Missionaries and their converts: a story

October 27, 2004 | 19 comments
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Though I have never been on a formal mission, my first five years in the Church were closely tied to missionaries. I was their age, I worked intensely with them. Later on I was a counselor in subsequent mission presidencies for 27 years, both in the Netherlands and Belgium. Living now in Utah, I get invited to various Mission reunions – from presidents I was a counselor to.

My topic concerns a related aspect of the post-mission period: what about the convert a missionary brings into the Church and their subsequent relation? Even in the most barren mission field, a missionary will be instrumental in the conversion of perhaps one or two persons. Afterwards he may not even think highly of that performance: the convert was kind of odd and turned inactive shortly afterwards.

Now to my story.

In 1967 Elder Coleman Scheuller, a missionary from Utah in the Netherlands-Belgium mission, baptized a 23-year old man, J.L. For a year or two J.L. was a devoted church member, but personal circumstances and his marriage to a Catholic woman made him “inactive” in the Church.

Coleman Scheuller kept contact with J.L.: every year a few letters and phone calls. Year after year. For ten years, twenty years, thirty years. Just friendship and warmth. Whenever he had the rare occasion to go to Europe, Coleman would make a detour and look J.L. and his family up, slowly winning the trust of J.L.’s wife. The family was raising three children who got to know “Coleman” as a gracious American friend of their dad. Mormon membership and Church activity were never the topic of his visits.

Then, after 30 years, end of the 90s, Coleman invited J.L. and his wife to come and visit him and his family in Utah. They toured the country. J.L.’s wife got a favorable impression of the Mormons, getting along very well with Coleman’s wife. Friendship was deepened. A year later, a return visit by the Scheullers to Belgium followed.

In 2002, Coleman arranged to have the youngest of J.L.’s daughters, age 22 at that time, spend some time in Utah as an exchange student. She stayed with the family of Coleman’s sister and attended Church with them. She loved it immensely. After her return to Belgium, she decided to attend the local Mormon ward and be taught by the missionaries.

She was baptized two months ago, on August 29th, 2004, by Coleman Scheuller, now 58, who flew to Belgium for that occasion. J.L., now 60, and his wife attended the baptism, he extremely happy to see one of his offspring pick up the religious thread of his younger years, she with mixed feelings but aware of what the Church represents. Latest news: the oldest daughter, age 30 and a school teacher, started accompanying her sister to Church.

Coleman allowed me to tell this story here. I myself witnessed it over all those years.

Moral? Is bringing someone in the Church not a terrifying responsibility? As a missionary you have been instrumental in having someone make sacred covenants. Often you have turned your convert’s life upside down, severing or greatly disturbing his/her ties with family, friends and deep-rooted traditions. Having a convert baptized is like making an orphan and adopting him/her into your family. Should a missionary not always remain deeply concerned about that child and, next to local leaders and home teachers who are often overburden, also continue to see after his/her wellbeing?

Should not parents of the young missionary, who are so eager to send their boy on a mission, often “for his own good”, also share in the responsibility to make sure he continues to care for his converts – for their good? And if the returned missionary doesn’t care, maybe the parents should, even if only through a yearly Christmas message.

The topic brings me back to Mission reunions. Is there, in this perspective, not an ongoing responsibility for the former mission president and the way his reunions are set up? Perhaps reunions could also be used to foster this care for converts the missionaries made, especially those who have become less active. To what extent should reunions also serve a higher purpose in the spirit of what the Gospel wants us to achieve?

I’m sorry if the above sounds more preachy than I intended to. But I have seen far too many active and inactive converts who never heard anything anymore from the missionary who brought them into the Church, while it could mean so much to them. Conversely, will not a lifelong concern for his converts regularly remind the returned missionary of Gospel essentials and help him mature during his own arduous journey through life?

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19 Responses to Missionaries and their converts: a story

  1. Rusty on October 27, 2004 at 9:47 am

    That’s interesting. I had never considered a mission reunion as anything other than catching up with buddies from the mission. It’s nearly/completely impossible for many to keep in touch with those whom they baptized on the mission, especially those who went to third-world countries. Nobody I baptized has access to the internet, there is no way mail is getting to them (especially now that you can’t send it via the pouch system), and once someone moves, it’s practically impossible to find them again unless they are going to church. I’ve been back to Guatemala twice since the mission (6 years ago) and have seen many converts and friends, but it gets increasingly difficult to track them down as they move around.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on October 27, 2004 at 9:58 am

    For about a year after my return from Korea, I kept in regular touch with several people I knew there. One of them eventually came to the U.S. to study, and when he visited Utah I picked him up in Salt Lake and drove him around and we had a grand time. But by the time I’d been home two years or so, I had no contact with anyone from Korea–I assume it’s because I didn’t write back, didn’t call, didn’t respond. Perhaps one could argue that the effort wasn’t worth it–my language skills (which had always been poor) were fading anyway, and there was so much of my life and their’s that we really couldn’t share with one another. But I suspect that’s just an excuse for a failure on my part. For someone who talks a lot about community and connection, my behavior in the years after my mission was every bit as irresponsible and sinful as was a large of my behavior during it. Perhaps that’s why I wonder if serving another mission, as much as the prospect fills me with horror, wouldn’t be an opportunity to repent of and redeem all that I did, or didn’t do, both during my mission and after.

  3. J. Stapley on October 27, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    Wilfried:

    What you say is true, and it cuts me.

    I think there is a cultural dynamic that plays into what you describe. Americans are simply flakes when it comes to relationships. I know that I am not alone in this: I have next to zero contact with my best friends from different stages in my life, but when we do see each other, it is like we were never separated. True, there is the occasionally email or phone call, but nothing that compares to the fire that burned when the friendship or love burgeoned.

    I contrast this with my friends and loved ones abroad, but more specifically in France. In France it seems that people aren’t as outwardly gregarious as in the US, maybe even not as interested in being friendly. But once a relationship has taken root, it is seen as an investment. (Why would you make friends if you did not intend to keep them) – it is potentially immoral to break relationships just because of geography.

    I have regular email and letters from my friends in France. They are always melancholy because of my lack of communication. I admit that I feel guilty. I’m not remotely as communicative as I am morally compelled to be. I recognize the need change, but have failed for going on eight years now.

  4. Adam Greenwood on October 27, 2004 at 1:31 pm

    Well said. I have been moved to action. Thank you.

  5. William Morris on October 27, 2004 at 1:52 pm

    Russell (and J.):

    My experience, sadly, is exactly the same. I have no idea what I was thinking — it’s not like I seriously lacked the time to do it in the first few years after my mission. And I actually had a quite positive, if difficult mission experience so it’s not like I was full of regrets or major issues (although my mission remains a complicated part of my life that haunts me. I’ve been digesting it for more than a decade now and yet I still feel like I’m not ready to write about it).

    <—- major flake

  6. Adam Greenwood on October 27, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    Messieur Stapley has a point that makes sense of some of my experience. Like him, I always end up dropping friends as soon as I move away from them. I’ve had a friend or two from Spain who’s been pretty hurt when I didn’t write tons of letters to them. I felt guilty for not doing it but also a little put upon that they were expecting it of me. Now I get it.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on October 27, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    William,

    Agreed: it’s not as though I couldn’t have oriented my life, or at least some small part of it, around my experiences, memories, and associations from Korea. I could have become part of a grand project, linking (in an admittedly tiny but still real way) an American and a couple of Koreans together as component parts of that bond of fellowship which makes Zion possible. But I didn’t. (And, to my shame I must admit, I feel absolutely no interest in attempting to resurrect such a possibility now. That’s just not a time I want to make part of who I am any longer.)

    “I’ve been digesting it for more than a decade now and yet I still feel like I’m not ready to write about it.”

    I wrote something about my mission almost immediately after I returned; an essay which appeared the BYU Honors magazine Insight titled “Last Night in Suwon.” The more time that went by, however, the more and more difficult it became for me to express coherent about my experiences. If I hadn’t written what I did in the first six months or so after my mission, I probably wouldn’t have written anything at all–and still might not have, fifteen years on.

  8. Ivan Wolfe on October 27, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    Of course, this implies that as a missionary, one actually had converts.

    I needed to get over my mission as well (it was not enjoyable).

    If I had to live my life over again, I would do a mission again and I am not sorry I served – I feel I was exactly where the Lord wanted me. I’ve just decided that I won’t know why my mission went the way it did until after the final judgement.

    So – what to do when you have no converts? Does this thread apply at all?

  9. Wilfried on October 27, 2004 at 4:33 pm

    Sorry to have some of you feel guilty! That was not my purpose. Now I feel guilty for having made you feel guilty.

    There are various aspects related to this topic. How to define this whole concept of “mission” for our young people and what it entails as a passage, a ritual, by some deeply felt, by others only seen as a custom to undergo for acceptance. Food for antropologists and psychologists. The matter must be a lot on the minds of church leaders, taking into account the stricter criteria for preparation and worthiness that have been announced. Are we sending them out too young?

    Ivan,
    No converts… Well, at least you do not have to feel guilty for not having kept contact with any! On the other hand, it raises interesting questions as to the assessment of what constitutes a mission. Certainly not to be measured in numbers of converts – we all know to what excesses that can lead.

  10. Jonathan Green on October 27, 2004 at 4:47 pm

    If I may, there is also the flip side of the situation described, where the returned missionary maintains contact as much as possible with people in whose conversion he had been instrumental, but then the letters to the old country aren’t answered, and the returned missionary lets it drop, because you can still hope as long as you don’t know for certain. American flakiness plays a part, maybe the main part, and I agree that the kind of extended contact Wilfried suggests should be encouraged. But there are sometimes emotional benefits that come from losing contact.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on October 27, 2004 at 4:57 pm

    “Are we sending them out too young?”

    Or, along the same lines, are we expecting too much of missionary work–both from missionaries themselves, and from those they work with?

    Wilfried, you might be interested in this post of mine from a while back, which makes some recommendations for missionary work.

  12. William Morris on October 27, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    Good point, Jonathan.

    There’s also the situation where converts’ testimonies and relationship with the Church are intensely focused on the missionaries that taught and baptized them. I heard recently from a missionary who served in Romania 5-6 years after I did, that they had a real problem with members saying, “ai mei” said/did/taugth/were like this ["ai mei' = those that were mine i.e. my missionaries].

    I suppose for me it wasn’t just laziness, but also cowardice — I wanted to move into the next phase of my life and yet I felt like I should be doing *something* to help the material and spiritual circumstances of those I left behind in Romania. I do recall experiencing a certain amount of emotional and intellectual paralysis when the thought occurred to me to write or call — as it often did in the first 3-4 years after I returned — because it all just seemed too “not enough.”

    Of course, I’m sure that the members I would have had the most contact with would have been very generous in graciously accepting anything I could give in terms of communication and support [setting material concerns aside] without asking for, say, help visa help, etc.

    Hmmm. The responses to this thread suggest an interesting realm of exploration for Mormon literature. There are several novels and short stories about missionaries in the field. But I don’t recall that much about RMs — except for a couple of Doug Thayer’s short stories. I’ve written one short story in this vein, but it needs major revisions.

  13. Jonathan Green on October 27, 2004 at 5:09 pm

    Wilfried, I don’t want to say that you can’t understand someone else’s mission experience because you were never a full-time missionary. Perhaps, however, you might not have as well-developed an appreciation for how incredibly difficult it can be to understand one’s own mission experience, let alone someone else’s. From a distance, all missionaries look, act, and speak alike. From the inside– I can only speak for myself, but I can count on one hand the number of people who might understand what my mission was like, and if you asked at the wrong time, I’d say I could count on one finger. I’m skeptical just how much “everyone knows” anything at all about missions, or how much I understand about anyone else’s, and I would be hesitant to attempt a definition that applied to anyone else. I was taught the standard definition on the first day in the MTC, as I assume missionaries still are, but it took me most of two years to make sense of what I was about.

  14. Wilfried on October 27, 2004 at 5:48 pm

    Good point, Jonathan, when you said: “I don’t want to say that you can’t understand someone else’s mission experience because you were never a full-time missionary. Perhaps, however, you might not have as well-developed an appreciation for how incredibly difficult it can be to understand one’s own mission experience, let alone someone else’s”.

    True, no one can fully understand how an individual lives through those mission years. I certainly do not claim to do. The other side is that I have been privileged to be very close to hundreds of missionaries – literally living with them as a young investigator in pioneering & pretty difficult circumstances, then as a student living in the same quarters with them and sharing daily life with them, tracting, attending zone conferences, etc. Next for so many years as a counselor in mission presidencies, often confronted with the best and the worst in missionaries. I have seen joy and tragedies. I think I have developed a lot of understanding for their struggles and their sacrifice – certainly in view of some of their backgrounds and motivation.

    My post of course has a different focus: the converts and what it means, in terms of responsibility, to bring someone in the Church. The story of Scheuller is only an illustration of what someone could do afterwards. It is not applicable to all. The deeper question is about consequences. I sometimes wonder: suppose two missionaries from an outlandish “cult”, coming from a country like India or Guinea, would come to Provo, Utah and convert to their beliefs a teenager or a young adult in a strong Mormon family. How would the family react? What problems would it give? What challenges would the convert face? And then the basic question: how can those missionaries measure up to the consequences of their work?

  15. J. Stapley on October 27, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    Wilfried:
    Indeed, the ramification of missionary service are not well explored. I think that there has been a lot larger focus on teaching prospective Elders about the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood in the last 5 years (at least in the places I’ve lived). This is because it is pretty serious stuff with consequences and burdens (looming damnation not being the least) that are not meant to be bestowed as a right of passage, but as a conscious act. It is unfair to place that burden on the unknowing or unwilling.

    While a mission is quite disparate from the Oath and Covenant, they are both sometimes (at least historically) seen as rights of passage. The burden of the Oath and Covenant is magnified on a mission. And when the mission is over, it is final. (Pres. Hinckley, when he came to my mission stated: “You will never get any higher than you get on this mission� (paraphrased)). There is a burden and a price to be paid for when I was a poor missionary. There is also a burden that to carry for when I was a good missionary.

    Of course this line of thought does not consider Sister Missionaries.

    And as for the success of Missions…Should not the degree to which Zion was established be the rod of measurement?

  16. Becca on October 29, 2004 at 4:06 pm

    Hmmm…some thoughts on keeping in contact:

    I wonder if a missionary’s gender influences the level of contact with their converts. I, along with the majority of my companions, have kept in very close contact with the people I taught–phone calls, cards, numerous visits back to the mission for sealings, additional baptisms, etc., and also converts visiting me in UT (when I lived in UT). The same could be said of each of my roommates at BYU and also most of my fellow sisters in my current ward. Almost all of them seem(ed) to be in regular contact with their converts. On the other hand, my husband, my brother, my father, and most of the RMs I dated before getting married had little if any contact with any of their converts.

    Whenever the topic of maintaining contact with converts has come up in conversation with the men in my life, there has always been a very real and sincere feeling expressed about how *hard* it would be for them to renew or maintain such contact. To them it just seems overwhelming… one more unrealistic/idealistic goal to fit into their busy lives which are already filled with righteous goals and tasks. This is very different from my viewpoint–because to me it isn’t hard at all. My attitude toward my converts is simple–these wonderful people are now a part of my family. And, as members of my family, it isn’t difficult to correspond with them and stay involved in their lives.

    I’ve thought about it a lot and have somewhat decided that the difference in our attitudes probably has more to do with gender than anything else–I don’t think my husband and brother and others love their converts any less than I do, or that they are any less righteous than I am (quite the opposite, actually!) because they don’t keep in close contact. I think it is probably just easier for women (in general–and I know I am making a gross over-generalization here) to maintain social contacts than it is for men. Other examples: I talk on the phone to my mother at least once a day, my husband calls his mother maybe once every other week. I maintain regular contact with my BYU roommates, and my husband calls his one roommate that he is still friends with maybe once a year. Men and women are just very different in this way, it seems.

    So, the solution my husband and I have come up with (sort of–this is still developing) is that I *help* him maintain contact with his converts. We went on a trip back to his mission, visiting several of the people he baptized. Now I call his converts and send them cards. Since I’ve started doing this, I notice that it is easier for my husband to pick up the phone and call them every once in a while. He’s always glad that he did. :)

  17. Wilfried on October 29, 2004 at 8:14 pm

    Interesting point, Becca, that sisters do a better job. The reason may also have to do with deeper motivations already present before going on a mission. I my experience over all these years, sister missionaries are usually more mature, better prepared, as they almost always had a true desire to go on a mission. That must change the perspective a lot for the after-mission period. But it makes the example of Elder Coleman Scheuller all the better, isn’t it?
    Thanks for your comments!

  18. JWL on November 3, 2004 at 6:05 pm

    This thread may be dead but it seems a potential place to float an idea I’ve had for a long time. Returned missionary organizations generally are formed around specific missions and mission presidents. This is illustrated by the fact that there will be different mission reunions for the same mission for different presidential terms. Also, in general these returned missionary organizations, such as they are, tend to diminish and disappear as the former misionairies age and disperse.

    I have often thought that there would be a great advantage to having unified returned missionary organizations organized by country rather than by mission and mission president. Such organizations would have a substantial and continually renewing membership base. Imagine the size and resources of an organization whose memebrship consisted of ALL of the Church members who had ever served as missionairies in Brazil or France (not to mention friends and family of the same). As such, they could sponsor newsletters to keep returned missionairies abreast of Church news in their mission country (such as reports from newly returned missionairies and mission presidents), sponsor gatherings more substantive than traditional mission reunions and engage in worthwhile endeavors to support the Church in their mission country such as raising economic and educational funds in the case of less-developed countries.

    This latter purpose was my initial impetus in thinking of this idea. However, such organizations could also anwer Wilfried’s challenge in two ways. First, they might facilitate returned missionary communications back to the mission countries in practical ways through locating members or arranging group mail delivery efforts using commercial services (again especially useful in the case of LDCs). Second, they could provide a more institutional group means of helping returned missionairies to keep directing some thoughts to the people back in the mission field. (As we know, unlike women, men need an institutional structure to do good things.)

  19. William Morris on November 3, 2004 at 6:13 pm

    For what it’s worth, JWL, I like the idea.