SALT LAKE CITY — LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson's announcement during Saturday's opening general conference session that the age for full-time missionary service in the church has been lowered to 18 for young men who have graduated from high school and 19 for young women was greeted enthusiastically by LDS young people Saturday, with reactions ranging from "it made my stomach knot up" to "my whole life changed during the past two hours."
Even Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles admitted to the media during a press conference Saturday that he was "bordering on the giddy here with this announcement."
All of that feeling came as a result of what Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles called "an inspired decision" that came only after it had been "studied prayerfully over many months" by church leaders, with an eye toward "accelerating our efforts to fulfill the Savior's mandate to take the gospel to all the world."
Speaking to reporters in the LDS Church Office Building's main floor lobby in between general conference sessions, Elder Nelson, who is chairman of the church's Missionary Executive Council, re-stated the announcement made by church President Thomas S. Monson just two hours earlier lowering the age for full-time missionary service to 18 for young men who are high school graduates, and 19 for young women.
"These age adjustments are new options that are now available to bishops for evaluating what is best for each of their youth," Elder Nelson said. "We're not suggesting that all will want to do this — many young men will still serve at age 19 or older. And many young women will prefer to serve at an older age, or not at all."
The age adjustment, he said, "is an option that will allow more young men and young women to enjoy the blessings of missionary service."
Elder Nelson said that the church isn't concerned about the maturity and preparation of younger missionaries.
"We've had much experience with 18-year-old missionaries," he said, explaining that there are 48 countries around the world from which 18-year-olds are already allowed to serve as missionaries because of local educational cycles or military commitments. "This experience has been very positive. We have found that these missionaries are capable and qualified to serve."
Indeed, Elder Holland said that mission presidents have been saying, "give me more 18-year-olds — they are sweeter, they are purer, and they are smarter!"
Elder Holland acknowledged that church leaders are uncertain how many more LDS young people will be inspired to serve full-time missions as a result of the change, joining the 58,000 full-time missionaries who are currently serving in the church's existing 347 missions around the world.
"We expect that with this new option the number will increase steadily over the coming months — and perhaps will grow dramatically next spring after high school graduations," Elder Holland told reporters. "But right now we don't know how big this is going to be."
What church leaders do know, Elder Holland said, is that "this will require some changes to how we administer the missionary program."
"Prospective missionaries will be asked to enhance and improve and take more seriously their pre-mission preparation," he said, specifically referencing matters of personal worthiness and gospel study, particularly the scriptures and the missionary manual "Preach My Gospel."
Elder Holland also said that the time spent by new missionaries at the church's 15 Missionary Training Centers will be cut by one-third for all missionaries.
"We don't expect to construct new Missionary Training Centers," he said, "but we will continue to pursue the construction of additional facilities within our existing MTCs, and will add instructors and staff as needed."
Will the influx of new missionaries mean the creation of new LDS missions around the world?
"Surely yes," Elder Holland said. "But we don't know where or when. We're waiting to see how many missionaries we have and where they will be needed first."
Similarly, the impact of the new policy on universities, LDS institutes of religion and even intercollegiate athletics, with many universities planning recruiting and team make-up around the coming and going of LDS missionaries, remains to be seen.
"We expect some ashen faces out there," Elder Holland joked, referring to all — from university presidents to MTC officials to the individual young men and women — who were surprised by the Saturday morning announcement. "But God is hastening his work and he needs more and more willing and more worthy missionaries to spread the light and the truth and the hope and the salvation of gospel truth to a darkened world."
One of those "ashen" faces belonged to Tanner Poulton, a high school senior in American Fork, Utah, who said the announcement "made my stomach knot up because of the weight of the decisions hitting me all of a sudden."
"But then I realized how exciting this could be," Poulton continued. "All of the early preparation I've been doing is going to pay off sooner than I thought!"
Although Poulton isn't exactly sure if the announcement will change his plan to go on his mission after his 19th birthday, he said "it's definitely a possibility."
For Shelby Quist, an 18-year-old student at BYU-Idaho, the decision has been made.
"My whole life changed during the past two hours," she said after the Saturday morning session. "I still have to pray about it, but right now I'm pretty sure I'm going to go as soon as I turn 19. My brother is 17, so it looks like we'll be going out at the same time. I never would have thought that possible."
Shannon Sturgess, another BYU-Idaho student, said she is 19 and "ready to go."
"This just sort of makes everything fall into place for me," she said. "I'll go as soon as I can."
The announcement doesn't make much difference for Brandon Jackson, an 18-year-old who was attending the conference session with his father, Bruce, and three brothers.
"I turn 19 in December, so it won't speed things up much for me," he said. "But if I could have gone right after I graduated from high school I would have done it for sure."
Two young women who are currently serving as full-time missionaries on Temple Square, Sister Hale from Pasco, Wash., and Sister Clubb from Squires, Mo., were present for the announcement, which they found to be — they said it at the same time — "awesome!"
"I'm not sure I would have come on my mission at age 19," Sister Hale said. "I came when I was ready, and I was ready at 21. But for those who are ready at 19, this is wonderful news."
"I think this will change lives," Sister Clubb said. "I know a lot of girls my age who really struggled to find their place during those two years from 19 to 21. Now they can just go! I think it will really make a difference."
The most exciting thing for the two sisters, however, was to think they both have enough time left on their missions that they will be able to see the first of the new, 19-year-old sisters come into the mission field.
"We'll probably be training them!" Sister Clubb said, excitedly. "That'll be awesome!"