New leadership roles for women alters LDS mission culture, hints at deep, long-term ramifications

Published: Friday, April 4 2014 10:50 p.m. MDT

Sister Molly Fields, left, from Portland, Ore., and Sister Rebekah Pence, from Buena Vista, Va., sing a song they composed as sister missionaries gather at a training meeting for the Nevada Las Vegas Mission Friday, March 14, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

LAS VEGAS — Sister Molly Fields has been fasting and praying "a lot" as she has prepared to do something that a year ago few, if any, Mormon women had the opportunity to do.

Yet the 20-year-old from Portland, Ore., displays no hint of nerves about her assignment as 37 other LDS missionaries in the Nevada Las Vegas Mission watch her attach a microphone to her dark blouse.

Fields is here to conduct a training session on humility at a monthly mission leadership council, a meeting that didn't exist a year ago among the missions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Tall and outgoing, Fields radiates confidence and easily commands the room, a typical gymnasium in a typical Mormon meetinghouse.

She asks engaging questions — "What does humility motivate us to do?" — that spark discussion. She uses scripture. She draws laughter easily; one sister missionary combines a compliment with testimony, and Fields quickly and cleverly dubs it a "complimony," delighting everyone. She testifies of Jesus Christ.

"I have such a testimony that consecrated missionaries are humble," Fields says. "That doesn't mean they're weak. It means they have willingness to submit to God's will. It means they're strong, they're trustworthy, they're grateful for the things they've been given."

Several missionaries are taking notes. Each is listening.

"I know each of you is humble, and we just have to spread it," Fields says. "We just need to teach everyone in this mission that (humility) is not a bad thing. So as a mission, we're going to pray for it every day in April.

"Will you follow the example of Jesus Christ and ask Heavenly Father every day in April to help our mission to be humble?" From the 10 tables in front of her, 37 missionary voices join as one: "Yes!"

Major changes

Eighteen months ago, during the October 2012 general conference, LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, a man Latter-day Saints consider a prophet, sent a shiver through Mormondom by lowering the ages at which single men and women can begin serving missions.

Men used to be eligible to start a two-year mission at 19 years old; it's now 18.

The number of women, now eligible to leave at 19 instead of 21, serving 18-month missions surged dramatically, leaping from 8,055 at the end of 2012 to 21,695 at the end of 2013.

Fields was among them.

"I was 18," she says, talking about the day of President Monson's announcement. "I had more than 800 days until my availability date. I wanted to go so bad. Two days before general conference I sat down with my family and made a three-year plan for finances and education. One of the things on my list was, 'Stop talking to boys.'

"Suddenly I went from having to wait 800 days to having 127 days," she says. "I completed my papers in seven days. I went into the Missionary Training Center three months later. I felt like President Monson had said, 'Sister Fields, will you go on a mission in 127 days?’ ”

Church members immediately began to consider the impact tens of thousands more returned women missionaries might have on the future of the church.

Then, six months after the age change — a year ago on April 5 — the LDS Church announced new leadership responsibilities for women serving missions.

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