There is no such thing as a 'typical' church-service missionary. They come to us from all walks of life, young and old, single and married. Many aren't able to serve a full-time mission for one reason or another, and so they volunteer for a church-service assignment.
For the past six months, Larry and Casi Smith have been living in a trailer on the windy plains of Wyoming. As church-service missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they assisted 18,500 pioneer trekkers — mostly LDS teenagers and their adult leaders — among the Mormon Handcart Historic Sites, specifically at the Willie Center/Sixth Crossing Site, about 60 miles from Martin's Cove.
It's been a physically demanding six months, filled with long hours meeting the needs of trekkers and other visitors to the sites, including sharing pioneer stories, building and maintaining restroom facilities and teaching square dancing. Along with 19 other church-service missionary couples, they also found time to tie dozens of quilts, which they donated to local charities, and build — with a little help from a handful of skilled professionals — a 9,500-square-foot log visitor's center, three stories tall, looking down on the Sweetwater.
"It was a very rigorous, physical mission," Casi said from her home in American Fork, Utah, to which she and her husband have recently returned. "We were working day and night, in all kinds of weather, battling mosquitoes and that constant wind.
"But it was also joyful," she continued. "It's a very spiritual mission — they call it 'the crying mission,' because hardly a day passes without tears because of the spirit you feel. We absolutely loved it. We wouldn't have missed one minute of it for anything."
Such energy and enthusiasm for service is not unusual among church-service missionaries, according to Joel S. Moriyama, who directs the church-service missionary program for the LDS Church's Human Resource Department.
"Our missionaries comprise a very dedicated, very passionate workforce," said Moriyama, who has been overseeing the program for four years. "Their service is motivated by a wide variety of reasons, but they have at least one thing in common: they are there because of faith and testimony."
Since about 1979, the program has provided a growing and varied number of opportunities for members of the LDS Church to serve. "This important missionary workforce helps many church departments and operations provide needed products and services," Moriyama said. "Serving others brings great blessings to those who serve and to the church worldwide."
During the April 2011 general conference, it was announced that 20,813 church-service missionaries served during 2010 – the first time these missionaries have been included in the church's official year-end statistical report. Moriyama pointed out that that number reflects the total number of church-service missionaries who served during any part of the year, since there are a number of "seasonal" assignments that only last six months at a time.
"At any given time there are 13,000-14,000 church-service missionaries out in the field serving," Moriyama said. "During 2010, those 20,813 missionaries donated more than 8.8 million hours of service. How many employees would we have had to hire, and at what cost to the church, in order to accomplish all that these wonderful missionaries have accomplished during the course of a year?"
The beginnings of the church-service missionary program are not as clearly identified as most major efforts of the LDS Church. There was no announcement of the new program in general conference or no breaking news story in the media. In a church historical document dated February 25, 2000, J. Russell Homer who was the Managing Director of the Human Resource Department at that time, tells the story this way:
"Somewhere around 1979 President N. Eldon Tanner, who was the chairman of the Personnel Committee, . . . had some feelings about this and he indicated how he had a vision of sort of an 'army of volunteers.' As a result of those feelings he initiated church-service volunteers on the Wasatch Front. He wrote a letter dated January 10, 1980 to stake presidents and bishops on the Wasatch Front, where he acknowledged appreciation for responses to recent requests for volunteers. So the beginning of the real volunteer activity would be about 1979. This was the first letter of actual response that I am aware of, and encouragement to carry on.
"Then about a year later he wrote again," Homer continues. "This is April 16, 1981: 'During the past several months, many volunteers have performed invaluable work….' Then he referenced his earlier letter and gave additional encouragement and a little direction about the process."
So somewhere between 1979 and 1981 the church-service volunteer program was born. In 1989, a letter from the First Presidency to general church leadership indicated that "church-service workers will be referred to as 'missionaries,' whether serving full or part-time." Two years later, in 1991, another letter from the First Presidency established "church-service missionary guidelines," reconfirming the appropriate use of the title "missionary" for these workers and giving some instruction with regards to the amount of time they should serve.
These days, the length of time for a church-service mission varies between six months and 24 months. Most church-service missionaries live at home during their term of service, although there are some assignments — like the Mormon Handcart Historic Sights assignment of Elder and Sister Smith noted earlier – that require travel. And most church-service missionaries volunteer for their assignments, as opposed to being called by the church to a full-time mission, although they are still set-apart as missionaries.
"There is no such thing as a 'typical' church-service missionary," Moriyama said. "They come to us from all walks of life, young and old, single and married. Many aren't able to serve a full-time mission for one reason or another, and so they volunteer for a church-service assignment."
A growing segment of the church-service missionary program is young adults who don't qualify for full-time proselyting missionary service. At the present time there are 419 young church-service missionaries serving throughout the world, with more requests for church-service opportunities coming in all the time.
"There are a lot of reasons why they can't go on full-time proselyting missions," Moriyama said. "Whether it is because of a physical, mental or emotional disability, there is almost always a church-service opportunity where their skills and abilities can be used. We want these wonderful young people to have meaningful mission experiences that will bless their lives and strengthen their faith and testimonies."
The list of assignment possibilities for all church-service missionaries is long and extraordinarily broad in scope. Almost every department of the church utilizes church-service missionaries in one way or another – fully 80 percent of the staff providing welfare services are church-service missionaries.
A cursory scan of the current listing of church-service missionary assignments includes:
Employment resource centers
Girls camps and recreational properties
Seminaries and institutes
Ranches and farms
Church headquarters offices
Inner city projects
Addiction recovery programs
And that's just a handful of the possibilities. For a more complete listing please go to servicemission.ldschurch.org. You can contact the church-service missionary office at church headquarters at 801-240-4914 or firstname.lastname@example.org (the website is currently undergoing routine maintenance; it will be online again Tuesday, Oct. 25).
"I have to smile when I hear people say, 'what could I possibly be qualified to do?'" said Sister Claudine Cable, herself a church-service missionary serving as the program's Communications and Training Coordinator. "The fact is, whatever your background, whatever your experience, whatever your time availability, whatever your interest, we probably have an assignment that will work for you."
Moriyama referred to an LDS scripture, found in the 82nd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants: "And all this for the benefit of the church of the living God, that every man may improve upon his talent, that every man may gain other talents, yea, even an hundred fold, to be cast into the Lord's storehouse, to become the common property of the whole church."
"That's the heart of church-service missionary work," he said. "People using their talents to bless the lives of others and for the benefit of the church."
At home, and on the windy plains.
Requirements to serve a church service mission:
Be temple worthy
Be able to serve an average of eight hours per week for at least six months
Be physically, mentally and emotionally able to perform the specified duties
Be capable of supporting yourself financially
Be at least 19 for men and 21 for women (no maximum age limit)
Mission assignment is endorsed by both the bishop and stake president