President's Pen 3-21-16 (The District Videos)

As missionaries in the Texas Houston South Mission, we know our purpose is to 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. We do this through our constant efforts to find, teach, invite, retain, and activate God’s children; we love it, we live it, and we do it! We begin with the “End in Mind”, and see God’s children as he does. We are Disciples of Jesus Christ and the best missionaries in the world!

Dear Elders & Sisters,

Hallelujah!  I hope you are sharing the Easter campaign with everyone.  By now you should be very familiar with the website, both videos, and inviting members and all around you to "Discover Why" we need a Savior.

A blessing of our mortal existence is the opportunity to continuously grow and improve, even as the Savior did, "And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." (Luke 2:52).  Earlier in this same chapter we see that the Savior, "…grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him."  His parents taught him well and by age twelve the Savior was teaching in the temple; astonishing the teachers who were listening to him and asking questions.  I like the idea that the Savior had to learn and grow just as we do, apply himself, and become subject to the flesh just like we are.  A reason why I love and follow the Savior is because He shows me the way so that I can live with the Father again.  I'm not just told what to do, but shown how I can do it.

I now want to take this idea to how we are being shown what to do and how to do it as missionaries.  Most of you have chosen to be involved in our Spring Training, The District Challenge, and I'm grateful that you're taking the time to learn how to become better missionaries.  As I watch the videos, take notes, and seek to use what I learn each day, I find that my understanding and know how of the work continues to grow.  I thought I'd share with you a bit more background on how the District videos came to be and how they can also help us grow in wisdom and stature.  

After the Church released Preach My Gospel in 2004, it was determined that this generation of missionaries were "visual learners".  An idea emerged. Perhaps it would make a difference if missionaries could see an effective demonstration of methods and fundamentals, as told by Elder Stephen B. Allen, an Area Seventy and the managing director of the LDS Church’s missionary department.  When popular reality television shows such as “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “The Amazing Race” were considered, the solution became evident. “Let’s do a reality TV show. Let’s go film missionaries doing this, so many of our youth today are visual learners.  We can train missionaries, film them and use it as a training tool.  We were modeling missionaries and missionary work. Everything the church had produced (before these projects) was scripted or straight documentary,” Allen said. “This is reality television. We had stepped into a new arena.”

The missionary department requested permission to select one district of four elders and two sisters in one U.S. mission, train them and film them. Permission was granted. Under Allen’s supervision, they began making arrangements for the ambitious undertaking in San Antonio around 2007.  The Texas San Antonio Mission was chosen because it was a mission that had a lot of baptisms. The missionaries there knew how to find people to teach, Allen said, so it provided a good setting for an instructional DVD that would focus on demonstrating principles of planning, finding and working with members.

The first step was to assemble the district. The group included district leader Elder Jacob Reis of Hawaii and his companion, Elder Chris Bernal of Colorado; Elder Shawn Hallam of California and his new companion fresh from the Missionary Training Center, Elder Darren Walkenhorst of California; and Sister Krystal Myers of Oklahoma and Sister Shelisa Payne of Utah.

Each missionary came with a unique background.  For instance, Bernal had joined the church only two years earlier. Myers only considered serving a mission as she turned 21. Although she had a boyfriend awaiting her return, she agreed to extend her mission six weeks to participate in “The District 1.”  Walkenhorst was selected en route from the Provo, Utah, MTC to Texas, and he provided an example of the new missionary experience. Reis was originally called to a mission in Mexico in 2003, but neck, back, shoulder and jaw injuries suffered in an automobile accident just before he left forced him to return home for medical attention only a few months later. His recovery was slow and painful. He battled discouragement for the next year while praying for a doctor to approve his return to the mission field. When a doctor finally signed his release, Reis was reassigned to San Antonio.

The team of missionaries was pulled into a room with the mission president and members of the missionary department and informed they would be part of a reality TV-type training film. Their reaction was one of genuine shock, followed by feelings of extreme inadequacy. "We were overwhelmed, to say the least," Reis said.  Payne immediately flashed back to a bad memory of when as a 10-year-old she auditioned for a talent agency, only to have a woman tell her she had “no talent and would never look good on camera.” The experience so destroyed her self-confidence that she refused to let anyone take her picture for a couple of years. Her immediate reaction to the news was, “Oh no, you picked the wrong girl.”

“Despite this scene from my childhood coming back to haunt me, I smiled and said I would do my best,” Payne said. “The Lord truly answered my prayers and qualified me to accomplish what I had been asked to do.”  The second phase consisted of intense and exhausting training. Personnel from the missionary department and the MTC spent significant time instructing each companionship every day for several weeks.

Once filming began, the crew could only observe the proceedings. They were not allowed to offer the missionaries any tips or instructions. The filming style was to be up close and personal, Allen said.  The crew captured the missionaries knocking on doors, teaching investigators, meeting with members, planning, studying and attending baptisms and other activities.   The missionaries wanted so badly to help produce something motivating and inspiring, yet at times they struggled and became discouraged. They didn’t want to let the missionary department or the church down, Reis said.  At a district meeting, Reis said, Allen could sense the group was feeling stressed and made a phone call to Utah that lifted their spirits.  “I remember him walking into the room and saying, 'There is someone who wants to talk to you.' He had it on speaker, and we huddled up,” Reis said. “It was President Dieter F. Uchtdorf (second counselor in the First Presidency). It was moments like that … that made me want to do my best to represent the Lord.”

As they continued to work, the missionaries became more accustomed to the equipment and crew. They were able to be themselves and follow the promptings of the Spirit.  Once the filming phase was over, more than 800 hours of film was processed and edited by reality show experts and professional directors, then enhanced by customized music, Allen said. The final product was presented to church leaders and received approval just in time to be shared at the annual mission president seminar in the summer of 2007.  “The Lord blessed us because he wanted it,” Allen said.

With the rollout of "The District 1" over the next two years, the missionary department observed improvement in the principles emphasized but identified “teaching” as an area of concern. So Allen and the missionary department proposed the idea of producing a second DVD set to demonstrate principles of teaching. This time, the work would be done in San Diego with “The District 2.”  “We wanted them to be better teachers,” Allen said.

District 2 consisted of six elders and two sisters: the district leader, Elder Steve Bott of Utah and his companion, Elder Jon Hepworth of Idaho; Elder Mike Moreno of Utah and Elder J. Tyler Christensen of Florida; Elder Alex Murray of Utah and Elder Tevita Tuituu of Guam; and Sister Janet Zaldivar of Utah/Argentina and Sister Laura Voyles of Mississippi.

There were a few differences between District 1 and District 2. First, District 1 often appeared too good, so more flaws were on display with District 2, Allen said.  “Missionaries will prefer this because it’s more real,” he said.  Perhaps the biggest difference between the two projects was the amount of time involved. The San Antonio district took less than a month to film. It took about five months to capture the San Diego district, Allen said.  “San Diego was hard because of the topic," Allen said. "Part of the beauty is they are not perfect. This allows missionaries watching to hit pause and break down the situation like game film for an athlete. That’s how they learn. What did they do well? What didn’t go well? How would you do it differently? By the end, they were all dynamic teachers.”  Once "The District 2" was completed, for the first time, missionaries around the world were granted permission to have a DVD player in their apartments so theycould study the material.

The DVDs have also influenced countless missionaries in the field.   “It gives missionaries a standard to shoot for. If you know what something looks like, it enhances your vision of how to get there,” said Danny Payne, who later met some of the people his sister taught in Texas. “I was able to see some of the fruits of her labors. Seeing her example in the DVDs also motivated me to hold myself to a higher standard.”

I thought you might like learning more about how the District videos came to be and why I am pushing us all to take advantage of the learning we can capture from these inspired video segments.  If we want to be the best we can be, we often need mentors or teachers that can show us the way.  In the videos you are not only shown what to do, but in many cases how to do it.  I encourage all of you to take the time to watch, learn, and apply what effective missionary work can be.  If you struggle with planning, really dig into the planning videos and PMG and apply what you learn.  The same can be true for how to work with members, or teaching people, not lessons, or invitations, finding etc.  You owe it to yourself and to the Lord to become the best missionary you can be.  You have the time to practice and become skilled in teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, why not take advantage of this amazing resource?  

I strongly believe the Lord trusts us more with his children when we are not only worthy and obedient, but also effective and prepared.  If you do give the first sermon an investigator will ever hear as taught by Elder Holland, don't you owe it to them to make it powerful and customized to their needs?   Please desire to grow in wisdom and stature, to wax strong in spirit, and like the Savior, the grace of God will be upon you.  We love you!

Mission Update

As a mission we have now had 83 souls come unto Christ and receive a remission of their sins.  What a great blessing!  Please make sure you are following the inspired counsel of President Gordon B. Hinckley by ensuring all have a friend, a responsibility and continue receiving nourishment by the good word of God.  This includes new member lessons and getting them ready to attend the temple.  Keep up the great work, we love you!

President Hall