September 2, 2014

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Global Ambassadors

The Economic Impact of LDS Missionaries

Natalie Gochnour

September 2, 2014


I apologize for being personal, but I experienced something recently that many Utahns have experienced either personally or as a parent: I dropped my son off at the Provo Missionary Training Center (MTC) to start his volunteer service for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those who have done this know it is a riveting moment filled simultaneously with joy and sadness. It’s very hard to let go of the people and things you love. It’s also a sacrifice that contributes to Utah’s economic success. Faith preferences and traditions aside, the Mormon missionary program pays dividends to the Utah economy.

An Expanded Worldview

At any given time, the LDS Church has more than 83,000 missionaries serving in over 400 missions throughout the world. Many are Utah residents and return here to live after their service. Most are under the age of 25 when they leave.

Most missionaries return having learned extraordinary life skills: perseverance, discipline, an improved work ethic and improved cultural literacy, to name just a few. Often they learn a second language and develop a heartfelt awareness and love for the people and the places where they serve. To say it plainly, they become something bigger and better than they were before.

Excuse me for the “economics speak,” but missionary service, like education, is an investment in human capital. Done right it improves a person’s skills and makes them a better employee and a more productive member of society. In Utah, we have hundreds of thousands of returned missionaries—male and female—who have learned valuable life skills.

But it’s more than workforce readiness and life skills. LDS missionary service also means global engagement. Jeff Edwards, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, tells a moving story from the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. The prime minister of Finland was in town supporting the Finnish women’s hockey team, which had made it to the bronze-medal round. At a pre-match rally at South Towne Exposition Center, a choir filled with former Finnish missionaries—young and old—sang the Finnish national anthem in Finnish. Edwards watched as the prime minister was struck with emotion as he heard this expression of love and patriotism in his native tongue.

This story is emblematic of other international characteristics about this state. An estimated 22 percent of Utah jobs are tied to exports. Merchandise exports in Utah currently tally $19.3 billion and have more than doubled in the last five years. It should not be surprising that we have more than 20,000 students enrolled in dual-language immersion programs. Utah is a globally-minded state.

Youthful Optimism

What does this have to do with the LDS missionary program? Plenty. As tight-knit and insular as Utah can be, we boast extraordinary international experience. Many former LDS missionaries use their out-of-state and international experience to grow thriving businesses.  

A colleague of mine at the University of Utah calls missionaries the largest sales force in the world. Let’s be clear—the sales force is selling religion. But they are also creating a brand for this state. The missionary program is one of the LDS Church’s most recognized characteristics and Utah is its international headquarters. Mormon missionaries can be seen in hundreds of major cities and in thousands of towns and villages around the globe. In addition to faith they represent youthfulness, optimism and service.

When I dropped my son off, I gazed at the extensive Provo MTC campus. With missionaries in white shirts everywhere, there was a youthful optimism that you don’t see in many places. I looked at the MTC’s large mail and kitchen facilities. I then envisioned similar, though smaller, operations in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, England, Ghana, Guatemala, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa and Spain. The worldwide presence is of a scale that is difficult to adequately describe.

Missionary service is a distinctly faith-based proselyting activity. There’s no question about that. But it’s also an economic benefit to this state. We owe a debt of gratitude to all who serve.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.

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