Missionaries in 2020: Pandemic impacts and new possibilities, processes

Some of the most memorable images and reports of how the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has affected The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints revolve around missionaries and missionary work.

  • Masked missionaries returning home, hauling luggage through deserted airports.
  • Church-chartered commercial airplanes packed with missionaries being returned home from international assignments.
  • All-but-empty classrooms at missionary training centers, except for a solitary instructor conducting online training with home-bound new missionaries.

Yet, learnings gleaned during the global  pandemic are helping missionaries — and the Church’s Missionary Department — understand new possibilities and processes.

Sister Lindsey Schmidt, left, and Sister Elise Winger of the Italy Milan Mission teach an investigator via a smartphone in Bologna, Italy, in May 2020.
Sister Lindsey Schmidt, left, and Sister Elise Winger of the Italy Milan Mission teach an investigator via a smartphone in Bologna, Italy, in May 2020. Credit: Photo courtesy of Sister Gail Browning

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who chairs the Church’s Missionary Executive Committee, highlights technology — including the use of smartphones and social media by missionaries forced to work from inside their apartments — as one such lessons learned during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

“When public restrictions are lifted again, be wise to resist the temptation of going back to the ‘old ways,’ which too often didn’t work too well anyway,” he told missionaries in an Aug. 13 online devotional. “You need to ‘go back to the future’ — and I promise you a very bright future with new and exciting opportunities. This work will move forward and upward.”

The year’s COVID-19 concerns started early with a late January Church statement on missionary precautions. Within a week, the Church was transferring missionaries out of the China Hong Kong Mission; within a month, 14 missions across 17 countries were undergoing virus-precaution changes.

March saw nonnative missionaries in Korea, in the Philippines, in Africa beginning to return home, as did senior missionaries and missionaries with health conditions from 22 European missions.

Soon, the Church started announcing adjustments to missionary work — first, elders being released at 21 months of service and missionaries with health issues being released as a precaution. That was followed by “substantial numbers of missionaries” returning to home countries, with more tenure-of-service adjustments and a move to online training as missionary training centers stopped receiving new missionaries.  All 10 MTCs eventually closed.

Elders Noah Deckard, Nathan Budge and Jackson Nielsen collect baggage as hundreds of missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints return from the Philippines to Salt Lake City International Airport on Sunday, March 22, 2020.
Elders Noah Deckard, Nathan Budge and Jackson Nielsen collect baggage as hundreds of missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints return from the Philippines to Salt Lake City International Airport on Sunday, March 22, 2020. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As massive missionary movements continued into late March — such as five Church-chartered commercial jets flying more than 1,600 nonnative missionaries from the Philippines to Utah — the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles announced shortened length of service for missionaries returning to the U.S. and Canada, with options for missionaries to return to original or temporary assignment when conditions allowed or to delay their service.

With missionaries given until April 30 to select service options, new missionary assignments started being made following that deadline.

To put the year’s unexpected and historic pandemic-prompted global missionary movements into perspective, consider that in early February, prior to the global outbreak, almost 68,000 missionaries were serving full time. By late April, after pandemic-adjustment releases, the number dropped to about 42,000.

With the Church returning missionaries to their home countries, nearly 32,000 were relocated in a relatively short timeframe, prompting Elder Uchtdorf to say “our precious missionaries are the pioneers of our day.”

“When we decided about moving missionaries from or to certain countries in the morning, we had to change it in the afternoon,” he told the Church News in April. “When we evaluated governmental or other travel restrictions in a meeting, the situation had already changed when we left the meeting.”

Kimber Young teaches training missionaries Mandarin Chinese via video conferencing at the Provo Missionary Training Center on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. In an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, missionaries are being trained by remote video conference rather than travel to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 10 missionary training centers.
Kimber Young teaches training missionaries Mandarin Chinese via video conferencing at the Provo Missionary Training Center on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. In an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, missionaries are being trained by remote video conference rather than travel to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 10 missionary training centers. Credit: Laura Seitz, Deseret News

By mid-August, the Church’s total full-time missionary force had surpassed 52,000 missionaries. Hundreds of missionaries across the world had extended their service, unable to return home; some two dozen mission presidents and companions extended their assignments for several months to accommodate travel and visa restrictions; and more than 20 local couples had been called to serve as interim mission leaders until replacements could arrive.

In early November, the Church started a ‘deliberate, cautious’ process in assigning missionaries beyond their home countries.

And in an online missionary devotional in late December, Elder Neil L. Andersen, also a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who sits on the Missionary Executive Council, saluted missionaries worldwide for their perseverance.

“People will ask you decades from now, ‘When did you serve your mission?’” he said. “And you will say, it was during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be a time never forgotten. It has taken courage for you to serve your mission during this notable time.”

Elder Uchtdorf labeled 2020 as “challenging times for our worldwide missionary service,” adding that God has not been surprised by the events that have put the world in commotion.

“He has prepared the means to help us take the gospel to the people of this world in these extraordinary days.”