Teaching with the missionaries

This is adapted from a journal entry in spring 2002, about six months after I had moved to Helsinki. Names and details have been changed, but the mixed feelings I had at the time about my own mission and missionary work generally have been left intact. Any efforts to alter those feelings are several years too late.

So I went on a teach with the missionaries last night.

They are the kind of missionaries that I disliked on my mission — humorless, scanning everything for its righteousness quotient, earnest to the point of callowness. They know the missionary book forward and backward, but they don’t seem to know anything else. Needless to say they’re ZLs.

So I pick them up and they tell me the plan: the appointment starts at 6:30, so they’ll review what they talked about last week, go through the apostasy and the restoration, make another appointment for the week and challenge to read the BoM and attend church Sunday, then off to the 8:00 appointment. Sounds good. Then I ask about the people we’ll be teaching: more than one family of Nigerians. I smile, remembering my own experiences with teaching west Africans.

Sure enough, they’re not home. We call, yes, they’re on their way. I say something about ‘African time’ and smile, and we go to wait outside the building. I offer to buy ice cream, but the elders are restless — they spend the time calling people, canceling the 8:00 appointment. After an hour and three calls, a woman and two girls arrive, apologizing. The elder struggle to look cheerful, but they do.

As we go inside, I meet Ifi, who is about my age and originally from Nigeria. One of the two girls is hers. The elders want to get teaching, but she says she needs to make some food for them — it’s not OK for someone to come to her house and not eat. Again, some tension, but they go along with it with smiles.

While she makes the salad, I chat with Ifi in the kitchen. It turns out she is already a member of the church. Her parents joined in the late 1980s, and her brother and sister recently returned from missions. She shows me her Ibo Book of Mormon and even hums a few bars of ‘The Spirit of God.’ On the other hand, she calls the sacrament ‘communion,’ says her daughter was baptized as a baby and inexplicably asks the missionaries if they eat pork, so her involvement in the church seems to have been distant or limited.

So we eat a little, and then we settle in the sitting room for the lesson. It’s 8:00. They start, and the phone rings. Then someone drops by and decides to join the lesson. Then another call, this time from Africa. Two more people arrive, then one leaves. The elders’ smiles are getting thinner and thinner. They build a pyramid out of paper cups and ask leading questions about the priesthood, about which nobody seems very well informed. The teenage girl says, ‘I don’t remember what you said about the priesthood, but I remember the Holy Ghost.’ I jump on that and start talking about the Holy Ghost, but the elders wait me out and get back to their paper cups.

Finally its 8:55, and they need to get their commitments out. First, an appointment for later in the week. Thursday night? Yeah, probably. One elder, exasperated, says, ‘Can you promise to be here Thursday night at 6?’ The two adult women there at the time give each other a smiling look. The teenage girl says, ‘I’ll probably be here, but I’m not going to promise anything.’ There’s a little squabble with the girl’s mother, and they all agree to meet on Thursday, but nobody promises. Ifi mentions she’s going to make fufu [a traditional west African dish], which brings back great memories for me. We pray and leave, all smiles.

In the car, the elders fret. The progress seems quite slow to them. I suggest that they need to adjust their idea of progress to the people they are teaching, and listen to them and try to fulfill their needs, mentioning the Holy Ghost incident. Elder Y says, ‘They’re really ready, almost golden. If we stay close to them and keep them progressing, they should be baptized, especially Ifi.’

Oh dear. I say, ‘Um, I think Ifi may already be a member of the church,’ and I paraphrase the conversation I had with her in the kitchen. The elders are crestfallen. They admit that she was the only real prospect in their teaching pool, by far. And in their tone of voice I hear that pressure to produce results that I knew as a missionary — that Ifi’s keen interest in going to church was offering a lifeline to their faith and their self-esteem, and through nobody’s fault that lifeline is gone. And as I drop them off at their flat, I feel terrible for them. I kind of want to pray with them before they get out of the car, but its already 9:35 when we get to their flat, and they sprint off into the darkness to make their phone calls. I know exactly how that pressure feels, even if I dealt with it differently.

Postscript: ‘Ifi’ was indeed a member of the church, but she lost contact with the church quickly after joining. Her daughter, however, had not been baptized, only blessed, and she joined the church within a few months. They were quite active in our ward, and then Ifi got married, and they moved to another European capital.

The fufu was delicious.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this, Norbert. I think the pressure is often counterproductive.

    This reminded me of a rather similar experience I had teaching with the missionaries a couple of times last month. There is a black family that lives on my block. The mom is a member and was active in the past, but hasn’t been recently. She is pregnant and has three boys (there is no dad in the picture). Two of the boys are too young for baptism to be an issue, but the eldest is 12, so the elders obviously were fixated on him. But their window of opportunity was short, because the mom was soon going to move to live with her sister when she has the baby.

    These are not the humorless ZL types; they were very nice, earnest missionaries. But I could see immediately that they weren’t going to get anywhere with the 12-year old, at least not following their standard lesson plans. They needed to work on establishing an actual relationship first, but time was against them.

  2. Nothing much to add except that there are a very many number situtations on my mission that I would like to relive.

  3. Needless to say they’re ZLs.

    I count it as one of the greatest blessings of my life that I did not have a mission president who twisted arms.

  4. Steve Evans says:

    I have had many meals of chicken, peanuts and fufu, with people who may or may not have already been baptized. Thanks Norbert for the memories!

  5. neat story, norbert. I love your postscript, too. I have never had the experience of going teaching with the Missionaries or of being one myself, so it’s very insightful to hear your perspective on this. Thanks.

  6. I was teaching a new member discussion with the local elders last night and was once again shocked that 19-20 year olds from the rural corridor are running our proselyting program. Since it was in my home to my home teachee my wife and I took over and handled the LOC, WOW, and tithing.

  7. Peter LLC says:

    As ward mission leader in my old mission stomping grounds I get to relive my mission more often than necessarily care to. I can testify that West Africans still account for the bulk of the missionary efforts in this European capital.

    shocked that 19-20 year olds from the rural corridor are running our proselyting program

    Ideally they wouldn’t be, but that would mean the members would have to get involved on a much broader scale and I don’t see that happening any time soon; we’re not JWs, after all.

  8. It’s so funny, young kids, trained as we were as missionaries, trying to solve problems like these. I think I botched most major decisions I had to make concerning people getting into the gospel. I thought I was doing it right but now I think that members and investigators were just exceedingly patient and loving.

  9. If I was a mission president, and I never ill be, I would have missionaries stop settinggoals for baptism.
    Rather than ask, “How many people got baptized in the mission”, I would ask “how many of those baptized last year have callings, are ordained to the priesthood, endowed, sealed, on missions, went to you conference, attend primary etc.”
    I fell into the numbers trap a year into my mission. When I compare my first, “I don’t give a damn about the stupid goal” year with my “Elder So and so has baptized X and Ive only baptized Y” second year, I would have been better off leaving the mission early.

  10. Peter already said this, but the full-time missionaries aren’t supposed to be running the missionary program. Bishops are supposed to do so.

    “I count it as one of the greatest blessings of my life that I did not have a mission president who twisted arms.”

    Amen, Mark. I was blessed with such a MP, and it was wonderful.

    Thanks, Norbert, for this post. It really does highlight the difference between how it often works and how it’s supposed to work.

  11. Norbert, I think your story points out the problem that I perceive the church is trying to solve. Having 19 year olds teaching the gospel is probably ok, but we really need better member involvement. It’s been the biggest struggle of my attempts as a member missionary to remember to build the relationship first, then make the invitations and get the missionaries involved. Without member support, the convert retention rate is pretty abysmal, and they don’t stick around. I’ve seen too many new converts that haven’t developed the relationship with the members in their wards or branches just drift away, especially if their relationship was focused on the missionaries.

    There’s a reason that member referrals are more likely to produce contacts that baptize and stay in the church, as they already have that friendship, trust, and patience. As a member missionary, I’m not trying to hit a quota each week, and I believe it makes all the difference.

  12. It’s almost painful sometimes for me to read accounts like these; I remember too well the investigators that I didn’t really listen to as a missionary.

  13. amri — in hindsight I think the same thing. As Peter says, in Europe, one teaches Africans, and the politics of all that seems so complex now in a way I never recognized as a young missionary.

  14. I’ll say here what I told a good friend, then repeated in conversation with my wife on Sunday, since this past Sunday was ‘missionary sunday’. Ugh.

    I have an instense dislike for missionary Sundays. They are boring, demotivating and, blatantly, follow the wrong approach for 99% of the members.

    Telling people to share the gospel is a futile effort. It’s something EVERYONE knows they should do, but won’t do solely out of duty. It requires a sense of love for the OTHER people and for God. We don’t share the gospel with our friends because the bishop (or, less so, some 19 y.o. missionary) told us to–we share it with them because we love them and want them to have this thing that has made us happy.

    That, however, is the catch. If the gospel ISN’T actually making us happy, and we aren’t burning with a strong testimony, then we won’t share the gospel. More importantly, it won’t matter if we try to, because the people that we approach won’t be interested UNLESS it is obvious that we are a happy person and that we have something about us that gives us a sense of peace (or something).

    So, from my perspective the EFFECTIVE missionary Sunday or lesson for members is about teaching the gospel and strengthening the member’s commitment and testimony. Once our testimonies’ are strong enough, we will share the gospel without hesitation (and will hardly be able to avoid it).

    But please, quit telling me to do missionary work because it’s my ‘duty’. Nothing makes me run faster. Oh, and 99% of my friends are members already. When my coworkers show interest, I talk. Beyond that, it’ll be a RARE day before I approach a stranger with the gospel (I can’t imagine the circumstances now that I am no longer a missionary).

  15. Aaron Brown says:

    My crazy trainer and I baptized 13 people during the first three months of my mission, which was a lot for the area, and my companion was venerated throughout the mission for his faithfulness, diligence, etc. But I got to live through the day-to-day goings-on that led to these baptisms, most of which shouldn’t have happened (at least not as rapidly as they did), so I became disillusioned pretty quickly by the numbers game.

    It’s easy to fault the pressures to produce high baptismal numbers in the mission field, for all the reasons that everybody likes to give. I suspect that the counter-argument is that if you’re not applying these pressures, not only will you get less unprepared or inappropriate baptisms (which would be good), but you’ll also lose a lot of good baptisms that were the fruits of the hard work performed by highly motivated missionaries (even if they were motivated by the wrong things much of the time).

    I posted about my experiences here once upon a time: http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2004/10/the-perils-of-setting-baptismal-goals/

    Boy am I glad those days are behind me.


  16. Steve Evans says:

    You mean the days of posting about your experiences, Aaron?

  17. Aaron Brown says:

    He he he

  18. Steve Evans says:


  19. Aaron Brown says:

    Steve, to respond to your email from earlier today: No, I will NOT return to BCC as a full permablogger, even if you DO pay me 10 cents a word, and promise to list my name on the sidebar in a larger font.


  20. Steve Evans says:

    Can I still have a snuggle?

  21. Aaron Brown says:

    I’d say yes, but per the link at the sidebar, I fear that Orson Scott Card would respond by trying to overthrow the government.


  22. Aaron Brown says:

    Oops. The Card piece wasn’t linked to at BCC; I linked to it from elsewhere. Sorry. This is the piece: http://mormontimes.com/ME_blogs.php?id=1586


  23. There are 25 people on our Branch list who are converts baptized since I moved here in Dec. 1999. Of those 25, only 3 are still attending church and they were all baptized in the past 12 months.

    We are having a major push in our Branch to find more people for the elders to teach. I think I will pass on this effort and see if I can help keep those precious 3 involved.

  24. My mission (Argentina Neuquen) was very number oriented. Every week we had to write down on the board (for everyone in the district to see and judge) how many people were were teaching, exactly which discussion they were at and how many people were committed to being baptized. There was the pressure to move people ahead to baptism when they weren’t ready. In one area especially we were constantly told to drop investigators that didn’t have a baptismal date in the near furture, even if they were working through getting a divorce so they could get married to their live-in spouse and be baptized.

    Constrast that with another area. My district leader was native and he told us straight out in a district meeting that he didn’t care about the numbers, he just wanted to know about the quality of the people we were teaching. His attitude was inspiring – he actually cared about people as people! Several people I taught in that area did not get baptized right away, but they eventually did and became integral members of their ward. That is the ultimate goal anyway.

  25. The pressure for numbers doesn’t just begin with the Mission President. I have found in 4 seperate missions that the MP is under even more stress and pressure to baptise from the Area Authorities.

  26. Peter LLC says:

    quit telling me to do missionary work because it’s my ‘duty’. Nothing makes me run faster.

    Preach on, Brother O. I feel the same way when the EQ president hounds us about home teaching or when the bishop starts lecturing us about tithing–I’ll do it for the right reasons or not at all!

  27. Thanks for #14, Ben O. I realize that member missionary work is the most effective way to find new members who will stay active, but I have hard time feeling comfortable doing it. My hang-ups:

    1) I’m not sure that joining the Church would make my friends/acquaintances happier. It’s a mixed bag being a Mormon, for sure. Some might say that it’s not my call whether they will be happy, but I feel a significant weight of responsibility encouraging someone down the path.

    2) What information do I share about the Church? I don’t feel like the missionary discussion materials give a broad enough picture, both in terms of Church doctrine/history or day-to-day expectations of being a Mormon. Most of my friends and acquaintances are educated, curious people who would probably feel deceived by the typical scope of missionary discussions. The problem is that I’m not sure whether anyone who has spent much time at places like Mormonthink or similar sites would easily jump into the Church.

    3) In some ways, I don’t know whether I want the Church to fill the whole Earth. This may be the most selfish of my concerns, but I really do like the variety of having friends with differing life paradigms.

    Perhaps there are some people who share similar concerns but are more motivated by beliefs that (a) their friends need the Gospel for salvation or (b) their own salvation depends on sharing the Gospel. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m not wholly convinced of either that is the real impediment.

  28. Ah, yes – fufu! I remember it well from visits with a family from Ghana, while serving in West Berlin (in 1979). We would teach the discussions in German (to some of the extended family) and also English (to others). They in turn would translate into French and their tribal dialect. We didn’t get through the concepts very quickly, but we learned a lot from each other.

    Thanks for sharing!

  29. Structure has its place and helps keep things moving along. however, the Book of Mormon teaches that all things need done by the spirit. If we are in tune with the spirit it will direct us what and when to teach.

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