This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Raelene Hill grew tired of those daily middle-of-the-night calls from her young Mormon missionaries.
Sure, stomach and digestion problems are endemic in West Africa, thought Hill, who oversees the LDS Church's Ghana Accra West Mission with her husband, Norman Hill, but every night?
After a few months of such complaints, Raelene Hill figured out the proselytizers were eating food that hadn't been cooked or preserved properly. She obtained permission from LDS higher-ups to buy a microwave for every mission apartment. When the ovens were in place, the number of calls plunged.
Hill's microwave mandate represents precisely the kind of pragmatic thinking, problem solving and individual initiative that 400-plus Mormon mission president wives are doing all over the world these days.
As the faith's 184th Semiannual General Conference gets underway this weekend, it marks the second anniversary of the historic announcement lowering Mormon missionary ages to 18 from 19 for young men ("elders") and to 19 from 21 for young women ("sisters"). With that change, mission president wives have seen their roles evolve and expand.
In addition to instructing elders and sisters in their charge on health and safety, today's mission president wives are modeling how to lead discussions and speak in public; counseling the homesick, the newbies ("greenies" in missionary lingo) and the discouraged; teaching Mormon theology and participating in leadership councils.
The women sometimes advise their husbands on pairing missionaries into "companionships" twosomes who live and work together 24 hours a day and add their own inspiration, imagination and spirituality into the mission mix.
In other words, they are like surrogate mothers, but don't call them "mission moms."
Everybody already has a mother, says David F. Evans, head of the Missionary Department for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The role of a mission president wife is "to train, to love and to inspire."
Don't call her a "co-president" with her husband, either. Mission president is a "joint calling," Evans says in an interview from church headquarters in Salt Lake City, but only the man carries the title "president."
An appropriate moniker for "mission president wife" remains elusive, he says. The church's all-male missionary committee recently asked the female LDS general auxiliary leaders to come up with one but so far has not settled on any that captures the job.
By whatever name, these women can have as lasting an impact on the young Mormons in their care as their husbands, who often rank as the most influential LDS leaders the missionaries will ever meet.
Mission president wives, who serve alongside their spouses for a term of three years, help set a tone for the mission, represent Mormon principles and practices, and exemplify a marriage in action.
And, though LDS authorities give broad directions on what the wives should be doing, their approaches are as varied as the women their marriages, talents, personalities and challenges themselves. Some bring children under 18 with them, so they have dual obligations to family and missionaries. Some are more comfortable in traditional female roles, talking about health, hair and grooming, while others emphasize leadership, doctrinal awareness and public oratory. Some are fluent in the language of the country; others rely on translators most often the missionaries.
Such differences among these female leaders have always existed.
Moving up in the world • The LDS Church began sending out male missionaries from its earliest days in the 1830s. They left wives and children for as many as four to six years. It was a man's duty and no place for women.
In the 1880s, a few women accompanied their mission president husbands to places like the Pacific Islands, where they occasionally taught Western cooking or hygiene to native women, explains Salt Lake City-based Mormon historian Ardis Parshall. Mostly, though, they "had no duties beyond keeping house for their husbands and taking care of their children."
By the early 20th century, mission president wives "began taking more active roles as missionaries, not just as companions," Parshall says. "They might pass out tracts occasionally or in places like Europe or the eastern United States, where public suspicion was that missionaries were only there to convert girls and ship them back home as wives would accompany their husbands to social or civic events to demonstrate that these men were already married, and that Mormon women were intelligent and gracious and not the downtrodden slaves of popular imagination."
A "new breed" of mission president wives emerged after World War I, she says, but, as today, their involvement depended on their personal preferences.
Venus Robinson Rossiter, wife of Ernest Rossiter of the Tahiti Mission, for instance, learned Tahitian and translated English hymns into that language. At great personal risk, she joined her husband "on long ocean trips in tiny sailboats to spend months camping out on distant islands and introducing Relief Society to the women there," Parshall says. "When elders stayed at the mission home in Papeete, she mothered them to the extent of doctoring them and sewing on their buttons."
Leah Dunford Widtsoe, wife of European Mission president and apostle John A. Widtsoe, "may be the model for modern mission president wives," Parshall says.
Leah Widtsoe taught women all over Europe "to take charge of the auxiliaries," the historian says, and adapted curriculum materials produced in Utah to suit European saints, including reworking a "Beehive Girl" series for use in the Armenian mission.
After World War II, the women "took on more of the role that we expect today," Parshall says. "They didn't have official ecclesiastical roles, but they began to be more involved in the lives of the missionaries."
Now as feminist issues are debated, dissected and even disputed mission president wives have taken on an even larger presence.
Change for the ages • When LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced the missionary age change in 2012, young Mormons, especially women, began signing up in droves. In turn, that has dramatically affected gender relations in the 15 million-member faith.
Missionary work has moved from being "largely dominated by young elders to being a missionary force that is significantly represented by the sisters as well," Evans says. "We have about 25,000 sisters. Two years ago ... there were about 8,000 sister missionaries. We think [the percentage of sisters] will continue to be in the 25 to 30 percent range [of the missionary force]."
That means even younger Mormon girls will be talking with their peers and adult women about missions early and often, Evans says, "and mission president wives will be highly involved in all of that."
Evans' department oversees a corps of more than 80,000 full-time missionaries across the globe. It is working to free up these women from cooking duties (by providing funds to hire help) and medical emergencies (by assigning a doctor and mental-health professional to every mission area) so that they can work as a team in running their missions.
The Utah-based faith wants the wives to do "more and more training and mentoring," Evans says, "and participate in mission leadership councils with their husbands as full, equal participants."
When he and his wife, Mary Evans, were mission presidents in Nagoya Japan Mission from 1998-2001, she provided essential gifts and information that complemented his leadership, Evans says. Mary, who was mainly responsible for the four children they had with them, would meet sister companionships for lunch to get to know them better and give that feedback to her husband.
"She told me certain things about their personalities, needs and desires that I didn't know," he recalls, "so I would have more things to pray about."
The couples find their own rhythms and patterns of giving that work best in their time and place.
In a foreign land • Raelene Hill who once was the only female teacher at western Utah's Tintic High and had to drive the bus to take the drill team and cheerleaders to games is a strong, independent Mormon.
"My role is woven into the fabric of the [Ghana Accra] mission just like the local weavers who take full advantage of dyes and materials in making kente cloth," Hill says. "The missionaries look to me to help them as a teaching resource specialist, personal counselor and ever-present friend. Specifically, I have focused on helping the missionaries become better teachers."
For each missionary apartment, she assembled health emergency kits, which include a thermometer, ibuprofen, Imodium A-D, a malaria test kit and malaria medicine. She also created "white boards" for each missionary by laminating a blank sheet of paper for use with marking pens.
"Most Ghanaians are visual learners; yet most missionaries are unfamiliar themselves with how to use visual aids," Hill writes in an email. "At zone conferences and district council meetings, I show them how to use these white boards in specific lessons along with using other visual aids such as the Gospel Art Book and games from the Family Home Evening manual."
She strives to be flexible enough to provide any needs that arise. "I try to be a sounding board and help those who seem to have a difficult time adjusting to Ghana. It wasn't an easy adjustment for me, so I can better empathize with them than my husband, who had absolutely no problems adjusting to Ghana."
The 138 elders and 18 sisters (all African women) see their mission president's wife "as having something to say," she says, "so they welcome my comments and appreciate the friendly banter which I often instigate."
Though Hill's specific assignments may be unique to Africa, other presidents' wives adapt to their missions in much the same way.
Managing an army • When Rebecca Craven and her husband, Ronald Craven, took over the North Carolina Charlotte Mission two years ago, they had 14 sister missionaries out of more than 100 total missionaries; now they have 104 women out of 246.
"It's wonderful to have this vibrancy that the sisters bring," Rebecca Craven says in a phone interview. The female presence "has absolutely elevated the demeanor and dignity of elders."
The Cravens supervise seven zones across the state, which means they spend half their time at the mission home and the other half at a hotel, she says. "We are on the road quite a bit … meeting with missionaries, going out and teaching with the sisters."
Heeding revised protocols, the couple established a "mission leadership council," which includes the president and his wife, as well as the male and female missionary leaders.
"It has been thrilling to watch these young women take on confidence, learn how to be a voice," Craven says, "and learn how to work within the system."
Though her husband "holds priesthood keys and does some things I just can't do," Craven says she and her spouse are "equally yoked. We do it all together. I don't ever feel secondary."
Charlene Hiers of the Ogden Utah Mission knows a lot about young women. She has five daughters and 11 granddaughters and now has 68 sister missionaries to manage.
At quarterly zone conferences and leadership training, she and her husband, Maurice Hiers, work side by side, she says. "He'll start with an idea, then I'll take it over."
The couple share the same "vision of the mission," she says, "and how to take that forward, working with others for the local wards and stakes."
The final word on companionships is "up to [the president], but he definitely listens to my advice," she says. "I never feel like a second-class citizen."
Only human • A Mormon mission president's wife is the main female young missionaries interact with, but, like anyone, she may relate better to some than to others.
One returned missionary reports feeling closer to the president than to his wife, who mostly talked about "taking good care of our physical health to be ready for childbearing."
Another said her mission president was "more caring and personal," while his wife was "like an overly strict grandmother who made you eat healthy."
Sara Susov, who served in Ogden Utah Mission from 1998 to 2000, had contrasting experiences with two mission president wives.
One was "not a role model to me at all," Susov says. "She struggled to build relationships with both elders and sisters and did not have good people skills or management skills. She supported her husband in his goals with the mission but lacked empathy and finesse. … My interactions with her were brief, to the point, and lacked any personal feel."
The other one, with whom Susov has remained close for 15 years, "was loving, supporting, encouraging and held sisters conferences so we could meet and share ideas, feelings and network as sisters," Susov writes in an email. "She trained missionaries at zone conferences, counseled with and alongside her husband, trained sisters and taught us deeper principles about the gospel as we taught others the basics. She spent extra time with sisters in need during monthly interviews. She encouraged the sisters to call her directly, rather than going through the elders on female-related health problems."
This woman "was wonderful to me and supported me through my trials [eating disorder and depression]," Susov says, "and never stopped encouraging missionaries, even when our mission president stopped believing that they could succeed as missionaries."
Thus, a mission president's wife may one day loom as large in a missionary's memory and spiritual journey for good or ill as her husband. And she may even get her own title.
To read excerpts from a face-to-face interview with David F. Evans, head of the LDS Missionary Department, go to sltrib.com.
Where mission presidents and their wives are from
U.S. (not including Utah), 134