Inside the Missionary Training Center: It takes a village to run what amounts to a small city

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 9:41 p.m. MDT

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-day series offering a closer look at how the LDS Church trains missionaries before they are sent into the field.

The Provo MTC is a little city of its own, considering the average of 2,000 missionaries who live there, and the nearly 150 full-time staffers, as many as 1,200 part-time employees and some 1,500 volunteers who provide support services.

MTC administrators say upwards of 3,000 people can be onsite at any one time — and that's with the MTC running at half its capacity.

The campus is as self-contained as possible — besides residences and classrooms, the Provo MTC includes a gymnasium/auditorium, a massive kitchen and cafeteria, a health clinic, a bookstore, a laundry, a travel department, a barbershop and so on.

"That's by design — we want the missionaries to have everything they need right here so they don't have to go off-campus," said Spencer K. Christensen, Provo MTC manager of human resources and support services.

The workforce includes some 70 administrators and staffers hired full-time at the center and another 70 full-timers contracted through nearby Brigham Young University, said Richard I. Heaton, Provo MTC director.

Add in as many as 1,200 part-time employees, hired either through the MTC or through BYU.

At the forefront of staffing are the teachers — nearly 900 of them, mostly BYU students, working part time at three hours a day, 20 hours a week.

"We have these amazing, nonprofessionals — (for example) a civil engineering major teaching Estonian," said Provo MTC President Gordon D. Brown. "That's just not happening anywhere else."

A trio of teachers — themselves former missionaries — are assigned to each class of eight to 12 missionaries.

"They help you and take you to the next level," said Sister Diondre Darcy of Tulsa, Okla., who is going to Hong Kong. "People want to help us every step of the way, and their faith in what we're doing really buoys me up."

Elder Mark Bullough of South Jordan, who is on his way to Russia, agreed. "What I love most about the teaching staff is that they've been through what you're going through."

But the Provo MTC staff is more than just teaching and instructors.

In the kitchen, pantry and cafeteria, workers cook, serve and clean up for three meals daily for the missionaries. That means as many as 9,000 meals a day, with missionaries entering the cafeteria in 15-minute shifts and food preparation practically spanning the full 24 hours.

Cafeteria manager Doug Walker reports that during 2010, Provo MTC missionaries consumed 200,400 apples, 163,430 pounds of bananas, 10,893 gallons of ice cream and 64,200 pounds of "easy eggs" — or the equivalent of 684,800 eggs. To say nothing of the countless cases of cold cereal consumed, a favorite morning, noon and night.

Perhaps the second-most visited and beloved on the campus is the mailroom. Longtime mailroom supervisor Heidi Van Woerkhom oversees a staff sorting through two to three huge bins of letters and packages of non-perishables coming daily via the U.S. Postal Service alone, besides items dropped off via other general or MTC-specific delivery services (the MTC does not allow visitors to drop off items themselves).

"That's about half of what it used to be," she said, noting the increased use of email between missionaries and their families. Several long boxes jammed with email printouts arrive daily for distribution — two to three times that arrive on Mondays.

Elsewhere, the health clinic is staffed by two doctors and several nurses, the barbershop is humming with four to five employees a day, and alterations and sewing services are available (but missionaries must sew on their own buttons).

MTC volunteers also aid in the arrival of new missionaries on Wednesdays or are among the 1,400 who help staff the MTC's Training Resource Center, where they role-play for missionaries in teaching situations.

Another element of Provo MTC staffing is ecclesiastical in nature. Missionaries are divided into 50-plus LDS branches — small, language-specific congregations — which are supervised by nearly 200 lay priesthood leaders with extensive mission, stake and ward leadership experience.

"We're working with missionaries who are willing to pay the sacrifice to serve," said Ronald J. Wright, whose second go-round in an MTC branch president means Sundays chock full from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. with worship services, council sessions, training meetings and interviews. "Every minute with them is a spiritual experience."

Training to serve in the South Africa Johannesburg Mission, Elder Norriss Webb and Sister Carol Webb of Lake Oswego, Ore., relished their time in the Provo MTC — where in years previously, they had dropped off four of their children for their own missions.

"I can't say enough about the young people who teach us," Elder Webb said. "They're not just teachers. They are strong — strong in the gospel."

Added Sister Webb: "But very humble at the same time.

"Our kids taught here," he continued, "but we didn't know what they were doing.

"Now we understand what they did," she finished, "and why they loved it."

email: taylor@desnews.com

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