It was the moment that filled the Conference Center with audible gasps, inspired thousands of stunned reactions and led to the creation of hundreds of memes.
The October 2012 LDS General Conference brought one of the greatest changes to church policy in recent memory: men could now serve missions at the age of 18 and women could serve at 19.
The huge increase of missionaries and their subsequent return led to some major changes at BYU. Returned missionaries made up 46 percent of the student population at BYU in 2012, a significant change compared to the 63 percent of returned missionaries on campus today.
Thirty-three percent of female students at BYU are returned missionaries, a significant increase from the 10 percent that were returned missionaries in 2012.
However, there were many women who did not feel inspired to serve after the missionary age change and now feel at a disadvantage because of their choices.
Megan Gorton, a UVU senior from Eagle River, Alaska, who is majoring in exercise science, prayed about whether she should serve a mission after the missionary age change, but she didn’t feel right about it. Gorton feels like she has been given many opportunities, but she’s at a disadvantage in the realm of dating.
“(Returned sister missionaries) get put on a pedestal,” Gorton said. “I feel like they are seen as more righteous or more spiritual. I’m a good member of the church, too.”
Cassandra Belliston, a recent BYU graduate in art history from Pleasant Grove, Utah, said she had an experience shortly after the missionary age change where she heard two men discussing marriages and returned missionaries.
Belliston said the men discussed how they would never marry someone who had chosen not to serve a mission, and there were no excuses now for girls who chose not to serve.
This kind of commentary can be hurtful to women who made the decision not to serve a mission, especially after prayer, these women said. “It’s not our priesthood duty to serve,” said Katie Seastrand, a senior from Salt Lake City, Utah majoring in art history.
However, not all men share these same feelings. Grant Perdue, a junior from Carlsbad, California who is majoring in information technology, does not pay attention to whether or not a girl has served a mission when looking for someone to date.
“For me, the fact that a girl has served a mission is nothing more than a bonus,” Perdue said. “I don’t actively seek out returned sisters, but I don’t actively seek out non-missionaries either.”
Perdue said whether or not a girl has served a mission isn’t important to him because “it’s not pertinent to eternal salvation.”
Lauren Barnes, an assistant professor in the School of Family Life, said whether a person has served a mission only affects marital success if his or her partner has the expectation of marrying a returned missionary.
“It’s just one factor,” Barnes said. “While missions do help people develop valuable skills, it only matters if the other partner has those expectations or assumptions. I’ve seen people unrighteously hold it over their partner.”
A 2010 study that BYU conducted on LDS families found that while returned missionaries did have greater success in avoiding divorce, their missions were not the only factor that contributed to marital success.
While not minimizing the importance of the changes that missions cause in people’s lives, the authors of the study, Bruce A. Chadwick, Brent L. Top and Richard J. McClendon, discovered that factors in a person’s early life that led them to serve a mission may also affect marital success.
While many women who didn’t a serve a mission may find dating problematic, some women say the judgment from choosing not to go on a mission comes from other women. “During Relief Society is honestly when I feel the worst about not serving a mission,” Belliston said. She said being surrounded by so many women who have served missions makes her feel like she can’t relate to all of their experiences.
Other women also feel like returned sister missionaries set an unobtainable standard. “I feel like so many girls feel like their missions will make them a much better wife and mother,” Seastrand said. “That’s not a bad thing, but I feel like they treat it like it’s this unattainable level of goodness that (girls who haven’t served a mission) will never be able to reach.”
While dealing with the wave of returned sister missionaries is unavoidable, many women choose to deal with it in different ways. Heidi Dray, a junior from from Bentonville, Arkansas who is majoring in elementary education, decided not to serve a mission after a lot of thought and prayer.
Though many women who didn’t serve a mission do feel judged, Dray has never personally felt this judgment.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure to go since the age change, but I’ve never felt judged really,” Dray said. “And even if people did judge me, it’s my choice. I don’t really care what everybody else thinks. That’s something that’s between me and God.”
Gorton echoed her sentiment. “It’s important to be confident in your choice to not serve a mission,” she said.
Gorton said her confidence in her decision has helped her to deal with judgment from others. Belliston said the thing that really helped her feel good about her choice to not serve a mission was knowing she had important life experiences in the time that she would have been on a mission.
“As long as you can answer to yourself honestly, you don’t have to answer to anyone else,” Belliston said. “There are many different roads that are preparing us for exaltation.”