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.

Today, women like Fields serve in new positions as sister training leaders, participate on the new mission leadership councils, train elders and sisters in district, zone and mission meetings, are responsible for the welfare of all other sister missionaries and report directly to the mission president or his wife on sisters' issues.

In the past, mission councils only included zone leaders, a position reserved for men. Sister missionaries continue to be part of the district and zone structures of a mission, and they report weekly through that structure about the work they have done, but the old model restricted their training opportunities and allowed little leadership opportunity beyond the role of senior companion.

These changes, and additional responsibilities given to the wife of each mission president, are altering the experience of each missionary in a force that has grown today, according to church spokesman Cody Craynor, to number more than 85,000.

Major impact

Elder Austin Fuller's mission is winding down. At 22 years old and 22 months into a two-year calling, the Muskegon, Mich., native has been around long enough to see the impact. He recalls feeling frustration about the responsibility he had for sister missionaries when he had fewer tools to help them. Elders and sisters can't go on exchanges, for example, and elders are not allowed to counsel sisters.

"Sister missionaries had very different missions a year ago than they do now," says Fuller, who was released as an assistant to Las Vegas Mission President Michael A. Neider last week. "Sister missionaries are among the most successful in our mission, and it's because of their new role as leaders in mission leadership council and in learning and training. Exchanges have accelerated the rate they learn and improve, and it's helped to lift and improve our entire mission, because now we can truly reach and train everyone."

Another sister training leader in the Las Vegas mission, Sister Emily Veazey, 20, of Minot, N.D., said last week her experience and that of her female peers is changing their lives.

"It's helping us be the leaders we need to be in the church in the future," she said. "It's helping us be the mothers we need to be in the future. We're going to be able to take everything we learned here, how to work with others, how to help them, how to strengthen and inspire them. Finding the one isn't just something we're doing now. We're called to be missionaries and leaders the rest of our lives."

For example, she said her planning was vague a year ago. After mission leadership councils, zone training meetings and exchanges, she's learned to plan better with her companion each night. She calls it planning celestially, which she described as having the faith to follow those plans the next day.

Fields, Veazey and other sister training leaders in Las Vegas say they are grateful, too, to sit in on ward council meetings — planning sessions of congregational leaders — and see women participate.

"The Relief Society president in the ward where we work is absolutely amazing," said Sister Haley Furstenau, 20, of Chicago. "I've really learned service from her. She's a great role model in my life of selfless service and charity."

For decades, church leaders have encouraged women to participate fully in church councils where they serve. Mormon young women serve in presidencies of their classes, but mission leadership councils give them an opportunity to give input in a different way, one they may use on ward and stake and general church councils in their futures.

That may be by design.

"Priesthood leaders cannot afford to overlook the experience, wisdom, sensitivity and insight women bring to such deliberations," Elder M. Russell Ballard wrote in his book, "Counseling with Our Councils," which first was published in 1997. "And women who do not work to contribute all they can in the council setting sell themselves short."

The sister training leaders in the Las Vegas mission also look up to President Neider's wife, Rosemary, who under the changes made a year ago has added responsibilities. Several of the missionaries said they now hope someday to serve as the wife of a mission president, too.

"Exchanges are the best place for training," said President Neider, who served as second counselor in the church's Young Men General Presidency from 2004 to 2009. "One exchange can change a missionary's mission."

Companion exchanges

On Thursday, one hour into a companion exchange, two sister missionaries in the Utah Provo Mission stop at the end of a driveway to gather themselves after one appointment falls through and three efforts to contact other people fail. At the end of a driveway, they check out Sister Aubrey Allen's iPad and decide to drop in on Kira Amann, a young newlywed who lives nearby.

"Should we say a prayer?" asks Sister Ricelia Magaña, 21, a sister training leader who has brought a bag of clothes and a pillow to spend the night in Orem with Allen, 20. Allen agrees, and the two fold their arms, bow their heads and stand in their brown, leather boots on a pockmarked sidewalk five feet from a large, black garbage can. Allen asks Heavenly Father for the opportunity to speak with and serve Amann.

The sisters finish praying, then walk past one house to the corner. There they find Amann in an oversized blue coat, jeans and white sneakers raking leaves in her yard. Magaña can't help herself, and she asks Amann if she heard them praying.

She hadn't, but she smiles at the missionaries. Allen asks if they can help with the yard, but Amann protests, calling it a big job. Magaña insists, and Allen says service creates some of her favorite times as a missionary. Eventually, they settle on a time Allen can come back with a total of eight missionaries to tackle the chore.

"Go back inside," Allen says. "We got this." All three women laugh happily. They hug, and the missionaries move on.

Allen, a self-described go-getter who has dealt with anxiety in the past, tells Magaña she will write about the moment that night in her journal, where she keeps a "miracle of the day" entry.

"When I'm having a hard time, I look really hard for miracles," she says. "Seeing all the miracles helps. I think to myself, 'You know, I'm doing a good job!’ ”

Magaña asks Allen what things stress her out. Appointments falling through, Allen says, or she and her companion teaching people who aren't progressing toward faith. Later, she'll confide in a reporter that it's nerve-wracking to have a sister training leader come to her area, because she feels responsible to have appointments in place and to stay busy to represent her companionship well.

"I always want to go to the training leader's area so the pressure's off me," Allen says.

Magaña senses this on her own and reassures Allen consistently and gently.

"I want her to know she's my priority," Magaña says. "A leader serves. I want to be there when she needs me. This week in mission leadership council we learned it's important to assume the best about missionaries. They've given up their time to serve the Lord, so he trusts them. We should love them and trust them, too. We fulfill our responsibilities as sister training leaders because of our love for the Lord and our love for the missionaries."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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