Thousands of young men and women in best dress, bearing heavy suitcases, course through the doors of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, as they embark into a new world of missionary service.
On June 23, 110 new mission presidents and their wives will enter that new world through those same doors. They will spend a week in intensive training from the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve and other General Authorities at the annual Mission Presidents Seminar, June 23-26.Then this, the mission president class of '98, will assume leadership of the Church's missionary work in 23 states and 42 countries.
This year's new mission presidents will have responsibility for approximately one-third of the Church's 58,000 missionaries who are serving in 331 missions in more than 150 lands.
The new leaders, who come from 12 countries and 18 states of the United States, will be charged to help fulfill the Savior's "grand commission" to carry the gospel to all the world. (Matt. 28:19-21.)
During the seminar, the new leaders will be instructed daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. about the many aspects of missionary work. After a final testimony meeting, the couples will travel to their fields of labor, many seeing for the first time upon arrival the city that will be home to them for three years. There, they will supervise about 180 young men and women as well as older couples in proselyting efforts. Mission presidents in the Church's developing areas will also preside over districts and branches.
Some of the new leaders have known of their calling for half a year or more. Two of the couples are already serving. Pres. E. Marshall McCoy and his wife, Suzanne, have served in the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo East Mission since November 1997, and Pres. Sheridan Ted Gashler and his wife, Pamela, have been in the Russia Samara Mission since May.
Others, however, have known for just a few weeks that full-time missionary work awaited on their horizon.
Among these are Pres. M. Keith Giddens and his wife, Rhonda, of the Lost Mountain Ward, Powder Springs Georgia Stake. The Giddens were called just six weeks ago. He will preside over the New Jersey Cherry Hill Mission, in a city where none of the family has visited. He is a former stake president's counselor, bishop of two wards, and elders quorum president.
"We are thrilled and humbled by the call," he said. "It was very unexpected. We have gone through the whole range of emotions. I have a feeling of inadequacy, but I cling to the words of President Thomas S. Monson, who said, "Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies."
He said the family had to start making preparations immediately.
"After the call that night, we gathered the children together and told them that we had been called on a mission," said Pres. Giddens. "Our youngest, Catherine, who was then 6, started crying and said, `Why did they choose us?'
"We wanted her to understand the Lord's call, so we told her that we would go and serve wherever the Lord wanted us, and do whatever He wanted us to do."
Further explanation quickly satisfied young Catherine when she realized that she would be among lots of missionaries. The youngster considers the visit of missionaries a treat.
Pres. Giddens said that they have been called to help bring others into the Church, and help them remain active once baptized. He emphasized how important retention in activity for new converts is to him.
"My parents joined the Church before I was 8, and I was baptized by my father, Johnny Giddens Jr., when I turned 8, but I don't ever remember going to Church," he said. He explained that his family continued in inactivity for years. Shortly after Keith came of age and left home, his mother, Gladys, became ill and died. Ward members rallied around his father and helped him through that difficult time. His father began attending Church. Another Giddens, Keith's brother, Jan, also became reactivated and was married in the temple.
The change in their lives left a deep impact on Keith, who began reading the Book of Mormon and gained a testimony.
"When I think back of having a chance to grow up in the Church and wasn't able to do it, reactivation becomes very important to me," he said. "I didn't have the opportunity to be part of the Boy Scouts or the Young Men. I didn't even know what a mission was.
"The earlier one can start, the better off he or she is."
While retention of new converts is important to him, "we can't retain if we don't baptize," he said.
Sister Giddens and most of her family joined the Church when she was 13 and they have been active since then. She and her grandmother were baptized first, and her mother and other family members followed two weeks later. Sister Giddens has brought two of her friends into the Church. Her parents, Gene and Patricia Smith, are currently serving a full-time mission.
The Giddens met at Church when she came home from BYU one summer. They were married in the Washington Temple in 1979.
The Giddens family departed from their home and friends in Georgia leaving a life that will never be quite the same. Pres. Giddens relinquished his self-owned mortgage brokerage. Their oldest child, Amanda, will be away as she attends BYU next year. The other three children, Laura, 15, Taylor, 10, and Catherine, now 7, will spend three years in New Jersey schools among new friends.
Pres. Giddens said his service as a bishop helped prepare him for missionary work.
"I conducted five funerals in 10 months," he said. "Two were for children, and I was tremendously strengthened by seeing the faith of their families. It strengthened my faith and my commitment to my family.
"That has helped prepare me to help others learn about the gospel of Jesus Christ," he said. "We have faith the Lord will lift and bless us and help us in our personal salvation and to bring souls unto Christ. We are going just to serve."