Church halts sending North American missionaries to Russia

July 14, 2008 | 43 comments
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Last week BYU Newsnet posted and then pulled offline an article announcing that North American missionaries were no longer being called to serve in Russia. The move left many wondering about the state of the missionary program in Russia with some tempered hope that perhaps the Newsnet article had jumped the gun on a situation that was being resolved. Unfortunately, however, the news now official. The Deseret News has confirmed that the Church is no longer sending North American missionaries to Russia “due to new, tougher visa laws.” North American missionaries currently in-country will stay, but those newly called missionaries and those currently in the MTC have both been reassigned. The Church clearly hopes to resolve this situation, but the reassignment of these missionaries suggests to me that it isn’t expecting a solution anytime soon.

43 Responses to Church halts sending North American missionaries to Russia

  1. Sterling on July 14, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    I thought I read that Russia was now able to produce enough missionaries to provide for its needs. Has anyone else heard this?

  2. Kevin Barney on July 14, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    That’s what the statement (inexplicably) said. I’m not sure why the Church wasn’t willing to just tell the truth about the tough new VISA requirements.

  3. Amira on July 14, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    The new visa laws have affected a lot more organizations than just our church. It’s hard to imagine that Russian won’t loosen up a bit in the future because of that.

  4. Hans on July 14, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    The Russian work permit allocation for the fiscal year ended at the end of May. This means that no foreigners will get work permits to Russia until January 2009.

    A few days ago, the FMS (Russian Migration Service) anounced that it is opening up emergency numbers for visas but this is expected to expire in a few days. The truth is that Russia is so difficult to get westerners into. The only countries where there is an exception is for former Soviet Republics that have bilateral agreements with Russia (Kazakhstan) where work permits are relaxed.

    It is too unstable for the church to send in missionaries when there is almost no chance that the visa will be issued.

  5. Hans on July 14, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    Further to Amira’s comments, she is right, generally speaking. Money talks in Russia and I work with multi-nationals that are desperate to get their workers there and could lose millions.

    Every year Russia ups the quota but runs out sooner (last year it expired in September). By May of the previous years, all companies have to state how many work permits they will apply for the next year. I already have clients who want to revise and can’t do it until January, when the visas will go faster. Add a booming economy with western multi-nationals hurrying to get in and you get a recipe for a lack of work permits.

    I know that they church will be ok there, but Russia has seven missions and no stakes. I don’t see how its native born misisonaries could handle that alone. The Lord will take care of it so we shall see.

  6. Sara's Mom on July 15, 2008 at 12:29 am

    I live in Moscow. Here are a few comments and notes on what I’ve read above.

    1. Missionaries do not get work permits. Work permits mean you pay Russian taxes.Not even the mission president gets a work permit. One of my husband’s work permits expires in a month and he was informed that his new work permit would be processed this week. His application was frozen in May, but the Moscow region is processing again. There are quotas, but the numbers change. Our family visas are tied to my husband’s work permit. For missionaries, they have come in on so-called humanitarian visas and are not tied to a specific work permit.

    Work permits and visas are not the same thing. Visas are the issue for our missionaries. The frequency of required visa trips are the issue–having missionaries leave every 3 months to one of the three locations that process visas in 24 hours–Paris, Madrid and Tallin, Estonia–is expensive and disruptive. There are also migration card trips. When missionaries have to spend a week or two travelling to and from their missions by train to the Balkans or flying elsewhere, it simply becomes too complex and costly to continue.

    Russian immigration and visa laws are a huge pain. We, at present, don’t have our visas to go back yet, but my children start school mid-August and I’ve got plane tickets to get them there on time. Imagine the church having to navigate this issue for 7 missions with hundreds of elders and sisters who receive calls months and months in advance. It needlessly complicates matters.

    2. In January, President Pieper spoke to our branch about how this policy came to be.The area presidency and members of the Quorum of the 70 worked with the district presidents across Russia to figure out exactly how many missionaries were needed going branch by branch from the Black Sea to Vladivostok. The determination was made, through discussions with Russian leadership, that fewer missionaries from outside Russia were needed and that the Russian saints would make up the deficit. The general feeling is that for the work to truly grow in Russia, the Russian people needed to “own” the work. The area presidency and those members of the 70 tasked to this issue felt inspired that this is the direction the work needs to go. So do the Russians have the numbers of homegrown missionaries they presently require? I don’t know nor have I heard it said anywhere official.

    3. Elder Bednar came to Russia in November. In our meetings, he made very powerful promises to the people of Russia and expressed that the day will come when he will look back on Russia the way President Hinckley looked back on Asia near the end of his life. When the state of the gospel in Russia is discussed, I choose to have faith in the words of an apostle of God who made a promise to this people, contingent on their faith and worthiness.

    4. No one knows how this policy change will impact the missions as presently constituted. I know that there will be a lot of faith exercised in the coming months. When I ask the Lord to bless the missionaries when I pray, I specifically direct my prayers towards the work in Russia. The Lord can do His work and it will be done in His time.

    I know the Russians can do this if they choose. I have spent time with youth from all over the region and they are extraordinary. Growing the work will not be easy, but I know that it will happen.

  7. James on July 15, 2008 at 1:28 am

    This kind of thing has happened before and will happen again in countries where the church is young. The church had a difficult time with visas throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. The government finally loosened up there. Eventually the Russian government will as well when the more nationalistic factions are calmed down.

  8. James on July 15, 2008 at 1:28 am

    This kind of thing has happened before and will happen again in countries where the church is young. The church had a difficult time with visas in Thailand throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. The government finally loosened up there. Eventually the Russian government will as well when the more nationalistic factions are calmed down.

  9. Hans on July 15, 2008 at 1:31 am

    This will be a good experience for members to step up the work. It will be a make or break for them and will surely be blessed in their efforts.

    Thanks for the clarification on the visa issue. I thought that WP’s might not be what missionaries need per se, but in other countries in the Balkans, we usually needed WP’s. I am glad that your WP extension was unfrozen. A lot will get through but we don’t know for how long. Here’s our press release. If you work through VISTA, you shouldn’t have any problems.

    We recommend to clients to go to Saint Petersburg where the quota hasn’t been reached, but obviosly Moscow is the place people want to run businesses. I wish you luck in getting new visas (I hope you don’t have to go to the Consulate in Seattle). Good luck!

  10. john f. on July 15, 2008 at 6:15 am

    Elder Wickman explained the problems in a talk he gave to the J. Reuben Clark Law Society London Chapter last month when he was here for the House of Lords hearing re the Preston Temple. He pretty much said the same thing as Sara’s Mom about the visa problems except that he implied that Russian authorities were aware that their new visa policies — which are aimed at retaliating against EU visa restrictions imposed on Russians — are adversely affecting humanitarian visas and that this outcome was not intended. Elder Wickman seemed optimistic that the situation would be resolved favorably for those seeking humanitarian visas such as our missionaries, but that has apparently not been the case. That’s too bad.

    As for foreign workers in Russia, I have also observed the exceptional boom in Russia as my colleagues have been relocating to Moscow — some on a temporary basis, some permanently — to handle all the capital markets work that is going on as Russia transforms itself from its developing country status to a fully functioning economy virtually overnight.

  11. Ronan on July 15, 2008 at 7:17 am

    >the House of Lords hearing re the Preston Temple.

    John, is that regarding the council tax exemption/penalty?

  12. Ray on July 15, 2008 at 8:52 am

    To add to what Sara’s Mom said so beautifully (#6):

    I believe what is happening in Russia will force the Church there to practice the foundational principle of member-missionary focus taught in “Preach My Gospel” – and could form the basis of a restructuring of the missionary program world-wide. I have believed for a long time (since serving in a Stake Mission Presidency 15 years ago in the Deep South) that the Church will grow as quickly as it once did only if the members actively replace the full-time missionaries as the primary “finders” and “inviters” of those who are searching for the full Gospel of Christ – if the full-time missionaries shift primarily to “teachers” or if, better yet, Ward Missionaries fill that role and allow the full-time missionaries to be called exclusively to areas that lack an extensive member base. The move to Ward Missions was the first step in that process, since Stake Presidents and Bishops now are being described as the Mission Presidents of their stakes and wards.

    The Church already is decreasing the number of missionaries in the least productive areas of North America (where there are plenty of members who could do the work but aren’t) and reassigning them to more productive areas. The FP and Q12 recently completed a study of all units in North America, specifically identifying those that have multiple baptisms per year and those that have 0-1. It’s a 50/50 split, and those that are not producing are losing missionaries – who are being sent to areas where more baptisms are occurring. This study has identified the key indicators of success in the high baptizing units, and most of them are focused on how the Bishop and Stake President address the work at the local level.

    I can envision easily the Russian saints being the role models for the rest of the world, as they step up out of necessity and implement the missionary program the way it has been taught for decades and is now articulated in “Preach My Gospel”. I pray they are successful and show us that it can be done.

  13. Dan on July 15, 2008 at 10:34 am

    It would help our church efforts around the world if we elect leaders who are not going to piss off nations that we are trying to get the church into. I think Russia’s visa rules would be far more lax if they didn’t have to feel so suspicious about the intents of the nations of the West who have never truly been kind to Russia. But I am glad to hear that Russian members are capable of covering the slack.

  14. john f. on July 15, 2008 at 10:54 am

    re # 10, that’s right.

  15. Amira on July 15, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Dan, this doesn’t just apply to Americans. As Hans said, westerners in general have trouble getting into Russia.

    The trouble with Russia is that you’re either its friend, or not its friend. I hope we never elect a leader in America who will truly make Russia happy, because I’ve lived in countries where they have, and it’s not a good thing. I can’t think of any country that has found a good middle ground on Russia.

  16. Matt Rasmussen on July 15, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    “I’m not sure why the Church wasn’t willing to just tell the truth about the tough new VISA requirements.” — #2 Kevin Barney
    Explain how the Church is not telling the truth?

  17. john f. on July 15, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Kevin means that the Church was inclined to put a “spin” on the situation rather than stating flatly that North American missionaries wouldn’t be serving in Russia anymore for the time being due to the new visa restrictions.

  18. Kevin Barney on July 15, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Yeah, what john f. said in #16.

  19. Dan on July 15, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Amira,

    #14,

    Right, and I’m sorry I wasn’t as clear when talking about the West. I did mean Western Europe and America. I don’t want a president who will make Russia “happy,” but I do want a president who will make Russia not be as suspicious and be more open than they currently are. Unfortunately, this won’t happen overnight, as Russia’s suspicions of the West have been built up over centuries of discrimination by Western cultures and nations.

  20. mmiles on July 15, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Dan,
    It works both ways. We are suspicious of Russia. I think both countries have certain leaders who enjoy cold war nostalgia a bit too much.

  21. Hans on July 15, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Cold War nostalgia is profitable for Russia. Why else would it and China refuse to put sanctions on Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Sudan’s Bashir? I agree this cuts both ways, we are definitely not innocent as a country in this regard, but Russia openly flaunts it. The next 20 years will be an interesting time to see where Russia goes from here with its vast oil and gas fields.

  22. Mike on July 15, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    Ray writes \”This study has identified the key indicators of success in the high baptizing units, and most of them are focused on how the Bishop and Stake President address the work at the local level.\”

    This appears to me to sound like complete nonsense. First and at best, if such a relationship could be measured statistically, it could be a case of association instead of cause-and-effect. But I don\’t even see the association in my ward. It is at least a gross overgeneralization. I do not know what is going on in Russia, but perhaps it is not so different than what is going on in my own ward.

    When we moved into our ward in the mid 1990\’s, we were seeing the baptism of 35-40 people each year. High baptizing unit, was it? This was considered dismal, coming after banter years of over 90 baptisms annually in our ward in the early 1990\’s. By 2001 baptisms bottomed out at 4 that year. They have squeaked back to perhaps a dozen during a good year. We have had pretty much the same group of leaders playing the usual \”musical chairs\” with ward callings and taking the same high pressure zealous worn-out approach they always have, whether you agree with it or not.

    More important than dunking people is retention. (Hold your applause.) Retention has been crappy in my ward. Less than 5% retention after one year throughout the 1900\’s. As a result the ward has experienced very little actual growth. We have not baptized even one family in twenty years with an intact marriage and stable enough income to allow home ownership in this ward. Not a single one. We have seem demographic changes of markedly fewer youth and more rapid turnover of young married couples moving in and out.

    Whenever I relate the following, it pisses some people off. But it is the truth. (All of the people described live within the spacious boundaries of our struggling ward.) Much of the area was developed about 30-40 years ago and is being repopulated with conservative middle class to affluent young families who value education and home life. Our grade school has grown from 600 to 900 students as have many around it and a new grade school is being built. My wife teaches at a private pre-school run by the local Methodist church. This church congregation has grown from about 1300 to over 7000 in the past decade, almost entirely by the conversion of young families. They have built a lovely new santuary that rivals the largest LDS temples in splendor and majesty. The Baptist church across the street from them has experienced similar but not quite as spectacular growth.

    It has perplexed me how they could make these thousands of conversions of good honest decent people who value families and education and many of the other things I value, including half a dozen of the very same families I have fellowshipped and brought to church at my ward, while we have shared in none of this success. I would not complain if we had even a measly half a dozen families with children in the same age range as mine convert in the last decade. Of course, the staff of now over a dozen Methodist ministers has carefully studied the source of this growth since it butters their bread. About 70% of it comes directly from the pre-school, about 20% from the children sports programs (socceer, basketball, etc.) with about 800 kids in half a dozen different sports, and about 5% from their scout troop with their new donated scout \”hut\” that is a two story rustic log building of some 6000 sq. ft. valued at over $100,000 dollars. They have no missionaries and no high pressure teaching schemes. Rather you have to sign up and wait your turn for several months for a seat in what amounts to their version of the Investigator Class before joining.

    My perspective of why: Young people get married and have children and move to the suburbs. They seek a network and find it at the pre-school or the soccer team or some other activity of their kids. The church network grows thicker with events like the weekly Wed. night spagetti dinners for only $3 per family and the Christmas play and the music programs and dance programs and all the other \”ministeries\” The growing network draws people into church membership when they see the value of moral and religious instruction for their children along with the excellent activities. Our modern communities have been shreaded by a variety of factors but they are being rebuilt around what I have heard called \”full-service churches.\”

    The LDS missionary approach does not reach these people. They are not interested in theology, or visions or promises of celestial glory. They do not feel insecure in ways that having a modern prophet might comfort them. They want tangible benefits for their children. Actually, they will go across the street to a different church with drastically different theology, if they see a clear benefit to the educational or musical or athletical development of their children.

    The member-missionary approach described in the Preach My Gospel book is a fair improvement over that which it replaced. But I fear that it will fall on the deaf ears of every one of my non-LDS friends. My previous decades of experience leaves me with very little faith in trying to do more of what didn\’t work better.

    Perhaps we do not want these people in our church. Their children will be among the best of the next generation and the hope of this nation. But they are too superficial for us, you might say, choosing a church based on what activities it can provide for the kids and not on the truths that it teaches as revealed by the Spirit. They lack the backbone to make the sacrifices required of Mormons. They will never endure to the end, all the crappy (only in comparison) church programs we plan and they do not want to hear long sermons on why they should continue to try and drag their neighbors and friends into a church that offers them so very little in the way of activities, but a shot at Godhood in the next life.

    Perhaps some do not want them. But I do.

  23. Matt W. on July 15, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Mike, Yowza, I think Ray’s statement was vague enough to be inclusive of your statement.

  24. anon on July 15, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Does the U.S. let people in on 2-year visas for the sole purpose of doing religious missionary work?

  25. David on July 15, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    #23 – yes. I was one of them.

  26. David on July 15, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    Sorry – my previous comment was toward anon’s question.

  27. Marc Bohn on July 15, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    Moscow Times just reported on the news.

  28. Ray on July 15, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    #23 – Thanks, Matt W. You probably saved me from writing something I shouldn’t write.

    #16-#18 – The official announcement mentions visa issues explicitly. It also is front and center in the Deseret News’ Mormon Times article. I don’t know where your concern originated, but the Church isn’t ducking the visa issue, at all.

  29. Curtis on July 15, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    #24 – Yes. Maybe not 2 years specifically, but something like that. I knew one Canadian sister in the mission I served in (in upstate New York in 1994-6) who was going to have to go home one month early because her visa wouldn\’t allow her to stay long enough.

  30. Hans on July 15, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    # 24 – anon,

    Yes, this type of visa is called an R-Visa. If someone can show that they have been a member of an organization for two years, they can then qualify to come to the use for five years on a religious worker visa.

    You can read more about in the Immigration and Nationality Act Section 101(a)(15)(R).

  31. Hans on July 15, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Sorry, I meant to say “come to the US” for up to five years.

  32. Sara's Mom on July 15, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    re: #9–not to go totally off topic, but Fragomen and VISTA *are* our immigration support people. They have been worth every penny our employer, a large multi-national company, pays them :) The lawyers in Moscow keep assuring us that we’ll have our invitations and our multi-entries before too long. I can’t imagine spending a year on dual entry visas every three months.

    Otherwise what worries me–and what continues to worry me–about how Americans (and LDS members) treat this issue is that the kneejerk response of far too many people is fear, doomsaying and pronouncements that the cold war/communism has returned. Such attitudes provide fodder for the Russian government to use in justifying their often overreaching and repressive behaviors. “See–the Americans fear us! We are becoming powerful again! This is proof that what we are doing is working.” Part of the Russian mentality is that fear=power.

    There is no question that Russsia faces an uncertain future when it comes to personal freedoms that the West values (think the US Bill of Rights here). But using the change in policy regarding North American misstionaries serving in Russia to justify the conclusion that this policy change is evidence of religious oppression or a totalitarian trend is a stretch. I’m not saying that this is being said here at T&S, but it *is* being said elsewhere. My mom heard some totally crazy speculation on KSL TV in SLC last night. As far as the church goes, the Lord will do His work regardless of who is in power or what the government’s policies are. US/Western European-Russian relations may be tenuous but God has a plan for His people.

    As I said previously, we saints in Russia were told many months ago that changes were coming. Frankly, we’ve wondered what took so long for the missionary department to decide to stop calling elders and sisters from North America. We assumed it would have happened months ago. What seems very newsworthy and current is, in actuality, a process that has been in the works for awhile.

  33. deb on July 15, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Visas are touchy everywhere… we’ve had several elders serve for a few months in our area as they waited for outgoing ones. News: My son is coming home in , let’s see, 19 1/2 hours, from his mission in Europe! Two weeks early, because “his” country is hostile about overstaying,even by an hour, . so missionaries high tail out with enough leeway for problems to arise. Am I complaining about seeing him tomorrow? NOT. ONE. BIT.

  34. Ray on July 15, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    #32 – Thanks for the perspective, Sarah’s Mom. Your comments are worth more than dozens from the rest of us.

  35. Hans on July 16, 2008 at 12:52 am

    Hi Sara’s Mom, if you don’t mind telling me, can you let me know what company your family is going for? If not, I understand but I am curious because I manage quite a few clients for Fragomen into Russia (we are divided by client and not by country). I actually had a call with VISTA last week and they told us that they had two employees waiting all day at the FMS with all files ready for filing as soon as the quota re-opened. You don’t know how many calls I had when we announced that the quota closed. Talk about a small world!

    I agree with you that fears get played up about Russia but it is sad that diplomatic relations have soured so much, both sides sharing the blame. I hope that your visa issues work out quickly and that you get into the reserve quota (you should). Good luck with your relocation and with the missionary work there as well, it will be a great experience. Eastern Europeans are great people and some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet!

  36. bbell on July 16, 2008 at 11:47 am

    On my mission in Africa Visa’s were a constant hassle for the mission office. Our mission covered 2 countries and Namibia was a constant headache on the visa issue. The Gov was so concerned that the LDS Missionaries were taking jobs from the locals that they would delay approval for several months and then stamp in big bold letters (not eligible to work).

    Also many many missionaries going to South and Central America get held up over the visa issue and get sent to a US Spanish Speaking mission for a while waiting for Visa clearance. We get a lot of them here in TX.

    Based on the current political enviro in Russia it should come as no surprise that Visa problems are hampering non-Russian missionaries

  37. mishmom on July 16, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you sarah\’s mom…I have a son currently serving in Russia. There is too much negative that seems to come out of all this, which in extremely unproductive. It\’s in the Lords\’s hands.

  38. Sara's Mom on July 16, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    #35 Intel :) is this in your department? Ekaterina M. is our VISTA person. Thankfully the church employees had their work permits done before the freeze in May. With the freeze this week, we’re stressed.

  39. Hans on July 16, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    I don’t work on the Intel account but know the client services manager who does in New Jersey. I used to work with Ekaterina with many of my clients (I can’t disclose them) but now I work with Maria Kudrevatova mostly. She and Katerina are good and nice to work with. I hope everything works out for you and your family, I know that it is stressful for you and for everyone affected by all the visa issues. One of my clients is probably going to have to shut down its Russia office because they didn’t apply in time and didn’t request enough WP spots last year. I get the feeling that money talks there and will help free up some of these problems in the future as they don’t want to lose foreign business.

    I think this will be a wonderful opportunity for the church and local members to get involved. I wish you the best of luck.

  40. Sarah on July 16, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    Visa issues (and the cost of living in Moscow/St. Petersburg) are what made me decide I’d rather study Russian in Ukraine. I’d rather hunt down a native Russian speaker in Poland or Lithuania than try and get into Russia. I’ve been amazed for a while that we were able to send missionaries in, though of course they wouldn’t be going as tourists or students.

  41. Amy S on July 16, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    Here is what I understand from the czech republic mission:

    recently north american missionaries in russia had to be flown by the church to the czech mission every 90 days where they had to hang out for something like 11 days before they could return. Obviously it was getting very pricey and the situation was not looking to change anytime soon.

    I kind of just skimmed through some of the posts so sorry if someone already said this…

  42. Marc Bohn on July 18, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Interesting Russia Profile article on the Church’s visa difficulties.

  43. Michael on July 22, 2008 at 2:05 am

    Missionaries do NoOT have to leave every 3 months, it is every 6 months. some european missionaries however do have to leave every 3 months, such as those from Ukraine and the Baltic countries. However, for many years now Rusia has been making laws stricter about visa\’s as they have a huge problem with illegal immigration from bordering countries such as Armenia, as well as their own people leaving in mass numbers for other countries.

    the church has been preparing for this transition for many years, as can be recognized by the fact that each mission has shrunk in missionary population each year since 2001, and drastically.

    And no, Russia is not yet able to provide enough of their own missionaries.