Sitting around a table in a conference room on BYU's campus, four Missionary Training Center instructors are on common ground.
Their work responsibilities vary greatly, and before gathering together on this January afternoon for an interview with Mormon Times, they'd never met.
But they all speak the language of shared experience.
There are smiles and sighs when the teachers are asked how much influence the job has over their lives. Valori Infanger expresses slight embarrassment that her friends, so accustomed to hearing her stories, know the names of the missionaries she teaches.
Brandon Sunday laughs about how he apologized to a young woman, also an instructor, for talking too much about the MTC during a recent date. Joseph Sorber and Michelle Aedo both make reference to the fact that their respective spouses maybe hear too much about the MTC.
"I'm always thinking about the missionaries," Aedo said. "They're just always in my thoughts."
Being an instructor at the Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo, home to an average of 2,000 new missionaries at a time, is technically a part-time campus job for BYU students. But for the approximately 700 returned missionaries who teach there, it's a position that occupies a full-time place in their lives.
The teachers share a laugh when discussing the good-natured teasing they get from peers, like being asked if they're the elder's quorum president or whether it's OK to listen to the radio in their presence.
"They expect a level of spirituality from me," Sunday says with a joking tone.
And, no, they don't all wear their nametags around campus.
The truth is the young adults who teach missionaries are typical college students dealing with academic and social pressures. They register for classes and endure finals week. They balance checkbooks and sometimes run into car problems. While some are married, some are looking for a spouse and may experience the occasional breakup.
But bringing those concerns into the MTC is not an option.
For Aedo, who recently graduated from BYU with a degree in speech therapy and completed her final semester as an MTC instructor, the workplace was a haven from everyday life.
"I love the fact that you can leave it at the door," she said. "You don't have to think about (your problems). You shouldn't, so I don't allow myself to."
Sunday, a Russian major from Centerville who served his mission in Yekaterinburg, Russia, says he'll use prayer as a means of blocking out distractions.
"Once that four hours is over and I clock out, my problems can come back," Sunday said.
The responsibilities of being an instructor clearly extend beyond the daily shift. All four acknowledge that while they must leave their individual cares outside the workplace, they carry concern for the missionaries back into their everyday lives. Emotionally, work goes home with them.
Part of being an instructor is challenging missionaries to make commitments, and it's not uncommon for teachers to hold themselves to the same standards, whether it involves prayer, scripture study or missionary work. Aedo says she often took upon herself the challenges she'd present to missionaries, and Sunday says he will not ask missionaries to do anything he's not willing to do himself.
The part-time job also has full-time sway over their conduct.
For Infanger, a graduate student from Pleasant Grove who is working on a master's in communications, maintaining the spirit in her life is a job requirement.
"If I have the spirit, everything will work out in the class," said Infanger, who served her mission in Mongolia. "And if I don't, I need to fix it and I need to fix it immediately."
Infanger says that everything she does away from work affects the learning atmosphere at the MTC. Her job affects even the seemingly inconsequential decisions, such as what music she listens to or how late she stays up.
"It's the hardest job, because it's 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Infanger said. "Everything I do affects it ... but it's so worth it."
Infanger suggests that missionaries who give up two years or 18 months to serve in a full-time capacity deserve an instructor's best effort.
Sunday, a zone coordinator who has been working with senior missionaries for a year and four months, can pinpoint the moment he considered the possibility of becoming an instructor.
"One of my MTC teachers literally had a huge impact on my life and changed completely how not only I approached missionary work, but how I approach life," he said.
While Sunday was still in the MTC, that influential instructor became a zone coordinator, and Sunday decided he wanted to teach upon his return.
"I just had a huge, huge desire to come back, and I applied as soon as I got home," he said.
Perhaps one of the most significant reasons these instructors feel the weight of their responsibility is because they witnessed first-hand how a teacher's influence can help forge a missionary's experience.
Now that they are in that position, they speak of their duties with great reverence.
Sunday, whose teaching time with senior missionaries is limited to days rather than weeks, calculates that he has instructed more than 800 missionaries who will serve throughout the world.
"These are people with extreme potential of turning branches around, creating stakes, changing the lives of millions and millions of people," he said. "I just think it's incredible that the Lord would actually trust me to take their experience and take it to the next level. It's an awesome responsibility."
Sorber, a zone coordinator who, like Aedo, has also seen his time at the MTC come to a close recently, taught Korean for three years and has an appreciation for the significance of his job.
"Knowing that our teaching has a direct impact on the work throughout the world, for me, specifically, the small area of Korea, it's exciting," he says.
Infanger is in a unique position even for an MTC instructor. With only one Mongolia-bound district coming through at a time, she teaches every missionary who is going to Mongolia to serve. Even after three years of teaching, she still gets nervous when standing before newly arrived elders and sisters.
"We know how important it is," Infanger said. "My mission meant so much to me. It changed the course of my life in so many different ways, and I know that's what's happening to these wonderful missionaries. You just don't want to mess it up."
For every returned missionary who loves to share his or her experiences but has trouble finding a listening ear, being an MTC instructor isn't a bad gig.
"You could never have a more captive audience," said Aedo, who is from Woods Cross.
But there's more to it than storytelling. From the post-mission transition to obtaining a degree, returning to the MTC has been a rewarding experience that has helped shape the college experience for these four.
Aedo, who served in Orlando, Fla., thought teaching at the MTC would be a good way to "prolong" her mission. For Infanger, who interviewed so promptly upon her return that she was still feeling the effects of jet-lag, working as an instructor proved to be a "great transition" from the mission field.
"It's like heaven," Infanger said. "You get to go and talk about your mission in your mission language to people who just want to listen.... It's one of the places I feel most comfortable."
For an instructor, the MTC "workplace" is both unique and inviting. First, there's the opportunity to teach the language and/or missionary skills they recently spent two years or 18 months putting into practice. Infanger said she has friends who aren't members of the LDS Church who were baffled upon hearing that she now teaches her mission language.
"They were just amazed that you could learn a language like Mongolian and in 18 months come back and teach it," says Infanger, who is also a zone coordinator.
Then, there's the daily mingling of the college experience with that of the mission field. These instructors can step away from campus and become enveloped by the atmosphere of the MTC, whether it's speaking to a room full of hundreds of senior missionaries or singing a hymn in Korean with a small group of 19-year-old elders.
"You're rarely going to find a place where people are that excited about what they do," says Sorber, who is from Orem and served his mission in Busan, South Korea. "For me it's an easy place to work.... Everyone that I've ever worked with, they just love being there."
Aedo says she's often amazed that instructors get paid, and each teacher has his or her own list of rewards that come from the job.
They're not all in agreement on how the MTC affects the grade-point average, but all have seen a positive impact outside the classroom. For Aedo, being at the MTC taught her study and time-management skills. Sunday, who will pursue a graduate degree in business, credited his mission and position at the MTC with an improvement in his grades from freshman year. Sorber, who graduated in soil science and will attend dental school, says being at the MTC focused his college efforts.
For Infanger, it's like having an extended family.
"I love being around the missionaries," she said. "I'm with them for three months, so they're like my kids by the end of the time. I just adore them."
Ultimately for each of these instructors, it all comes back to working with those who are called to serve.
"I still feel like I'm helping the people that I love in Mongolia just vicariously through them," Infanger says.
For Sorber, teaching at the MTC was initially just a good job opportunity upon getting married. Almost three years later, he has a broader perspective.
Sorber says seeing missionaries progress gives him great hope. His own personal hope is that he has influenced missionaries to the extent that his instructors influenced him. Witnessing the missionaries' growth, seeing them go from "scared to death" to "incredible," is what kept him in place.
"I've absolutely loved working with the missionaries," Sorber said. "Being able to stay involved in the work has been an amazing blessing.... That's why I've stayed so long, because you can see a change.
E-mail: [email protected]