Missions and the British Mormon Male

Armand Mauss has recently written on the costs of membership in the Mormon Church for European Mormons. They are high. Read any of Wilfried’s old T&S posts and you will have this view confirmed. I would like to note another way in which European Mormons shoulder a heavier burden than do their American co-religionists generally: missionary service.

My insight is largely anecdotal and Britain-specific. It may not elicit any sympathy (after all, Zion is a city of sacrifice). However, some realisation of the specific challenges of international Mormons is useful for an American audience, I hope.

Choosing to serve a mission is never easy, but a young Mormon male from Deseret will find that it is at least part of his culture. There are high costs to not serving. Even Americans from outside of Mormonland at least enjoy an education system which can tolerate two year absences. Less so in Britain where the absence is usually three years and more difficult to navigate. Missions can thus be a serious hindrance to university education which in turn has professional implications later in life.

In Britain, from about 14/15, children are placed on a conveyor belt which will lead relatively seamlessly through school and off to college (vocational) or university (academic). By 16 they have largely focussed their interests and at 17 will be choosing, if they are interested in university, their major field of study. Sometimes a “gap year” is taken after school; most often, students glide straight into three years of a degree and then into work.

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.

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.

And yet 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.


  1. An example of flexibility:

    I had a friend whose birthday was in November. Thus he turned 19 the same year he finished school, served a mission and was given permission to come home a couple of months early to start university in September. He was also allowed to come home for his Oxford interview. Of course, this was possible because of his birthday and the fact he served in England. April birthdays serving in Russia would not have had this opportunity.

  2. Interesting stuff, Ronan. I’m quite certain the vast majority of us Yanks would never have had occasion to think about this. Hard to quarrel with your recommendations.

  3. Karen H. says:

    I think the fact that the missionary department has tinkered with mission service (2.5 years in my father’s time, and a brief period of 18 month service in the early 80s) shows that the two year commitment is cultural, and institutional, but not magically doctrinal. I also think that there are exceptions for children of mission presidents to serve early.

    The question is how do you bring this situation to the attention of decision makers. Maybe a British area authority?

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Ronan, I always felt a little sad for the euromissionaries, because clearly they were either (a) sacrificing enormously to be there or (b) had nothing else happening in their lives. This helps me understand a little better. Thanks.

  5. Ronan,
    My knowledge base is more specific to Finland, but that country also has some of the same challenges. In addition to the educational decisions you highlighted, the policy of conscription presents an ongoing difficulty for Mormons considering a mission, as this generally takes place right in the wheelhouse for mission application/preparation/departure time (18-20 years old, on average). Additionally, time spent in the military is (based on fairly broad anecdotal evidence and a generally acknowledged consensus among Finnish members) one of the major “mission-killers” as peer pressure toward substance abuse, chastity violations of diverse types, and a generally non-spiritual environment deplete much of the (often already waning) spirituality of Finnish Mormon teenagers.

    The idea of allowing a truncated mission period seems less than ideal to me, but it would certainly be better than nothing. I think that allowing Finnish men to serve at age 18 would be a reasonable solution, as it would specifically allow them to serve before military service–that in and of itself would probably treble the number of Finns who would serve missions.

  6. Thanks for the realistic perspective. Its really no huge deal here in the states to take a couple of years off and go back to school.

    The church really struggles in Europe and I think its getting worse and worse there for a host of reasons

  7. Really interesting, Ronan. I had always wondered how the system was negotiated there. Some good suggestions. Any idea how many women in Britain serve and do university as opposed to the US say?

  8. Thanks for this, Ronan. I have definitely experienced this tension out here in the UK since most of the elders we feed are now in the middle of this tension. When we first moved out here I was amazed at how few of the elders serving from the UK had previously gone to school, but now it is clear the traditional model in the US (graduate HS, attend one year of College, go on mission) just doesn’t apply.

    Just another example of issues we have to deal with as we become an international church.

  9. RJH, my own experience was as follows:
    At 18 I went to Sheffield with no intention of serving a mission. After my first year I decided I wanted to serve a mission and at the beginning of my second year approached my year tutor to let him know of my plan. I was strongly discouraged for academic reasons but was informed I would be able to complete my final year even after taking 2 years out. Served my mission and returned to complete my final year.

    I share your concerns but think that there are additional (possibly greater) challenges to educated, professionally-satisfied Mormon men. The major challenge I think is that for many YM I see a university education is not a priority for their parents. Generally speaking (again anecdotally), those who have gone to university and served missions have been encouraged from a young age to plan on both endeavours.

    In addition, it seems there are far more active female YSA than male YSA (in the UK). Some YW perhaps feel they can’t be so picky as to want a YM who is both an RM and a university graduate due to the small pool of active YM as it is. Therefore the incentive to go to university after mission service is likely reduced, IMO.

  10. >Any idea how many women in Britain serve and do university as opposed to the US say?

    Don’t know, but 21 is a natural age to go on a mission as at 21 they will have graduated. On the other hand, I wouldn’t advise missions after university for men and women looking to build professional careers, as the mission is going to look like a very large black hole on your CV. University disguises that. Which is why mission 18-20, university 20-23 is good.

  11. Thanks for this information, Ronan. Japanese elders face a similar conveyor belt system with the result that many of them who do serve do so after university when they are in their mid-20s.

  12. WVS: It’s less of an issue for YW as it’s possible to go to university and graduate by the age of 21.

  13. John Mansfield says:

    Perhaps leaving after completing a university degree would work out better?

  14. Michael G. says:

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    I know that the church did allow 18 year olds from the UK to serve missions precisely for this reason (my good friend served at 18.5 in the late 80’s and he says this was common). So I don’t know what happened to change it back again.

  15. gomez,
    You’re the first person I know who punctuated his education like that. Well done. You realise how massively counter-cultural that is, right? But as you say, if you are driven, it can be done. (Not at Oxbridge, though, I’d guess.)
    As to why there are more active LDS YSA women… I’d like to suggest that part of it *is* the peculiarly British burden of missionary service outlined above.

  16. Michael G.,
    I remember that period, although I think they were restricted to serving in the UK. It was in flux when I was preparing to serve. For a while when I was 17, we were told we could serve earlier or come home earlier, but then it was kiboshed. As I said, it worked out for me in the end, but you have to be made of strong stuff.

  17. Yes, I am aware of how counter-cultural it is. I am the only person I know who did it this way (and no it wasn’t Oxbridge – University of Sheffield, fwiw).

  18. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    One of the Elders I respected highly in my mission started his mission when he was 23 years old. He’d been uninterested in the Church for a while before his early twenties but had a spiritual awakening and decided to serve how he could. Turns out, he said, that the Church will let single men begin regular missionary service anywhere from 19 to 26 years old. He was one of the humblest men I ever knew and worked his butt off. Still, most of the other missionaries thought of him as the “old” guy (even though he was nothing more than 3-4 years older than us). Since returning home I have often thought of him when I hear about other young men who “aren’t interested” in serving a mission. I’ve found that while most who don’t want to serve at 19 also don’t want to serve later on, but there are still some who do end up going a bit later. We treat 19 as the only option, but it’s not. We look with sadness at a young 20-year-old man who is at home, but the window for service is wide. Perhaps we would see more missionaries happily serving (and a wider range of experience and maturity in the missionary force) if the rhetoric were toned down from jumping out of the gate *at* 19 to planning on serving within the window of service the Church allows for young men. (The same would go for young women, of course, but I don’t believe there is any age where the service of single sisters is not allowed, they can serve at 21+ years old.)

  19. Tom,
    I agree. But what about serving at 18 too? I mean, I can fight and die for my country at 18. Why is 19 a magic number other than that it gives American males a year of college to get out of high school mode?

  20. John Mansfield says:

    “I can fight and die for my country at 18.
    If the training centers instructors yelled more, and each president had a stockade available, it might work out the same.

  21. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

    Re # 10 – Why would a mission after university create a black hole on the CV? I served my mission right after graduation, so I have that same gap. I inserted a line on my resume explaining what I was doing in that 18 month period, and no employer has had a problem with it. They treat it like taking time off to join the Peace Corps or something. Do people in the UK do other service opportunities between education or career, or is it something that isn’t done?

  22. Yup, as a yank, this would have never crossed my mind. Thanks.

    Is it common at all (and how difficult) for a British Mormon male to come to the United States to pursue his education? It seems like this too would alleviate some of the problems – although it might be more expensive, harder, and more emotionally difficult to be so far from home. But could it at least be another viable option?

  23. Fletcher says:

    RE: Serving at 18.

    Due to the current visa restrictions between the US and Brazil, there just aren’t enough bodies to serve in all the mission areas. Therefore, the Church is currently allowing 18 year old Brazilian males to be called on missions.

    I would guess that 19 is the “magic number” since most American boys are out of high school by the time they turn 19, and they won’t have to leave high school to start missionary service.

  24. 18 – I think if we loosened the emphasis on the “Leave at 19” ideal, we would have many less missionaries. If it were to become more of a flexible goal, than the YM wouldn’t have a line in the sand where they knew they should make a decision, and would more likely than not put off making that decision IMO.

    I don’t think that would be a problem if we allowed European men to leave at 18, so it doesn’t enter into that discussion, but I’m just speaking to Tom’s idea that loosening the emphasis on the leaving date would be a net benefit.

  25. The leaders are consistently informing us that this is now a universal church. However, the reality is that whilst it is a global church in terms of branches and people it is still culturally an American church with some habits I feel need breaking. The age of 19 is a perfect example, the American educatgional system is different from ours here in the U.K. and ours is different from other parts of the world. A blanket approach is no longer the best way forward.

    Also, Europeans seem to be grouped together as one group and the same culturally, educationally and spiritually. The fact is that you can drive 3 hours and confront 3 different languages with totally different cultures. I feel that the church as a whole does not recognise this.

  26. Peter LLC says:

    Surely in today’s political climate there would be a way to pass off two years of post-university volunteer service as your humble contribution to the Big Society?

  27. South Africa has mandatory missionary service as well making 19 an impossible age for young men.

  28. Ronan, why did the university system develop like that in England? Is it fairly similar in the other main European nations?

  29. I believe Taiwanese missionaries also serve at 18 because of the timing of compulsory military service. When we were there a young man was just getting ready to leave for his mission in Canada.

  30. As a data point–I left for my mission from the UK–August 1989- turned 19, 4 weeks later in September. I served in the Alabama Birmingham Mission.


  31. Growing up in England in the late 80’s most of my friends went on missions at 18, except my best friend. My ward was a split American/English ward just outside London (High Wycombe). I went to BYU so serving at 19 was expected but my friend was becoming a plumber and needed to start his apprenticeship. Well our Bishop was american and he flat out said he knew English Elders could go at 18 but since that isn’t the way we do it in America it wasn’t really the Lord’s way. He then refused to process the papers until he turned 19 and really screwed things up for him.

    We both went to England on our missions and payed full price – the averaged pay plan started 3 months after I got home.

  32. Ronan, wow. I had no idea. Thank you for bringing this into the light. I hope it gets lots of play topside.

  33. Naismith says:

    When my son got his letter naming him a National Merit Scholar, I was stunned to see that he was not allowed to take any time off, that the years had to be sequential. By the time I read it, the office was already closed, and I had to wait until the next day. When I called and told them that he was planning on two years off, their response (and remember, their offices are in Iowa, not SLC) was, “Oh, is this for a mission?” And they said that of course he could take time off for a mission, just submit a certain form. They also allow up to two breaks for childbirth for women.

    So I was overjoyed, but also grateful for those who went before and paved the way for him. I suspect that if I called 30 years earlier, the answer would not be so straightforward.

    It is hard to know how much this will take care of itself as the church grows and this situation becomes more commonplace.

  34. Has there ever been any movement by the church to establish something like BYU-England? Is that even feasible? I wonder if it could help to have a school that understands and accepts taking two years off in the middle like is common in the US.

  35. I wonder if, as the Church encounters different situations like this around the world, we might see a reassessment of the 2-year-proselytizing-mission model. Perhaps different kinds of proselytizing or service missions, of different scopes or lengths, in different parts of the world?

    In the last few years we’ve seen a dramatic change in how senior missionaries are called and used, the duties into which they are enlisted, and the variability of length they might serve for different service assignments.

  36. I think so, Jeremy, and I think it’s definitely a possibility, but I expect it’ll be a lot slower coming along than might be hoped for.

  37. Jacob, the Church used to operate schools all over the place, but they have dwindled. Higher education is a very costly endeavor, and outside the US the Church hasn’t been able to do it. The last of the Church-owned schools, in New Zealand, either recently closed or is closing imminently.

  38. p.s. nested comments FTW.

  39. Quadruple-nested!

  40. John Mansfield says:

    Twenty-seven years ago, it was no problem either.

  41. Julie M. Smith says:

    Ewww . . . nested comments.

  42. Jeremy, to your credit, that seems reasonable, I don’t see why not. I mean, it is a commandment from God to serve a mission and I do believe the way we go about doing that was established through revelation, but Heavenly Father also reveals things according to the circumstances in which the children of men are placed, and adaptation is sometimes necessitated by circumstance. That said, I still think for many extenuating circumstances that faith is required and God provides a way to fulfill His will completely; nevertheless, if we took this to the Lord I don’t see why a little adaptation for the brethren in England wouldn’t be acceptable to the Lord, except that (and this is pure speculation, I don’t know for myself how things are in England with the brethren) He might want to see that the majority of the brethren in fact wanted to serve a mission to begin with and were already willing to sacrifice all to keep the command. Again, that isn’t to say that’s how it is in England, I have little to no clue, but if that were the case then that paradigm would make sense to me. I could be wrong, of course.

  43. Welcome to 2003, Julie.

  44. I gave up a 4 year scholarship and my “only opportunity” for a college education to serve a full-time LDS mission. I was looking at a career on the assembly line when I came home. I was blessed with a first companion who showed me how to earn enough money teaching English (Yes, it was against the mission rules) to pay for one year of college during my first 4 months of missionary service. I could work for one year after my mission and earn the rest. I also knew of a fellow missionary who made loads of money (enough to retire at age 30) smuggling cameras and jewelry from Japan to Korea. So I stopped worrying about my career.

    The official at the university whose job it was to tell me that my scholarship was gone happened to be a high counselor in my stake and he had crossed swords with other fiery members of my family. I threatened to go around to testimony meetings in the stake to repeatedly and publically rebuke him if he did not bend the rules for me and at least give me the remaining two years of the scholarship. He quietly agreed to all 4 years, one quarter at a time. So part of me wants to tell you Euro-whimps to have more faith and buck up.

    But I am old enough to remember when a full-time LDS mission was OPTIONAL. Donnie Osmond was given a “Get Out of Mission Free” card by Elder Paul Dunn and didn’t go because it would have ruined his music career. I also recall that Joseph F. Smith (The Prophet in the first decades of the 20th century) left for a mission to Hawaii at age 15.

    President Monson and a whole generation of men including my father and his brothers served in WWII and most never served missions. President U-dorf certainly feels your pain. In early church history missions were served for random but shorter lengths of time. Many other examples come to mind that illustrate the flexible nature of missionary service in this church historically.

    The details of the current practice of serving a mission is NOT an eternal principle. That it is sort of mandatory is a cultural and institutional oddity. I give all European Saints and those in other similar circumstances my permission to do what is best for your life, remembering to do it with an eye single to the glory of God. If a full-time LDS mission is going to ruin your life and make you a considerably less effective instrument in the hands of the Lord then do what you have to do.

    I have also watched what the missionaries here are currently doing and it seems to me like they are mostly wasting time. They are so bound down by so many rules and fear of disgrace from being sent home for some trivial infraction that they can’t even imagine how to be effective missionaries. We give our 15 year old boy scout senior patrol leaders more latitude and trust than full-time missionaries seem to get.

    I would like to see the LDS missionary department raise the bar on themselves and upgrade the mission experience. For example, I am impressed with the US Peace Corps although I have never actually served in it (yet). The picture they paint is appealing. They have a wide variety of different service opportunities (education, youth development, health, business, agricuture, environment). I think if the LDS mission experience was as good of an opportunity for leadership development and service as what the Peace Corps looks like on computer screen, it might actually be a resume enhancing experience that even stuffy old British scholastics would applaud.

  45. FWIW, I think Ivy League schools used to talk very sternly about taking time off in the middle of college, as perhaps Oxbridge do. Generally speaking, though, people/institutions have no problem accommodating this sort of experience. My friend who started at Yale in 1993 said that he was granted permission for the “cultural experience.”

    I think ROTC kids (and military colleges) have to get permission, too, but they do indeed get it when they ask.

    I suspect there is some calculation for the point at which a shortened mission is too short to make language training worthwhile. Perhaps we will see some sort of choices presented in the future: you may choose a one-year mission provided you do not require language training, and missionaries willing to learn a language make a 2-year commitment .

    While I think a “wider window” of acceptable missionary service would be fine, considering that many of the snafus missionaries make currently are due to immaturity, I am not sure going younger is the solution.

    RJH–as other have mentioned, we put our missions on our resumes without issues, if we didn’t we would all look like we were goofing off at university for 6 years. That hardly seems preferable.

  46. #38 Mike: ” I give all European Saints and those in other similar circumstances my permission to do what is best for your life.”

    What a relief to have your permission.

  47. Sooooooo. . . . the point you make is that you were righteous and valient and served a mission, and the Lord blessed you for your service with opportunities to break mission rules to make money and threaten spiritual leaders to retain scholarships. Oh, and if need be, you learned how to smuggle goods past customs to earn a living.

    It IS a shame that the mission office doesn’t raise the bar so we could have more missionaries follow your example.

  48. seems that a mission after college would work fine in this circumstance. unfortunately, serving at the prompt age of 19 is somehow perceived as more righteouss than serving when you are 24

  49. Seems like a massive ask to leave home for six years at that early age.

  50. 2 years would not be normal, and anyway missions to convert people to (what seem like) oddball religions don’t have the same resonance among gentiles as would a year spent volunteering in refugee camps.

  51. The tone of one or two comments suggests that some suppose I am having a big moan about the road to ruin that a mission provides. Not so. It certainly wasn’t for me but that’s easy to say at the grand old age of 35. We do ask a lot of our kids.

    I just remembered another consequence of the post 19, 2 year mission: there are some careers in the military that you could not undertake. Fighter pilots in the RAF have to begin their training by 20 (at least they did in the mid-90s).

  52. And of course, by home I potentially mean “continent.”

  53. Yeah, for sure. It definitely wouldn’t be an easy route. It would pretty much negate the academic/career hurdles you talk about, but it would introduce some pretty big emotional ones.

  54. Ronan, that actually raises a question for me: Is the plight for British males in this situation any better by considering other EU nations, or is it basically the same? While the USA may be a great distance (and cost), what about France, Germany, or Sweden?

  55. I really thought the rules HAD changed?? Many 18 year old lads have put their papers in and left this year in the Cheltenham stake…it would seem 18 is the new 19 as they are encouraged to start thinking and applying. Is this just an ‘our stake thing?’.

  56. But if we make Ronan the headmaster…this would be a perfect idea.

  57. Can I pose a somewhat unrelated question?

    Namely, do we treat well those who don’t go on missions? Many young men choose not to go. Many feel like their next choose is to leave the church because they are treated as pariahs.

    Consider our entire First Presidency didn’t serve missions, should we be more understanding as a people?

  58. Being a pariah in the Church is not really all that bad.

  59. The military academies have only recently warmed up to missions. Air Force was more friendly to the idea way before Army or Navy.

  60. Jacob M says:

    It’s not so much being a pariah, but more thought of as unmarriagable material. Once you’re out of a YSA environment, most people don’t care if you served.

  61. Straight Talker says:

    As my work frequently takes me to my firms UK locations, I’m very skeptical regarding the claimed inflexibility of UK universities. Many of our UK employees earn their degrees part time while working for us. Some have taken substantial breaks from their part time university to work full time when family obligations warranted. Most do eventually finish.

  62. Ummm, Ronan lives there and attended school there. Also, there is a wide variety of university types, even in the UK. Job prospects are heavily influenced by where one attends.

  63. My wife wishes that she had know that I was unmarriagable before she married me.

  64. And teaches prep-school there, if I’m not mistaken.

  65. And supports Everton FC, if I’m not mistaken.

  66. Cynthia L. says:

    Very unfortunate about the rigidity of Oxbridge. I imagine that has negative consequences for many students, not just LDS. What about pregnancy? What about a serious illness, including mental health issue? Breaks and flexibility are needed in many scenarios.

    That said, until flexibility materializes, there should be accomodations by the church.

  67. But what does that have to do with anything? (No, no. He’s got a point.)

  68. It’s a well founded question and I agree that we should treat all with love and respect. There are many well founded reasons why a young man might not serve.

    But I think it’s also fair to ask the question why does the young man choose not to serve?

    Using the examples of the First Presidency as an excuse not to serve doesn’t fly very far since all three were precluded from serving due to mandatory military service and/or restricted calling of missionaries due to a war. It’s clear that they suffered from some of the very challenges discussed here, especially in the case of President Uchtdorf who was facing conscription. President Eyring wanted to serve but couldn’t and President Monson likely faced the same challenge since the Church wasn’t sending many missionaries out post WWII.

    Today, which is different from the 1940s and 50s the call is for every young man to prepare themselves to serve and be worthy to do so. If a young man simply chooses not to do so because they’re not ready then they should find a way to make themselves ready. I served with several missionaries who weren’t ready at 19 but were at 22, 24, 26. Deciding that he doesn’t want to serve means that a young man is not living up to his obligations. I know that sounds harsh, but then every Prophet since President Kimball has said as much with President Monson repeating the call just last October: “I repeat what prophets have long taught—that every worthy, able young man should prepare to serve a mission. Missionary service is a priesthood duty—an obligation the Lord expects of us who have been given so very much.”

    I will say that growing up in the Midwest and on the East coast much less attention was paid to whether or not a young man served than I suspect is the case in large Mormon enclaves like the Mountain West.

  69. Emperor’s New Groove ftw.

  70. Alain,

    What should the consequence be for not serving?

    — Shame by parents, family, ward members, etc.?
    — Limited employment opportunities?
    — Restrictions on who they can date?

    The reason I am asking is that I am seeing how young men are treated in my ward.

    I saw one called on a mission and then released because of maturity. His parents were ashamed and expelled him from the house.

    I saw another who chose not to go (didn’t see it as important). His girlfriend’s parents said he was not welcome in their house anymore.

    Another has a severe learning disability that precluded service. The coldness of members has been remarkable. He no longer attends.

    My point is that we can set a standard for service but we need to be careful how we treat those who do not serve. I think we basically shove them out of the church today.

  71. This is the post I wish I could have written and have been contemplating this issue for some time.

    For the sake of clarity for readers unfamiliar with some of these terms/issues:

    – Oxbridge = Oxford or Cambridge, two of the UK’s top universities. This post points out why there are so few LDS men who end up at Oxford or Cambridge as undergraduates. If they are interested in serving a mission, they have virtually no chance, no matter how bright they are, of being admitted to Oxford or Cambridge for their undergraduate work, if they serve at 19, which is the age that has been set based on what works in the United States, apparently without regard to the difficulties it creates in the UK or elsewhere. Serving at 19 makes undergraduate work at Oxford or Cambridge virtually impossible; it makes undergraduate work at any other university very difficult.

    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 entreprenuership 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.

    Having said all this, Oxford and Cambridge might still be in our youth’s future as graduate programs, which is the way you did it.

    – 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.

    As you note, 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.

  72. While this is much less of an issue in the US, it still can be. My father and 2 of my uncles attended their first year of college at their preferred (prestigious) schools, served missions and returned to finish at less well-regarded state universities because the schools wouldn’t allow them the time off. It seems from comment 39 that this is changing (I hope so), but it has in the past presented the same stumbling blocks you mention. While all 3 of my family member graduated and went on to have successful careers, they had to work harder and have perhaps never caught up to the salaries and prestige they could have found if they’d stayed at their original schools and not served missions.

    I also agree that we need to examine how we (as a culture) promote mission service without marginalizing those who don’t serve. I had a friend in college who didn’t serve for medical reasons, and who was judged harshly by many at church who thought he was either unworthy or unwilling. In my opinion this is going to be even more of an issue in coming years, since currently anyone on the autism spectrum isn’t allowed to serve a regular mission (at least last I checked — policy on this seems to fluctuate a lot). The ward we were in 2 years ago had 9 primary kids out of about 100 who were on the autism spectrum, though many of them it wasn’t immediately obvious because they were completely mainstreamed. (I knew because my son was one, and I had many discussions with the parents of the various other children.) If the current policy holds then none of these children will be able to serve missions, but it might not be obvious why, and they shouldn’t feel the need to divulge private medical information in order to avoid judgment at church. (Obviously, since this affects my son, it’s something I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about and worrying about.)

  73. Peter Vousden says:

    I went to an English university aged 18, graduating in June and served a mission aged 21 starting in August. It was a very long time ago but being older made me a much better missionary. Check the records, but I’m sure Gordon Hinkley was a 24 year old English graduate when he served his mission.

  74. Some of the “new” universities and the Open University (distance learning) may allow such an approach. Don’t expect Oxford to be so flexible, though.

  75. John,
    Of course this is only a problem for Mormon men. If you were to stay here that long, your daughters could move seemlessly from school to university to missions if they so desired. Hence my impression that there are more Mormon female graduates then men and a lot of Mormon men in dead-end careers.

  76. Just to clarify John, are you suggesting that the secondary school you go to at age 11 determines whether you go to university or not? There may be an element of truth to this re. Oxbridge (ie. if you don’t get into a private/grammar school your chances are greatly reduced) but this is not the case for most. Most secondary schools are geared towards getting their students into a university education. I went to a bog standard secondary comp (so bog standard it has since been knocked down) yet most of my school friends went to fine universities, including Cambridge, LSE, Durham, and several other Russell Group universities.

  77. I would add that there may be another fundamental problem in getting Mormon kids into Oxbridge. That is ~50% of Oxbridge undergrads come from private secondary schools. Unless you are exceptionally bright the only way of getting into private school is to pay. I would wager that with on average more children than the average family and with the extra financial constraint of tithing and with less professional working mothers, far fewer Mormon families (comparitively speaking) are in a financial position to put their kids through a private secondary education.

  78. But if you live in an affluent area with a grammar school and an abundance of private schools, as John does, the state schools may well be especially ropey. Hence the pressure to pass the 11+.

  79. Can’t believe Cheltenham would get away with doing something like that on its own, M.

  80. That may be true in John’s case, but I would imagine that is a situation that few Mormon families find themselves in (ie. worrying that the secondary school their kids go to will determine whether they get a shot at a decent university or not).

  81. Yale says yes to missions as long as they are foreign and foreign-speaking, so it can kind of count as an education.

    I graduated in 2008, so this is current practice.

  82. They’ve been doing the same thing in the York Stake for the last year or so. It’s pretty much standard practise here, for precisely the reason the OP discusses.

  83. My experience: it was expected that when I turned 18 after ‘Sixth Form College’ (A-levels completed: the requisite qualification for University applications), I would take a year saving up money for my mission – which I did. I served in Portland, OR from October 2002-October 2004, and arrived back a month or so too late for that academic year’s intake: so 2004/5 was another year working, and applying to Universities. The mission took me 4 years, realistically.

    I applied for Oxford twice: once prior to my mission, and I’m persuaded that my stating that I would want to defer entry for 3-4 years (I was told my local members that this might be considered) was a large part of my being turned down. Then I applied to Oxford again when I returned, and I remember the scepticism with which my missionary service was addressed in the admissions interview. Who knows: but I think my church service put me at a disadvantage, and more so in my humanities subject (English Lit), I suspect.

    It all worked out well, though: I was admitted to Bristol Uni to start in 2005, which was a great experience. I completed my BA in 3 years, and went directly into an MA and PhD (half-way through at present) at York, another good institution.

    I might suggest another LDS cultural issue that I think is even more difficult to navigate in relation to education and professional development: marrying young and obeying any real/implied commandment to ‘not wait to start a family’. My wife and I took this very seriously, and we had 2 children during my Undergrad years. That’s been a much bigger challenge to navigate, especially as my wife has decided she wants to go back to work.

    For many reasons, I’ve long felt that the LDS culture discourages education past a basic level. In the UK now, where almost half of young people go on to get Bachelor degrees, that qualification isn’t worth very much any more. Encouraging and facilitating further study for young people should be a priority for the church, I agree.

  84. This is not common in our Stake, so I imagine that it is a local initiative. Interesting that there is some variation on this issue. It seems like a solid recommendation could be made.

  85. But with less men going to high ranking universities, isn’t this a self-fulfilling cyclical prophecy?

  86. Cheers for that perspective, Andy/

  87. Scott,
    I may well encourage my kids to study in the EU.

  88. I have to agree with Julie, I’m not a fan of the nested comments. BCC has great posts and great discussions that can cover hundreds of comments over days and weeks. Before, I could come back and find the last comment I’d read and catch up on the conversation. Now, new comments can be buried anywhere inside the thread and I have to scroll through the entire thread to make sure I haven’t missed anything. Most forums have an option to view discussions as nested or linear, but I don’t see anything like that on this software. Am I missing an easy way to be able to find all new comments on old threads?

  89. Steve, I think you misunderstood me or perhaps I wasn’t entirely clear. I don’t think as a community that we should impose any consequences on a young man who chooses not to serve. We should love and support them and work to strengthen them and help them to appreciate the role they can play in the Church and the role the Church can play in their lives.

    There are plenty of square pegs out there who will not fit the round hole. And I’ve seen examples just like you describe in my own Stake. I can think of one young man in particular in my Ward who the leaders worked and worked to encourage to go on a mission and he was adamant that he would not go. His father even asked the leaders to back off because going into the military was really the best option for this young man and he would not do well as a missionary. Do I think it was the right choice? I don’t know but he really seems to be thriving and who am I to contest what a father felt was revealed as the best course for his own son.

    But do I think we as members should treat these young men any differently? No, in fact we should wrap our arms around them and show them how much we appreciate them. There is clearly a sense in our congregations that something is wrong with a young man who doesn’t serve and many unenlightened members do not appreciate how harmful that can be to the spiritual growth of that young man. So he’s not ready now, what are you doing to build him up and make him a strong priesthood holder in spite of his decisions today.

    However, ask me that same question when my daughters are older and are looking for a mate. Do I think a mission is a prerequisite for a young man to be worthy to marry one of my girls? I’m going to go with a qualified yes there. Would I forbid a young man from dating my daughter if he had not served a mission? No, but I would certainly get to know him and measure his talents, capabilities, and spiritual strength – just as I would do for any young man who served a mission and wants to get involved with one of my girls. I know that a mission can have an extraordinary impact on a young man but I also saw those who served who probably would have been better off not doing so – they wasted their time and came away worse for the experience. So serving a mission is important but it’s not all I’m looking for in a potential son-in-law and the lack of serving one is not a reason to reject him if he has developed spiritually through other endeavors.

  90. Reply to B. Russ:

    Sorry you didn’t get it. I didn’t earn anything spiritual on my mission. Blessings given to me were undeserved. Not righteous, not valiant. I made a few smart choices and some rotten ones. At the time it was hard to tell the difference. Didn’t you ever wonder why sometimes the worst missionaries have the most success? Are they still bad missionaries?

    Both worthy goals, going to college and serving a mission seemed impossible to do. This is like the dilemma our British brothers face. I chose one (mission). I was so worried about my bleak occupational future. The Lord through an unconventional companion showed me a way to achieve both goals. Taking a little money from rich Japanese corporations while doing what we were otherwise doing seemed like nothing. We thought of it as living a higher law, supporting ourselves without financial help from home. This self-reliance made us bold and creative in preaching the gospel. Smuggling seemed like a bad idea and I only mention it to illustrate how far outside the box other missionaries were willing to go.

    It was actually worse (or better) than I described. This same companion also taught me dating skills that allowed me to later win the affection of a woman I could have only dreamed about otherwise. (Parley Pratt dated on his last mission and married his 12th wife and her legal husband chased him down and killed him). And the most amazing thing was that my unconventional companion was the leading baptizing missionary. I never had as much fun as when I was working with him. There was that 4-day trip with those fisherman buddies when we went to a strange land where swarthy Caucasians spoke a harsh language I think might have been Russian during the 1970’s. That really was stupid.

    Don’t you find it hypocritical to preach to the young Mormon boys to serve missions on Sunday and then take their scholarships away for doing it on Monday? Following contradictory rules because obedience trumps everything else? Does the mission make a boy such a weenie that he would just to roll over and let that happen? Not me. The high counselor knew in his heart that I was right. His response proved it and I thank him for it.

    Another event that demonstrated the result of my mission was when my mother first asked me to go to the store for a gallon of milk the day after I got off the plane. Filthy pictures were ubiquitous in Japan but I was shocked to see a certain magazine openly for sale right there in a rural 90% Mormon town. I poured the milk into the key board of the checkout machine and began to preach in a loud voice mostly in English. The store asst. manager, also friend from high school, took me for a walk and welcomed me back from my mission and asked me to avoid evil by not coming back into the store until I had “adjusted.” The magazines disappeared. Perhaps not a very good way to deal with a problem but it worked.

    As far as raising the bar, do you think things are better now than they were in the past when missionaries were not on such a short leash? I admit the missionaries are following the rules far better than we did. And they are much better prepared. And I bet hardly any ever get drunk anymore their last night in Utah like some of my friends did. What are the results of this higher level of obedience?

    The Ensign has published two numbers stated in General Conference every year since 1970. The number of full-time missionaries and the number of convert baptisms. Put this data into a digital file and do the division yourself. Oh, but it is the members who are responsible for bring in the converts. So take the total membership of the church year by year and divide that into the annual convert baptisms and the picture worsens. The missionary department needs to do something more about it before the ratio gets any closer to zero and they know it. I suggest that changing the approach a little further away from obedience towards creativity might be part of the answer. Is that so unreasonable?

    People including missionaries need to stand up for themselves and do what they know is right especially when it is contradicted by outside voices, in or out of the church. Sometimes things work out in ways you never anticipated. The Lord turned most of my missionary mistakes, which were substantial, into blessings. I have faith that our British/ European brothers will find the best path and if that does not include full-time mission service then so be it.

  91. Maybe the thought is that what the Church needs is slower growth with more solid converts who will remain active and make their way to the temple. Speaking for my own Ward, while I was WML the focus was on retention and reactivation. When Elder Perry came to visit the Midwest last year his message was to specifically focus on reactivation efforts as a tool to find part member families and potential converts. As a result of that focus – which was something we’ve been doing for the last 3 years – we’ve seen a lower number of baptisms but 90% of them have been endowed or are well down the path toward the temple.

    Creativity may be called for but violating the white handbook and endangering missionaries unnecessarily probably steers wide of what the Missionary department needs to do.

  92. Straight Talker says:

    Thanks Ronan. The part timers I’m talking about are most numerous at our New Castle facility, and university grads that went full time seem to be rare at that site. Also their degrees are usually in the sciences and engineering, not humanities. Does that make more sense?

    On the other side of the coin, I do remember the one Limey comp I served with was a degreed accountant w/ work experience.

    On a side question, is Oxford the only 4 year undergrad program in the UK? I’d heard the USA is generally 4 years because our 1st universities (Ivy League) copied Oxford. Sadly, I worked with an Oxford grad once that got terminated for threatening his boss when told he was being transferred back to the UK.

  93. Oxford and Cambridge only, I think, although some degrees do include an extra year abroad or for an internship.

  94. I had a companion from Manchester. My recollection is that he was finished with his degree. He was a little older than the typical missionary, which made him good to have around. True story: I made the mistake of asking him if the picture on his nightstand was of his mother. “Actually, it’s me grandmother,” he told me. Turned out to be his girlfriend. Oops.

  95. B. Russ, yes, one 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.

    Many people certainly believe me to be naive but 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.

    gomez, I would imagine that is a situation that few Mormon families find themselves in (ie. worrying that the secondary school their kids go to will determine whether they get a shot at a decent university or not). This certainly makes me happy to hear as the stress of trying to get my 9 year old daughter ready to score in the top 2% of the 11+ exam is taking a harder toll on me than my own SAT and LSATs combined. But in any event, I am among the lucky ones because I only have daughters so far and as Ronan adroitly points out, this really is only such a stark issue for Mormon men, who feel pressure to serve missions at 19 (even though technically they could just as easily go after finishing university but for the fact that we are hearing 19 reinforced at every General Conference, etc. and leadership in the UK seems to be repeating that emphasis, encouraging missionary service at 19 and discouraging waiting. For my daughters, they can do their A levels, get the undergrad degrees at Oxford or Cambridge (if they are fortunate enough to be accepted) or any other university, and then still go on their missions on time.

    But this post is about the disadvantage our Mormon men are facing. Drilling a little deeper, this post opens the question of why there are not as many Mormons at the top of their professions in the UK as in the United States. Of course, there are Mormon men who have “made it” in the UK. But it is a much more difficult achievement because of the structural issue (not because of lack of talent)! Ronan’s observation that lowering the mission age to 18 in the UK would address this issue is a very bespoke solution that would tailor the missionary policy to the structural reality in the UK educational system without causing any kind of drastic change in Church culture or coming of age for young Mormon men.

    By the way, gomez, I think it’s great that things worked out for you and I of course realize how elitist my comment sounds, focusing so much on Oxford and Cambridge. Ronan’s post doesn’t take such an exclusive focus. But I think it would be valuable for American Latter-day Saints to consider for a second how it would be if faithful membership more or less excluded the possibility for them to attend Harvard or Yale or other Ivy League schools. But as Ronan notes, even studying at the broad range of other top universities in the UK is made much more difficult by this structural issue (which is why your experience is so heartening). And the structural issue has an internal effect such that UK LDS parents might not be raising their children with the same focus on university education (at the best universities, which is a goal that must be set early and then worked toward throughout the entire teenage years) as many of their contemporaries in the United States for which Church membership does not present this structural impasse.

  96. Thanks, John. I think there is some worth in focusing on Oxbridge to the exclusion of other great UK universities just because for some professions, namely law and politics, in order to rise to the top it seems only an Oxbridge education is good enough.

    I share the concerns of the OP. And I would like to see a relaxing on the ’19 the only acceptable age’ rule. I think serving at 18 might be problematic for some – from the ‘rigours’ of a 9am-3pm school week and the comforts of home to a (potentially) foreign speaking/culture mission may be a bit much for some. I know in my case living away from home for 2 years was invaluable experience. But more flexibility all round would be a good thing.

  97. Peter LLC says:

    Perhaps not a very good way to deal with a problem but it worked.

    Yes, I’m sure the ends justified the means.

  98. Yes, that’s true. The other notable option is if it somehow became culturally acceptable among British Mormons for men to serve their missions starting at age 21, once they have finished with university. They will probably be much better missionaries as well if they do that. As Ronan notes, this will create a hole in their resumes in terms of applying for jobs after university, but at least they will have their university degree in hand and in many fields, training contracts are set for some time in the future in any event so they could have that in hand as well when they leave on their missions and then come back to something worth looking forward to and working hard towards.

  99. Yeechang Lee says:

    My understanding is that British universities, including Oxbridge, have a long tradition of taking “mature” (21 or older) students. Oxford has Harris Manchester College just for mature students, same with Hughes Hall at Cambridge, and all Oxbridge colleges take some mature students (or, at least, they claim to). Are British LDS men returning from missions not able to take advantage of these options?

  100. Yeechang Lee says:

    While leaving for a mission from most top US universities is simply a matter of filling out a form, Yale is unusual in not letting its undergraduates leave their studies for any reason for longer than a year without reapplying. While readmission is more or less a formality to those who left in good standing, it is still time-consuming for a missionary in Florida or Argentina or Belgium to fill out paperwork and obtain recommendations. It sounds like, based on Amanda’s post, that Yale has changed its policy for non-US missions, which is welcome.

    The US military academies work in a similar way, with cadets required to formally resign then reapply; http://www.usna.edu/LDSSA/Missionary%20Q&A.htm describes the process at the Naval Academy, for example. As the Q&A explains being readmitted is not difficult if the applicant left in good standing, but I imagine that the paperwork is still inconvenient for a missionary in the field.

  101. Just by way of an update,within the last couple of months it has been announced that young men can now leave for missions at the age of 18, not sure if this is worldwide but IS the case in the UK.

    John, a 43 year old RM from England

  102. We’ve seen nothing formal Stateside in the way of a letter to the Bishop or Stake Presidency – at least in our area – and the statement in Handbook #1 which was revised last Fall maintains the line of 19 – 25 yrs of age for service for young men. Glad to see there is flexibility that matches the local circumstances though.

  103. Reply to #89:

    “Do I think a mission is a prerequisite for a young man to be worthy to marry one of my girls? I’m going to go with a qualified yes there.”

    I agree in principle and I only have a vague idea about a big problem. I hope some of y’all might enlighten me with facts. (That is what I like about this site, someone is usually willing to correct me).

    I have a gorgeous, intelligent daughter on a music and academic scholarship in a top 10 university. She doesn’t date at all. Her best LDS friend from high school at Stanford, a tall gorgeous knockout blond hasn’t dated more than once or twice, going on 4 years of college. Another hot little Latina friend gets asked out by non-LDS guys frequently and they expect sex by the second or third date and she is really getting tired of dating. Another LDS friend who had a problem sleeping with guys when she was a 12-13 year old trapped in a 17 year old’s body repented and now as a college student at a church school, she has been engaged to RMs four times, all after short relationships. One friend wants to marry the first guy (nice RM) she dated in college but after she serves her mission, resulting in a planned 4 year courtship.

    The singles ward that meets in our building is running 70% female /30% male when I have been invited to attend. Less than half of the guys who go through the YM program serve missions and of those who don’t serve, I can think of only one who married an LDS girl and that was after they got pregnant. I am told that about 10% of the guys in the single’s ward are gay. Another 30% have serious problems with viewing the wrong kind of visual literature and are dumb enough to tell the girls in the ward about it. Most years see fewer than 5 marriages in that ward. I have heard that at least 30% of our singles church-wide will never marry. From what I see, it appears that percent could easily double.

    While in high school this same daughter attended a summer music camp in the West. Most of the campers were indulging in various inappropriate erotic activities. The only virtuous guy she met was a Mennonite from Pennsylvania. He invited our family to visit his family. (I probably thought this was more serious than it was, but you never know.) I was worried about taking a vacation among these folks, they might hand me a pitchfork and point me in the direction of a big pile of manure.

    I was deeply impressed with the goodness of his family and their church group. Of course I noticed huge differences, extreme pacificism, less emphasis on education although both of his parents are Phd level college professors, and others. My opinion changed about the RM requirement. I ahve never met a better LDS family and I would be honored to become a part of their family. I have kind of developed a hierarchy of desirable outcomes for my daughter:

    1. Temple marriage to good RM.
    2. Temple marriage to good LDS guy, not RM.
    3. Civil marriage to good LDS guy, easier to get back on track.
    4. Civil marriage to a decent guy of another faith.
    5. Civil marriage to a not as decent guy, (maybe she could whip him into shape, even if the risk of divorce and single parenthood is over 50%).
    6. Virtuous LDS singleness.
    7. Not virtuous singleness.
    8. Wide variety of other not very acceptable choices.

    The problem with my hierarchy is that she is an adult and she is going to do what she wants to do. She knows what I think and she will take that under consideration. But I have an amazingly small amount of say in this matter. We are fooling ourselves when we image interviewing some young guy and determining whether he is allowed to marry our daughter. Forward looking church members might be thinking about a time not too far away when a large portion, even perhaps a majority of our children are growing up in interdenominational families.

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