Monday, January 26, 2015

Great People, Great Teaching, Great Opportunity

By Rodger Dean Duncan

The Church members here have extended a warm welcome to us. We've had multiple dinner invitations. The hospitality is exactly what we remember and love about people in Texas (native or otherwise). And the amount of food they put on the table is fit for a caravan of truck drivers. If we don't discipline ourselves we'll need to get new (larger) wardrobes.

"Orange ya glad we brought
some Vitamin C?" We often
give the young missionaries
special treats. Even the most
simple things are appreciated.
For the younger missionaries, as most of you know, the "rules" of operation are very specific and deliberately regimented. The young women serve for 18 months, the young men serve for 24 months. (Click here to see a brief and inspiring video from a newly-called young missionary.) Outside the privacy of their apartment, a missionary is never to lose visual contact with his companion. Missionaries have no (as in zero, nada) access to social media or music other than the Tabernacle Choir or similar sacred fare. They call home only twice a year: on their birthdays and on Mothers Day (sorry about that, Dad). Their schedules are very tight and filled with study, community service, teaching, and other activities that directly advance the cause of the gospel in their own lives and in the lives of others. They are up early, doing physical exercise and gospel study. A missionary has one "P-day" (p for preparation) each week. The morning of that day is typically devoted to things like grocery shopping, doing laundry and apartment cleaning. This may be followed by something like a game of (half court) basketball or a visit to a local attraction like a zoo or museum. Then back to the work  of finding and teaching. Young missionaries rise no later than 6:30 am, with lights out no later than 10:30 pm. It's part of a routine that will serve them well the rest of their lives.

The State of Texas is obviously very
liberal with policies on custom car tags.
The local leaders in this area seem to understand why we're here. But some of the rank-and-file members seem very curious about our role. That's probably because we are the first senior missionaries ever to serve in Waco. Younger missionaries have served here at least since before I was a Baylor student 50 years ago. But "senior" missionaries like us are apparently a novelty. Compared to the younger missionaries, our schedules are extremely flexible. We're expected to use our own experience and proactivity in working with the local members and others in the community. This includes helping members expand their vision (and actual work) on their own "missionary" responsibilities.

Grasshoppers in January. Really!
For example, we met this week with Alan Mayfield. Alan is a district judge and well-known in the community. (As it turns out, we knew each other briefly before my graduation from Baylor 49 years ago.) Alan has served as a bishop and in numerous other callings over the years. His current assignment in the Waco Stake is public affairs. But he has had limited guidance, so the program is really not very functional. I offered to help him get the public affairs operation properly organized (this will of course require support from the stake presidency). I'm confident that with a visionary approach and the right kind of "staffing," public affairs can have a significant positive impact on the growth of the Church here. The purpose of public affairs is not proselyting. It's all about building bridges of understanding with people throughout the community. We can do it. We will do it.
With Trish and Alan on a weekend visit.

On Friday of last week we took some of the missionaries from Waco up to Arlington where they previously served. A year ago they baptized a couple into the Church, and on Saturday the couple was sealed in the Dallas Temple. The elders joined them for the happy occasion. Rean and I spent Friday night at the home of my sister Patricia and brother-in-law Alan. They live in Terrell, about 40 miles east of Dallas. It's always good to be with Trish and Alan, and being at their place is like hanging out at an upscale spa. Great food, great conversation, lots of laughter, and splendid accommodations.

Zone Conference. Great day with great people.
On Sunday morning we attended the SMC (Stake Missionary Correlation) meeting with the stake president, our mission president, and the zone leaders. Naturally  the discussion centered on how to bless the people who are headed toward baptism or who have recently (in the past year) been baptized. We are extremely focused on retention, because baptizing people and then having them slip away is not at all the Lord's plan. We have a very impressive set of metrics that enable us to track the progress of individual people. President Ames and I zeroed in on a couple of specific issues that need tweaking. For example, how to help ward councils focus their resources in more effective ways to bless new members. I felt like I was coaching a business client, although in this instance the implications are eternally more important. 

Overall, we have found the Sunday worship services here to be exceptionally good. We've heard some of the best sacrament meeting talks one could ever hope to enjoy: well prepared, scripture-based, lots of excellent personal examples and testimony, etc. And the Sunday School classes are also excellent. In one of the wards we attend the Gospel Essentials teacher is a beautiful and bright young woman (about 30) who grew up in the Church and then dropped out for a few years while she was in college. She then married and returned to the fold, extremely grateful for the welcoming arms of the gospel. She is a remarkably able teacher, very adept at keeping the discussion laser focused on the most salient points of the doctrinal points she teaches. Note one of her chalkboard illustrations.

In addition to following through on a number of initiatives we're working on here, this coming week we'll be up in Fort Worth for a senior missionary retreat. I'll report on that next time.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Home Away from Home

By Rodger Dean Duncan

Notice that Texas is spelled with a lowercase "t." Was it an
innocent mistake, or was the sign installed by Yankees?
The apartment we’ve rented in Waco is in an ideal location. We’re only about 12 minutes from the Waco Stake Center where we attend many of our meetings (we’re assigned to work with three congregations), and ten minutes or less from most any kind of shopping we need to do. Some shopping, in fact, is literally within easy walking distance. 

We’re also only about ten minutes from the Baylor campus where we hope to do some public affairs work. Several times a month we're attending various meetings in Temple and Killeen, which are 30 minutes and 60 minutes south of Waco, and in Fort Worth, which is about 90 minutes north. 

We bought a new seven-passenger SUV just for this mission, and it’s turning out to be very useful in transporting missionaries from place to place. (Most of them have cars, but they appreciate getting rides with us to preserve their monthly mileage allotment. And we love their company.) The SUV also provides good visibility as we navigate surprisingly heavy traffic. Rean prefers that I do all the driving. It's okay with me because the SUV is pleasant to drive. Meanwhile, a question: Are there any highways in the State of Texas that are not under some phase of demolition or construction?

No excuses. Lots of exercise options,
including cardio. Early morning is best.
Our apartment complex, which is gated, has nearly 300 units. It’s only about two years old. Most of the residents seem to be professional people. We’ve seen only one child. The staff is very friendly and helpful. 

In addition to the comfort and security of our apartment, we appreciate the on-site fitness center. We use it every morning, and almost always have the entire place to ourselves. (Everyone else is either sleeping in or getting ready to leave for work.) Our doctors, and our mission president, recommend daily exercise. We’re happy to comply.

Rescue Squad

This week we were particularly pleased to spend time with a young woman, a life-long member of the Church, who drifted away a few years ago. She's now divorced and has a seven-year-old daughter. She's been living with her boyfriend for at least a couple of years. She expressed interest in returning to activity and getting her life in order. A critical first step, of course, was for her to move out of the apartment she's been sharing with her boyfriend (he has shown no inclination to leave). Fortunately, she followed the counsel and this week moved in with her parents (who are faithful, active members). 

The situation has some tactical complications because this young woman unwisely commingled her finances with her boyfriend (joint bank account, co-ownership of a car, etc.). But she understands that those details are trifling when compared to the all-important issue of living a moral, covenant-keeping life. She has the loving (and grateful) support of good parents, and we are doing our best to provide lots of reinforcement. In her parents' living room this week I gave her some counsel in my usual unvarnished way. Then I told her that I was sure that everything I said pretty much echoed what she had heard from her mom and dad, but sometimes an additional witness is helpful. Her parents shook their heads in the affirmative, and the young woman expressed tearful thanks for the heartfelt and straightforward counsel. For the past several days I've been sending her periodic "social media hugs"texts with appropriate scriptures, quotes from General Authorities, personal words of encouragement.

Zone Conference

One might assume that a day-long meeting, which included seating on metal
chairs, would be intolerable. But when the meeting is well-planned, well-
executed, and engaging, it's a wonderful experience. Especially when the
entire focus is on the most important work in the world. And of course it
certainly helps to be surrounded by great people.
Friday was Zone Conference. It was in Killeen, about a hour south of Waco. President and Sister Ames dropped by our apartment to pick us up so we could ride down with them. On the way, we gave President Ames a thorough briefing on how the work is going in the Waco area. (Friday night they stayed with us in Waco, and we enjoyed a relaxing breakfast together after an early-morning workout.)

There are nearly 300 missionaries in our mission. This is divided into 12 geographic zones. Our day-long Zone Conference was attended by more than four dozen missionaries, plus a stake president, several bishops, several ward mission leaders, and a number of local ward missionaries. I can't say enough good things about the quality of the meeting. Our friend Rodney Ames, the mission president, was exceptionally well prepared. In addition to having a marvelous vision for how the work can and must be done, he has a gift for helping people "connect the dots" and transform the vision into very specific action steps. He's a great listener, especially to the Spirit. Multiple times during the multi-hour meeting he briefly paused, then deliberately take a short detour before returning to his original path. That's what happens when one allows himself to be guided by a power that's immeasurably more clarifying than mere intellect. We've known Rodney for many years. In addition to being a good personal friend, he's our family attorney. It's a special pleasure to serve with him in this capacity. (Actually, in a sense, the roles are somewhat reversed. Many years ago I served as stake mission president in Liberty. Rodney and his wife Kimberlee were stake missionaries. We loved having missionary firesides in our home. We would often have as many as 80 people in our living room. Great memories.)

Our New Best Friends

Some of the young missionaries who work with us in Waco.
We really love the young missionaries who surround us, and we believe the feeling is mutual. These young warriors (of both genders) are so strong and faithful and stalwart. They teach with remarkable power. They conduct meetings with impressive maturity. They encourage people with love and empathy one might expect to see only in people twice their age. 

Just as we had hoped, the young missionaries have accepted us not only as fellow soldiers in the Lord's Army, but also as sort of away-from-home surrogate grandparents. They come to us for counsel, and we're happy to offer ideas and coaching. Meanwhile, we make it clear that we are learning from them, too.


Because the Church's missionary force (88,000 strong worldwide) is so disciplined, hugging missionaries of the opposite gender is verboten, especially when the hugging is done by someone in a real or perceived position of authority. That policy is entirely appropriate. Having said that, Rean and I have noticed how much the younger missionaries here appreciate getting hugs from us. I've been hugging the elders, and Rean has been hugging the sisters. In addition, we've passed along "proxy" hugs. That's when I hug Rean and she passes the hug along to one of the sisters. The young missionaries have clearly liked this. On Friday we got permission from our mission president to hug all the missionaries. (Perhaps the fact that these missionaries are young enough to be our grandchildren played a role in his leniency.) In any event, the missionaries literally lined up at the end of Friday's Zone Conference so they could collect their hugs form Elder and Sister Duncan. We loved it.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Tender Mercies, Nametags, and Covenants

By Rodger Dean Duncan

Tender Mercies

We try to maintain the habit of noticing and appreciating the tender mercies of life. One tender mercy related to our mission came even before we got here.

As reported in a previous blog post, the week after Thanksgiving Rean and I came to Waco to "set up shop." We returned to Liberty, then flew to Utah for our week at the Missionary Training Center. After the MTC we came to Waco in time to celebrate our first Christmas away from our family in 45 years. 

The Duncan home that awaits us in Liberty, Missouri.
For now, Waco, Texas, is our home. Y'all.
The tender mercy is this. We love our beautiful home in Liberty. It is so personal, so familiar, so comfortable, so accommodating. But the last time we were there we both noticed, independently, that the house seemed oddly estranged. It's still a magnificent, spacious place. But it somehow seemed to be saying to us "This is not your home right now. Waco is your home. You will return here, but for now the Lord wants you and needs you in Waco. That should be your focus." So it is.

One recent day we attended District Meeting in the Hewitt Building about 12 minutes from our apartment. Afterwards, we went to the IGA Supermarket on Hewitt Drive right near the turn-off to our apartment. At the intersection of Hewitt Drive and Sun Valley, we stopped at a red light. There were several cars in front of us. When the light turned green, all the other cars lurched forward. The car in front of us slammed into the back of the car in front of it, then that car did the same to the car in front of it, and the ensuring chain-reaction involved at least four vehicles. There was considerable damage to one of the vehicles, and likely a few whiplashes. We feel very blessed that we were not part of that mess. It reminded us of a really terrible (probably fatal) accident we once avoided in California because we paused about three seconds before going through a green light. The instant we started to move, a speeding truck barreled through the intersection. There’s no way we could have survived. Another tender mercy.

Waco, Then and Now

Yes, it can get cold in
Waco, too. Wind chill
factor below zero.
Waco, does indeed, feel more familiar every day. The town is considerably larger than it was when I first enrolled at Baylor University here more than 52 years ago. But a lot of those old memories are starting to come into focus for me, and Rean and I are discovering a lot of "new" things together. "New" is of course a relative term. For example, some of the things on the Baylor campus that seem "new" to me have now been here nearly half a century. If I allowed myself to, I could feel ancient. My body is clearly older, but I'm thankfully still young at heart.

This past week was filled with a lot of productive activity. We participated in an excellent Zone Council meeting in nearby Temple, Texas. As mentioned before, we are so impressed by the young missionaries who serve in this area. In addition to their spiritual maturity, they demonstrate terrific "professional" skills. For example, most of them can organize and conduct a meeting better than many of my professional clients who are twice their age. Most of these missionaries are only 18-20 years old when they report for duty in the mission field. But when they return home 18 to 24 months later, they have matured well beyond their chronological ages. The CIA, the FBI and other government agencies have long been impressed by the maturity and capacity of Mormon young people--to the extent that the government sends people to Brigham Young University to try to figure out the "secret formula." The "formula" is no secret. People who are genuinely committed to a cause bigger than themselves enjoy accelerated learning and maturity.

Dinner Guests, New Friends

This week we hosted Blake and Paula Christensen in our apartment for dinner. Blake is president of the Waco Stake, and previously served as president of the Killeen Stake before the Waco Stake was formed. Blake and Paula are among the first people we met here on our initial visit last Easter. They are wonderful, faithful people and we love being with them. Rean discovered, again, that hosting a dinner in our apartment is not nearly as convenient as doing the same in our Liberty home. But it all works, despite the fact that every day we seem to notice something we intended to bring but somehow managed to leave in Liberty. No complaints, though. The apartment we found and rented is very nice and we're grateful to have it.

Today we spoke in the Hewitt Ward sacrament meeting. We also attended the ward's Missionary Correlation Meeting (before the three-hour block), then the Ward Council Meeting after the block. We are very impressed by the focus and dedication of the ward members as they reach out to serve others.

On Friday we visited Gloria and her daughter Anna. Gloria, who's in her 70s and is a native of Mexico, has a Catholic background. Anna is in her late 40s. We went to teach Gloria and were pleased to meet Anna, too. The visit went very well and they asked wonderful questions. Gloria is very attracted to Latter-day Saint teachings about the Godhead (Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost).  And Anna seemed absolutely delighted to learn about the great apostasy that created the need for the restoration. "I've always wondered why there are so many different churches," she said. "Surely they can't all be right, especially since they often disagree." We invited them to attend church with us and we're confident they will. (Today's weather was cold and damp and we assume they stayed home because of Gloria's fragile health.) We hope to see them again this coming week.


As full-time missionaries, we wear our missionary tags everywhere we go outside our apartment: to the supermarket, the gas station, the barbershop, the car wash, the fitness center where we exercise. Everywhere.

Our conviction has always been clear and we’ve always been bold in expressing our faith. But there’s something about wearing a missionary nametag that really “lays it out there.” After all, the largest font in the logo says “JESUS CHRIST.” As covenant-makers, we’ve taken upon ourselves the name of the Savior. The missionary tags provide a tangible, unequivocal sign of that allegiance.

It’s been interesting to observe people’s response to the nametags. Some sneak a glance out of the corner of their eyes, apparently not wanting us to notice that they’re curious (though not curious enough to ask a question). Others look at the tags and say something like, “Oh, you’re missionaries! That’s great. Have a blessed day.” And then others seem eager to draw a distinction between their beliefs and what they assume are ours. A man at the barbershop was cordial at first, then he noticed my nametag and said, “Oh, you’re a Mormon!” with a tone one might adopt in saying “Oh, you have poison ivy.” He followed up with, “I’m a Baptist,” to which I cheerfully responded: “I used to be a Baptist, too. They’re wonderful people. As a young Latter-day Saint I was surrounded by Baptists when I was a student at Baylor University.” (Somehow, mentioning my Baylor background gives me a certain amount of street cred in Waco, Texas.) We then struck up a friendly conversation.

It’s apparently not uncommon for the missionaries here to be greeted (accosted?) with something like, “I don’t want to talk with you, I’m a Christian.” This is a remarkable response, especially given that the name of our church emphasizes the name of the Savior himself. It’s interesting that some people can be so woefully misinformed about our religion.

Back to the nametags. As covenant-makers, we promise to take upon ourselves the name of Christ. Not necessarily in the sense of wearing a tangible nametag, but certainly in the sense of faithfulness and allegiance to the Savior's restored gospel. When we fail to honor that promise, we are taking the Lord’s name in vain. For many people, taking the Lord’s name in vain involves foul language. While that definition is accurate, it’s also limited. I think the broader definition is worthy of consideration.

Maya Angelou

On a related note, I’ve always liked a quote from poet Maya Angelou. She said that when someone claimed to be a Christian she would respond with an incredulous “Already?” She may have understood more true doctrine than she realized. Professing belief in and demonstrating allegiance to Jesus is certainly a prerequisite to adopting the title of “Christian.” So is lifelong, constant effort to live the gospel as the Savior taught.

Love to all.

Elder and Sister Duncan
Texas Fort Worth Mission
The Church of Jesus Christ
   of Latter-day Saints

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Hitting the Ground Running

By Rodger Dean Duncan

One normally does not have a "by-line" on a blog. But in this case two of us are reporting to you while only one of us is doing the writing. So to help us avoid convoluted language patterns, I (Rodger) will provide the "voice" for our blog posts.

As some of you know, we came to Texas three times last year on what we called “reconnaissance missions.” Two of those trips were before we even applied for missionary service. We met a lot of the Church members down here and began to familiarize ourselves with Waco, which has grown tremendously since the early 1960s when I attended Baylor University.

This past week was full of activity getting to know the Waco area members and acquainting ourselves with the opportunities here.

Our apartment does not have an actual fireplace, so to warm
our visitors we added a "virtual fireplace" on our TV screen,
complete with the crackling sound of burning wood.
Tuesday’s District Meeting at the Waco Stake Center (in nearby Hewitt, Texas) was, again, very impressive. The young elders (does that sound like an oxymoron?) conducted the meeting and did an excellent job. They are mature, well prepared, and very focused on the most critical spiritual and performance issues. We were impressed by their instruction and by the way they involved everyone in the room.

The first half of the meeting included reports on progress of investigators—people of other faiths (or no particular faith) who are being taught the gospel of the restoration by the missionaries.

It seems that a key to success here (as everywhere else in the Church) is member involvement.

At this point, there is evidence that many members here do not yet have the vision of their covenant responsibilities to spread the gospel.

Part of the challenge may be the language we often use. Throughout the Church we seem to talk about missionary “work.” We would do well to regard it as missionary “covenant.” And all baptized and confirmed members have made the covenant, not just those who temporarily wear missionary tags.

Rather than send members on a perpetual guilt trip for not giving referrals to the full-time missionaries, we’d like to help them catch the vision of the multiple ways they can comfortably and naturally share the joy of accepting (and living) the restored gospel. It can begin with something as simple as inviting the missionaries to bring an investigator (or less active member) into an active member’s home for teaching a lesson. Fellowshipping—early and often—is a key to helping people feel comfortable and welcome as “fellow citizens” in the gospel community.

The second half of the District Meeting focused on goal-setting. Elder Shields (one of the District Leaders) did a great job of introducing this subject, including a short video featuring relevant counsel by Apostles Ballard and Scott. Then he asked me to provide some instruction on the subject. Using the SMART Goal Tutorial adapted from one of my books, I challenged the missionaries to:
  • Prayerfully consider personal goals that are most relevant to the success of their ministry.
  • Use the SMART Goals framework to transform the goals from mere aspirations to achievable objectives.
  • Discuss their goals in their weekly companionship inventory.
  • Return and report their experience at the next District Meeting. 

I emphasized that any goal worth achieving is likely to be challenging. I mentioned that we live in a world where people seem to want instant gratification. But worthy goals are about long-term benefit to us and to the people whose lives we wish to influence for the better. The elders seemed to welcome the instruction, and several expressed appreciation for learning a goal-setting approach that replaces guilt with hope and high expectations.

On Wednesday evening we took Elders Shields and Coats with us to a dinner appointment in the home of Brother and Sister Clements of the Waco 2nd Ward. The Clements are in their late 60s, married only three years ago, and are devoted missionaries. They are great people and very hospitable. Rean said our time in their home reminded her of the wonderful Saints we knew in Texas not long after our marriage 47 years ago.

After dinner at the Clements home, we returned Elder Shields and Elder Coats to their car. Then we drove to the home of David Hodson, President of the Young Single Adult Branch. This New Year’s Eve party included about 40 members of the YSA Branch, as well as a couple of non-members. In addition to some good conversation with the YSA members, we had a nice visit with President and Sister Hodson as well as with Michael Estrada and David Gleason, counselors in the branch presidency. We were asked to speak in a YSA sacrament meeting later this month. I was also asked to speak at a special fireside that will likely be scheduled some time in February. To get maximum mileage from this fireside opportunity, we will suggest that members of the Hewitt and Waco 2nd Wards also be invited, along with their non-member friends.

This relationship-building is very important as we establish confidence with the local members so they will respond positively to our proactive efforts to help them.

My conversation with Brother Gleason seemed to open up a good public service opportunity. He works in nearby Temple, Texas, for Baylor Scott & White Health Care System. This is a non-profit organization with a national reputation for excellence. (Baylor Hospital merged with Scott & White to enable both entitles to deal more effectively with the onerous burdens of Obama Care). I offered to do a pro bono leadership workshop for his organization. As it turns out, his manager is Kevin Graves, System Vice President of the entire 34,000-person organization. Kevin, now based in Dallas, was recently released as president of the Oklahoma City Stake where I previously served as stake president. We believe this unexpected “connection” is more than coincidence. Brother Gleason and I will pursue this possible opportunity for community outreach.

On Friday we hosted Elder Shields and Elder Coats at our apartment for lunch. We had a lively and helpful discussion on missionary efforts in the Waco 2nd Ward. We are very impressed by the devotion and maturity of these elders. Based on our discussion, I have several ideas on how to accelerate the work in the ward (and stake). This coming week we’re hosting President and Sister Christensen (of the Waco Stake) for dinner at our apartment. That may provide a good opportunity to broach some of the ideas.

The seasonal lighting at Baylor's Old Main is very festive.
On Friday evening we visited with a wonderful sister who’s 80 but looks more like a beautiful 60. She was baptized 22 years ago and was active for many years. But about a year ago she took offense from ward members. When she was assigned to organize a ward activity and the promotion of the event was not what it should have been, no one came. Her feelings were hurt and she has not been in Church since. This woman is very intelligent, has a professional background, and is a delight to visit. Because she is from Wales, Rean engaged her in a conversation about her own Welsh background, and I told her about my visits to Wales on a special Church assignment in the 1970s. We also gave her loving counsel about not allowing an offense—real or imagined, intended or not—to jeopardize the blessings of full activity in the Church. We invited her to return to activity, and she promised to join us at Church. This morning we drove to her home and picked her up to take her to Church. She was greeted warmly by the members and seemed to feel very welcome. We will continue to work with her, and we’re confident she will continue to attend. We will follow through to ensure that she has reliable home and visiting teachers.

It’s amazing how the simple principles of love and caring provide the healing ointment for people’s spiritual ailments.

To help set the tone for the New Year, you may wish to see "Wise Men Still Seek Him: Modern-Day Story of the Wise Men."

Love to all.

Elder and Sister Duncan
Texas Fort Worth Mission
The Church of Jesus Christ
   of Latter-day Saints