What is the best way to recharge when you are serving as mission leaders? The answer is to attend a mission leader seminar with the Area Presidency, stay in a hotel on a beach, enjoy the companionship of 16 other mission leader companionships, and eat food prepared by and cleaned up after by someone else. Sounds pretty good huh? Such was the case for us last week as we attended the Africa West Area Mission Leadership Seminar in Accra.
We flew out on Tuesday afternoon. Elder and Sister Moomey were kind enough to take us to the airport and pick us up when we returned. We arrived at the Labadie Beach Hotel in Accra between 4:30 – 5:00 pm. The Labadie is a good hotel. 30 years ago it was likely a premier hotel. The staff are attentive and they keep the place immaculate. The rooms were nice, albeit a bit musty. The air conditioning was tied into some sort of central system that lacks a dehumidifying element, which probably accounts for the musty smell. But all in all we enjoyed our stay and appreciated having a completely different venue. The hotel does sit on a beach, a place we enjoyed most mornings for a refreshing walk. Unfortunately, the litter that washes up most nights saddened us. The culture of littering without much concern for the environment manifests itself clearly in the beach. Most of this trash comes from the rivers that feed into the ocean and then catches currents that brings it to the beach. When the high tide departs, significant debris is left behind. However, we did not focus on the trash that washed up, instead we stayed focused on the sound of the waves rushing to shore, the nice ocean breeze, and the many friendly people that we met. There are quite a few restaurants and bars that line a section of the beach near the hotel and every morning there were crews of men raking and gathering and then either burying or hauling away the high tide trash. Where there was no establishment, the trash remains.
While we enjoyed the food, the locale and sounds of the ocean, the biggest treat was the instruction we received and the camaraderie with the other mission leaders. Here is a rundown on the sessions and the topics.
Elder and Sister Martinez kicked off the seminar with a discussion on the Doctrine of Christ. What is the Doctrine of Christ? It is at the heart of our purpose of missionaries. “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.” Elder Martinez confirmed that a missionary who does not live the doctrine of Christ, can never teach it effectively. I loved the question they encouraged us to ask the missionaries, “When was the last time you felt the sweet forgiveness available through the atonement of Jesus Christ?” The Martinez’s encouraged us to study together as a couple about how we can help the missionaries better understand the Doctrine the Christ. In the Kumasi mission, we have already had zone conferences focused on faith and the Holy Ghost. The next two will focus first on baptism and then on repentance. We will then teach each of these principles again and again.
Elder Kacher then talked about saving souls through the atonement of Jesus Christ. The focus was on the importance of membership councils as a means to help leaders who make serious mistakes, repent. Too often the culture here sees repentance as punishment rather than relief, and that often results in a brush off of sin that is never fully resolved for the individual. Elder Kacher emphasized the importance of helping those who have made serious mistakes to receive a fullness of the blessings of repentance. We were encouraged to increase our teaching about what constitutes the “conditions of repentance”. While we are all familiar with the conditions of baptism (see Doctrine and Covenants 20:37), fewer understand the conditions of repentance. Because of the law, there is a punishment affixed and mercy can never rob justice. Without meeting the conditions of full repentance (among which are a broken heart and a contrite spirit), the consequences of a broken law will have eternal consequences. He closed by encouraging us to teach the laws of justice and mercy.
Elder and Sister Klebingat then led a discussion on conversion and retention. This may have been one of the most important sessions for us, as we know there is significantly more we need to do here. Elder Klebingat shared the following graphic.
What this says is that the relationships the convert builds with missionaries and members, plus their adoption and depth of new found beliefs, plus their experiences with the Book of Mormon, sacrament meeting, the missionaries and members both before and after baptism, must outweigh the lifestyle changes that a new convert must make in their life to successfully stay in the church. Of special note was the Klebingat’s invitation for the missionaries to stay more involved with new converts after baptism. Specifically, making sure the new converts 1) prepare a name for the temple; 2) receive a limited use temple recommend; 3) attend the temple to do baptisms for the dead; 4) receive a calling; and 5) deepen friendships with members. In regards to a calling, they suggested new converts could be called to be ward or branch missionaries. They closed with encouraging us to work with the missionaries to guard the baptismal covenant. I immediately had a picture come to mind, and while not perfect, it is exactly the mindset we need to have as missionaries.
On Thursday, Elder & Sister Martinez talked about how to deal with emotional challenges that missionaries face. They spoke a lot about the booklet “Adjusting to Missionary Life” and the importance of making it a part of our missionary culture. Elder and Sister Kacher spoke about “Remembering the Foundation” and showed us a slide for West Africa showing the number of baptism decreasing even as the number of missionaries have been increasing. While there is no perfect answer for this phenomenon, we can see in our own mission how managing a larger group of missionaries is a challenge. Getting new apartments, acclimating them to their areas, helping zone leaders and sister training leaders manage larger districts, doing an increasing number of interviews and making them as effective as possible. All of this can become a distraction for the mission during a “ramp up” in numbers. Hopefully as the growth in the number of missionaries subsides, the missions can catch up. We feel like May will likely be the month for us where we finally achieve some stability and equilibrium, I suspect other mission leaders are experiencing similar issues.
On Friday morning, Lane Steinagel, our area mission specialist talked about the best practices of high performing missions. This was also a very helpful session. Here are the top 5 keys to a high performing mission.
- Set high expectations (“Seek and expect miracles” – President Nelson; “Do not diminish the doctrine of the Lord that we are to baptize converts” – Elder Neil L. Andersen)
- Raise Finding (Find through the Spirit; Set finding goals mathematically consistent with baptismal goals)
- Transform Teaching (missionaries to focus on progression rather than lessons, teach missionaries how to teach repentance, have a missionary purpose for every visit)
- Improve Training (At zone conferences teach WHAT, WHY, and HOW in that order – focus on the WHY)
- Adjust Planning (Scheduling isn’t planning; must be a revelatory experience)
While we are far from perfect in each of these areas, we took some courage in the counsel and believe we are consistent with suggestions in each of the 5 best practices and are moving in the right directions.
We then had a wonderful presentation by Elder and Sister Dance. If you remember back to last year, the Dance’s visited us in Kumasi and we enjoyed a meal together. Since Elder and Sister Dance, LaDawn and I all attended Blackfoot High School, it was a double treat to see them again. For the last 5 months they have been working on recommending, training, and preparing training materials for Area Organizational Advisors. What they have done in 5 short months is nothing short of miraculous. While at the Mission Leadership Seminar, they took some time and walked us through the videos they produced, the new organizational advisors who have been called, and the presentation materials we can use with our Districts. It was fabulous. The way Elder Dance started was perfect. He said we have a problem with both complexity and capability. The complexity of the church and its programs for these organizational leaders is the size of a water cooler jug. The capability of the leaders (due to their newness to the Church) is like 12 oz bottle of drinking water. We have to work on both the complexity and the capability so that complexity AND capability is effectively the size of a 2 liter bottle of water. That was a most perfect description of the problem and the solution. We are looking forward to taking advantage of these materials to move our 4 member Districts forward.
On Friday afternoon we enjoyed the highlight of the week as Elder S. Mark Palmer of the Presidency of the Seventy and Elder D. Todd Christopherson of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles joined us via zoom. Even though it was a remote visit, it was powerful and inspiring! Elder Palmer spoke about how to help missionaries learn lessons of leadership. He talked about how the role of district leader is perhaps the most underutilized role in a mission. He also confirmed that these leadership roles are positions of trust, not seniority and that we need to solve problems through these young mission leaders. He asked us to help create a culture of counseling among our mission leaders so that when they return home and are called to positions of leadership, they will be prepared and capable of leading a ward or branch council or perhaps a presidency council.
Following Elder Palmer’s counsel and discussion, Elder Christopherson spent about an hour with us. His first key message was about discipleship. As a young missionary, he served under Elder Richard G. Scott. At one point Elder Scott wrote in his journal, “This mission is on fire”. As we discussed what that might mean to each of us, Elder Christopherson then summarized the discussion by saying it was all about discipleship. A mission is on “fire” when all of the missionaries are becoming disciples of Jesus Christ and growing their relationship with Heavenly Father and His Son through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. He said that Satan is raging. That this is his day and that we are fighting a tremendous values battle. He said the only way we can succeed is by becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. We need to tie ourselves, bind ourselves through the atonement to the Son and the Father. He then reaffirmed that many of the messages in the recent General Conference were focused on this message of discipleship and encouraged us to re-read the talks through that lens. He said we need disciples in these last days and the best place to learn how to be a disciple is on a mission. He later spoke about repentance and said, “Repentance is what we do to access the power of God”. He also said that our role as priesthood leaders is to help members repent. He asked, what is needed for repentance to be complete? And then answered it by saying “Repentance needs to take us to a place where we can change”. (So profound!).
At the end of the session with him he bore a powerful witness of the resurrected Savior. When we met with him in Accra, I mentioned how powerful I found his witness and testimony. He talked about Acts 1:21 that explained that the 11 remaining apostles needed to choose someone who was a literal witness to the resurrection to replace Judas. There were two who fit the profile and the lot fell upon Matthias. The point he then made was that was the same requirement today for an apostle and he then bore his certain knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was powerful! Such an amazing way to end the seminar.
After the seminary ended, we took an opportunity to take a few pictures. When we left Sierra Leone we took a picture with President Harper but Sister Harper was away. This time we managed to take one with both of them. LaDawn also grabbed a picture with Sister Kacher, as the two of them had an almost immediate connection when they first met.
That evening, President & Sister Young of the Accra Ghana Mission invited us to dinner along with President and Sister Bassey of the Nigeria Port Harcourt mission and President and Sister Morrison of the Ghana Cape Coast mission. President Morrison was just called as a General Authority at the April conference in Salt Lake City. We had a lovely evening at Bistro 22, a popular western style restaurant in Accra.
On Wednesday night, we traveled over to the MTC to listen to a devotional by the Martinez’s and to meet the missionaries that would be coming to our mission the following week. What a fun evening that was. We had dinner with them and then attended the devotional. These missionaries are so full of life and energy we are looking forward to their arrival in Kumasi!
We flew home on Saturday and immediately went over to the mission office for meetings with missionaries. We’ve had some trouble with persistent disobedience from a missionary, and despite repeated chances and promises to change, it was just not happening. So, on Saturday afternoon, after getting approval from the Area Presidency, his Priesthood leader at home, and the Missionary Department in Salt Lake, I had a very difficult discussion with this missionary and sent him home on Monday morning. Certainly my least favorite part of this calling, but something that had to be done. I only hope he will now awake and arise and prepare himself to repent and return.
On Sunday, we attended the University Stake Conference. We love to be with the leaders of this dynamic and fast growing stake. More importantly, we love to be with the missionaries! The conference was great. The talks were solid and inspiring and the choir sang beautifully. A wonderful way to spend a Sunday! Following the conference, we made a quick stop at home and then we were off to visit a family in the Korforidua Branch of the Bantama Stake. Felix and Teresa are parents of three beautiful children. Teresa was ready to be baptized on Sunday until her Father called her and said if she joined the church he would disown her. She felt like she needed to honor his wishes, at least until she could explain to him why it so important to her to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We went with Elder Buchanan, Elder Miller and Brother Emmanuel, the first counselor in the branch presidency. We had a wonderful visit and pray that this amazing little family will be able to find their way to the waters of baptism so that they can enjoy all of the blessings they have come to love and seek.
When I started writing this post, I thought it would be short and quick. It turned out much longer than anticipated. The more I looked through my notes of last week, the more I wanted to share – and there is still so much I just don’t have time to write about. It probably sounds strange, but we have actually come to appreciate and value both the ups and the downs of the mission. We see our own growth and our desires growing ever stronger to be exactly like our Savior in every attribute and example that He displayed. We testify this is His work and His glory. We joy to be engaged in this great cause in even the smallest way, Together in Ghana.