"I know you think this is all pre-planned and we're here to convince you to go on missions; that isn't necessarily the case."
With that introduction, Elder James H. Pingree, regional representative in the Hunter and Magna Utah regions, addressed a capacity congregation of potential missionaries and their priesthood leaders last October.Elder Pingree had announced the meeting to ward and stake leaders a few months previously, and asked them to bring with them at least one young man who was currently deciding whether to serve a mission.
It was an unusual meeting, featuring a panel of five recently returned missionaries, who told of what led to their decisions to go on missions. All but one had been under Elder Pingree's leadership when he was president of the Salt Lake Mt. Olympus Stake.
All had been older than 19 when they left, and according to Elder Pingree, it had taken much effort and attention to motivate them to go. But each had filled an honorable mission, and each affirmed that a mission had been beneficial and necessary in his life.
For example, Todd Butler, who had been home about a month from the Washington D.C. North Mission, said he was reluctant to go on a mission at age 19 because he was involved in university studies and social life and had a girl friend.
"I didn't want to leave it all; I was afraid it would somehow disappear," he related. "The thing that really changed my mind was I had a neat experience with prayer, my patriarchal blessing and a great stake president who encouraged me until I said I'd pray about it."
Prayer, in fact, is a key point in deciding to go on a mission, Elder Pingree pointed out.
"I don't want to see anybody going on a mission unless he really wants to go," he said. "My feeling is if you will ask Heavenly Father and not be afraid of what the answer may be, He will answer your prayer concerning a mission.
"If you're concerned about the fact you don't really get excited about a mission right now, then ask your Heavenly Father to help you feel good and comfortable about it, if it is something He wants you to do. Then, what will take place is that you will suddenly find yourself, if it's the right thing for you, feeling better and better about a mission."
If it is right for a person to serve a mission, his heart will change and the feeling of uneasiness will disappear, Elder Pingree explained.
Todd Woods, who returned about a year and a half ago from the Guatemala Guatemala City North Mission, said he met frequently with then-Pres. Pingree, his bishop and other leaders before he finally decided to go on a mission.
"He promised me if I would pray about it that I would get an answer, even though it might take a few months."
It did not take a few months, however.
"A week later I was talking to my parents," he related, "and I didn't even plan on saying it, but out of the blue, I said,
Mom and Dad, I'm going on a mission.' Before I could realize it, they were all smiling and half-crying. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought,I guess I'm going on a mission.' It was a surprise to me as much as it was to them."
David Clements, who did not go on his mission to the Philippines until he was 21, said regarding himself, "The person you see now is not the person I was two years ago. Imagine someone with extremely long hair and a pierced ear who listened to loud music all the time."
Some of his practices hindered him from making the decision to go on a mission, he said. "But one of the greatest things that helped me to clear myself up and get on the right track was to have a friend in the Church who I could really talk to about spiritual things."
Such a friend was Pres. Pingree, he said.
"I remember Pres. Pingree asked me to kneel in prayer with him once in his office. I was very uncomfortable, but I offered a prayer and there was a great peace I felt. It was a turning point for me."
At that point in the meeting Elder Pingree admonished the young men and their leaders to foster relationships with one another that would nurture the young men in finding out whether they should serve a mission.
Tally Lloyd, the one member of the panel who did not live in Elder Pingree's stake, is the son of Heber Lloyd, with whom Elder Pingree served a mission in Scotland. Tally served in the Mexico Tuxtla-Gutierrez Mission.
He said he grew up in a strong LDS family but lived on "borrowed light." By the time he was 19, he said, his priorities were misplaced, and a mission was not the most important thing to him. A family trip to the Hill Cumorah pageant in New York, he added, gave him a desire to seek his own testimony. He received a patriarchal blessing that dealt in detail with his future mission.
"I just needed to know for myself whether the gospel was true," he explained. "And I came to know through prayer."
Parker Davis, who had returned three weeks previously from the Japan Fukuoka Mission, said he did not go on a mission at age 19 because he did not understand what a mission was. In the course of university studies, he found himself searching his heart and his values.
"Working with the leaders I had and members of my own peer group helped me to realize that even though I wasn't willing to go on a mission at that point, they still loved me and my Heavenly Father still loved me too," he recalled. "I decided through some special experiences that I had - and some spiritual experiences with prayer as well - that the direction I wanted to take my life was through a mission."
He said he needed a mission experience as much as the Lord needed him.
Elder Pingree said he decided to hold the meeting in view of indications that only about half the active young men in the regions were going on missions. His own experience, he said, gave him insight into the feelings of young men regarding a mission, especially those who have passed the age of 19. Elder Pingree was 27, had finished medical school and was a practicing surgeon before he began to feel he should serve a mission. He served in Scotland, came home and courted a young woman who had served in Scotland at the same time as he did, and then married her.
The meeting, Elder Pingree said, exceeded his expectations, with more than 300 people attending. It lasted some two hours, and could have gone on longer.
Panel members answered questions from members of the congregation regarding such topics as mission costs, girl friends and length of service.
It is too soon to tell by statistics the impact the meeting had on the two regions, Elder Pingree said. But stake presidents said they are confident it will have a postive impact.
Pres. Mark Austin of the Salt Lake Hunter Stake said the meeting "really hit home" to Scott Tilley, an 18-year-old from the Hunter 25th Ward who attended with Pres. Austin. Scott is now preparing for a mission
"His bishop and I both have interviewed him several times," Pres. Austin said. "I've had a special relationship with him because I was his bishop. For a couple of years there, he was over at my house all the time playing basketball."
He said he has challenged Scott, and all young men in his stake approaching mission age, to pray as Elder Pingree suggests, and to study the Book of Mormon.