In June of 2007, President Hinckley announced that the Church had just called its one-millionth full-time missionary, not an inconsiderable milestone. 

I recently wondered how many of these missionaries are still walking (or shuffling) the earth, so I asked my assistant, Colleen Bedford, to crunch the actuarial numbers as provided by Social Security statisticians.

We assumed that few missionaries who served prior to World War II would be capable of active missionary work if still alive, so we began with the missionaries who were called in 1945 and who would be 85 today.  We began by applying the actuarial data of all Americans for each year – that is, if someone is 20 in a given year, how many are still alive in 2010?  To give you a flavor in 20-year increments…

Of about 1700 missionaries called in 1945, 32.3% should still be alive.

Of about 5600 missionaries called in 1965, 80.9% are still with us.

Of the 14,600 called in 1985, 95.6% are alive.

And of the 26,000 called in 2005, 99.3% still breathe. 

We then adjusted for the facts that we Mormons live longer than our countrymen, that sister missionaries live longer than their male counterparts, and that senior- couple missionaries have fewer years of life left. 

Adding it all up, the total number of living returned missionaries who were called from 1945 through 2008 is …(drum roll): 

804,000

I don’t know what percent are still active, so lop off, say, 100,000.  Reduce it even more if you’re a pessimist, and nonetheless our active returned missionaries constitute well over a million man-years of experience – a trained alumni any corporation, university or organization would drool for. 

As I have written elsewhere, when I ask stake presidents, bishops, ward mission leaders, et al., what percent of their members they estimate are seriously trying to do missionary work, the average answer is 7%.  I doubt it would be much higher if I asked the question about returned missionaries specifically, and it might be even lower because some may feel they’ve already done their share. 

In short, most of this great alumni army is sitting on the sidelines.  

What To Do?

For years we’ve been exhorted to find investigators for the full-time missionaries to teach.  Every let’s-do-missionary-work meeting quotes D&C 18.  But if exhortation and pep talks were effective, would we not have seen greater participation by now?   

Why do so few RMs actively try to find people for the full-timers to teach?  The annual number of convert baptisms varied little during the first decade of this century – we baptized about the same number of converts in 2009 that we did in 2001.  How do we change this?

What can we do to build a fire under this passive army to help with the work?

At this point, you’re thinking you’re about to read the answer.  Sorry to disappoint you.  I pose these questions because I need you to tell me what the solution is.

So … to my fellow returned missionaries, write me: 

What are your feelings about missionary work today, positive and/or negative?

Why are you not more involved in missionary work?  Is it truly a function of how busy you are, your feeling that you’ve already done your part, …or is there some deeper reason?

What would have to change so that you would become more involved?

Think of all the ideas you’ve had since returning from your missions and complete this sentence with at least a couple of ideas:  “If it were up to me, I would ______________________.”

In D&C 5 we are told that the Church will come out of the wilderness “clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.”  D&C 105 promises the same thing if this great army becomes sanctified before God.  Perhaps this emergence will be a singular, spectacular event.  More likely it will be the day-to-day actions of both returned missionaries and the whole active membership of the Church that will attract the attention of the world. 

If the RM army is to help the Church emerge from obscurity, we first need a free-wheeling discussion of why most of us sit on the sidelines and what might encourage us to get on the playing field.

Write me ([email protected]) and be candid.  I may not be able to respond to each idea, but I will compile them and write a future column about your suggestions. 

Somewhere in your thoughts is the solution to our problem.

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Ó Gary C. Lawrence

Gary C. Lawrence is a pollster and author of How Americans View Mormonism. You can contact him here:  [email protected]