Watch this video about missionary travel, reassignments during the COVID-19 pandemic

A video acknowledging reassigned missionaries traveling to new missions and recapping the Church’s adjustments to missionary work during the global COVID-19 pandemic is available on Newsroom.

The video and accompanying article include comments from Elder Brent H. Nielson, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Church’s Missionary Department, as well as from managers from several Church departments aiding returns and reassignments, missionary training center instructors involved in online training, and the returning, reassigned and training missionaries themselves.

From mid-March to the present, the pandemic has reshaped missionary work and missionary support, with Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf — the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who chairs the Church’s Missionary Executive Council — calling coronavirus-era missionaries “the pioneers of our day.”

Some 26,000 young full-time missionaries found themselves on the move from late February into March, being released or reassigned to home countries due to the pandemic. Some were released earlier because of long tenures or service or health concerns, others temporarily released to wait at home for reassignment, and others immediately reassigned to missions in their home countries.

Another 4,000 senior missionaries were released because of their higher risk for COVID-19.

Missionaries returning to the United States aboard a chartered Ethiopian Air charter from South Africa were not able to take all of their bags. The bags are currently stored in the Africa Southeast Area offices.
Missionaries returning to the United States aboard a chartered Ethiopian Air charter from South Africa were not able to take all of their bags. The bags are currently stored in the Africa Southeast Area offices. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Church travel managers scrambled for weeks in booking flights and chartering planes for released and reassigned missionaries, some who traveled with only brief notice and others who were forced to leave without their luggage.

“This involved many weeks of very little sleep as we coordinated flights, whether those be commercial or charter flights, wherever the missionaries needed to go,” said Nanette Sorensen, Global Travel Services manager for the Church’s Materials Management Department, in the Newsroom report.

Added Russell Harrington, missionary travel manager for Global Travel Services, who slept by his desk some nights while working to help bring all of the missionaries home: “If that took staying up for 36 hours and working at our desk the entire time, we did it. And everyone did it. The unity that played into that was pretty phenomenal.”

Media reports of missionaries returning home and being picked up at local airports and honored in drive-by “welcome-home” greetings have been plentiful.

Those missionaries who returned home and still had opportunities to continue full-time service were given two options to choose by April 30: either accept a new assignment — at first likely to a new mission in one’s home country, with international assignments since resuming — or delay service for up to 12-18 months. Most chose to promptly return.

Two sisters who were serving in Brazil have been reassigned to a Portuguese-speaking congregation in Salt Lake City. Sister Mauri Dobbs (left) and Sister Hannah Davidson (right) make a plan for the week in their apartment, Thursday, May 28, 2020.
Two sisters who were serving in Brazil have been reassigned to a Portuguese-speaking congregation in Salt Lake City. Sister Mauri Dobbs (left) and Sister Hannah Davidson (right) make a plan for the week in their apartment, Thursday, May 28, 2020. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

“That was a great moment for me to see how many of them wanted to go back,” said Elder Nielson, noting that reassigned missionaries are going to nearly every mission in the United States, except “where the virus seems to be hot right now,” such as New York and New Jersey.

The first missionaries being sent to international assignments went out in late May to Taiwan. And missions where a high number of reassigned missionaries have been sent — primarily in the United States and Canada — have resolved apartment and vehicle shortages by booking at local hotel properties and resorting to rental cars when necessary.

The Church’s 10 missionary training centers worldwide were closed to in-person training of new missionaries. However, training went online via video-conference as virtual MTCs meant elders and sisters stayed at home for their missionary and language training. New missionaries spend six hours a day online in teleconference sessions, complete with instructors, classes, companions and districts.

Maegan Hendrix, an MTC instructor, teaches from her own residence missionaries going to Mandarin-speaking missions.
Maegan Hendrix, an MTC instructor, teaches from her own residence missionaries going to Mandarin-speaking missions. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Despite the mass release of at-risk senior missionaries, a few were able to continue their service in a self-isolated setting.

“We have some that are serving from home,” Elder Nielson said. “They had an office assignment in their mission, but they can still do it at home and we’ll gradually begin to start having them go out if they can be safe.”

Senior couples are still applying to serve missions, he added. “We still have some that are ready to go whenever we can send them,” added Elder Nielson, noting that senior couples serving on a Church farm or outside assignment can leave now. “It just depends on what the assignment is. … They can social distance, they can wear masks and they can serve in an office.”

Missionaries remaining in service — primarily in their home countries, but with the Church’s Europe and Europe East areas still having nonnative elders and sisters in their missions — have been successful in using technology to contact, teach and reach out to members and nonmembers alike. Messages and lessons are transmitted via phone call, text, email, teleconference and social-media platforms ranging from Facebook to WhatsApp.

“We hear from almost every mission that they have a really long list of people who are waiting to be baptized as soon as the chapel can open,” concluded Elder Nielson in the Newsroom report. “We’re excited for that moment to happen, and it’s starting to happen right now.”