Scott Taylor: What I know now about pandemic-period missionaries and ‘preconceived missions’

Tens of thousands of full-time missionaries and prospective missionaries have been affected in varying degrees by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles’ adjustments to missionary work during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Some have returned and been released early from domestic or international assignments, some have been reassigned or are awaiting reassignment, and others have continued to serve, mostly in home countries. Meanwhile, those with calls in hand stand ready, despite still-developing departure dates and training and assignment locations.

The faith and commitment of these missionaries during uncertain times is admirable, and the Church News has featured a number of their experiences and perspectives in recent weeks. For me, the missionaries have avoided the trappings of what I call “preconceived missions.”

“Preconceived missions” are when missionaries go into their service with fixed, predetermined anticipations and expectations, often based on mission experiences of family members, friends or others.

Consider a mission’s many aspects — assignment and training locations, length of service, area types, residential accommodations, relationships with companions and mission leaders, appointed positions of responsibility and leadership, attire styles, transportation modes, teaching frequency, convert numbers and so on.

Locking expectations into any of those as part of a “preconceived mission” perspective could hamper one’s flexibility in dealing with myriad unforeseen situations.

Knowing others’ experiences often can help one recognize opportunities, understand challenges and receive reassurances. But similar to preconceived notions, serving any part of a “preconceived mission” can result in unnecessary blocks and boundaries or a tunnel-vision type of focus, rather than missionaries adapting to unexpected circumstances and following Spirit-led promptings.

As a stake president, I met with a young man whose “preconceived mission” was to have a foreign experience. He was disappointed with his assignment to Toronto, Canada, which he deemed similar to most United States metropolitan areas. Yet he followed the counsel to go to Toronto and see what the Lord had in store for him.

He returned two years later, reporting he had worked with individuals from some 80 different nationalities and ethnicities. “I couldn’t have had a more international experience than what I had in Toronto,” he said.

Presiding previously over the Arizona Phoenix Mission, I consistently witnessed missionaries’ experiences going against the grain of preconceived expectations.

One example: A visa-waiting missionary was temporarily assigned to us for a six-week transfer before continuing his mission in France. With his father killed in a small-plane crash just prior to this elder entering the Provo Missionary Training Center, the latter had turned his pre-mission focus into caring for his mother and younger siblings and preparing to serve in the same country as had his late father. Once in Arizona, the young elder experienced the painful, emotional trauma of his father’s absence and unresolved grieving.

We helped him with immediate counseling sessions at Family Services, located just blocks from the mission office. When I later offered my phone for a quick call home while driving him to the airport for a flight to France, I heard him share what he’d learned with his family. Had he begun his service in Europe as expected, he could have started ­in a city far from mission headquarters, likely receiving necessary counseling over the phone or through video-conference calls from Europe Area medical specialists.

And I remember, as an MTC branch president, helping a half-dozen of our branch’s Turkish-learning missionaries deal with the disappointment of not going to the Central Eurasia Mission as expected, but rather to last-minute reassignments in Europe, Asia and the United States because of Turkey’s political tensions. Several soon emailed to report of their arrival and their excitement to be teaching Turkish-speaking individuals in their new missions.

Even my own mission experiences, beginning in early 1979 in the Venezuela Caracas Mission, ended up being far from preconceivable.

First, visa issues resulted in a prolonged stay at the Provo MTC and a six-month temporary assignment in the Texas Houston Mission — and while there, a reassignment to the newly created Venezuela Maracaibo Mission. Once in Venezuela, my experiences included serving on the neighboring Netherlands Antilles island of Curaçao and a wait until my final five months of service to be a senior companion because a lack of visas meant a prolonged absence of new North American missionaries.

The result: two years of service, three different countries, four mission presidents — and I have yet to set foot in Caracas.

The full-time missionaries of 2020 — those serving before, during and after the pandemic — deserve admiration and appreciation for their efforts in uncertain times as well as for their ability to adapt to adjustments in assignment location, service tenure, proselyting techniques and more.

And for avoiding the trappings of “preconceived missions.”