-year-old elders who go where they are called, we talk to our senior couples about their service preferences, and every consideration is given to letting them serve where and how they want to serve."

Still, he said, it's not a blank check.

"If we just said you can go wherever you want to go . . . well, we don't have enough vacancies at the Hawaii Temple Visitors Center to accommodate everyone," Elder Holland said, chuckling. "But we'll work with you."

Regardless of where senior missionaries serve or what they are called to do, there seems to be one overwhelming inevitability for all: they will love it.

"Couples tell me again and again that they were unprepared for what a blessing their mission would be — they had no idea what this would mean," Elder Holland said. "They leave for the mission field thinking of the sacrifice they are making — missing the birth of grandchildren, or family baptisms and sacred events, or how hard it may be to leave football season tickets and neighborhood associations behind. But then they serve and find it to be the most rewarding experience of their marriage.

"No one goes on a mission for selfish reasons," the apostle continued, "but almost always, the missionary is the one who benefits most from missionary service. That was true for me as a 19-year-old missionary, and that is true for our senior couples. That is not why we go — it's just what happens."

For Reynold and Diane Brown, who currently live in Salt Lake City, it happened for them — twice.

"When we were called to serve in India in 2004, we thought it was a mistake," Reynold Brown said. "It was just totally out of the blue. We were supposed to work with LDS Charities doing humanitarian work and overseeing the expenditure of the church's humanitarian efforts in India. I was so fearful that we weren't qualified to do what we were being asked to do."

But believing that "whom the Lord calls, he qualifies," they plunged into the work. "It was an amazing experience," Brown said, his voice quivering with emotion. "Even though you don't know from day to day what you're supposed to do, if you humbly seek the Lord's guidance, it is there. And you know what to do. The Lord uses his missionaries to do his work. It's an incredible thing to feel like a tool in his hands."

So incredible, in fact, that the Browns returned to India for another 18-month mission in 2007 — this time as proselyting missionaries. They were assigned to a branch that was struggling to get started.

"There were only eight people in the branch when we first got there," he said. "They were all so new in the church — they didn't know how to function as a branch, how to teach lessons, how to conduct meetings, how the church functions," Brown said. "There is no doubt in my mind that we were sent there as long-time, experienced members of the church to help them figure it out. We spent the lion's share of our time just coaching and teaching and encouraging them, while the young missionaries were out looking for new members. When we left there were 68 active members of the branch, and I heard recently that there are now 150 members and they are getting ready to become a ward."

Brown paused, then continued. "It's humbling to think that maybe the Lord used you to make something like that happen," he said, struggling once again with his emotions. "Any questions or reservations or hesitations you might have felt about going on a mission are insignificant when compared to that."

Not surprisingly, the Browns are looking forward to their third mission, as soon as they are able to go.

Which isn't unusual, Elder Holland said. Filled with the joy and spirit of missionary work, many senior missionaries go out again and again.

But many more are still needed.

"We are a missionary church," Elder Holland concluded. "That is the nature of our ministry. We have responsibility to reach out to all the living and all the dead.

"And so our message to all of our mature couples is simple: we dearly need you. We are doing everything we can to make it as convenient as possible for you to go. The Lord promises unlimited blessings to his servants in the vineyard. So please — go. The times cry out for it. There are people who need you.

"Please — go."

LDS Church policy changes for senior missionary couples (effective 1 September 2011):

Couples can now serve 6-month missions (in addition to 12, 18 and 23 months)

Couples can serve internationally for less than 18 months (6 or 12 months) if they pay for their travel to and from their missions

Couples may, at their own expense, take a short leave of absence from their missions (normally no longer than 7-10 days) to return home for a critical family event

Couples will pay no more than $1,400 for housing costs (rent, utilities and furnishings). This does not mean that the total cost of the mission is only $1,400 per month. Couples are also responsible for personal expenses (food, medical, insurance, internet, phone, etc.) and transportation costs within the mission

Missions or area administration offices will locate and secure appropriate housing that is safe, clean, modestly furnished and economical before couples arrive in the field

Couples are not expected to follow the same schedule of work hours and missionary activities as young single missionaries

Couples may communicate with their families more frequently than is outlined for young single missionaries

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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