In praise of senior couples

Last Thursday I drove my in-laws to the Preston MTC in England. They have been called to work as CES coordinators for the church in the Greece Athens Mission. They will be the first to tell you that when they first received their call they were not overly pleased with this assignment. Originally, they had intended to serve a humanitarian aid mission and hoped to serve in the US. Subsequently they have made their peace with this assignment and seem to be having fun in the MTC.

Watching them move through the process of submitting their papers, preparing to serve, and then saying goodbye has been humbling. I love and admire my in-laws a great deal. This has not been easy for them and they have been willing to trust in their God as they embark on this period of sacrifice.

In fact, I have new respect for senior couples all over the church.

A few years ago, a senior couple was assigned to our struggling ward. They had traveled from Idaho to serve in the London Mission. This somewhat exotic assignment came with some probably unexpected challenges. I failed to realize at the time how difficult it must have been to experience rejection and apathy in response to their great financial and emotional sacrifice. They were assigned to work with less-active families and to try and make contact with those who were on the records of the church. Sometimes this must have been mind-numbing and depressing work even if it was punctuated with moments of success. I know they experienced fatigue and discouragement but they always served with cheerfulness. Moreover they spent time meaningfully with the sick and the lonely. Our ward has benefited from their efforts.

My in-laws, I hope, will find more satisfaction in their service; but if they do not I am sure they that will approach their time with assurance, hope, and affection. Knowing them as I do, I suspect they are incapable of anything else.

Serving as a senior couple is not cheap. In fact, it is prohibitively expensive. I imagine that this form of service will (or has) become the province of the very wealthy.

More than this, changing dynamics between young adults and their parents means that serving a senior mission is increasingly difficult. Young adults (there are a variety of other sociological terms to describe this group) are gradually becoming more dependent on their parents. This dependence is manifest in extended periods of living in their parents house, the boomerang effect (where children move out and then return), long-term financial support, and the attendant emotional help that comes with new norms regarding what it means to be a good parent of those aged 18-29. The financial and emotional ties between parents and their young adult children are formed in new and intricate ways and breaking or untethering them when a couple leave to serve a mission is incredibly painful.

Yet, the changes of the last 20 years have also brought new ways connect. Social media, cheap internet access, and mobile phones have allowed families to keep in contact despite the distance. I have already spoken to my in-laws by Skype since they have been away.

Despite these new modes of connectivity there will be a real loss for my in-laws. This rupture in the fabric of our family will, in some ways, forever alter these relationships. That uncertainty is part of what makes this separation so painful. When this is coupled with the feeling of abandoning those who need you most, no wonder there are some who choose not to serve. I cannot blame them. My wife and I are not making plans to serve for precisely some of these reasons.

And yet, I am moved by my in-laws, and those like them, who have willingly chosen to separate themselves from those to whom they are most intimately tied in order to respond to a call to serve a people and a place they know very little about. What inspires me most about their sacrifice is that they have pursued the Other in order to allow their hearts to expand.

Comments

  1. John Mansfield says:

    The fabric of your family has been ruptured, the relationships forever altered? That does sound painful.

  2. Sharee Hughes says:

    A couple in my ward is currently serving their second mission. They were home only 6 months before embarking on this second mission, from which they will be returning some time next month. I think this time they are planning to be home a year before going out again. And while I am sure they miss and are missed by their children and grandchildren, they take great joy in their service. Our ward newsletter prints a letter from them each month. They are not wealthy, just ordinary folk. I assume they just saved all of their lives just for this purpose. When I was serving my part-time mission at the Family History Library, there was a woman there who, when her husband passed away, sold her home and all of her belongings and planned to spend the rest of her life serving missions. Another woman, in her nineties, had served daily at the Family History Library for 11 years. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for these true disciples of Christ. Aaron, may the Lord bless your in-laws in their decision to serve.

  3. I haven’t seen a huge split in the families of friends whose parents have served missions. In one family the grandparents were called to serve in Costa Rica. Most of their children and grandchildren were able to spend the month after their mission ended, with them in Costa Rica. (One family couldn’t go because of a recent transfer to Croatia for a job.) my friend told me how wonderful it was to meet the people of the stake that her grandparents had grown to love so much. Two children who had turned 8 over the summer were baptized in Costa Rica, and they then had a “birthday party” for the entire family. (The three children who had been baptized while their grandparents were gone were asked to share their testimonies, and what they remembered about their own baptisms, as part of the part.) I know that my friend, and her daughter, who was baptized while her grandparents were gone, treasure their “Costa Rica scrapbook,” almost as highly as their Ghanaian, Swiss and Honduran ones. (I know they are home now, helping out my friend’s sister who’s 6th child was just born. They are staying with her family until her husband gets back from Afghanistan, before they submit their papers again.)

    I don’t know that I would think of them as wealthy. When they had teenagers, they finished paying off their home before their kids started going on missions. They bought four more homes as rental properties, before retirement, so that they would have enough income from renting those homes, and their own, to support their mission efforts. Usually at least one of their children has lived in at least one of the homes. Since non of the houses has a house payment, they have been able to trade newly married college students the use of the smallest house, for doing upkeep on the other houses. Their nephew, who is a local attorney takes care of taxes, legal issues and finding new couples when the last one has graduated and is moving on to work or grad school.

    I have always thought of senior missions as something you work and plan for. Just as I talk excitedly with my children, when they are thinking about where they might serve, we talk about the possibilities for me, and my husband. Mom is good at organizing projects, especially in disasters. Maybe all the non-profit experience will be what brings a call. Dad is a computer guy, used to dealing with people who need to do things over and over before they understand. Dad is very shy with people he doesn’t know. Maybe going someplace that everyone is friendly but needs help having their computers fixed will be the first place to go.

    I really believe that how our children see themselves, and how they see us, will determine the reactions of the family. Last school year one of my daughters came home very excited. She had learned about New Zealand, and that it wasn’t as hot as northern Australia. She had figured out it would be perfect for our first mission because: people mostly speak English so dad doesn’t have to learn a new language the first time, it isn’t so hot that it will give mom headaches, it will be fun because Christmas is in the summer and it might snow on pioneer day, and they have a college with a good veterinary school which means that she could come visit us for an adventure and check out a school she might want to go to as well.

    She is about 20 years off. We won’t retire until her kids are in high school. Even in fourth grade, she is already looking for clues about where WE might go on a mission. She takes it as a given that we will go, and that someday she and her husband will to. Why am I so sure that someday I want to serve a mission with my husband? Because my mom has been sharing her dream to serve, since I was in kindergarten.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    There was the recent move to cap living expenses for senior missionaries as the Church is trying to make it easier for people to go. But I agree, it is both inspiring and challenging.

  5. it's a series of tubes says:

    I don’t know that I would think of them as wealthy… They bought four more homes… Since non of the houses has a house payment

    Difference in perspective, perhaps. Many people would consider a couple who own five homes free and clear to be fairly wealthy.

  6. Not to be cynical, but one of the great things about serving a senior mission is that it gives you access to health care. All missionaries have to have health coverage, and if you don’t have it, there is a plan for which one is eligible

    http://www.dmba.com/nsc/ssmp/Benefits.aspx?theme=SSMP

    You still pay the premiums and co-payments, but it is at a group plan rate, rather than the individual policy rate that is unaffordable for many.

    Thus serving a mission would be a cost-effective option for those who are laid off before they are ready to retire but too young to qualify for Medicare.

    Of course, this is only a concern for USAmericans. Most LDS live in countries where losing your job does not mean losing your health care.

    The current cap was only for HOUSING ($1,400 per month) not living expenses per se. I was disappointed that the estimated cost for the mission where we hope to serve did not go down.

    Also, does anyone know if seniors are allowed to ride bicycles? I commute by bike now, and I think my knees would suffer if I stopped cycling.

  7. My dear wife was directed by the spirit to not serve a mission when she was younger, and we both really look forward to when we can go on a mission together (or she on her own, if something happens to me). We\’re not wealthy, but we hope to be out of debt sometime before our last kid is out of the house (in many, many years). Weren\’t housing expenses for seniors normalized recently, like they did for the young adult missionaries?

    A few years ago, after hearing a talk in Conference, my wife and I each got the impression we needed to help my parents go on a mission. They are both converts, so never had the opportunity when they were younger, and they\’ve never been very financially stable. We weren\’t able to help much, just a few hundred a month, but they were able to serve in the Family History libary in Salt Lake (they were living in California at the time) for more than a year before both funds and health ran out.

    I can understand how it would be harder for families who are used to seeing each other in person more often than once a year, but from my experience, the time, sacrifice, and work during their mission was good for all of their family. I look forward to when it is time for us to leave our family and serve as missionaries.

  8. Zionssuburb says:

    The new mission president for Athens is from my stake, they couldn’t find a better couple to work with.

  9. Thanks for this insight, Aaron. I agree it must be tough to have grandparents who have been physically and emotionally close go away. We’ve never had that blessing in our family, so we didn’t feel we’d lost it when my in-laws served their mission.

    Since rules were far more relaxed for the senior missionaries, my in-laws had their children and grandkids visit them in S. California when they were on a CES mission there, and in SLC where my MIL served in the FHC after FIL passed away. In both cases, they lived modestly, within their retirement benefits (social security in the US plus a teacher’s pension) and they drove their own car to and from the field of service.

    We have known senior couples who have come to our large midwestern city and have served in struggling inner-city branches in ways they may never have anticipated. My sense is, though, that senior couples have a great deal of say in how and where they may serve (to a point, of course; the call is the call, after all); the program seems quite adaptable to a variety of circumstances to allow people to serve. We have at least one or two couples in our stake who are serving from home, but more or less “full time” still in a variety of ways.

    It is, to be sure, a blessing to serve, one which I hope to enjoy with my lovely wife, assuming we can untangle ourselves from our children when the time comes.

  10. My in-laws are on their second senior mission (Mental Health in Africa, now Welfare Services in Western Europe)–he’s a retired BYU professor, so not wealthy, in fact I believe they still have a mortgage on their home. But it’s a priority, and it’s been so great for the family. The 6 kids and 26 grandkids are all part of the mission, we skype, blog, email together regularly, and in some ways it’s been better than having them around–we’re more in touch with them than when they lived an hour south. The grandkids have had such a personal connection with missionary work, praying for missionaries, and hearing mission stories, that I think it’s made a huge impact on everyone. We look forward to serving ourselves in a couple more decades. The church needs a lot more senior missionaries–their experience and wisdom is invaluable.

  11. The cover article in the Ensign this month is about senior missionaries and I was impressed that they mostly highlighted couples that are non-American and not obviously wealthy. You do have to be financially stable and you do have to have planned ahead to serve a mission, but I don’t think that is the same thing as having wealth. Economic issues in the US and throughout the world might change that dynamic in coming years so I’m curious to see what happens. Perhaps some of the reason why we’ve been receiving counsel for years about self-reliance, living within your means, and so on is so that we will be more free and able to serve in the future.

  12. My parents served missions for several years in a number of different capacities in Latin America. I’ve been able to see how the experience has changed their world-view for the better. My father especially has become more open-minded and tolerant, and more able to see the difference between church administration and gospel application. In addition to the people they served, taught, and led, my parents have a better relationship with each other and the rest of our family.

  13. My parents served missions to Kenya, D.C., Phillipines and Korea. As a retired enlisted man in the military they were not wealthy.

    Since my father’s death my mother has served one more mission that she will complete shortly. With the new rules she was able to attend my daughter’s wedding.

    You can serve a mission for much less than this post implies, FYI.

  14. We have been the beneficiaries of wonderful senior missionaries serving in New York during most of the past 20 years. (There may have been some before 1990, but I can’t remember.) One couple came back three or four different times and were a substantial help in some of the struggling units in our area. Another couple, parents of a perma at another branch of the Bloggernacle, have just left at 18 wonderful months where they made wonderful contributions to our stake.

  15. I am looking forward to serving myself.

  16. Tubes- I can see where owning the property might make them rich in comparison to some families. Personally, I was most impressed by the fact that all of their children were able to go to college, BYU or the state college that their mom worked, so that they graduated with no student debt. (She started working 25 hours a week in a secretarial position so that tuition would be free for her children, of they decided to go there.) Certainly there are lots of saints without those same opportunities, but that particular family chose very carefully how to structure their lives, and they were patient with the process.

    The mother decided she would get a job at the college when a ward member mentioned that her daughter was getting free tuition because her ex-husband was a professor there. She asked about those benefits, and found it was not just professors who got that benefit. Once her youngest child was in kindergarten, she starting applying for only the jobs that met her exact criteria: 25 hour work week (required to qualify for the benefit), academic department position that had summer flex hours, and the hours of the job falling within her childrens’ school day. I remember seeing her all dressed up to go to interviews. It took over two years of interviewing, and turning down several 40 hour a week positions (which would not have allowed her to be home after school) before she got her job. That was a choice that she and her husband made to allow greater financial freedom for their children, and the after tithing money helped them pay off their rental houses faster than simply renting them out, would have done.

    Not all of us have the same opportunities, and I certainly would not tell someone else to do the same things as I do. What I do think everyone can do is plan and prepare in whatever ways you and Heavenly Father decide it is.

    The only family I have personally known, that had family disruptions because of a senior mission, had not talked to their family about it, until about a year before they left. Even though there was a lot of frustrations and hurt feelings when the surprise was announced, by the time the couple came home, their family relationships were stronger.

    Their younger children were especially upset that the didn’t get as much of there mom’s time, after their babies were born. I don’t know the family well, (I hear through the grapevine about them because I have friends who married children or cousins in the family) but I did happen to be in the mother’s room when the youngest broke down, after her oldest son was blessed. I hadn’t connected who she was until I had listened to most of her sorrow. She felt that the timing of the mission was an affront to her. The wonderful “surprise” of their mission was not seen as good thing by children who didn’t know that their parents had that goal. It could have been easier without the confusion, and the turmoil was not necessary.

    Not only are there blessings that an entire family can have as they share the spiritual and financial blessings from the preparations, it also gives everyone in the family a conviction that they are useful to the Lord in more just their own family and ward. When I look at the examples I am personally aware of, I am even more convinced that the most important part of preparing for a senior mission includes making those plans a family goal to be worked towards, not a secret surprise.

  17. My in-laws are currently serving as well. It has been very difficult for my mother-in-law, but also highly rewarding as well. It was difficult because after living away from family for all of her married life, they had moved back to Utah and were enjoying being around family again, seeing 3 of their 6 kids whenever they could and bonding with the grandkids. I know what you’re saying with the changing of the family dynamic. My oldest had a really hard time for a while and now that they are coming back it’s going to be another huge readjustment for us all.

    Monetarily this was a huge sacrifice. They have a house payment, though they found renters, and they had to sell stocks at somewhat of a loss in order to go when they did. I think next time my father-in-law will win out and they’ll serve up in SLC doing a Family History mission – what he’d do all day every day if he were allowed to. :)

  18. “The wonderful “surprise” of their mission was not seen as good thing by children who didn’t know that their parents had that goal.”

    Um, if they were raised in the church, wouldn’t they know that the parents have that goal? We hear a plea for more couples just about every conference, frequent Ensign articles….If the parents had been faithful in all else that the church asked of them, then it would seem obvious that they would serve if they could. Hardly a surprise. And a year in advance being not enough warning?!?

    The selfish adults that Julia described in #16 make my blood boil. So it isn’t enough to raise the children, we are also expected to defer our own post-child plans until the last child bears the last grandchild so that we can come and cook dinner for them?

    All I can say is, Eat my socks! This is MY time. I have no further obligation to my children. I am happy to help them, and do a lot, but those are my gifts, not my *responsibility* any longer. My work is done. They are adults. If they need me so much, I have failed miserably.

    I can understand the young mother crying because of the post-partum hormones. But seriously, people. To deny your parents the satisfaction and blessings of service for your selfishness and convenience….well.

    Please understand that raising a family took a huge toll on your parents, physically, emotionally, and financially. In some cases, if they don’t serve as soon as they can, they may not be able to go. I know many, many couples who deferred missionary service to wait for a child to marry or grandchildren to be born, and by the time those issues were resolved, one or another health problem caused them to be unable to serve.

  19. Naismith-

    I completely agree that the kids in the family who had issues should have been ready to support their parents. For their older kids, who had well established families, and didn’t live all that close, it seemed especially strange. The dynamics in their family were a little strange anyway, but I think the fact that their dad had been inactive for over fifteen years, and had missed being in the temple for all of their weddings didn’t help.

    I do think that if they had started talking with their kids about the desire to serve a mission when he first started coming back to church, it would have been easier on the kids. They came to have a family temple day, when their dad had a temple recommend, and at dinner that night they were told that they were putting in their mission papers that month.

    Either way I think it is good to have it be part of what a family talks about from the time children are young. :)

  20. I wrote the following post about my parents’ mission – one of the most inspiring things I’ve “witnessed” in my entire life, given their situation, their assumptions and the call they actually received:

    “The Impossible Is Possible” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2009/01/impossible-is-possible.html)

    I hope my wife and I can serve a mission of some kind at some point. She missed the opportunity to serve before we were married, so I hope she can do so later.

  21. Are more of the senior couples in your area actually doing missionary work?

    Many of ours are working in Church businesses — Deseret Industries, ranches (one oversaw the hunters who paid to come hunt), etc.

  22. My mom, who is widowed, served three missions as a senior sister. I want to say that she just paid the same amount that the younger single missionaries paid–$375ish or $400ish? I can’t remember exactly. And then, obviously, she could supplement that with her own funds. Because she rented out her home, she ended up coming out money ahead.

    My younger brother and I were still pretty young when she left–I was 24, he was 21, both of us still single, and sort of tentatively figuring out our career paths and first real jobs–and I do remember feeling sort of disoriented by the whole experience of her leaving. It kind of yanked my safety net out from under me, since there was no home to move back home to should the occasion arise. I was very proud of her, and certainly did not want her to stay home for my benefit, but it did force my brother and I into responsible adulthood while some of our peers were still somewhat reliant on their parents. A very good thing, really, but scary at the time.

    The (huge, in my opinion) downside of serving as a single senior sister is that you have to serve with a companion who is essentially a stranger. Most of the time it was okay for my mom and her companions–they had more independence from one another than young missionaries–but there was sometimes friction. I served a mission as a 21-year-old woman and loved my experience, but if I find myself still single in my senior years, I think I’d find another way to volunteer my time. I’ve absolutely outgrown my willingness to live with roommates at this point, and I doubt I’d suddenly discover such willingness in my retirement years!

  23. My Parents went on 2 missions after they retired, and my wife and I had planned on doing the same, but have had bad experiences with local church leaders (exercising unrighteous dominion) and have decided we could not place ourselves in a position where a mission president or whoever had so much more power over our daily lives.

    Have already been on missions for more than 10% of my life.

  24. Sharee Hughes says:

    Laura (#22), there are many types of missions you can serve. A old high-school friend of mine decided to serve as a senior sister after her husband passed away. She was called to work in the missionary department at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City. It was a 9-5 job and she lived alone–no roommates. Since I live in Salt Lake, it was a great opportunity for us to catch up on our growing up days, even though we did not connect until she had been here for quite awhile (we had lost touch over the years). I served my part time mission at the FHL while caring for my elderly mother. I just lived at home, though. And I know of other single sisters in my ward who serve in the Temple.

  25. My wife and I have become accustomed to senior missionaries: both of my sets of grandparents served (three missions among them); my wife’s parents served as mission presidents and my MIL serves one today while living at home…

    My grandpa remarried 4 months after being widowed and they basically spent their honeymoon on admission. It was such a great example to a young kid…

  26. My parents are currently serving their second mission. During their first mission, I got engaged and married and really missed having my mom help me with wedding plans. And now on their second mission, I’m having my first baby and have really missed having her help me prepare for that huge life experience. Additionally, my niece (who is currently the only grandchild) is getting baptized next summer (they’ll still be on their mission), and another sister of mine is having twins this fall (her first children). I guess I’m one of those “selfish adults” because I really would enjoy having my mother available to help and be excited along with me. She’s always willing to talk on the phone, but usually seems distracted and has to cut our time short because they’re a lot busier on their mission than they are at home. So I just feel like it’s not important to her, which makes me incredibly sad.

  27. emh, thanks for sharing your thoughts here. Clearly there are a range of experiences when it comes to this type of service but I feel something akin to that same sense of sadness that you feel.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,475 other followers