For many retired people, serving a senior mission can sometimes seem a distant dream, but recent changes to missionary service put this goal well within the reach of many couples. And no matter what your age, if you want to serve a senior couples mission, you can start preparing for it now. Read on to find out how.
In October 2012, President Thomas S. Monson lowered the age requirements for young missionaries. Within a year, the number of young elders and sisters serving had risen by over 21,000—a staggering 40-percent increase.
Less well known among Latter-day Saints are changes to service opportunities for senior missionaries that occurred about a year prior to that announcement. In September 2011, monthly housing costs for seniors were capped at $1,400. Options to serve for 6 or 12 months in international missions were opened to those willing to pay their own transportation to and from the mission field. The hope was to provide more opportunities for even better experiences for seniors.
Since that time, there has been a steady rise in the number of senior missionary couples. Many now serving describe their preparation in the same way: steady. In fact, some say that without even realizing it, they’ve been preparing their entire lives.
Whether a couple has been married for days or decades, they can plan for serving missions the same way they plan for their children’s missionary service or other important milestones. Even couples
Coming to this decision later in life will often find the way opened for them. They just need to decide to serve and then live like they mean it.
1. Learn about senior missionary service.
Serving a senior mission is not like serving as a young elder or sister, but it does come with the same rich spiritual blessings—or maybe even more of them. Learn what’s involved so you can anticipate the experience without worrying about keeping up on a bicycle.
First, know that senior missionary assignments take advantage of hard-earned professional, social, and spiritual skills. “We have a tremendous need for senior missionaries to serve throughout the world and in various departments of the Church,” says Elder Don R. Clarke of the First Quorum of the Seventy and assistant executive director in the Missionary Department. Because of the range of needs and the fact that only about half of the available opportunities are filled, he says, “Usually couples can do something they really want to do—something they’re really good at.” Assignments include supporting younger missionaries, strengthening members, serving humanitarian causes, and administering to the Church behind-the-scenes.
Second, understand that couples’ own preferences are considered by the apostles who make the assignments, says Mark B. Woodruff, director of missionary services for the Missionary Department. “Senior missionaries are asked to indicate their interests or preferences for where and how they serve,” he says. “Of course these assignments are made by the Lord, and prospective missionaries should be willing to serve where assigned.”
Third, recognize that senior missionaries do not follow the same rules. As Woodruff says, “They get to choose their own companion! If they need to go home and take a nap during the day, they can do that. There’s more ongoing communication with home: email, Skype, and FaceTime. If they need to return home for a critical family event, they can discuss that with the mission president.”
Senior missionaries are invited to be just as dedicated as their young counterparts, though. “Those that have the best experiences try to live most like the younger missionaries,” says Elder Clarke. “You will help people’s lives change and be an example to others whether your assignment is humanitarian or as an auditor. These can be some of the best years of your lives, too. Missionary service changes you, no matter how old you are.”
2. Decide now to serve.
No matter how far in the future missionary service seems and how many obstacles may intervene, deciding now helps a couple prepare and sends a strong message to children and grandchildren.
“Since we’ve been married, a topic of frequent conversation was where we would serve as a senior couple,” says Elder Jeff French, currently serving in the Philippines. “We both looked at fliers that hung on bulletin boards that listed couples needed in positions around the world.” They daydreamed about where they would go and what they would do.
Then their lives took unexpected turns, as many lives do. Elder French, a U.S. Navy veteran who worked in building maintenance, battled 3rd stage metastatic melanoma in his early 40s. His wife, Marcia, returned to school, got a degree as a mental health counselor, and started a demanding career.
These circumstances did not diminish this stalwart couple’s desire to serve a mission. First they fulfilled two 18-month Church-service missions from their home in Indiana. Eventually, to their deep joy, Elder French was well and strong enough to serve full-time. They submitted their papers. In 2012 they began an 18-month mission to the Philippines, where Sister French serves as area mental health advisor to 21 missions, a missionary training center, and two temples. Elder French serves as her assistant and companion.
Elder French doesn’t take his mission experience for granted. “Having cancer is never an experience to brighten your day, but it does give you opportunities to reflect on the blessings that you do have,” he explains. “I have been blessed with, so far, 10 additional years of life in which to serve.”
The couple served valiantly in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines last November.
“I was privileged to be in the command center as they searched for missionaries,” recalls Sister French. “I was also given the honor of leading the emotional/mental health response [team], and as the missionaries arrived in Manila, we spoke with each of them, screened them, and directed intervention services. As we worked day and night for about five days straight processing the horrific scenes, that developed inner strength beyond the comprehension of most. The prophetic words of Ether are fulfilled: ‘then will I make weak things become strong unto them.’”
3. Strengthen your marriage.
Strong marriages make for strong mission companionships. But some couples wonder how their relationship will be affected by spending all their time together; it can be quite a transition. Missionaries Sheri and Gary McMurtrey are currently serving young single adults within the England London South Mission. Sister McMurtrey especially loves serving with her spouse and realizes that part of their preparation to serve together was just being together.
“Spending time together through all your years has great value,” she says. “Not just physically being in the same room, but really interacting with each other. There is great wisdom in the advice to go on a weekly date. We did this somewhat irregularly and usually just on the spur of the moment: we would go out to play tennis, go on a walk or ride, or other such things as the occasion permitted.”
Certain marriage skills help couples greatly in the mission field: “Learn how to resolve disagreements,” advises Sister McMurtrey. “Study the gospel together every day. Talk about it. Learn to build each other up.” She adds, “Communication is a key and something we are still trying to do better at. I am also still learning to be tolerant of our differences, which is difficult for me as I assume something means one thing and am not always right.”
The Church’s Marriage and Family Relations course helps prepare couples to serve missions, says Sister French, who helped implement the program in her home ward. “The focus is on building the relationship, learning better communication patterns, seeing your own challenges, and unifying with the Savior.” It’s designed to help couples thrive in the intense 24/7 companionship environment. Ask your bishop or branch president if this course is offered (or can be) in your ward or branch. If not, request a copy of Marriage and Family Relations Participant’s Study Guide through your bishop and study it with your spouse.
4. Increase testimony and gospel knowledge.
The ability to feel and respond to the Spirit is essential for senior missionaries, says Elder French. “No matter what the assignment might be, having the Spirit to assist you in your assignment is essential.” Daily heartfelt prayer, regular quiet time for pondering, and responding immediately to the Spirit’s promptings all help us grow in our ability to communicate with the Lord.
Learning the scriptures is also key to enabling us to teach gospel principles to others, says Sister McMurtrey. She recommends memorizing commonly cited scriptures, including seminary Scripture Mastery passages (find these at seminary.lds.org/mastery). Keeping a scripture study journal to reflect on what you read can help you process and retain what you learn.
Serving in the Church also deepens our testimony of gospel principles, programs, and leadership while helping us develop critical skills. “We have always tried to do what the Lord has asked of us,” says Sister
McMurtrey. “That has led to many opportunities to serve in positions . . . that caused us to stretch and grow.”
Of course, participating in member missionary work prepares senior couples, too. Pray for missionary opportunities. Visit and teach with local missionaries. Invite associates to church and to learn the gospel.
Create your mormon.org profile. Study Preach My Gospel along with scripture. Post faith-promoting messages on social media sites. In short, Sister McMurtrey says, “Learn how to be a member involved in the work of salvation before you go. It gets no easier when you have a missionary badge on.”
5. Prepare financially.
Elder Mike and Sister Kris Poulos, now serving as site missionaries at the Historic Kirtland Visitors’ Center in Ohio, planned as a young couple to serve a mission together someday. But then life distracted them.
“It quickly became the furthest thing from our minds,” recalls Elder Poulos. “We started raising children, buying a home, putting braces on teeth, paying college tuition, then funding kids’ missions and weddings, and then going on the journey of becoming grandparents. It was easy to kind of forget about that end goal we had.”
Fortunately, they had the foresight to set up their own missionary fund—separate from their children’s. They were reminded of their goal and reaffirmed it at certain times during their lives, like when Elder Poulos was called to be the ward mission leader. Toward the end of his career, Elder Poulos was given opportunities that made it financially easier for them to serve.
The McMurtreys’ financial preparation followed a similar theme: they lived prudently and prepared to serve, and then the Lord made it more possible. “Elder McMurtrey has always been good about building our savings account and investments,” explains Sister McMurtrey. “We were very conservative in our purchases throughout the time we were raising children. We took many steps to ensure we were out of debt and stayed out of debt.”
In 2002, her husband was offered a promotion in another state. “We did not want to leave, but the answer to our prayers and fast was that it would be a good move for our family. It did, indeed, make it possible to save more and be prepared for this opportunity.”
The Church offers several resources to help members live within their means and save for the future. Learn more about budgeting, wise use of debt and credit, discerning between needs and wants, and more at providentliving.org.
6. Stockpile skills and participate in the community.
Spiritual skills aren’t the only assets senior missionaries bring into the field. At any given time, qualified missionaries may be assigned based on professional backgrounds like information technology, agricultural production, health care, law enforcement, language translation, financial management, office skills, and more.
Sister French’s experience as a mental health advisor offers just one example. She says she and her husband have both “worked in a variety of jobs that have offered us the multiplicity of skills and expertise required to serve here.” Their prior associations with the military, professional organizations, and Rotary Club have also boosted their ability to enmesh themselves in communities in the Philippines.
In addition to career development, other skills developed midlife can be put to use by senior missionaries. Think technology skills, including internet and social media use, video communication interfaces, and the like. Or consider hobbies and avocations like music, gardening, family history, outdoor recreation, and more. The ability to talk to others in social settings (not just about the Church) is a near-universally used mission skill. Physical fitness—walking 30 to 60 minutes per day—can boost the energy, endurance, and overall health and well-being of senior missionaries.
Hoping to serve internationally? Learn a new language (especially if your spouse already knows it). Learn more about international affairs, governments, and cultures. Get a passport and keep it current.
7. Act when the time is right.
As couples approach their senior years, many wonder when the time is right to serve. Even if they are technically “retired,” they may be deeply involved in parenting, caring for older relatives, running businesses, fulfilling callings, volunteering, and other worthy pursuits.
There are few hard and fast rules about when to serve. President Monson’s guiding statement is to serve “as your circumstances allow, as you are eligible for retirement, and as your health permits.” Couples should be temple worthy, endowed, sealed, and committed to serve. They should not have dependent children under 18 or other family obligations that only they can fulfill. There is no upper age limit, though both should be in good physical, mental, and emotional health.
As the time to serve approaches, consider these tips from experienced senior missionaries:
•Understand if you feel “called to serve” before your spouse. Exercise faith and patience, ask the Lord to inform your spouse, and quietly begin preparing in appropriate ways.
•Take the time to handle temporal affairs responsibly. Consider tax and bill payment, what to do with a house or other properties, investment management, license renewals, powers of attorney, and other legal and financial matters.
•Consider health management questions. Do one or both of you need to be near first-world hospital care? How will you ensure access to needed medications or supplies? Do you have adequate health insurance? The latter is required for all full-time missionaries serving away from home. Policies may be purchased during missions for $180/month per person through the Church. Medicare coverage for those in the United States over 65 is acceptable.
•Learn about technologies and services commonly used by those who travel. Learn to use the internet (including communications technologies). Become familiar with GPS technology for travel. Investigate what credit cards are best to avoid unnecessary fees.
•Know and prepare for projected expenses. The $1,400 cost of housing for a couple doesn’t cover all costs. You will need to provide for your own transportation, food, personal expenses, and communication technologies including phone, computer, and internet access.
•Consider your options. In your online application, you will commit to 6, 12, 18, or 23 months of service. You are also encouraged to express preferences for how and where you serve. Some assignments in Canada and the United States can accommodate missionaries living in their own motor homes.
•Perfect your language skills. Language tutoring and brush-up support are available to missionaries once they receive their calls. Use it!
•Anticipate that obstacles will present themselves as you prepare to serve. Some obstacles may even follow you into the mission field. Equally, anticipate that blessings will also present themselves—and they will eventually far outweigh the obstacles.
•Prepare to leave grown children. Leaving grown children can give them new opportunities and, in some cases, reduce over-dependence on parents. Senior couples can testify that their children and grandchildren are blessed and watched over in their absence.
8. Grow in eternal perspective.
Not every couple who plans to serve a mission together will do so in this life. One spouse may pass away prematurely. Health, family, financial, or other obstacles may be too enduring or burdensome to allow for full-time service away from home.
Older adults who find themselves in these circumstances—disappointed by not being able to serve—may discover new dimensions of the Lord’s love and grace as they turn to Him for comfort. Many find joy and fulfillment in part-time, live-at-home Church-service missions for individuals or couples (see lds.org/callings/missionary/church-service). Some senior sisters without living husbands serve full-time missions in family history, member services, and leader support, as well as other capacities.
Sister French, whose husband has already survived cancer long after doctors expected him to die, takes the long view after having lived many years with him a day at a time. “Mortal life, death, money, and material possessions are all things of this world,” she comments. “As we let go and focus on our ‘eternal now,’ we can find great joy and happiness far beyond anything we can imagine.”
She describes their full-time mission as “just the start of our next 20 years of serving full-time missions.” She and her husband plan to return home long enough to prepare to serve again: “together for as long as the Lord will allow, then working together on the opposite sides of the veil until at one point never having to part again.” This eternal perspective serves them day by day—as they serve the Lord for 6, 12, 18, or 23 months at a time.