Colleges are expecting to get a double whammy in the next year or so: losing missionaries already planning to go along with the new, younger missionaries. For example, Utah State University is estimating losing 1,900 students and $9.5 million over the next two years.
College sports coaches have been forced to reassess their rosters due to the rule change, too. Some recent BYU football signees have decided to go on missions straight out of high school, rather than playing a season and coming back after the two-year absence, as many did before.
Armand Mauss, a retired professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Washington State University, said the lower age limit is part of a movement in the church to enhance the importance and visibility of women.
"There is a sincere effort by this group of new and emerging male church leaders, from apostles on down, to do everything possible and feasible to do to show how much they value the contributions of women in the church short of actually giving them the priesthood," Mauss said. He thinks the church will eventually lower the minimum age for women to 18.
Johanna Adams, a 22-year-old from Fruit Heights, Utah, headed on a mission to Taiwan, said she's expecting many more women to serve missions thanks to the flexibility.
"When you are 21, you are almost kind of set in your path," she said. "This gives you an option a little bit sooner."
Though women hold many leadership positions in the church, only men are allowed to be priests. A group of Mormon women have launched a new movement to shed light on what they perceive as gender inequality, urging women to wear pants to church last month. They now are organizing a letter-writing campaign to ask the church to let women lead opening and closing prayers at the church's general conferences.
Evans says the new rule will allow more women to undergo the life-changing and deeply spiritual experience of a mission, which will make them better wives, mothers and church leaders. It will also allow women to have a more normal social experience and not be worried about a mission interfering with starting a family. Missionaries are not allowed to date while serving, but Evans said upon return, "They'll know what they are looking for. I think they are going to find each other easier and better. I think it's going to have a very positive effect on future families of the church."
Amber Whiteley, of St. Louis, wanted to serve a mission but was married when she turned 21. In Mormon culture, missions have historically been viewed as secondary options for women who weren't married by 21, said Whiteley, who is part of a group of Mormon women advocating for more gender equality in the church.
"It's nice that it's not a second thought now," said Whiteley, a 22-year-old with a baby daughter. "It's nice to know that my daughter will be able to aspire to be a missionary first."
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