One of the challenges facing those who train and lead full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is helping them avoid a “corporate ladder” mentality in service and leadership opportunities.
It's not uncommon for missionaries to project what they think is a likely progression from junior companion to senior companion and then on to zone leader, sister training leader or assistant to the president.
“It doesn’t matter where you serve but rather how you serve” — my wife, Cheryl, and I repeated often in our assignments as president and companion in the Arizona Phoenix Mission and later as branch leader and adviser at the Provo Missionary Training Center.
That “where you serve” doesn’t just represent “position” but geographic location. In Phoenix, for example, an assigned location could mean the difference between valley and mountains, hotter or cooler, vehicle or bike and so on.
Missionary assignments aren’t a reflection of tenure or talent but rather an opportunity to serve and to learn. Many circumstances factor in why and when leadership opportunities are presented — and why and when they are not.
Also, some of the best missionaries don’t lead groups as district or zone leaders, sister training leaders or assistants. Rather they lead one by one, as trainer to a new missionary or companion to an elder or sister in special settings.
“It doesn’t matter where you serve but how you serve” is applicable as well in post-mission Church service and many other aspects of life. I reminded missionaries the adage is true in Latter-day Saint congregations, where calls and assignments are not simply based on age, experience, previous responsibilities or social, educational or material status.
As a young missionary serving from 1979 to 1981, I wasn’t the lead in a companionship until my final four months.
Circumstances included a prolonged stay in the Provo MTC for 10 of us waiting for a visa to enter Venezuela, followed by serving six months in the Texas Houston Mission for the same reason. I loved my temporary reassignment in Texas — the “where” I was serving didn’t matter to me.
Once in the Venezuela Maracaibo Mission — newly created during my time in Houston — I remained one of the “younger” or “newer” missionaries for the next nine months, since the Church had stopped calling new missionaries from the United States to Venezuela because of the extensive visa delays and prolonged reassignments. When visas suddenly became available, the increased number of new U.S. elders arriving in Venezuela meant increased opportunities for more to train and lead.
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Early in presiding over the Arizona Phoenix Mission a decade ago, I realized circumstances — including prolonged companionship and area assignments — had precluded a missionary from Fiji from serving as a senior companion well into his second year. I wanted to provide Elder Cava with a positive experience as senior companion — one leading to other in-field responsibilities and preparing for opportunities after returning home.
I called one of my zone leaders at the time and asked, “Elder Brown, do you trust me?”
“Absolutely!” he replied.
I explained my plan to call Elder Cava to be a senior companion and that I needed an exemplary companion to help encourage and strengthen him and validate his efforts. I needed a companion to walk beside him, not moving out in front to take over nor lingering and sulking behind. I told him that his new assignment would be a shock to other missionaries — a well-respected zone leader being assigned as junior companion — and I wanted him to be ready and to model a successful companionship.
I asked Elder Brown if he could be that companion.
Because of our mission’s small geographic footprint, we would hold transfer meetings in a centrally located meetinghouse, bringing all missionaries affected by new assignments. There we introduced the newly arrived missionaries and announced new companionships, and areas and leadership assignments before dispersing in new pairings and to new locales.
That day, in reading the transfer list, I announced that Elder Cava would serve in such-and-such area and that he would be the lead in a companionship with Elder Brown.
Instantly, I heard missionaries in the meeting sucking in their breath, as if to say, “Oooh, from zone leader to junior companion — what did Elder Brown do to get dropped like that by President Taylor?”
With wide smiles, Elders Cava and Brown walked briskly to the back of the chapel to greet each other as new companions in a customary warm embrace. They quickly became a model companionship, teaching frequently and baptizing regularly — a transfer or two later, Elder Cava received an assignment to be district leader.
And pretty soon, I had missionaries — in texts, calls and interviews — offering to be junior companions for future transfers.
They were learning that it doesn’t matter where you serve but how you serve.
— Scott Taylor is managing editor of the Church News.