SALT LAKE CITY — Pres. Thomas S. Monson opened the first session of this October's General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a historic and unprecedented announcment: Women may now serve LDS missions at 19 and men at age 18.
Faces in the audience were "shocked" as one attendee described it over Twitter.
Previously, ages were set at 21 for women and 19 for men, a practice that has been in place since the early 50s.
The younger age standards provide a new option for those who wish to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but is not mandatory. Men can serve at any age between 18 and 25 now, and women can serve at any age after 19. There is no official cap.
"I am not suggesting that all young men will — or should — serve at this earlier age," Pres. Monson said during the announcement.
At a press conference held just after the end of the 10 a.m. session of General Conference, Elders Jeffery R. Holland and Russell M. Nelson further emphasized that the change is not a "mandate or an edict." The only other requirement is that men be graduated from high school prior to leaving on their missions.
"Young men and women should not begin their service before they are ready," Elder Nelson said during the press event.
I am pleased to announce that effective immediately, all worthy and able young men who have graduated from high school or its equivalent, regardless of where they live, will have the option of being recommended for missionary service beginning at the age of 18, instead of age 19.
–President Thomas S. Monson
Pres. Monson stated that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had been discussing the change for several months. He announced the changes in terms of generalizing an a rule that already exists in some places in the world. In 48 countries, missionaries have been allowed to serve at age 18 due to educational or military requirements unique to that nation. The new worldwide age reductions make that policy universal.
Elder Nelson stated that they have had great success with 18-year-old missionaries and that mission presidents had even requested more be sent if possible. The success of these younger missionaries, in part, prompted the change.
Also factoring into the decision was the increased tempo of work around the world. Roughly two years ago, Pres. Monson called for an increase in missionary work. Since that time, the number of male missionaries has increased by 6 percent, female by 12 percent, and couples by 18 percent, Elder Nelson said.
"God is hastening his work," Elder Holland said. Currently, the LDS church has about 58,000 missionaries in the field. Elder Holland said demand has increased and lowering the age limits is a way to get more missionaries out, if they meet other requirements as well.
Changes for women
Perhaps most unexpected was the announcement women would be allowed to leave a full two years earlier.
"Sister missionaries are the most powerful missionaries," said Roger Johnson, over Twitter. "This announcement will strengthen our missionary force ten fold."
The Church declined to increase the length of a mission for women from 18 months to two years. Asked why, Elder Holland said that the First presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had in fact considered it, along with many other options. But he said,"We felt, in short, one miracle at a time."
Asked why women were not simply allowed to leave at age 18 just like me, Elder Holland responded that time and experience have shown that having at least a small age difference works better, specifically with having slightly older women in the field.
Response from Church members and leaders.
"I'm bordering on the giddy here with this announcement this morning," Elder Holland said at the press conference.
Listeners and attendees have responded, in general, with overwhelming enthusiasm for the decision.
"Truth: My parents are trying not to cry, I'm choking back tears. Bittersweet. I love the gospel," said Jed Donald Grow over Twitter.
The one universal response is surprise, however. Elder Holland said that no one knew about the decision except for the Quorum of the Twelve, the First Presidency and a select few General Authorities. Everyone else was in the dark, at the request of Pres. Monson, who wished to announce the change personally.
Other leaders, including mission presidents who directly oversee missionaries out in the field, had no idea what was coming at the beginning of Saturday's session.
"We welcome you all to a wonderful wide church of people who did not know this was coming," Elder Holland said.
At least a few young men who have just turned 18 are happy about the decision.
"I'm really excited. I turn 18 in a month," said one boy interviewed just outside the Conference Center. He also expressed nervousness at the thought of leaving a year sooner, however.
"I am absolutely ecstatic," said 20-year-old Lindsay Castleton "I've been dreaming about this day my whole life." She was overwhelmed by the change in plans that going a year early would require.
Many folks also said that reducing the time between graduation and leaving on a mission could be potentially beneficial by eliminating time where a young man or woman may simply be floating in limbo between school and church service, without goals or direction.
"You have too much time between high school and 21 to make other decisions and think about other plans for your future. So you just as well make a solid decision now to go on a mission," said Conference attendee Abbie Butcher.
(BYU) President Samuelson doesn't know any more about this than you do.
–Elder Jeffery Holland
Elder Holland said that they have no idea how many new missionaries this would generate, but that they'd have a better idea after high school students graduate in early summer.
He said they expect the numbers to increase "pretty dramatically come next spring."
The pressure of the increased numbers could have several effects ranging from increased pressure on training and instructional facilities to effects on Utah's college athletic teams.
Missionaries are trained throughout the world at "missionary training centers." While new instructors are expected to be hired, Elder Holland said that they had no plans to build new facilities.
The Provo MTC coordinates closely with BYU operationally, but the school has so far had no time at all to prepare. No one knew, including BYU President Cecil Samuelson.
"President Samuelson doesn't know any more about this than you do," Elder Holland said while speaking to a BYU student reporter.
Utah's athletic teams could experience side effects as well. If young men or women choose to leave on their missions before joining a college team, they may spend several years at the very start of their career without training or practice.
Responding to a question on the matter, Elder Holland said. "We think maybe they'll get back sooner and participate better," and that athletes could go on to play a full four years uninterrupted.
Contributing: Carole Mikita and Sam Penrod