Mission leaders worldwide are presiding over missionaries “whose variety is unique in Church history” because of the extraordinary releases, reassignments and adjustments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their sacrifices underscore “the spirit of missionary work,” said President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency.
“During the two centuries since the First Vision, the sacrifices involved in major disruptions, shifting locations and changing assignments of Latter-day Saints have been a constant — not an exception,” he said.
Speaking to 135 couples participating in the streamed 2020 Mission Leadership Seminar, President Oaks acknowledged that today’s missionaries have chosen to humbly and willingly accept the will of the Lord in whatever circumstance.
“That is the spirit of missionary work in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “The central message of that gospel is the Atonement of Jesus Christ, His resurrection, and His suffering for our repented sins.”
Mission leaders are to teach that “rock foundation,” as labeled by the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, to their missionaries and assure it is central to their teaching and testimony, President Oaks said.
“Our Savior’s willing sacrifice is the example that guides us forward along the covenant path. As members and missionaries, we follow that example by sacrifices suitable to our own circumstances.”
A history of sacrifice
President Oaks cited instances of sacrifices of early Church leaders and members — including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball — being called to leave homes and ailing families to serve missions.
“Painful separations from family members and other personal sacrifices have always been part of our missionary work, which sacrifices always bring forth the blessings of heaven,” he said.
President Oaks mentioned several examples of 19th-century sacrifice and separation. His 29-year-old great-grandfather, Abinadi Olsen, left his wife and four children in Castle Dale, Utah, in 1895 to serve a three-and-a-half-year mission to Samoa.
Joseph F. Smith, the son of a murdered father, at age 9 tended and drove a team of oxen for his widowed mother as they joined pioneers crossing the plains.
And Nancy Alexander Tracy, whose baptism at age 18 with her husband in New York in 1834 was followed by moves to and sacrifices with other Saints in Kirtland, Far West, Nauvoo, Winter Quarters and on to Ogden and later Provo in present-day Utah. Through it all, the Tracys suffered the loss of property and the deaths of three children.
“Sometimes I felt I could not endure anymore. Then my Heavenly Father would strengthen me, and I felt to be humble and resigned knowing that God’s people have always had to suffer persecution,” wrote Nancy Tracy near the end of her life.
“I always felt that my religion was worth more to me than anything in the world, and I felt determined to live it let come what may. Through all my sufferings I’ve never doubted but felt to cling to the gospel and to encourage others with all the power that I possessed to do likewise.”
Other sacrifices include converts being disowned by family and forced to emigrate; Saints sent on colonizing expeditions throughout the West, Canada and Mexico; members fleeing to avoid criminal prosecution for plural marriage; and military service through the many decades, sometimes at the expense of missionary service.
Similar sacrifices are required today, noted President Oaks, adding that those who love the Lord and seek to follow Him have never escaped suffering.
“Enduring and proceeding with purpose refine us for the exaltation we seek. Personal sacrifices provide a perfect opportunity to teach missionaries about our predecessors and the principles they lived as they struggled along the covenant path.”
He told the new mission leaders to remind their missionaries of the Church’s history of sacrifices by its members and leaders.
“Encourage them to ponder the fact that their disruptions and inconveniences in the current pandemic are not unique in the work of the Lord or in the lives of their ancestors or fellow members. Teach them to remember the heritage of faith of those who have gone before.
“How did our predecessors endure the kinds of disruptions and persecutions they faced?” he asked. “They had faith in God and trust in His promises and in His eternal plan, just as we do.”
Other current challenges
President Oaks concluded by highlighting four other current challenges to mission leaders.
1. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, missionaries are experiencing fundamental changes in how and where they can share the gospel.
“None of us and none of our missionaries should look at these changes as posing new obstacles,” he said. “We should see them as advantages to help us refine our practices to be more effective.”
Challenges will not only help polish young men and women in their missionary service but better prepare them for leadership in their homes, the Church and the world.
2. The challenge of missionaries desiring to be released early is very real.
A currently serving mission president told President Oaks of two missionaries, one demanding to return home early and the other having fought through similar difficulties two years earlier, keeping personal commitments, serving the full duration of his call and growing into a mature, successful servant of the Lord.
The difference, the mission president said, was centering decisions on the Savior instead of on oneself.
3. Many worldly pressures can hinder one’s progress, and this is not new.
President Oaks quoted President Joseph F. Smith from more than a century earlier: “There is a class of Latter-day Saints who … desire to make our religion conform to the doctrines and wishes of other people. They appear to be more concerned about being in harmony with men of the world than with living according to the principles of the gospel. …
“To be a Latter-day Saint requires the sacrifice of worldly aims and pleasures; it requires fidelity, strength of character, love of truth, integrity to principle, and zealous desire to see the triumphant, forward march of truth. This means that often our position must be unpopular. It means unending battle against sin and worldliness.”
4. As the Book of Mormon teaches us, we are “that [we] might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25).
“Joy comes through knowing that our ultimate identity is that we are the children of Heavenly Parents who love us,” he said. “Joy comes through knowing that our Heavenly Father created this world to give His spirit children the mortal experience we must have to achieve our eternal destiny.
“The central joy in His plan is the sure knowledge that we have a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose Atonement gives us the assurance of immortality and the opportunity for eternal life.”