On Senior Missions

The LDS Church is nearly 1,000 couple missionaries short despite the church’s efforts to recruit more volunteers.” So states a BYU NewsNet article, summarizing a recent report they say was posted at LDS.org, although I couldn’t find it there. The article says there are “2,110 senior couples” presently serving, with a need for “3,093 couples” at the present time. Well, if they are short nearly 1,000 couples, they are actually short nearly 2,000 couple missionaries, but let’s ignore BYU NewsNet’s mistake and focus on the problem here: What’s the problem with the senior couples? Is retirement getting a little too cozy these days?

Frankly, I would have thought there was a surplus of senior missionaries out there. It seems like everyone I know has parents or grandparents serving or just returning from a mission of one sort or another. Perhaps some of those seemingly faithful senior couples who claim to be serving a mission on Temple Square three nights a week are actually just sneaking over to Wendover for a little action. Or maybe some Mormons are simply embarrassed to admit their parents or grandparents are kicking back and enjoying retirement like gentile hedonists instead of signing up for the best 18 months of their life, so they pretend their parents are faithfully serving a mission somewhere.

I’ve seen the blue sheet they post on the bulletin board at church and many of the missionary positions offered to seniors (they get to choose their call!!) actually sound fairly interesting. So seriously, what’s the problem? Here are a few tentative ideas: (1) Seniors are just worn out from years of church and temple service. (2) After 50 or 60 years, seniors have learned to resist peer pressure and manipulation by guilt and just say “no” (or “we’ll think about it”) when their Bishop floats the idea. (3) Civil and political unrest around the world makes prudent seniors hesitant to travel abroad. Would you want to live in Khazakstan or Rwanda for the next two years? (4) Big screen TVs, along with 100-channel cable. (5) Too many temples (yes, we overbuilt) are depleting the pool of available seniors by diverting them to never-ending rounds of temple service.

If you have a better explanation, please share it. Or, if you want to have a little fun with Grandpa, call him up, direct him and his browser to Bcc, and have him leave his own comment about his experience or lack thereof as a senior missionary. And just in case anyone should actually do this, I’ll quickly extend a warm Bloggernacle welcome to any pioneering Senior Bloggers who come here to visit. Just click on the underlined orange “Comment” link below and start typing.


  1. “I think that if they pushed it a little harder more people would go.”

    How could they possibly push it any more? It’s mentioned almost every conference, and we have that horrible (at least I think it’s horrible) poster that shows grandparents with their grandkids and says, “If you love them, leave them.”

    If people want to and can afford to go, then I definitely think they should go. It can be a spiritual time for couples and an opportunity to serve that perhaps they didn’t have while they were raising kids and building a life.

    But I’m troubled by the pressure that seems to be put on the elderly in the Church to go. Some people just don’t want to. They want to play with grandkids and enjoy their retirement, and I see nothing wrong with that. Many of these people (especially the women) have spent their whole lives focused on anything and everything except themselves thanks in part to the Church. They raise their kids, they perform Church callings, they attend the temple monthly, they participate in canning and other service assignments, etc. I know many women who fit this category and never, ever take a moment for themselves. Heaven forbid when they retire they actually do what *they* want.

    I also think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to *love* your mission no matter what. My wife’s grandparents went on a mission and I could just tell it wore them out and they didn’t love it. They chose to go for the shortest possible time and it still wore them out. But of course when people ask, they have to tell everyone how much they love it.

  2. . . . (6) After watching that $800,000 IRA they put into tech stocks turn into an $8000 IRA, they just couldn’t afford it anymore. He’s working the swing shift as a cashier at Home Depot now, just to make ends meet.

  3. .. I think I have that much influence into their decision-making processes. But we’ll see.

    Er, I meant to use the word “insight” there instead of influence. Duh.

  4. As has been suggested several times, love for grandkids probably plays a huge factor. My Mom used to talk about how as soon as she got her kids out of the house she and my Dad were going to serve a mission. Now they have two lil’ grandsons and suddenly I don’t hear either of my parents talking about going on a mission.

    I’m guessing when the grandsons are a little older and more subject to influence/example, my parents might consider doing the mission in order to have some grandparently influence on these future elders. After being raised by them, I think I have that much influence into their decision-making processes. But we’ll see.

    One other odd rationale … my Mom probably does genealogy for 8+ hours a day. In her mind, that’s serving a mission that’s just as important as going off to some distant or not-so-distant place to work with the living.

  5. Doug S–Well, every mission has its horror stories.

    Doug E–Thanks for sharing your experience. I have to say I’m jealous about driving the fork lift around, one of those juvenile fantasies I just haven’t managed to make happen yet. I’ve been boating on the Fraser River near Maple Ridge–beautiful place.

  6. Going back to the point of potential senior missionaries just wanting time for themselves….

    My parents have served 3 missions, one foreign temple, one visitors center, and one local. I stayed with them on both of their away missions….I lived in Sweden with them for two months during a college summer, and then visited them several times in Kirtland. I can tell you that my parents had the time of their life in both places. Further, they were never particularly social while I was growing up. Ward friendships were centered around callings, and they were pretty busy as we were growing up. Now they have incredibly active social lives with all their returned missionary buddies from all their missions, and I’m pretty sure that in the next year or two we’ll be wishing them bon voyage again.

    Maybe we think that seniors just want to be left alone to rest, while really, they want to feel needed like they have their entire lives.

    Finally, seniors do have a certain amount of control over where they go–and can pick the amount of time. One of their calls–to the temple–was orchestrated by a former temple president because my dad spoke a language they needed. The local mission came about because of connections from the temple mission, and the third was just a luck of the draw–although they did choose to just go for a year on that one.

    Oh, and seniors get t.v. on their missions….much to my mom’s dismay! :o)

  7. D. Fletcher says:

    I only know my own parents’ story.

    They lived in Belmont, MA, all during the 90s, and dealt with the harsh reality of building a temple there. As it was readied for dedication, my parents (each, separately) decided the time was right to move to Utah. After all that, they didn’t even attend the dedication of the Boston Temple (which is IN Belmont).

    I think they didn’t want to be temple workers, and that’s the whole truth of their situation. They are incredibly active in their ward in SLC.

  8. I think Kaimi’s (6) is a big reason. I’ll add (7) There are some seniors willing to go, but unable due to health concerns and (8) some seniors are just plain crotchety and have a hard enough time interacting with their own family, let alone people they’ve never met.

  9. I think part of the reason there is a shortage is the increased positions for missionaries that used to filled by church employees. Look at the CES missions, there was time those would have been paid positions. I think it is great that the church can use volunteers to replace the workforce, we are, after all a laity driven church, but when you replace your workforce with volunteers, the volunteer needs do rise.

  10. I think that if they pushed it a little harder more people would go. I also think that if the church offered “scholarships” (i.e. helped defer the cost) more people would go. While Kaimi’s point is exaggerated, the fact is that many people simply can’t afford to go.

    There is also the problem that many feel uncomfortable going due to health care reasons. Especially if they have to go outside of the US or Canada.

  11. Doug Spencer says:

    In 1999, a stake president in the Phoenix area made a goal to triple the number of senior couples representing his stake. One of these couples was sent to our mission (in Russia) to oversee the CES in one of our cities. Each was on their third marriage, and the husband had sustained serious brain damage in a car accident prior to his call.

    Shortly after their arrival, the elder told a group of sisters that “women are only good for dropping out babies like rabbits” and a sister missionary had to be restrained from punching him in the face. Needless to say, our newly-established Institute program soon crumbled and the mission president filled out the paperwork to send them home (in the end they were reassigned to manage the city’s office supplies).

    However, they never ceased to brag about how their stake president fulfilled his goal.

    On a different note, I often wonder if some couples are deterred by the prospect of spending all day together. Some couples seem to establish a pattern of work/hobbies to balance their interaction. Might a mission interrupt their entrenched habits and lifestyle?

  12. John,

    As a counterbalance to what you’re saying, I think that there is a natural complacency that comes to older couples, and a mission is an effective way to fight it. Think of the benefits of a mission: regular activity, being in charge of projects, feeling involved and important — these are things that serve vital needs.

    I know that there’s pressure to love a mission no matter what (not just for couples), but I think the vast majority do in fact engage themselves thoroughly and are the better for it.

  13. My draft comments got chopped off at the end. So I will add just a couple of more thoughts.

    We were very privileged to serve this mission. The time was well spent. The smiles we saw on the faces of the needy we helped was all we needed. And sometimes just a humble thank you was all some could manage.

    Serving this mission was inspired. It was exactly the right thing for Marlene and I to do together. I am so grateful for a loving Bishop, Stake President and others who saw within us that ability to serve and helped bring it to fruition. Helping others is a great calling no matter what the work entails and we were very blessed to be called. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

  14. Mephibosheth says:

    My grandfather would love to go (he didn’t have the opportunity to serve as a young man) but my grandmother would rather spend her retirement with the grandkids! I feel bad for him sometimes…

  15. My parents served missions in Kenya, Washington, D.C., the philippines and Korea. They now serve on rotation at the LA. Temple (couples take turns full-time there).

    A couple thoughts.

    First, for many types of missions you can just rent out your house and it costs no more to be on a mission every month than it does to live. For many assignments, you can break even on social secruity. That isn’t obvious from the postings.

    Second, the program of replacing paid positions with volunteers (i.e. the post I saw for a “mission” as a secretary in downtown Salt Lake city) does not always engage people and may inflate the numbers.

    Third, the post on commitment points is very important. Many, many people just put it off until health rules them out.

    Fourth, one does miss one’s parents for critical parts of life, such as funerals. I can think of a couple where I sure could have used them, and my children have grown up without much of a relationship with their grandparents, though that is improving.

    On my mission I interacted with at least three couples I remember (it has been almost thirty years) and whose memory I still find inspiring.

    As a final note, many older people are “old” with all that entails, including a lack of energy and desire to embrace change. The Kenya mission was work for my parents, but very hard on some of the other seniors who had never left Utah. In Korea I think my dad was the only person who had lived there before or spoke the language. (insert joke about Washington, D.C. and the East Coast Corridor here).

    It is a complex area, too bad the space for comments is so small and halo scan doesn’t let me post a complete response.

  16. Julie in Austin says:

    OK, I’ll go first: they don’t want to miss their family’s weddings, baptisms, etc. They want to be there when their daughter has a baby. They want to buy toys for their grandchildren and deliver them in person.

    Also, I wonder if the demographics of a high conversion rate come into play here: I’m a convert; none of my grandparents are members. In other words, there aren’t nearly as many old Mormons as young ones.

    And maybe I’ll change my tune in 30 years, but I _can’t wait_ to go on a mission with my husband.

  17. Well, I guess you believe they covered all the bases as to why many can’t serve missions as seniors.

    Here are a few thoughts that you may wish to consider.

    1. Affordability. If you read the blue sheets on the bulletin boards you will also see that the cost of many missions is substantial. Maybe not substantial to a working couple but when you are retired ON A FIXED INCOME which barely covers you normal costs of living modestly the numbers are pretty scary. $2,000 a month for many missions is $24,000 a year and that for my wife and I was too big of a stretch, unless we were prepared to sell our home, sell our car and dramatically alter our lives.

    In addition, we live in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver Canada, a beautiful place but one big draw back for us foreigners – ALL the blue sheet prices are in US dollars which means our Canadian funds were worth about 70% of the value of US funds. That was the clincher for choosing to serve a mission while we lived at home.

    2. Serving while living at home was our only real choice. We also wanted to serve a FULL TIME mission. In most areas of the Church you have three choices in that regard – Directors of the Bishops’ Storehouse, Directors of the Church Employment Center, or Directors of the Family History Center.

    3. Since we had served a stake calling in the Vancouver Bishops’ Storehouse for 6 months, and since the existing Directors were about to finish their mission, we were called and served 18 months as Directors. I am 72 and my wife is much younger.

    However, the calling was expanded to include the Vancouver Home Storage Center and the Vancouver Humanitarian Project, all housed together in a 10,000 square foot building in another city 40km from where we live.

    We had a staff of about 30 volunteers that included several part time senior missionary couples and women called for 12 months or more, a number of senior and adult members who filled stake callings for about 6 months, plus other volunteers who were members and just wanted to participate in this very special Church program of feeding and helping the needy.

    IT WAS VERY HARD WORK, both in terms of the number of hours Sister Evans and I worked at the Storehouse each month (150 to 175 hours). It meant long hours (some days from 4:30 am to 9:00 pm). It meant learning through special courses how to drive a large truck, how to safely operate a fork lift, how to clean a large facility, how to order thousands of dollars in fresh produce and diary products from commercial suppliers each week, how to manage large freezers and coolers and keep produce from going bad, how to off-load and properly store very large shipments of wheat, flour, canned goods and many other packaged goods AND on top of this keep the staff happy in their work and the Church satisfied that we were running things properly.

    We put 30,000 km on our van in driving to the Storehouse and in meetings with wards and stakes throughout Greater Vancouver.

  18. While not directly related to the thread, the horror story mentioned a few posts earlier does illustrate certain problems. There are often *huge* generational gaps that can cause PR problems at times. (I can think of numerous examples from my mission) This isn’t to say that all or even many older couples have that problem. But recognizing and dealing with it is important. (i.e. beware or racists in missionary clothing — racism was acceptable in the 1950’s and even 60’s but definitely not now) The problem is that some older couples haven’t necessarily kept in touch with social changes.

    Once again I hasten to add that I don’t think this happens that often. But from everything I’ve heard it happens enough that it can cause problems.

    The other problem is dementia and so forth. Further that can be *extremely* touchy, especially when the people who notice it are young, naive 20 year old district leaders or zone leaders. I can think of my own horrors of having to deal with that from my mission. In many cases the people suffering from it don’t know they are and are understandably *extremely* upset at any suggestion of it.

  19. Years ago the thinking was that seniors should sell their homes etc. to go on missions. This idea may still be the thinking that keeps seniors from stepping up. I always wondered what they would do when they got back home because they were only going to be away for 12 – 24 months not the rest of their lives!

    Our Stake President agreed with my opinion that this wasn’t necessary and assured us that whether we served a 6 or 12 month part-time service mission or a full-time mission it was still a ‘mission’.

    As outlined by my husband earlier our mission was a very physical one. I quickly learned that everything is spiritual to the Lord.

    Some weeks ago on this blog someone asked why former missionaries always made reference to their missions – I know why- because when you spend every moment doing His work your life is changed forever.

    As everyone else has said “It was so hard but so wonderful at the same time.”

  20. You should ask my parents (mom, dad, if you’re reading this..;.)!

    They just finished a local mission, and loved it.

  21. Young men and women rarely have serious health concerns, generally receive parental or other financial assistance, have been programmed to go on a mission since they could talk, and tend to exhibit the idealism of youth. All these characteristics make it easier for the young to do missions.

    There’s also a target date, a commitment point: age 19 or 21. Seniors never really face a commitment point which would serve to focus peer pressure and guilt projection onto seniors who don’t go. You just don’t hear this in church: “Oh, you’re turning 65 . . . so when are you going on a mission?”

    Lest I come across as too harsh, I will disclose that my parents served a “local mission” of the service as opposed to proselyting variety, and appeared to get a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment from their service.