Sunday, July 19, 2015

Doing Office Work--George's Post

A.  Doing Office Work

Within the general perimeters of their assignments, senior missionaries in the Mormon Church are prone to gravitate to doing that which is most natural to them, either because they find the work most comfortable or because it is closest to what they were trained to do before coming on their missions.   Church missions present a broad array of service opportunities—from proselyting to office work, welfare service to mission support, working with members to supporting local leaders.  Those inclined to teaching can use their talents to help out as substitute teachers in Sunday School, Relief Society, or Priesthood, teaching English as a second language or helping local leaders with missionary or temple preparation classes.  Those who are handy can easily spend time keeping the car fleet operational, fixing leaky toilet and stubborn locks, hanging curtains.  Missionaries accustomed to office work can find their days consumed paying bills, dealing with landlords, preparing and sending reports to the Area Office.  And those happy doing chores can find endless opportunities outfitting missionary apartments, shuttling the car-less sisters grocery shopping, picking up medicine and supplies for the elders and sisters.  This leeway in choices exists because there are so many ways in which the talents of senior missionaries can be deployed and mission presidents rarely find it necessary or helpful to micro manage the activities of senior missionaries, but instead prefer to give general directions, leaving it to the inspiration of the senior missionaries to chart their own courses. 
However, having said this, each mission’s operation requires a heavy dose of rather routine office work to keep things running smoothly.  Someone has to pay bills, handle local finances, deal with banks, file reports with the Area Office, secure care for sick missionaries, help with transport of young missionaries needing rides.  As a consequence, the Mormon Church frequently calls a senior missionary couple to staff, on a full-time basis, a mission office, located in the same town, and usually at the same location, as the Mission Home, allowing easy coordination with the Mission President and his wife, whose time would otherwise be consumed with necessary but rather pedestrian administrative tasks.  The office challenges are even more taxing in foreign missions covering two or more countries, or whose missionaries are widely dispersed, where it is advisable to have several regional or national offices, in addition to the Mission Office, to care of the multitude of administrative chores.[1]  These functions can be handled by younger elders or sisters, but usually the Mormon Church understandably prefers to allocate the responsibility to a senior couple specifically dedicated to office work.  The efficiency of having the work handled by an older couple, working it on a full-time basis, rather than through rotating sets of younger missionaries, is obvious. 
The paperwork load is dramatically increased in foreign missions, such as the Zambia Lusaka Mission, where missionaries move in and out of several countries, generating an almost constant need for processing and securing temporary stay permits and visas.  Some countries are more hospitable to foreign missionaries than others.  Recently, the Mormon Church has found it difficult to get visas for missionaries assigned to work in South Africa or to attend the Brazil Mission Training Center in route to Portuguese speaking Mozambique.  It is almost a full-time job keeping track of passports, processing permits and visas, interacting with employees in the Departments of Immigration, coordinating travel plans. 
A review of the Blantyre files reveals that many of these tasks related to immigration status were handled in the past by the senior office couple residing in Blantyre.  Now the Church has contracted out this function, to a large extent, to President Chinyumba, the Blantyre District President, calling upon him to a seemingly endless number of trips to the Malawi Department of Immigration and frequent trips to the foreign embassies in Lilongwe.  President Chinyumba not only works on visas for the resident missionaries, but also for local Malawians who are called to serve as missionaries outside of Malawi.  Hard though this maybe to believe, over 20 Malawians have left in the last 12 months to serve as full-time missionaries, most going to other African countries—South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, Kenya—but one to the United States and two to England.  But even with this help, there is plenty left to be done by the senior missionaries residing in Lilongwe and Blantyre.  It is challenging not to let something fall in the cracks:  the passport for a Lilongwe missionary left in the Blantyre safe when it needs to be in Lilongwe; forgetting to give $50 USD to a Western missionary traveling to Zambia from Malawi to pay the required entry fee; yellow fever certificates inexplicably getting separated from the other personal documents.
Moving documents at the last minute is a hassle, inconvenient, stressful.  Usually we try to keep the missionary and his/her passport in the same city, held in a mission safe for safekeeping.  But the passports for newly arrived missionaries in Malawi are usually held in Blantyre for a while, even for the missionaries working in Lilongwe, allowing President Chinyumba ready access to them as he renews the short 30-day stay permits and gets the “TEPs” (temporary employment permits).  Occasionally, in the past, zone leaders or senior couples were, on short notice, conscripted into making last-minute drives from Blantyre to Lilongwe, or Lilongwe to Blantyre, to deliver passports to missionaries being transferred or being called to Lusaka for special missionary training.  While the 4 to 5 hour one-way drive is beautiful and can be a pleasant break from the normal routine, it’s not quite as beautiful when driving fast to accommodate a tight turnaround schedule, and way too stressful when it entails night-time driving.  Recently the Church has become comfortable with a substitute solution, using the local AXA buses as a local courier service.  At the modest cost of 1,200 kwacha, close to $3 USD, a small package with passports can be sent either direction, arriving in about five hours.  With two trips each day, this has dramatically reduced the stress of moving documents within Malawi.  The AXA bus terminal is located in the center of Blantyre, at the end of a cul de sac, just a five minute drive from our residence.
Though we did not expect to serve as an office couple, the logistics of the mission has resulted in our taking on some office couple type responsibilities for the missionaries residing Blantyre and for the local church.  When we arrived in the mission field, Elder and Sister Reynolds were serving as the office couple for Blantyre and housed the District’s distribution center—the site for purchasing garments, Church DVDs, hymnals, scriptures—and the address for the delivery of all Church mail directed to Malawi—Church magazines and CES (Church education system) materials.  The Mission needed us to assume these responsibilities when they left to return to the United States toward the end of March 2015.  Quite intentionally, Elder Reynolds screened us from the office functions early on, leaving us free to get to know the members in the Zingwangwa Branch first before taking on more assignments.  Slowly he oriented us, but even then he kept for himself the heavy lifting until the very end.[2]  Only after they left did the full weight of the office function fall to our shoulders.
It took me close to two months to reorganize the office to my liking (I am sure the next office couple will reorganize once again the office to their own taste) and to do at least once most of the routine tasks (such as paying landlords, remitting required MRA taxes, picking up mail, funding the Zone Leaders working capital, filing monthly reports with the Area Office). 
Originally it was my hope to confine the office function to just a couple of hours in the morning each week day, so Carole and I could be free by mid- to late- morning to devote to visiting families in the Zingwangwa and Blantyre Second Branches.  More than Carole, I have found it hard to devote myself to the office work, though I understand someone has to take on what are really quite significant burdens.  And, by and large, I have tried to strike the proper balance between keeping the office going and serving members by working the office in the morning hours and keeping the afternoons free for member visits.
Now, after several months of slogging along, a pattern is slowly emerging.  For the most part, I can finish up the “paperwork” side of the office within an hour or two each day; the key is staying current, especially with the payment and reporting of the bills.  However, there is an inescapable randomness to the office work.  Without warning, “things” just crop up, many requiring immediate attention—Sister Zohner needs to get to the hospital to be treated for a spider bite; Elder Etiang from Uganda has a terrible tooth ache, needing a root canal and crown; a package needs to be couriered to Lilongwe at the last minute; the District needs an advance of 30,000 kwacha to fund the transport expenses to bring the Liwonde members to the upcoming District Conference; the Isuzu truck needing a new left hand side mirror is ready for pick up.  While it might be nice to bunch these random “to dos,” taking care of them in one fell sweep, they don’t line up in such a tidy way.  Often afternoons, mornings, mid-day get chopped up, an hour here, an hour there, driving me a tad crazy.  To preserve a semblance of order, we try to set aside each week several afternoons for visiting families--a couple for Zingwangwa, a couple for Blantyre 2nd--usually leaving Friday and the weekend open.  Though I wish more time were available for visits, the variety keeps us active and engaged; I really don’t mind doing some of the office work;[3]  the challenge is striking the right balance.  Carole can quickly sense when I am getting too cranky, never a good sign.  Nothing restores my spirits as quickly as parking the Toyota at the Chilobwe or Kampala market, walking hand in hand with Carole, visiting members in their homes.
There are two significant advantages in working in the mission office.  The office couple gets to know all of the younger missionaries, as they come in and out, getting new assignments, being interviewed by the Mission President.  Without exception, office couples speak with great fondness about the younger missionaries, citing the experience as one of the true highlights of the mission.  The second advantage is that the mission office is certainly the nerve center of the mission.  If one wants to know what’s going on—where all the missionaries are located, the scuttlebutt about pending transfers, the mission president’s schedule, visits of regional and area authorities—the mission office is the place to be.  And there are some who really loved doing office work.
While some advantages grow out of working in the mission office, at the end of the day, it requires an exceptionally self-sacrificing couple to staff it.  The Skidmores from the Walnut Creek area in San Francisco worked in Lusaka as the office couple when we arrived in the mission.  They were wonderful, easy to work with, and a great support to both the Mission President and his wife, the younger missionaries and the senior couples.  But, by its nature, office work is largely anonymous, so it requires one to be committed, self-effacing, and independent—one does not have the occasional compliment from local members to buoy up one’s spirits.  The work is done in the back rooms, without much fanfare.  Yet, if it were not done, things just don’t work—schedules are fouled up, missionaries are left stranded at airports, supplies are not delivered on time, necessary visas are not issued.  When complaining about my limited office work, I have felt quite sheepish, knowing how much behind the scenes work has been done, over the years, by the Skidmores, the Reynolds, and all of the other office couples.  Carole and I feel extremely bad about complaining once to the Skidmores about doing office work, when they visited us shortly in Blantyre, just before returning to the United States. 

[1] The mission office is in Lusaka, Zambia, while Malawi has two offices—one in Blantyre, and a second in Lilongwe. 
[2] Roughly three months before the Reynolds’ departure, I started meeting with Elder Reynolds once each week, usually for an hour or so on Friday mornings, to start familiarizing myself with some of the office work—going to the bank, visiting landlords, reviewing the financial reports—and getting to know the peculiarities of the office couple residence at One Kufa Road.  The process accelerated towards the end.  Out of these visits, I prepared what I grandly called the “Office Couple Handbook,” later sharing it with the Fisks in Lilongwe, the Skidmores then the Mission office couple, and the Ericksons.  It has proven to be a useful resource for me.  Frequently I refer to it to refresh my memory.  For example, when I needed to start the generator for the first time, I found the notes in the Office Couple Handbook sufficient to fire it up, otherwise Carole and I would have been without power and lights for a while.   
[3] Some of you might be astounded to think of me taking care of office functions.  Over my career, I tried to get great leverage using my secretary, word processors and other administrative personnel, relying upon them heavily to support my legal practice.  Vicki Lynn, my last secretary, who worked with me for over ten years, was invaluable.  I delegated to her virtually every administrative task I could to free up time for practicing law.  As I approached retirement, Carole was not hesitant about putting me on notice—she was not going to replace Vicki Lynn—our marriage was not going to survive such a dislocation in our relationship.  I would have to learn to fend for myself.  Once in the office, we managed to work out a simple enough allocation of responsibilities—Carole handles the distribution center, fields health questions from the younger missionaries, and does some of the interface with landlords.  I am left with bill paying, financial accounting, dealing with the passports and money, and organizing the office.