As a former bishop and a current stake president, I’ve learned there’s one word a priesthood leader should never utter when a young person isn’t able to serve the full-time proselyting mission they’ve been dreaming of all their life: can’t.
It should always be about what a person can do. Never about what they can’t.
The reasons a young man or woman might not be eligible to serve a proselyting mission are many—it might be a health issue, physical or mental; it might be a learning disability; it might be other circumstances—but no worthy young person is precluded from going on a mission, even if it’s not a conventional mission.
Wise bishops and stake presidents know this and are proactive not only at assuring a prospective missionary that they can go, but also at customizing a mission that will accommodate whatever special circumstances need to be addressed.
It takes creativity on the part of the stake president and bishop, the families involved, and the Church entities that offer opportunities to serve.
Of many successful Young Church-Service Missionary calls through the years, these are three great examples:
- Sister Olson, who has Down Syndrome, served her mission at the bishops’ storehouse in Calgary. She caught two buses and a train to get to the storehouse every morning. There, she touched people in ways others could not. When families came, this cheerful, capable young woman told them how good it was to see them while she filled their orders. Often, she even carried their groceries to their car. By the time she was released, Sister had Olson gained celebrity status at the storehouse.
- Elder Rausch, who has a learning disability, was sent two hours away to live with a member family and serve his mission at the Cardston Alberta Temple. That was ten years ago. He loved his mission so much he’s still in Cardston—and still serving in the temple.
- Elder Cairns, who also has a learning disability, served his mission at the Calgary Alberta Bishops’ Storehouse and the Calgary Alberta Temple, working on the grounds and as an ordinance worker. He was so popular at both the storehouse and the temple that they insisted he extend his mission. He will extend his mission for two months and remain a temple worker after his release.
Each of these missions was unique, but the common thread running through them all was careful consideration, through praying and pondering, by priesthood leaders familiar with the individual’s needs and circumstances.
Where I think priesthood leaders, including me, could do better is to pay attention and realize that when a young person says they don’t want to serve a mission, what they might really be saying is they don’t think they can pass the medical exam. If you can pick up on those cues, you can relieve concerns by saying, “Together, we’ll find a place you can serve.”
There’s always somewhere to serve. The Lord found spots; we can find spots too.