Inside the Missionary Training Center: Boot camp for Mormons
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
First Published Jul 12 2013
Provo » The 35-acre campus is an island of young people, where teens and 20-somethings
outnumber grown-ups by 10-to-1. Sure, the place is awash in fresh-faced students, but
even the workers — from the cafeteria to the copy center, the mailroom to the bookstore
— and most of the teachers are under 30.
It’s no "Animal House," though, with raucous frats, food fights and binge drinking.
This is Mormonism’s premier Missionary Training Center, where the men wear white shirts
and ties, the women don modest skirts and dresses and everyone is expected to heed the
rules. It ranks second among the nation’s largest on-site language schools, behind only
the U.S. Defense Department’s Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. Mormons have
"perfected their language training through years and years of experience and feedback,"
says Col. Derek Tolman, commander of Utah National Guard’s linguistic unit, who is
familiar with both systems. "The Missionary Training Center is excellent at teaching
the fundamentals in a short time. The students are highly motivated and the learning
curve is amazing."
But the MTC, as it is known, teaches much more than diction and dialects. It’s the
place, just north of LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, where young Latter-day
Saints are molded and mentored. It’s the place they are built up and, sometimes,
dressed down. It’s the place they start to learn the languages (55 in all) they will
need to preach the Mormon message and the place they begin to bolster the faith they
will rely on to sustain the rigors of missionary life — from 6:30 a.m. wake-ups to
10:30 p.m. lights out — every day for 24 months (18 months for women).
From the moment they arrive, the newly minted missionaries are never alone — assigned a
"companion," a person of the same gender going to the same mission who will be with
them at all times. They are not allowed to phone home, chat with friends on the
Internet, watch TV or non-LDS Church videos, read a novel or a newspaper, or listen to
popular music. Oh, and no sex or dating. In short, no distractions. The MTC is boot
camp, two to nine weeks (depending on the mission destination) of intense language
study and gospel grounding. From there, these foot soldiers of Mormonism will ship out
for stations around the globe, God’s army (some call them), out to convert the world.
And now the Provo MTC is the epicenter of a historic surge. Since October 2012, when
the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowered the age for male
missionaries from 19 to 18 and for females from 21 to 19, their ranks have skyrocketed.
So the already-young MTC is getting even younger — and more female. "Sister"
missionaries now make up 42 percent of the enlistees, up from the 10 percent to 15
percent before the age change. Built in the 1970s to house about 2,300 missionaries,
the faith’s flagship MTC now has about 3,500 residents, with nearly 900 new ones
arriving every Wednesday at a rate of 100 cars every 15 minutes. This explosion of
would-be proselytizers has required adding bunk beds to dorm rooms, originally created
for four, now equipped for six. It has meant returning a classroom building to a
residence hall, and turning the Raintree and Wyview Park apartments into temporary MTC
housing and classrooms. It has meant hiring a wave of new language teachers, who are
all recently returned missionaries, bringing the total to 1,200, up from 800 just a
"Approximately a quarter of the current MTC teachers are women," says LDS Church
spokesman Ruth Todd. "The church seeks to hire only the best candidates to serve
there." Mealtimes are staggered in the 800-seat cafeteria, which serves 10,000 meals a
day and caters to carnivores, vegans, picky eaters and those on strict gluten-free
diets. A single mailroom processes about 6,000 letters and packages on an average
Monday, including some 5,000 printed emails going through dearelder.com. "You don’t
want to be here on Valentine’s Day," says Heidi Van Woerkom, who has supervised the MTC
mailroom for 22 years. "We get about 13,000 packages coming in."
Despite the numbers and frenetic pace, the MTC does not seem overcrowded. A sense of
calm and order pervades the hallways of its 19 buildings. "We are so happy," chime two
Korean missionaries as they stroll along together. MTC President Lon Nally says the
vast majority of incoming missionaries "love what they’re doing." "They are smart,
energized and happy," says Nally, who has been on the job since January, "and full of
faith." Good thing. Otherwise it could be hard to survive such a demanding load.
Modern-day Babel » Missionaries learning one of the 55 languages taught at the MTC —
especially difficult ones such as Mandarin, Korean, Thai, Russian and Finnish —
typically spend eight to nine weeks there. Those learning Romance languages such as
Spanish, French and Italian stay six weeks, and those going to English-speaking
missions leave after two weeks, except for those learning English as a second or third
language. The schedule, however, is essentially the same for everyone: up at 6:30 and
to bed by 10:30, three meals a day, one hour of physical activity, and about 10 to 12
hours of language or religious training. Church services are held on Sunday and
devotionals with LDS general authorities on Tuesday. Missionaries also have a day off
to do laundry, write home and attend the nearby Provo LDS temple.
Though it seems like a one-size-fits-all approach, the training can adapt to any
missionary’s skills and needs, says Spencer Christensen, the MTC’s operations manager.
Some who have taken Spanish in high school or college, for example, can accelerate and
leave the MTC earlier than expected. Others who struggle might get individual tutoring.
They all come with varying language aptitudes, but most everyone eventually gets it —
though fluency is still months away, after they are laboring in Bangkok, Buenos Aires
or Berlin. The system works, Nally and others say, because it is based on missionaries
helping one another rather than competing and the teachers are more like peers than
"What makes the MTC so unique, and so effective in teaching languages, is that the
teachers are returned missionaries who have gone through the same process," explains
Ami Zahajko, a Mormon mom in Seattle, who taught Russian at the MTC five years ago.
"They are able to meet individual needs of missionaries. They have a lot of empathy."
The classes are small — eight to 12 missionaries in each — and use mostly the language
of faith for their curriculum. Missionaries learn to pray and preach in the new
language before they learn common terms such as "happy birthday" or "where is the
bathroom?" Zahajko’s brother, David Gillis, taught Spanish at the MTC until fall 2011,
when the curriculum moved toward an approach similar to the natural way children learn
a language. "When I started, it was very grammar-based," Gillis said. "By the time I
left, we were using more storyboards for grammar, more immersion and more freedom for
missionaries to discover meanings from context." Soon the students were speaking their
new languages more rapidly, while mastering words drawn from the faith’s basic
"I’m teaching the language and the gospel of Jesus Christ, plus the Thai culture," says
Brigham Shipley, a BYU marketing student who served in Thailand. "We want missionaries
to integrate into the culture." On a recent day, Shipley is standing before a white
board, covered in what looks like squiggles — the Thai alphabet. "We strive for 100
percent speaking Thai in class," Shipley says. "The first two weeks the teacher speaks
all Thai, then slacks off a little. It’s more of an immersion, which requires immediate
participation." Learning the language is the "most difficult part" of the MTC, says
Sister Elizabeth Stevenson, of Montana. Thai has its own alphabet and the "letters look
like Ramen noodles — no spaces between the words," Stevenson says, "but the characters
correspond to sounds so it is easier in that sense." But it helps, she says, when
native language speakers who live in Utah come to class to engage the students as if
they were "investigators," or potential converts.
On top of classroom instruction, missionaries spend individual time in computer labs,
where they record themselves saying a sentence and then listen to a native repeat the
same sentence. "I learned more Spanish here than sitting in a high-school class for two
years," says Sister Jessica Howard, of King City, Calif., who is headed to Argentina.
"It is really helpful to hear natives speak. But, she adds, the Holy Spirit is the
Making it work » It takes detailed planning, logistical wizardry and quick responses to
make the MTC run smoothly, while reacting to medical emergencies, forgotten passports,
visa headaches, legal entanglements and family dramas. Plus, the system is always
trying to adapt to 18-year-olds who have never lived away from home. Don’t put your
suits in the washing machines, warns a sign posted in the laundry room. The campus is
governed by a clear male hierarchy with Nally at the top and his two "counselors," as
in any Mormon presidency. The MTC also is parceled into six "districts," each with its
own full-time adult leader. Missionaries are further divvied into language-speaking
"zones" and "districts" for their training. Those correspond to small ecclesiastical
units, known as branches. Each of the MTC’s 75 branches has 30 to 50 members,
supervised by a branch president and two counselors.
On Sundays, these 225 spiritual leaders organize worship services, including sacrament
meetings and, for the men, priesthood meetings. Sister missionaries come together for a
single Relief Society meeting, which usually features a speech by women from that
organization’s general board. They also have a short dress and grooming lecture. These
branch presidents and their wives are available on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for
counseling — and lots of young people seek it.
"Homesickness is a real issue," says Margaret Young, a Brigham Young University
professor whose husband, Bruce, served as a counselor in a French-speaking MTC branch
from 2008 to 2010. "We did lose a few to anxiety." Most didn’t realize they would have
a problem until they got to Provo, Young says. Then they questioned whether they would
be able to learn the language or whether they had what it takes to be a missionary.
Some young people resent the center’s structure and all the rules; others wrestle with
their faith. But the system is not set up for failure and not many do, Nally says,
estimating that fewer than 0.05 percent leave, and that number includes all those
facing language, medical, emotional or spiritual issues. The MTC produces "an extreme
sense of unity," Young says. "You put a group of people in a survival situation and
they will bond." And before they know it, these missionaries’ religious batteries are
charged, their language training complete and their confidence soaring. They take
FrontRunner and TRAX to the airport, so they can jet off to their assigned areas, where
the real learning, hardships, growth and joy take place. Back at the MTC, another 100
cars pull up to the curb and more young, eager prospects emerge. The spiritual pep
rally begins again.