The MTC Experience20946_000_011
“There are no words to describe the spirit of the Missionary Training Center. I think if anybody could just get five minutes of it, they’d be so inspired to serve. It’s just amazing.” Sister Kathryn Sevy relates her feelings after her first few days in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Like Sister Sevy, anyone who has ever been to the MTC knows there’s a feeling there like nowhere else.
Perhaps it’s the sacrifice evidenced in tear-stained faces as mothers and fathers give up the very best they have to offer—their sons and daughters. Maybe it’s the enthusiastic sounds of hola, bon jour, and konnichiwa that constantly fill the air as missionaries greet each other in their mission languages. Or perhaps it’s the chords of “Called to Serve” reverberating off the walls as thousands of missionaries sing together in preparation to hear a living prophet.
Whatever it may be that makes this place so extraordinary, here’s an unprecedented look at the MTC, from the thousands of people there working together for a common purpose, to its astonishing learning environment, to the great spiritual power that is present there.
MTC Statement of Purpose
In an atmosphere of love, trust, confidence, and respect, we will help missionaries draw nearer to God and develop greater converting power so that more of Heavenly Father’s children will accept the gospel, receive saving ordinances, and come unto Him. (See D&C 11:21; D&C 50:13–22.)
The First Day
When Elder Dallin Ashley opened his mission call at his home in Fruit Heights, Utah, and read the words “Australia Melbourne Mission,” he immediately began thinking of the things he knew about Australia, which, admittedly, wasn’t much.
He thought about living in a different hemisphere. He thought of how it would be summer in Melbourne when it was winter in his Utah home. He even thought about kangaroos.
One thing he didn’t think about was a traffic jam in Provo, Utah.
Yet there is Elder Ashley on August 11 of last year, sitting in a car on 900 East with his mother and grandparents. This is how his mission is beginning—waiting behind a long line of cars all going to the same place: the Missionary Training Center.
Joining the masses
Each Wednesday, between 400 and 800 young men and women come to the Provo MTC to begin their missions and receive instruction about how to become effective missionaries. Most of those learning a language will be there for approximately eight weeks. For those like Elder Ashley who require no language instruction, their stays are between two and three weeks.
On this day, Elder Ashley is one of 488 missionaries entering the MTC.
Many of the 488 are milling around, waiting for the orientation session to begin. “I’m ready,” he says to his mom. “This is going to be great.”
Each week there are usually five or six orientations, depending on the number of missionaries scheduled to enter the MTC. The 12:30 orientation, the one Elder Ashley is attending, is the first of the day, with missionaries, along with family, spending their last moments together. By 3:30, the final orientation will have begun, and the lobby will be silent.
But now it’s a cacophony of noise and wall-to-wall people. Three things are a given in the lobby area of the MTC in the early afternoon on Wednesdays: lots of young men in dark suits, lots of picture-taking, and teary-eyed moms and dads—not necessarily in that order.
Elder Ashley is three for three in that department. His grandpa has already snapped a lot of photos, and Elder Ashley’s mom’s eyes are glistening. Dressed in his new suit and crisp, white shirt, Elder Ashley puts his arm around Mom for another picture, looking very much the part of a missionary.
Before long, Elder Ashley and his family walk into a large room where Homefront commercials are playing on several TV screens. The Church-produced spots about the importance of families make everybody feel good and seem to momentarily take their minds off what will happen in about 30 minutes. The room quickly fills up, with Elder Ashley seated on the fourth row. The meeting begins with the congregation singing “Called to Serve.” A sister missionary offers the opening prayer, and then Sister Kay Edman, wife of Missionary Training Center President W. Brent Edman, spends a few moments talking about what the missionaries can expect during their stay. She emphasizes that every minute of every day is accounted for and that the MTC is a great place to learn. “You’ll be amazed at how busy you’ll be in class. But you will get breaks in your day by going to lots of meetings,” she says with a smile.
The “lots of meetings” line is followed by lots of laughter.
She finishes by talking about service opportunities on the MTC campus, weekly devotionals with General Authorities, and trips to the nearby Provo Utah Temple to go along with the hours and hours of class time. Elder Ashley turns and smiles at his grandparents. So far so good.
President Edman then seconds much of what his wife has said. “Many of you have heard about the rigorous demands of the MTC, and many of you may be worried about that. Those are the very things that will be a blessing in your lives,” he says. “The MTC experience is a time of preparation. Blessings come while you’re here, but your experience will sometimes be very taxing.”
Elder Ashley thinks back to earlier in the day when he carried his two stuffed-full suitcases in from the car. His shoulders ache, and he doesn’t disagree with his mission president’s last statement.
Time to say good-bye
Once the meeting ends, missionaries are instructed to go out one door, while family members are escorted through another. Maybe everything else is new to Elder Ashley. This moment, however, he’s prepared for. He knows he’s going to leave his family for two years, and this is where it starts. After several hugs and a few more tears, Elder Ashley walks out the door. His mission is underway.
Even though he was set apart as a missionary the night before, he figures it became official when he signed in and received his name tag. “Elder Ashley,” he says, reading his badge. “Looks pretty good.”
As the new missionaries stand in a line, the “Hi, how are you?” salutation is replaced with “Where are you going, Elder?”
The answers—“Chicago; Osaka, Japan; and Lima, Peru”—are varied, which isn’t surprising. After all, this is the MTC.
Elder Ashley sits down and fills out a personal information sheet and looks through a packet of papers that include his mailbox number, his branch president’s name, and his dorm assignment.
With that safely in hand, Elder Ashley follows one of the MTC’s many volunteer guides, who directs him down the hall to another room. There he notices the other missionaries have removed their suit jackets. He then spots two nurses standing in the middle of the room.
“Shots,” he says.
Actually, just one. A hepatitis-B booster. If it hurt, nobody could tell. Although his gritted-teeth smile suggests it probably did.
“Glad that’s over,” he adds while rebuttoning his shirt sleeve.
After he picks up his books and other materials from the bookstore, he heads to his dorm in the Rey L. Pratt building, room 337.
There to greet him is Elder Michael Harker from Magrath, Alberta, Canada. Elder Harker is already unpacking. Elder Ashley won’t meet his companion, Elder Michael Tanner, and another roommate, Elder Michael Stowell, until a couple of hours later. Fortunately, all four are known as “Elder” because with three Michaels, “Dallin” doesn’t quite fit.
Once he retrieves his luggage from the lobby area, he goes back to his dorm to unpack. Dinner is at five o’clock, and another orientation meeting with his branch president follows. Elder Ashley quickly learns that Sister Edman was right.
The first day of his mission is over. It was long and tiring but very rewarding. “I’m finally a missionary. It’s hard to believe,” he says.
So much happened that it’s difficult for him to remember everything. But there’s not much time to think about that. Lights must be out by 10:30, and Elder Ashley isn’t complaining.
A Great Place to Learn
Gospel doctrine, developing Christlike attributes, teaching by the Spirit, communication skills, a foreign language, mission rules—there’s so much to learn in just a few weeks. Ask missionaries about their study schedule at the MTC and they’re sure to answer it’s the most rigorous of their lives. “It’s like class, eat, class, eat, class, eat, class,” says Elder Joshua Spiers. “It’s really tough.”
But missionaries also say the payoffs are huge. “I’ve learned more in two months than I learned in two years of high school,” says Elder Peter Morgan.
The incredible amount of learning that takes place at the MTC isn’t just about hard work. From the power of the Holy Ghost to high-tech helps, many resources are available to help missionaries become the best they can be.
“Now is your time to prepare. It’s not easy. But as you strive to do what the Lord wants you to, it’s worthwhile. As teachers, we’re here to help you become servants of the Lord, to bring others unto Christ.” All eyes are intent on Sister Nina Bair, a recently returned missionary, as she encourages the class or “district” of elders and sisters.
Teachers, all of whom are returned missionaries, are one of the best resources for learning at the MTC. Not only do they teach gospel doctrine, missionary skills and attributes, the discussions, cultures, and languages; but they also encourage, strengthen testimonies, and share personal experiences from their missions. “Everyone would agree that we have really good teachers,” says Elder Jacob Calvert. “They love the gospel, have strong testimonies, and invite the Spirit. They love the people we’re going to serve and get us very excited for what we’re going out to do.”
The Training Resource Center
In a room filled with couches, end tables, and lamps, two slightly nervous missionaries talk with a Church member.
“Do you know anyone you’d like to share the gospel with?” asks Sister Marissa Johnstun.
“Uh, I’m not really sure,” answers the young woman.
The sisters look a little stumped and a lot self-conscious as the video camera in the corner continues to run.
In an adjoining room of the Training Resource Center (TRC), Elder Morgan furiously scribbles notes as he observes the sisters on a computer screen.
“Thank goodness we get a second try,” says Sister Katie Kondel as she and Sister Johnstun emerge from the classroom-turned-living-room. Elder Morgan gives encouraging pointers as the three replay the sisters’ video. “Next time try testifying a little more.”
The sisters head back for another try, this time looking more confident. As they share their testimonies, Elder Morgan cheers for them in the observation room. “Good job!” he says, clapping his hands.
Missionaries have TRC experiences like this every week, taking turns observing each other as they practice missionary situations they’ve learned about in class. The “investigators” or “members” are volunteers from the community.
“I enjoy it,” says Sister Kondel. “It’s good practice, and we need all the practice we can get! It helps to know what kinds of situations we’ll be in.”
The Call Center
When you’ve seen TV offers for free Church videos or copies of the Book of Mormon, ever wonder who takes those 1-800 calls? You guessed it—many are handled by missionaries in the MTC. Studies show that full-time missionaries are the most effective at obtaining phone referrals, and talking with nonmembers on the phone gives missionaries many opportunities to resolve concerns, bear testimony, and make appointments before they even arrive in the mission field. The referrals are then forwarded to the appropriate mission.
Speak Your Language
It’s no overstatement to say that learning a language in just a few weeks at the MTC is like trying to drink from a fire hose. “You’ll start picking up something and then wham! Something new hits you,” says Elder Morgan.
The instruction is intense from the start—missionaries are already praying in their mission language before the end of their first day of class. A program called Speak Your Language (SYL), in which missionaries are expected to use their new language constantly, helps them practice using what they’ve learned in class.
“We just kind of throw the sentences together and hope it makes sense,” laughs Sister Johnstun. “The teachers say it’ll come with practice.” Even though the SYL program is tough, it works.
“Although we have a hard time speaking the language and we can’t say very much, we can explain that we have a message, we can bear our testimony, we can say a prayer. Two weeks ago, we could never have done that,” says Elder Calvert.
Technology-Assisted Language Learning
On a computer screen, Elder Eric Bennett watches two Brazilian missionaries teaching a discussion in Portuguese. With a click of his mouse he brings up the text of the discussion so he can read along as the Brazilians speak. He clicks on a “record” icon, does his best to imitate the Portuguese into his microphone, then plays the recording back, comparing it to native speech.
These are just a few of the tools missionaries can use with a state-of-the-art computer program now available in Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, and English As a Second Language. (Other language programs are being developed.) Missionaries enjoy using Technology-Assisted Language Learning (TALL) for two to three hours daily because it lets them hear and watch native speakers, work on principles they need to practice individually, and progress at their own pace.
With all the learning resources at the MTC, missionaries agree the Spirit is the best teacher of all. “If we study, the Lord blesses us with the Spirit, and it teaches us,” says Elder Morgan. “I think that’s the main reason we learn so much here.”
And missionaries say that the Spirit is the most important lesson of the MTC. Spiritual experiences range from weekly devotional meetings with Prophets, Apostles, and other General Authorities, to individual and group scripture study and prayer, to weekly trips to the temple. “I mean, we’ve learned the language a little bit, but the biggest thing is the spiritual growth that we’ve had here. Every day is full of spiritual experiences,” says Sister Kathryn Sevy.
Missionary Training City
If you had to pick the most popular square yard of floor at the Missionary Training Center, where would it be? Hands down it’s in front of the mailboxes. Just the sight of envelopes crammed beyond the small square of glass makes a missionary’s heart leap. And even better are the little yellow slips instructing the missionary that a package is waiting to be picked up at the window.
Mail is just one of the support services provided at the MTC. Facility Services, as it is called by its correct title, includes the nuts and bolts of everyday living at the center to make life easier and allow missionaries to focus on learning.
Missionaries entering the center are given a schedule for their group that indicates blocks of time for meals, laundry, service assignments, temple attendance, gym attendance, personal time, etc. Two years ago, the MTC changed from having a single preparation day per week to this daily schedule to help spread out the demand on facilities and to help missionaries get plenty of rest, breaks from class, and time for exercise.
Also, upon entering the MTC, each missionary is given a card that is as good as money. Meals in the cafeteria are charged against this card as well as other services such as laundry. The amount should cover the missionary’s basic needs, but if he or she spends more than is allotted, then the difference must be made up out of personal funds.
One of the most amazing things about the MTC is the way the missionaries help maintain the facilities and help do the tasks that take a lot of manpower. Each missionary gives 75 minutes a week in service. These areas of service include setting up and taking down chairs for large meetings; custodial cleanup in living areas, classrooms, or grounds; participating in focus groups; or working with the cafeteria staff. “The number of service hours per month totals 11,000,” says David Boekweg, Manager of Facility Services. “That translates to nearly a million dollars in labor savings a year for the MTC. And the missionaries don’t mess things up as much when they know they are responsible for cleaning it up.”
Services are available for most things that missionaries will need. A bookstore is stocked with learning materials, book bags, plus everyday items such as toiletries, white shirts, or treats.
Some additional services:
Cafeteria—Three meals a day are served. When missionaries have a scheduling conflict, they can pack a sack lunch instead of eating in the cafeteria.
Laundry—Washers and dryers are available. Missionaries must purchase their own detergent from vending machines or the bookstore.
Dry cleaning—Rates are reasonable. Alterations are also available for a fee. There is a trend for missionaries to gain weight while at the MTC, perhaps because of the regular three meals a day and decreased activity. The MTC has taken steps to encourage increased exercise by offering gym times six days a week.
Barbershop—Elders are entitled to one or two haircuts depending on their length of stay at the MTC. Sister missionaries are not offered haircuts, although a beautician is available for paid appointments.
Copy center—Services such as copying, laminating, or binding are available here.
Sheets and pillowcases—All bed linens are provided. Exchange for clean linen can be made weekly.
Mail—Letters are delivered to mailboxes, and packages can be picked up at an adjoining window. No stamps are sold at the mail window, but stamp machines are available. The MTC will not accept packages that are hand delivered.
Banking services—The office has capabilities to cash checks and sell travelers’ checks.
Medical services—The health center is adjacent to the MTC. Immunizations are available. Health needs can be treated. Also, doctors are on call for emergencies.
Interpretation services—Volunteers help with missionaries who do not speak English.
With everyone working together, the MTC becomes a very pleasant place to stay. Brother Boekweg says, “People are trying their hardest to do what’s right while they are missionaries. Here you are surrounded by people trying to live righteously. Everyone is pleasant and willing. There is nowhere else in the world you could go, except maybe another MTC, and have this same experience.”
Imagine a new school with a student body of two to four thousand—with hundreds of students “graduating” every week and hundreds more taking their place. Think there’s a good chance you could feel lonely there, get lost in the shuffle?
Well, think again. Because while the Missionary Training Center is sort of like that big school, it’s really like no school you ever attended. The MTC is set up so that every individual feels welcome, loved, and cared for—from day one. It’s a school where everyone who wants to succeed will succeed. And a major key to this is the people.
First of all, there are the “students” themselves—your fellow missionaries. Instead of class rankings, cliques, and competition, there’s a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. Everyone is there for the same reason, preparing to serve the same Master. Ask a question, get a friendly answer. Walk past a stranger, get a hello (though it may be in any of 49 languages).
Every newly arrived missionary is immediately assigned a companion and a district. Some new companionships immediately find they have a lot in common. Others have to work harder at their relationships. But differences do get worked out because there’s a common purpose and because so many people, including the others in the district, provide support. All in all, it’s a great growing experience.
As one missionary, Elder Pratt, puts it, “I found that I can learn a whole lot from my companion; and every time we’ve felt the Spirit together and every time I’ve heard him bear his testimony, I have learned to love him more and more. It’s been a good experience to be here at the MTC and realize that you can grow closer to people who are so different from you.”
Then there are the teachers, the people who help you learn the missionary discussions, learn how to be an effective missionary, and learn a new language. Forget that cranky old English teacher you had in eighth grade. Most of the MTC teachers are returned missionaries themselves, most are recently returned, and all are well acquainted with the cultures and situations you are headed for. And their whole purpose is to help you succeed in learning as much as you possibly can. How well do they succeed? Just ask their missionaries.
“He builds up confidence. When we are not doing very well, he is always there to give us confidence,” says Elder Wood.
“They are the MTC. The learning and experience they bring is so good. It’s a whole other experience at the MTC—having these teachers, these returned missionaries who come back here to teach because they love the work,” says Elder Kaliponi.
“We love our teachers,” you hear over and over.
As awesome as the teachers are, there are still others at the MTC whose whole purpose is to help missionaries grow and succeed. For example, there are the branch presidencies—wise and loving men called from the local community to serve the missionaries as priesthood leaders.
Each district of 10 to 12 missionaries is assigned to a branch made up of four to six districts. The branch presidencies and their wives devote their whole Sunday and several evenings a week to the missionaries in their branch—getting acquainted and making sure each missionary has whatever help is needed to succeed. If a missionary is struggling with studies, or needs medical attention, or has spiritual needs—whatever the problem—the branch presidency is on the job. And the missionaries appreciate it.
“You can really feel the love that they have for all of us. They are awesome,” says Sister Whiting.
“He’s always concerned about how everybody in the district is doing. He’s always asking if anyone has any problems or is homesick. The whole branch presidency really care about missionaries and missionary work,” says Elder Wallace.
If the MTC is a school, it’s one with no grades, no class rankings. There are just hundreds of people, from the MTC presidency to the amazingly informed people at the information desk to the teachers and branch presidencies and volunteers—all of them with only one purpose: to help you succeed.
True or False: All missionaries called to serve using a second language study that language for two months in the Provo Missionary Training Center. It may surprise you, but if you guessed “true,” you’re wrong.
In 1977, the first MTC outside of Provo was opened in São Paulo, Brazil, for the training of South American missionaries. Since then, missionary training centers have been established all over the earth, in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, the Philippines, England, and Spain.
For years these international MTCs have been instrumental in training local missionaries throughout the world. Today, they’re also beginning to bless the lives of North American missionaries called to serve in the areas in which the MTCs are located.
Since November of 1998, all North American missionaries called to Brazil are sent to the Brazil MTC in São Paulo for the second month of their training. Because of the success of this “phased training” program in Brazil, similar programs have also been adopted at MTCs in Lima, Peru; and Madrid, Spain. Additionally, all missionaries called to serve in Great Britain go directly to the MTC in Preston, England. Although the integrated program was originally thought of as a solution to overcrowding in the Provo MTC, it has also been successful in better training missionaries and has revolutionized the MTC experience.
A new program
In a pilot study in Brazil, mission presidents there reported that missionaries trained in the phased learning program were more confident and better prepared to serve the minute they arrived in the mission field, and that culture shock went down while language skills went up.
Missionaries in international MTCs still have an experience similar to that in Provo: weekly devotionals with Area and General Authorities, trips to the temple, gym time, identical curriculum and Technology-Assisted Language Learning, and the same support services. But beyond the similarities, there are major advantages.
Speaking the language
When English-speaking missionaries enter the Brazil MTC, they have no choice but to speak Portuguese—their roommates, teachers, and support staff are Brazilian. “In Provo we’d practice our Portuguese, but we could always fall back on English. Now, we’re with people who don’t speak any English at all,” says Elder Jacob Calvert. “Every day we realize how much farther we’ve got to go, so people are a lot more committed to learning the language.”
Although the language barrier is challenging, North American and Brazilian missionaries also say it’s a lot of fun trying to talk with each other in the cafeteria, in their dorm rooms, in the gym, and in occasional combined classes. “Even on our first day here, we were actually able to carry on a conversation with a Brazilian in the cafeteria line,” says Sister Kathryn Sevy. “He was going really slow for us, but it was so exciting to realize that what we learned in Provo actually works!”
Teachers at the Brazil MTC are Brazilian returned missionaries, many of whom also speak some English. Here, all classes are conducted in Portuguese, although teachers will occasionally explain some things in English if missionaries appear confused. In spite of the increased level of difficulty in class, missionaries say they love having Brazilian teachers. “They’re able to explain the language better since they’re native speakers,” says Sister Sevy.
Another big advantage in classes here is that after English-speaking missionaries learn a new task such as making a contact, teaching a principle, or making a return appointment, they combine for practice with a Brazilian class that has been learning the same principle. Whereas in Provo the missionaries would have “role-played” with each other in broken Portuguese, they are now able to practice with a true Brazilian and receive accurate feedback.
Decreased culture shock
Culture shock is typical for anyone who moves to a new country, but the Brazil MTC makes the transition much easier for new missionaries. “It’s almost like a halfway point between the American culture and the Brazilian culture,” says Brazil MTC President James Palmer. “It helps them make an easier transition.”
Not only are North Americans and Brazilians able to become accustomed to living together, but North Americans are also able to experience Brazilian food, market places, and shopping during weekly outings. All missionaries in the MTC also go team teaching once a week with missionaries serving in one of the São Paulo missions. “The missionaries are able to go out into the ‘real world’ and then come back and talk about their experiences with their teachers and ask questions about things they need to improve on,” says President Palmer. “So by the time they enter the mission field, they’re ready.”
Of all the advantages of the integrated MTC program, perhaps the greatest of all is the mutual love and respect that develop between the missionaries of different cultures. Talk to North American missionaries, and they’ll tell you Brazilians are the warmest people they’ve ever met and say how much they appreciate their patient help with the language and culture.
Talk to Brazilians, many of whom are recent converts, and they’ll say how much fun the Americans are and how they’re able to learn doctrine, policy, and leadership skills from missionaries who’ve known the Church all their lives. “I tell the North Americans that they are going to have a major effect on the leadership of the Church in Brazil,” says President Palmer, “because many of the Brazilian missionaries with whom they serve will be called as bishops, high councilors, stake mission leaders, and stake presidents within a few years after their missions.”
Maybe it’s the way the Brazilian sisters run to the front of the MTC to hug and kiss the new incoming North American sisters. Maybe it’s the way the elders love to trade their American and Brazilian ties. Whatever the case, the love that exists between the two cultures seems to fill the MTC, and by the time they leave here, all missionaries are better prepared to understand and get along well with their future companions. And North American missionaries develop a deep love for the Brazilian people before they even enter the field.
Here to stay
Considering these successes, it appears that the integrated MTC program is here to stay. As the number of missionaries increases in the future, it’s likely that more and more missionaries will be sent to MTCs in the areas in which they will serve. “I think it’s the wave of the future,” says President Palmer. “It’s making a major difference in the lives of missionaries, and we’re only beginning to see the results.”
The England MTC
One of the newest of the international Missionary Training Centers is in Preston, England. Opened two years ago, the England MTC now offers three-week training for missionaries called to serve in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Also trained there are missionaries from some areas of Europe, Russia, and Mongolia who speak English even though they may not be serving in English-speaking missions.
With the England MTC able to accommodate 84 elders, 24 sisters, and 1 missionary couple, now missionaries called to Great Britain will go directly to Preston as they begin their missions. Adjacent to the Preston England Temple, the England MTC is a vibrant, exciting place where missionaries quickly form lasting friendships. “What impressed me most,” said Elder Stephen Kenworthy from Ashton, England, “was how new missionaries from all over the world quickly got to know each other and became friends. I can honestly say every missionary at the MTC is a friend to one another.”
The curriculum is the same as that taught at the Provo MTC. The instructors, all returned missionaries living near Preston, see the great strides made by new missionaries in the three weeks spent at the MTC. “We have missionaries come who have the desire to be the best missionaries they can, but fear that they can’t do it,” says Angela Turner, an MTC instructor who served her mission in the England London Mission. “Their testimonies grow so much as they realize that the Lord is going to help them.”
President Norman White of the England MTC tells each missionary, “You have the Savior’s name, the Church’s name, and your family’s name on your name tag. That’s who you represent.”