Perhaps you’ve seen them around town: young men on bikes in dark suits and ties or smiling young women that have come to the door to ask you about your faith in God. They’re Mormon missionaries, well-known for their clean appearance and black nametags, and they represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) in nations around the world.
The official website of the LDS (“Mormon”) Church reports that more than 52,480 missionaries volunteer in 340 geographical areas, called missions, at any given time. The majority of these missionaries are single young men between 19 and 25 or young women over 21, though some retirement-age married couples also choose to volunteer. Young men typically volunteer for 24 months, young women for 18 months, and couples can volunteer for periods from 6 months to 3 years.
Missionaries do not choose where they will serve, but rather respond to an assignment given by the president of the church, who Mormons believe to be a prophet. When prospectives missionary tell their local leaders that they are willing and ready to volunteer, they receive a letter from the current prophet detailing the assignment. The letter, referred to as a mission call, may send a missionary from his or her home country to any of the 340 missions in the world— it may be Seattle or Cape Town, Hong Kong or Albequerque, Toronto or Moscow, Frankfurt or Sao Paulo. Believing that God speaks through prophets, missionaries accept their respective assignments as though the Lord Himself had asked them to go.
Before reporting to the assigned mission, new missionaries will first report to one of seventeen Missionary Training Centers (MTCs) strategically located around the world. Here they will be instructed in teaching methods, church doctrine, and missionary conduct, and a foreign language if they need to learn one. The standard training period is about three weeks, though missionaries serving in a mission with a foreign language may stay for 8 to 12 weeks for intensified language instruction.
For the duration of a mission assignment, beginning with the first day in the MTC, missionaries focus a significant portion of their time on their volunteer work. Roughly 90 hours of an average week are dedicated to study, sharing the words of Christ, inviting those interested in the Church to learn more, and helping those around them with everything from yard work to quitting smoking to disaster cleanup to researching family history.
As part of their weekly routine, eight hours are set aside to complete any necessary preparations for the coming week: grocery shopping, laundry, letters or emails to family, and some needed recreation or down time are all completed within these few hours each week.
Missionaries also abide by a strict code of conduct. They avoid entertainment, parties, and dating relationships common to others their age. They are up by 6:30 in the morning and in bed by 10:30 at night. At least two hours of every morning are devoted to scripture study. Other rules, including some cultural boundaries, are designated by the leadership of the Church and the local mission president.
Mission presidents are retirement-age missionaries given the specific assignment to direct the affairs of a mission territory for up to three years. Each mission president is accompanied by his wife and any children that may still be living at home. Mission presidents look after the temporal and spiritual needs of the missionaries in their areas, making sure each has proper living arrangements and teaching them from the scriptures. They also assign and rotate assignments for missionary companionships.
Every missionary spends 24 hours of every day with another missionary of the same gender. These duos or partnerships are called companionships. In turn, each missionary companionship is assigned an area within the mission where they live, work, and (when time allows) explore. Partnership and geographic assignments may be rotated by the mission president every few months.
Despite the grueling schedule and strict code of conduct, missionary work is also very rewarding. The most satisfaction comes from witnessing people make changes that will improve their lives. Missionaries have helped alcoholics get away from the drink, tense families to find new family harmony, and doubting and depressed hearts find faith and hope through Jesus Christ. Many of the skills missionaries learn in their respective assignments, such as maintaining a busy schedule or a foreign language, also allow them to be more successful employees when they return home.
Want to know more about what the missionaries do? Next time you see them, ask them to stop for a minute and tell you more about them. You can also chat with a missionary online if you’d prefer, or ask for some missionaries to come by your home. They’ll be glad to stop by and answer your questions. And yes, if it is okay, they’ll probably want to share something they learned in their scripture study that day. Please don’t take that the wrong way. It’s just that they hope to see you smiling one day as big as they are.
Dallin Kimble is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormon”). He is a devoted husband and father of two, a freelance writer, a leader is his local town and a graduate student of Public Administration at Arizona State University. More of his writing can be found on his blog at principlesofthegospel.blogspot.com.