Gray clouds boil in the Virginia sky, and a hint of winter wind lingers in the spring air. It’s Sunday and the streets of McLean are almost deserted.
A van, loaded with people, lumbers onto the quiet scene and pulls into the parking lot of the McLean First Ward meetinghouse. Doors open and the air is filled with sound: cam on and ar gun—Vietnamese and Cambodian expressions for thank you.
Members of the Mekong (Asian) Branch are coming to church as they have every week for the past two years—with transportation aid from members in every ward in the McLean Virginia Stake.
A few miles away, two young elders discuss the status of their investigators in a ward correlation meeting. “We’re bringing two teenagers,” one elder explains. “They’ve never been to church before, and although they pretend everything is cool, I’m sure they’re a little nervous.”
“No problem,” responds Gary Rogers, ward mission leader in the Great Falls Ward. “We’ll make them feel at home.” And for the next few minutes, stake and full-time missionaries share ideas about individuals who could possibly fellowship the teenagers and some activities they may want to attend in the next few weeks.
It’s just a normal Sunday in this Virginia stake, with members and missionaries alike focusing on missionary work and service. Not coincidentally, the McLean stake has consistently baptized more new converts than any other stake in the area during the last few years. But there’s nothing special being done, stake mission president Frank Madsen is quick to point out. The stake uses the standard Church program as its foundation, mixed with liberal portions of love and keen awareness of the unique needs of each Church unit.
“The first thing I did after I accepted the calling in 1992 was to meet with every stake missionary individually,” explains Brother Madsen, who had previously served three years as a mission president in Boston. “Through the years a lot of handouts and programs and ideas had accumulated. Many of them were good, but I told the missionaries that we were throwing them all out and that there were only three things we were going to work from: the stake mission handbook, the new member discussions, and the standard discussions.
“What we did was simplify the program and go right back to the basics,” he continues. “And we discovered what I’d discovered in the mission field. When you use the program the Lord provides, you’ll enjoy success.”
The program the Lord provides calls for a lot of finding, some sacrifice, and a few meetings, namely training and correlation meetings. In McLean, the former are held once a month, the latter on a weekly basis.
“The missionaries are trained straight from the manual,” explains President Madsen. “The manual is super; it not only tells us what to do, it tells us how to do it. And it does all that in only thirteen pages.” Training material is also taken from the standard missionary discussions (“We don’t teach those, but we need to know what they’re about,” says President Madsen) and the new member discussions, which stake missionaries do teach.
Conducted by President Madsen, training meetings are attended by stake missionaries and the high councilor and stake presidency member assigned to oversee missionary work. In addition, on a quarterly basis, the Washington D.C. South Mission president, Elmo L. Robinson, and the full-time missionaries attend the meeting for a joint training session. “We want those missionaries to know that we, as member missionaries, are behind them 100 percent,” notes J. Edward Scholz, stake president.
And they are. In weekly correlation meetings, stake and full-time missionaries discuss in detail each investigator and new convert. Special needs and issues are brought up, with suggestions made for possible action. It is also during correlation meetings that splits or team-ups with the missionaries are arranged.
During splits, one stake missionary accompanies a full-time missionary, who teaches a standard discussion to an investigator; or the two missionaries—full-time and stake—visit ward members. “The most effective way of finding investigators is through member referrals,” explains Ray Alvarez, first counselor in the stake presidency, who is assigned to oversee missionary work.
In an effort to capitalize on that fact, these visits to members are used to teach people about finding friends, neighbors, and colleagues who might be interested in the Church and to help them fellowship those people. “We really encourage them to just invite their friends to a ward activity or to the Washington Temple visitors’ center,” says Brother Alvarez. “That’s a very nonthreatening way of sharing the gospel, yet very effective at the same time.”
He speaks from experience. Eighteen years ago, his family was invited to a ward activity by the Phyl and Leila Horne family. Over the next four years, they continued to attend various ward functions and became close friends with Brother and Sister Horne and their children. Finally, Sister Horne asked Ray if the family was interested in learning more.
“I told her yes, but that we were leaving next week for a job transfer,” Brother Alvarez says. “As soon as we arrived in Texas, the missionaries were knocking on our door. Sister Horne had sent a referral.”
Within three to four months, the family was baptized; and then Brother Alvarez was transferred back to Washington, D.C.
Stories like his show stake missionaries and members that sharing the gospel doesn’t have to be a stressful, pushy experience, notes Brother Alvarez. “Part of the stake missionary’s responsibility is to help resolve the concerns of members,” he says. “We let the members know they don’t have to teach the gospel; that’s the job of the full-time missionaries. All they have to do is invite their friends, their neighbors, their relatives to activities. Not everyone will get baptized, and sometimes it takes a while. It took us four years. But it works.”
In addition to working closely with full-time missionaries and ward members, stake missionaries—who are encouraged to set aside ten hours a week for their calling—spend much of their time in personal finding.
Mark Cannon, a stake missionary and Gospel Essentials teacher in the McLean Second Ward, personifies this principle. For instance, he and his fiancée were looking at wedding dresses one day. The sales clerk was startled when they mentioned the bride had a special dress to wear at their wedding in the temple and therefore would be wearing this dress for the reception only. Mark took this opportunity to extend to her an invitation to the visitors’ center at the Washington Temple.
Brother Cannon, an economist, says he is just “exercising the law of economics” when he does missionary work: “We have a small amount of time, and we need to do the things that will be most helpful and beneficial to others and to ourselves. For me, that’s missionary work.”
Even though he has been a member missionary for years, Brother Cannon has been pleasantly surprised to find the stake training meetings beneficial. “I’ve got my own ideas based on experience,” he says. “But there are a lot of ideas and skills and questions presented at the meetings. We need as many ideas as we can so are prepared when we run into any situation.”
There’s a saying: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That philosophy holds true for missionary work as well, and McLean missionaries know that loving the people must come before teaching them.
An example of this patient love is reflected in the conversion story of Fred and Linda McNair and their three children. The McNairs first heard about the gospel when their neighbors Steve and Lorraine Swift invited them over for dinner one Sunday.
“They had five children, and as we visited, I was impressed with how well their children got along, how well they respected each other,” remembers Sister McNair. “There was such a nice feeling in their home. I felt uplifted just being there.”
After dinner, the conversation turned to a serious topic; the McNairs were mourning the recent death of a godson due to sudden infant death syndrome.
“I remember Steve saying, ‘We take great comfort in our faith, knowing that we will be with our loved ones even after death.’ That was a powerful statement, and we were immediately interested,” Brother McNair says.
Both the McNairs had been raised in religious families, and they had been searching for a church to attend. When the Swifts invited the family to come to sacrament meeting, the McNairs accepted.
“When we left the meeting, I had such a good feeling,” Linda recalls. “I felt it was what I wanted for us and for our children.”
However, it was almost a year and a half before the McNairs were baptized.
“We recognized from the very beginning that the standards of this church were very high,” explains Brother McNair. “We knew that when we accepted the gospel, it meant more than just having a place to worship. It meant a way of life, and we wanted to believe and fulfill those standards from the beginning.”
There was a long stream of members and missionaries who visited the McNair home. “We were embraced and loved from the very beginning by everyone,” Brother McNair says. “And not in an overbearing or pressured way. These people gently nudged us and were a constant beacon for us.”
Finally, after much prayer and fasting, the McNairs realized that if they waited until they were perfect to get baptized, it would never happen. And so, in the company of dozens of people who had taught, prayed, cried, and shared with them, they were baptized. A year later, that same group of people accompanied them to the temple, where the family was sealed together forever.
“Of course,” President Madsen acknowledges, “every unit in our stake has its challenges and differences. The key to success with the stake missionary program is carefully adapting it with love and faith to meet those specific needs.”
More than 100 of McLean’s 146 baptisms last year came from growth in the Mekong Branch and Bella Vista Ward, two special units created to meet the needs of members who are not native English-speakers. Bella Vista meetings are conducted in Spanish. Mekong sacrament meetings are conducted in English, but members divide up to attend lessons taught in Cambodian and Vietnamese.
Although no stake missionaries are called from the Mekong Branch, a full-time missionary couple serving in the ward act as liaisons with the stake missionaries. It is through this couple that transportation assignments are arranged, with each ward responsible for a specific month to pick up members who would otherwise be unable to attend their meetings. In addition, perceiving a special need, mission leaders made arrangements for weekly home teaching assignments to be filled by stake and full-time missionaries.
McLean stake and member missionaries face other challenges as well. In an area where a commute can take as long as two hours and many jobs demand sixty or seventy hours a week, missionary work can easily get lost in the hustle and bustle. “That’s why we have McLean’s Marvelous Missionary Month of May,” notes President Scholz.
Instigated several years ago under a previous stake president, the stake activity annually reminds stake missionaries and members of their missionary responsibilities. Members, especially the youth, meet on a designated Saturday to learn and practice door approaches. After some training, they head out with the full-time missionaries to canvas the neighborhoods for referrals. The day ends with a testimony meeting.
In addition, every ward or branch plans other missionary activities in May. “They might have a fireside or invite people to the visitors’ center as a ward family or anything else that will help them focus on missionary work,” explains Brother Alvarez. “And the Lord rewards their efforts.”
At least some of those rewards are measured in baptisms. “At the beginning of each year, the stake presidency, in conjunction with the stake mission presidency, sets some specific goals in the area of missionary work,” notes President Scholz. “Then we send those goals to the ward, where the local leaders can decide for themselves if they are realistic and, if so, how they can be met.”
Turning over those responsibilities to the local bishops and ward mission leaders is crucial, President Scholz explains, so that they can be responsible for the work in their own units. And sharing monthly updates continues to remind those leaders of what they have set out to do. “We work closely with them, supporting and helping them. But we let them determine how to do the work best in their areas.”
In the Arlington Ward, ward mission leader William Ferber decided to use his special hobbies to do the work. His ward, comprised mostly of well-established members who had lived there for years, had been visited by full-time missionaries many times for referrals. But no one had ever invited their neighbors to a railroad train fantasy land. At least not until the winter of 1992.
It took Brother Ferber, a train buff, a couple of weeks to set up nine trains in a basement room. He and his wife constructed mountains and ski lifts and ice skaters and clouds. And then they sent out invitations and welcomed people into their home.
Many visitors were members, but there were many who were not. A part-member family the Ferbers had been visiting with and praying for came on Christmas Eve. “They made our night,” Brother Ferber says, still excited about the memory. “It was a beginning.”
Other beginnings for the Arlington Ward include the booth manned by stake missionaries that the Ferbers set up at the county fair, complete with a picture of Christ (“A lot of people don’t know we are Christian,” Brother Ferber notes) and a computer for people to look up their names in the family history files. “One man told me he’d eat his tennis shoes if we had anything on his ancestors. He was pleased when he found out we did.”
The Ferbers also schedule regular neighborhood activity nights at their home, complete with popcorn and a Church video. “What we’re doing is sharing the best thing in the world with these people,” says Brother Ferber. “And there are always imaginative ways to do it.”
It’s obvious that despite President Madsen’s claim, there is more than just the standard program working wonders within the boundaries of the McLean Virginia Stake. There are also people at work here—people with imagination, enthusiasm, and the Spirit.