A higher — and increasingly younger — calling
Church changes have Mormons, especially women, setting off to serve missions like never before
On the morning of Oct. 6, 2012, Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stood before an audience of 21,000 at the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, and millions more watching worldwide via satellite, and dropped a bomb.
Opening the church’s 182nd semi-annual General Conference, he said, “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.
“As we have prayerfully pondered the age at which young men may begin their missionary service, we have also given consideration to the age at which a young woman might serve. Today I am pleased to announce that able, worthy young women who have the desire to serve may be recommended for missionary service beginning at age 19, instead of age 21.”
There were audible gasps in the conference center when he announced it. Sarah Noakes, 19, remembers hearing Monson say those words and, inexplicably, the tears flowed.
“I’d never thought about serving a mission at all,” she said. At the time, she was 18, a freshman at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and moved to tears.
Days of thought and prayer followed, she said, and now, a year later, she is Sister Noakes, an LDS missionary serving in the Grand Junction 1st Ward (LDS congregations are called wards, and several wards are grouped together into stakes).
She is one of tens of thousands of young women and men — including many from this area — who have grown the LDS Church’s number of full-time missionaries from 58,700 serving worldwide in October 2012 to 80,300 in October 2013. That includes 142 percent growth in the number of young women serving missions — from 8,100 serving this time last year to 19,500 currently serving.
Though missionaries are quick to point out that going on a mission is not about their convenience, but about faithful service to God, the change in age requirements means that young men have the option to become missionaries directly out of high school and young women, rather than having to wait until they’re almost done with college or entrenched in careers, now can go on missions before they’re well-established on a life path.
Since the change last year, critics have expressed doubt about an 18-year-old man’s maturity and a 19-year-old’s woman’s focus, but “you grow up really fast when you get out here,” said Elder Nicholas Austin, 18, who graduated high school in June in Irvine, Calif., and is now serving in the Grand Junction 1st Ward. “A mission shows you who you need to be.”
GO YE THEREFORE, AND TEACH ...
Soon after its founding in April 1830, LDS Church leaders began calling church members as missionaries and sending them across the United States and even to Europe, Polynesia and other parts of the world. In the early days of the church, proselytizing missionaries were exclusively male and many were married and had children.
Leaders based the decision to send missionaries out to proselytize in part on scriptures in the Bible, especially Matthew 28: 18-19: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”
The first proselytizing women missionaries began serving in April 1898, and since then the number of women serving has slowly grown. The church teaches that for young men to serve is a “priesthood duty,” Monson said last October when announcing the age change. Women, he added, “are not under the same mandate to serve as are the young men. We assure the young sisters of the Church, however, that they make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome their service.”
It is the desire to serve that inspired Noakes, who is from Kennewick, Wash., to become a missionary, as well as her current companion, Sister Charleen Masima, 19, from Pago Pago, American Samoa. It is what will take Kaleigh Bell, 20, of Grand Junction, to Vladivostok, Russia. She enters the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Jan. 1, to learn Russian and prepare to proselytize in the western Russia tundra.
“Serving a mission is a sacrifice,” said Tiffinie Holmes of Grand Junction, whose daughter, Shyanne, 19, is serving a mission in Chicago. “You put school on hold, your career, because you want to serve Heavenly Father and teach people about Jesus Christ.”
One of the aspects of mission service that can be most surprising to those who are not LDS, besides the fact that prospective missionaries don’t get to choose where they serve, is that young men and women, as well as their families, pay for it. The average 24-month mission — men serve for two years and women for 18 months — can cost about $10,000, according to LDS Church data, and every missionary pays $400 per month of their service, not including spending money.
Holmes said that the age change, while welcome, meant that Shyanne had less time to work and save money before leaving in August, as did she and her husband, Todd.
“Unfortunately, because of the time of the age change, we thought we’d have three or four years to save up money because we were kind of slacking on that,” Tiffinie Holmes said. “I think that’s one thing people have a hard time understanding, that missionaries don’t get paid to do this, but that you can’t measure the blessings they receive for doing it.”
The LDS Church has a general missionary fund, to which church members can voluntarily contribute in addition to their 10 percent tithes, to make up the difference for missionaries who can’t pay for their entire missions. But more missionaries serving means greater draws from the church’s missionary fund.
Roxanna Madsen of Grand Junction, whose daughter, Rachel, 20, is currently serving a mission in Pocatello, Idaho, said that not only are missionaries blessed for their sacrifices, but the families at home are blessed, too.
“Service to others is so much more meaningful when it’s inconvenient,” wrote Michael Otterson, LDS Church spokesman, in the Oct. 7 Washington Post. “Anyone can write a check. It takes a lot more to surrender ourselves to the will of God, put our own lives and personal interests aside, and be willing to endure the rigors of a pretty spartan life for two years.”
‘YOU JUST KEEP TRYING’
Since the age change was announced last year, the number of young people signing up to “endure the rigors of a pretty spartan life” has grown by 37 percent. Locally, that has meant a gradual increase in the numbers of missionaries serving in the Grand Junction and Grand Junction West stakes’ 12 wards.
Bishop Tyler Anderson of the Grand Junction 3rd Ward — ward leaders are called bishops and serve voluntarily and without pay — said the change has been subtle. While the 3rd ward still has just one pair of missionaries serving in it, which has been the norm for years, other wards in the area now have two pairs of missionaries.
Which in turn means that missionaries have to work harder, said Elder Anders Jacobson, 22, of Kitty Hawk, N.C., Austin’s current companion.
“There are just more of us out here, so the pool of people to teach seems smaller,” he explained. “But you just keep trying.”
It can be difficult and a roller coaster of good and bad experience. Finding people who want to listen to a gospel message is hard, the missionaries admit. Add to that an increasingly secular society and a general irreverence for proselytizing sincerity — an LDS missionary hallmark — as well as no TV, no Instagram, no dating, no calls home except on Christmas and Mother’s Day, and a mission can be tough.
Dakota Myers, who turned 18 on Oct. 18 and graduated a year early from Central High School, said he’s aware that a mission won’t be easy. He’s currently preparing his mission application and acknowledges that not everyone wants to hear a message about Jesus Christ from a kid in a suit. Plus, there’s the fact of leaving his guitars and video games at home.
“But it’s something I want to do,” he said, adding that even though his reasons for serving are spiritual, the fact that he can leave at age 18 means his college studies, when he begins them after his mission, will be uninterrupted.
Cameron Leavitt, 19, who leaves Nov. 20 for his mission to Sao Paolo, Brazil, said he’s thought about serving a mission for most of his life, so the age change has simply meant one less year to wait. His biggest concern now, he said, is whether he’ll be able to learn Portuguese quickly and whether his visa will come through on time.
Due to the huge influx of missionaries in the past year, the LDS Church has decreased the amount of time missionaries spend in one of the 15 missionary training centers (MTCs) worldwide. Missionaries are encouraged to rigorously study the scriptures and various training materials, including the Missionary Handbook (missionary.lds.org/missionary/Missionary Handbook.pdf) and the “Preach My Gospel” guide (http://www.lds.org/manual/preach-my-gospel-a-guide-to-missionary-service?lang=eng) before entering the MTC. The church also is cultivating post-MTC training once missionaries are in the field.
All of which can be a lot to take in. Sister Amelia Cope, 19, currently serving in the Grand Junction 12th Ward and originally from Midland, Mich., said the learning curve is steep.
“I was really scared (to go on a mission) and I’m still really scared to be out because I know so little,” she said, “but the Lord makes up the difference in my weaknesses. I know I’m blessed for being here and sharing a message of hope.”
Her current companion, Sister Jen Joslin, 21, from Reno, Nev., added that serving a mission is a lesson in selflessness, and that deciding to serve is not a default, nothing-else-going-on-in-life decision — she was close to earning her information systems degree from Brigham Young University when she left for her mission.
“The Lord has given me everything,” she said. “This is such a small thing to do compared to the sacrifices our savior made for us. We’re doing this out of love.”