More thoughts on missions

One of the reasons for lowering the missionary service age to 18 for men in the UK seems to have been to prevent the “dead space” that otherwise existed between school and missions. The British education system has historically not allowed a pause in university studies. The new system allows a seemless transition from school to mission to education/career which has been attractive to some.

What it does not seem to have done is remove the problem of what I have noticed to be the general educational underachievement of young Mormon men in the UK. With no experience of higher education before the mission, some return and find the pull of work and marriage greater than the desire to go to university. The new system doesn’t really solve that problem. Perhaps an emphasis on age flexibility might help, allowing some to decide to get a degree before the mission, but I cannot see that happening as Mormon culture is going to continue to prefer missions before graduation. Thus missions remain somewhat perpendicular to higher education in the UK, especially Oxford and Cambridge who prefer their candidates at 18. Consequently, very, very few Mormon male undergraduates make it to Oxbridge and serve a mission, which is a shame.

I have made this point before so don’t wish to belabour it. More interesting is the effect on young women. I think it is wonderful that more women are probably now going to serve missions but there could be an interesting consequence, again regarding education. As it stands in the UK, LDS girls find it easier to go to university and serve missions. They leave school, take their degree, and then serve. Consequently, Mormon women here tend to be at least if not more educated than their husbands. Now they will find themselves in the same situation the boys used to be in. More are going to want to serve but they now face that same “dead space” between school and mission, space they cannot fill with college. Will they return and move on the university in the same numbers they do now? I suspect they will not.

And even in the US, a woman is going to graduate later because of these changes than she does now, with more things (missions, marriage) to interfere with her education. So, are we going to have better ecclesiastically trained women but less educated ones? This is all crystal ball stuff right now, but it’s worth thinking about. I am optimistic about this change but it really is a change, and a big one at that.

One other thing: the year between school and missions has often helped in the fundraising necessary to pay for them. A boy who goes from school to mission is going to have little time to work to raise enough money. Many 18 year old elders will be coming from homes where that isn’t a problem.

All in all, I hope we heed Elder Holland’s plea that this change only widens our options, not enforces certain mission ages as “normal”.


  1. I share some of your concerns. I hope going at 18 is the exception rather than the rule. The possible negative consequences are, to me, somewhat frightening, especially for young men who have given up some of their youth to serve and then will come home and face enormous pressure to marry and will have to take on huge amounts of debt to get an education. What I really fear more than anything is a generation of young men who will some day in the future feel that they missed out on their youth and will, as one of my close missionary friends did, walk away from it all: wife, family, church, everything. He said all his life he had done what others expected him to do, wanted him to do, never did he do what he wanted to do. I hope I’m wrong.

  2. I agree, RJH, that the key is matching the local members’ and leaders’ vision to what the apostles have said. If culture trumps revelation and intent, it can have undesired consequences – but that is true of so much in the Church.

  3. Why is it that young British LDS men feel that pursuing marriage and a university education aren’t compatible? Is it a different cultural perception of university? I mean, in the US, “college” usually conjures up images of adventure, parties, and romance. Is it not so in the UK? Or is there a more practical institutional or economic reason not to get dating in your university or university in your dating?

    Or am I just missing something?

  4. I see it as giving young people more flexibility. I hope that people do not see the change as some rigid rule that all young men must file their papers as soon as they are graduated from high school or turn 18 and all young women must only go on missions when they are 19.

    For example, my daughter will likely earn her bachelor’s degree at 20. Rather than wait around for a year before she serves the mission she is planning, she can now serve after graduating from college if she wishes.

    The flexibility is the key to this change. It gives young people greater options, which is a wonderful thing in my opinion.

  5. I also hope that this change creates more options and not just a new cultural imperative but already that hope is being dampened. Based on several facebook comments by parents and young men that I know I’m sensing an attitude of “sure you can wait but if you’re really committed and really have faith you will want to serve as soon as you can.” I hope I’m wrong.

  6. Ronan, As to your point of the possibility of becoming less educated overall, while it is valid concern-there are many, many missionaries who after serving a mission have an increased desire and drive toward more education. In my experience,this seems especially true in the case of sisters. As I recall the Perpetual Education Fund was set up to fill in that education gap for saints from poorer countries who were driven to learn more post-mission.

    Other than that, the press conference seemed to emphasize flexibility for both men and women.

  7. marginalizedmormon says:

    If all of your children are cognitively handicapped, it’s not even an issue–
    neither is the mission.

    But for those with ‘normal’/advanced children, 53% of college graduates under 25 in 2011 were unemployed–

  8. I share Ronan’s U.K. concerns also for other European nations. Will our high school grads, when returning from a mission at age 20 or 21, still be motivated or be able to enter higher education? Will marriage pressure prevail and the consequent need to find employment, which will lead to low paying jobs with only a high school degree? Combining family, work, and schooling seems easier in credit-based educational systems, such as in the U.S., but usually not in Europe (and other area’s in the world) with the usually demanding full-time academic school years. The breach between high school and college years can also be much more difficult to overcome in Europe compared to the American system with its emphasis on General Education during the first college years. In Europe, most high school grads are geared to and prepared for immediately entering specialized study fields. A two year breach may be very difficult to overcome. The least we can say is that there are other challenges than in the U.S.

  9. Peter LLC says:

    I’ve heard of this pressure to marry, just not in Europe, at least not at the tender age of 20. And I don’t see why it would be difficult to combine a basically free university education with a family, the expenses of a two-person household being less than twice that of two single housholds.

  10. pwaldrop2 says:

    Because of my late August birthday I turned 19 three months after HS graduation and left on the mission in September.

    I never would have done as well in collage if I hadn’t served a mission first. I gained study skills, maturity, and other attributes that helped me succeed. I imagine that a lot of young people would/will similarly benifit.

  11. Curt Conklin says:

    A second thought, I don’t think this has been mentioned specifically, . . . the change to age 18 and high school graduation will have a dramatic impact on freshman admissions starting next year for the three BYU campuses, and the Utah state system of higher education. That would be my guess anyway. OTH, the application stats will pick up again in 2 years, when the 18 year old missionaries return home. It will also have a dramatic affect on BYU and UofU football! More Taysom Hill’s!

  12. I’m looking forward to the day when they drop the “mandate” entirely, making it a matter of encouragement rather than command, and let men and women serve when and how they feel they should. Many young men, already feeling an intense pressure to do something they have no desire to do, or who even possibly feel that it is something they should not do, are going to feel that pressure ratcheted up at an earlier age. These will be under a pressure that may cause them to become disaffected earlier.

    I’m not saying that this will happen often enough to not make this change. On the whole, I think having a broader range of allowed possibilities is going to be helpful to different young people in different circumstances. I only mention it because I do believe that it is going to happen.

  13. it's a series of tubes says:

    And I don’t see why it would be difficult to combine a basically free university education with a family

    Taken a peek at the cost of university education in the USA recently? The “basically free” UK model couldn’t be further from it.

  14. Coke Drinker says:

    In America, another option might be for young men to get their bachelor’s degree first and then serve a mission at age 22. In this past this has been frowned upon. I wonder if this would be more acceptable now with the changes?

  15. A lot of the young men I knew who went after they graduated found it harder to come home and find a job, and wished they had gone before graduation. No matter what, serving a mission comes with blessings and drawbacks. I think this allows men and women a chance to choose which drawbacks they most want to avoid, and which ones don’t matter as much.

    If you want the view from a current YW president, who is also a feminist, you might enjoy this post. When she was first called she really wondered how she was going to survive the calling. As more wards had new liberal/feminist YW presidents called in her stake, the hope/despair of the group grew. (They all were called in the last 12 months.) As you can tell, she loves the girls she serves, and she has been giddy/excited/relieved/determined about this chance to turn YW into the program she dreamed it could be.

  16. great post Ronan and thoughts/issues to consider