Changing Missionary Age: Pros and Cons from a Feminist Perspective

Posted by on October 6, 2012 in missionary work, women | 37 comments


This morning during General Conference we learned that a new policy is in place for age of missionary service. Men can now go at 18 and women can now go at 19. What are the implications of such a change in policy? Longtime Mormon feminist Kay G has some ideas of possible pros and cons of the change.

Advantages

  • A small step toward more equal view of women in the church
  • If the new policy does produce marriages between missionaries serving together, it will be a good thing that wife/husband will have shared a formative experience and had comparable opportunities for religious/spiritual experience. (Every missionary companion I had (plus me) married a fellow missionary and those I’m still in touch with have good marriages). Corollary, thinking 40 years down the road, wouldn’t it be nice if both spouses spoke the language if called to serve in a foreign country?
  • A fairly big difference toward encouraging women to serve.
  • Men may come to view women as more equal/similar in experience and see them more as partners?
  • Many men change their interest/major after a mission, going in a different direction than they thought at 18. Good for women to have this maturing time too.

Cons

  1. No gap in church programming for either gender – but plenty of returned missionaries of both sexes do a lot of changing in attitudes and beliefs post mission.
  2. Young women can fulfill their dream of getting married before 21 AND serve a mission, so even more pressure on both women and men to marry young.
And I’ll point out another possible con, from the perspective of investigators. Do sisters who are 21-23 add a much needed maturity to the mission field? Perhaps those two years really make a difference in terms of nuance and maturity when interacting with investigators?
What are your thoughts about the pros and cons of this change in policy?

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37 Comments

  1. As far as marriage, I thought it would have the opposite effect of sending the message that marriage and childrearing is not the only valuable way that young women can contribute to the church. Not to mention, removing the stigma that being a returned sister missionary sometimes brings.

    • Yes! Maybe the YW program will now have to be turned into at least a part-time missionary prep program. I had absolutely no mission prep in YW in the 1990′s–in fact, once I began to see if there were any scriptures given in lessons or any doctrine (none were, for months and month in a row). Making better use of the YW program to teach real gospel truths rather than a lot of the fluffy stuff (such as the official lesson on writing letters to your missionary boyfriend) that they previously or currently have. Also, seminary should become more doctrinally rigorous, which is a great thing in my opinion.

      • I’d love to see the YW taught temple prep without shoving marriage down their throats at the same time, preparing them to serve in the world and church as more than simply wives/mothers. I hope this will be a byproduct!

      • Have you seen the new YM/YW/Youth SS curriculum we’ll be using next year? The YM and YW will be having essentially the same lessons, with more focus on Gospel teaching – looks like less “fluff” to me.

        The lesson outlines: https://www.lds.org/youth/learn?lang=eng

        The news article about it:
        http://www.lds.org/church/news/church-announces-new-youth-curriculum-for-2013?lang=eng

  2. I think this is an interesting change. And I think it could be very helpful if teens don’t have to try to take a break in the middle of school, especially since some people loose credits or their place in schools.

    I do not however see this as a step towards equality however. The status quo as remained the same; the age is just younger. Women are still not serving at the same age as men and are still serving for less time. They will still not serve in leadership positions in missions. The fact that the age gap is now one rather than three doesn’t change much in my mind. It almost feels like a slap in the face to me; they made a change that could have put men and women on more of an equal footing in this area, and they deliberately chose not to. It’s no longer a tradition or an old policy. It is a new policy that continues to divide men and women. They chose to keep that division, and that makes me angry.

    • In the press conference, Elder Holland fielded a question about why the age difference (still) and why not lengthen the term of service for women. His answer was (basically), that we felt we need to make one major change at a time and this is the first. He then said, “One miracle at a time.” While the concerns about division are very valid, I did appreciate that he didn’t dismiss it as a non-issue. He also gave a very heartfelt plea for more Sisters. It did go a long way in assuaging my concerns.

      • I guess I just don’t see how going from 21 to 19 was fine but 21 to 18 would have been an insurmounable hurdle. I’m glad the issue was left open for the future.

  3. It’s certainly going to reduce the “You’re not married yet? Well, I guess you could serve a mission” stigma. I would have loved the next sentence to be “We feel a greater need for cooperation and co-responsibility among our young missionaries, and feel inspired to open mission leadership positions to sisters” instead of “We reaffirm that missionary work is a priesthood duty.” Overall, though, I’m thrilled.

    But as Peggy Fletcher Stack noted, next year’s sophomore class at BYU is going to be awfully thin.

  4. Oh! And Caroline, your 40-years-down-the-line perspective is brilliant. I think this is going to change church culture in some ways that we don’t expect.

    • Hi Libby,
      I wish I could take credit for that one. :) Actually, everything in italics I am quoting from Kay G, who did serve a mission about 40 years ago.

      • And I’ve seen some less than ideal mission experiences for senior couples among my friend when the wife cannot understand the language and feels even less able to contribute as a full partner in the assignment (I say “even less” because in any case it’s the husband who is priesthood leader in all mission activities).

  5. I’m trying to just be excited rather than over-analyzing. But then I wouldn’t be me!

    I like that sisters won’t have to wait for so long when they’ve made their minds up.

    I, like others have said, hope that it will get rid of the “she couldn’t get married so she just went on a mission” thing. But I’m not sure – we’ll have to see.

    But. (There always seems to be at least one!)

    The two things that I’m concerned about are really tied to my own experience (I got married quickly after returning from my mission, to my also-returned-missionary husband who had been home for about a year.) and I don’t know that they’d be the same for everyone else. First, I’m afraid that this could lead to even YOUNGER average marriage ages for LDS young people, given that they’ll get home sooner, fully armed with the “go get married” advice that so many mission presidents give. Second, I know that if I would have had only 1 year of college under my belt when I married, rather than lacking only student teaching after my mission, I’d not have gone to graduate school (what with having two babies within four years of being married). As it was I could do it, since I had one baby during MA coursework and one during PhD coursework. But if I’d had them during my undergrad, I don’t know if I’d have been brave enough to attempt further degree programs. I wonder if this will mean fewer women in graduate programs??

    • Utah already has the highest female college drop-out rate. I wondered if this change will keep even more women from college, as a very viable track will now be high school + (a few months) + mission + marriage.

      • I had the same thought, Alisa! I thought it was interesting that the change for males included the requirement that the males had completed high school. Although it is “just” high school, I like that there was an emphasis on maturity- if only symbolised by finishing high school– as a prerequisite for males.

        As for females, I can only see this as encouraging more women to serve missions as well as obtain an education. Certainly the requisite for females to be graduates of high school would also apply, though it was not noted as female-specific.

        There are issues at hand to be sure, but I think– considering President Monson’s intro, that this is embracing a better international perspective in church culture and policy.

        An additional thought I had was in regard to mission financing. In my singles ward back-in-the-day, because going on a mission was considered a priesthood requirement, wards and stakes were readily happy to finance the missions of males, but disregarded females who wanted to serve, but were unable to self-fund their missions. So- does this mean that church (local?) policy is to also finance female missionaries without hesitation? That would be a great symbol of equality, so I hope so.

        As well, I have heard a number of women say that they would have served a mission were the age requirment only 19 at the time they were 19. Might be an interesting poll to consider….

  6. Personally, I LIKED being two years older than my male peers while serving a mission. It made it easier to laugh off their shenanigans as the foibles of a bunch of little brothers rather than get irked by them. And I think I was a better missionary at 21 than I would have been at 19. Since it worked out well for me the discrepancy in age requirements hasn’t ever bothered me.

    What does concern me is that that already, on the net, I hear people interpreting this new change as “it’s best to go when you are 18 and if you wait until 19 you’re procrastinating” when the press conference (and some of the remarks from the conference session) makes it very clear that 18 is an *option* to consider if you feel you need to be an exception to the “wait until you are at least 19″ standard.

    And the press conference makes it clear that offering that option is not off the table for sisters, nor is extending their service to 24 months.

    However, personally, at the end of 18 months of mission work I was so totally exhausted that I was grateful that that was how long I had signed up for. Mission work is physically very hard work, or at least it was in the country where I served. I don’t know about domestic missions. The current full-time sisters in our ward seem far perkier than I remember ever being. But then they have cars, laundromats, paved roads and air conditioning.

    • I sometimes wish we could all trade mission experiences mind-chip cards. I am sure you did not wish to be offensive, but there is a pretty strong anti-stateside vibe that maybe you only really get to enjoy if you did serve stateside. It’s easier, it isn’t the real deal etc. I too was ready to come home after 18 months. We did have cars. We didn’t get to drive them all the time of course, since we shared with Elders, rode bikes, had limited miles. We did have air conditioning and laundromats. On the other hand it made my physically ill to hear about all the wonderful cultural experiences my friends had while I enjoyed the rowhouses of a large Eastern city. I wanted to reach across thousands of miles and slap the Elder in Brazil who wrote my ward to lament the first week he hadn’t committed someone to Baptism, eight months in. Missionary work is hard for everyone, and every mission has merit. I was so deeply depressed and discouraged by the time I came home I seriously doubt I could have continued. I saw my only baptism in my first area and spent the rest of the time knocking out each area, sometimes more than once. It’s hard. It’s hard for everyone. The sisters here do seem perkier, but we’re seeing their game face, not what’s inside. I’ll bet I looked quite a bit perkier than I felt.

      • Good points and very true. I did not mean to short-change domestic missions. I apologize. In the future I will be a bit more careful to avoid off-hand remarks that can sound dismissive in my comments .

      • Thanks MB. I realize the offense was probably not intended and I appreciate the apology.

  7. BYU will be a different place, especially if many of the young men take the opportunity to go when they are 18. If they do this, then when they eventually come to BYU as freshmen, they will already be RM’s, which could potentially be bad and/or creepy for all of the 18 year old young women who might just want to date without feeling marriage pressure. I also wonder how it will change the dynamics of the classes, or if one gender might have greater advantage because of the discrepancy in age.

    On the bright side: it has the potential of making the sophomore year less awkward for women at BYU. I still remember that first week, sitting in my apartment with my female roommates, when it dawned on us that all of our male friends were gone. Except for one…which leads me to my next (I think) positive point.

    The variegated ages that men might enter service has the potential of making BYU less awkward for males who choose, or are unable to serve, for any reason. (Including many good reasons.) Someone very dear to me was in that position as a sophomore male at BYU, while I was on my own mission. He wrote me extremely tender, tear-jerking letters about the excruciating “minutes” and judgement he felt from others when he told him his age: 20. If people are able to go at 18 AND 19, it might, just might, remove the immediate thoughts of, “Why would a 20 year old male be at BYU? He couldn’t have served a mission, and that MUST mean that he’s unrighteous!”

    For this person that I love, and others like him: I certainly hope so.

  8. More personally still, because of my own mission experience and initial decision to go, I am grateful (though a tad bit jealous) that they lowered the age for sisters. Firstly, I believe that its ultimate result will be more women in the mission field, which I view as a positive. Second, I believe that this greater number of sisters serving may come about with lessened pressure to attempt marriage prospects first, which I view as an Equally positive thing.

    I wrote about my experiences previously, including the language that we saw a bit today (though admittedly softened), that women are “welcome” but not necessarily “invited” : http://www.the-exponent.com/its-not-easy-being-green-neither-is-it-easy-being-a-full-time-female-missionary-for-the-lds-church/

  9. Personally I would have loooooved to serve at 19 instead of 21. Now I’m selling sister missionary clothing at sistermissionaryclothes.com and hope to see a little boost in sales. :)

  10. I think it’s a great thing that policy that was different country to country is being standardized. And I think it’s great that it’s from the outside of US. I hope this will mean other policies that are different country to country, such as the sealing-wait after a civil marriage, will be standardized and no longer be a year for those in the U.S. and treated like a punishment. The idea that the experiences of the members outside the US is changing policies everywhere is a huge step in how our culture will continue to change. I’m excited for it.

    • I had this same thought today. It’s good to see the inspiration coming from somewhere other than the Utah culture.

  11. I think it will bring good and perhaps less good changes. It’ll be interesting to see how our culture changes.
    1) I think it will be great for our YW. Whenever I talk to them about a mission they always say they haven’t ever really thought about it, as if that decision doesn’t need thought until right before you make it. As a result, many women are not spiritually or financially as well prepared as they could be. I think it brings more immediacy to the thought.
    2) I’m not sure it will make as big a difference in age for sisters as we’re thinking. There are those (me included) who wanted to go from a young age. I wouldn’t have gone at 19, but I would have gone much sooner than I did, which was my 21st birthday. I spent some time thumb twiddling, just waiting to age. Lots of women aren’t like that though. More than half of the women in my mission were several years past 21, having come to the decision after a variety of life choices led them there. I think women will still, on average, be older than men since there is no stigma in waiting and no age cap.
    3) It’ll be interesting to see if it changes how women are treated in the field — on a pedestal for our innate quiet dignity, yet utterly ignored.
    4) It’ll be interesting to see if the marriage age is really affected. I thought age at marriage was in general going up anyway. Of course I never lived in Provo or went to BYU, but I only knew a handful who got married at 19 or 20, most were older than that. Maybe we can count on the mission-weirdness-detox to give an extra year or two in there?

  12. I am so happy that sisters can now serve at 19. It was during my missionary service that Gordon B. Hinckley gave the talk when he said that they keep the minimum age of sisters at 21 so fewer women than men will serve and it was devastating to me. This change feels redemptive; like the brethren have since realized the value of sister missionaries and no longer wish to discourage women in the ways he described back then: http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1997/10/some-thoughts-on-temples-retention-of-converts-and-missionary-service?lang=eng

    Of course, it is still unequal. with men now allowed to leave at 18, but the age gap is smaller now, and I think it will be a lot easier for many women to serve with the new option of starting younger.

    I hope the church recognizes the opportunity to make come additional changes, now that it is likely that more sisters will be in the field:

    1. As I explained previously (http://www.the-exponent.com/its-not-easy-being-green-neither-is-it-easy-being-a-full-time-female-missionary-for-the-lds-church/comment-page-1/#comment-114935) when the ratio of female missionaries is higher, the sexist policy that makes only male missionaries eligible for missionary leadership positions such as district leader, zone leader and assistants to the president causes even more problems. This is a great opportunity to nip potential problems in the bud by opening all missionary leadership positions to missionaries of either gender.

    2. More sister missionaries means more need for female leadership. Currently, all mission presidents must serve with their wives, but these women have no official leadership role. This is a great time to start calling the couple together as mission co-presidents.

  13. I agree that lowering the age at which both men and women can serve is a necessary practical step. Men from quite a few other countries (Britain, for instance) have begun their missionary service at age 18 for decades now, so the consistency for men is a good thing. That means that lowering the age for women is necessary as well, just so things look more equitable.

    That said, as I have mentioned on facebook and elsewhere, it took me several hours to figure out why the various conversations about this change bothered me so. it’s because most of them don’t even conceive of the real source and result of inequality in missions.

    Personally, I didn’t mind waiting an extra couple of years to serve. I minded not being able to baptize my own investigators and having to submit to the authority of stupid naive boys.

    I know my mission was a while ago, but still, it’s shocking to me that it took me several hours to think through the way I ranked the problems of my mission. Having to wait? Not much of one. Lack of real authority or power or respect for women? Pretty near the top. And these changes won’t do a thing address that.

  14. I’ll be fascinated to see whether or not more women receiving their endowments in preparation for missionary service instead of marriage effects things. How will the temple covenants resonate in the ears of more women who are not days/weeks away from having a husband? Does more women being endowed at 19 up the ante on the modesty discussion (since many single women will be going through their dating years wearing garments)? The ramifications of this change seem to extend well beyond the question of missionary service.

  15. I’m wondering if the age lowering has more to do with the fact that the church is trying to stem the flow of young singles(particularly sisters) who are leaving the church.

    • As a “midsingle”, I’m wondering the same thing! Though a step in the right direction, the lack of equality stings more than the lessening age gap for mission service. This new change also leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it is such a reminder that many age rules in the church are flexible and seem to be more of a business decision (how to manage the numbers more effectively) than a spiritual decision. If it were spiritual, I know that there wouldn’t be a sexist aspect to it at all.

      Also, when its clear that there are more single temple worthy (or simply Mormon) women than men, isn’t it ridiculous to not address the idea of marrying outside the Church? If I’ve “missed the boat”, is it really better to be single my whole life than to marry outside the Church? It seems to me that the general idea is to marry a Mormon or leave the Church altogether.

      • I have a very successful (lawyer) woman friend who married outside the church. It was a very difficult decision for her because her family is very entrenched. But, It has worked out very well for her and her husband is a great guy. You should marry who you want to marry without any of the guilt. The idea that a man can’t be good if he isn’t Mormon is just ridiculous.

        I do know what your saying though. I’m 48. I’m no longer a member, not just because of the single status, but, many other things, like history, like bullying, like having no say, like being tired of listening to the same hurtful messages over and over again and members not willing to concede that these messages are indeed hurtful.

  16. My biggest hope for the change is a de-emphasis on marriage for YW.

    It’s weird to think how this could’ve effected our lives when we were 19, right? I’m already reading many women talk about having had to choose b/w dh and mission at 21, and how they would’ve gone on a mish earlier had they had the option earlier.

    My older sister and I studied abroad our junior year of college (Germany and Italy) and were subsequently sent to our respective study abroad countries for our missions. So, I feel that my studies influenced where I was sent on my mish (although I know this is not always the case–many men/women know a foreign language and don’t get sent to that country). It’s weird for me to think what would’ve happened to my life if I had gone on a mish at 19–it really would’ve changed the direction of my studies, I’m sure. (Not for the worst, just different.)

    Overall, I think it’s much better for a woman to interrupt her studies as a sophomore–get some life experience–and then really figure out what to study or what profession to choose.

  17. I haven’t read through all of the comments, so I’m sorry if someone already posted this. After the announcement, I wondered a little bit about why the ages were still staggered. One advantage is that most men and women who know each other well are staggered entering the MTC. I know high school friendships extend beyond a students own senior class, but most associations a student has are with all those in his or her grade. Maybe it’s a positive thing not to have an entire senior class enter the MTC together. Not saying this is the reason, but it’s a thought.

  18. I think flexibility is always good, so as long as going at 18 (and 19 for women) is an option and not a tacit requirement, I think it’s OK. Though personally I will encourage my kids to wait until they are older if they choose to serve missions. I don’t want my babies so far away from me at the very young age of 18!

  19. I’m reading all the comments again, and for the life of me(please don’t take this to be snarky) I fail to see how lowering the age of missionaries makes any great equalizing of the genders?

    • it doesn’t. Women still leave a year later; they still serve six months less; they still can’t baptize anyone they might convert; they still are not called as mission presidents; and, unless I am very much mistaken, they still don’t interview potential converts (even when it would really help to have a woman asking another woman questions about things like their sexual histories. Any idea what it’s like for a 43-year-old woman to be asked questions she is expected to answer about her sex life by a 19-year-old boy?).

      The excitement with which this small gesture has been greeted is evidence of how impoverished and devalued we really are. Because we still have so very, very far to go, we feel like it’s a big deal when the boundaries of our second-class status are moved ever so, ever so slightly.

      • Any idea what it’s like for a 43-year-old woman to be asked questions she is expected to answer about her sex life by a 19-year-old boy?).

        Well, as a matter of fact yes, I do, I’m a 48 year old woman who was asked by a man who is of no relation to her, questions, of which were absolutely none of his business, it doesn’t matter the age of the man asking. Its that he’s asking and he’s not at a trained professional

      • Yeah. The fallout from a couple of baptismal interviews gone awry was TREMENDOUS. Very traumatic from the woman in the interview–and not a whole heck of a lot of fun for the two sister missionaries who had to try to clean up the mess afterward.

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