Barneypalooza 2: Perceived Competence in Missionary Work

In part 1 I mentioned a five-minute talk I gave on faith for which I memorized all the scriptures I wanted to use. I gave this talk on June 10, 1979. Here is my brief description of it from my journal:

Today was a spiritual one. I gave a talk in Sacrament on faith. I prepared hard–I memorized a whole bunch of scriptures for it. It went well–I never even opened my books. Everyone was impressed, and after the meeting I was literally swarmed with referrals! It was the neatest feeling.

That journal entry is pretty understated and doesn’t do justice to the reaction, which I can remember as if it were yesterday. I was mobbed by people I didn’t know, telling me about their neighbors or friends or relatives that they would like for me to teach. Several people who couldn’t get close enough to talk to me actually scribbled referrals on to scraps of paper and reached in and stuck them in my pocket(!) It was like girls trying to slip their phone numbers to Zac Ephron at the premier of HSM3 or something. That was as close as I’ll ever get to feeling like a missionary rock star. It was truly an amazing experience.

I think there is a lesson to be learned from this experience, but to appreciate it we need to consider its converse.

Some years later, I’m teaching GD class in a suburb of Chicago. We were instructed to ditch the regular curriculum for a six-week period and teach member-missionary stuff instead. I don’t recall whether this was a church-wide initiative or just something we were doing in our stake. I frankly was annoyed, because I preferred teaching the scriptures and this was going to take a big bit out of our coverage. But being a good soldier I tried to comply.

I don’t recall them giving us lesson materials, so I had to come up with my own lessons. On my mission, several times church classes would have us come in and give a discussion in front of the class so people could see how it was done and gain a comfort level with it, so I thought that would be a great way to cover one of these classes. I invited the local elders to present a discussion in front of my GD class the next Sunday.

Big mistake. I just assumed that these were average elders and that they could teach a discussion. But they couldn’t teach a coherent discussion for the life of them. They were awful. The only time they managed to mumble a few strings of coherent thought together was when they read their cheat sheets off the back of their flip charts. My heart sank, as I realized that I had just single-handedly set missionary work in that ward back months, maybe even a year, as no sane member who witnessed that performance would ever give those elders a referral for one of their precious friends.

Sometime after that debacle it kind of hit me what had actually happened in the wake of my five-minute faith talk on my mission. Why were people slipping me referrals as if I were a missionary rock star? It was because I gave the appearance at least of being fundamentally competent to teach their friends and neighbors. Members have to live with these people over the long haul; if they’re going to expose them to the Church, they don’t want to blow it on just any snot-nosed 19-year old. Now, I was just as snot-nosed as the next guy on my mission, but by speaking without notes I gave the appearance at least of being competent to teach well and powerfully. And in the wake of that the floodgates opened.

I wish this was something I had fully understood as a missionary; I wish I could write myself a letter and send it back in time. Usually when the elders come over for a DA, afterwards they’ll read a scripture from the BoM and say a few words about it. This is just a pro forma afterthought, and you can tell they’re just doing it because it’s part of the rules.

But what I’ve come to understand is that the members are watching you. They want to know that you’re a competent teacher before they’ll ever unlock their precious satchel of referrals and give them to you. That DA is an opportunity to show them that you’ve got the goods; you should prepare that lesson like you’ll be giving it to the Thursday meeting of the GAs in the temple. Because the members are watching you, how you act, how you speak, how you carry yourself, and they are judging whether you’re the one they’ll allow into the inner sanctum of their personal worlds.


  1. I think this is something missionaries need to have explained to them in better terms than I feel they get now. There’s plenty of “everyone judges the Church by how you act” but little mention of members’ willingness to refer based on their perception of missionary competency.

  2. “Living with these people over the long haul.” If missionaries — and their leaders, and the stake leaders who keep taking over our ward meetings to yell at us for not keeping the missionaries busy — only understood that detail! Sometimes our friends (and in my case, clients) are treated by those leaders as commodities that we *owe* to the missionaries, without understanding that they aren’t disposable to us, even when the missionaries go on to plow through the next set of referrals.

  3. Preach on, brother. There’s a similar argument to be made about becoming fluent in your mission language as well. One of the hardest-working and most capable missionaries I’ve met in a month of Sundays had a hard time with the local language and from what I could tell the ward’s response was kindly pats on the back and patient smiles, but not referrals.

  4. On my mission, I called this the power of Hype. It is important not just for members, but for companions, leadership, and investigators. The trick is to have substance to go with your flash, or the hype will fail. In any case, true that brother Kevin!

  5. Gerald Smith says:

    I knew a stake president that kept some referrals in his wallet for a couple years, waiting for a set of missionaries he felt he could trust with his friends.

    I was either Ward Missionary or in the stake mission presidency for 9 years, and after seeing hundreds of missionaries up close from that angle, I can assure you that most are barely capable of handling the discussion book they have.

    We need a manual for parents to prepare their sons for missions. Preaching the Gospel is a good start, but still isn’t geared towards teaching, but is more a personal study device.

    It amazes me the importance placed on teaching in our Church on one level, but then when it comes to teaching the teachers, we don’t put our actions where the words are.

  6. John Taber says:

    And mission presidents all over the Church berate members for not doing the missionaries’ work for them . . .

  7. Reading your account, Kevin, I have two observations.

    First, the Church has four years of seminary and a month in the MTC to get people ready. What are they doing with all that time?

    Second, we have developed a check list culture where everyone is going through the motions, nobody wants to rock the boat, and therefore no one can insist on quality anymore.

    The white shirt cult is a perfect example. It does not matter whether it’s ironed or whether your shoes are polished, the only thing that matters is the item on the check list. Quality is a non-issue, which is symptomatic for the culture that has emerged during the last decades.

    That’s what happens when you centralize power. People’s judgment atrophies and local leaders fail to adapt.

    Finally, it did not use to be that way. In my opinion, things have gotten increasingly worse since correlation. Until the late sixties and the early seventies, we even had converts and retention in Europe.

    Today, we are losing five people for every four who we are converting in the United States. Of course, religion is on the retreat everywhere but an organization that devotes such tremendous resources to recruitment as we do, ought to generate sustainable growth.

  8. Hellmut #7,

    I would agree that teaching our teachers to teach seems to be the best way, however I am unsure retention in Europe or the states would bump that large. (mostly because it is not the missionaries who lose them)

    On a different note, one of the greatest gifts I found on my mission was a simple lesson format for a discussion. (if you used the old six discussion format like I did this will makes sense)

    My first was a get in the door and lets talk…

    The second, focusing on Christ and the path to membership I used the old road to the kingdom of heaven (or road of life) scenario.

    In this lesson I would put down my construction paper cut outs of a road, a water gap with death, road, water gap with sin, road, then the Kingdom with a door and two key holes.

    As you traveled the “road” you reach these two gaps. I would describe how Christ bridged them for us. The first he did so for free, put a picture of Christ in Gethsemane over top of the death water. Then I would say to the effect that we need to pay the toll to cross the next bridge, as it is not free. To cross sin we had to have Faith and Repent.

    Then we come to the clincher. At the kingdom, I would pull out my two keys, real ones from my key chain I had. Then I would explain that one was baptism (and what that meant) and one was Gift of the Holy Ghost. I said without these keys we could not enter the kingdom.

    I would then ask the investigator if they wanted those keys, if so would they be baptized on such and such a date.

    Honestly, I never had a fail on that discussion. The kicker though was that I learned it at the back half of the second year. It was late enough that I had the teaching experience to make it effective but at the same time it was effective because throughout the entire discussion I did not once look down unless referring them to a scripture, which we usually had them read.

    I am convinced that once i through off my amateur hour beginnings and started, as you say truly come to grips with teaching, I understood that eye contact was much more effective than getting it “right”. And being effective in what was being said was very important in whether people felt the spirit. How can you feel the spirit when some one is bumbling around distracting you with their inability.

    However, many times a humble bumbler can do what we so-called slick teachers cannot so I will not say that I was better at converting people than other, more obedient and humble missionaries.

  9. Aaron Brown says:

    I hope the thousands of full-time missionaries who secret read blogs each day are able to read and profit from this post.


  10. I do not think that the problem is with missionaries, their parents, or their teachers. Those deficiencies are just symptoms of a management model and a culture that stifles initiative and imagination and thus undercuts quality.

    Before correlation, there was real growth, which slowly but steadily petered out during the seventies. Since then, we just have recruitment but no retention.

    This problem is systemic. Unprepared missionaries are only one manifestation.

  11. So, what are we doing to prepare the youth to be good missionaries? I think that’s one of the big pushes coming out of Salt Lake right now (i.e., President Beck’s line about the doctrines taught in the MTC being a refresher rather than a revelation). Are we encouraging scripture mastery when they’re young and think it’s cool? When they’re teenagers are we helping them learn how to give short, simple discussions of gospel principles that they can share with their friends at school when questions arise?

    Correlation happened. But so did Preach My Gospel, and so did raising the bar, and where they’re followed and utilized diligently and creatively, there’s been significant progress. At least here in the Jacksonville, Florida mission, competent elders are no longer a once-in-a-blue-moon phenomenon, but more typically two-thirds of the mission.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    When I was YMP and working with the priests I started to put together a program I was calling “missionary boot camp.” It was going to be my conception of missionary preparation. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time remaining in that calling to really pull my ideas together or to get that off the ground. But it didn’t seem to me that they were getting enough of a preparation in their regular classes, and I wanted to goose it up and provide a more rigorous approach.

  13. The other honest problem as well, how many teenage boys and girls are that excited about what they are taught and are taking it in. Trying to get past the cool disinterest of some teens, who might make great missionaries later is one difficulty in the way.

  14. Isn’t the main purpose of the nineteen year old missionary to come home converted himself? I’ve seen very very few missionary found and babtized members that stay long after the missionary leaves. See for some stats “” I can’t verify all of the stats given there but it certainly doesn’t support missionary effectiveness. But I came home having been converted in a way I never would have here at home or even if I had stayed stateside.

    I think the church offers us so little in the way guiding ourselves spritiually in our regular meetings that sending these teenagers out is about all that is left to really get them in touch with the spirit.

    On the flip side getting kids to go is so important to most local leaders in my area that if a kid doesn’t act excited about a mission by 16 they get after them pretty hard.

  15. On two occasions as a missionary I visited referrals outside of my boundaries (although still in the same ward) because the members trusted my companion and I with their friends rather than the designated companionship for that area.

    A stake should have missionary preparation seminars, lessons as standard and these issues should be adressed as priority.

  16. It’s not the Church that needs to do a better job of preparing missionaries, it’s the parents of the Church! And it’s not effective to begin teaching children how to feel the the Spirit and teach the gospel when they’re sixteen, or eighteen and a 1/2! It has to start as soon as possible. If children truly “taste” the doctrines of Christ from a young age, they will “become”, rather than simply “do.” And when the big responsibilities come (missions/marriage/kids/diffucult callings/etc)they’ll be ready, prepared, and willing.

  17. Wesley,

    As a parent of those kids your talking about I think you are lost in space. If you really want mature informed capable missionaries send them at 21 like the girls. Fact is a 19 year is what he is and mature, capable young men are few and far between. It is almost like you want them to give up their youth so they can be better missionaries. The main question is do want to wait until full maturity or do you want them to come home mature and strong in the church? There is nothing fundementally wrong with the way it is. If you don’t want your friends taught by some immature kid teach them youselves.

    No matter what you do there will be less than desirable side effects. If they go later than many will be married and not go and if they go earlier then they are immature.

    I had companions of all levels on my mission and I strongly disagree with the notion you can force teach these kids to be better missionaries. The bottom line is the best missionaries are the one that focused on other things besides the gospel growing up. They must be aboe to have a conversation with people if they are going to teach. I do find it encouraging that so many are interested in seeing these kids succeed.

  18. Jerry,

    Wesley hardly needs me to back him up, but I agreed 100% with his comment. And I think you misread his post.

    As I read it, he is merely pointing out that parents should not rely on the Church to prepare sons and daughters for missionary service. And that preparation cannot begin too soon.

    If our children have their first spiritual experiences in the MTC or on their mission, we have missed the boat as parents.

    He said nothing about “force teaching” our kids. Instead, if I understood him correctly, he indicated that by living and teaching the gospel in our homes, our children from an early age will gain their own testimonies and will be familiar with the language of the Spirit. This is no way implies that children cannot have fun or have full, balanced lives.

    I have seen many 19 year olds that are very mature and well prepared to serve.

  19. Wesley – I agree with your comments regarding the parents responsibility. However the fact of the matter is this doesn’t happen through a number a reasons. The most recognisable being parents that didn’t serve missions, the struggle of part member families, parents not members of the church. I live in England and see the reasons why children may not be taught the skills and understanding of missionary work. because of this I feel the church can formalise some education pre missions aside from seminary / institute.

  20. Jim,

    I reread what he actually said and I am not trying to read his mind or between the lines but I don’t think I misinterpreted it. The bottom line is this whole post is about the premise that most missionaries are unprepared by not knowing the gospel well enough. Not all as you indicate you know many that are prepared. I know of very very few that has ever gone to the MTC that didn’t feel the spirit at least a few times. A 16 year old boy that is focused on mission only will not be very good at talking about anything else when he is 19.

    Part of being a good missionary is communication and the ability to build friendships and I have to say the companions I had that were so over prepared were the worst teachers I have ever seen. I had one that knew the scriptures inside out and backwards but we never taught anyone ever the discussion was presented and they avoided us from then on. As soon as he left I was teaching a dozen (mission average was 4/wk) discussions a week with a companion that may not have ever read a book before his mission. He could communicate and he loved the people where the other guy did not. Teach your kids to love the people they work with and let people see the joy of life in their eyes and they will be good missionaries. Not whether they con quote scripture and know the doctrine in great detail. This gospel is about joy and happiness to focus on stupid things like white shirts and memorization is exactly what Satan wants us to focus on.

    If we look at what it takes to be a good home teacher being a missionary is the same. Does the guy care? If so he can read the lesson and be effective if not he never will be. I would suggest that it isn’t a lack gospel teaching that makes us select which missionary to expose your friends to it is whether they care.

  21. Jerry, I appreciate everything you said. I’m sorry if I’m unclear. I was speaking from my own experience. My parents never taught me ANYTHING about the gospel. I learned everything I know from primary/seminary/personal study/etc. And while I am very grateful for all the amazing people who’ve helped me become who I am today, it’s a big wound to me that the list barely includes my parents. Don’t get me wrong, they were great providers, but they never provided me any spiritual teaching. So maybe I’m assuming too much about what a lot of other familes are like, but from what I know of the familes of the missionaries I served with, it doesn’t seem so far off. I loved your comment about communication. That’s exactly what I meant when I said teach your kids the doctrine of Christ! In other words, do what you can to teach them to be Christians. True Christians are always going to be missionaries, whether it’s at home or abroad.

    Jim, thanks, that’s what I meant!

    Deacon, I agree with you, and I think the Church is trying. I think even if parents are new to the Church, or haven’t had much experience, the Lord magnifies the efforts they do make. All the Lord ever asks us is to lift where we stand.

  22. I do agree that parents should be as involved as possible. Sadly I see the same inability to communicate in many of the leaders and teachers in the many wards I have been in. That just reiterates the point that they should not be relied to do it all or even most of it.

  23. We have five kids, and as far as I can tell, we have taught them all the gospel since we communicated with them. Because of their different personalities, some situations need to be handled differently. We have read the scriptures together as a family and have always talked about what we’ve read. In some of them that has instilled the love for scriptures, others not so much.

    Your results will vary. The kids are individuals, and they have individual experiences, which prepare them differently. My older son has had to delay his mission for health reasons, and the younger one is still not sure he’s going. I don’t think there’s a patent solution to all of the questions.

    My wife and I were both new converts when we served our missions, and that was what really made the gospel alive for us.