President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, descends from a long line of Church leadership.
“With my forefathers, you might think I would have been well prepared for missionary service,” he said at the beginning of his Friday, June 25, address at the 2021 Seminar for New Mission Leaders.
But instead, he began his own full-time mission, decades ago, unprepared for the call. Like any other newly called elder or sister, young Elder Ballard had to discover his missionary purpose through prayerful study, determination and hard work.
President Ballard was born months before the Great Depression arrived in 1929. The economic challenges of the day, he said, led “to an unfortunate turn for my parents and our family.”
President Ballard’s father, Melvin Russell Ballard Sr., became so involved in his struggle to support a family that, for a time, it pulled the family away from activity in the Church.
“My parents’ withdrawal from Church activity did not prevent me from attending worship services with good friends or praying with my mother,” he said. “My parents taught me to work hard, tell the truth and understand my responsibilities to family and neighbors. They encouraged me to do the right thing for the right reason — but allowed me to decide for myself whether I would be involved in Church activities.”
When he was an older youth, President Ballard often spent his Sundays working with his father on the family cabin. “We didn’t attend Church meetings as a family.”
But thanks largely to the influence of good friends at school, he began attending Church. While a student at the University of Utah, he made the choice to serve a mission — accepting a call to the British Mission.
Church President George Albert Smith — a friend and apostolic associate of President Ballard’s grandfather, Elder Melvin J. Ballard — attended his missionary farewell. Another Apostle, Elder Harold B. Lee, also attended.
“From that, I learned that missionary work is profoundly important to our Church leaders,” he said. “It was also an honor for me to have my father in the congregation that day. That was the first time I remember my father attending church with me.”
On the sea voyage from New York Harbor to England, then-Elder Ballard was excited to serve. But he also realized “how little I knew about the gospel.”
On the day he arrived in London, he was assigned to speak at a street meeting at Hyde Park. The young elder’s talk on baptism lasted all of 45 seconds.
“My discourse was short and not very effective,” he said. “I was embarrassed. I had let down the Lord, [Mission] President Selvoy J. Boyer, the Church and myself.”
He stepped off the speaker’s stand determined to never again be unprepared to accomplish his purpose as a missionary in England.
“I share this background to illustrate that of all the missionaries who had served, I should have known my missionary purpose, but I did not. I didn’t know my purpose, and I wasn’t prepared,” he said.
Since that time, President Ballard and fellow Church leaders have done many things to better prepare missionaries to serve and help them know their purpose. “Preach My Gospel,” he said, is “one of the most significant things we have done in the last 20 years.”
President Ballard holds personal affections for “Preach My Gospel.” When he was assigned to serve as chairman of the Missionary Executive Council in 2002, he directed efforts to change how the missionaries taught lessons, recognizing that having the elders and sisters teach memorized lessons was no longer effective.
“Instead, we wanted them to focus on the Restoration of the gospel and inviting all of Heavenly Father’s children to come to Jesus Christ through faith, repentance and baptism,” he said. “Missionaries needed to know their purpose, and they needed to teach by the Spirit.”
The first chapter of “Preach My Gospel” teaches that the missionary purpose is to “invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.”
The restored gospel of Jesus Christ, declared President Ballard, is a glorious message. “The missionary purpose statement helps keep missionaries focused on teaching that message.”
Missionaries need to know many things to be successful, he added. They should be frequently reminded of their missionary purpose. They are commissioned to teach the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and to baptize and confirm those who believe. They are called to invite others to follow the Savior and His restored gospel. The most important convert a missionary will have is himself or herself.
Given today’s world of technology and social media, missionaries need to be able to convey important gospel messages in just a few minutes — maybe even in 45 seconds. But they also need a deeper understanding of their purpose.
“Presidents and sisters, as you teach your missionaries, consistently remind them of their missionary purpose,” he said. “There are so many things that can distract them from the reason they were called to serve a full-time mission.
“Teach and remind them of their purpose in your interviews with them and in zone and mission conferences. Ask them if they are inviting others to come unto Christ by helping them to receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.”
Missionaries, he added, need to learn to listen.
“Missionaries who sincerely listen to the people they meet are in a better position to discern their needs. They won’t deliver a rote door approach or introduction when they meet someone. They won’t default to the same gospel topic and delivery when they first teach someone.”
The purpose of the mission leaders gathering for the 2021 seminar is no different than the missionaries they will serve.
“Your purpose also involves inviting your missionaries to come unto Christ and endure to the end,” said President Ballard. “Help them with their lifelong conversion by becoming spiritually strong and converted to Jesus Christ.”
Despite young Elder M. Russell Ballard’s inauspicious beginnings in the mission field over seven decades ago, he soon discovered his purpose as a missionary. He watched and learned from his mission leaders.
“My mission presidents, President Selvoy J. Boyer and President Stayner Richards, helped me to become spiritually strong and converted to Jesus Christ.
“President Boyer looked past my first preaching experience in Hyde Park. Both presidents taught me about my purpose as a missionary. They worked with me. They gave me opportunities to grow. They invited me to do hard things. They gave me opportunities to lead and invited me to share the gospel.
“I also knew that they loved me. I love President and Sister Boyer, and President and Sister Richards.”
While still a full-time missionary, President Ballard was called to serve as a district president of the Nottingham District and, later, as first counselor in the mission presidency. “I went from not being able to teach the gospel for more than 45 seconds to being a member of the mission presidency in 18 months. I traveled with the Boyers and the Richards and learned much about them and the order of the Church.”
Decades later, in 1974, President Ballard and his wife, Sister Barbara Ballard, were called to serve as mission leaders over the Canada Toronto Mission. Working together, the Ballards strived to help their missionaries discover their purpose. They loved the missionaries.
“I have stayed in touch with many of my missionaries,” he concluded. “They visit me often. I love them; you will feel this same love and concern for your missionaries. They will be a part of your life long after you are released from your mission leader service.”