big “revelation” after all

Mission Mission Field

chanson noted the rumors about a big “revelation” at conference this year. Turns out they weren’t entirely unfounded: Thomas Monson just dropped the age for missionary service for men to 18 from 19, and for women to 19 from 21. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that this is a “game-changing revelation,” but it is kind of interesting.

As a sociologist, my immediate response is: “So they figured out they will lose fewer young men if they snatch them up right after high school, huh?” My guess is that this is all about stemming apostasy and increasing the odds that young Mormon men will serve.

The claim that “upping the bar” back in the early 2000s was the reason why the missionary force declined was never true. It declined due to two things: (1) demographic changes in family size; Mormon families in (and out of) Utah were having fewer kids; (2) fewer young men were going because they had time to think themselves out of it (or get distracted with other things). The year between high school graduation and leaving for a mission was likely a year when young men had a chance to be “free:” free of being told what to do and free of being told what to think. By curbing that year of “freedom”, I’m guessing the leaders of the religion are betting this will reduce losses and increase the number of young men who serve.

Okay, I just realized all of the above was male-centric. I’m guessing all of the same applies for women, though the gender dynamics are no doubt different, too. Some Mormon women have been clamoring to lower the age to make it seem more fair and to reduce the stigma of “only women who can’t get married serve missions.” I bet neither of those issues factored into this (since this decision was made by an all-male governing body). I’m guessing what I wrote above is the primary motivation: STEM THE LOSSES BY REDUCING THEIR TIME TO THINK!

29 thoughts on “big “revelation” after all

  1. At the risk of sounding extremely cynical, I think this also puts young men in a very vulnerable position – at 18, most kids are completely dependent on their parents, whereas at 19 most of them have at least figured out how to pay the bills, even if it’s just with student loans.

  2. I’m sick about this. My nephew got a full ride university scholarship but it looks like he’ll be straight out into the mission field.

  3. Wendy, you are right to worry. This move was all about getting them to serve before they go to college to immunize them against what they’ll learn in college. Unless that scholarship was to BYU, there is a good chance he’ll lose it or even willingly forego the scholarship to attend an LDS university.

  4. It was a full-ride engineering scholarship to Utah State. He was ecstatic about it but since this morning’s announcement it’s all about the mission.

  5. The change for women is interesting to me for a couple of reasons.

    Women have been traditionally told that they should not serve a mission if they have a marriage prospect. However, Mormon culture isn’t so isolated from the rest of the world, and the idea that a woman is some sort of tragic old maid if she doesn’t have a marriage prospect by age 21 is dropping into the realm of silly anachronism, even for Mormons. They probably figured out that they get better retention by just assuming people don’t get married as young as they used to, and encouraging even the women to have a bit of church-intensive life experience (if they want it) in the years before settling down to marriage.

    Also, I’d always heard that one reason for the age difference was to discourage flirting. Now the ladies and gents are one year closer. Perhaps the CoJCoL-dS determined that those couples who met on their missions are the backbone of the church, hence they’re less keen on discouraging it…

  6. Well, Utah State may allow him to defer the scholarship so he can serve a mission. Universities in Utah are pretty good about that. The University of Utah did that for me.

  7. He’s a super bright kid but he’ll get back from his mission just in time to forget everything he learned about engineering in the first place. Oh well. Not my call, I suppose.

  8. Men in other countries (Britain, for instance) have been able to go on missions at age 18 for at least a couple of decades, so this announcement mostly brings consistency to the rules for men.

    as for how it will affect women…. Facebook is going nuts. Many of my female friends are saying that if they could have gone on missions when they were 19, they would have, and their lives would be very different…. I’m sure they know their lives better than I do, but I know missions better than they do, and I have my doubts.

    I guess it depends on what the goal is. If it’s to get people to go on missions, this is probably a good thing. If the goal is to create an effective missionary force, this is probably a bad idea. The only thing worse than being lectured by an 18-year-old who thinks s/he knows everything because they’ve had a semester or two of college is being lectured by an 18-year-old who thinks s/he knows everything because their church told them they’re more enlightened than the benighted hoards they’re on a mission to convert.

  9. Oh yeah: just remembered: the biggest difference between sister missionaries and elders: sisters still can’t baptize their own investigators. How many times did I watch some guy take the person I’d taught down into a font, since neither my companion nor I had the authority to baptize him/her ourselves?

    We’re so used to the horrible inequitable status quo that we forget for a moment the real differences when they throw us a few bread crumbs like this.

  10. There are definitely a lot of very excited young men and young women in the church today.

    I have heard about several girls calling their bishops to get mission papers to start filling out.

    One couple who are engaged and were planning to be married next summer announced that they will wait a little longer so that the bride can go on a mission. (No update on whether she will be wearing her GORGEOUS engagement ring, but I am guessing her mom or fiance will keep it safe.) Since they just got engaged a few weeks ago, and were already planning on waiting until he graduated from college, I don’t think they see it as a huge change. I have no idea if it will be a huge change by the time she gets home, but I do know that they were unofficially engaged before he left on his mission and she waited for him. His FB status says that he is thrilled she is going. I am guessing there will be many other announcements like this in the next few days.

    My ten year old twins picked up right away that this means they will be able to serve missions at the same time as their brother. Three missionaries at once, lucky me! At least I have a few years. They have already been talking to their other cousins and second cousins, who are within a year of them, and the speculation about where they might go is on the giddy level. I didn’t think that they would get the “big deal” but as I often am, I was wrong.

    I do think that this is a response to the large number of youth, especially young women, who become inactive between the start of their senior year of high school and 18 months after they have graduated. Having goals to keep the young wopmen engaged can be a good or bad thing, depending on where your sympathies lie.

    A less trumpeted thing that changed today, but is probably likely to impact more people, is that the new youth manuals were officially announced today, even though they have been available for a couple weeks if you knew where to look online. My mom is a YW president, and she says that a lot of the most troubling parts of the YW curriculum will be gone with the new program. For all of us who remember smooshed cupcakes, those are out. Object lessons in general are discouraged for the teachers, and if one is going to happen, the presidency is supposed to decide together. Whew!

    (I haven’t read through all of it, so I am taking my mom’s word. I know that she has been intensely studying it, as her salvation in a calling that has been a struggle for her. She was called almost a year ago, and as a feminist had already cut out a lot of the “optional” activities as being destructive to the self esteem of the girls. She is looking forward to the stake training for YW leaders on Tuesday, and feels that the group of new presidents, all of whom are on the liberal/feminist end, in her stake, at least know why they are there. I know about half of them, and if there were ever a group of women less likely to be called to YW, they are it. However, if you want YW presidencies that would have no problem with a radical departure from the old curriculum, they are certainly the ones I would put in charge of a massive change. Many of them are teachers or counselors in their professional lives, and their experiences will add a lot to that stake. I will be watching to see whether our stake has a bunch of new callings soon. With ward conferences coming, and a new stake president who is definitely an Oregon liberal, it should be interesting to watch.)

    If you want a break from thinking about General Conference, and a chance to be a little snarky, I am playing “Fantasy Fourth Ward,” and filling it up with celebrity Mormons. Come give your suggestions for who should be included. If it goes well, I am thinking that “Fantasy Fifth Ward,” full of bloggers will be next. I especially need help with International Mormon figures to be in Fourth Ward. 😉

    http://poetrysansonions.blogspot.com/2012/10/mormon-moment-laugh-with-me-fantasy-4th.html

  11. From a Deseret News piece:

    it had been “studied prayerfully over many months” by church leaders, with an eye toward “accelerating our efforts to fulfill the Savior’s mandate to take the gospel to all the world.” … [Elder Holland]: “God is hastening his work and he needs more and more willing and more worthy missionaries to spread the light and the truth and the hope and the salvation of gospel truth to a darkened world.”

    I don’t understand how this works as an “acceleration,” except for this first year of implementation. After this year, in terms of male missionaries, won’t there will be as many 17-year-olds turning 18 as there would’ve been 18-year-olds turning 19? Seriously, they’re talking about missions expanding around the world, shortening the time spent at MTCs by 1/3 to make room for future new waves, etc.

    Perhaps this is mostly about, as profxm says, the first year out of high school having a high drop-out rate, and them hoping to close that gap. The extra year of service possibility for males (18-25 instead of 19-25) seems minor in itself.

    Elder Holland said that mission presidents have been saying, “give me more 18-year-olds they are sweeter, they are purer, and they are smarter!”

    Apparently, sweetness and purity leak out year by year.

    I agree with others here that the change in female service is more noteworthy given how male/female service will basically overlap, so that 21-year-old newlyweds will both have missionary service behind them, as opposed to females opting not to serve and marry returned missionaries instead. Chanson @5, I think the idea of the “21-year-old tragic maid” is somewhat being maintained by this policy change. It’s an assembly line: high school, missionary service, marriage, mothering. My sense is that college is encouraged, yes, but not ~instead of~ marriage and mothering.

    My religion teaches education is not merely a good idea, it’s a commandment. They say it’s important to strive, learn and study in our lives and seek knowledge from the best books. They encourage getting education but do not expect us to get a degree.

  12. I think that the influx they expect is from an increase in young women serving missions. It will be interesting to see how much those numbers change both initially, and then on an ongoing basis. Between not losing young men, and gaining young women, it is possible that a 30-50% increase could be seen in the first five years, especially because you have three years of girls all eligible at once now.

    I couldn’t find specific numbers, although several blogs have had suggestions that about 20% of young women between 19 and 22 have boyfriends on missions, who they are waiting to have them return. I don’t really trust the number: 20% of which young women? How many if them would go on a mission if they and their boyfriends could get back within 6-12 months of each other? Hard to really pin down.

    On the other hand, I think all of my sisters would have gone on missions. Two waited while their husbands were on missions and there is less than 6 months between their birthday and their spouse’s birthday. My other sister didn’t meet her husband until right before she tirned 21, and didn’t really get interested in school until after they were married. She would have been happy to go on a mission instead of a variety of nanny and other temp jobs.

    I am probably the least likely one to have served a mission, but if I knew that I could go at 19, I could have finished my AA and then gone on a mission. I only got married to get out of state and away from my father. A mission would have given me the same short term guarantee and saved me from a bad first marriage.

    It certainly will be interesting to see how it plays out. I have heard through friends about two more engaged couples postponing their weddings so that the bride can serve a mission first. I am wondering if they are ready to do several months of just women to deal with the influx of women who want to go NOW!

  13. My mom is a YW president, and she says that a lot of the most troubling parts of the YW curriculum will be gone with the new program. For all of us who remember smooshed cupcakes, those are out. Object lessons in general are discouraged for the teachers, and if one is going to happen, the presidency is supposed to decide together. Whew!

    (I havent read through all of it, so I am taking my moms word. I know that she has been intensely studying it, as her salvation in a calling that has been a struggle for her.

    Wow, that’s really interesting! Maybe you could get some more details from your mom and write a post about it.

    I think the idea of the 21-year-old tragic maid is being maintained by this policy change.

    Yes, and it will probably lead to female RMs marrying younger.

    What I meant was that the stereotype that a woman goes on a mission only if she’s too fat/ugly/undesirable to land a man by age 21 is diminishing. In the culture at large, it’s weird to expect to be married by age 21, and Mormon culture isn’t that isolated from the culture at large. So there are probably lots of faithful young LDS women who never really had any intention of trying to marry before age 21 — and who set out with the goal/intention of serving a mission. The old model — where the idea was that girls hit 21 and go “ZOMG, I’m not engaged yet?! Now what? OK, I guess I’ll go on a mission…” — is dying out.

    The brethren had been encouraging the old model, but it practice it was falling out of favor. So they probably figured that they might as well make it easier for the girls who want to serve missions to go ahead and do it and marry young.

  14. Good point, Julia, and I feel silly for not realizing that. However, the way it’s being framed by the Church, you would never think that is what will happen. On the one hand, there are LDS women (like Joanna Brooks and Neylan McBaine in the SLT article) saying that this policy change “uncouples” church service from the time of marriage/motherhood, which will result in more female missionaries, while also “stronger, more equal marriages and more effective church governance in future generations.” On the other hand, church leaders still seem to gear the message toward young men especially and mention female missionaries as caveats.

    Am I the only one who sees this as a kind of increased streamlining of women’s lives — such that they are to dedicate even more time and energy to growing a patriarchal institution? As I note above, I’m not sure that there’s any resolution with the “do I go to college and get a career, or get married and become a mother?” question. What if LDS women are encouraged to think of missionary service as their “education?” >_<

  15. What if LDS women are encouraged to think of missionary service as their education?

    Some commenters on LDS blogs have suggested that this change may decrease the number of LDS women finishing their degrees. It may well be part of the church’s strategy: change the question for ambitious girls from “mission or marriage?” to “mission or college?”

  16. Chanson- Readinv through it is on my list of things to do after a medical procedure Monday, and I was planning on doing a post in my Mormon Moment Series about it, once I have it written. I was realizing I haven’t cross posted any of the first six posts in the series. I will put up a post with the premise behind it and the links to the posts already up.

    If anyone wants to get reading before me, this is the link to the information on the new curriculum. It is finally on the front page and easy to find. Until Saturday morning you had to have the exact link, so you could only find it if you already had been given it.
    http://www.lds.org/pages/new-youth-curriculum?lang=eng

    Alan-
    I really don’t know what the long-term impact of this change will be. I honestly expect it to be at least ten years before we see any real trend, since today’s 8 year-old girls are still likely to remember this as a momentous change, and respond to it as a “special opportunity,” rather than simply one of the choices they need to make in their lives. It will be those who are two young to remember what it was like before the change, who really tell us what the real impact is. My youngest daughter is four. If she doesn’t get “indoctrinated” by her older sisters, she and her friends might be the group of YW who teach us what this change will mean in the lives of women.

    On the other hand, it may not be until my grandchildren have served missions, a full generation removed from those of us who grew up with women waiting until they were 21 to have the chance to serve. One friend was speculating that by that time women may be the dominant force in LDS missions, especially when senior missionary sisters are factored in. It is fun to speculate, but that is really all I can do. 🙂

    No matter what happens, I hope that in 20 years, this is the Mormon Moment we all look back on, when we think of 2012 Mormon history.

  17. @15 Here’s another comment that makes approximately the same point:

    More women may now start puting off beginning college before their missions, depending on when they turn 19. More of them may even choose not to go to school and will instead return from a mission and get married and choose to support their husbands through school in entry level work. This all may give guys a leg up so far as getting into college, grad school, and the workforce.
    […]
    I think its going to change the number of young women going to school and getting degrees. I think they will be getting married younger and starting families younger. I think this was a calculated move by the Church to put the men into better positions, whereas it will take women a step back.

    Makes a good point…

  18. Yeah, I mean it really depends on how the post-mission period gets framed in the Church. If an “ambitious girl” (as you called her) was ambitious enough to go on a mission right out of high school, how likely is it that she would roll over and work entry-level while her “man” goes through college? My understanding was that female college dropouts where due to finding a husband at college and dropping out because he’s graduating, and got a job not at entry-level (or a high paid entry level).

    Here’s the thing…it’s very important to consider class dynamics here. A college education is not enough these days to not have to work entry level right out of school, especially if your degree is in the humanities. Both halves of a working class young married couple are going to have to work to make end’s meet (especially if there’s a kid). But then, Mormonism was never a working class religion, anyway.

  19. @20 The sad reality is that there are plenty of talented, ambitious young women who will absolutely sacrifice their own educational and career ambitions to support their man if that’s what their culture teaches them to do. With the cost of education rising, the supposedly superfluous female degree (“She’s just going to BYU to get her MRS, anyway!”) is a place where a lot of Mormon families may want to cut costs. And it’s a decision that will likely be made as much by the parents holding the wallets as by the ambitious girl herself (since financial aid is increasingly hard to come by).

    People aren’t supposed to flirt and fall in love on their missions, but the CoJCoL-dS has surely figured out that tons of active Mormons do marry people they met on their mission, and it’s a great way to encourage Mormons to marry other Mormons without the cost of expanding the system of LDS universities.

    With the old system, a lot of girls decide well before mission age that a mission is something they might like to do. Having that idea in the back of their minds encourages them to work on a few years of education in which they’re not necessarily totally focused on marriage. Then, with three years of college under their belts and the experience of a Mormon mission, they have an excuse to finish their degree as well as the maturity to make the decision for themselves.

    OTOH, Mormon culture already has a bit of an ethic that it’s noble and appropriate for the wife to sacrifice her educational and career ambitions, if necessary, to forward her husband’s career and/or have kids early. Eliminating the female degree — that they teach is just a fall-back anyway — makes that path just that much easier.

    The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that in practice this will lead to a big step backwards for Mormon women and their opportunities and autonomy.

  20. Reading through these last comments, I was just coming to that same realization, chanson:

    in practice this will lead to a big step backwards for Mormon women and their opportunities and autonomy

    I think this is another policy that, while well-intentioned (keep them in), is going to end up actually hurting members of the LDS Church, particularly because it is going to increase the odds of earlier marriages, which are statistically more likely to end in divorce, reduce the odds of advanced education for women, and disempower women. Sad… 🙁

  21. Or this could lead Mormon woman to question Church policies and practices. Holly’s comment reminds me of several woman who told me how upsetting it was, among other things, they couldn’t baptize their investigators, which led them on the path of wrack and ruin.
    But if they become marine biologists, then wrack’s a good thing. And if the become archeologists, then ruins are ???

  22. @23 Good point. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about the fact that they’re losing more men than women (causing a glut of single LDS women who don’t really have a place in LDS culture). Maybe this move will help them even out those deconversion rates…

  23. something else that upset me: that women couldn’t interview female investigators to see if they were worthy of baptism. I had a lot of problems occur when the male district or zone leaders interviewed our female investigators for baptism. It was awful–I had blocked some of these memories. But I can tell you that 43-year-old women do not, as a general rule, enjoy being asked questions about their sexual history by 19-year-old boys. And yet, it was the norm, something women were expected to submit to if they wanted to join the church. Training, I guess, for the whole situation: no matter your age and experience, if you’re female, you’re still expected to submit to male authority and male rules.

    Nothing in the church gives men any training in respecting or even imagining female authority. In a conversation on Facebook, I made a comment about women still not being able to baptize their investigators. Some 20-something Mormon guy asked:

    so should mission organizations be a group of elders headed by the husband of the mission presidency (husband and wife) and the sisters headed by the wife of the mission presidency? All sides with authority to interview and baptize and submit to the authority of the leaders of each side.

    the basic scenario he starts with show how unable he is even to think in terms of real gender equality. The default solution seems to be dividing everything up like it’s the waiting room for the temple: men on one side, women on the other; no intermingling.

    But there’s another obvious solution: Why couldn’t the president of a mission be a woman, supported by her husband? Why couldn’t young men AND women serve under the authority and discretion of a woman?

    I mean, aside from the inability of so many Mormon men–including that kid–to imagine such a thing, much less accept it?

  24. The discussion on the Exponent is really interesting (including your related comments there, Holly). They hit a lot of points about possible effects of these changes (including the possibility that it may further decrease the proportion of LDS women getting advanced degrees).

    As you say @25, it would make a difference if women were allowed leadership positions like DL, ZL, and mission president — or if they even had the authority to interview and baptize the people they teach. But I guess that will never happen. For all of the positive aspects of the mission experience, it does reinforce the LDS cultural training that women must report to and submit to male authorities simply by virtue of gender, regardless of experience and talents, even when performing fundamentally the same tasks.

  25. The first post about the new curriculum is up on my blog. I have two more coming in the next week, and will then do a synopsis, with links to other blogs as well, sometime next week. If you want to read the first one, you can find it here.
    http://poetrysansonions.blogspot.com/2012/10/mormon-moment-series-part-seven-come.html?m=0

    I think the most interesting thing about the curriculum, at first blush, is that the lesson materials are the same for both YM and YW, and that there is the same focus for all 6+ years in YW/YM. The areas that tested it out had overwhelmingly positive feedback from the YM leaders, as well as the YW leaders. The youth in those areas also were extremely enthusiastic.

    One of the leaders, who I will be quoting from quite a bit in a post later this week, says that when they asked the youth at a fireside, three months into the new curriculum, not a single person wanted to go back to the old program. The YM were even more vocal about how much it made a difference for Sunday school lessons to fit with lessons in YM and YW, and that hearing the ideas from the YW during Sunday school helped them to understand all of the lessons better. That alone gives me some hope that all of the youth will benefit from a more balanced curriculum, focused more on the gospel and less on gender role doctrine/culture.

    I am excited that my son (who is 12) and my daughters (the oldest are 10 year old twins) will have this curriculum as the basis of their time in mutual. It certainly can’t be worse than YW was for me, and I think it will be a lot better!

  26. The thing I find really strange in browsing through some of the more believing blogs is all the talk about women who will go on missions instead of getting married, because they can go at 19 instead of 21. And people considering women (and women considering themselves) “old maids” if they’re unmarried at 21.

    I guess I forget sometimes how different American Mormon culture (especially in Utah) can be from “regular” American culture. Twenty-one, much less 19, is considered an extremely young age to get married among the people I know outside the church. My two oldest daughters are 22 and 20, and I think literally none of their non-Mormon friends their age are married. A few of them are engaged, but engaged in this case means getting married in a couple of years, not in three weeks.

  27. The thing I find really strange in browsing through some of the more believing blogs is all the talk about women who will go on missions instead of getting married, because they can go at 19 instead of 21. And people considering women (and women considering themselves) old maids if theyre unmarried at 21.

    I agree. That’s one of the points I was kind of getting at in my first comment @5. You don’t have to step very far outside the Mormon bubble to get the vibe that it’s truly bizarre to expect to be married before age 21.

    Many of the commenters are no doubt older (eg. a generation or more beyond mission age, like me) and are remembering the traditional marriage-vs-mission dilemma. But for many modern LDS young women — if they’re not actively attending an LDS university — they’re unlikely to feel ashamed and inferior for not being married, since their peers have no expectation of being married by that age.

    I hate to be cynical, but it’s very possible that the marriage age happened to be increasing (hence all the talks telling the men to get down to business on getting married), so the leadership figured that the women might as well spend those intermediate years working for the church rather than on building up education or job experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *