NPR Heralds the Missionary-Age Change

I’m not sure why I haven’t commented on the change to Mormon missionary-age requirements, but hearing NPR’s take on it got me thinking about it, and as anyone who has read my blog knows, I rarely pass up an opportunity to express my opinion. (National Public Radio is the public radio service of the United States.)

Since 1960 young LDS men have been eligible to serve missions at age 19, while women had to wait until they were 21. As of the recent LDS general conference, the age requirement has been changed to 18 for young men and 19 for young women, so long as they have graduated from high school or its equivalent. This is a pretty big change for a number of reasons.

First the obvious difference is that young men can enter missionary service directly after high school, avoiding that strange sort of limbo between graduation and a mission, when you know you are supposed to be getting on with your life, but you can’t really do that until you know where and when you will serve your mission. As I mentioned in my book, Heaven Up Here, I graduated from high school when I was 17, so I had more than a year before I could leave on my mission. During that year, I worked two summers and attended three semesters of college, but I felt like I was just biding my time before my mission. My heart really wasn’t in school–and it showed in my grades–and I worked mostly to save money for my mission.

So in this respect, it’s a good thing for young men who are planning on serving missions. It will still disrupt education and work, but perhaps less so. On the other hand it will probably make it more difficult for some young men to save enough money to serve missions (they go at their own expense, with the church picking up the tab only for training and travel to and from the assigned mission), so less-affluent missionaries may have to delay their missionary service until they have the financial means to serve.

But NPR’s focus was on the lowering of the age at which female missionaries can serve to 19. In my view this is a much more momentous change, particularly because I know how Mormon culture has traditionally looked on “sister missionaries.”

When I was a college student and missionary back in the early 1980s, relatively few women served missions, as the church did not encourage them to serve, and most definitely did not create the expectation that boys had growing up that they would serve missions. The President of the Church in my youth, Spencer W. Kimball–whom we considered a prophet–made it clear that serving a mission was a commandment for young Mormon men:

“The question is frequently asked: Should every young man fill a mission? And the answer has been given by the Lord. It is ‘Yes.’ Every young man should fill a mission. …

“… Every man should also pay his tithing. Every man should observe the Sabbath. Every man should attend his meetings. Every man should marry in the temple” (“When the World Will Be Converted,” Ensign, Oct. 1974, p. 8).

Reading through President Kimball’s talk, I notice that there is not a single mention of women being involved in converting the world. That wouldn’t have crossed his mind, I would think, as it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me, either. In those days there were very few sister missionaries, and in my mission in Bolivia, most were serving nonproselytizing welfare missions.

The attitude a lot of people had then was that women served missions if they were 21 and had no prospects of marriage, for marriage was supposed to be the focus of young women, not missionary service. As the NPR reporter put it

At age 21, a woman is nearly finished with college, and historically there’s been pressure to marry rather than set out on an 18-month mission, which is optional for both men and women.

Sister missionaries were considered almost like old maids at 21. I know a sister missionary who despaired at 22 that she would probably never get married because it was getting too late. When I was in the Missionary Training Center, a sister missionary announced in our “culture class” that she was serving because she thought it would help her find a husband.

Over the last 30 years or so, it has become more socially acceptable for women to serve mission. No longer were sister missionaries considered spinsters-in-training at 21, but rather as a valuable part of the missionary force. Consequently, more young women had begun to plan on serving missions, and it became common to hear teenage girls talking about their plans to serve a mission when they were old enough. The shift in age requirements may reflect the church’s acknowledgment of this cultural trend.

National Public Radio (the public radio service of the United States) covered the story and rightly concluded that it signaled a big shift in attitudes towards women serving missions. It’s pretty clear to me that the church has decided that having more missionaries is at least as important, if not more, than marrying women young, and that is an unprecedented change.

In LDS theology, marriage between a man and woman is essential to exaltation in the highest level of the celestial kingdom (the Mormon expression for “heaven”). Indeed God is God because He is married. He is literally our Heavenly Father, who is married to a Heavenly Mother–together they are God and have spiritually begotten all human beings. For the leaders to  encourage young women to delay marriage in favor of missionary service thus has theological implications.

NPR interviewed a young woman, Hannon Young, who is a freshman at church-owned Brigham Young University (my alma mater), who was understandably emotional about the change.

“I wanted to go on a mission since I was 16,” she says. “And the thought of waiting two more years was really difficult for me. So, it was such exciting news.”

She is one of the rising generation that not only sees missionary service as a positive thing, but also has been planning on serving.  Her mother, Jane, opined

“I do think what it allows is for women — Mormon women — to have it all,” she says.

That may be a bit of an overstatement, but clearly the church’s view of the role women play in the church has changed.

Jane says the new policy represents a philosophical shift in how Mormon women are viewed by the church — and by themselves.

“I think women will see themselves differently,” she says.

Hannon agrees.

“I think I do, because it’s empowering to think that they want more women serving,” she says. “It feels like a call to really join the ranks.”

Yet the church has been careful to remind sisters that they do not have the same obligation to serve missions as the young men do. Current church president Thomas Monson said recently

A word to you young sisters: while you do not have the same priesthood responsibility as do the young men to serve as full-time missionaries, you also make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome your service.

The policy change suggests to me that the church is beginning to encourage young women to serve, rather than merely “welcoming” their service. But this does not signal a sudden movement toward equal status and treatment for LDS women. Only men are ordained to the priesthood, and women in the church are called and serve under the direction of priesthood leaders. That’s not going to change.

But what is the reason for the new policy? Perhaps some statistics will help explain. At the end of 1980, there were 29,953 full-time missionaries. By 1990, there were 43,651, an increase of 45%. By 2000, the ranks had grown to 60,784, or nearly 40% over the previous decade. However, in 2010, there were 52,225, a decrease of 14% in ten years.

But not only the number of missionaries has declined, but also the number of baptisms per missionary, which has dropped by half from a high of 8 per missionary in 1989 to between 4 and 5 in the last few years. Together, these two statistics show that missionary work in the LDS church has not kept up with membership growth as a whole. (Church membership increased from 7,760,000 in 1990 to 14,131,467, or nearly 100%.)

What has caused the decline in missionary numbers? I don’t have any idea. My guess is that a lot of young men have been dropping out of the church in that year between 18 and 19, which would make sense because it’s the first time most of them will have been on their own, either going to college or making money. Perhaps two years of unpaid missionary service seems less attractive. I honestly don’t know. Whatever the reason, the numbers are down, and I am assuming the church did some internal pilot programs to see if sending missionaries out at 18 decreased the number of young men opting out.

Given the decrease in baptisms per missionary, it seems logical that the church would try to increase the number of missionaries serving, which is where the young women come in. Most LDS young women will not get married before age 19 (the average is somewhere above 22 for women), so the pool of potential missionaries has increased significantly, and indeed, the article notes:

Some 4,000 young women applied in the two weeks since the announcement. Overall, applications have quintupled — and fully half of them are women. Until now, only about 20 percent of missionaries have been female.

Given the total number serving in 2011, there were 11,000 young women serving as missionaries, or 20%.  Assuming that the number of young men stays the same, and I would bet it will increase, if young women constitute 50% of missionaries, that would add some 33,000 missionaries, for a total of around 88,000, or a 60% increase.

In the end, the new policy doesn’t so much reflect a change in status for women but simply indicates a need the church has for more missionaries. And who knows? Maybe young women make more effective missionaries than do their male counterparts, so we may see an increase in converts per missionary.

I’m happy for those young women who wish to serve as missionaries. My daughter is thrilled, though I have reminded her that this means she has less time to save up for her mission. Unlike the stake president the article quotes, I don’t envision a big increase in mission “romances.” Of course, I married a sister missionary, so who am I to talk?

5 Responses to NPR Heralds the Missionary-Age Change

  1. I think part of the reason for this change is the change in the average marriage age for women. Nationally, I believe it’s now in the later twenties for women, and the Mormon rate has crept higher too, although not as high.

    In other words, if the average age for Mormon women to marry was still 19-20, they wouldn’t have changed the missionary age to cut into those years. But since it’s now more like 22, we may as well put them to work in the mission field before they get married, since they’re going to delay marriage anyway, on average.

  2. pollypinks says:

    That stuff from the earlier Ensign was ludicrous. Not every man is physically capable of performing mission work, nor keeping the sabbath, for that matter. And there are people out there living like paupers because of the 10% tithing rule.

  3. […] that really scary subject, Mormon Culture. Folks are still blogging about the change in the missionary age requirement, and Runtu warned the sister missionaries to never “slap or poke an elder.” Steve is […]

  4. […] that really scary subject, Mormon Culture. Folks are still blogging about the change in the missionary age requirement, and Runtu warned the sister missionaries to never “slap or poke an elder.” Steve is […]

  5. mywalkawayfromfaith says:

    When I was working at the MTC as an instructor a few years back the standard (if not official) explanation for the decline in missionaries over the past decade was the weeding out of “unworthy” potential missionaries due to the raise the bar policy. That explanation makes sense to me, but it would take a year-by-year analysis to know with more certainty. It doesn’t explain though the decline in baptisms per missionary. That was an issue we talked about a lot at the MTC. People expected raise the bar to increase the number of average baptisms per missionary by creating a “higher quality” missionary force. Maybe the “unworthy” missionaries were actually the most effective at getting baptisms.

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