Serving a Mission Together

By Marvin K. Gardner

Assistant Editor

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    Missionary couples talk about one of the best decisions they ever made.

    Buddy Conatser and his wife, Marteena Lanae, had been inactive for almost sixteen years, ever since their baptisms when they were eighteen. No one in the Church had been able to talk to them—certainly no missionaries—at least until Vern and Wilma Richins of Draper, Utah, came along. When Elder and Sister Richins knocked on their door in Jamestown, Tennessee, Buddy started his usual excuses as soon as he realized who they were. But Elder Richins gestured at the deer head on the living room wall and asked, “Brother Conatser, isn’t that a white-tail deer?”


    “Let me look at it. Who mounted that?”

    “I did.”

    Buddy invited them in, and for the next two hours they never mentioned the Church. But before they left, Brother Conatser agreed to let them offer a prayer.

    Sister Richins also asked, “Wouldn’t you like us to teach your three young daughters about the church you belong to?”

    “They go to the church down the road here,” he replied. “They don’t need another one.”

    But after a little more conversation, Buddy consented. That was Thursday. Friday was the first discussion. Sunday, the whole family was at church. A week later, the family had attended church the second time and had received four of the missionary discussions. The oldest girl asked, “Brother Richins, when are you going to baptize us?”

    “When your mother and father want us to.”

    “I want you to,” said Buddy. “Since the first discussion, we’ve quit our smoking and we’ve quit our drinking. And we know the Church is true. We’d been hunting for something without knowing we had it all along.”

    Elder Richins baptized the girls that weekend and ordained Buddy Conatser a priest the next Sunday. During the following months, Elder Richins ordained him an elder, and under the direction of the stake president, set him apart as the second counselor in the branch presidency, then as its president. The Richinses also witnessed the Conatsers’ sealing ceremony in the Washington Temple.

    The Richinses were missionaries. Like many other missionary couples, they view these service years not as a sacrifice but as a satisfaction—“one of the greatest satisfactions we’ve ever had in our lives.”

    Who are missionary couples? They are older couples who “are worthy to hold a temple recommend, … no longer have dependent children living at home, … are able to support themselves financially while in the mission field, … [and] are in good health” (General Missionary Handbook, p. 29). They normally serve for eighteen months, but terms are flexible. The Missionary Department has three reasons for calling them “some of the best missionaries in the Church”: their training of local leaders, their good work with members, and their proselyting work.

    A Strength to Local Leaders

    Missionary couples are often assigned to areas of the Church where local Church leadership can benefit from the experience, the maturity, and the guidance of older couples. Although not usually assigned to fill key leadership roles, they work closely with local priesthood and auxiliary leaders, strengthening by example and teaching from experience.

    Elder Royden G. Derrick, a former managing director of the Missionary Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, says that much of the credit for making stakes in Liverpool and Preston, England, while he was mission president goes to the missionary couples who worked with the local leaders.

    Elder Carlos E. Asay, executive director of the Missionary Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, tells of a struggling branch in western Texas whose stake president asked Elder Asay, then mission president, to send in a missionary couple. So Elder Melvin and Sister Annie Cook of Rigby, Idaho, “some of the finest Church veterans you’ll ever find,” were sent there. As a counselor in the branch presidency, Elder Cook trained the local priesthood leaders. And his wife did equally valuable work with the auxiliaries.

    “They were wise,” says Elder Asay. “They knew that if they did too much for the branch members it would hurt them. And they knew they had to be the example. They molded together a fine, working branch.”

    The branch in Jamestown, Tennessee, had some debts, so Elder Richins asked the elders quorum president to recommend a possible branch fundraising project. The local man studied the situation and felt that raising sorghum cane for molasses would be profitable. But the majority of the branch had never done a group project and couldn’t see how it would work.

    So Elder Richins said, “I’ll show you how.”

    They got some ground, planted, and weeded. They harvested, made cane syrup, sold it in the community, and made enough money to pay off all their debts. The next year, after the Richinses had left, the branch planted three times more sorghum and an additional crop of sweet potatoes.

    An Example to Church Members

    Missionary couples add strength to branches and wards just by their presence. Elder Rex D. Pinegar, a managing director of the Missionary Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, says, “Missionary couples are living examples of what the Church does for people. People in the mission field look at them and see great faith in action. And they get a perspective of lifetime service in the Church.”

    One young woman wrote Elder Lyle and Sister Electa Hilton of Mesa, Arizona, after they had been released: “Thank you for the strength you have been to me. Seeing you older people serving Jesus Christ together has inspired me to try to live so that I might be married in the temple and live a life of service and happiness as I have seen you missionaries do.”

    Holding family home evenings, visiting sick members, helping inexperienced priesthood leaders administer to their families, showing members how to plant gardens—these and many other activities of missionary couples strengthen members and encourage them to live the Mormon life-style.

    One missionary couple was disappointed to find a little branch meetinghouse surrounded by weeds and grass. The air conditioner was braced with a broken-down picket fence, and the shrubs and trees hadn’t been trimmed for a long time. “It was a sad little church,” they recall.

    So they got acquainted with the inactive members in the area and let them know that they had come to help. The branch president called a work day, but when he and the missionaries were the only ones who showed up, they phoned several of the inactive members and told them how much they needed their help. Soon people began gathering with tools and clippers. Someone fixed the lawn mower and mowed the grass. The broken fence was hauled away and the weeds were cleaned up.

    Although the building had been paid for a couple of years earlier, it hadn’t been dedicated. So after more painting and repair work, the leaders set a dedication date. A large crowd came. The Relief Society chorus sang. “There was great rejoicing in the branch,” the missionaries remember. “The members were so proud of their church.”

    But more than the branch benefitted. People who lived nearby were interested; some even came and helped. They were pleased with the dignity the building gave their neighborhood. The city beautification committee gave a special certificate to the branch president.

    Missionary couples place a great deal of their emphasis on bringing inactive members back into activity and on uniting part-member families. Often, the first thing they do upon arriving in a new area is to meet with the bishop or branch president, ask for a ward roster, and begin visiting inactive and part-member families.

    Elder Melvin H. and Sister DeLoise L. Robins of Bountiful, Utah, were able to bring the nonmembers in fourteen part-member families into the Church while they were on their mission in Arizona. Brother Arnold Knapp of Salt Lake City, former president of the England Bristol Mission, says that over six hundred members were activated in one year because of missionary couples in that mission. And according to Elder Derrick, sacrament meeting attendance almost tripled in the Republic of Ireland while he was mission president there because of the missionary couples.

    How do they do it? “By loving them, listening to them, and working with them—literally,” says Sister La Nor Cannon of Bountiful, Utah. “My husband, Quayle, helped one man build a chicken coop and another a rabbit pen. We helped one family put up tomatoes. We laughed with them and prayed with them and made good friends with them.”

    Working with inactive members and part-member families often leads to convert baptisms. When the Robinses became acquainted with the Clifton Staggs family in Oracle, Arizona, Brother Staggs was not a member, Sister Dorothy L. Staggs was inactive, and two of their three children were over eight but hadn’t been baptized. Since the children wanted to go to Primary, Elder and Sister Robins organized a car pool. Of course, Sister Staggs took her turn as a driver. Since she usually waited in her car during Primary, the missionaries suggested to ward leaders that she be given a calling. She was called as a Primary teacher—and enjoyed it. After a few weeks, the Robinses asked Brother Staggs if they could teach the children about baptism and invited him to join so he would know what the children were learning.

    Brother Staggs agreed to take them for their baptismal interviews with the bishop. And at the end of the interview, he dropped a bombshell. Could he be baptized, too? Of course! But why?

    “My son came crying into my bedroom one night after you left,” he explained to the Robinses. “When I asked him what his problem was, he said, ‘The missionaries keep asking me to pray, but I don’t know how.’ I realized then that I didn’t know how either and that if I was to be the kind of dad I wanted to be, I’d better find out.”

    He was baptized along with his two children, and the family has since been sealed in the temple.

    Part of the Community

    The experience of a full and involved life pays off nowhere, perhaps, as it does in their community activities. Because of their experiences, couples can relate well with people and can easily gain their confidence.

    “Missionary couples are seen as citizens of the community,” says Elder Pinegar, “while the younger missionaries are often seen as visitors.”

    As “permanent” residents, they usually meet a lot of people, make a lot of friends, and can give highly personalized attention to their new friends. “People need attention,” says Elder Derrick. “They are receptive to missionary couples because they give them very meaningful attention.” As neighbors, they often open doors that could be opened in no other way.

    For example, when the Richinses arrived in Jamestown, Tennessee, an eighty-five-year-old man, Mr. Miller, lived behind them. One day Mr. Miller walked over to the Richins’ apartment and asked if he could borrow their landlord’s ladder so someone could fix his leaky roof. But no one ever came to borrow the ladder, so after several weeks Elder Richins put his work clothes on, picked up the ladder, and was halfway up to the roof when Mr. Miller came out of the house.

    “What are you doing, preacher?” he called.

    “I’m going to fix your roof.”

    When he was through, Mr. Miller opened his wallet and pulled out a couple of twenty-dollar bills. “I want to pay you for the work.”

    “I’ll tell you how you can pay me,” said Elder Richins. “Say thanks. That’s all the pay I want. We Mormon ‘preachers,’ as you call us, don’t take money for doing the Lord’s work.”

    Mr. Miller insisted. But Elder Richins said: “No, I did it as a friend. I did it because we love you.”

    “But I don’t belong to your church!”

    “You’re still God’s child, same as the rest of us.”

    Several weeks later a non-Mormon grocer told Elder Richins the rest of the story. Mr. Miller’s minister accosted him in the grocery store and reprimanded him for not attending church lately. The old man took the rebuke mildly, but flared up when the minister began criticizing his Mormon neighbors:

    “Listen here,” he reportedly said, “don’t you ever say nothing about that Mormon preacher. He fixed my roof after I had tried for months to hire somebody from your church to do it. But the Mormon preacher done it, and he done it on his own.”

    “Yeah,” returned the minister, “but what’d he charge you?”

    “Oh, he won’t take money for doing the Lord’s work!”

    Word of that experience—and others like it—spread all over town, and people felt willing to invite the Richinses into their homes. The Richinses were the first missionaries in Jamestown for four months because antagonism had been so strong, but within three months, they had met every minister in town, and anti-Mormon propaganda ceased as they made friendly contacts with the radio station managers and other town leaders.

    The Richinses’ down-to-earth genuineness also touched Church members. On their first Sunday in Jamestown, only three of the twenty-five people at Church shook hands with them. Exactly one year later, there were one hundred and nine active members, and they all knew how to shake hands!

    “When you let people know you’re concerned about their welfare,” says Sister Richins, “the gospel is easy to teach.”

    Missionary couples have found creative ways to become involved in their communities. Elder Leonard and Sister Wanda Mann of Taylorsville, Utah, spent their personal preparation days during the summer helping investigators can fruit, make repairs, and upgrade their personal surroundings. Elder R. Cy and Sister Thelma Holmes of Salt Lake City joined service clubs and corrected many false images that Australian community leaders had of Mormons. Elder James R. and Sister Glenna L. Clark of Santa Monica, California, taught successful adult genealogy and first aid classes—and simultaneously provided a positive example of Mormon community involvement. Elder William Poole of Preston, Idaho, mingled with farmers and ranchers, giving them a positive look at the Church; and his wife, Georgia, taught local women to make quilts. Elder David Clarke of Clarkston, Utah, organized a group of members to paint the local Girl Scout hall as a community service project, and his wife, Louise, taught nursing skills to local people.

    Benefits of Serving

    Seeing people change their lives for the better when they accept gospel truths is reward enough for a missionary. But missionary couples also testify to great personal blessings from their service.

    Many appreciate this chance to be an example for their own family. Says Elder Vernon Snarr of Salt Lake City, “We felt that we could not expect our ten grandchildren to be obedient to a call from the Lord if we, as grandparents, were not obedient.”

    Others appreciate their increased love for people of different backgrounds, their renewed patience and understanding.

    Self-knowledge is another major benefit. During Sister LaVaun Asay’s orientation interview with her mission president, Elder M. Russell Ballard, now of the First Quorum of the Seventy, she confided to him that she didn’t know how to be a missionary and was nervous and frightened to try. So he kindly walked her through a practice session asking the golden questions.

    Later, on her first missionary day in Kirtland Lake, Ontario, while her husband, Verl, was paying for their groceries, she found the courage to ask the lady at the grocery check counter the golden questions. The lady responded positively.

    After the Asays’ first discussion with this woman and her husband, Robert and Betti W. Guild, Robert invited his brother, Don, and his wife, Sheila, to join them. After a short time all four were baptized. Their influence among friends and other family members has led to at least twelve more baptisms so far—all because Sister Asay discovered courage she didn’t think she had.

    Elder and Sister Hilton learned firsthand the importance of not being ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ and of attempting to teach only when they had the Spirit.

    Sister Hilton tells of conducting skeptical hecklers through the Los Angeles Temple Visitors’ Center, offering up a silent plea for help, and then receiving “an immediate response from our Father in Heaven. I felt my shaking knees grow steady, my faltering voice made strong, a warm glowing sensation in my bosom, and a consuming desire to bear witness that the gospel had been restored through a living prophet.”

    At the conclusion of the tour, a young heckler apologized for his behavior and asked: “Please help me to know what you know and feel the way you feel about Christ.” Two eager young elders came from the mission home and set up an appointment.

    Another blessing is spending twenty-four hours a day together—even though it takes some adjustment. Many couples reported their joy from working hard together, seeing their eternal companion in action, and being involved in a spiritual atmosphere together for so many hours at a tune.

    Missionary couples and mission leaders are quick to insist, however, that a mission is not a honeymoon—it is not a retirement vacation. “When a retired couple moves into missionary work,” says Elder Pinegar, “they have just accepted a challenging and exciting task.”

    But that shouldn’t discourage anyone, believe Elder Dean M. and Sister Marchey Lloyd of Pocatello, Idaho, who appreciate the spiritual development they’ve seen on their mission. “We were retired, and doing some long-planned traveling. We were enjoying our trips, but our spiritual life was not receiving much nourishment. Our decision to go on a mission brought new vigor, new emotions, new friends, new places, new challenges. It brought us closer together as husband and wife; we had a common goal and a real partnership. And best of all, it brought new spiritual growth, instead of spiritual retirement.”

    Elder and Sister Hilton agree: “We came away from our mission feeling that if we had been the only two people in the world, our Savior would still have been willing to come to earth to die for us.”

    Some feel that a mission in later life is the highlight of their Church service. Elder Clarence R. Anderson of Trenton, Utah, for example, a former bishop, high councilor, and stake president serving in the Arizona Temple Visitors’ Center, expresses what so many couples feel: “After a lifetime of service in the Church, this is the crowning point in our lives. Like putting the frosting on a cake. Every couple who can should go.”

    For some, this mission fulfills a lifelong dream because they missed the opportunity of serving a mission when young, but Elder Derrick goes a step further: “I would like to see all the people in the Church look forward to two missions: one when a young man is nineteen years old, and again when the couple reaches retirement. Just think how it would affect people if throughout their adult lives they looked forward to and planned for a mission when they retire—how they would keep their bodies in better condition, how their mental attitude would improve, how their spirituality would be strengthened.”

    But why stop with two missions? President Emerson T. Cannon of Salt Lake City, former president of the Tennessee Nashville Mission, can hardly wait until he and his wife can go again—but this time as a missionary couple. Why? “Because of what we saw missionary couples do,” he says. “We’d like to be able to work full-time with the people like they do.”

    Joseph and Thelma Montgomery of Ogden, Utah, chatting with their mission president on the first day of their second mission together as a couple, said: “President Buckner, we have this figured out just right. We will be able to complete our eighteen months and return to Utah in September 1979, just in time to get our canning of peaches, pears, and tomatoes taken care of and be back in the mission field for the third time by Christmas of 1979!”

    Potential Missionary Couples’ Most Common Questions

    If we’d like to serve on a mission, what should we do? Elder A. Theodore Tuttle of the presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy, says: “Contact your priesthood leaders to see if you are worthy and able” (Ensign, Nov. 1977, p. 55).

    But is it presumptuous to seek a mission call? “Not at all,” says Elder Carlos E. Asay of the First Quorum of the Seventy. “Although couples don’t call themselves on missions, they ought to go to the bishop and tell him they have an interest in serving a mission.”

    We’re not sure we could take the physical hardship of tracting. “That’s usually not the main activity,” says Elder Asay. “There are many ways to make friends with people and contact them.” This article gives many examples—none of them tracting. Couples can also serve as Welfare Services missionaries to provide health, nutritional, agricultural, or vocational assistance to members. Some couples work as guides in visitors’ centers. Others serve as public relations personnel, or as members of the mission office staff.

    Will we need to memorize the discussions? Some couples do, some don’t. “Couples can learn enough of the outline of the discussion so they can teach—and teach very effectively—without having to memorize everything word for word,” says Elder Asay. The Missionary Training Center concentrates on teaching the concepts of the gospel, plus conversation, scripture, and discussion vocabulary so that the couples can “teach the gospel using the experiences in their own lives that have given them an understanding of gospel truths.”

    Will we have to learn a new language? If you’ve studied a language or have language ability, you should tell the bishop. But “normally couples aren’t assigned into a language area unless they’ve requested it or unless we’ve cleared it with them,” says Elder Asay.

    What if we’re sent to an area where the climate is different from what we’re used to? Normally, adjustment is easier than most people think. Elder J. Carroll and Sister Pearl A. Bagley of Sunnyside, Washington, served their first mission in the British Isles and their second in the Philippines—excesses of both cold and hot. “We didn’t have a sick day in either place,” they reported.

    How about our general health? Health is one of the criteria the bishop will look at, but most missionaries find themselves equal to the task. Sister Winona L. Armstrong of Arimo, Idaho, woke up one morning with an immobilizing migraine headache. But she didn’t want to cancel the five discussions she and her husband, Ezra, had scheduled, so she prayed, knowing that the Lord had the power to remove it. “Before I got up from my knees, the headache had gone.”

    Sister Wilma Richins of Draper, Utah, was in a wheelchair a week before they were to leave—but she didn’t need it in the mission field even though the illness and the pain persisted. “It wasn’t easy. It was hard. Really hard. But when we ran out of strength, the Lord gave us more.”

    Elder Pinegar adds that missionary couples should be healthy enough to make a contribution, but they “aren’t expected to meet the same rigorous schedules of regular missionaries. The mission president can help them pace themselves; they’re in a permanent companionship and fairly permanent situations.”

    Photography by Jed A. Clark and Eldon K. Linschoten

    Elder Claudius B. and Sister Maude Olsen, Welfare Services missionaries serving in the Arizona Tempe Mission, agree with other missionary couples that a mission can bring husband and wife closer together.

    In preparation for a priesthood executive meeting, Elder Grant and Sister Louise Mortensen of Sanford, Colorado, serving in the Texas San Antonio Mission, discuss the agenda with Kenneth Schulz, Kennedy Branch president, San Antonio East Stake, and Kenneth Fletcher, seventies president.

    Aaron Osise, a Papago Indian, and Elder Claudius B. Olsen of Brigham City, Utah, examine ear identification tags as they feed cattle.

    Sister Ina Wilcox of Huntsville, Utah, serving in the Arizona Tempe Mission, and Eleanor Schurz organize materials in the meetinghouse library.

    Illustrating a point with her flipchart, Sister Hazel Young (right) of Sandy, Utah, joins her husband, Brigham, in a gospel discussion with Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Webb of Brenham, Texas.