Its not easy being green. Neither is it easy being a full-time female missionary for the LDS church.

Posted by on June 16, 2012 in Gender roles, leadership, mission, missionary work, priesthood, women | 58 comments

Before I was born, but after I was conceived, my father had a dream. In this dream, he knew that I would be a great missionary. And because of this knowledge, (and because he didn’t see me in the dream) he thought that I would be a boy.

To my mom’s credit, she reminded my dad, “Girls can be great missionaries too,” and to my dad’s credit, he was not disappointed when I did indeed turn out to be a girl. He also never let go of his impression that I would be a great missionary. Perhaps because of this story, perhaps because of hearing his (and my brothers’) mission stories, I grew up sincerely wanting to serve a mission.

It wasn’t until high school that someone first told me that I shouldn’t go on a mission because I was a girl. The words were spoken by my Young Woman’s President, with the explanation that men were to go on missions and women were to get married. My best friend and I were upset, because we were adamant that we were going, but we brushed it aside, letting it add flame to our desire.

When I became old enough that the choice to serve was no longer a dream but a reality, I understood that it fully rested with me. Because all young men were asked to go, all young men could rely on the call of duty, and know for a certainty that they were doing the right thing in terms of our religion. I had no such surety. What I had instead was a desire, and a feeling that it was the right thing for me.

Church teachings towards women were ambiguous, with official statements usually saying something like, “While all young men are commanded to serve a full-time mission, the most important mission for young women is marriage. Still, we know that some young women will wish to serve a mission. They may do so as long as they do not have immediate marriage prospects. Current women serving do a wonderful job, and are often more effective than the men. Such service will make women better wives, mothers, and leaders.”

Confusing, right? Men are told that they need to go, unequivocally. Women are told that they don’t need to go, and shouldn’t go, but that if they choose to they do great work and it makes them better at the one thing (mothering) that they are told is their mission to do.

At the time I was free of all “immediate marriage prospects,” and was soon called to Northern California to be a full-time missionary. When I arrived new questions arose from my gender. The most important (and personally pressing) of these questions was: Did I have the same authority to preach as the (much more numerous) young men? They held positions of leadership, and (for the most part) I did not. They had the Priesthood, and I did not.

The answer came to me, simply, from the mouth of a woman. She was not then, but until very recently, was the General President of the Relief Society. Her words: “Every elder and sister who receives a mission call is set apart to do the Lord’s work, and each is given authority to preach the gospel of Christ.” At the time, it was enough.

A few months ago (approximately 6 years after my mission service), I read an article examining the official LDS policies toward prospective female missionaries, over time. They have not changed very much since the 1890′s, and continue their mixed refrain that—in the words of the authors—women are “not invited, but welcome.” I am inclined to ask if women can truly feel welcome in a nearly all men’s club where they were not initially invited. The feminist in me is inclined to answer, “No.” The Mormon: “Maybe. It depends on the particular mission.” (My own was mostly wonderful. And welcoming.)

Regardless, I have a dream, that if my husband ever has a vision of a future baby being a great missionary, he will not need to be reminded that girls can also be great in that capacity, and that the baby (if so choosing, and whatever its sex) will one day be both welcome and invited.

Have others had similar experiences of support/non-support?

If you served a mission, how did you decide to go?

How did your female-ness (or male-ness) influence your mission experience?

Related posts:

58 Comments

  1. At the (very old?!) age of 23, I very much felt like I should serve a mission. My family went nuts. They immediately did the calculation in their heads and knew I would be close to or already 25 upon returning and thus decreasing my marriage opportunities. (yes, seriously). I listened to them. I didn’t go. It launched me into a depression of many many years. I got married at 37. It still hurts when I think about it. I would have been a great missionary.

    • Erin, this story breaks my heart a little bit. I am so sorry that you didn’t have the support and encouragement that you needed and deserved from your own family members. I experienced some limited opposition the year that I turned my papers in. From one person whose opinion didn’t matter to me (my single’s ward Bishop), and from one person whose did (my oldest brother and exemplar).

      The latter told me that sister missionaries were “depressed, ugly, or crazy,” and that I didn’t have to go, and so I shouldn’t go. He later ended up apologizing to me. And somehow I had had the good fortune to meet many wonderful (and happy, pretty, sane) return sister missionaries, studying my discipline of philosophy, no less! Without them I might have believed my brother.

      I went four months after turning 21. My MTC companion was 26. My trainer in California was 25. I felt like a young pup.

  2. I didn’t serve a mission because I was already past the age of missionaries when I converted. Plus, there’s the financial thing and even when I talked to the Bishop about possibly being supported by the Ward for a mission he nixed it. I always wonder if I had been male, would he have supported my desire to serve.

    • I’ve wondered about that too. I have a good friend who was a convert to the church and whose parents more or less disowned her for it (they have now reconciled). As a result she had no financial help with college or lodging, much less going on a mission. She moved in with my family (she was in college, I was still in high school) shortly before going and so was technically in my parents’ ward — she didn’t properly have a home ward having joined in the student ward. She was able to go in large part because she went around to several of the wealthiest families in the ward and explained her predicament, and they graciously and lovingly helped her pay for it — so yes the ward supported her, but not really. It wasn’t the generic ward mission fund, it was a commitment from ward members to her personally. I don’t know how it works if a man can’t pay, but I wonder if they send him out canvassing, or urge him to delay to earn money.

      • Not in my case (Served in Texas Dallas in 1995). I was sent on without having the funds, and I’m pretty sure used up whatever went through the general ward missionary fund. Course, I think my Bishop was just glad to have someone going on a mission from our ward.

    • Also heartbreaking. Also a question you shouldn’t have to have wondered about. I believe that anyone–female or male–who desires to serve should be supported and assisted if necessary.

    • There is no age limit for sister missionaries. My grandmother served as a single sister missionary when she was in her 50s or 60s. The age limit only applies to men (unless that’s changed recently).

      Also, many young men serving missions are supported by the general missionary fund in their home ward. I know that some young men do get help from extended family and/or friends and that some of my family members have supported some young men on their missions. I would hope that any woman wanting to serve a mission, especially a young single woman who does not have financial obligations, would be supported by her ward’s general missionary fund, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a policy in place disallowing that.

    • I know of at least one instance of a sister receiving complete financial support for her mission from a ward general mission fund (of my home ward), so I don’t think there are any policies against it.

  3. My decision to serve a mission was very well supported. My own mother served a mission and loved the experience. It was something that she wished would happen for all her children. As it turns out, my parents had three daughters (no sons) and all three of us have served missions.

    I believe my female-ness did influence my mission. Before I left, several male RMs told me not to be an annoying sister missionary. I guess that meant in order not to be annoying you must never question a leader’s (DL or ZL) judgement and follow everything he says to the letter. I felt that we were frequently less valued than the elders.

    There were only 14 sisters on my mission when I got there and we were all spread out in different areas. I had never felt so alone in my entire life. It was not easy “just being one of the boys” when we were treated so differently. The end of my mission was a different story. There were only six sisters left and we were all in one zone (for safety reasons). Those were the BEST times of my mission. I truly feel that my friendship and love with my companions are some of the best things I received from my mission.

    • “I felt that we were frequently less valued than the elders.” I understand this sentence, and empathize with this sentence.

      In my case, it was not felt from my Mission President (who I adored), or from his wife (who I adored even more, and was a strong, smart, brave lady), but from some of the Elders themselves. Mostly I felt that they didn’t know how to communicate to us effectively, or didn’t know how to help us or inspire us. Not all of this was their fault. Some of it was structural, because District Leaders, Zone Leaders, or Assistants could go on exchanges with other Elders, but could not go with us. Every night on the phone they would ask us how they could help us, and even though there were times I knew I needed help, what was I supposed to say to them? They were not allowed to help us even if they wanted to.

      When I started there were about 16 sisters in my mission, and about half of those were in the first city where I started, speaking the various languages. I shared an apartment with a few of them, so didn’t feel Quite so alone. Near the end of my mission the Sacramento Temple opened, so all of the sisters were moved close to the temple to serve every day during the open house. It was similarly the most beautiful time of my mission.

      • Reading over this again makes me realize that to be fully honest I need to add that had the sentence read, “I felt that we were frequently MORE valued than the Elders,” that I would have understand that as well.

        There were definite moments of both. In several of the wards I served in, I felt COMPLETE support from the members (including the leaders). I was also blessed to serve with Some very exceptional male missionaries, who treated us the way I like to be treated–meaning as a person.

    • And see, I *was* the annoying sister missionary. I told my district leaders when I thought they were wrong. When we were pretty sure that a particular investigator needed to hear something from another point of view, we did unauthorized splits with the other sister missionaries in our district. (Successfully, too, I should add.) When a zone leader told one of my companions that she was lazy and ineffectual, I called him on it. And (still my favorite) when my last zone leader nixed all of the good common-sense rules we’d put in place for working in our area (including not pursuing baptism for an ambivalent eight-year-old boy whose sisters were inactive members and whose parents weren’t supportive), I sat down with him and said, “Elder, I’d like to share a scripture with you,” and shared the good parts of D&C 121.

      I’m probably going to hell for all this, but it did make the mission at least tolerable.

      • This is awesome. I’m so glad you were there to talk sense into some of those other missionaries.

      • Libby – you and I are kindred spirits. I told the Elders “what for” on my mission too. They used to call me “sledge” because I was as subtle as a sledge hammer.

        I blame my earthly father. :) He raised up a whole bunch of lively feminist. And I think we make him proud.

  4. 1. The members of my family who are LDS were extremely supportive and excited for me and wrote to me faithfully. I turned 21 in the MTC. My father )(not-LDS) was very much against it and hostile to the entire idea. He did buy me a winter coat though. My boyfriend at the time was very very very against it. I can laugh now, but at the time it was hard. He told me he had prayed and was certain we should marry. He offered the old line about girls not going if they have marriage prospects to a righteous priesthood holder. My favorite line was “pretty girls with pretty dimples don’t serve missions” — right. Serving God is for the ugly ones.

    2. My decision to go. It had always been in the back of my mind through my teen years that this was a goal. Having the boyfriend (see #1) threw a wrench in that — it seemed so much easier just to marry him and not deal with the pain of breaking up and making the decision. I prayed and prayed, offering what I knew was the wrong answer (stay and marry) and had the most clear example in my whole life of a stupor of thought. I got my patriarchal blessing, and while it didn’t say the words “go on a mission, you ninny” I felt that it was pointing me in that direction. So I prayed again, with the “I’m going” decision and felt good. I read D&C 4 and it said “if ye have desires to serve God, ye are called to the work.” And I knew that meant me. So I went as soon as I could.

    3. Yes. It was hard. I almost slapped my district leader in the MTC when things went poorly in a practice discussion and his solution was that the fake investigator “just needed to hear it from a man.” I had heard all kinds of crap about how girl missionaries aren’t needed because they don’t have the priesthood and can’t baptize. I was very isolated, we were often the only companionship in our zone and were generally ostracized by the elders. Not always, but as a rule, yes. When we went out to eat as a zone they all crammed into a booth, leaving us to find a table by ourselves. Same at conferences — they “courteously” let the sisters go to the buffet first, then never sat at the table we chose. And then there is the implicit maleness of all conferences, workshops etc. Once we had a sisters conference and it was AMAZING. Finally we addressed issues the sisters cared about and weren’t the ignored or fake respected minority. So yeah, it is rough being a sister missionary. I’m still super glad I went, I just hope some day it is different. Our Bishop told all the Young Women they need to start preparing for missions — that is a good step I think. At least it is on the radar as a serious option, not as the consolation prize for not having dimples.

    • How fortunate that you didn’t end up married to a person who believed that pretty girls with dimples don’t serve missions!

    • On your 3: I received a letter from a female friend at the MTC a few months before I went. It said, “The Elders are immature and young, but bless their hearts, they try.” It seemed about right. (Though Some were young and not-immature.)

      About a year before that I found myself at the MTC to BE a fake investigator, because I already knew I wanted to go. I walked by a group of Elders to get to the right building, and heard one say, “She’s probably just here to see her boyfriend.” I was furious. And did not have a boyfriend, thank you very much. I just wanted to be a missionary too!

      We had one Sister’s Conference too. It was amazing, but part of me wishes we didn’t need a special conference for us, to address us.

      Kudos to your Bishop.

  5. Also the physical appearance expectations for sisters are utterly absurd. We had to have shoulder bags, because backpacks were too casual, but sisters couldn’t sling them across our chests, because it betrays the fact that we have two breasts, and not just a shelf. Shoulder injury, anyone? “You are the billboards of the church” “Don’t distract the Elders” Makeup classes in the MTC, workshops on “Gaps Thighs and Cleavage” in lieu of a real Relief Society… sigh. Be attractive, but don’t attract anyone.

    • “Be attractive, but don’t attract anyone.” Brilliant … doesn’t this pretty much sum up the dilemma of every LDS woman from the time she turns 12?!

    • Sister Missionaries serving now have no idea how lucky they are to not have to wear nylons. That was the single worst rule for me.

      And I agree that your phrase, “Be attractive, but don’t attract anyone,” is apt indeed. There could be a whole post on that, especially in light of this page: http://missionary.lds.org/dress-grooming/sister/

      “You can dress attractively without being immodest.”

  6. I loved my mission at the time. And I’ve gained lifelong friendships with incredible women (both companions and converts/ward members) that I never would have gained otherwise. A mission pushed and challenged me in ways that I think no other experience could have. But the more I look back on it the more those awesome memories are tempered by the patriarchy and weird Church culture I know see woven through all of those experiences. I also had a great mission culture and president for the most part — but even the most sister friendly mission is still never going to reach the level of full inclusiveness in what I think you’ve aptly termed as a “men’s club” but in all honesty felt a lot more like a “boy’s club” a lot of the time. And then there are aspects of missionary service — both culture and mandated life regimen — that are gender neutral that looking back I realize were INCREDIBLY unhealthy. I’m still glad I went, and still have a strong testimony of the principles I got to teach, but I don’t look back on it with such rose-colored glasses the further into my feminist awakening/LDS transition I go.

    As for support, my parents were absolutely thrilled I wanted to serve a mission … I think in part because they also knew that it was the right thing for me and partly because they were incredibly overprotective and didn’t want me to get married young. I had to go through two bishops before my mission papers were finalized — one in my parent’s homeward and one in my student ward. One of them actively discouraged me from going and told me there “were too many sisters” in his congregation deciding to go and he didn’t know where he had gone wrong. He told me “not to worry” because his own daughter had her call and “luckily” her husband came along just in time to save her from having to go. The other bishop was awesome and never made an issue of my gender either way, so I think it’s a mixed bag depending on the specific priesthood holder/YW leader.

    • The first thing my BYU ward Bishop did in our meeting was read a quote from President Hinckley about how women should not go on a mission if they had opportunity for marriage. I was a little upset, but even more surprised that this person who I expected to support me was actually somewhat discouraging. I then had to spend the next 10-15 minutes persuading my bishop that I did not indeed have any marriage prospects. My BYU Stake President was ultra supportive, and made up for my first bad experience. Which is to say that I think you are correct in that it may be a gamble, depending on the particular person.

  7. Oops…”I *now see woven…” not “I know see woven”

  8. I believe that most–certainly not all–church leaders are moving past the idea that women should marry before the wee age of 21. However, they continue to discourage women from going to keep the number of female missionaries small. I believe that the primary reason for wanting male missionaries to greatly outnumber female ones is because of the stupid ban on missionary leadership positions for female missionaries who serve in missions with male missionaries. If an equal number of male and female missionaries serve in an area, half of the missionaries there are disqualified from leadership because of their gender. There are a lot of missionary leadership positions, including district leaders, zone leaders, assistants to the president and office callings, plus special assignments as branch presidents in areas without any available local leaders, so in such a situation, almost half of the male missionaries in the area, nearly every senior companion, would need to hold a leadership position.

    In my own mission, a district was made up of 4-6 missionaries. In a district with two or four female missionaries, that meant that the only male senior companion in the area was automatically the district leader. I served in a mission with an intentionally higher-than-average ratio of female missionaries, so this scenario was the case in many areas. If women really did make up half the population of missionaries, almost every senior companion would need to serve in leadership, including many young men who would be woefully incompetent to supervise other people.

    So there are two ways to avoid this problem. The strategy the church has stuck with for years is to keep the number of female missionaries small. Of course, there is a much simpler and more obvious way to avoid such an issue. They could let women serve in leadership. Women in the all-female temple square mission have already demonstrated that women can supervise other missionaries just as well as male missionaries do.

    I do not think female ordination would even be necessary to make such a change. Currently, female missionaries routinely look for local members to baptize their converts. This creates a special bond between the new member and a local person, who will be around longer than any missionary anyway. Frankly, I don’t understand why male missionaries don’t do the same. Most other missionary leadership duties do not involve any priesthood ordinances at all, like collecting statistics, interviewing potential new members, and making sure that logistic problems are taken care of.

    • Really interesting ideas, April.

      It is particularly interesting that you highlighted ‘keeping the number of female missionaries small’ because that is something the authors of the article also pinpointed, and believed to be purposeful. I can no longer remember what their suggested reasons were.

      Your sentence, “If an equal number of male and female missionaries serve in an area, half of the missionaries there are disqualified from leadership because of their gender,” was also striking to me, because this is basically what happens in most wards. There are often more woman than men capable of being leaders in any given ward, making many of the best unqualified purely because of gender.

      But back to the missionary discussion: I also wonder if it is an official ban to not allow Sister Missionaries official opportunities for leadership, or if it is just culture. A comment on Lorie’s important post on Sacred Disobedience (http://www.the-exponent.com/sacred-disobedience-womens-call-to-ministry/) mentioned that in one sister’s non-temple square mission, her President did choose sisters to lead in those positions.

      Temple Square also shows us that it can be done, and can be done superbly.

      • Interesting about the Church purposely keeping the number of sister missionaries small. At first stab, my guess would be that this is at least in part because missions are hugely important socialization mechanisms. In missions, men learn to be Church leaders. They learn skills that help them rise through Church hierarchy. And because they’ve made the sacrifice of two years of their lives to this cause, they are less inclined to treat Church service casually when they return home. So since the Church desperately needs men (i.e. priesthood holders) to buy into the program in order for the Church to survive, it makes sense that they would want men more than women. Sadly, in the Mormon world, it’s just not as important for women to learn those Church/people skills that missions teach, since leadership opportunities for women in the Church are so limited.

  9. I so wanted to be a missionary and wold have been good at it, but my father said no and that I was smart enough! And now in my mid 60′s I still have that desire, but hubby is not worthy. Makes me wonder if I ever will. I would love to do a humanitarian mission. I’ve always found that sister missionaries were more effective in teaching than elders. Any ward or branch that I’ve lived in, sister missionaries were more welcomed than elders – as they worked harder and more effectively.

  10. I went on a mission right after I graduated from college at age 21 and a few months.

    My reasons for going were pretty complicated but boiled down to two major reasons. The first was that even though I didn’t call myself a feminist at the time, I always believed I could do anything that men could do and that I didn’t deserve any special treatment just for being female. I figured if men had to go, I shouldn’t get out of that responsibility just because I’m a woman. The second reason is that I saw how missionary service blessed the missionary’s family, and my family needed those blessings.

    I found that with the exception of one or two companions, the sisters didn’t like me and the elders did. I never complained about riding bikes, I didn’t cause any emotional drama, and I didn’t expect any different treatment than the elders. (My mission president favored the sisters, and the elders I served around respected that I didn’t accept favored treatment.)

    It wasn’t until I got back from my mission that I discovered that there’s a cultural stigma against women serving missions. I look younger than I am, and at YSA firesides, guys would casually tell me, in the course of asking me out, that they would never date a returned missionary. It was interesting to watch them backpedal when I told them that I’m a returned missionary.

    I’m 30 now, and among the group of people who were in my Laurel class, I’m the only returned missionary and the only one who hasn’t married. I sometimes wonder if those two are related. (Only two of them married before mission age. The rest married in their mid-20s.)

  11. Wow, I think that all these people’s attitude against sister missionaries have to be a cultural thing. I’d be interested to hear when everyone went and where. I wonder if it’s gotten better over the years or if it’s worse in certain missions. I went to the Czech Republic around 2000 and I didn’t have any of the problems other people have described. I never served around any sister missionaries but my companion and I never felt like we were excluded from the elders. We all got along well together and worked well together. I felt respect from them. I think b/c we were female we were more effective, people were more willing to listen to us and let us into their home.
    I do think that there is no reason sisters shouldn’t be allowed to be leaders in the mission!

    • I wish someone would do a study of this, and find out how much culture does play a role in expectations and thoughts about Sister Missionaries. I do suspect that it may just depend on the mission, Mission President, etc. I am genuinely glad that you felt support from those you served with, and I agree that there should be ample opportunity for both Sisters and Elders to lead. In some smallish to big ways, they do already exist: one is the simple fact that as a young woman, I attended Ward Council and Priesthood Executive Council. I had a voice, and I was listened to, and respected. The things I said had bearing on the ward actions.

  12. Since you asked, I went to Maryland, Baltimore 05-06. As I think about it, I got to serve in a leadership position in an odd way. My area was adjacent to the area of the mission president’s home (he lived on the wrong side of the dividing street) so I got to know him quite well. We even lived in the basement for a few weeks when we didn’t have an apartment. He decided to implement a call center, to be staffed by sisters, comparable to the one that the DC North mission had with their visitor’s center, only of course we didn’t have a visitor’s center in our mission. We went down to their mission to be trained one day on how to field calls, set up paperwork etc. Along with another sister (who curiously was not my companion — he wanted two senior companions doing it, so our junior companions were forever on splits with each other) we designed the bureaucracy, set up the program, started working and trained other sisters. I was in charge for about 8 weeks before going home and we set something like 100 new appointments in that time for our mission. So I would say it was a success (I don’t know if it carried on or not). It was an entirely sisters- run operation, I think because that is how DC North did it. We were also the only missionaries besides the APs who had cell phones (though that was in part because we did not have a land line). The APs were sort of gracious and sort of resentful, mostly because we were forbidden to be alone together, which meant we jockeyed for priority after hours in the mission office. Evenings are the best time to catch people at home, so we wanted to call, but they wanted to do their thing and we couldn’t both be there without senior couples. Who had priority?

  13. Also Rachel I swear we were at Girls Camp together or something. Are you from Lane County?

  14. As the father of three daughters, I encourage, to the point of an expectation, each one will serve a mission and be in grad school before considering marriage. My oldest, a 16 yr old, is indifferent about a mission at this point. My 12 yr old seems more interested. Hopefully they will all serve, but I couldn’t imagine telling any female who wanted to serve not to go, even if she were engaged. One can always get married, but one can’t always serve a mission. I’m in a YSA branch presidency and routinely encourage all of the YSAs, regardless of sex, to consider a mission.

    If there is a negative cultural stigma to having served a mission, then that is a good thing. The guys who are not interested in someone b/c she’s an RM are probably not worth wasting time on in any event. Thus, being an RM will serve to weed out people you don’t want to waste time with in a relationship anyway, to say nothing of eventually marrying. Kind of like the double earring thing weeding out simpletons and the self righteous who won’t date a girl with two earrings. You’re doing each other a favor by warding such clods off ahead of time.

    Some of these experiences are really unfortunate. Don’t let the narrowminded and insecure people talk you out of serving a mission.

    • I think you’re right on about RM status sort of being a litmus test for potential boyfriends. It certainly narrowed the field of potential mates, but the group that remained was a lot higher quality. I’m expecting girl #1 in a few months and I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I want to emphasize serving a mission. On the one hand, part of me really wants to take your approach and make it an almost-expectation … on the other hand, a mission is hard, has the potential for some real emotional damage, and so it’s not something I want my kids (daughters or sons for that matter) doing unless they really want to go. There were moments of indescribable joy on my mission, but it’s also where I experienced some of my lowest lows. I think you really need to want to be there to survive those and if my kids end up developing social anxiety like I do, it really may not be the best place for them and I don’t want them to feel any pressure to try and be something they’re not. But I feel like there are so many cultural influences (both in the church and out) that will actively push my daughter away from serving even if she wants to, that I worry if I don’t “push” or emphasize it really strongly she may not feel like she has the support to go. Hopefully things will be different 21 years from now and I won’t have to worry about finding that balance between support and pushing too hard?

      • My husband WANTED to marry a return missionary. Or a convert. He felt like they would be stronger in the gospel, or more committed somehow. I think that people can be those things without having served a mission or being a new convert. This is just to say, that there are men out there who are More not Less interested in women who choose to serve missions.

        I knew I wanted to serve a mission ever since I was a little kid, and my parents (and Dad) knew this, but still didn’t push it. After I gave a talk or taught a Family Home Evening lesson, my dad would say something like, “I don’t know if you want to go on a mission, but if you went, you would be a very good one.” It was the perfect thing for me to hear, because it wasn’t pushy, so I didn’t feel forced, but it also allowed me to feel support while my confidence and desire grew.

        When I have children I plan to teach my sons and my daughters that it is a viable option for them, but allow them to make the decision.

  15. I think we should start encouraging women to serve missions just as much as the men, though I can see keeping the age restrictions we have now. I want my daughter (and hopefully future daughters in law) to have gone to at least some schooling, serve a mission, and be whole women themselves before they decide to marry. It may mean pushing up the marriage years of the men having to generally wait for marriage as well (since most of the women their age are just going on missions when they are leaving), but that will give them two additional years to get their acts together before thinking of entering into the important partnership of marriage.

    I don’t think the imbalance of leadership positions should be a problem. We’ve seen one mission have women missionary leaders (Temple Square, is there another?), and there’s no reason not to have the men get used to the idea of being under a woman leader. Primary shouldn’t be their only experience of this, and is additional proof that it can work, since there is no ordination involved. Could be an important step toward being ready to introduce the Priestesshood.

    For my wife, in Arizona in the late 90s, she was very pressured by her Bishop (and family, and everyone else) to go on a mission, even though her prayers continually told her she should not. So she didn’t. Male or female, personal revelation should be an important part of the decision to serve, despite culture, even if the answer is no.

    • Oh yes, the age restriction. There could be a whole discussion on this matter.

    • The age restriction is ridiculous. If women benefit from two years of additional education and life experience before going, then wouldn’t men also do so? If there is some demonstrable good in sending men out at 19 instead of 21, what makes it so wildly different for women? Most of the logic I’ve heard justifying the current age requirements are infantilizing to either men, women, or both.

      The reality is that church leaders hope girls will get engaged and/or married before they hit 21. Which is itself ridiculous. I know people who have married that young and are perfectly happy and that’s fine. But to push marriage by such a young age is just silly. And often irresponsible.

      I’d rather see an age range when young single members of the church are allowed to go on missions. And if there’s going to be cultural pressure on going at some specific age, it should be the same for men and women.

  16. Reading through all of these comments reminded me of the very best thing about gender differentiations on my mission: there was a rule that on Preparation Days/playing basketball that Elders could only guard Elders and Sisters could only guard Sisters. I can mostly make shots up close, so am not stellar by any means, but because I Was one of the fastest sisters I could get to the other end before them, and no one was allowed to guard me. The Elders on my team took full advantage of this and passed me the ball a lot, letting me shoot/make points a lot. It was a pretty fun set up. :)

    • This makes me laugh. I played basketball quite a bit on my mission, and I typically had companions who could play as well. The elders were often impressed by us. It was fun to be able to perform on a team with other missionaries and be appreciated for your skills. We also met a lot of contacts by playing pick-up games with kids in the street (this was in South America). People couldn’t believe that these skirt-wearing American girls were out playing ball with their rough guys.

    • I’m surprised you even got to play. In my mission sister’s had to get special permission to even WATCH the elders play ball. We had to be segregated at all times, except for district meetings and zone meetings. And towards the end of my mission we couldn’t even eat at a member’s home at the same time. And we could never ride in a vehicle together.

      Sisters were not treated well at all in my mission. A very sore spot with me.

  17. On my third mission transfer to Florida, I was made a zone leader and remained in that position for the last 18 months of my almost 3-year mission. At one point I seriously asked the mission president if he could just transfer all the sisters to my zone and we could move around as he needed.

    Don’t get me wrong, we had our fair share of crazy sisters and elders, but the one thing I never had to worry about with sister missionaries was how hard they were working. Because the mission was a choice, they were far more committed, on average, than the elders.

    I always wonder if instead telling women they should serve (like they do for men), if it would not be better to tell men they can serve if they want (like they do for women).

    • I’m with you on that, Nate. I think all forms of church service should be voluntary, including not only missions but priesthood ordination and accepting callings. Truly voluntary, not just the lip-service voluntary they are now.

  18. How did I decide to go on a mission? I was called to serve a mission by my Bishop, I had been baptized the previous year and was an infant in the Gospel. I was barely learning the basics when the call was extended. I lived in the East Coast where the church was still growing, it was 1976. Our stake was pretty spread out. I was to leave home and be away from my family for 18 months. In those days my family was the only Latin family in the ward and very new to the Gospel. As a Latina in our culture, unmarried young women don’t leave home until they marry. I had some dilemmas to face, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be as prepared as others who grew up in the church to teach the Gospel. In speaking to Leaders and friends and reading my Patriarchal blessing it stated that I would have the opportunity to teach the Gospel in my own native tongue and that I already had a great knowledge of the Gospel. This helped me realize this was in reference to my Pre-Mortal life preparation/knowledge and testimony I had received before my birth. Now I needed to tap into that new found truth. It took a lot of prayer and pondering and finally getting my family’s support in every sense of the word. Finances were another concern, as I had little time to prepare for this aspect of a mission. Once I made the decision to go, everything began to fall into place, I received financial support from my parents who trusted the Lord and a set of complete generous strangers in Alabama to get me on my mission. How joyful and grateful I was when I found myself among many young elders in the mission home being welcomed by our Mission President. My tag was in English as I had been called to serve an English speaking mission which disappointed me, nevertheless I knew the Lord was in charge. That fateful day brought me and others to await a personal interview with our mission President. When my turn finally came after interviewing me briefly my President stated that as Mission President he had the option as directed by the spirit of the Lord to change my mission call to teach the Gospel in Spanish, thereby he was changing me to the Spanish speaking mission. After he had spoken those words, I told him “President, My Patriarchal blessing has just been fulfilled by your words.”

    How did my female-ness influence my mission experience?
    One other thing my Mission President shared with me in that first interview, that I probably would remain in the state of Florida, our mission included islands and US territories. Nine months later I was flying to one of those Island I thought I would never see. Once again, the Lord directs and we obey… It was my 2nd area on the island where I experienced the most growth and success. The President was re-opening an area to missionary work, he was sending sisters for the first time I would be accompanied by a brand new missionary companion to open the area once again. Great things were expected to happen and he was excited to see the fruit of the work. As we drove from Mission home to our destination which was almost 2 hrs away I felt weight of the responsibility of the mission we were given to bring souls to Christ. We had heard this was a tough area, the locals had a nickname they called themselves, “Caridura.” hard-faced or better stated hard-hearted. As my fears mounted and my sense of inadequacies grew, I began to pray and asked the Lord how two sisters who didn’t hold the priesthood could overcome such hostilities and fears as demonstrated in the past by this group of people. The words, “You have been commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ to proclaim his Gospel” came to my mind, numerous times, over and over. It was then that I found the courage and strength and wisdom to seek help from our Father in Heaven many many times, fasting and praying and welcoming the Elders, District Leaders, zone Leaders, and even Assistant to the President to our area as we humbly sought their help, vision and support. They all knew, never doubted, we had been called to serve in that particular area at that time. Not once did any of them make us feel less, or diminished for the lack of success in those early months. Not once did any demonstrate themselves superior or above us because they held the priesthood. They visited us, they wrote us encouraging notes of love and support. After the trial of your faith comes the blessings, and floodgates were opened and we did receive many many into the fold.

    • Janet, thank you for sharing your encouraging story. I am thankful your parents and the other family were able to make your service a reality, and that you and your companion were able to receive the inspiration and help you needed to make a meaningful contribution while on that island. Thank you again.

  19. When I was 16 we had sister missionaries serving in my ward. One of my Personal Progress goals was going with them on splits and teaching discussions. I loved it and began to really want to go on a mission. Whenever I heard a talk, or read a story about a full time missionary I would feel the spirit so strong. I prayed and prayed about it and was worried that I was counceling the lord in wanting to go. Section 4 of the D&C say, ” Wherefor if ye have desires to serve God, ye are called t the work”. I repeatedly received answers to my prayers that helped me to understand the the strong desire I had to serve a mission came from the Lord – because he wanted me to go. I was dating a wonderful RM at the time -someone everyone expected me to marry. My roommates boyfriend asked me if I was going to lie to my bishop about whether I had “marriage prospects” – I thought he was crazy and told him that I was going on a mission because I knew the Lord wanted me to go and I was pretty sure the bishop would be able to find that out too. My bishop was never anything but super supportive – even councilling with my boyfriend to help him not be so sad about my leaving. I served my mission in Rostov Russia in 97. My femaleness influenced my mission a lot – I was serving where the church was new and was grateful for the 3 years of experience I had serving in the Relief Society – I had been a VT coordinator and in the RS presidency and that was so useful in helpin my Russian sisters learn their callings and serve. I helped organize a women’s conference – it was wonderful. My mission president was wonderful and appreciated the sisters and was always trying to get more sisters to serve.
    When you serve a mission as a sister it sometimes feels like you are part of an exclusive club. I have been asked several times to speak at youth conferences or Young Adult firesides in our stake to encourage other sisters to go. We have a temple being contructed in our city and I have recently heard from the stake presidency that they are looking for sisters that have served missions to help with the open house. I was happy to have my name added to that list – but I thought that there are so many women who have not served a mission that would be just as effective at answering questions at the temple open house.
    One thing that has changed with the new handbook is that bishops can now approach girls they feel should serve and mission and encourage them to do so. It is a baby step – but a step in the right direction. I hope my daughters will want to serve a mission.

    • This was inspiring. Thank you for sharing it. I didn’t know about that simple (but important) change in the Bishop’s handbook. Encouraging indeed.

      Serving at a temple open house is really a beautiful experience. I am excited for you.

  20. I served a fairly unique mission on Temple Square with 200+ sister missionaries and 10-15 senior couples. In our mission, sisters served as district and zone leaders and AP’s. However, baptisms did not occur as we were making contacts and referrals and not leading discussions. We all served 4 months out in the “field” to get a taste of a traditional proselytizing mission. I must say I enjoyed parts of my mission, it was fabulous to have females in leadership roles. At times, it did feel a bit cliquish. With 200+ ladies serving in a small area, groups were formed. When I went out in the field, the sisters all banded together at zone meetings, etc as there were just a handful of us.
    I felt fully supported by my family, they were excited for me and never thought twice about my desire to go.
    I did find my mission to be extremely difficult and not an experience I would repeat again but that’s a whole other story :).

    • Amy, If I had known the particular (hard) experiences that would happen during my mission, I would not have gone, though I am grateful that I DID go. It made me wonder if a certain amount of naiveté is required for things like serving missions, getting married, etc.

      Also: my very favorite companion was a Temple Square Missionary. She made it a joy to be a missionary. I was actually excited to wake up every day, rather than constantly thinking “I want to go home. I want to go home,” like I was the transfer before.

  21. My family was very supportive of my mission and I entered the MTC just 6 days after I turned 21. I was “that” kind of girl … and wanted to do everything I could for the church the second it was allowed. (I’ve changed a bit … ha ha … but that’s for another post.

    But, sadly, my mission drove me crazy. It was VERY focused on men. Oppressively so. I wanted to scream most of the time – and felt very caged.

    The one positive was our mission president’s wife. She was a strong woman and I learned a lot from her. She held regular “sisters conferences” – and that helped.

    I think we have a long way to go in changing mission culture. But isn’t that true about everything gender-based in the church.

    Suzette

  22. To me, the “mixed messages” in the Church’s direction to prospective sister missionaries indicate that it is a completely individual decision. Those that do not go are no less worthy, and it can be an amazing experience for those who do. I always felt that a mission was an option for me, but didn’t seriously consider it until I had return sister missionary roommates. As I approached 21, a mission was always in the back of my head. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t the case for all of my LDS peers. I definitely had positive feelings after praying about it, but I wanted a dramatic answer. I was also distracted by a non-LDS boyfriend and my school commitments. Eventually I realized that the persistent thoughts I had were my desires and were validated by spiritual promptings. One of my major motives was selfish- I wanted to better understand doctrine and the scriptures and really put myself in a challenging situation. My family was super-supportive, and my bishops and stake president were also really encouraging. One of my bishops said he thought that every girl should seriously consider a mission, and that he advised his sons to marry return sister missionaries.

    I was frustrated in the mission field by some of the structure… I just felt that some of the elders in leadership positions didn’t provide the best support for and lacked some respect for the sister missionaries. It’s a tough task for both parties… the elders are younger than the sister missionaries and generally have less education and leadership experience. So, of course, I thought I could do a better job than they were doing! I realized that it was probably a learning experience for them, and I tried to use it as a time for me to develop some humility. Also, I was working as a welfare missionary for some of my mission, which the elders didn’t understand very well. That being said, there were many elders who were friendly and fun to see at conferences, activities, etc., and who seemed to appreciate the perspectives of sisters. I didn’t feel excluded or ostracized, just awkwardness with some of their leadership styles. Like several of you, I had marvelous experiences with the other sisters in my mission, and I wished that we could have worked more closely… the sisters were quite spread out geographically. After I left, my mission started having “sisters conferences”, which I thought was a fantastic idea.

    There was one mission leader in a unit where I was assigned who was extremely chauvinistic. He questioned both my companion and me regarding our marriage prospects before we had left on missions and the “rightness” of us serving missionaries… he was also very closed to many of our ideas and efforts in the branch. Otherwise, the units in which I served were very receptive to sister missionaries. We typically had a great deal of support from the local members and ward/branch leadership.

    Overall, my mission was extremely fulfilling. There were periods of great difficulty, which I wouldn’t choose to repeat, but even those taught me valuable lessons. One of the greatest lessons I learned was that I could do hard things! It helped better establish my faith in Christ and in the trust He had given me.

  23. I actually have a “guest post” I wrote on this very topic, but never got the courage to submit it. Hopefully it doesn’t come out too long for the comments:
    I had always wanted to serve a mission, which, ironically, was my way of asserting my independence in the heart of Mormon Country. My friends were all getting married and starting families, and I was busy with my nursing studies, while traveling the world in various humanitarian capacities. Amongst these endeavours, I wanted to include a mission for the church. I did not have the slightest desire to share the gospel through proselyting, but I felt very strongly that a mission is where I needed to go next. I trusted that the Lord knew what he was doing.

    I submitted my papers just before leaving for a six month internship in Southern Africa. Normally at the time, a call would take about three weeks to arrive. Mine still had not arrived four months later. My stake president called several times to “Downtown” to find out what the hold up was, and was told by a “higher up” that my papers were being held for a specific mission. Since certain missions are on the docket each week to receive new assignees, “mine” was down the line a bit. I was told that the mission committee felt strongly that I was to serve in a particular mission and they were waiting for that mission to be on the agenda.

    Finally, five months after submitting my papers, I received my call: a very poor country in South America, as a welfare services missionary. It was perfect. I felt like this was my calling; I was destined for it. It was inspired. It was where I was supposed to serve. I could continue humanitarian work for the church, without the pressures of proselyting in the traditional sense.

    I returned from Africa with only four short weeks to prepare for my mission. It was a whirlwind of excitement and emotion, for my frazzled mother in particular. I was thrilled that I was chosen specifically for this mission, and it quashed many of the nagging thoughts I had been having about the status of women in the church. I was called. I was needed as a sister missionary.

    Then General Conference came one week before my MTC date. My father returned home from priesthood session on Saturday night, looking very concerned. “What happened?” I queried. “The prophet spoke very strongly about young women and missionary service.” He tried to summarize for me, and I was appalled. I was devastated. I felt betrayed and humiliated. In essence, President Hinckley stated that only men should serve missions. That there would be some women who want to serve, and they may, if they pray about it and the “idea persists”, but they shouldn’t be encouraged to go. He stated very plainly that “We need some women. They can get in doors that the elders cannot,” as well as confirmed that there is an age discrepancy between elders and sisters to discourage women from serving missions. He even went so far as to “confess” that he had two granddaughters on missions, though they did not consult him in any way before submitting their papers. Good for them. I can only imagine how they would feel coming away from that conversation, should they have spoken with him first. However, I can also imagine they must have been heartbroken hearing those words while in the mission field, not only from the prophet, but their grandfather. The final straw, as I read the report of the priesthood session online, was that the prophet concluded with “[This] may appear to be something of a strange thing to say in priesthood meeting. I say it here because I do not know where else to say it. The bishops and stake presidents of the Church have now heard it. And they must be the ones who make the judgment in this matter.” (http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1997/10/some-thoughts-on-temples-retention-of-converts-and-missionary-service?lang=eng)

    I was crushed. My strong conviction that I was doing what the Lord wanted me to do vanished in an instant. My testimony that I was called to this particular mission at this particular time, because I was needed there, was terribly shaken. I instantly felt squashed like a bug, put in my place, and left as an unimportant and unnecessary woman. Worst of all, the prophet that I had followed diligently wouldn’t even tell it to my face…to the women…but decided that priesthood session, excluding all women, was the appropriate place for such a declaration. This is in spite of the fact that the General Relief Society meeting was the previous week.

    I had already committed to the mission. I was leaving one week later. I couldn’t turn back now; I had already had my fanfare farewell. I had a decision to make: go on my mission and be a submissive and unnecessary sister missionary, which is how I now believed the church saw us as women; cancel the mission in protest, but knowing the protest would fall on deaf ears and accomplish nothing to remedy this situation; or fulfill my mission, use the time to complete the work I felt I was destined to do, and raise Hell in the church from that time forth.

    I chose the latter.

    I was a strong-willed sister missionary. I served the people of my South American mission with all I had in me. I taught welfare principles holistically: spiritual, physical, familial, financial and health. I truly believed that I was where I was supposed to be. I changed lives, and in turn, my life was changed by others. I rarely taught discussions. I rarely knocked on doors. I had few baptisms. Yet I feel my mission was my life’s greatest work to date. I did it, and I did it my way, with my own inspiration directly from the Lord. I don’t remember a thing my mission president taught, but I remember every direct inspiration I received from personal prayer to make life better for others.

    My mission was my calling. It came officially by way of the patriarchal priesthood of the church, but it was actually given directly to me, before that, through my own personal revelation. The patriarchs of the church tried to deter me from what the Lord wanted, and in that moment, I knew. I knew that my life’s religion would not be Mormonism. It would be aspects of Mormonism, made pure in my life by the inspiration I receive directly from my Heavenly Father. It would be a life mission to help other women reach their full potential, and find a way to have a voice in this patriarchal and sexist church. I still believe the principles of the gospel to be true, in their purest sense. However, I no longer see it through the eyes of my oppressors, but with my own clear vision and autonomy.

    • That is beautiful and powerful, and I think it would still make a beautiful and powerful guest post.

    • So very beautiful/inspiring. Thank you very much for sharing it, and please, please share it again as a “Guest Post.” I am nearly certain that it will be accepted. More people need access to your words, because they offer a lot on how we may serve authentically within church structures. Again, thank you.

  24. I can understand why older LDS women would be resentful or sad because they were unable to serve missions due to marriage, kids, college, etc. (That is me!) Also, I understand why some of the sisters that did serve feel unappreciated in a man’s missionary world. However, I think that we all have to understand that this is all according to the Lord’s timing and not our own. Our lives have turned out (marriage or not) for a reason. I have to admit that I felt intense jealousy on Saturday because I went through 2 years of tough trials trying to figure out if I would go on a mission or get married. On Saturday I was like what? Did I go through all of that turmoil for nothing? Was there no real reason behind the 21 age limit for female missionaries? However, there definitely was. We just need to trust in the Lord and study the issue out for ourselves.

  25. It’s been really interesting thinking about how my “female-ness” affected my mission experience.

    My mission was an incredibley positive experience. I was blessed with righteous priesthood leaders that I respected. And I was lucky enough to have good relationships with the ones that were on the immature side, so that they felt “little brotherish” and I was able to feel like I was helping them understand things differently sometimes. (I say all of this, fully recognizing that I could have just as easily had really negative experiences if I happened to have had different leaders).

    The way that I think my “female-ness” negatively affected my experience, is that we were rarely allowed to go on splits (there were almost always one set of sisters in each zone). I was made a senior companion on my third transfer. So after five months into my mission, I never got to see a more experienced missionary in action. I was making everything up as I went. It was probably the single biggest setback in my growth as a missionary. I am thrilled at the thought that might change if the age change helps more sisters decide to serve.

    Another way my “female-ness” affected my mission was in a positive way. When you are in a mission, there are up to 200 other missionaries who dress like you, have the same haircut as you, are quietly dignified like you :)… you get my point. I think that missionaries yearn to be recognized, and paid attention to. This is one reason leadership callings are such a big deal for the Elders.

    I thought it was great that just by virtue of being a sister missionary, I was set apart. People knew who I was; the President and his wife paid special attention to us; we got to have “sister conferences” once in a great while. I didn’t feel like I was losing my identity in the way I know some Elders did.

    And just to add some rumors to the whole female mission leadership discussion… My mission president told me that when he was called, he fully intended on calling female assistants in addition to male assistants, but he was told specificly in the MTC (in July of 1999) that sisters are not to hold leadership positions.

    One thing he did start doing, however is giving sisters permission to travel in the zone. So if a set of Elders was teaching someone who wasn’t progressing, they could ask us to come to a discussion with them. The President emphasized that sisters had a different spirit about them. Not better, just different, and some investegators needed to feel different things. I thought it was an inventive policy, and again made us feel needed and appreciated.

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  1. More Changes for Sister Missionaries: Something (Mostly) Good This Way Comes - Rational Faiths - [...] for boys, and girls should get married instead.” I have written a bit about this before, and …
  2. “You can’t be what you can’t see”: Sister Missionary Edition | The Exponent - [...] of my parents told me that girls could be great missionaries, and while I am certain that their words …

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