If you had any doubt about the impact of the announcement yesterday that missionary service for men and women can begin earlier, just read the reactions in the bloggernacle, on facebook and twitter and even in major newspapers. The largest of the blogs in the bloggernacle have already weighed in on the change… multiple times… in less than 24 hours. I have to wonder; has anyone not put in their two cents?
But, I don’t think that we’ve really covered much of the practical effects of this change. The comments seem to have focused on how “equal” this makes men and women, or perhaps on how this might change the church when a larger proportion of women serve. While these are certainly significant effects, I think there are more.
More details were made clear in the press conference held yesterday after the morning session of conference. There several things were made clear:
- Outside of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, few knew of this announcement ahead of time. No one at the BYU campuses knew. Mission presidents didn’t know. MTC presidents and staff didn’t know. I’m sure many of the staff at BYU admissions and at the MTC aren’t looking forward to the amount of work this will give them over the next few weeks or months.
- Growth in the number of missionaries serving is already strong right now. Currently a few more than 58,000 missionaries are in the field, up from 55,410 at the beginning of the year — representing an annual growth rate of better than 6%. Elder Nelson reported that over the past two years the number of young men serving has increased 6%, the number of young women serving has increased 12% and the number of senior couples serving has increased 18%.
- Time in the MTCs will be cut by about 1/3rd (for English speaking missionaries at the Provo MTC this would mean 2 weeks instead of 3 weeks there. Those learning languages would spend 4 weeks instead of 6 weeks). This increases MTC capacity by 50%, but will, I think, require additional MTC staff to handle administrative processing.
- Missionaries are already using a very successful 12-week post MTC training program in the field, which should mitigate the reduction in time in the MTC. In the press conference, Elders Holland and Nelson also emphasized the need for better preparation of missionaries prior to their entrance in the MTC.
- The Church’s 347 missions currently average 167 missionaries. Elder Holland indicated in the press conference that these missions could absorb many more missionaries. Raising the average to 200 would accommodate more than 6,500 additional missionaries.
So, given this, I’ve made a list of changes that may come from this announcement, along with some comments on them:
While I am no expert on college recruiting, I suspect that moving up the missionary age for young men will help in most cases. The model in which missionaries played or red-shirted for a year before a mission and then returned to the team after a mission required an interruption—something of an irritant to many coaches, I’m sure. Serving a year earlier removes the interruption, but also may shift the doubts to the recruiting process (where currently coaches worry about it anyway).
- College Applications
This is, IMO, the biggest hiccup for young men planning to attend college. High School seniors are, or should be, already preparing applications. This usually requires some coordination with teachers and guidance school counselors. In my children’s high schools, which were very oriented towards preparing students for college, the guidance counselors had regimented schedules for when students were expected to provide various documents, essays, transcript requests, teacher recommendation requests, etc. What happens to all this support if the student isn’t planning to go straight to college? Should students apply normally and then ask for an immediate deferment? Or should they wait to apply until after serving a mission? Of course those applying to a BYU campus may not have to worry about this too much.
- MTC Language Teaching
If the time in the MTC is cut by 1/3rd, I have to wonder what will happen to missionary language ability. Perhaps I just don’t know much about the current language training at the MTCs. In my own mission (now 30 years ago, so quite out-of-date) missionaries rarely did any formal language study after leaving the MTC. Learning was all through practical experience. Perhaps missionaries now do more formal language study on their own than they did then. But I doubt it.
- BYU Enrollment
Since the deadline for applying to BYU for Winter Semester (October 1st) has passed, there seems little doubt that this will decrease the number of enrolled students for Winter semester. Beyond that I doubt that the overall number of students at BYU will change much. Since the demand to go to BYU will only change temporarily, the easiest option for BYU Admissions is just to reduce the qualifications required for entrance enough to keep the size of the student body roughly the same. So, students who want to go to BYU should apply now and for the earliest spot available, since when the bubble of missionaries that will serve as a result of this policy returns in two years or so, BYU Admissions will have to raise the requirements for admission still higher.
- BYU Enrollment of Women
In the press conference, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Peggy Stack asked, in jest no doubt, if BYU’s freshman class would be all women as a result. Probably not, because freshman aren’t all the same age, but it may be that the 18-year-olds at BYU will eventually be almost all women. Certainly the age and gender mix of the student body will shift. I wonder if this may even cause a shift in things like BYU’s need for varous types of on-campus housing. I have the impression that after a mission the traditional dorm-style housing, in which you have a single room instead of an apartment with kitchen and living room, is generally less appealing.
- Personal Finance
Many commenters have pointed out that male missionaries sometimes use the year between high school and a mission to earn money to pay for their mission. I’m not sure how often this happens, but for those who planned to use the time to earn money, the change to 18 gives them less time IF they want to go as soon as possible. At a minimum for the next couple of years there shouldn’t be much social pressure on missionaries to serve at 18 instead of 19. But it may well be that in the long term the idea that missionaries would pay their own way is over for most young men.
- Missionary quality
Another often commented claim is that the quality of the missionaries will suffer as a result of this change. Personally, I can’t see that the change from 19 to 18 will be that significant. A change from 19 to 30 would, I think, be significant. But, this assumes that age and maturity are the most important factors in missionary quality—something that seems dubious to me. I can see a minor drop in quality—something that can be counteracted with preparation and leadership.
- Mission leadership
Since, according to the press conference, the church plans to absorb the expected increase in missionaries by increasing the number of missionaries in each mission, the increase should mean more leadership opportunities for missionaries currently serving, and fewer opportunities for those who go out in the next year or so. Current missionaries are more likely to be trainers and district leaders than they would have been or than missionaries who leave in the next year or so.
- Mission growth
While the expansion in the number of missionaries can be absorbed in the current missions in the short term, I’m sure that the Church will then divide missions and expand the number of missions once they have enough information about the increase that can be expected. With the number of missionaries already increasing at 6% a year, the Church would need to create an additional 21 missions to keep the number of missionaries per mission the same (7 have already been created this year)—and that is at current growth rates. Since the church hasn’t created that many missions since 1990, predicting the number of missions that could be created is difficult. The question hinges on how high the church will allow the number of missionaries per mission to get. At its highest, the average number of missionaries per mission topped out at 184, more than enough to accommodate double the current growth rate.
- Ward changes
Would this change have an effect on wards and branches in the Church? I haven’t been able to see any sudden changes in traditional wards. However over the long term the effects of possible stronger church members (see Commitment to the Church/Retention below) could be substantial, if mostly in degree. But, among singles wards this change will have a substantial impact. More frequently new members will be returned missionaries who have never been in a singles ward before. The age and gender profile of these wards will also shift.
- Dating dynamic
Another frequently mentioned impact is the dating dynamic. Where young men expected to return from a mission and marry someone younger who has not served a mission or if they wait that long, perhaps marrying someone who has been on a mission who may be older than they are. The high school sweethearts who both wanted to serve missions would first have to wait for the young man to serve his mission and then wait another 18 months or more for the young woman to serve her mission.
After this change, it is much more likely that women and men will have finished their missions at the same time. If the average young man leaves on a mission at 18 1/2 (my assumption — actual age depends on high school admission policies) and serves for two years, then young women leaving at 19 and serving for 18 months will finish at about the same time. For men, dating a returned missionary no longer means marrying later in life or waiting for months and years. For men marriage may happen earlier, and for women later than it has heretofore.
- Post-mission education
If missions tend to make returned missionaries more mature and serious in their studies, then this change should improve educational performance of both men and women. Missionaries will have more post-mission years spent in higher education, and therefore more time of better performance.
- Commitment to the Church/Retention
This is, I think, the most frequent reason given for why the brethren changed the age requirements. From skeptics, the logic is that this means younger missionares are indoctrinated earlier, when they can be influenced more easily and when they haven’t had the mind-opening experiences of higher education. Of course, those of us who aren’t quite so skeptical see this as giving missionaries a spiritual foundation which they can use to work through the information they later receive. Regardless of the logic, I do think that this change is likely to improve retention and commitment to the gospel.
- Divorce Rates
Another claim sometimes made is that the change in missionary service will reduce divorce rates among church members. The logic here is that women often marry too early, before they are ready and before they are mature enough to handle the responsibilities inherent in marriage. Perhaps. While I have seen situations in which I think this has happened, and while I would NOT encourage my own daughters to marry too early, I’m not quite sure that these issues correlate all that well with marriage success. Do relevant studies of marriage success bear this out? Does maturity predict marriage success? And does delaying the marriage availability of women for 18 months really outweigh the fact that young men can now marry 12 months earlier? I can’t see that this effect will be very strong, and I have strong doubts as to whether maturity is the overwhelming factor in marriage success. If there is any improvement here, I suspect that it will come more from the improved commitment to the gospel that comes from more young men and women serving missions than from any advance in maturity.
Well, that’s what I’ve come across and thought could be the effects of the change in missionary service age. I’m sure there are more potential effects and would like to hear about them, and I’d be interested in your thoughts about the effects above.