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A look at Mormon missionary training process

Elder Richard G. Hinckley conducts a discussion with new MTC presidents and visitors center directors in Provo.
Elder Richard G. Hinckley conducts a discussion with new MTC presidents and visitors center directors in Provo.
R. Scott Lloyd, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Elder Richard G. Hinckley is a member of the First Quorum of Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the executive director of its Missionary Department. The following are excepts of an interview — conducted by the Deseret News and KSL-TV — on missionary work and missionary training.

Question: This is a really simply question, but people ask it all the time around the world: Who are they who are these missionaries?

Elder Hinckley: These missionaries are young men and women, some older married couples, some older single sisters who have a desire to serve the Lord and who have been called by the prophet to serve wherever – two years in the case of the young men, 18 months in the case of young women, and for seniors, it can be in some limited cases six months, in other cases 12 months, in others 18 months and in yet others 23 months.

They do so at their own expense — or with the help of their families — and fill the Lord's mandate to go into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

And they do so willingly. They don't know what they're getting into, for the most part, unless they've had siblings or close friends who have served – they do a wonderful, wonderful job. They're young, they're inexperienced, and by the time they come home, they are mature and wonderful young people.

Question: Why does this still work in the 21st century?

Elder Hinckley: It still works because it's the Lord's way. He called a prophet in Joseph Smith who was very young and very inexperienced. That was some time ago, many years ago. But today it works because young people still feel committed to serve. They want to serve. They are less selfish than we think they are. And they are more committed to good than we think they are. There are many of them — thousands of them

Question: What has the church learned about training missionaries in the past 50 years, since the first language training facilities in 1961?

Elder Hinckley: We continue to learn. We have not learned everything. In fact, we are in the process of modifying the curriculum for all MTCs, and we'll roll that out in August. It's a continual learning experience. We adapt to the times, we adapt to the needs.

We feel a need to teach our missionaries, for example, how to do a better job of teaching. They seem to know what to teach — we do a pretty good job of helping them to know what to teach. But in terms of the actual teaching experience, they are young and inexperienced, and so we're working very hard with this new curriculum to help them be more effective teachers.

It's an evolving situation that will continue to evolve until the end of time.

Question: Let's say you and I are sitting on an airplane and I know nothing of the church and only seen LDS missionaries in passing. How do you describe what the missionary training center is — the Provo MTC and the international MTCs? How would you describe them in layman's terms?

Elder Hinckley: I think most people on an airplane who travel the world today will have encountered a missionary or two. So, they know who the missionaries are. So that's a very easy segue into telling them how we train them.

If it's in their native language, we only keep them for three weeks. So we don't give them a two-year tutorial — it's three weeks in their native language, longer if they're learning a language. If they're learning a language, it maybe nine weeks, or for a very, very difficult language, we may keep them for as many as 12 weeks, for Chinese, Japanese and so forth.

During that time, we teach them the principles of the gospel, we have a syllabus, a manual, that we call "Preach My Gospel" that when joined with the scriptures provides the teaching tools for our missionaries. We teach them how to use them [the scriptures and "Preach My Gospel"] how to approach people in a dignified and appropriate way and how to teach them.

Question: There are all sorts of misconceptions or overgeneralizations among members of the LDS Church of what the MTCs are. How would you respond to some of those overgeneralizations, whether it be "boot camp" on one extreme to "the Lord's university" on the other?

Elder Hinckley: Well, it isn't a boot camp, although I suspect some young people feel that it is because it is relatively restrictive, that is they don't leave the MTC once they're there.

They don't accept visitors. We simply can't do that — we just have too many in residence, we have over 2,000 there at any given time, so we have to have some routine and some regimentation to the process. They get up at 6:30 in the morning, they have an exercise program, they eat at certain hours, they go to class during certain hours.

This is a disciplined approach to teaching them that missionary life is work and that it's disciplined work — and for some of them who perhaps come from a rather undisciplined background, it may be a bit of a shock at first. But generally speaking, they come to love and appreciate the experience there.

Question: The concept of a missionary training center and the need for it – it took some time to get there. What back then still holds true today in terms of what exists on that MTC campus?

Elder Hinckley: Let me back up a little further than when the first MTC began. I did not have an MTC experience. I served in Europe, and I learned a language. So in order to accommodate that learning process, my mission was 2 ½ years — no training. I just went to the airport on my own, got on a plane and arrived in Europe and spent 2 ½ years there — that extra six months designed to help me learn the language.

So initially, the LTM — the Language Training Mission — was established thinking that we could help young missionaries learn a language. And that was quite successful. This extended their service by two or three months. So, instead of 2½ years, they served for about 27 months, three months of which were language training.

And then that evolved into the thinking that we probably ought to train these young people into how to teach the gospel and how to do missionary work.

In my day, if I may be so bold to say, most missionaries came from what we would consider today to be nuclear LDS families, where there was a tradition of missionary work, and where mom and dad were members of the church, second- or third-generation.

Today, that's not true. Many, many of our young people who serve are the only members of the church from their family, and they themselves may have been a member of the church for only a year or more. So we need to get all of these missionaries on the same page, if you will, and at the same level before we send them out to the field.

So those are two purposes – language and bringing a very disparate group of young men and young women up to the same level before they travel to their fields of labor.

Question: Share what you can with us of the missionary calls that go out –what goes into deciding where an applicant should go?

Elder Hinckley. A very good question. Elder Rasband [Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the church's Presidency of the Seventy] addressed that very nicely in a recent conference and I'll repeat some of the things he said.

First of all, the applications now almost all come in electronically via the internet to us in the Missionary Department, and we send just the medical piece to the doctors. They don't see anything else other than the medical information. They let us know whether they have any medical concerns that could restrict where the missionary might serve in the world. So that's the first thing.

When all of that is lined up, the application goes over to a member of the [Quorum of the] Twelve. We do not assign missionaries in the Missionary Department. That is all done at the Quorum of the Twelve level.

Every Friday morning, a member of the Twelve sits in a relatively small room in the Church Administration Building to make assignments. We send a staff person over with the database, if you will, with all of those missionaries who are prepared to be called and they make the assignment. And the member of the Twelve makes them individually, one by one, based on very sparse information that we show them on a computer screen as to their health, any language training they've had perhaps in high school and that's about it.

For example, if they have a particularly allergy — let's use the example of an allergy to cut grass — we will have in our database all of those missions where cut grass may be an issue. And so the assigning member of the Twelve can see that. Now he may wish to completely override that — that's his prerogative.

So nothing that we show that member of the Quorum of the Twelve restricts him in any way as to where that young missionary may serve. We also show the missions that are below complement – that is that need new missionaries — and those that have enough or are over complement. He can override those factors — and I have seen that happen. I've seen all of the above. I've sat in on a few of those meetings.

And it's a process of inspiration. I'm absolutely satisfied that that is the case. Every single name and picture is read and looked at and thought about and the assignment is made on an individual basis. The computer does not make assignments.

Question: You've spoken of your own mission – what did it mean for you serving in Germany?

Elder Hinckley: I mentioned before the interview that I'm returning to my own mission field tomorrow – after 50 years. I went out 50 years ago last month. And it did everything for me. In the intervening 50 years, there's probably not a day in my life that has gone by that I haven't thought of my mission — one experience or another. Mostly, of course, it is the people you meet — the members you meet, the nonmembers you meet, the people whom you helped come into the church.

It had a tremendous influence in my life. It gave me confidence — I was a backward, painfully shy boy when I went out — so painfully shy that I didn't think I could do it. By the time I got home, I was able to look people in the eye and talk to them with confidence. With all of the wonderful religious experiences and spiritual experiences we have aside, it is a wonderful way for a young man or a young woman to gain confidence, to gain poise, to gain the ability to deal with people and talk with people with confidence and to face life and face challenges.

Missions are a place where rejection happens every day, and it's healthy — it's a healthy thing for a young person to face rejection and to develop the faith and the tenacity and the perseverance to deal with it and to overcome it and to get up in the morning, to get dressed and go out and face it again. It builds strength — it builds spiritual strength, it builds emotional strength and it builds character.

Question: Back to the Provo MTC — you go there to accompany diplomats, consul generals, people specializing in linguistics training. What do these visitors say after they've been there?

Elder Hinckley: They're never quite prepared for what they feel, let alone what they see. And that always comes out.

They may go down there with a great curiosity, as you indicate, as to how we teach languages at the MTC. And we have a very, very extensive program, a computer-aided, technology-assisted system there for teaching languages. And they may go down there to study that, but they go into those buildings and they feel something that they have never felt before — they feel the excitement, the enthusiasm, the dedication of these young people. And they see young people who instead of having spiked hair and body piercings, if you will, they're in white shirts and suits and dresses — they look sharp, they're wonderfully groomed, they're happy, they're scrubbed, they're delighted to be there — and they feel the spirit of the Lord and they're not prepared for that. And I think that's the most common comment that we get – "I was not expecting to feel what I felt. Please help me to understand what that feeling is."

Question: You talked about the idea of rejection. What about the idea of something they don't realize they do — they plant seeds. What about when they feel like they haven't done enough — "I didn't baptize that person or that family when I thought I would"?

Elder Hinckley: More of that goes on than we realize. We talk to young missionaries – "you're panting seeds." [They say:] "We don't want to plant seeds, we want to see the harvest." Sometimes they do, other times they don't.

Just a quick story from my mission: We had an appointment with a woman who was a very distinguished woman, she was the public affairs director for one of the largest industrial concerns in Germany … I was transferred, I got a transfer notice, and I wasn't able to be there. So we went by, she wasn't home, we left a card on her door [saying] that I wouldn't be able to make it and future missionaries would – and they went by but nothing much happened. She put that card in a book somewhere on her bookshelf.

Years later, her husband died. She was going through some of her things and his and found that card and thought, "You know, if a 19 year old is responsible enough to write a note and bring it by and say 'I can't make my appointment,' there must be something to this." She joined the church. She came and stayed a month with my wife and me after we were married and living in California – a brilliant and wonderful woman.

And that happens – I hardly remember the event, but she remembered it very clearly. And that happens all the time, in one form or another — the planting of seeds.

Question: What message would you give to young men and young women and older couples — what would you like them to know about missionary work?

Elder Hinckley: The message I would give them is that they can do this, to set their fears aside and develop their faith and to realize that they're going into the world to do something the Lord has asked them to do and they can do it — with his help, they can do it. They can succeed and they will succeed.

I think so very many of our young people go out fearful and they hear that perhaps they're going out to a difficult mission where there are not a lot of baptisms, and they go with this perception. And they don't need to do that. Those missionaries who go out boldly and with faith, with confidence and who work at it and are persistent [will] have success and they'll come home from their missions saying "I'm glad I did this."

If I were to put that into a few words, I would say that when you come home from your mission, I do hope that you will be able to say "I'm glad I did," and not "I wish I had." That would be my message.