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Transitioning for senior missionaries: Do we have to go home?

Published: Monday, April 15 2013 5:10 a.m. MDT

Charles and Vickie Rucker help with wheelchairs in Argentina. (Elder Charles and Vickie Rucker) Charles and Vickie Rucker help with wheelchairs in Argentina. (Elder Charles and Vickie Rucker)

Just like young elders and sisters, senior missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also have to come home after serving. We know that, upon arriving home, young Mormon missionaries return to college, obtain a job, begin courting and eventually get married. But how do senior missionaries feel about their missions and post-missions?

Many senior missionaries decide to serve missions for the LDS Church long before the mission calls actually arrive. Many of them have planned and prepared to go, mainly because the brethren have been asking for more senior missionaries. Lynn Snow and his wife, Janet, who served as area auditors in the Caribbean Area office, said it was a matter of testimony. “(We had) a testimony of the gospel and felt that our leaders had encouraged a mission for senior couples … (so) we had set a rough time line years … before we went … and made some plans to go.”

Sister Joanne Hammon, welfare specialist in the Caribbean Area Welfare Office; Elder Robert Christiansen, church vision specialist; and community members in Dominica in the San Juan Puerto Rico Mission sing hymns with the aid of their new glasses. (Darrel Hammon) Sister Joanne Hammon, welfare specialist in the Caribbean Area Welfare Office; Elder Robert Christiansen, church vision specialist; and community members in Dominica in the San Juan Puerto Rico Mission sing hymns with the aid of their new glasses. (Darrel Hammon)

David and Carol Harris recently returned from serving in the France Paris Mission. Both had served missions when they were younger in France and enjoyed it thoroughly. So, when they married, they planned on “one or two missions,” mainly because “where much is given much is required — how could we not serve?” Plus, one of their main reasons for going was to be an example to their children and grandchildren.

Charles and Vickie Rucker, who served their first mission in the South America South Area office, planned on serving missions because they are “under covenant” and the Lord helped them prepare financially. Plus, they said “our children and grandchildren were all very supportive although sad at all the things we would miss, (but) they felt part of our great adventure.”

Although Mormon missions can be grand adventures, they eventually come to an end. Like young missionaries, many seniors anticipate the ending of a mission. All are excited to go home to family and friends, but all of them had “mixed feelings” about going home. The Snows expressed the sentiments of many: “During the mission, I always looked forward to the end, but when the end actually came, it just did not seem real.” The term surreal came up often when talking to senior missionaries.

Elder Cordell Hull helps young people learn good hand-washing skills. Elder Hull and his wife, Cindy, served in the Bangkok Thailand Mission with assignment to Myanmar. (Cindy Hull) Elder Cordell Hull helps young people learn good hand-washing skills. Elder Hull and his wife, Cindy, served in the Bangkok Thailand Mission with assignment to Myanmar. (Cindy Hull)

As a result of their missions, senior missionaries’ lives change in different ways. Most come from very busy and successful lives. Rodney and Marcia Ford have served four missions — in New Jersey; the Spain Malaga Mission, where they spent the entire time in the Canary Islands; a mission serving in the Madrid Spain Temple; and the Dominican Republic West Mission.

Marcia Ford said, “We have more zeal for missionary work; we feel more connected to our grandchildren serving missions; we have more appreciation for mission presidents after serving in an office.”

Edward and Linda Sappington served in the West Indies Mission and spent their time in Guyana. When they returned, they didn’t expect the intense feelings they felt. In fact, they “mourned the disassociation of those in Guyana.”

Linda Sappington said, “We always knew we would see our six children and 13 grandchildren again … but I now also have 35-plus Guyanese children and many wonderful members and friends we will likely never see again in this life except on Skype or Facebook! No one told me it would be harder to come home than it was to leave!”

When the Ruckers returned home from their first mission, they thought, “What if we hadn't gone?" Then they reflected on the “wealth of experiences the Lord had in store for us when we exercised that faith to leave all that was familiar of home and serve him.”

In many cases, particularly with missionaries who served outside the United States, they discovered a need to simplify their lives.

After returning from their fourth mission, the Fords said, “We realize we have too much ‘stuff.’ The desire to clean out, simplify is pretty strong. We appreciate the little things so much more.”

Cordell and Cindy Hull, who served in the Bangkok Thailand Mission with assignment to Myanmar, said that “a mission has also encouraged us to simplify our lives so acceptance of future calls will be easier.”

Senior missionaries also discover things at home are different when they return. For example, upon their return from serving in Jamaica, Theron and Shanna Schaefermeyer wrote, “We acclimated well with the family, but we were different. We were used to being active all day and meeting people and accomplishing things. We were now not needed so much.”

Even after a lifetime of experiences, senior missionaries learn many lessons and come to different conclusions. The Sappingtons wrote, “We now have a deeper sense of what ‘family’ is all about — especially the family of the house of Israel.”

The Hulls learned to “be more aware of others around us and how important it is to just open our mouths and begin a conversation … (and that) all pain and problems that people encounter in their lives can be helped with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Mary Lou Roberts, who served with her husband, Richard, in the Dominican Republic, felt she increased her confidence in her own abilities as a result of her mission.

Often serving a first Mormon mission influences senior missionaries to serve additional missions. Even after four missions for the LDS Church, the Fords said, “It was such a positive experience for us that we wished to retain that level of harmony and involvement with the Lord’s purposes.”

Marcia Ford added, “My time was so busy and structured serving in the mission office that having such freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want seems ‘wasteful’ to me now. We’ve been home six months — I’m doing OK, but still miss the close associations we shared with other missionaries.”

Deloy and Lorna Roberts, who also served in the Dominican Republic, said, “We knew it would be hard to say goodbye to our friends we had met in the mission field, but we didn’t realize just how hard it would be. It was like ripping our hearts out when we said goodbye to people we may never meet again. It was awful.”

Many things, both good and sad, happened at home while senior missionaries served.

Senior missionaries definitely miss their families. Most of them have children, grandchildren and some have great-grandchildren. Fortunately, senior missionaries can use technology like Skype to connect with their families. Some returned home to attend funerals and marriages. Others witnessed the events from their missions. The Sappingtons' youngest daughter gave birth to their 13th grandchild, and their second daughter married just six weeks after they left the Mission Training Center in Provo.

Many of the senior missionaries watched from afar as grandchildren were born, grandsons received the priesthood, grandchildren received their temple endowments and went on missions, grandchildren were baptized and friends died. But the missionary families seem to cope.

Deloy and Lorna Roberts expressed the sentiments of many missionaries: “While it was difficult for us to be away from our loved ones during this time, we got along all right. And you know what, so did they. Our children and grandchildren were blessed in our absence.”

For many senior couples, their first mission influenced them to go on additional missions. Elder George Herd and Sister Verlene Herd, who are currently serving in the Hungary Budapest Mission, served their first mission in the Slovenia/Croatia Mission. “We had such a wonderful experience on our first mission and we were much more relaxed when we decided to go again. It helped us to know what to expect and we succeeded the first time, so we knew we could do it again and be okay,” they said.

Roger and Sherry Brown, who served in the Dominican Republic West Mission, with Roger serving as a counselor in the mission presidency, said, “We want to go again.”

One thing many senior couples say they want to do before, during and after their missions is to help others. Many have offered counsel for those who are thinking about going on missions or seniors who are currently serving.

The Harrises, who served in Paris, counseled, “Be flexible, loving and kind with each other and with the people you serve. Be sensitive to their cultures.”

Rebecca Christiansen, who served as a single sister in the Philippines, said, “I would advise all seniors to ask the Lord to send them where they can do the most good. Then do everything possible to make sure they accomplish their special task. We may never know what it is, or the Lord may show us if we ask.”

Perhaps the Ruckers said it best: “Senior missionary service is the best kept secret in the church.”

Many of the seniors said, “Do we have to go home?” But they returned more than satisfied with their lives and eager to share their experiences with anyone who will listen. They are happy to be with family and friends, yet many of them feel they have changed for the better and want to go again.

President Thomas S. Monson reminded “the mature brothers and sisters” in the October 2010 general conference, “… we need many, many more senior couples. … To those of you who are not yet to the season of life when you might serve a couples mission, I urge you to prepare now for the day when you and your spouse might do so. … There are few times in your lives when you will enjoy the sweet spirit and satisfaction that come from giving full-time service together in the work of the Master.”

Darrel Hammon likes being outdoors, growing things and seeing things the way they could be. He blogs at www.darrelhammon.blogspot.com. He and his wife recently returned from serving in the Caribbean Area Welfare Office.

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