This week’s query comes from a non-member in Colorado Springs, Colorado:
There are a couple of young missionaries who visit our neighborhood pretty regularly. I turn them from the door with a “No, thank you,” but what I really want to do is ask them this question: what did they do to get stuck with a sucky mission like Colorado Springs? Do you have to do special stuff to go someplace cool? Do you have show a gift for languages to go to a new country? Do your parents pay extra to send you to Italy or Costa Rica? Or is there special honor in the challenge of having to deal with jerks like me? Which brings me to my second question: why are the missionaries who come to my door always boys? I saw girl missionaries as a teenager, so I know they exist, but I don’t think that I have ever seen a girl missionary in the U.S. Is it a testament to the kind of neighborhoods where I have tended to live that an adult in a position of responsibility wouldn’t send young women alone into them? Or do girls not go out into neighborhoods in general?
LP in Colorado Springs
Greetings, LP! And thanks for your questions about our beloved missionaries. I once ran into a pair of missionaries at the Navajo Nation fair in Window Rock, Arizona, one of them a bilagaana (that’s Navajo for white guy) and another guy I thought at first was Navajo. . . but then learned he was from Mongolia. From Mongolia to the Navajo Nation. . . .mission calls do work in mysterious ways.
As with many things in Mormon culture, there is a lot of gossip and speculation about how mission calls get generated. Most true-blue Mormons would feel obliged to tell you that among the 350 or so LDS missions worldwide, there is no such thing as a “sucky” mission, that even Provo, Utah—and people do get sent there—is rich with opportunities for service and growth. Which is not, of course, to say that Mormons are immune to the prestige game: exotic and European mission calls do carry special cache. And some Mormons do believe that language background, intelligence, or specialness on the part of the prospective missionary should yield them more interesting mission calls. Those Mormons tend to be especially disappointed when their kids get called stateside.
The best official version of the story we have was presented at the April 2010 General Conference (one of two big annual meetings of the LDS Church convened in Salt Lake City and broadcast by satellite round the world), when a high-ranking Church official named Ronald Rasband answered some of the questions you’ve asked. In fact, it was one of the clearest and most explicit descriptions many of us have heard of how missionaries are assigned to their destinations. It’s so vivid and sweet, I think it’s worth reprinting a big chunk of it here.
Elder Rasband described an early morning meeting with an even-higher-ranked Church leader named Henry Eyring and a member of the Church’s missionary department in a conference room with several computer screens. The meeting began with a prayer, with Elder Eyring asking God to help him “know perfectly” where each missionary should be assigned. Then, Elder Rasband related:
“As the process began, a picture of the missionary to be assigned would come up on one of the computer screens. As each picture appeared, to me it was as if the missionary were in the room with us. Elder Eyring would then greet the missionary with his kind and endearing voice: ‘Good morning, Elder Reier or Sister Yang. How are you today?’
“He told me that in his own mind he liked to think of where the missionaries would conclude their mission. This would aid him to know where they were to be assigned. Elder Eyring would then study the comments from the bishops and stake presidents, medical notes, and other issues relating to each missionary.
“He then referred to another screen which displayed areas and missions across the world. Finally, as he was prompted by the Spirit, he would assign the missionary to his or her field of labor.
“From others of the Twelve, I have learned that this general method is typical each week as Apostles of the Lord assign scores of missionaries to serve throughout the world. . . .
“After assigning a few missionaries, Elder Eyring turned to me as he pondered one particular missionary and said, “So, Brother Rasband, where do you think this missionary should go?” I was startled! I quietly suggested to Elder Eyring that I did not know and that I did not know I could know! He looked at me directly and simply said, ‘Brother Rasband, pay closer attention and you too can know!’ With that, I pulled my chair a little closer to Elder Eyring and the computer screen, and I did pay much closer attention!
“A couple of other times as the process moved along, Elder Eyring would turn to me and say, ‘Well, Brother Rasband, where do you feel this missionary should go?’ I would name a particular mission, and Elder Eyring would look at me thoughtfully and say, ‘No, that’s not it!’ He would then continue to assign the missionaries where he had felt prompted.
“As we were nearing the completion of that assignment meeting, a picture of a certain missionary appeared on the screen. I had the strongest prompting, the strongest of the morning, that the missionary we had before us was to be assigned to Japan. I did not know that Elder Eyring was going to ask me on this one, but amazingly he did. I rather tentatively and humbly said to him, ‘Japan?’ Elder Eyring responded immediately, ‘Yes, let’s go there.’ And up on the computer screen the missions of Japan appeared. I instantly knew that the missionary was to go to the Japan Sapporo Mission.
“Elder Eyring did not ask me the exact name of the mission, but he did assign that missionary to the Japan Sapporo Mission.”
A few things I would add to answer the rest of your questions. Yes, I have known sister missionaries who tract (that’s our word for going door-to-door), but the rules on this may vary by mission, and there are some missions that are doing away with tracting altogether. If you’ve never seen a woman missionary, stop by Temple Square in Salt Lake City. There’s a gaggle of sister missionaries there ready to give you a tour in any one of twenty languages.
Since missionaries usually pay for their own mission expenses, it used to be that ability-to-pay might have some impact on a missionary’s assignment, whether to pricey Japan or somewhere more affordable in Latin America, but about twenty years ago the Church instituted a program to ensure that most missionaries pay a flat rate regardless of area of service. Medical needs (including the need to take regular medication that might be hard to come by in a foreign land) may have a greater impact on mission assignment.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the kinds of places people get called come in waves as new areas of the globe are “opened” to missionary service. For example, when I was 18, lots of guys I knew were getting calls to the Dominican Republic and Brazil. But over time, as the Church grows in these areas, the preference sometimes shifts away from using bilagaanas to using more local talent. Used to be that the Church had just one Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah; now there are 15 worldwide, from South America to Europe to West Africa, allowing elders and sisters from these areas to train in their home regions.
So what did those Elders do to deserve your neighborhood? Nothing: God works in mysterious ways, right? LP, do me a favor: next time you see a pair of missionaries on the mean streets of Colorado Springs, do like a member and honk and wave real friendly. Or the next time a pair of elders knock on your door, offer them a glass of water. I have a giant soft spot for stateside missionaries, especially since my very own brother served in Peoria, Illinois.
Okay, readers, it’s your turn to gossip about mission calls. Were you a stateside missionary? What was it like getting your call? Is it true that there are no “sucky” missions? And what are the prestige missions these days?
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