I’ve been reflecting a lot on my days as a missionary lately. One of the thoughts that has occurred to me is where missionaries fit into the organization of the church. Are they the sales force for the church? Are they a part of the operations function of the church? Or are they, in a more creative line of thinking, a product demo?
I see a case to be made for each.
Seeing missionaries as a sales force is the most obvious perspective. After all, missionaries are seeking to baptize new converts to the church. There are many parallels to a sales force in a business setting:
- Metrics, at least when I was serving, were all sales metrics:
- Number of contacts (similar to lead tracking). These are housed in a contact book that stays with the area (or sales territory) for future missionaries (sales people)
- Number of discussions (similar to tracking the number of pitches / bids / presentations)
- Number of convert baptisms (akin to sales)
- Tracking proselyting materials / using specifically approved collateral for discussions (brochures, handouts, etc.)
- The focus in the MTC, aside from language acquisition, was learning to craft the sales pitch and was all designed around the sales process:
- Building relationships (BRT stood fro Building Relationships of Trust)
- Overcoming objections (including practicing standard objections and answers)
- Asking for a commitment (closing the sale)
- At the end of the sales process, the converts are handed off to the operations (local ward) to manage from then on out.
This is probably the most traditional way to look at missionary work, one behind the skit that some missionaries put together at a mission conference I attended in which the elders were like a used car sales team pushing for commitment and lowering the barriers to entry:
ELDER: (Very energetically) We’ve got a great Celestial Kingdom plan for you that comes with baptism. What do you think?
INVESTIGATOR: Well . . . I’m not really ready to give up smoking.
ELDER: That’s totally fine. Totally fine. (rubbing hands together) We’ve got another sweet package for you called our Terrestrial Kingdom package. And guess what–that also comes with baptism!
INVESTIGATOR: Well, that sounds pretty good (looking unsure), but . . . I guess I’m not so sure about giving up sex with my girlfriend.
ELDER: No problem! (enthusiastically) There’s a package that’s just right for you. It’s our Telestial Kingdom package. That also comes with baptism. So what’s it going to take to put you in a font today?
When missionaries function as a sales force, it often creates ill will with the downstream group, operations. When new converts are not strong or don’t contribute or aren’t well sold / don’t understand what they bought into, operations (local wards) feel disillusioned with the sales force and resentful of the missionaries who are making their lives harder, not easier, by increasing the membership.
Another case could be made that missionaries are part of the Operations Team. There are a few justifications for this perspective:
- Missionaries (now at least) work with the Ward Mission Leader to fulfill ward goals for growth. This wasn’t the case when I was serving, but it’s more common now. Missionaries participate in ward councils, sharing information and taking assignments alongside locals.
- Converts are not merely being convinced to make a commitment to “buy” the gospel, but to participate in the gospel by taking a calling at the local ward level. They aren’t customers but part of the overall clockwork of the organization, bringing their time and talents to the equation and helping to run the local ward. This is true whether they join an established ward or a new, understaffed one in a remote area where the church isn’t strong.
- Some see missionary work not primarily as a method to grow the church through converts but as a method to grow future leaders of the church in a sort of junior executive program. Missions are supposed to build skills and commitment among young people, to teach them to work together in the church organization, and to develop their knowledge of how to run wards. Many missionaries also serve in running understaffed local wards, as branch presidents, teachers, choristers, teachers, or whatever else the ward needs.
It occurred to me on several occasions as a missionary, that we were not just a sales force, not just a stop gap for local vacancies or a training program for future leaders, but locals saw us as a product demo of what the church created: the church’s product. They saw us as a beautiful aberration, young adults in the prime of our lives voluntarily (and at our own expense) stepping away from education, dating, jobs, and other personal pursuits, to talk with strangers about Jesus and the gospel. What could drive this level of devotion? What could create such amazing young people?
When we were threatened or harmed, locals often defended us vigorously, wishing to protect us. Their idea of us was noble, innocent, precious. Not exactly the same idea of us I usually had as an insider, but I was enough of a sales person not to let on. And yet, they were probably on to something. I might have seen our warts and all, but what missionaries do is rather extraordinary.
- If you served a mission, which of these did you think was an accurate description of what you were doing?
- Has the church changed what missionaries do and how they fit into the organization?
- How do you see missionaries fitting into the organization now?