‘Add and adapt — and move back to the future’: Elder Uchtdorf on missionary work during the pandemic

For full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their leaders, the mere mention of the COVID-19 pandemic might prompt thoughts of early releases, home-country returns, reassignments, quarantines and sheltering in place — just some of the sudden, major impacts on the missionaries and their work.

But looking back on the past year-plus of missionary work, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles says God’s hand has been apparent — both before and during the pandemic.

“We realized we might have been surprised, but God was not surprised. He had prepared us in a wonderful way — He had prepared us with technology. … So we learned that the Lord has provided us with means, which opened up new dimensions.”

Elder Uchtdorf — who chairs the Church’s Missionary Executive Council — detailed, during a recent Church News interview, the impacts and advancements of missionary work during the pandemic.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Harriet R. Uchtdorf, address missionaries during a devotional broadcast on Feb. 23, 2021.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Harriet R. Uchtdorf, address missionaries during a devotional broadcast on Feb. 23, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

With a tech-savvy generation of missionaries who grew up on cellphones, tablets and Wi-Fi, moving missionary work into a digital age wasn’t difficult. “We just help them now to use that for the right purpose, to bring and share the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who are seeking for purpose in life,” Elder Uchtdorf said, adding, “We just need to use technology and what the Lord has given us in the proper way.”

Learnings and modifications are expected to continue long after the pandemic recedes, he said. “We have to retain and cultivate those proven principles and ways of how we did it before the pandemic. But we also have to add and adapt — we need to move back to the future.”

Fulfilling expectations

With some 62,000 full-time missionaries scattered worldwide, the March 2020 onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic was shocking and somewhat petrifying to Church and mission leaders, given the health and safety concerns for full-time missionaries and those they were teaching as well as the worries of missionaries’ families, Elder Uchtdorf said.

“Within 10 days, we had about 30,000 missionaries traveling — by air, by car, by train, by ship, by everything,” he said. Early releases because of health concerns, tenure limitations and the fact that no missionaries were traveling to new assignments resulted in a reduction of force to 42,000.

Church News podcast Episode 28: Elder Uchtdorf discusses how to incorporate pandemic lessons, move ‘back to the future’ of missionary work

He expressed appreciation for all involved and impacted by the early releases, returns and reassignments, acknowledging the missionaries for enthusiastic commitment and sacrifice and their families for understanding and support.

“They fulfilled what the Lord expected of them,” he said, adding: “The Lord accepts their sacrifice and will bless them — not only for now, but forever. And He will bless them and their families.”

A resilient generation

Elder Uchtdorf says he sees a current generation of missionaries — resilient elders and sisters who have been steeled by quarantines, reassignments, early releases and more of the current pandemic.

“We have told them as Primary children, ‘You can do hard things,’” he said. Yet family and friends have been worried, sorry or disappointed by the past year’s confinement in apartments, limited interactions and meetings, with their missionaries missing out on perceived “traditional” missionary experiences.

“We are so overwhelmed by our compassion for them that we don’t realize what an opportunity it is for them to do hard things. … Future generations will look back to this generation and say: ‘Wow, you served your mission during the pandemic of 2019, 2020, 2021? Wow, you’re one of our big heroes.’ ”

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf shares some of the lessons he's learned due to the pandemic in a social media post Feb. 22, 2021.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf shares some of the lessons he’s learned due to the pandemic in a social media post Feb. 22, 2021. Credit: Instagram screenshot

Expressing his love and admiration for the missionaries facing and overcoming difficulties, Elder Uchtdorf said: “Let them do hard things and do it in a joyful way, and they will be grateful for it for the rest of their lives.”

Focus on the possible

Missionary work since the Church’s earliest days has been done by in-person contact, going door to door or meeting on the street. However, gated communities, huge apartment complexes and other restrictions and suspicions have limited missionaries’ in-person approaches.

With the global pandemic first eliminating in-person contact and then restricting it for months on end, elders and sisters were forced to turn to technology to fulfill their missionary purpose of finding, teaching and converting. Missionaries and those they teach found digital contacting and teaching to be safe, convenient, comfortable — and very possible.

“During the pandemic, we learned quickly — don’t focus on the things you cannot do. Focus on the things you can do,” Elder Uchtdorf said.

Sisters Natalie Anderson Morales and Gabrielle Vaoifi pose during the 191st Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 3, 2021.
Sisters Natalie Anderson Morales and Gabrielle Vaoifi pose during the 191st Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 3, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Just as missionaries in recent years have learned to work with government restrictions in parts of Eastern Europe, the pandemic forced missionaries and their leaders worldwide to turn to new ways to continue contacting and teaching — using digital devices, texting and social media.

“If you work within this framework, you can be creative, and the Lord will guide us,” said Elder Uchtdorf. When missionaries rely on the Spirit, follow the commandments, follow the mission rules and strive to have the Spirit with them, “their creativity will really bloom and bring great blessings to the work.”

Elder Uchtdorf has personal examples. One of his granddaughters joined fellow missionaries in Paris to create a well-received Facebook video on Valentine’s Day of them singing a Primary song about love. And a grandson serving in Germany helped with a convert halfway around the world. “His first baptism during the pandemic was not in Berlin — it was in Provo (Utah), because technology is free of borders,” Elder Uchtdorf said.

‘A changing situation’

Assigning missionaries today “is a changing situation — it is a moving target, really,” said Elder Uchtdorf. More missionaries are being sent directly to their assigned fields, rather than to interim assignments, with international assignments dependent on the availability of visas, open borders and travel opportunities.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Harriet R. Uchtdorf, address missionaries during a devotional, broadcast on February 23, 2021. They are joined by Elder Marcus B. Nash, General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Missionary Department.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Harriet R. Uchtdorf, address missionaries during a devotional, broadcast on February 23, 2021. They are joined by Elder Marcus B. Nash, General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Missionary Department. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Apostle said missionaries and prospective missionaries should “realize the Lord wants us to serve Him,” and not worry about any pandemic-related limitations regarding timing, language and location. Rather, one should apply to serve, accept the call and move forward — wherever the assignment.

He emphasized trust, confidence and gratitude for missionaries and prospective missionaries worldwide. “Trust the Lord and prepare yourself … to see that what you’re about to teach or what you are teaching is what you feel in your heart,” he said.

“The desires of our hearts will make all the difference. … If we feel the gospel and the Church of Jesus Christ is what I love and want to share, then I don’t need to be perfect in my words. I don’t need to be perfect in my activities, because the Holy Spirit will prepare me and give the rest, to reach out to the hearts of the people.”

Connecting the dots

Elder Uchtdorf likens missionary work during a pandemic to a popular children’s activity. But in this case, connecting the dots best works when looking back, not forward.

“At the moment, when things happen, you wonder. You trust the Lord, and you give everything you have — what the Lord has given you — to resolve the situation, as challenging as it may be,” he said. “But you trust the Lord, you follow the counsel you have — especially the counsel from the Spirit — and you move forward.

“And I have learned that when you look back, then you see how the dots connect. … The Lord allows us to move forward in faith and trust in Him, using what He is granting us.”