Mouths of Babes — Does Can Mean Should?

O be wise, what can I say more?

- Jacob 6:12

A Mormon boy from an affluent neighborhood in Utah, barely 18 years old, will leave a few days after graduating from high school for the crushing poverty, suffering, and misery of Sierra Leone. This isn’t the plot of an off-color Broadway musical. It’s going to happen in a couple of months to a real person.[1] He’s not going to experience mere culture shock; it will be an entirely different world, a different universe. Nothing in the boy’s lived experience up until this point is going to have prepared him for even the smallest percentage of what he is going to observe landing there. I hope and pray he survives!

There isn’t much difference between an 18 year old boy and a 19 year old boy — both are teenagers still, both usually as green as can be. On paper it’s a wash.

18 Is the New 19: A Much Needed Policy Change Outside the United States

The rule that boys must be nineteen to serve a mission long caused problems in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world where the system for higher education is based on different age milestones resulting from the different educational systems than in the United States. Ronan explained the phenomenon two years ago.[2] His explanation accords with my own observations of the educational problem for Mormon youth in the United Kingdom. Simply stated, far fewer young men were planning on attending university because the mission effectively functioned as a bar given the structure of the educational system. So they did not even view that as a possibility and consequently did not set that as a goal as they plodded day by day through their secondary education (i.e. their equivalent of high school). In contemplating the problem at that time, Ronan recommended lowering the missionary age from 19 to 18 for young men in the UK.[3]

The traditional 19 year old policy appears to have been based specifically on the educational system in the United States: you finish high school at 17 or 18, attend a year of university, and then take a leave of absence for two years to complete your mission, returning to university after the mission to finish your studies. The two year deferral for the mission was, of course, a given at universities in Utah and the Mormon Corridor more broadly. Even outside of Mormon country, American universities proved very amenable to allowing such a leave of absence for this purpose. Catering to the needs of your customers has always been a hallmark of American culture. The prospect of a mission did not even function as a bar (in most cases) for considering studies at America’s most elite colleges and universities.

The problem arose when that rule was applied universally to the whole world, apparently ignoring the very different educational and professional systems in which our youth operate outside the parameters of life in the American suburbs.

British and European boys, for example, faced dual challenges in many cases complying with the 19 year old rule: the different process of advancing in the various countries’ educational systems and a kind of social inertia[4] that resulted as a natural but unintended negative consequence of generations of youth being effectively barred from studies at elite universities in their countries because of missionary service. With the mission as an effective bar to pursuing university education, many young men had little motivation to find ways around it, as Ronan did, and he was only able to do it with considerable support from his family.[5] But this is the follow-on inertia problem, as I noted in Ronan’s 2011 discussion about this problem:

[O]ne point I was trying to make is that this is definitely a self-fulfilling cyclical prophecy. In other words, Mormon men who faithfully went on missions and therefore had to forego any hope of Oxford or Cambridge for their undergraduate degrees simply will not raise their own children with the goal of attending Oxford or Cambridge, especially since they will undoubtedly raise their children with a view to faithfully serving a mission. What Ronan’s post is trying to point out is how mutually exclusive these two things are. Ronan himself did not attend Oxford as an undergraduate but rather for his master’s. And yet in the UK, it might surprise many Americans (including perhaps many General Authorities in SLC?) to learn that an undergraduate degree is all it takes to enter many of the professions, including law, medicine, accounting etc. With undergraduate work at Oxford and Cambridge out of the picture for Mormon men, this puts our whole community at a disadvantage in terms of raising our youth with a sense that reaching the top of their chosen profession is a possibility. Of course this is not impossible but it is much more difficult. (emphasis added)

I have personally observed the existence and effect of this inertia in the UK. Ronan and I had discussed this problem many times, and I had discussed it with many other young Mormon professionals in the UK who had similar concerns, so I was in complete agreement with Ronan’s suggestion. I wrote at the time that “such a simple step as officially stating that men in the UK can serve their missions at 18 could go a long way to resolving this. It would take a generation but the people for whom this allows them to attend universities and enter the professions would then raise their children with university as a main goal of their education all throughout primary school.”[6]

Only a few months after Ronan’s post it became clear that this problem was also on the radar for General Authorities and likely had been for some time. In late Spring of 2011, a letter went out from Salt Lake City to stake presidents, bishops, and mission presidents that young men could now choose to serve missions at age 18 rather than waiting until age 19 in Germany, the United Kingdom, Albania, Cape Verde, Spain and Italy. Through its spokesman, the Church confirmed that “educational or military requirements in those countries” precipitated the change, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune on August 25, 2011.[7] This was wonderful news for young Mormon men in those countries who wanted to serve missions and also attend their countries’ elite universities to pursue professional careers.

Does Can Mean Should?

In October 2012, President Monson opened General Conference by announcing a change in the missionary age policy for young men and young women.[8] The change of the missionary age for women from 21 to 19 was by far the bigger news from this announcement.[9] But President Monson began by acknowledging that “[f]or some time the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have allowed young men from certain countries to serve at the age of 18 when they are worthy, able, have graduated from high school, and have expressed a sincere desire to serve. This has been a country-specific policy and has allowed thousands of young men to serve honorable missions and also fulfill required military obligations and educational opportunities.” (It really was wonderful to hear President Monson acknowledge that one size does not fit all and that a policy had been tailored to the specific needs of local members in areas where US conventions did not govern.)

Continuing, President Monson noted that they had received positive feedback about the service of these 18 year old young men serving missions in the affected countries: “Their mission presidents report that they are obedient, faithful, mature, and serve just as competently as do the older missionaries who serve in the same missions.”[10] President Monson then said that “[t]heir faithfulness, obedience, and maturity have caused us to desire the same option of earlier missionary service for all young men, regardless of the country from which they come” (emphasis in original). In other words, he announced that based on positive results in countries where this policy had already been implemented nearly 18 months previously, the lower missionary age would be applied universally.

Specifically, President Monson stated that “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″ (emphasis added).

The Church has strongly stressed that serving at 18 is only an option and not a new mandate for young men. In fact, President Monson stated this directly in the announcement, “I am not suggesting that all young men will—or should—serve at this earlier age. Rather, based on individual circumstances as well as upon a determination by priesthood leaders, this option is now available.” This is a strong caveat, all the more so because it followed in the sentence immediately after the announcement itself. Elder Nelson reinforced this in the press conference following the session:

Elder Nelson emphasized that the change is an option, not an edict:

“These age adjustments are new options now available to bishops in evaluating what is best for each of their youth,” he said. He continued, “Young men and young women should not begin their service before they are ready spiritually and temporally.”

He stated that schooling, family circumstances, health, and so forth still remain important considerations for the timing of missionary service.[11] (emphasis added)

The Church also noted that “[o]ver the past decade, permission has been given in 48 countries to let young men serve at age 18. Now, the Church will have a single policy worldwide” (ibid.).

This guarded message about the option to serve at 18 also comes through clearly in the Church’s online guidance about missionary service that now appears on the Church’s website: “Young men can now go on missions at age 18, provided they have completed high school. But because they can serve earlier doesn’t mean they have to. . . . Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles clarified, ‘We are not suggesting that all young men will—-or should—-serve at this earlier age. Many will still prefer to start at age 19 or older‘” (italics in original, bold added).[12]

The age change to 18 undoubtedly makes sense — and in fact is a much needed change — in many countries in the world outside the United States. And it is understandable that a universal policy was viewed as desirable. But on a practical level, does it make sense in the United States for boys to be taking advantage of this? The system in the United States is what the 19 year old policy was constructed around because the system allows a smooth transition from high school to one year of college/university to mission service premised on a deferral of university admission after the first year. This deferral is the mechanicism that is often not easily available in other countries such as the UK.

I have already witnessed a number of 18 year olds go on missions since the announcement. Is that a desirable outcome if they have not yet attended a year of university or worked for a year first? Is this going to hurt their prospects for a university education? Also, although Church leaders have received positive feedback about the maturity and faithfulness of 18 year olds who have served in the UK, Germany, and elsewhere since the policy change was announced for those areas about 18 months ago, legitimate questions still remain about whether 18 year olds coming straight out of high school in the US context are going to be as able to adjust to missionary life as someone who has lived for a year with a roommate at a university or while working for a year after graduating high school.

Are we ignoring the special and intentional emphasis the Church has put on the fact that serving at age 18 is an option and that, as Elder Nelson admonished, “Many will still prefer to start at age 19 or older”? I was especially intrigued by Elder Nelson’s quoted statement for two reasons. First, my feeling is that for the US context, it is still preferable for young men to serve at age 19 because our system here allows for that to happen without irreversible social consequences relating to education and career. It seems that General Authorities are saying that exigent circumstances are what would influence a young man to consider going at age 18 rather than at the traditional 19. IS it not preferable to have more mature missionaries? Second, this statement implies something that has always been the case but that seems to have been ignored by many (most?) members: serving even at 19 was always optional.

In other words, though there has long been a mandate for all young men to serve, a young man was always able to choose to serve later, for instance at 20 or 21, if circumstances required it. But in our discourse about missions, for the last several decades at least (I think it’s more accurate to say for the last fifty years at least), we have always spoken of age 19 as an absolute rule, even though this was not entirely accurate. But this was the received understanding among the mass of Latter-day Saints, including in such places as the UK, where in truth boys could always have set goals to attend university without worrying that the mission would effectively bar them from doing so because they could have decided to attend and complete university first and then serve their mission. In many cases in the UK, completing an undergraduate degree, including at the top institutions, only takes three, sometimes four years. Boys heading to university at 17 or 18 could have been out on their missions by 21 or 22. But I never once heard counsel of this nature given in any public address in the UK. The counsel was always a concrete mandate to serve at 19, which is what caused the mission to become a bar to our young men setting goals to attend university in the first place.

I am not sure why this approach was taken of teaching our youth in the UK that age 19 was an absolute rule during the period before they were allowed to serve at 18 as a means of making it possible for them to attend university (after they completed their missions). Did members, including local leadership up to the stake president and perhaps even Area Authority Seventy level, simply not realize that young men could choose to serve at 21 or 22 rather than having to leave strictly at age 19? Or did local leaders make a calculated decision to portray service at age 19 as an absolute rule because they believed that young men probably would not end up serving if they were allowed to choose to attend and complete their university education first?

Of concern, I have already observed that our discourse on missionary age at least in my ward in the United States is rapidly changing to present age 18 to our young men as the strict rule rather than as an option, an alternative tailored to special circumstances. Statements by the Church have led me to believe that age 18, in the United States, is intended to be an alternative, an exception, rather than the norm. But it is as if the strong caveat that the age change to 18 does not mean all should go at 18 is already being entirely ignored. Has anyone else noticed this? I have heard (with some sense of dismay) many lessons from teachers at Church and admonitions from the bishop on down to young mens leaders in all of the quorums to the effect that the boys have to work harder to prepare themselves because now they will need to be ready to go out right after finishing high school at age 18. It is being presented as a mandate just like age 19 was presented for decades.

* * *

I remember that some of the best, most effective and Christlike missionaries (by far) on my mission were Elders who had waited until their early 20s to serve a mission. Circumstances had required them to do this. At the time, they were not allowed to serve at 18 and so the mission would have prevented them from serving in the military and obtaining a university education in their home countries if they had gone at age 19.[13] Our mission president was very lucky to have them (they usually came from Switzerland or other European countries) and they always served as assistants to the mission president. Most missions could have benefited, I would think, from a greater number of more “mature” missionaries.

In sum, the Church has made very clear that can does not mean should on the question of whether boys should serve missions at age 18. From this I gather that the Church intends the Jacob rule to apply: “O be wise, what can I say more?” Early indications have hinted that we might be poised to violate this rule. If we can’t live up to this high standard, perhaps we can at least endeavor to apply its less noble corollary, the Bell rule: “Don’t do dumb things”.

————–

[1] In his farewell talk, he referred to the change of the missionary age policy from 19 to 18 to be the “greatest revelation” announced in his life.

[2] “Consider the British Mormon male. His religious culture wants him to serve a mission and, if he has reached 17 and is still active, he probably has an interest in serving himself. If he wants to serve he will have to withdraw from the university applications process. If he is at an academic school, he will likely be one of only a few who are similarly sidelined. If he is very bright, he will rebuff all attempts to get him to consider Oxbridge. His extreme Otherness will be confirmed.

Americans may wonder why he cannot start university, pause for his mission, then continue. Alas, people do not drop in and out of university here; once you start a degree you continue until you finish. Also, because he is confronted by the oddity which states that he cannot serve until he is 19, he has to occupy himself until he is 19 and will thus, in effect, be taking three years out of education. All the while his peers are starting their degrees and he is delivering pizza. A year into his mission he will have to apply for university intake and hope that none of the universities wish to interview him because it is unlikely that he will be able to return home. Hopefully they will also not see his mission as wasted time.

It is no wonder, perhaps, that some Mormon men thus choose not to serve missions, and some that do, choose not to bother with university. Here I reach for anecdote, so take it for what it’s worth, but in my experience in the UK, there are significantly more Mormon female graduates than there are male. I have one female friend studying in a university town where there are no male Mormon students. The men who go to university before missions tend to go inactive; many who come home from missions feel at 21-22 more obligated to quickly marry and support a family than to ‘indulge’ in education.” (http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/03/08/missions-and-the-british-mormon-male/)

[3] Ronan wrote, “I do worry at all the undereducated and professionally-stunted Mormon men I see in the UK, and I do wish we didn’t lose so many who feel that the choice in favour of missions over university is simply too hard to make. If I could hope for the church to consider one thing it would be to consider one year missions for Europeans, or, if that is too radical, to allow our men to serve at 18, as two years out of education is qualitatively less than three. If the goal is active, educated, professionally-satisfied, RM Mormon men, it is something to think about, at least.” (emphasis added)

[4] In his 2011 post, Ronan noted,

In relating some of these costs, I am aware that I am myself an example that they can be overcome. Some of my friends have been similarly successful. I watched as my friends left for university and tried hard to convince my teachers that I wasn’t brainwashed into giving up my life for a cult. I worked in a cake factory before my mission and in a travel agency afterwards. I came home and eventually earned three degrees whilst married and with children. Professionally, I have arrived where I want to be. It can be done if you want it. I had to forego a potential place at Cambridge because I couldn’t return from Austria for an interview, and it has taken me until 35 to reach pay equality with my similarly-educated colleagues, but I have worked hard towards a goal and was determined to achieve it, thanks in large part to my family’s support” (emphasis added).

So the 19 year old missionary age rule did prevent Ronan from attending Oxford or Cambridge as an undergraduate, though in his case a solid goal to attend university from a young age, supported by his family, landed him at one of the UK’s other fine universities. And, in the end, he was able to attend graduate school at Oxford.

[5] In response to Ronan’s 2011 post, I commented that

This has a more far reaching effect: many Mormon men who choose to serve a mission end up not attending university at all. If they have natural business acumen and are entrepreneurial by nature, they can still make it in the business world, although it really will have to be through pure entrepreneurship and not through a more traditional professional route. There are enough of these to make sure that there is still a pool of wealthy, self-made men who form a group of potential stake presidents in the UK. (This fact perhaps shields the problem from SLC because from all appearances, there seems to be enough LDS business leaders who are viewed as acceptable candidates for stake presidents?) But for the rest, they end up working in some business or other and because of the structural problem with universities and missions in the UK, they raise their own children with a view toward serving a mission and do not emphasize attending university very much, if at all.

This is a huge structural problem because here in the UK, if children do not have their eye on the goal of university by 9 or so years old (when they need to begin preparing in earnest for the 11+ exams, which will determine whether they get into the right schools and into the right study programs to put them on the track to make successful university applications), or at the latest by 14/15 as you note in your post, then they have precluded themselves from consideration at those universities ever. . . .

After primary school (= elementary school in American), children go into secondary school in a school based on what track they want to take several years down the road. Many of them, if they do not have university education in their future because of the priorities of their parents, go to a secondary school that is not even focused on preparing them for a university education but rather for a vocational career. So this starts very young in the UK and if the parents have not gone through the process then it is very unlikely they will raise their children with this as their goal.

The result is far fewer Mormons in the various professions. Mormon scientists, doctors, surgeons, academics, partners at top law firms, officials with high rankings in governmental agencies, not to mention the virtual army of business men and women with (or without) MBAs in the United States are a dime a dozen. Your post hightlights a key reason why this is not the case in the UK. (http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/03/08/missions-and-the-british-mormon-male/#comment-216033) (emphasis added)

[6] I also expressed my confidence that General Authorities were not aware that this self-defeating cycle was occurring and that if they did know about it, they would surely make an appropriate change:

I believe that if General Authorities in SLC learned that a certain policy that is crafted for a particular set of circumstances is actually detrimental to those living with a different set of circumstances when uniformly applied across the world to all circumstances, then they would quickly evaluate the issue and make surgical changes to ensure the well-being of all members of the household of God. For example, I have no doubt that if someone told the General Authorities that a particular mutable Church policy meant that very few, if any, Mormon men would ever be able to attend Harvard or Yale (or any other Ivy League university), then they would act very quickly in making a necessary change. Thus, I can only infer that our General Authorities are not fully aware of the situation on the ground in the UK — however I will note that Area Authority Seventies and Seventies in Area leadership are perplexed at why many of our returned missionaries in the UK (and more broadly in Europe) are too often going inactive very soon after returning home from their missions. I think the issue Ronan raised in his original post and this issue are very likely closely related. It isn’t until after the mission that the full realization of the consequences of this structural problem dawns on our young men, and this could very well be contributing to their discouragement and reduced enthusiasm in their Church life upon returning. (http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/03/08/missions-and-the-british-mormon-male/#comment-216227) (emphasis in original)

[7] Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Some Mormon men can go on missions at age 18,” Salt Lake Tribune Online Edition, Aug 25, 2011 04:58PM (http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/blogsfaithblog/52458313-180/mormon-mission-age-academy.html.csp).

[8] President Thomas S. Monson, “Welcome to Conference,” Talk delivered on October 6, 2012 (http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/10/welcome-to-conference?lang=eng).

[9] In a press conference following the announcement, reporters somewhat bewilderedly asked why in the face of this change in policy the Church was maintaining a disparity between the age at which young men (now 18 instead of 19) and young women (now 19 instead of 21) were allowed to serve. Elder Holland explained that “there needs to be at least some separation” between the genders. When asked why in connection with this change the length of missionary service was not equalized so that women would serve two years like young men, Elder Holland acknowledged that it had been considered but that Church leadership was interested in first observing the effects of this policy change, to which he referred as a miracle, counselling to expect just “one miracle at a time”. Peggy Fletcher Stack and Lisa Schencker, “News of lower mission age excites Mormons,” The Salt Lake Tribune Online Edition, October 8, 2012 6:46 pm. (http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/55035591-78/lds-age-church-women.html.csp)

[10] Anecdotally, my own observation was that the 18 year old missionaries seemed much younger than their 19 year old peers. This surprised me given my attitude that 18 and 19 year olds were equally immature and “green”. But that does not contradict President Monson’s evaluation that they were serving equally honorably and trying just as hard. To me, they just really looked like and seemed like babies compared to the other missionaries, despite only one year of age difference! But that year can make a huge difference during the teenage years when the stresses of maturing compound everyday.

[11] Heather Whittle Wrigley, “Church Leaders Share More Information on Missionary Age Requirement Change,” Church News and Events, Oct. 6, 2012. (https://www.lds.org/church/news/church-leaders-share-more-information-on-missionary-age-requirement-change?lang=eng)

[12] “Missionary Preparation: When Should I Serve?” undated (http://www.lds.org/topics/missionary-preparation/when-should-i-serve?lang=eng)

[13] (Here’s looking at you Elder Bolt! http://mormon.org/me/9rxf)

Comments

  1. Joshua B. says:

    It is unfortunate when any large change entreats a lost profusion of opportunities.

  2. I have also noticed the “option” is being ignored nd now te expectation seems to be 18.

    I’m also predicting young women will (probably within 10 years) feel an obligation (pressure) to serve the same as young men. Soon young women will be attending mission prep and the expectation will be to go rather than it being considered an opportunity.

    Ignoring the “option” for 18 YM and for 19 YW is a demonstration that many ( maybe most) in our culture are extremists, similar to the way we observe the W of W and how we practice and teach modesty – to the extreme.

  3. I have the same concern, John. The message was very clear in the announcement, but, unfortunately, we often don’t listen all that closely to what our leaders actually say.

    I have no problem with many young men serving at 18 – or after they graduate from high school in the US and are at least 18. I do have a problem with 18 being seen as the new de facto standard. My oldest son served when he was 21 – and it was the best choice for him. I would rather young women and men serve when it is right for them individually, not at a default, collective age.

  4. The fact that they have to graduate from high school means that very few can leave right when they turn 18. I have a hard time thinking that the average will be more than 6 months younger than it was before.
    We don’t have many teenagers in our ward so I don’t know what is happening in the Mormon world of missions. I just know that with my 13 year old son and 15 year old daughter, they won’t graduate from high school until they are 18 and 9 months old, so they can’t really leave for a mission before that age. I consider both of my kids to be mature and I am training them to take care of themselves by the time they are 18 whether they go on a mission or across the country to college.

  5. Grammarian says:

    What is the difference between “lived experience” and “experience”?

  6. Rob Perkins says:

    In my part of the world I’m very confident that local leaders will minister and administer appropriately, but the culture here from the youth on up certainly did warp the announcement into a perception of mandate for young men at 18 and young women at 19, and some youth leaders were observed to push for application at the minimum eligible age regardless of circumstance. And in my own family, “may” automatically became “must” in some minds.

    The policy has almost universally excited the active youth around here, though. The young women especially are extremely interested.

  7. Our stake president has said on many occasions since the last conference that 18 is guaranteed nor automatic and that the final decision is left to priesthood leaders (including at our stake conference a few weeks ago). There is no mandate to leave at 18 or right after high school.

  8. That 18 is *not* guaranteed.

  9. I have never heard anything other than “go at 19″ over here (now “go at 18″). A few go later but it is far, far away from the norm.

  10. Within a year or two, 18 will be the de-facto age that men serve missions. All this “18 as an option” discussion will be very quickly swept aside. Structural pressure (timing of college education) and cultural pressure (family, friend, and ward expectations) will very quickly turn 18 into the age men serve missions.

    Elder Nelson’s statement: “‘We are not suggesting that all young men will—-or should—-serve at this earlier age. Many will still prefer to start at age 19 or older.”
    The first sentence and second sentence are completely unrelated. In the first sentence he talks about “Church Policy”. In the second sentence he talks about “the choices men will actually make”. The second sentence does not provide a clarification at all but a statement of fact.

    This is an apologetic statement designed to try and welcome men 19 and over to still serve missions. Men who are 19+ (outside the USA) are respected for their military service, educational, or professional achievements. Men 19+ inside the USA are suspected as being less mature, less righteous, etc… so it’s only natural that they would go on missions later (and Elder Nelson is saying “We’ll still take you since you decided to grow up.”)

    The complete lack of comments on this board makes me think everyone has already accepted “18″ as the new “19″.

  11. “But it is as if the strong caveat that the age change to 18 does not mean all should go at 18 is already being entirely ignored. Has anyone else noticed this? I have heard (with some sense of dismay) many lessons from teachers at Church and admonitions from the bishop on down to young mens leaders in all of the quorums to the effect that the boys have to work harder to prepare themselves because now they will need to be ready to go out right after finishing high school at age 18. It is being presented as a mandate just like age 19 was presented for decades.”

    This has also been a concern of mine. Like you, I hope that we as a church will “be wise” and not default, but I’m not so optimistic–unless this message gets around.

  12. It will become a mandate for young men to go at 18. Once the young man reaches 18 (or graduates from high school) well-intentioned members of his ward and family will start the inevitable barrage of “When are you going on your mission?” I went on my mission at 19 and a half as I had the opportunity to graduate from my junior college before leaving. I’ll never forget one of my fellow ward members asking me when I was going and I explained to him that I was waiting to graduate. His response: “You don’t need to graduate right now. You should just go.” I also predict that 19 will become a mandate for young women who aren’t married or engaged. We’ll start to see the same cultural pressure applied to them. Frankly, I think everyone ought to mind their own business and let these young men and women make this decision on their own (in consultation with family or bishop) and stop focusing on these specific ages.

  13. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    About 5 minutes after this announcement was made, my wife and I turned to each other and decided that we would insist that our son wait until 19 to serve a mission. Getting a year of university in before leaving for a mission makes it so much more likely that they will continue when they return. To be sure, returned missionaries are better students. However, I think fewer returned missionaries will enroll when they return, if they haven’t already started the process before they leave. Unfortunately, a policy change that will facilitate greater university attendance outside the U.S. may actually decrease university attendance rates within the U.S. Also, does serving at 19 increase or decrease a woman’s chances of completing a university degree? The unintended (?) consequence of this policy change might just be that, in the U.S., there are more missionaries, but fewer college graduates.

  14. Unfortunately, a policy change that will facilitate greater university attendance outside the U.S. may actually decrease university attendance rates within the U.S.

    Exactly! This is my concern as well. We always seem to get in trouble when we create universal policies that are supposed to apply regardless of context (that ignore local differences), don’t we? In this case, the policy is expressly not meant to apply like that. Instead, the circumstances of the boy are supposed to govern whether he chooses to discuss taking the option to leave at 18 with his bishop. But what I have observed is that 18 is already being spoken of as the new 19, a mandatory age at which boys have to go.

  15. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Yes, 18 is the new 19. We have already experienced backlash in expressing our desire to ‘wait’ the extra year. In fact, there was even a suggestion that our son might appear to be less righteous than those who leave earlier. So, in addition to 18 becoming the norm (which will surely be the case), it will also become a religious ideal by which righteousness is measured. This will cause problems in our inner-city Ward, where a number of young men have repeated a grade, or two, and will not graduate High School until they are 19. So, when they hit the MTC, already with limited cultural understanding of the Mormon universe, they may also experience slight stigma as a result of their ‘advanced’ age, and perceived diminished righteousness.

    What is interesting here is that the universal policy was generally unnecessary. The earlier age, for males, had already been rolled out abroad, in a limited way. This could have easily been expanded, without making the policy universal. However, there is such a profound discomfort with context-specific practice within the Church that it was simply untenable for the Church to not be “the same everywhere you go”.

  16. Joshua B. says:

    I feel its not fair to expect boys to leave at 18 when most cannot afford to pay for their missions, but it sounds like Europe has it tough.

  17. Last Lemming says:

    I wonder whether an influx of “too green” 18-year-olds will prompt mission presidents to complain to Salt Lake. We might yet hear bishops and stake presidents counseled to aim for 19 unless there is some compelling reason to go earlier (as there is in Europe). I hope so.

    For the record, my son just entered the MTC at age 20 with two years of college under his belt and he would not have considered serving at 18. I am not at all worried about him being considered “less righteous” because of his age. Indeed, I expect him to have extra leadership opportunities.

  18. You really shouldn’t be worried about that LL. Like a 20 or 21 year old cares what an 18 year old kid thinks about his “righteousness”. In any event, I can confidently say that missionaries who go older are better off as missionaries and I would venture to say that they are often more effective as well. That was my observation.

  19. Last Lemming says:

    Umm…”not at all worried.”

  20. Joshua B. says:

    Last Lemming, it is well established that mission leadership is overrated. There are far better ways to spend one’s mission. Far better.

  21. As a convert at age 19, I left when I was 21. I’ve heard a fair amount of comments such as, “Oh, you left … late.” One time I replied, “Yep, and it was SO worth it.”

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    We had several older elders in my mission (mainly due to military service). They were almost uniformly among the best missionaries we had, with a maturity beyond the rest of us.

  23. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    My first and last companions were both 24 years old at the time. Adult converts in both cases, and both outstanding.

  24. I think the idea of a stigma is silly. We had several older elders in my mission and most were in mission leadership, including serving as APs. I think that will continue to be the case, with those who wait a little ending up being more mature and effective, and thus proving to be leaders in their missions. Worrying about a stigma for these elders is just a waste of time.

  25. J. Stapley says:

    In my ward it is very much treated as a possible option, but that it should not be normative. Perhaps because my ward rules.

  26. Mr. Independent says:

    I left on my mission 6 months after H.S. Graduation at age 19 with no university experience. I can honestly say that I would have been a much better missionary with a semester or two of University experience. However I was a much better University Student as a RM than I would have been that first year out of H.S. It is the price we pay for maturing. I agree with the previous posts, it should be an individual decision by the missionary, his parents and the bishop.

  27. Yeah, that’s another thing, my first year of college was pretty much a waste, because I didn’t take it seriously enough, knowing I was leaving for two years. That’s stupid, but it’s pretty common. I think now there will be less of that happening, but for those who choose to start college or work before a mission, there will be some risk that they will get distracted and never go. But I would actually rather run that risk than just have people going automatically after high school. I say all elders should wait until they are ready, whether that’s 18, 19, 20, or whatever. We had one elder in my mission that was 23. He was awesome.

  28. As a professor, an RM who left six days after turning 19 (after having three semesters in college), and the father of a 19 year-old son in college who is waiting to decide whether or not to serve a mission, I would like to think I have a decent perspective on this.

    There are, undoubtedly, 18 year-olds who are mature enough (socially, intellectually, and spiritually) to serve missions. There may be some who need to go at 18 for educational, military, or other reasons. And I have always said–only half-jokingly–that one of the ways I know the gospel is true is that generations of 19 (and soon 18) year-olds have not destroyed it yet. But I think that for the most part, having at least a year beyond one’s secondary education–either in college, the military, or full-time employment while living on one’s own–is invaluable. The difference in maturity and perspective between an incoming freshman and a student at the end of the first year in college is astonishing (that is usually when they realize their parents were actually pretty smart, among other things). Even then, some 19 year-olds simply are not ready and get pushed into a mission because of cultural, family, or ecclesiastical pressure…and frequently their experience is nowhere near what it should have been.

    I worry not only about the pressure that will make 18 the new 19 in the Church, but also the pressure on young women to get married before they turn 19 (and the subsequent pressure to start a family) if they choose for whatever reason not to serve a mission. I worry that we will see more marriages and younger ages (20 year-old RMs and 18 year-old freshmen women) and more young people delaying or abandoning their educations as a result. And I worry that these negatives could offset the positives that this change will bring in the long-term (e.g. having more women who are RMs serving in leadership capacities in the Church).

    While I hope that these decisions will be individual ones between the prospective missionaries, their families, and their priesthood leaders, what I have seen over the past five months is not encouraging. All we can do is try to help our children and those with whom we have some influence or relationship to understand that these decisions–like the gospel itself–differ from one person to another, and that there is no blanket standard that should be applied. Once they understand that and know how to function in society as an individual, they will be better prepared to serve others based on their own unique circumstances.

  29. gregneil says:

    In my ward we’re getting all the boys ready to leave by 17 because you never know when that next revelation is going to shake things up again.

    But really, all the talk in my stake is that 18 is the new norm, although I’ve tried to be persuasive otherwise.

  30. It’s the new norm just because many are now choosing to go as soon as they can, which is understandable. But if bishops and stake presidents emphasize that elders should go when they are ready (and that there is no guarantee that they will be ready at 18) then everything will be fine. When things settle down, I suspect there will be a fair amount that will choose to wait a bit for various reasons, and those elders will be some of our best missionaries. My own son was in the middle of his first semester in college when this change was made. I expect he will go next summer or even later and he will be fine.

  31. Old Man says:

    I am a teacher at a northern Utah high school in a conservative LDS community. I work with hundreds of LDS kids. They are getting ready to go at 18 and 19. The change in mission ages has sobered up many teens socially and academically. They are also placing a greater emphasis on AP and CE classes to prepare for college. I seriously doubt we will see fewer college grads. And I think modern society’s overextension of puberty has costs as well. If you were to ask me, I think allowing those 18 year old teens see and experience the vicissitudes of life, challenging their thinking at an earlier age, will have positive effects we can’t now comprehend.

  32. With the caveat that I am a thirtysomething non-Mormon woman who went to a Catholic school in the U.S. and has no experience with any of this . . .

    It seems to me that for young people who go to schools where few people are LDS, it would be very disruptive socially to leave after freshman year and return as a sophomore to a school where most of your friends and former classmates are now seniors and you don’t know any of your fellow sophomores. It might have been disruptive educationally as well–as a science major, I’m not sure it would have been easy to return to chemistry and calculus after having two years to forget what I’d learned.

    And for LDS people who go to BYU or other heavily LDS schools, as soon as a good number of people start going before college, isn’t it going to start to look pretty unattractive to be one of the few who does go through the social disruption of leaving all of one’s friends and having to readjust to a different social group two years later?

    It seems to me very unsurprising that 18 would quickly become the new norm, even if it were not viewed as less righteous or whatever to go later.

  33. re # 28, But I think that for the most part, having at least a year beyond one’s secondary education–either in college, the military, or full-time employment while living on one’s own–is invaluable. The difference in maturity and perspective between an incoming freshman and a student at the end of the first year in college is astonishing (that is usually when they realize their parents were actually pretty smart, among other things).

    How do you view that as a different perspective? It sounds pretty much the same as what most of the commenters are saying, not to mention the OP.

  34. Of *course* 18 will be the “new mandate” for young men to serve missions. We Mormons just love to make up rules out of mere suggestions from authority figures. How else are we supposed to compare our righteousness against others?

  35. I’m not sure what to make of the age change. I applaud, sort of, the changes made to the women’s age. I love that more women will be empowered by it. BUT, I hate that many will go as a way to bide their time until they get married. When, oh when, will the church teach women to not be so d*amn dependent on marriage for proof of their worth?

    In terms of the men (er, boys), that’s another thing. There is no question that 18 will become the new 19. After all, men can depart for a mission up until they are 25 years and 364 days old (and older with fairly easily obtained approval). No one seems to mention that though; it’s always been 19, 19, 19!

    Having recently returned from a mission (which was an absolutely horrifying experience and not something I recommend for non-conformists/open minded folks), I can say that, as a Sister missionary, dealing with Elders of ALL age ranges (we had 19 to 29 year old Elders) was exhausting. Some of the most mature, understanding, and humble were the 19 year olds and, far and away, one of the most prideful, misogynist jerks was the 28 year old. I imagine it all comes down to how they were raised … or not raised.

  36. KerBearRN says:

    We have also noticed that expectation of 18 now. It is frustrating, especially bc my hubby waited until age 21 to go. For this, I have always been grateful, on many levels. 1) he was more mature and therefore I really believe he got more out of his mission experience (and in all honesty, the mission got more out of him lol). His testimony was also fuller and more mature, and he was better able to deal constructively with the buffetings of mission life.; 2) he had completed 5 full-time college semesters– this meant he had an “investment” in finishing college, and it also gave him a light at the end of the tunnel when he returned– only 2 years left to the degree. 3) returning from a mission as a 23-year-old, he had also had a lot of work experience and life experience from before his mission. All in all, he returned more as a man who was well-equipped to face moving forward into life.

    I expect that if my boys choose to go on missions at all, they will also choose to go later, for many of the same reasons as their dad. And I think that is a good thing. How many young men will be pressured/forced into leaving long before they are ready??

  37. The official guidance is very clear and quoted in the original post. If people are giving talks or admonitions in your ward in which 18 is being used as the new mandatory age for boys, ask them why they are speaking in such terms and point out what President Monson actually said. We really need to be realistic about this. The policy change, as I read the official announcement and subsequent statements by the Church, was not meant to make it mandatory for boys to leave on their missions a few days after graduating from high school. In the United States, the system was working just fine with boys going to a year of college or working for a year first. The problem was in the rest of the world which had been expected to contort itself to the timing and educational possibilities that prevailed in the United States.

  38. J. Stapley says:

    Here is some more reinforcement, John.

  39. Thanks J.. Quoting President Monson’s caveat in the announcement that going at 18 is an option, not a requirement, the Newsroom article you linked does indeed reinforce the point that can doesn’t mean should.

  40. john, fwiw, I didn’t hear the “option” quote as a caveat. I heard it as a central part of the message. I think many members have turned it into a caveat out of a desire to hear it as a caveat. (That isn’t directed at you – at all.)

    That happens a lot – both inside and outside the Church.

  41. Good point Ray! I agree — it isn’t even a caveat; it’s central to the announcement itself.

  42. I’ve also noticed the excitement about the age change announcement. I am currently serving as a priest quorum advisor in a quorum with 23 young men. My sister recently turned 20 and will be going on a mission in June. There are several pros and cons for US members to serve at 18 or 19 years old. If I could have served as an 18-year old, I would have, but the spiritual and practical experiences I gained while living in college housing on a university campus was very valuable and helpful to me later on my mission. Some of the best missionaries I knew in the mission field were older than me by about 5 years, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If I remember correctly, young men are commanded to serve a mission… I don’t remember anything saying you’d better go when you’re 19. I’m grateful for this announcement, too, because I also know of some people who probably would have gone right out of high school but due to some unwise choices they made in college they either disqualified themselves or lost interest in serving altogether. That year, for many of us, is huge, and a lot can happen during high-school graduation and our 19th birthdays. I do think it’s a problem that it is becoming the culture in many areas that if you’re not leaving when you’re 18, there’s something wrong with you. One great thing about this announcement is it emphasizes the need for individuals to prayerfully consider what is best for their own lives and seek personal revelation to know when (and, for young women, if) they should serve. I would have been very grateful to have that experience of receiving such important personal revelation before my mission, as that’s a skill I started to develop as a missionary. Whatever the case may be, I support anyone who chooses to serve when they’re 18 or 19… or 25, for that matter.

  43. Kenny, would you have applied to college as a high school kid if you knew that you would be flying away to Sacramento or Seoul a few weeks after high school graduation to spend two years as a missionary? For a 17 or 18 year old kid, two years is an almost complete barrier blocking a view of what will happen after the mission. A barrier so insurmountable that a lot of kids simply don’t think about or imagine life after the mission.

    If you hadn’t applied to university as a high school kid because you planned to go on the mission right after high school at 18, would you still have gone to university?

    Are high school kids who are raised from childhood up to visualize themselves as leaving for a mission at 18 right after graduating from high school going to do the kind of academic work during high school that will prepare them for university and/or enable them to be admitted to university?

  44. johnf, the Church also strongly encourages young men and young women to go to college. I don’t see that changing at all. So, I think the message still will be to serve a mission and go to college.

    I was almost 19 when I graduated from high school. I served my mission before starting college. There never was any question that I would do both, and I applied to college before graduation, was accepted and then deferred entrance. I know not all colleges will do that for students, but many will. I just don’t see the Church de-emphasizing the importance of education, so I don’t see the membership doing that either.

    Yes, I’m concerned about 18 becoming the cultural default, but I’m not concerned about RM’s deciding to skip college. If anything, it might move more young adults to focus on schools that will defer entrance and accept older freshmen – and I’m sure the Church thought of that.

  45. Tangentially, but still: “crushing poverty, suffering, and misery of Sierra Leone” – I’m writing this from my home in Ethiopia, a country on a similar HDI ranking as Sierra Leone. African countries are not just gaping holes of misery – yes there’ll be culture shock for anyone traveling from the ‘first’ to ‘third’ world, but can we get over this idea that Africans are just living daily hells that we could possibly never understand? Challenges are huge – (i.e. your neighbourhood has no proper sewage or health facility and guns are still rampant in society from post-conflict situations), but there’s a lot of beauty, joy, and plain old normal day to day living as well. Try and see African countries the way that people who live in them see them, not as convenient tropes to fuel arguments.

  46. Thank you for that rpw. I agree it’s an important perspective.

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