Michael and Nancy had long entertained the idea of serving a mission together when they reached retirement age. Nancy thought she would love to serve as a missionary in Nauvoo, Illinois, or another historical site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where she could dress in period costume, tell visitors stories about the former residents of the area, and explain why the place is significant in Mormon history. For a long time, Michael pictured serving as a humanitarian missionary in some third-world country. About fifteen years ago, after visiting the peaceful, mostly undeveloped historical site at Adam-ondi-Ahman, Michael decided that he would like to be called there as gardener, but Nancy was less than keen on the idea of being posted to a beautiful but isolated, swampy area of rural Missouri that receives very few visitors.
For most of our forty-plus years together, plans for a mission remained in the realm of casual conversations: vague ideas to be realized sometime in the distant future. As we approached our sixtieth birthdays and had to start planning for retirement in earnest, however, we began to speak more seriously about our proposed missionary service. We understood that we needed to create a financial plan that would allow us to pay for a mission after our wage-earning days were over, and to establish a timetable for achieving our goal. Knowing that both of us would turn 65 in 2020 and thus be eligible for full retirement and Medicare benefits, we decided to work toward being ready to begin a mission in mid-2020.
A few years ago, as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has encouraged more older couples to consider serving missions and expanded the possibilities for such volunteers, the Missionary Department began posting brief descriptions of available positions on a website designed especially for prospective senior missionaries. Michael began perusing the site soon after it launched, occasionally saying to Nancy, “There’s an opening for a Young Adult Advisor couple in Brussels; how does that sound?” or “What would you think about serving as temple missionaries in Tahiti?” While the Church provides many opportunities for senior missionaries to serve in the U.S. or even while remaining in their own homes, we didn’t even need to discuss such a possibility: we both wanted to serve in some foreign locale—but preferably where we wouldn’t have to learn a new language. We also had tacitly agreed that we would be willing to serve for two or three years. Whereas most younger missionaries are expected to serve for 18 or 24 months, senior missionaries may choose assignments lasting 6, 12, 18, or 24 months. Those called to preside over a mission are expected to serve for three years—but one cannot apply to be a mission president. Such a call usually comes as a surprise; and although we were willing to accept a presiding position should that type of call be extended to us, we preferred not to be surprised.
The opportunities listed on the Senior Missionaries web site are so many and so varied that trying to narrow our preferences to even a few was a bit overwhelming. Michael quickly realized that most humanitarian mission positions require experience in some medical field, so those were out. We also came to understand that getting a call to serve at a Church historical site can be as difficult as getting into an Ivy League university because many people are as eager as Nancy to fill such vacancies.
One day in the fall of 2018, Michael saw a posting he had not seen before: Church history specialists in Hamilton, New Zealand, to serve for 23 months. We had loved every moment of our trip to New Zealand in 2014, but because neither of us has much expertise in Church history—and none at all in the history of the Church in New Zealand—Michael’s eyes continued to travel down the page, but he did file the idea away in the back of his mind. A couple of weeks later, the New Zealand opening had disappeared from the web site, so he figured that it had been filled.
Earlier in 2018, we had begun planning our big trip for 2019: a cruise around the Baltic Sea with several other couples from Montgomery Ward’s Empty Nesters group. (Montgomery Ward is the name of our Cincinnati-area congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) Our friends at Discovery Expeditions and Adventures had reserved ten staterooms for our group, but at that point only eight couples had signed on, so we began contacting friends outside Montgomery Ward to try to fulfill our commitment to the cruise line.
Barry and Eva G. were among those we invited to join us. The four of us had traveled together on safari in Kenya in 2018 as well as on Discovery XA’s “Travels of Paul” Aegean cruise in 2017 and had always enjoyed each others’ company, but when we invited the Gs to tour the Baltic region with us in 2019, they declined, explaining that they were planning to leave on a mission in the spring of 2019. Eventually we learned that Barry and Eva had been called to be the directors of the Matthew Cowley Pacific Church History Centre in Hamilton, New Zealand. Michael then told Nancy about the posting he had seen. “Maybe we could go serve with them,” he suggested. She agreed that it would be fun to go back to New Zealand and work with Eva and Barry—but, she figured, our own mission was still at least a year off, and thus she didn’t take MIchael’s suggestion very seriously.
Michael continued to look at the openings posted on the Senior Missionaries web site every now and then, but the New Zealand opportunity never reappeared. However, the more he tried to forget about it, the more tantalizing the possibility became, and the more often he mentioned it to Nancy.
“What do you think it would entail?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” she responded. “If you’re so interested, why don’t you send a message to Barry and Eva and ask them?”
He did. The Gs sent a brief reply explaining that they were just getting ready to leave for New Zealand and would contact us again after they arrived and had a chance to get settled. When they did, they suggested that we call them, so we arranged a conference call for the following week.
The call took place the evening of 9 May 2019 (for us; for the Gs it was the afternoon of 10 May). They told us that even though the listing for Church history specialists in Hamilton had been taken down, the position would be available again in June, when the couple then filling it were scheduled to be released. The Matthew Cowley Pacific Church History Centre, we learned, had been open for only two years, and thousands of documents, photographs, and artifacts that had been donated to the center had not yet been properly catalogued.
“What we need,” the Gs explained, “is someone with IT experience to help us organize the collection, write catalogue descriptions, assist with museum curation, and oversee the volunteers who work at the Centre.” Barry and Eva had seen our blog, so they knew we could write and were committed to keeping accurate historical records; they also knew that Michael had worked in information technology. When they learned that Nancy not only had many years of writing and editing experience but also had been volunteering at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati for the past three years, they got excited.
“We think your skills and experience would be a real asset to us here,” they said, and the more they told us about the needs of the Matthew Cowley Pacific Church History Centre the more we had to agree with them. We may not know much about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New Zealand, but we do have abilities that can be adapted to the tasks the Gs described.
However, the position would be open in July 2019, but we would not be available to fill it until 2020. We were about to embark on the Baltic cruise, which would be followed immediately by our son’s late-June wedding, a family reunion in August, and the birth of another grandchild in October (for which Nancy had already committed to provide help). Before we could even apply for the position, we would have to complete a battery of medical exams and ecclesiastical interviews, a process that could take two or three months. And then, the Gs informed us, once the official call was extended (assuming it would be), approval for a visa might take another three or four months.
“If you decide that you really want to do this,” said Barry, “you will need to get started on your medical exams as soon as you possibly can.”
As we came to the end of the phone call, we told Barry and Eva that we were enthusiastic about the possibility of serving with them in New Zealand, but that we would need some time to talk and pray about it. This mission opportunity had presented itself at least six months sooner than we had anticipated, but even though the timing wasn’t ideal, the position seemed to be a good fit for us. As we thought, talked, and prayed over the next few weeks, both of us felt good about pursuing it.
Because the assignment in Hamilton, New Zealand, is within the purview of the Church History Department as well as the Missionary Department, the Gs recommended that we contact Jared F., the History Department’s manager over research and acquisitions in Asia and the Pacific, to indicate that we were interested in the position and to get more information—which we did. Our emails and phone calls elicited positive responses all around, so we arranged to meet Jared and Clint C, another History Department staff member, at their offices in Salt Lake City in June, after our cruise, and while we were in Utah for Nat’s wedding. The interview on 20 June (over lunch at the Garden Restaurant in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building) went well, and we felt ready to move ahead with our application. Jared cautioned, however, that even though we might be recommended for the position at the Matthew Cowley Centre by both the Church History Department and the Centre’s directors, ultimately it would be up to the Missionary Department to decide whether we would be called to serve in Hamilton or somewhere entirely different.
It wasn’t until after the interview (and after the wedding) that we told our family that our plan to serve a mission in 2020 was starting to take a more definite form. Our siblings as well as our children were excited for us, and all began talking about coming to visit us in New Zealand—although we had to keep reminding everyone that we hadn’t even submitted our application, and that even once we had done so, there was no guarantee that we would be assigned to serve in Hamilton.
Our first task when we returned to Cincinnati after the wedding was to schedule appointments for comprehensive exams with our physicians, dentist, and optometrist, and then to begin filling out the official missionary application form. This process, once known as “getting your papers ready,” is now done largely online but still entails completing many pages of questions about one’s health history, education, career experience, criminal record, and testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ.
By 22 July, we had filled in every field in the application form and were ready to press Submit, which we did. The next step in the process was to meet with the bishop of Montgomery Ward and the president of the Cincinnati East Stake to obtain ecclesiastical approval. (In Mormon-speak, a bishop is the equivalent of a parish priest, while a stake president is more akin to a Catholic bishop, the head of a diocese.) We were able to schedule back-to-back interviews with them on 25 July. Both were fully aware that we had been working on our application for several weeks and were nearly as eager as we were to submit it. However, Jared had recommended that our stake president should delay submitting it until he, as a representative of the Church History Department, had a chance to flag it—otherwise, our application would enter the Missionary Department ether and become fair game for any other mission assignment. Unfortunately, it would be several more days before our stake president received the go-ahead, because at the very time we had completed our interviews, Jared and his family had left for their own one-year assignment in New Zealand, so we had to wait for him to arrive and get back to work before he could review and flag our application. President B. finally hit Submit on 11 August, just after we returned from our family reunion in Utah.
More waiting ensued as we wondered whether the Powers That Be in the Missionary Department would honor our request and assign us to Hamilton, New Zealand, or whether they would decide that we are more needed in Tahiti or Cote d’Ivoire or Kansas instead. But we didn’t have to wait as long as we had anticipated; on 27 August we received (via email) a formal call to serve at, yes, the Matthew Cowley Pacific Church History Centre for a period of 23 months, beginning 30 Dec 2019.
With the official call, we could now start the process of applying for a visa. Fortunately, the Church’s Missionary Department has full-time employees assigned to help prospective missionaries work through their visa applications. One of these employees, Sarah M., is an expert in the particulars of New Zealand’s visa policies and has been a huge help. Besides providing the usual personal information, we had to be fingerprinted (requiring a trip to a security agency in a sketchy neighborhood on the far west side of Cincinnati), pass a drug test, and get an FBI clearance. To be admitted to New Zealand as “religious workers,” each of us had to create a cover letter and provide a CV detailing our Church experience (religious education, teaching and leadership positions, previous missionary service, etc.). The kicker was that we had to get another complete medical examination from a health care provider certified by the New Zealand government. There are only twenty-six of these in the United States. Fortunately, one of them is in Florence, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. That doctor (whose clinic is located in a sketchy industrial park, and whose other clients seemed to be mostly truckers and construction workers) couldn’t schedule an appointment for us until 1 September, but by 4 September we had jumped through all the necessary hoops to submit the visa application.
At the same time, we also had to renew our Ohio driver’s licenses, which were due to expire in 2020. New requirements for “compliant” licenses (soon to be necessary for international travel) sent us back home from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to hunt for specific documents (which would have been much easier to find had we not switched to paying all our utility bills by direct deposit a few years ago). We learned that we can use our U.S. licenses to drive in New Zealand for up to one year, but because we expect our need to drive to continue throughout our mission, we will have to apply for NZ licenses in 2021—and for that we will need to provide proof that we have been licensed drivers for more than two years. In addition, we also need to supply a government-certified record of any traffic citations that have been issued to us or accidents in which we were involved since we began driving. One would assume that such documents would be relatively simple to obtain (for a modest fee, of course)—but in that assumption, one would be wrong, at least in the state of Ohio. Several weeks and many emails, phone calls, and request forms later, we finally obtained the necessary documents. Now all we need to do to be able to drive in New Zealand is to reorient ourselves to driving on the left side of the road.
Though we had been preparing for many months to go to New Zealand, it was well into November before we learned that our visa applications finally had been approved and that we can actually go. Michael says that it wasn’t until the Church’s Missionary Travel Office sent notification of our flight reservations for travel to Utah that this all became real to him. We will leave Cincinnati on Monday 23 December 2019, spend Christmas week with our children and grandchildren who live in Salt Lake City, and then enter the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, for a week of general orientation. The following week, we will receive three more days of additional instruction at the offices of the Church History Department in Salt Lake City—and then we will be off to New Zealand on Thursday 9 January 2020.