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Six Months Later: The Impact of the Missionary Age Change

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The full impact of the missionary age change announcement six months ago has yet to be seen. While the policy for men was already in effect in many nations, now it’s worldwide.

But what can be seen now, as the first responders to the lowered age policy enter the mission field this spring, is the impact this invitation is having on a generation of prospective missionaries.

Tracking the Numbers
In the months following the October announcement, the Missionary Department was deluged with applications. The usual 700 per week jumped to 4,000 per week. Since then, the numbers have subsided some, but not completely: applications remain about double what they’ve been in the past. The worldwide missionary force of just over 58,000 is rising.

Though most applicants have been those newly qualified to serve, more who were previously eligible have also applied. “Every category of missionary is up considerably this year as opposed to last year,” says Elder David F. Evans, executive director of the Church’s Missionary Department and member of the Seventy. “Couples are up. Young elders are up and sisters, of course, are remarkably up. . . .
You’re going to see . . . a rather significant increase in the percentage of sisters. . . . It’s going to be a wonderful mix out there.”

Young single sisters accounted for more than half of responses immediately after the announcement, a significant rise from the 15 percent they comprised previously. One bishop of a young single adult ward in Provo, Utah, reported tracking 22 mission applications in December, 20 of which were for women. “Some of the sisters are 19-year-olds, but some are 21 or older,” he says.

The larger response among women isn’t surprising, given that 19- and 20-yearold women were immediately made eligible to serve. The ceiling was only lowered by one year for men, and many 18-year-olds are still finishing high school. Church leaders anticipate another surge of applications this spring as young men graduate and become eligible.

Expanding the Options
Many anticipate that two years’ increased eligibility will make missionary service a more attainable and attractive goal for sisters. “By age 21, someone who is a junior in college leaves behind tougher coursework, dating, and marriage opportunities,” observes Marshall Dahneke, a counselor in the Kirtland, Ohio, stake presidency. “Now the girls can go after their freshman year (if they’re pursuing higher education) and they don’t face those potential tradeoffs.”

Shalysse Bennett, a junior at Brigham Young University from Houston, Texas, agrees. “I already felt like this was the right direction for me to move my life,” says the 20-year-old. “When the age was lowered, it became even more of an attainable goal for me. It was like an affirmation from the Lord that He really wants me to go.”

Young men also have more options in timing their priesthood duty to serve. “That year from 18 to 19 can be a ‘lost year’ or holding pattern for many young men,” observes Dahneke. “They can now turn 18, graduate, be ordained, and leave immediately—and get right on with their lives.”

Serving at a younger age won’t be the right choice for everyone, though. “Young men or women should not begin their service before they are ready, spiritually and temporally,” said Elder Russell M. Nelson in a press conference following the announcement. “Schooling, family circumstances, health, worthiness, and personal preparation remain important considerations for the timing of missionary service.” Church leaders also continue to stress that women are welcome but not obligated to serve.

Readying to Receive
As applications skyrocketed last fall, the Church’s Missionary Training Centers (MTCs) geared up for a larger missionary force. Bed capacity at the flagship Provo MTC temporarily increased from 3,000 to 4,800; Elder Holland dedicated three new buildings there on January 15, a week before the first flood of young missionaries arrived on January 23; and long-term plans are in the works to permanently expand. On January 29, the Church announced the creation of another MTC—this one in Mexico. Just as significantly, the Missionary Department had already field-tested adjustments in the training process. Training time in the MTC has been shortened by about 30 percent for both same-language and foreign-language assignees, which will allow more missionaries to go through the MTC.

“It won’t be a watered-down [or] cheapened [MTC] experience,” assures Stephen Allen, managing director of the Missionary Department. “It will be a great spiritual learning experience, a time of revelation as they learn how to be missionaries.”

Furthermore, a 12-week “on the job” training program was tested and implemented in the mission field worldwide before the lowered age was announced. In the Ohio Cleveland mission, this began in August 2011. “It’s a very effective and helpful program to get them started,” says President Michael L. Vellinga.

Since last October, his office has been preparing for more missionaries who will start arriving in the spring—30 in March alone. “There will be some 18- and 19-year-olds in the group and more sisters than we’ve had—and there are more to come.”

The Cleveland mission is not the only one preparing to grow. Many of the Church’s existing 347 missions will swell from an average of 170 missionaries to 250. New missions will eventually be created as needed, in accordance with local laws and where missionaries will be safe and productive.

Anticipating the Rewards
In the weeks following the age announcement, major U.S. media outlets speculated on benefits to the policy. The New York Times commented that “while the change has significant implications for men, for Mormon women it could rewrite the narratives of their lives.”

The Wall Street Journal agreed. “Now . . . opportunities for growth and service available to young women aren’t significantly different from those available to men at similar ages.” The article expressed a hope for the extinction of the stereotype that “women serving missions at age 21 were . . . doing so because they hadn’t found serious romantic prospects.”

Latter-day Saint members and opinion leaders have also celebrated—in conversation, blogs, radio, and print media—the prospect of more young people serving missions. They describe mission-acquired life skills now within reach of more youth: confidence, communication, conflict resolution, teamwork, and leadership. They see stronger future LDS marriages and parents when both partners first serve alongside the opposite sex in spiritual endeavors.

But the most powerful change many Latter-day Saints anticipate in these outgoing missionaries is spiritual. “The compressed spiritual experience of being a missionary builds faith, gospel knowledge, testimony, and the ability to fulfill callings,” says Dahneke. He sees benefits to having this experience a bit sooner and rejoices that more women will have this experience, period. “Give those experiences to more women, and it’s going to strengthen them, and their families, and the Church as a whole.”

Looking to the Future
While it’s exciting to anticipate how the young missionaries will grow, it’s equally exciting to realize how the announcement has affected other members of the Church.

“The youth [in the Kirtland stake] are talking about missions a lot more and showing their excitement a lot more,” reports Dahneke. “For those who were planning to serve anyway, the lowered age means the opportunity to serve is that much closer. They have realized that they need to be ready to go [or at least to consider the question] much sooner. But we’re also getting the attention of those who weren’t excited about it or hadn’t considered serving—they’re getting caught up in this mission fever, too.”

For parents and youth, he says, “This puts a whole different perspective on Seminary, Duty to God, and Personal Progress.” Many parents are taking a closer look at the quality of gospel instruction in the home. They are turning more frequently to Preach My Gospel for family home evening lessons and to resources like The Power of Everyday Missionaries by Clayton M. Christensen. The feeling among many parents echoes Dahneke’s desire: “We’re trying to have them be as prepared as possible.”

Bennett, who plans to submit her papers in April and leave sometime this summer, feels ready to go. In fact, she can hardly contain her enthusiasm: “Let’s just say, the Lord definitely knew what He was doing!”

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