The manual lesson may be found here. It gives us a glimpse of the heritage of missionary service President Ezra Taft Benson inherited, and the importance he places on the work, both for himself, and for all of us. His teachings offer calls for more (and better) missionaries, from full-time young men, young women, and senior couples, to non-full-time member missionaries. He also offers suggestions for preparing children to serve missions, and for four things we all need, as we engage in the work.
If you are going to teach this lesson, pause for a moment, and consider the makeup of your Relief Society. Maybe it has several young sisters who are eager and ready to serve full-time missions. Maybe it has several older sisters, who are preparing to go by themselves or with their spouses. Maybe it has several mothers who hope their children might go, who could use tips for encouraging them without unduly pressuring them. Maybe it has several mothers who despite hopes and encouragement, have children who didn’t go, and feel undue pressure and guilt, themselves. Maybe it has some combination. Your Relief Society, ward, or stake might also have a strong emphasis on member missionary work. These considerations will help you know how to allocate your time during the lesson.
A Missionary Heritage
As mentioned, President Benson came from a family with a strong missionary ethic. He was old enough to live at a time when fathers could still be called away from their family’s for full-time missionary service. His own father was one of those fathers. “As the eldest son,” President Benson remembered “the letters that [his father] wrote from the mission field in the Midwest. There came into that home a spirit of missionary work that has never left it.” Perhaps because of this, he and all ten of his siblings “filled missions,” as did his wife, who “had the pleasure of her widowed mother serving with her for the last six months.”
That he mentioned his wife serving a mission is important to me, for two reasons. 1) When I was preparing to go on a mission in 2004 and 2005, I always appreciated hearing Elder Richard G. Scott talk about his wife, Jeanene Watkins Scott’s, missionary service, and how much it meant to her, to him, and to their children. 2) There is a history of discourse from male General Authorities going back and back, that essentially tells men that it is their priesthood duty to go, while women are “not invited, but welcome.” I embrace any discourse that highlights and encourages female missionary service, and believe such speech is even more crucial as the age change has shifted the percentages of male and female missionaries. (I rejoiced the day my friend text me, that for the first time ever, there were more female missionaries entering the Provo MTC than elders.)
The why of missionary work for President Benson was always love. “Our Father’s children need the gospel. … I know the Lord loves them, and as his humble servant I have a love in my heart for the teeming millions of this world.” He knew that loving our neighbor as ourself extends beyond the walls of our meetinghouses, and that it is imperative for us to share the Savior’s “love with our neighbor.”
He also had a firm belief that Christ’s gospel could bring a peace to the world that it longed for, but that it may not recognize.
It is my conviction that the world needs, as it needs no other thing, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the people of the world want what the gospel will give, but they do not realize it. They want the anchor which the gospel provides, which gives them the answers to the problems that face them; that brings them a feeling of security and a feeling of inner peace. The gospel is the only answer to the problems of the world, my brethren and sisters.
Only the gospel will save the world from the calamity of its own self-destruction. Only the gospel will unite [human beings] of all races and nationalities in peace. Only the gospel will bring joy, happiness, and salvation to the human family.
In many ways, the who is all of us. President Benson suggested,
We all share this great responsibility. We cannot avoid it. Let no man or woman think that because of where we live, or because of our place in society, or because of our occupation or status, we are exempt from this responsibility.
Still, the missionary service we give will be different at different stages of our lives, so there are also some more specific “Who’s.” Of full-time missionaries, there are young women and young men, older single sisters, and older married couples. Of non-full-time missionaries, there are members in each ward called to assist the full-time missionaries, as the Ward Mission Leader, Ward Mission Leader Assistant, and/or Ward Missionaries. The rest of us not serving in a full-time capacity fall under this rubric, too, as what we often call member missionaries.
At various times, President Benson spoke to each of these groups. For instance, he once urged young men to “Prepare now.” Prepare “physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually” for missionary service. At another, he stated,
Young women … may also have the opportunity to serve a full-time mission. I am grateful my own eternal companion served a mission in Hawaii before we were married in the Salt Lake Temple, and I am pleased that I have had three granddaughters serve full-time missions. Some of our finest missionaries are young sisters.
My heart cheers at this!! If there are RM sisters in your ward, you could help the younger sisters know who they are, or create opportunities for the young sisters to teach with the missionaries.
To the senior couples, Benson said, “We need increasing numbers of senior missionaries in missionary service.” A mission would bless “their children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren in a way that could not otherwise be done,” in part by setting a strong example for their descendants. Further, “Many couples can attest that their missionary service was among their happiest times together because they were completely dedicated to one purpose.”
And to everyone: “We must emphasize the need for more member-missionary work. Experience has proven this is the most fruitful missionary work.” When I read this, I thought of my mission president on my mission noting that Preach My Gospel only mentions tracting twice, and both times are by Gordon B. Hinckley, suggesting that there is a better way. That way is through the members of the church. I also thought about how I know it’s true, and how despite that, it can sometimes still feel a bit pressure-y, and like a big, guilt-inducing responsibility. I’ll address this in the next section.
President Benson acknowledged that “we need more missionaries,” but that “we also need better-prepared missionaries.” Likely because of this, he offered lots and lots of tips. Quite a few of them were given specifically to young men and to the parents of young men, but I feel that they are relevant (and needed!) for our young women and parents of young women, as well. Our time is ripe with young women choosing to serve full-time missions. They need the same support, preparation, and love.
So when President Benson asks, “How do you build in boys a great desire to serve?” and answers,”You do not wait… to help them decide to serve a mission,” we can think about what this might mean for our daughters as well. “The home is the seedbed for the preparation of young men” and young women.
Early preparation consists of teaching a young boy [or girl] how to pray, reading him [or her] stories from the Book of Mormon and other scriptures, having home evenings and giving him [or her] a portion of the lesson to teach, teaching him [or her] principles of moral cleanliness, starting a savings account for his [or her] future mission, teaching him [or her] how to work, and providing opportunities to serve others.
My parents did this for me. I especially remember them giving me opportunities to teach in my family, as part of FHE, and speaking kindly and supportively to me after I gave talks at church. On more than one occasion, my dad told me that he didn’t know if I wanted to serve a mission, but that if I did, I would be a good one. It meant everything to me, and encouraged me, while preserving my choice. I really think it was both of those things together that helped me go.
Young men (and parents of young men) are in a slightly different circumstance here, because young men have been asked to go, explicitly. Two of President Benson’s remarks on the matter are that “The Lord wants every young man to serve a full-time mission,” and “A Young man can do nothing more important.” While young men still have a choice to serve, it is a choice founded on duty. It also explains why some mothers and fathers feel deeply sad (and deeply guilty) if/when their son(s) choose not to go. I suggest that such sons, and such parents of such sons need love and support, too. We often don’t know the reasons for the son’s choice (except that he was using it!), and the parents often did the best they could, including doing the things suggested by President Benson and others. Agency is real, and so, so important to our Heavenly Parents. They were clearly committed to their freedom project. I hope we will be, too.
For member missionary preparation, I would first try to take a deep, deep breath, and remember that you’re probably doing better than you think you are. I would also try focusing on doing those things that feel natural and sincere to you, but stretching them the tiniest bit. Maybe it is easy for you to answer your friend’s questions about the Mormon articles they see in the news, but it would never be normal for you to hand strangers pass along cards. That is fine! Go with that!
There is also just the good old spending time with friends and neighbors, doing friendly and neighborly things, in addition to inviting them to a child’s baby blessing or baptism, or to a talk or lesson you might happen to be giving, or a song or other musical number you might happen to be performing. Maybe it is more comfortable for you to ask your friend to tell you about her or his beliefs. (That is such a beautiful way to engage in such conversations.) Maybe you are the sharing Mormon messages on facebook type. Maybe you aren’t. Maybe you just sometimes give the missionaries food to eat. It is all helpful. I promise. And simply being a kind person, goes a long, long way. I promise that, too.
Aside from stating that the Book of Mormon should be one of our prime tools for missionary service, President Benson didn’t prescribe specific methods. What he did instead, was offer key principles. Each is founded upon the “why” of love, noted above. They are:
- Have the Spirit
- Be humble
- Love the people
Have the Spirit. President Benson was fond of saying that, “It’s the Spirit that counts. It is the Spirit that matters.”
Be humble. “The Lord has said that no one can assist with this work unless he [or she] is humble and full of love. But humility does not mean weakness. It does not mean timidity; it does not mean fear.” It is possible for us to be both humble and brave. It is simply “the recognition of our dependence upon a higher power, a constant need for the Lord’s support in His work.”
Love the people.
We must develop a love for people. Our hearts must go out to them in the pure love of the gospel, in a desire to lift them, to build them up, to point them to a higher, finer life and eventually to exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God.
We … have a great obligation to love our neighbors. It is the second of the two great commandments. Many of our neighbors are not yet members of the Church. We must be good neighbors. We must love all our Father’s children and associate with them.
Work. Here President Benson suggested that working helps us get the spirit that is so needed. I don’t disagree with this, though may read it as a being willing to work, a being willing to engage with the neighbor we are called to love, in a missionary way, whatever that means for us, personally.
President Benson testified,
I know that God lives. This is His work. He has again spoken from the heavens with a message for the entire world; not for a handful of Latter-day Saints only, but for all our brothers and sisters, both in and out of the Church.