The Lord's Prophet didn't ask for a specific number, but the message was still clear.
"To you mature brothers and sisters, we need many, many more senior couples," LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson said among his opening remarks in the Saturday morning session of the church's October semiannual general conference.
While President Monson praised faithful couples who are now serving or have already served faithfully and accomplished much, the demand for senior couples continues to increase.
"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. As your circumstances allow, as you are eligible for retirement, and as your health permits, make yourselves available to leave home and give full-time missionary service. 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," President Monson said.
Out to pasture?
Howard and Karin Stansel are in the final days of their church education mission. For more than a year, the couple from Austin, Texas, has been teaching institute classes at universities and colleges in southern Louisiana.
The call came after Howard, a chemical engineer, had back surgery and other serious health problems. For a time, things didn't look good.
"They (the doctors) didn't think he would live. I knew from the beginning he would live. The Lord had more for him to do," Karin said.
Following a priesthood blessing and many prayers, Howard amazed the doctors when he regained the full use of his body. His recovery confirmed Karin's feelings about unfinished business.
"To see him (Howard) now, you wouldn't know he'd had health problems. We felt like we needed to show our gratitude to the Lord and repay him a little bit," she said. "I know it's the Lord's will that we serve in Louisiana."
Karin said many couples don't realize the importance of serving. Senior couples are full of wisdom and experience that is greatly needed in all areas of the church.
"So many times we feel like we have been put out to pasture, but there is still work you can do," she said. "The Lord doesn't forget you and wants you to work until your last breath. That is what I intend to do, let me tell you."
A willing heart
John and Jo Bingham, ages 70 and 65, recently returned from back-to-back missions in West Africa, serving a total of three years and three months.
Professionally, John worked as a city manager in locations from Nebraska to California. The couple had always wanted to serve a mission but was in no rush. Shortly after retirement, they were looking at the ward bulletin board outside a bishop's office when a posting caught their eye. They started calling numbers on the paper and ended up visiting with a couple in Provo, Utah, who had just returned from a public affairs mission in West Africa. They decided to submit their papers and were called to replace the couple they had just visited.
Soon the Binghams were in Ghana working in the church's West Africa Area office building on the temple grounds. As area public affairs missionaries, they reported to the area presidency. They traveled through Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Liberia. They rubbed shoulders with general authorities, temple presidencies, stake and district presidencies. They relished their experience.
When asked what preparation they needed to fulfill such a mission, John said only two things were required.
"All you need is a willing heart and to have been active in the church. By the time you reach our age, the experience you gain from being an active member will qualify you to do anything a missionary couple might be asked to do," John said. "You learn on the job as you go. Things in your career might help, but there were three or four couples who had our same assignment and they all came from various backgrounds."
The numerous and diverse assignments for couples include working in temples, teaching seminary and institute, serving in mission offices, administering the Perpetual Education Fund, serving in branches (teaching, training, activating), mentoring, helping people upgrade job skills and enhance employment, working in professional specialties (law finance, engineering, education, health care), coordinating humanitarian services, and providing relief during natural disasters. Some even do the regular missionary work of teaching and baptizing.
The Binghams now reside in Driggs, Idaho. They describe their mission experiences as remarkable, exciting and life-changing.
"When being set apart by your stake president, there are unbelievable blessings promised to you as a couple, and your children and grandchildren, and your grandchildren that will be born while you are on your mission. In our case, all those blessings came true," John said.
"While serving, one of the brethren said, 'You don't have to serve a mission as a couple to go to the celestial kingdom. It's not a prerequisite. But what better way to show Heavenly Father and the Savior of our love for them and for the people we serve?'"
Family, myths, benefits
Larry and Paige Webb, ages 71 and 69, have served CES missions to East Lansing, Mich., and Columbus, Ohio, and are preparing to depart on a third in December. This comes after the couple from northern Utah raised nine children and played with their 42 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
"It (serving) has been such a blessing to our family," Paige said.
Individually, missionary service has improved their relationship and marriage, increased their knowledge of the gospel and the scriptures, as well as strengthened testimonies.
But there are two things Larry doesn't think most members realize regarding senior missions.
First, it's a myth to think you can't afford it, he said.
"You can sign up for what you can afford. Most missions cost less than $2,000 a month. You can live on a lot less," Larry said. "If your health is good, then you should go."
Secondly, seniors are granted some flexibility during mission service.
"You may miss weddings and baptisms, but family members are encouraged to visit. You are allowed to go sightseeing," Larry said.
The biggest challenge in leaving home to serve?
"Missing the Utah Jazz games," said Larry, a former high school basketball coach and avid fan.
Stew and Marge Jacobson, 66 and 62, served a mission in Moscow, Russia, where they oversaw humanitarian aid projects. They are currently serving a public affairs in Salt Lake City.
For the Jacobsons, serving a mission gave life a meaningful purpose. They relate their experience to when the children of Israel were in the borders of the promised land and sent in spies to survey the land. The majority of spies returned with an "evil report." Only two of the 12 spies, including Joshua, recommended moving into the promised land (Numbers 13).
"If they had listened to Joshua, they would have gone on and had a wonderful life. Instead they stayed in the desert," Stew said. "We can sit here and do the same thing, play with the grandkids, or we can go out beyond ourselves, overcome fear and have some wonderful experiences."
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General authorities on the service of senior missionaries
"Included in such a long list of dedicated servants of the Lord is an increasing number of senior couples who make an indispensable contribution to the work. How we love and need couples in virtually every mission of this church!"
— Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, "Abide in Me," Liahona and Ensign, May 2004
"My brothers and sisters, if you have felt stirrings to engage in this work, however quiet those feelings may be, do not procrastinate the day of your service. Now is the time to prepare; now is the time to be called, the time to sacrifice. Now is the time to share your gifts and talents, and now is the time to receive God's blessings for you and your family. 'There is a constant need for more couple missionaries,' President Gordon B. Hinckley has said. As this work rolls forward, that need is increasing. Let us, in our richest years of experience, maturity, wisdom, and most of all, our faith, rise to meet that need as only we can."
— Elder Robert D. Hales, "Couple Missionaries: Blessings from Sacrifice and Service," Ensign, May 2005, 39
"I express gratitude for our senior missionaries. They are young in spirit, wise, and willing to work. They even tolerate remarks from their fun-filled children who might change President Spencer W. Kimball's plea 'Lengthen your stride' to 'Hasten your shuffle.' These dear members are willing to serve and strengthen the lives of others. Even if these seniors don't know the local language, their accomplishments are great and their spirit of sacrifice is precious."
— Elder Russell M. Nelson, "Senior Missionaries and the Gospel," Liahona, November 2004, 79–82
"I honor our senior missionaries. They truly are given power in places where needed to lay the foundation of this Church and bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness."
— Elder Kent D. Watson, "Our Senior Missionaries," Ensign, September 2010, 26