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. 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?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Let me look at it. Who mounted that?”
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 the time.”
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 Richins 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, Section 10, sub-heading 5, 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 main 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 a missionary couple. So Elder Melvin and Sister Annie Cook of Rigby, Idaho, “some of the finest Church members with long experience 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.”
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 their great faith exemplified by their actions. And they get an example and understanding 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.
Elder Melvin H. and Sister DeLouise L. Robins of Bountiful, Utah, were able to bring the non-members 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 bottle (can) tomatoes. We laughed with them and prayed with them and made good friends with them.”
Part of the Community
The experience of a full and involved life brings rewards in their community activities. Because of their experiences, couples can relate well with people and can easily gain their confidence.
“Missionary couples are considered as citizens of the community,” says Elder Pinegar, “while the younger missionaries are often considered 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. 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 got angry when the minister began criticizing his Mormon neighbors:
“Listen here,” he reportedly said, “don’t you ever say anything 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 did it, and he did it by himself.”
“Yes”, returned the minister, “but what’d he charge you?”
“Oh, he won’t take money for doing the Lord’s work!”
That experience—and others like it—were talked about 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’ practical genuineness also affected 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.”
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.”
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 went through a practice session with her 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 question. 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.
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 doing the Lord’s work, and being involved in a spiritual atmosphere together for so many hours at a time.
Missionary couples and mission leaders are quick to insist, however, that a mission is not a leisure time—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 Elder Dean M. and Sister Marchey Lloyd of Pocatello, Idaho, believe that shouldn’t discourage anyone. They appreciate the spiritual development they’ve had 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.”
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, talking 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 can peaches, pears, and tomatoes 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 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, November, 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 are interested 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 received their approval,” 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 capable of doing the task. Sister Winona L. Armstrong of Arimo, Idaho woke up one morning with a terrible 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 had no more 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 follow the same rigorous schedules of regular missionaries. The mission president can help them determine how much they can do; they’re in a permanent companionship and fairly permanent situations.”