Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Discussion About How We Gather the Elect in the Mission Field

I read the quote below which made me think about the topic of who missionaries and mission presidents are trying to bring in to the church. Most of the time when such discussions have been examined in blogs it usually gets in to a side thread of numbers versus quality of new converts. I am examining a different angle in this post from my perspective of serving a mission and viewing the topic in detail for thirty-five years as a lay member. If there are any general authorities or former mission presidents who read this and would like to correct me please feel free to do so. When I choose a topic it is something that I feel bears closer examination since much on the topic is mostly anecdotal. My ethnography professor on my doctorate would not discredit it though since he would say discussing it is better than a guess on the topic. Many times as a lay member we piece together things by what we read or hear from mission presidents and general authorities who speak on the subject. My comments are my impressions on the subject. I think this topic merits discussion.

In 1994 Janette Goates Smith in her book Side by Side: Supporting a Spouse in Church Service (Deseret Book) shared this experience her husband had as a missionary serving under Joe Bishop about how missionaries should be selective in who they teach on a mission:

You can avoid spinning your wheels when expending energy in service if you look for some small signs that those you serve are putting forth a little bit of effort of their own.

Even humorists know you can't change someone who doesn't want to change. The quintessential therapist joke asks, "How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer: "It depends on whether the light bulb wants to change." So it is with those we serve. We can't help someone who does not want our help.

It's difficult to know when you are putting forth all the effort, and the recipient of your service has no intention of changing. How much effort do you expend on someone before you decide you are working harder to effect change than the recipient of your service? President Joseph L. Bishop, who was the president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, for many years, was also the mission president in the Argentina Buenos Aires North Mission when my husband served as a missionary there. President Bishop taught the missionaries to teach only the families who were progressing. A family was progressing if they were reading their scriptures, praying, and attending church. When a family stopped progressing, President Bishop suggested that the missionaries move on and teach someone else. In 1979 the Argentina Buenos Aires North Mission was baptizing more than 200 people a month. There were plenty of people who wanted to hear the gospel. It did not make sense to deprive the honest in heart of the opportunity to hear the truth because the missionaries were too busy teaching someone who wasn't serious about changing his life.

This does not mean that investigators have to read their scriptures 365 days a year and attend church fifty-two weeks in a row. It means they needed to be making some effort of their own.

How long do we continue to work with individuals who make no effort on their own? How many times do we drop by someone's home to have the lights flicked off and our knocks ignored? The Holy Ghost will prompt us to know the occasions when we should continue our efforts, even though progress does not seem imminent.

I know that missionaries have different philosophies about who they believe they should teach and if their mission president has a flexible philosophy then it will be different than Joe Bishop. My mission president was of a similar mind and instructed us to go to those who were interested. It is hard to know for a missionary to know when to move on so it is not an exact science. Missionaries should if they feel a person isn't progressing seek the advice of their mission leaders which includes their district, zone, missionary assistants and mission president. Mission presidents have to make judgments about directing their missionaries so they are ultimately responsible. On my mission I took very seriously the counsel of my mission president in who we were to teach. In district and zone conferences mission presidents constantly give guidelines and restate them over and over since in four to six weeks you sometimes need to refocus. You can actually check out a few of the mission president blogs i.e. Called to Serve (Philadelphia PA Mission). Four to six weeks sounds like a short period of time but to a missionary it seems like a long time. If a missionary wants to be successful they will follow the guidelines given them by their mission presidents exactly. I found I had more success in terms of finding and teaching when I aligned myself to the objectives of my mission president.

As I have examined mission presidents I have concluded that each mission president has the confidence of the brethren to direct their missions as they are inspired. It is true that they receive similar training but it is usually generalizable instructions. I think that different groups of people are touched in different ways by the missionaries but ultimately the mission president as their leader is responsible for setting the direction and focus of the work.

A few years ago I attended the Harvard Educational Leadership Seminar and learned that a first class organization will align itself to the mission, vision and stated objectives of an organization. The closer in alignment to them the nearer it is to being center of excellence. (Gasp Dr. B. went to Harvard at his employer's expense and his instructors called on him often and said he made insightful comments and used his case study to be examined by his class.) Good missions have mission presidents that can articulate their focus and keep their missionaries on track in accomplishing them. I know that mission presidents consult with the Executive Missionary Committee members about direction and concerns but in the end the mission president has to answer for their stewardship to God. When you factor in revelation and personality styles and experience of the mission presidents and their missionaries you get variations. I think they theme is to gather in the honest in heart and elect.

In my leadership in the work world I have learned that employees when given an assignment will usually arrive at the right result but the path to achieving it and the steps may differ. You have to have ice water in your veins when you delegate in any organization and resist the temptation to micromanage. I have heard LDS general authorities for thirty-five years tell how mission presidents are not suppose to consult with neighboring ones because each mission president needs to depend on the Spirit and revelation for the people and missionaries under his direction. If I have misinterpreted that let me know it will make for a interesting discussion.

I believe that each mission president even though they receive similar training bring a vitality to mission work because they interpret how they are to bring souls to Christ in different ways. I believe they have such confidence because men selected as mission presidents are selected by revelation and are usually men well-seasoned in the Church.

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