Rebecca (Becky) Smith was sitting with more than 200 students on the campus of Brigham Young University–Idaho when the announcement came from President Thomas S. Monson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: women can serve missions at age 19 and men at 18.
“Everyone was speechless. ... You could literally hear a pin drop when he made the announcement," said Smith. "I got really excited for all my [female] friends ... because now they could leave two years earlier.”
After the announcement, Smith called her mom back home in Duncan, British Columbia. Her mother had served a mission years ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Smith said she realised there "were only benefits to serving a mission.”
So Smith decided to put her nursing career on hold. She will be entering the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on 20 March before serving a Spanish-speaking mission in Montreal, Quebec.
Like Smith's experience, the decision to drop everything is not easy for any young man or woman in the Church. Nevertheless, the response to the 6 October announcement remains enthusiastic as unprecedented numbers of young men and women continue to fill out missionary applications.
- Canadian Missionaries Serving in Latvia
- Sister Missionaries Serving in Ontario, Canada
- Young Woman Preparing for Missionary Service
- Missionary Training Center Instruction
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- Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah
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“I've never seen anything affect a generation of young people like what President Monson announced the Saturday morning of general conference,” says Elder David F. Evans, executive director of the Church’s Missionary Department and member of the Seventy. “What we're seeing is just an absolute overwhelming response from this generation to the invitation of the Lord and His prophet to rise up and go and serve your fellow man and preach the gospel.”
In the weeks following the missionary age announcement, the Church reported that missionary applications had increased dramatically (from 700 applications per week to 4,000), with women comprising more than half of the applicants. While the number of post-announcement applications is still double what it has been in the past, the total number of men and women who have applied since October is now about equal. Prior to the announcement, approximately 15 percent of missionaries were young women.
Lucy Taylor of Oakville, Ontario, is entering the Missionary Training Center just 27 days before her sister Janey returns from her mission in Tempe, Arizona, and will be following in her father’s footsteps by serving a mission in Seoul, Korea.
The two sisters were originally looking forward to a hiking adventure together in New Zealand this summer. While Taylor is going to miss spending this summer with her sister, she said the benefit of going on a mission at 19 is that she will be home earlier.
“I will be home from my mission and still very young; ... that is definitely an advantage."
When Taylor opened her mission call with her mom and dad and realised she was going to Korea, she said they all started screaming.
“Dad started yelling a few things out in Korean — Korean phrases. That was fun. I was definitely shocked. Korea was not on my radar, but after a few hours I got really excited and I thought it was pretty awesome. I knew that was the place for me to go."
Taylor added, “I am just so excited to go to Korea. And when I get back, New Zealand and that hiking trip with my sister will still be on my bucket list.”
What the Church is doing to accommodate more missionaries
The Church operates 347 missions around the world, each with an average of 170 missionaries. To accommodate this new influx of missionaries, capacity for many missions will rise to 250 missionaries. When missions exceed that number, new missions will likely be created as needed.
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dispelled false rumours that missions were opening in areas not currently open to missionary work. “Such rumours are absolutely false. Refute them!” Elder Nelson said. "Leaders of this Church enter countries new to the Church through the front door. We do not go in through the back door or via the alley. Our relationships are based on honesty, openness, integrity and complete compliance with local law."
Mission presidents are preparing for increased numbers by training their missionaries who are already serving so they can train incoming missionaries. Mission presidents are also looking at how they can best deploy missionaries within each mission’s boundaries. While the responsibility placed on mission presidents will increase, Elder Evans notes that it won’t be overwhelming.
“We’ve had many missions that have been 220 to 250 missionaries over the history of the modern Church in different places,” he says.
Because the Church has allowed some missionaries in 48 countries to serve at 18 for the past several years, the greatest surge of missionaries from the October announcement will come from countries where the younger age limit was not in place — including the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and Canada.
Adjustments will also be made at each of the Church’s 15 missionary training centres (MTCs). Training time for same-language and foreign-language missionaries will be reduced by 30 percent — those not learning a language will be at the MTC for two weeks instead of three, and those learning a language will have two weeks cut from their MTC stay.
Two recent developments make reduced MTC time possible. First, the Church initiated a 12-week in-field missionary training program a year ago — before anyone knew of the coming age announcement — in which much of the training that occurs at the MTC is retaught and reinforced in the mission field. Second, the Church initiated a study several months prior to the missionary age announcement that shows that it is possible to improve a missionary’s ability to learn a second language by sending him into the field earlier. These two changes would have occurred with or without the missionary age announcement.
To increase MTC capacity, each training centre is maximizing empty space, including putting more bunk beds in each room. For example, the Church’s flagship MTC in Provo, Utah, will increase capacity from 3,000 to 4,800 in the short term. Long-term plans are also being considered.
Although many more missionaries will be at the MTC at one time with the same facilities, Missionary Department managing director Stephen B. Allen says the MTC experience for each missionary will be equally good, if not better.
“[We want] to make sure that the MTC experience for every missionary will be a great experience,” Allen says. “It won’t be a watered-down experience; it won’t be a cheapened experience. It will be a great spiritual learning experience, a time of revelation for those missionaries as they learn how to be missionaries.”
More opportunities for missionary service
When White Rock, British Columbian Alexandra McPhee heard the missionary age announcement, she was "lost for words. I could not believe it. ... I have always wanted to go on a mission." McPhee has been called to serve in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
“I knew without a doubt that I needed to serve a mission and it didn’t matter what I had to sacrifice to serve the Lord. ... I am so grateful for the call that I have and I know it is where I am supposed to go,” said McPhee, who enters the Missionary Training Center on 1 May.
It’s no secret that many more young women have volunteered for missionary service since 6 October. Church leaders are grateful for their willingness to serve. In a press conference following the announcement, Church apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said he is “absolutely delighted if this change in policy allows many, many more young women to serve,” noting that “those [women] who do serve are stunningly successful.”
Church leaders are also thrilled in general that more of the Church’s young people — men and women — will now be able to serve missions.
“This is an invitation of love from the Lord to this entire generation,” Elder Evans says. “What I would also say is that the scriptures make it clear, and I think the First Presidency and the Twelve have made it clear, … that we are all equal before God."