President Thomas S. Monson’s October announcement that changed the age of missionary service triggered a seismic shift in LDS culture. Now, 18 could be the new 19.
What were once the experiences of LDS 19-year-old men — and 21-year-old women — has suddenly shifted, as it has for their families. Young men who are high school seniors feel sudden pressure to serve missions, as do 19-year-old women who find themselves unexpectedly eligible. In the meantime, college men struggle to find dates in a severely contracted dating pool. With the first wave of younger missionaries having entered the MTC, the new age requirement’s impact will continue to emerge.
A family’s experience
When President Monson announced that missionaries can leave at younger ages, many family gatherings erupted in cheers, Baily Beckstrand’s family included. She and her brother, Wilson, planned to serve missions, and the new policy meant that Baily, a 19-year-old genealogy major at BYU, and Wilson, finishing his senior year of high school in Ogden, could leave for their missions much sooner and that they would now be able to experience the process together.
“We were both at the age,” Baily Beckstrand said. “So that meant he could go sooner and I could go, and then we were talking about how we could get our mission calls together and probably leave (at) the same time.”
They submitted their papers at the same time and received calls on the same day — Baily to the Texas McAllen Mission, Spanish-speaking, and Wilson to the West Indies Mission, Dutch speaking.
The new dating game
The months leading up to the Beckstrand siblings’ missions have not been without difficulties, however. The rules of the dating game have changed for Baily Beckstrand since she received her call.
“I can tell when guys hear that, they kind of just figure, ‘Oh, she’s going on a mission, I probably shouldn’t ask her on a date. She doesn’t want to be distracted, she’s getting ready for that, she doesn’t want guys in her life right now,’” Beckstrand said. “I kind of get that feeling that a lot of them think that way.”
The missionary age change has also affected women in serious relationships who were unexpectedly eligible to go. Jennsine Davis, a 20-year-old student at LDS Business College, has wanted to serve a mission since she was young but was in a serious relationship when she heard the announcement.
“I wanted to go right then and there,” she said.
Davis’ boyfriend, Taylor Erickson, a business marketing major at LDS Business College, always knew Davis wanted to serve a mission, but it was hardly on his radar.
“When the age change announcement hit,” Erickson said, “basically I was sitting there watching that and … I was like, OK well, I think this changes my whole life completely for a few years.”
Davis received her call and is leaving for Argentina in June. Erickson plans to help Davis prepare and then write to her while she’s gone.
Many women have found themselves in this dilemma, choosing between a boyfriend and a mission they always wanted to serve. Upon going to their church leaders for counsel, some are being advised to submit papers but continue pursuing the relationship — and opt out of serving if they feel the relationship takes precedence.
Sisters feel the pressure
The MTC recently welcomed its first waves of younger missionaries — 600 on one Wednesday in late January, according to an usher who was responsible for keeping the day’s drop-off process moving. Women, especially, have been leaving in packs. Beckstrand said numerous women in her ward left on missions during Christmas break and didn’t have time to sell their contracts.
“There are a lot of apartments that only have three (of six) roommates … because there are so many that left,” she said.
The women choosing to stay behind now deal with developing stigmas, as are men who are of mission age but are, instead, at college or home. Many women are feeling the pressure sink in.
“When the age change was announced, I felt so much pressure,” said Sam Oslund, a freshman from Arizona. “People were constantly asking me if I was planning to serve a mission. I answered no to some random lady who asked me, and I didn’t even know her, and she told me I wasn’t putting the Lord first in my life.”
Beckstrand said a lot of her friends were excited to submit mission papers, while others were unsure.
“One of my roommates, it just wasn’t her thing,” she said. “I could tell she kind of felt pressure to go, but she’s not going. She decided not to. I definitely think that some people are probably going because it’s kind of the cultural norm now.”
Financial preparation will present a whole new challenge to men who hope to serve a mission as soon as they graduate from high school. Often missionaries take advantage of the year between high school graduation and their MTC reporting date to earn money for mission expenses. Now, without that full year, they may have to work more during high school or postpone their availability date.
Roger Manning, an institute teacher at Utah State University, was the Peru Lima South mission president from 2009 to 2012. He said the average number of missionaries has increased from 220 to 259 since he was there — and a lot of the elders are 18.
“There is a concern from both prospective missionaries and their family members of not being able to earn enough money to support themselves on the mission,” he said.
Wilson Beckstrand, Baily’s brother, intended to earn all the money to pay for his mission, but plans changed when his earning time was cut short by the age-change announcement. He already had earned about half but wouldn’t be able to make the rest before he could leave. Luckily his grandmother offered to pitch in. Between his own savings and help from his family, he’ll still be able to go at 18.
Tana Heninger, Beckstrand’s mom, said she knows many are less fortunate and may not have the opportunity to leave at 18 with the financial restraints.
“Some good friends of ours, I was talking to them, and I (asked if their son is) going to go right now, and they’re like, ‘No, he can’t afford to go. He’s got to work another year to earn the money.’ So he can’t go, even though he could go age-wise, because they can’t afford to help him,” Heninger said.
No answers yet
Since the age change was announced the questions have been brewing. College guys are struggling to find enough women for group dates to the bowling alley, 19-year-old women are wondering how long they’ll need to endure outside pressures if they don’t want to serve, and high school seniors are puzzling over the financial snags.
Additional unknowns may yet arise as the LDS missionary culture continues its period of rapid evolution. Time will bring clarity, and a new state of equilibrium will be established in university freshman classes, student wards, mission prep classes and the missions themselves. Who knows? Maybe 18 is the new 19.