Latter-day Saint Life

What do the wives of mission presidents do? This mission leader dug in and found some surprising answers

President Bret Smith and Sister JeaNette Smith at an orientation meeting for new missionaries in the Santo Domingo East Mission.
JeaNette Smith

When my husband and I were called to serve as mission leaders in the Dominican Republic in 2016, I was eager to learn more about what my role would be. So before we left, I asked as many missionaries as I could about the contribution of their mission president’s wives (also referred to as sister mission leaders in this article). My nephew scared me by saying that his favorite thing about the wife of his mission president was when she dressed up in costume for zone conference and performed. I panicked. I am not an actress, and entertaining the missionaries in such a way was light-years outside of my comfort zone. But as my husband and I began to serve our mission, I learned that I had developed other talents that could help me in this calling.

When COVID-19 hit during the last year of our service, 90 Dominican missionaries who had been serving in 40 different missions around the world were reassigned to our mission. I was curious about what the wives of each of their mission presidents had done to contribute to the missions’ success, so I interviewed these incoming missionaries. With each interview, I was amazed at the creativity of the women who helped lead their missions and the diverse ways they served.

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Meeting Physical Needs

It was no surprise to hear that the majority of mission presidents’ wives were involved in missionary health care. They all helped the missionaries learn strategies to minimize stress, appreciate the value of exercise, and identify safe food venues. Many sisters made themselves available to take missionaries to medical appointments or to the hospital when needed.

My interviews also revealed that sister mission leaders are always feeding the missionaries, earning the their undying gratitude in doing so. Each mission leader found her own approach to feeding the missionaries. Some helped prepare food for zone conferences. Others brought snacks to various meetings. In our mission, we held what we called the “last supper,” when we’d host a meal for the missionaries before they returned home. This meant I was organizing and hosting a meal for around 20 missionaries every six weeks. I learned that other missions had a similar tradition.

There were mission leaders who did not have a senior couple in the mission or a reliable local couple to conduct inspections of the missionary’s apartments. In these missions, the sister mission leaders often fulfilled this important task themselves. One requirement for missionary apartments is that the windows have adequate blinds or drapes for privacy. In one mission, too many windows were exposed, so the sister mission leaders, with assistance from senior missionaries, made curtains to cover the windows.

Meeting Spiritual Needs

Of all the things I learned that sister mission leaders did differently, there was one thing they all had in common: virtually all of them taught with their husbands at zone conference. If they didn’t speak the language of the mission, someone translated for them. Zone conferences are held every six weeks, and my husband, who is excellent in a one-on-one interview, found them to be extremely stressful. Fortunately, I had spent years speaking at BYU Education Week and youth conferences around the country, so I was in my element at a zone conference. I couldn’t sing or dance, but I could conduct a workshop with confidence. This took a great deal of pressure off my spouse, a relief he relished.

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Sister JeaNette Smith smiles at her husband while they instruct missionaries.

Every six weeks, mission presidents travel to various areas of the mission to conduct a one-on-one interview with each missionary. I always accompanied my husband on these visits and loved teaching the missionaries while they waited their turn for an interview. Interviewing each zone took an entire day in our mission, so the occasion became a mini-workshop where the zone leaders, district leaders, assistants to the president, and I all took turns teaching and doing role-plays with those waiting for their interview. Because I spent so much time one-on-one with the missionaries, when it came time to decide where to move missionaries at the end of a transfer, my husband relied heavily on my input. Several of the missionaries I interviewed said their mission president and his wife had also worked together to decide which missionaries were prepared to be leaders and who was ready for a transfer.

Although it has typically been the mission president’s role to conduct interviews with the missionaries, the new missionary handbook invites missionaries to have their mission president’s wife join them for interviews if they would like.

The missionaries I interviewed said that they had enjoyed this option. The sister missionaries especially said they enjoyed having another way to connect with the president’s wife. Additionally, some missionaries told me that their sister mission leader would at times hold special conferences just for the sisters.

Elders and sisters who do not speak English are encouraged by the Church to study the language while on their missions. One of my favorite experiences of our mission was giving oral tests to the Spanish speakers who were learning English. The missionary department has three examinations for different levels of fluency, and the questions provided in the exam were all spiritual in nature. In giving their oral answers, the missionaries would bear testimony to me, and several times we would cry together because we were so touched by the Spirit. For example, during one exam the missionary mentioned that her mother had passed away when she was a child. She began to cry, and I reached out to hug her. We shared a long embrace, and I felt that I was being allowed to stand in for her beloved mother for just a moment.

Meeting Social and Emotional Needs

Any parent who has enjoyed reading a mission Facebook page or a mission blog can rest assured it was likely one of the mission leaders who kept the pages up to date. One-half of the missionaries I interviewed said their mission leaders posted about the mission on social media. In our case, my husband spent hours and hours reading and responding to each missionary’s weekly letter to him, so during that time I gathered the photos and stories I had gleaned during the week and posted them online for parents to enjoy.

When our own children were serving their missions, I wanted to know what kind of food they ate, what their living arrangements were like, how they got around, how the people lived—things my children never seemed to think to share, but things that a mom cares about. We like to know our children are healthy and happy, in addition to the fact that they are teaching and baptizing. Keeping social media pages updated gave parents that assurance. Our missionaries’ parents also got to see lots of photos of the country, exposing them to a culture the missionaries often forgot to share. I used these same photos and experiences to create an annual mission history, a requirement of the Missionary Department.

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In my interviews with the reassigned missionaries, I learned that nearly all the sister mission leaders helped arrange a fun fiesta for Christmas. They decorated, baked, and sewed in preparation for the event. One mission leader made aprons for all the sisters in the mission, and the sisters in the mission made ties for the elders. The mission leaders made sure that all the missionaries had gifts, and those missionaries who came from more humble circumstances received gifts to meet their needs.

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Missionaries in their matching Christmas aprons.
President and Sister Smith and their missionaries pose for a photo at Christmas time.
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President and Sister Smith and their missionaries pose for a photo at Christmas time.
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Missionaries in their matching Christmas aprons.
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Christmas was not the only time the sister mission leaders planned parties. For instance, one mission enjoyed a water-balloon fight on an especially hot day. The mission presidents’ wives also made sure that every missionary was remembered on his or her birthday. Sometimes the missionaries received a phone call from the mission leader, other times a card or a bag of candy (chocolate being the overwhelmingly favorite treat of those I interviewed).

I learned a wide variety of other ways sister mission leaders blessed the lives of missionaries. One taught piano, another helped the missionaries memorize scriptures. A few sisters made random phone calls just to check up on how the missionaries were doing. Several took it upon themselves to check if area books were up to date. One sister mission leader created an inspiring pamphlet for the missionaries to read. Two co-wrote a weekly letter with their spouses updating the missionaries on the success of the mission and encouraging them to stay focused.

Sharing the Load

Because it was sometimes difficult for missionaries to reach their mission president with his busy schedule if they needed permission for a preparation-day activity or advice on other matters, some were instructed to call the mission president’s wife and they found her help to be invaluable.

Of all the tasks I I enjoyed as a mission leader, I most enjoyed going out with the sisters to teach their friends. I got to see how well they taught together, how well they applied what they had learned, how well they related to the Dominicans when they taught with the Spirit. I also loved the opportunity to testify. A mission leader is responsible first and foremost for teaching the missionaries, and the missionaries are responsible for teaching the gospel to the people, but once in a while I had the privilege of doing both. Testifying with them in the streets and in homes also helped me have a better idea of what missionaries needed to learn during zone conferences and other trainings. About a third of the missionaries I interviewed said their sister mission leaders also came out to teach with them.

Mission leaders do not come in cookie-cutter shapes or sizes. Some leave their careers to serve with plans to return, while others retire before they leave. Others take a leave of absence from their occupations, not knowing where they will work when they return from their missions. Some bring children into the mission. Others are empty nesters. Of the missionaries I interviewed, all had served in Spanish-speaking countries, yet one-third of the wives of their mission presidents spoke only English, another third spoke only Spanish, and a third spoke both languages. Regardless of their individual differences, all these mission leaders found invaluable ways to bless the lives of their missionaries.

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President and Sister Smith instruct missionaries from the pulpit.

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