SALT LAKE CITY — For many in Utah’s graduating class of more than 40,000 high school seniors, this is a year unlike any other.
Amid the traditional pomp and ceremony, there are the usual declarations of short- and long-term plans — work, college, military service, marriage. But this year a new declaration is heard with startling frequency: “I’m going on a mission.”
Many young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have already received a letter from church headquarters in Salt Lake City calling them to serve as a full-time missionary and assigning them to one of the church’s 405 missions worldwide, an event once reserved for college-age Mormons.
“It’s electric!” said Mark Beecher, a 27-year veteran teacher and administrator in the LDS Church’s seminary program and currently the principal of the seminary that serves students at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs. “Among our seminary students there’s just this feeling of purpose and destiny being fulfilled. Both the students and the teachers feel like we’re on the front lines of a remarkable moment in church history.”
That “remarkable moment” started last October, when LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced a reduction in the minimum age requirements for full-time missionary service in the church. Instead of requiring young men to be 19 before they could be called as missionaries, now they can serve as soon as they graduate from high school, provided they are at least 18 years old. Young women can serve at age 19, as opposed to the previous minimum age requirement of 21.
“The response of our young people has been remarkable and inspiring,” President Monson said in opening the church’s Annual General Conference in April. Earlier this week church officials indicated that nearly 29,000 new missionaries are expected to report for training at one of their Missionary Training Centers during the next several months, pushing the total number of LDS missionaries serving to more than 85,000 this fall — shattering the all-time record for the church by more than 20,000 missionaries.
A big part of that anticipated summer surge will be this year's male high school graduates, eligible to serve at age 18 for the first time. In Utah, where according to the most recent census more than 62 percent of the population is LDS and where at least three counties — Morgan, Rich and Utah — are more than 80 percent Mormon, the impact has been particularly profound. LDS seminary teachers, who interact with the students daily in personal, religiously oriented ways, say the policy change has created a new dynamic in Utah schools, especially among high school seniors.
“In my whole career I’ve probably had three kids who had their mission calls before graduating from high school,” said John Vasas, who has been teaching seminary for seven years, this past year at Woods Cross High School. “This year I have 26 kids who have their mission calls. It’s a whole new world.”
Ben Lomu, principal of the Jordan High School seminary, said it has been that way ever since President Monson’s October announcement.
“It was just a regular school year until October,” Lomu said. “Then the change happened and there was an immediate reaction — especially among our seniors. They were more serious, more anxious to learn. It was like, ‘In a few months I’m going to be teaching this doctrine, so I need to really know it.’”
Megan Ryan, who teaches at the Murray High School seminary, said it became clear to her what was happening among her students when a young man named Josh was teaching part of the lesson one day.
“He was in the middle of the lesson he had prepared, when all of a sudden he set aside his notes and started testifying to the class about his personal experience and feelings about the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ryan said, tears welling up in her eyes at the memory. “That’s when it hit me: There is this divine awareness of what they are needed for, and what they have to do to accomplish it. And they are ready to do it. That’s what I’ve seen in the kids this year. They are ready.”
“When I first heard the announcement I thought, ‘That makes sense,’” Vasas said. “Boys and girls today are more spiritually mature at a younger age than we were. Now they are off and running. They are ready right now to serve the Lord.”
Both Lomu and Ryan said that the biggest change they have observed is among the young women in their respective classes.
“They have been amazing in their response,” Lomu said. “Before the announcement I would ask how many of the girls wanted to go on missions and it was, ‘Yeah, maybe, probably, I might.’ Now it’s, ‘I’m going.’ They’re on fire.”
“The young men are motivated to respond to the prophet’s call,” Ryan said. “For them it was all, ‘Yeah, let’s do this!’ With the young women it was more of a recognition of their value and worth in missionary work — a realization that the Lord needs me, the prophet is telling me my service is worthwhile. So now we’re seeing the same resolution in the young women that we saw in the young men. They are saying, ‘The call was to all of us. Let’s go!’”
The call was also to seminary teachers, who had to “step up our game a lot,” according to Lomu.
“There’s this self-imposed pressure that I think we’ve all felt, realizing that a lot of these kids are stepping out of our classrooms and heading straight out into the mission field after high school graduation,” he said. “It made me analyze everything I do. I’m always asking myself, ‘What’s the purpose of this game or activity?’ I can’t afford to waste any precious time with these kids.”
At Woods Cross, Vasas said “we’ve tried not to turn our classes into an MTC — seminary is about more than just missionary preparation.” But still, he said, “I do find myself trying to help them see how to teach the gospel to others.”
“This year the kids have been way more focused, way more driven to learn and more specifically wanting to understand things so they can teach them,” Vasas said.
Ryan refers to it as a spiritual focus on “sharing the gospel in word and in action.”
“For those who already have their mission calls, the school year may be ending but they’re still wanting to learn,” she said. “They want to soak up as much as they can.”
She referred to a student named Jeff, who will be leaving for his mission to Korea soon after he graduates and who is studying the church’s missionary manual, “Preach My Gospel,” for a half hour every day.
“For him, not studying is not an option,” she said. “We didn’t have to come up with a program to get kids to take seminary more seriously this year. They are doing it themselves.”
Which Lomu said is putting a tangible “buzz in the air” as this year’s LDS seniors approach graduation.
“We’re teaching the Book of Revelation right now, and we’re talking about the signs of the Lord’s Second Coming,” he said. “It makes me think about what Elder (Jeffrey R.) Holland said at the time of the missionary announcement, how ‘the Lord is hastening his work.’ I think the kids feel it. They are part of something big here.”
Bigger, even, they believe, than the normal high school graduation.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company