(Journal Entry, October 27, 2016)
On Friday afternoon, October 21, as we pulling into the Area Office, we got a call from an assistant in Salt Lake City, wondering if Michelle and I would be willing to spend some time the following Wednesday afternoon in a videoconference with Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve. I couldn’t come up with a compelling excuse on the spur of the moment, so I just said that would probably be fine.
Having a few friends who have gone through this process, I had a pretty good idea of what was up. This is the time of year when the members of the Twelve hold videoconference meetings to talk with potential mission presidents. Those who are ultimately selected will get an official phone call, usually in late November, from a member of the First Presidency, issuing them a calling as a mission president, location to be determined. Then, sometime in early January, you are advised of the specific mission. In mid-June, you show up at the MTC in Provo for a five-day new mission president’s training seminar with the First Presidency, the Twelve and about 130 other newly assigned couples. Finally, on July first, you are to be in place at your assigned field of service to begin, what several have described as a three-year long date with your wife, accompanied by about 160 young missionaries in the backseat.
As with most callings, you are asked not to discuss this with anyone else until the calling is approved and issued, and not to tell anyone of the specific location until the Church releases that information on their website and through the Deseret News. So for the next few weeks, Michelle and I get to ponder these things in our hearts and talk amongst ourselves.
Actually, I did a minor protocol break the morning before the call and asked Elder Vinson, the Africa West Area President who likely started the ball rolling, whether, if he were in my shoes and hypothetically had videoconference interview with Elder Ballard, would he wear a suit jacket? He gave me a big smile, noted that Elder Ballard was well aware that I was serving in West Africa where shirtsleeves are appropriate year-round apparel for all occasions, but that he personally would probably wear a jacket for the occasion.
Elder Vinson then commented that I looked more than a trifle concerned and preoccupied. Truth be told, since we got notice of the upcoming call, my mind had gone into hyper-drive, envisioning every reason why I was obviously unqualified for this position and how the call might play out, with Elder Ballard delving into every corner of my soul to probe for enough weaknesses or flaws so that he could check the “REJECT” box on the form, politely thank us for our time and move on. I presume my doubts and fears stemmed from the esteem I have always held for the mission presidents I have served under and witnessed in action, my clear view of my own inadequacies relative to those brethren, coupled with eternally critical nature of this particular calling.
I told Elder Vinson about my concerns and he assured me that was a normal reaction and took a few minutes to share with me what he saw as my strengths, how much he admired Michelle’s people skills, our combined commitment to do whatever the Lord asked of us and the way we enjoy working together, adding a final reminder that humility and a reliance on the Lord is the only way anyone could succeed in that calling.
That helped, but the doubts kept rattling around in the back of my head. It wasn’t until I woke up around 3:00 am the next morning with a distinct prompting that went something like: “You are listening to the wrong voices. Why won’t you trust me?” The scripture that jumped into my mind was the gentle scolding Peter received in Acts 10:15, when he expressed misgivings about partaking of the feast that the Lord prepared for him, and the Lord admonished him, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” The Lord was gently chiding me, telling me that He doesn’t view me as inadequate or common, so long as I rely on Him and on the enabling power of His atonement. It was a tender mercy, my fears calmed and I rolled over and slept like a baby.
The video call was set for Wednesday, October 26, 11:30am Mountain time, 5:30pm in Ghana. Since it was after hours here, we took the call in the Area Presidency’s conference room using their seriously nice videoconference system instead of patching in with a Skype-like desktop application.
After the SLC tech set up the bridge, Elder Ballard came on the screen, greeted us and got right down to business. He clarified why he had called us (no surprises there), and said he had a standard battery of questions to walk through. He asked whether we had any situations with children, parents, finances, homeownership or health that would preclude us from being away from home to lead one of the Church’s missions for the next three years. He asked about language skills and whether we enjoyed serving with the youth. He spent some time chatting about his own experiences receiving his mission president calling and the crucial role his wife played throughout their service. He gave us the general framework of the path forward and dates to plan on, then reminded us that he was not issuing a call, just talking with us to determine whether he should pass along a recommendation for such a call to the First Presidency.
He paused briefly, then said, almost to himself, that he had decided to go ahead and issue the recommendation and if we hadn’t heard anything by late November we could check with him to see where we were in the process. He recommended that we close out this mission very early next year to give ourselves time to spend with family and get everything in order to serve for the next three years. And that was that.
I have had premonitions and some subtle hints for the past several months that this calling would likely be coming. Since we started preparing for this mission, in the back of my mind, I have sensed that I needed to pay attention; this mission was likely a preparatory phase for another calling, possibly leading a mission. I have long known that the Lord understands I need time and gives me plenty of runway to get ready for things like this.
From the time we arrived here a year ago September, I have worked closely with Elder Vinson, first in auditing and then on a broad range of special assignments once he took over as the Area President last summer. He has always gone overboard to solicit my input, tell me how much he values my work and thought processes and how pleased he was with the work we both have done here. Last month when Elder Gary Stevenson and two other General Authorities were in town, Michelle and I were invited to a small dinner with them and the Area Presidency.
Still, in my heart, I assumed we would close out this mission by finishing up the year-end audits next March, unwind for a couple of weeks in South Africa on the safari we had booked, get home to enjoy a relaxing spring, summer and fall with the family and not be overly surprised next October if an invitation to chat with one of the Twelve came along. It appears I caught the gist of the Lord’s prompting to get ready, but mistakenly assumed He would line up with my idea of the right timing.
While the call could be anywhere, I will not be surprised if we come right back to West Africa. I did a quick data pull from the Church’s leadership directory website and found that across the Church’s 421 missions, there are 122 mission presidents slated to be released next June. 44 of those missions are English-speaking, including 24 in the U.S. and others scattered from Canada to England and from Johannesburg to the Philippines. Since Elder Ballard asked about Portuguese skills (generally sound, but pretty rusty), there are 13 Portuguese missions in play next year, including 8 inside what was once the Rio de Janeiro Mission where I served forty years ago. One oddity; twelve of the mission openings in the states are listed as Spanish, including Dallas. It would appear that I lack the language skills to serve in my own town.
However, there is a very strong tradition of recidivism for West African senior missionaries. Of the seven most recently called mission presidents here, five have previously spent significant time here, either as missionary couples, professionally or in a humanitarian capacity. Earlier this fall, I was meeting with a senior couple who were just re-called to Africa as humanitarian missionaries after serving a temple mission here a couple of years back. Elder Vinson popped in to greet them; he hadn’t seen them since he dropped by their Utah home last April during General Conference to ask if they would consider another mission to Africa. I joked to them that since Elder Vinson had become the Area President we had formally adopted the Eagles’ “Hotel California” as the Area anthem, specifically, the lyrics “You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.” He smiled but turned bright red.
In West Africa, there are three mission president openings in July in English-speaking missions where it is generally safe to place Western couples and missionaries: the Ghana Accra, Ghana Cape Coast and Liberia Monrovia missions. I suspect we will be getting to know the missionaries in one of those three missions next July.
Michelle and I have started a list of issues that need to be addressed and the time sequencing on each of them, but for now, there isn’t much we can do except wait on the Lord. And I have it on good authority that that is not a bad activity.