Late Wednesday night, my wife and I pressed our ears against my cell phone and listened as my brother Chase read the familiar words, "Dear Elder Coppins, You are hereby called to serve…"
Opening a mission call is an exciting rite of passage in Mormon life, but it's important to remember that when it comes to missionary service, the kind of missionary you are is much more important than where you serve. With that in mind, I'd like to offer my brother — and everyone else who is about to enter the MTC — some advice.
(Oh, and since I know you're still wondering, Chase is going to the Argentina Resistencia Mission.)
When I was a missionary in the MTC (and later when I worked there) we often watched a recorded talk given by Elder David A. Bednar in which he described a pair of elders he had once invited into his home for breakfast. They goofed around with his young children, watched cartoons, overstayed their welcome and then, before leaving, asked Elder Bednar, "So, do you have any referrals for us?"
In his typical gentle-but-stern tone, he told the companionship, "Elders, I would never give you a referral."
The missionaries were, of course, taken aback, so Elder Bednar explained. He told them that the missionaries to whom he would trust his friends and acquaintances would not have wasted so much time playing around in his house. They would have been polite and kind, shared a brief spiritual thought with the family and left quickly so that they could get back to searching for new investigators.
His story, fortunately, has a happy ending. Weeks later, those same elders returned for a visit to the Bednar home and complied carefully with all of Elder Bednar's previous advice. When they asked at the end of their short visit whether he had anyone in mind for them to teach, he responded, "For missionaries like you, I have plenty of referrals."
The church has long stressed the importance of member missionary work, but it has been especially emphasized since the publication of "Preach My Gospel." The fact is, spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ is not only a job for the young men and women who wear black nametags — it's a job for every baptized Latter-day Saint. Many of us aren't living up to this commitment, and it's something we need to work on, but if you're about to embark on a proselyting mission, you can make it a little easier for us to leave our comfort zones.
Specifically, you can be the kind of missionary who makes members WANT to share the gospel. This means more than simply following the mission rules (though that's certainly part of it). Show us that you are dedicated to your work by not complaining about it. Bear your testimony often so that we can feel your faith and conviction. Demonstrate basic people skills by smiling and carrying on conversations with us.
A couple weeks ago, Annie and I invited the missionaries in our Harlem ward over for dinner along with a friend from BYU who is also completing an internship in New York. As the five of us sat around the tiny table in our cramped kitchen, I asked them about the work. They had been double-transferred into the area and were still learning their way around and trying to find investigators to teach. It was a difficult situation, full of obstacles to overcome — but you wouldn't know that by talking to them.
They spoke positively about the ward, the members, the area and the investigators they were teaching. They were kind to each other and seemed genuinely focused on the work. At the end of our visit, they asked — like all good missionaries do — if we had anyone for them to teach. We 'd only been in New York a few weeks at that point so they left empty-handed, but their faith and diligence inspired me to focus more on my baptismal commitment to "stand as a witness of God."
I have no doubt that my brother will be a fantastic missionary, like the vast majority of young men and women who are planning to join him in the field. My hope is that they make sure the members in their wards know it.