More Thoughts on Missionary Age (+Pictures)
by Kelly Ann
(Pictures in this post are not to be used without permission. I’m sharing them as I think they help illustrate what a mission with lots of Sisters can look like and a few of my other thoughts about the change in the missionary age limit as a returned missionary.)
My mission was unique. Without any sister specific destination like a visitor center, sister missionaries comprised somewhere around 25% of my mission in Southern Chile. There were probably about 40-50 Sisters to 180 to 200 missionaries for most of my mission. My mission president, and the one before him, specifically requested Sisters – with possibly as many as 60-70 at a time at the peak before I arrived (which in part decreased to President Hinckley’s infamous conference talk, but that would be a different story). My mission president said he requested Sisters because we were often more effective in the small towns and could get in doors the Elders could not. He told us we often baptized more Priesthood leaders and whole families. Ok, technically we didn’t baptize, we taught people with the intent to be – but were encouraged to help our investigators make a connection with a member of the branch or ward who could perform the ordinance, which helped with retention after we left as well as took away the sting of having to ask an Elder to do it.
As consequence, I don’t wonder what a mission would look like with more Sisters – as discussed in response to this weekend’s announcement lowering the age limit on various blogs including here at the Exponent and ByCommonConsent.
I was in zones with more Sisters than Elders.
My mission had an “Hermana Asistente” who coordinated splits between Sisters and fielded Sister-specific questions in an area. The mission president’s wife put together a “conferencia de Hermanas” on a couple of occasions. We were allowed to contact her directly for health concerns (maybe too much information for some, but given the humidity of my mission – i.e. 200 inches of rain a year – vaginal yeast infections weren’t uncommon). But in fairness, the zone leaders and district leaders didn’t make a big deal out of Sister’s issues, not that we really had that many specific issues. I felt treated like an equal. The expectation to teach, to baptize, to reactivate, to encourage people to go to the temple, to give “bendiciones de hogar” (a prayer blessing the house as an introductory tool to the church, which we began with “having authority as a missionary”, rather than with “having the authority of the priesthood” as the Elders did) was the same. Granted my mission wasn’t all rosy – it was very physically demanding in the foothills of the Andes and my major complaint looking back was that I never felt like I was doing enough when I was giving it my all (that would be a separate post) and the Elders sometimes drove me crazy regardless …
However, overall, I loved my mission. It changed my life. I went from being incredibly shy and soft-spoken to gaining confidence. I loved the people of Southern Chile. I loved the church. I loved feeling I could make a difference teaching investigators, training members, reaching out to inactives, and even just listening to people’s experiences. And to anyone who has asked, I have long recommended serving a mission to any woman that was interested even though I have been honest about some of the negative aspects as well. It thrills me that lowering the age requirement means that more women who may want to will consider going. And that more Sisters could serve in missions with ratios like mine – that the exception of my mission might become the rule.
If I had been able to serve a mission at 19, I would have. I knew at 16 that I wanted to serve a mission. It mad me mad that I had to wait. But also kind of glad that I could finish my degree and work a little first (I graduated early). I think my life experiences made me a better missionary. However, it would have been a much easier transition to grad school if my upper division chemistry hadn’t been so rusty. I went because I felt called to. I had a simple faith, passion for Christ, and – even if not fully acknowledging this fact – felt that if missionary was something that was so important that the men were expected to go, that I would too. I submitted my papers to enter the MTC, putting my availability date as my birthday and entered the first Wednesday after I turned 21.
Upon entering, I was surprised to learn of people who had been granted exceptions – missionaries who had their birthday in the MTC or children of mission presidents. But honestly, they were only a couple cases and I never thought much about it. So I was taken back again in this weekend’s announcement that so many 18 year olds had already been able to serve given country specific policies. President Monson, Elder Nelson, and Elder Holland all cited the exceptions as reason for making an universal policy.
It moved me to hear how many people had asked for exceptions – whether in countries like Britian which do not allow for an interruption in education or for those with military obligations. After all, I served in a country that has varied between having compulsory and voluntary service. The majority of the local Chilean Elders I knew were older due to obligatory military service at 18 at the time. In fact, in thinking about it now, I believe one of them requested a special consideration on the opposite side of the age spectrum leaving at 26. And while military service is now technically voluntary, after googling a little, I learned that last year Chile instituted a draft of 50000 young people. I imagine a cohort of them applying to go early on missions in order to balance that responsibility – whether to postpone it or to try to get out of it. The kicker being my understanding (which I acknowledge is limited) is that both women and men can be drafted, so that women have also probably been asking for the change. Going at 19 will help them – although I wish everyone had the option to go at 18. But it really makes me happy that people asking for change effected a great change and the cascade of changes that will likely follow. Even if it shouldn’t have been revolutionary. As TopHat mentioned in her comments on the earlier exponent post, I like seeing how the international church is changing the whole church.
However, in thinking about my mission, the thing I loved about serving was getting to know the diversity of Sisters present. There were a few like me who went right at 21 – but most had made a conscious decision in their early 20s to go. I served with life time members as well as new converts. But what set my mission apart, was that we had a number of older Sisters. It is often a forgotten fact that there is no age cutoff for women. Men can only serve until they are 26, whereas our mission had women in their 50s, 60’s, and 70’s. They brought with them wisdom of life.
In fact, I think another thing that set my mission apart was that so many of the Elders were older due to previous military service. It actually disappoints me that the change could mean many are likely to go on missions when they are younger. I hope people will still realize that there are options within the age limits. I’d like to see the emphasis to go when you are ready and when you want to as mentioned in the press conference. There should be no embarrassment for a man or a woman to leave at 25. I’d also like to see more older sister missionaries. They were some of the best missionaries I knew.
I want less homogeneity in the missionary program. Perhaps it is because I want missionaries who recognize some of the problems with the church. I want sisters who have had their feminist awakenings. Because as much fun as it has been to reminisce about my mission, and realize I was lucky, I couldn’t go back on a mission in that I have become disillusioned with the church and specifically Joseph Smith. I sometimes feel a little bit guilty about having preached a simplified portrayl of the church – even though it was my knowledge and belief then. I hope that in the churches call for more missionaries, a reason stated for the age change, that diversity will still exist amongst missionaries even if their average age decreases.
But it is kind of ironic that while I want there to be missionaries with more knowledge and experience, I hesitate even returning to some of my areas in Chile on an impending vacation. I don’t want to disillusion the people I knew by learning that their missionary is happily now borderline inactive. But then part of me thinks it would be good for them to see a liberal feminist returned missionary to portray something not so homogenous – especially if it is otherwise not out there. But then the next part of me thinks I’m simply not up for it. That there are others better suited for the task. And I hope that there are.
Anyhow, these are just a few of my thoughts on my perception of the change. While there has been lots of conversation already here, and throughout the bloggernacle, and media, I would love to hear more thoughts. I’d also welcome any questions or comments on my perspective.
[And yes, I realize you may notice in the photos that our attire was also somewhat unique – it was much too cold to only wear nylons. If sister missionaries were allowed to wear pant suits, now that would be revolutionary ;-). Part of the reason I am sharing the pictures is to expand the missionary image in several different ways.]