A WORD ABOUT MORMON MISSIONARIES
Like more than a million others, I have been a Mormon missionary.
I have opened an envelope from Salt Lake City and learned where fate and a call from God would send me.
In my case, it was to the Indian reservations of the Southwest. For others, it has been most corners of the world. Ultimately, it will be every corner of the world.
I was 19, an age that, for more than 50 years, has been the age at which young men went out to proclaim their religion. But that, we learned over the weekend, is the old way.
The new way is to move up the age of eligibility to 18. If a young man is 18, and has graduated from high school, and is otherwise worthy, he can be called and sent on a mission.
A two-year mission.
Known to most as young men walking down the sidewalk dressed oddly in white shirts and ties, or knocking on the door to talk religion, Mormon missionaries have been part of life for more than 180 years.
But this isn’t about the past, it’s about the future, and the impact of the eligibility announcement at the Mormon church’s recent General Conference. Paired with the new age for young men is a similar change for women. Whereas women have previously been able to apply to be missionaries at 21, they now can do so at 19.
Both changes are intended to increase the total number of missionaries sent out. Though some 65,000 missionaries labor around the world, the church and its leaders feel a need for more – many more. It is a big world, and there is much to be done.
So, what is the impact of this?
First, it seems likely that the greatest percentage of additional missionaries will be female. Moving the age of eligibility from 21 to 19 changes the dynamic of female missionary service significantly.
Mormons are a marrying people, and young women may feel a strong cultural desire to marry. In part because of this, going on a mission has come to be seen by some young ladies as a Plan B. If a young lady isn’t married by 21, she might decide to go on a mission, almost as a consolation.
Those who feel a strong desire to go on a mission can be torn between the wish to be married and the wish to go teach the gospel. What the move from 21 to 19 does is allow young women to be missionaries without unduly delaying either courtship or marriage.
It is quite possible that that move will open a flood gate of worthy young Mormon women who want to march forth with their brothers. In that regard, this policy could do much to achieve its stated goal.
Among young men, the only likely net increase would be those young men who are worthy and willing at 18, but lose interest or eligibility by the time their 19th birthday rolls around.
Whatever number that increase turns out to be, it will be a welcome addition.
Many have speculated on the impact of this on Mormon collegiate athletes. Heretofore, young Mormon athletes have gone to college a year, until their 19th birthday, then left for two years to be missionaries. Upon their return, they rejoin their teams and try to get back in playing shape. This phenomenon has been significant to individual athletes, and colleges in Utah, but isn’t particularly important, and the new policy shouldn’t have a negative impact, and may actually be beneficial – putting all four years of a player’s eligibility together.
The natural question is: Can young men who are 18 serve as well as those who are 19? Is there too much of a trade off in maturity? Can effectiveness be diminished by sending out to preach the gospel lads who may be only weeks or months out of high school?
Well, the year between 18 and 19 can be a monumental one, in terms of personal development and maturity. It is in many ways the first year of adulthood.
But, if we’re honest, 19-year-olds aren’t the most mature people in the world, and they seem to have done alright decade after decade. So it’s reasonable to expect that 18-year-olds will also be blessed with the ability to rise to the occasion.
Nonetheless, it might pay for parents and even the church to emphasize and teach gracious conduct and good manners. It takes a special young man to be able to come into someone’s home and courteously and appropriately conduct himself, and it would be good to increase the percentage of such young men in the missionary corps.
Further, the old practice of going to college the year before a mission call and taking a missionary preparation course to get up to speed is going to be less likely to happen. That means that Mormon high schoolers who hope to be missionaries – boys or girls – will need to be more diligent Seminary students and better gospel scholars. They will need to live more faithfully and worthily, and be able to transition quickly from the carefree fun of high school to the serious work of the mission field.
The change will seem meaningless to the outside world, and is ultimately truly minor to all. But it is a change, and it will change a key milestone of young Mormon life.
And like all changes, it will be best navigated if it is embraced, and its newnesses made strengths, not pitfalls.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2012