Learning to Be a Missionary at the MTC

“Learning to Be a Missionary at the MTC,” Ensign, Oct. 1983, 8

Learning to Be a Missionary at the MTC

Seventeen flags fly high above the building. The wind lifts them, making a clapping sound.

“High on the mountain top A banner is unfurled; Ye nations, now look up; It waves to all the world. …”

Cars drive up to the front entrance in a steady stream. People pile out. Luggage is heaped on the sidewalk.

A hostess inside the glass doors smiles warmly. You and your family are welcome, she says, to attend the orientation meeting starting in five minutes just down the hall. Large pictures on the walls show missionaries walking along a country road, or kneeling in prayer with a family, or talking with someone at the front door.

The orientation room fills quickly. People are chatting and laughing and shaking hands.

“You are now in the mission field,” says the man at the pulpit. “The Missionary Training Center is one of the 179 missions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are pleased to have you here today.”

The Missionary Training Center is the first stop for newly called missionaries of the Church. Located in Provo, Utah, some forty miles south of Salt Lake City, the MTC is an impressive network of sixteen buildings—four classroom buildings; ten residence halls; a bookstore and health center; and an administrative complex housing offices, meeting rooms, post office, cafeteria, gym, and laundry. Situated at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, the MTC has a spectacular view of 12,000-foot Mount Timpanogos. Brigham Young University is only a short walk away.

“About three hundred missionaries arrive here every week. We normally have about fifteen hundred missionaries here at any given time. You won’t really notice, though, until you get to the lunch line and there they’ll be!”

Sixty percent are headed for English-speaking missions; they stay at the MTC for two weeks. The other 40 percent stay eight weeks; language classes are added to their curriculum. Thirty languages in all are taught, ranging from Afrikaans to Vietnamese, and including American Sign Language. Among the most recently added are Russian, Polish, and Greek—for missionaries assigned to teach people in the United States who speak those languages.

The fifteen thousand missionaries who enter the MTC each year join a total of about thirty thousand serving in countries around the world. Most are nineteen-year-old men; some are women twenty-one and over; others are older couples or older single women. All are unpaid volunteers serving at their own expense. They take a leave of absence for eighteen months from college or jobs—or donate six to eighteen months from their retirement years.

During their time of service, they are official representatives of the Church. As such, their objective is to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ and help people throughout the world improve their lives. According to the letter they receive from the President of the Church, their calling is “to represent the Lord as a minister of the restored gospel” and to be an “advocate and messenger of the Truth.”

“Your attitude is so much more important here than your aptitude,” the man at the pulpit continues. “All you need is a call from the Lord, which you have. That qualifies you.”

Family members who are able to come to Provo to bring their new missionaries are invited to attend the orientation sessions. They see a slide presentation and receive information about MTC life. Other interested groups may also schedule tours; during each summer month, an average of 1500 people tour the facility. Upon request, the MTC staff takes orientation presentations to groups in surrounding areas.

“One day, a young man walked into my office,” remembers Allen C. Ostergar, director of training. “He was in Utah on a skiing vacation with his non-LDS parents and was scheduled to enter the MTC in two weeks. But since his parents wouldn’t still be in Utah then, he wanted to come a week early and go through the orientation with them. He wanted them to see what it’s like here because they didn’t know much about the Church and were skeptical about the MTC.”

So the arrangements were made. The parents went through the orientation, observed some classes, and saw where their son would live. “They were impressed that there were so many young people of such a high caliber here. ‘How do you do it?’ they asked. It was a very positive experience.”

After the orientation, new missionaries are busy getting study materials at the MTC bookstore, finding the right room in the residence halls, and meeting new companions. But a group is happy to stop for a minute to talk about their first-day feelings and impressions:

—“This is the first time I’ve been away from home, but I feel confident. If my two older brothers can do it, I can do it. And I feel the Lord is going to be with me.”

—“I’m excited, but also a little nervous. But I’m glad I made the decision to come. I know the blessings will be many.”

—“I had three years of German in school, and I’m going to Ecuador!”

—“I had four years of Spanish, and I’m going to Chile. But I know I still have a lot to learn.”

—“I’m looking forward to this. I’ve been waiting for a long time.”

The Missionary Training Center was established to help newly called missionaries understand their assignment and develop skills that will help them fulfill it. Besides the MTC in Utah, there are six “area MTCs” in other parts of the world: Mexico City, Mexico; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; Temple View, New Zealand; Tokyo, Japan; and Manila, Philippines. New missionaries from surrounding areas attend these centers, receiving orientation and training similar to that offered in Provo.

“Our major purpose here,” explains the MTC president, “is to help missionaries rise to the best that is in them. Our most important product is a missionary who is effective and spiritual, who is very able as a teacher, who is confident and capable of dealing with a wide variety of people and circumstances, who really knows who he is and whom he represents, and who looks and acts accordingly.”

A Time to Learn

At the MTC, new missionaries receive training in four basic areas: teaching and proselyting skills, gospel study, personal development, and language and culture. Missionary couples and some lady missionaries also receive additional instruction.

(1) In proselyting classes, missionaries study how to find people to teach and how to present the gospel message. They learn the missionary discussions, a series of lessons that present the gospel in a clear, logical way. The discussions have recently been shortened and simplified, making them easier to learn and allowing missionaries to teach with more spontaneity. Using the new shortened discussions, missionaries are more conscious of the message and of the people they’re teaching.

According to MTC president Joseph L. Bishop, the main emphasis isn’t on memorization. “We want the missionaries to really teach the people—with love, with the Spirit, with testimony.”

“We finished learning one of the discussions today,” a young missionary says, “so my teacher asked me to present it to him while he played the role of a nonmember. As I was ‘teaching’ him, he asked me lots of questions—and as I responded to them each time, the answers flowed right into the next part of the discussion. It felt good, like everything was coming together for me. When I was finished, he said, ‘That was great, one of the best.’ And I thought, ‘I did that—and all in Spanish? I can’t believe it!’”

Missionaries also get firsthand experience doing actual missionary work while they’re at the MTC. They are encouraged to write to a friend or family member who isn’t LDS, explaining why they’re going on a mission and bearing their testimony of the gospel. Many responses indicate that people have joined the Church from this project.

“My aunt is going to be baptized, and my uncle is seriously thinking about it. When I arrived here at the MTC, I heard about the program and thought I would write the only nonmembers in my whole family. I never dreamed anything would come of it. You don’t know how happy my family is. We have been working on my aunt and uncle for almost seven years.”

(2) Gospel study at the MTC includes an hour of personal scripture study daily, worship services and scripture classes every Sunday, and a weekly session at the Provo Temple. In addition, every Tuesday evening all fifteen hundred MTC missionaries meet to hear one of the General Authorities of the Church speak.

“During my seven weeks here, I’ve heard four Apostles speak! And I’ve heard other General Authorities, too. What an opportunity it is to hear people like that! When you hear an Apostle bear his testimony, it makes all the work and study during the day worth it.”

(3) Personal Development classes include lessons on dress, grooming, and etiquette; nutrition, health, and hygiene; safety and defensive driving; money management and communication. And five days a week, missionaries go to the gym for fifty minutes of exercise and their choice of activities such as basketball or volleyball, jogging, jumping rope, or lifting weights. They’re also encouraged to work out every day during their missions, using a tape-recorded copy of the exercises.

“Gym is a welcome change during the day. I think it’s important to be physically fit to do the Lord’s work. Physical fitness improves your mental and emotional attitude, too.”

(4) In culture classes, missionaries learn about the country and people they’ve been assigned to. They learn how to adapt to the new surroundings as missionaries, not as tourists, and how to develop tolerance, empathy, and charity. The instructors, natives of the area or returned missionaries who served there, bring the culture to life with films, posters, games, role-plays, maps, and souvenirs.

“I already love the people in Sweden—and I don’t even know them yet!”

Language training at the MTC is designed to prepare missionaries to converse with confidence in a new language and to teach the gospel effectively. Missionaries spend about eight hours a day for eight weeks studying their assigned language and learning the discussions in the new tongue.

After three days at the MTC, they are encouraged to speak only their new language to each other, using words and principles learned in class. And they are urged to continue serious language study throughout the rest of their missions.

“Last night I was walking back to my room, and all of a sudden I realized I was thinking in Portuguese! What a great feeling! And I’ve been here only six weeks. It’s obvious that the Lord is helping us here.”

As language-learning missionaries prepare to leave the MTC, a random sample receive an oral proficiency exam developed by the Foreign Service Institute. Statistics have always compared favorably with—and even better than—well-known institutions that teach nothing but language.

“The reality is that there is no place in the world,” says former MTC president Joe J. Christensen, “that teaches languages as fast, as well, and as inexpensively from an institutional standpoint as the MTC.”

Many people visit the MTC to see why the language program is so successful. Representatives have come from most major universities and language institutions in the U.S., from international businesses, and from foreign universities and governments.

“Last year some military officers came,” says Vern Christopherson of the MTC staff. “The general was so impressed that he asked if he could send some officers here for training. When we explained that wouldn’t be possible, he asked if we could send him some of our teachers. We explained that our teachers are full-time college students who work here just part-time.

“He wanted to know how we did so well. That opened the door to a conversation about why we are here and the fact that we do so well because we are involved in the work of the Lord and He has a hand in it.”

Another of the MTC’s distinguished visitors was Milton Cowan, a highly respected expert in language methodology from Cornell University. After his visit in 1979, he wrote: “If what I saw there was a fair sample of your operations, you have the best language teaching activity in the world today.”

Commenting on Dr. Cowan’s letter, Allen Ostergar says: “The methods we use are similar to the ones used in other places—we feel they’re the finest available. The real difference, of course, is the commitment of the missionaries, their testimonies, and the Spirit of the Lord.”

What do the missionaries themselves think of their language training?

“We received a wonderful compliment the other day,” says a lady missionary who had never previously studied a language. “My companion and I were talking to two other missionaries. We knew they were learning Spanish because of the color of their name tags, so we spoke Spanish to them. After a few minutes, one of them turned to the other, exasperated, and said, ‘How do you say intimidated in Spanish?’ We were just astounded! Could somebody really be intimidated by our Spanish? It was just like someone had given us a thousand red roses!

“When I wrote about it in my journal that night, I checked back to see what I had written following my first day here. I had learned three simple phrases—who I am, where I’m from, what mission I’m going to. I was just astounded that in seven weeks I had learned so much.”

(5) All older missionaries and some lady missionaries receive additional training because of the nature of their assignments. Besides learning basic proselyting and teaching skills, they receive instruction in welfare services, genealogy, leadership, and member work. They also receive specialized training in other areas related to their assignments, such as how to teach literacy or other skills of personal and family preparedness, how to teach piano and conducting skills, how to present an effective alcohol intervention program, how to work with the media, and how to plan and present open houses, fairs, and pageants.

“In many of our classes, missionaries receive training that isn’t available anyplace else in the Church,” says C. Eugene Hill, director of special training. “Here they learn things they’ll use during their missions and throughout the rest of their lives. Some couples have said they wish they’d had this training years earlier because it would have helped them with their families and in Church callings.”

Older missionaries receive personal instruction; they can learn at their own pace without feeling they’re competing with anyone else. “We let them know they don’t have to memorize the discussions word-for-word—that they can teach from an outline,” Brother Hill says. “Because of their previous experience in the Church and their knowledge and testimony, they already know the gospel. We just help them learn to present it in a systematic, effective way. And when it comes to language learning, we tell them that the Lord called them and is willing to invest in them.”

Missionary couples and older single sisters enjoy their association with the young elders and sisters. But they become especially close to each other. They eat together in the cafeteria (they are served first); they sit together in the first rows during mission devotionals; they have their own branch meetings on Sundays and Thursday evenings; they share a residence hall (each couple has a private room); they attend gym together; they study together in practice and review sessions. And they become great friends in the process.

“They keep in touch with each other and even have reunions when they come home from their missions,” says Mary Ellen Edmunds, associate director of special training. “One group made arrangements before they left to come back to the MTC for their reunion and go to the cafeteria together. People make a whole new set of friends here.”

An increasing number of missionary couples come back to the MTC for a second or third mission. Almost every week there is at least one couple going through again.

Michael and Jane Larsen of Ogden, Utah, are back for their second mission together. It’s actually Brother Larsen’s third full-time mission—he served alone when he was younger. They’ve also been on a stake mission together, and he was a stake mission president for a time. Why are they going again? “We were moved by the Spirit,” says Sister Larsen.

But longtime experience in the Church isn’t a prerequisite. William and Joyce Knight of Claremont, California, entered the MTC on the third anniversary of their baptism into the Church. Their conversion story would soften the heart of any critic—and they’re happy to be going out to share it.

“This training center is absolutely phenomenal,” says Sister Knight. “I dream of the day when our non-LDS son-in-law will come and visit this place. When he sees what goes on here, I know he’s going to be just as impressed as we are. It is amazing the spirit that is here—the spirit and the love. Only the Lord could have given the insight and vision to provide this kind of training center.”

“We’re about six inches off the ground,” laughs her husband. “We can’t be blamed for wearing out any of this carpet because we’re floating over it.”

Myrna Kaholokula Kitashima of Pearl City, Hawaii, a widow, is one of the lady missionaries studying at the MTC. Why did she decide to come?

“I have always thanked the Lord for the blessings of our lives and for our children,” she says, “and I felt like I just had to give myself back to Him for a time. And it’s so beautiful here—the spirit and everything. I’ve been thinking today that I need to write home and encourage more of our senior members to come.”

A Chance to Relax, Too

Of course, the MTC isn’t all work. Besides the daily gym period, three meals a day in the cafeteria give missionaries a chance to put aside their books for a while and mingle with a crowd. Mealtime is a great time to visit (in the mission language, of course), to laugh, to read letters, to open boxes of goodies from home and share them with everyone at the table, to try to say “please pass the salt” in Serbo-Croatian. It’s easy to be friendly—you can call everyone by name because they’re all wearing name tags.

Weekly “preparation days” also give missionaries a chance to relax and to have a change from the routine of studying. They go to the temple, play softball in the park, go on nature hikes, ride bicycles, shop, or go to the gym for extra play time. Preparation day is also the day for taking a nap, washing clothes, and writing letters.

“You’re All Going to Make It—In Great Style”

Some new missionaries may have apprehensions as they enter the MTC: How will I do? Do I know enough about the Church to be a good missionary? Will I be able to learn a new language? And during their stay, some may become discouraged at times, wanting to learn faster or to accomplish more.

But something that immediately impresses visitors is the optimistic atmosphere. Frustrations or feelings of inadequacy may exist, but usually only temporarily—and they are compensated for by many successes and encouraging experiences.

What do MTC missionaries do when they feel down?

“Pray,” says Elder Dan Metcalf of Salem, Utah. “One night I just couldn’t keep my mind on what I was trying to learn—and I was getting upset about it. So I found an empty classroom and knelt down and prayed. I got up, started studying again, and in a half-hour I presented the discussion without mistakes.”

“You really gain a testimony of prayer here,” says Elder Allen Grow of Newberg, Oregon. “If you don’t have one when you come, you will by the time you leave.”

“Work hard” is another remedy for discouragement. “No one should be naive about the hard work,” says Sister Leslie Crider of Blackfoot, Idaho. “But I’ve learned that if you decide from your first day that you’re going to do your best, you can overcome anything. Then when you report your efforts to the Lord at night, you get an inner peace and confidence.”

Several missionaries mention the importance of keeping a journal and looking back at successes. “The first couple of days, you don’t think you can do it,” says Elder Murray MacLellan of Toronto, Canada. “But then when you look with hindsight, it’s great to see how much you’ve learned.”

Realize, too, several missionaries say, that you won’t be sent home if you’re a slow learner; you won’t be held back at the MTC while everyone else goes on. “I worried about that at first,” one missionary admits. “But my teacher explained that no, they don’t hold you back, and yes, I really could make it.”

Friendship is another help. “People come here from all over the world and become best friends,” says Elder Metcalf. “It’s just like you’ve known each other all your lives—and you help and encourage each other.”

“The very first night here, my companion and I introduced ourselves in a meeting,” says Sister Cathryn Jensen of Salt Lake City, Utah. “At the end of the meeting, every sister in the room came up and said hello, and you really can make it, and there’s hope for you, and you’ll be able to learn the language. The love expressed for us was just amazing. And they’ve been supportive ever since.”

There are thirty-one branches of the Church at the Missionary Training Center, presided over by men from the local community. These branches provide worship services, gospel instruction, hymn singing, and camaraderie. But most important is the priesthood direction and personal attention from the branch president. Love and counsel from a mature priesthood leader with years of Church experience can make a great difference in a missionary’s attitude.

George T. Taylor presides over an English-speaking branch—his branch members stay just over two weeks. What can a branch president do in such a short time?

“Oh, a great deal,” he says. “Many come well prepared and ready to go. But I’ve seen some come with self-doubt and discouragement. In two weeks they leave full of confidence and hope and anticipation for their mission. It’s very dramatic for some.”

Branch presidents work closely with MTC teachers to ensure that each missionary is receiving the help he needs. The classes are small—only eight to ten students—so that each missionary can receive ample individual help. When a teacher perceives that a missionary is becoming discouraged, he may give needed encouragement and suggestions. He may also alert the branch president that the missionary needs extra care. “You get lots of help here,” says Elder George Hickman of Centerville, Utah. “The teachers are excellent. I love them.”

“Another reason MTC missionaries do well,” says President Joseph L. Bishop, “is that they enjoy it here! It’s an uplifting, exciting program. We are continuing the philosophy established by the former president, Joe J. Christensen—that each missionary should feel that we respect him, have confidence in him, trust him, and love him. We’ve found that as we emphasize these four principles, most missionaries are successful.”

Indeed, MTC statistics are impressive: 99.3 percent of all who enter complete their training and go on to serve missions. Of the other fraction of one percent who return home instead, nearly half of them come back to the MTC later on and serve successfully.

Perhaps the real success of the MTC lies in the feelings missionaries themselves have of their experiences there. Margaret Woolums, who recently returned from a mission with her husband, Charles, says the MTC was one of the highlights of their mission. “It was marvelous—a spiritual experience that really cannot be described. We worked hard there, learned the discussions, and shared many faith-promoting experiences. We grew to love many wonderful people. And we rejoiced in devotionals—where General Authorities spoke and fifteen hundred missionaries raised the rafters with their powerful voices in song.”

Most find that the MTC has been excellent training for the rest of their lives. “If I were to leave the MTC tomorrow,” says Sister Crider, “I’d be a 100 percent better person than when I came—even if I never go to Peru. I write in my journal every day. I read the scriptures every day. I feel the Spirit of the Lord every day. I attend the temple weekly. And I have more confidence in myself. You can really improve yourself here.”

One recently returned missionary revisited the Missionary Training Center while traveling through Provo on his way to an eastern university. As a new missionary he had come to the MTC troubled by questions about the gospel. But his experience there had changed his life:

“This is where I found out for myself that there is a God and that he loves me. I’ll always have sacred memories of this place.”

Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

Left: The discussions have recently been shortened and simplified, making them easier to learn and allowing missionaries more spontaneity.

Opposite page, left: New elders arriving at the MTC; 300 missionaries arrive every week.

Opposite page, right: Gym is optional—but encouraged—for older missionaries. They have their own gym period, separate from that of younger missionaries, and may choose activities appropriate for their health.

Left: The missionaries’ schedule includes weekly sessions at the nearby Provo Temple.

Opposite page: Elder James E. Faust speaking at a Tuesday night devotional. All 1,500 missionaries at the MTC assemble each week to hear from a General Authority speaker.

Thirty languages are taught at the MTC. Missionaries spend eight hours a day studying their assigned language and learning to present the gospel in the new tongue.

Instructors at the MTC are full-time college students, many of them teaching languages they learned on their missions.

Mealtime is a great time to visit, to laugh, to read letters, and to open boxes of goodies from home. The MTC cafeteria serves 40,000 meals each week. Special menus are offered to anyone on a restricted diet.

“Couple missionaries already know the gospel,” says C. Eugene Hill, director of special training at the MTC. “We just help them learn to present it in a systematic, effective way.”

Activities such as volleyball, basketball, and jogging help the missionaries keep physically fit.

On their “preparation days” missionaries do such things as play softball, shop, and write letters.

The MTC has its own health clinic—as well as access to BYU Student Health Services.

Companions at the MTC often take turns giving each other the lessons, with the “nonmember” asking questions.

The MTC laundry is a favorite place to write letters on “preparation days.” The 84 washers and 50 dryers, which serve all 1,500 missionaries, are in continual use much of the week.

An MTC staff member (right) helps a sister missionary prepare to depart for the mission field.

Elder and Sister Ralph Durtschi—dressed for their exercise class—with their son Mark. The Durtschis all arrived at the MTC on the same day.

Besides studying discussions, couple missionaries receive additional training in such areas as welfare services, genealogy, and leadership.