As a 19-year-old sophomore at Brigham Young University, I roomed with a group of strong, intelligent women. We had watched virtually the entire male half of our freshman cohort leave to serve as Mormon missionaries. We women had the same ambition — most of us had plans to serve a mission — but because it wasn’t our time, we saw the world a different way. We took off to study abroad: in the Middle East, England, Mexico and Russia.
In that group of 12 women, nearly all of us studied in a foreign country, but only one of us made it on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it wasn't me, even though I had worn future-missionary as a title since I was 8 years old. Life circumstances took me on a different course.
But I would have served, and so would most of that sophomore group, if we could have gone at 19.
That, in a word, is why the change in the minimum age for missionary service, just announced at LDS general conference, is nothing short of monumental. It may well usher in an era of the sister missionary in a way we don’t fully comprehend. Not only are we about to see a flood of sister missionaries, but we are going to have front-row seats to an enormous cultural shift in the church.
The change for women goes hand-in-hand with the alterations being made to the youth programs, which put more onus on the youths to teach, testify and carry the church forward. I see this change not as a marginalization of elder missionaries, but as a terrific strengthening of both genders.
Imagine, for instance, a seminary class of high school seniors. They are talking about their upcoming plans, their goals for the future. They are all talking about missions, not as something they might do in four years if life circumstances go their way, but as a tangible choice in the near future. Think of the strength of a proselytizing army that includes nearly an equal number of men and women, and what that will do for the church.
You can pick a returned sister missionary out of a crowd, because usually they’re standing at the head of it. In the past three wards I’ve been in, I do believe every Relief Society president served a mission. That might be coincidence, but I think it speaks to the power of a mission for “fast-tracking” one’s understanding of the church and the full scope of its mission in the world. Of course, a mission is not required for LDS women, but there’s no doubt that full-time service, at that early age, is an invaluable test of character and leadership — a refining, soul-stretching experience that’s hard to replicate any other way.
I've noticed a stereotype in our culture that men are the knowledge-bearing scriptorians and women are the service-oriented saints. But, as Elder Neal A. Maxwell has noted, “We need more women who are gospel scholars and more men who are Christians.”
Because of the dual role to both serve others and study the scriptures intensively, a mission molds men and women to be both saints and scriptorians.
Beyond this, the change in minimum age for missionary service is going to have enormous cultural implications for the church, in terms of dating, education and life plans. Women who go on missions at 21 face the real-life concern of coming home to find the marriage pool has thinned considerably, or that they have to put a nearly completed education on hold. Now those concerns can be alleviated.
Is every young woman going to serve a mission? No. Nor should they feel that obligation.
But the truth is there are thousands of young women who want to serve, and will follow that call. After all, they’ve been singing “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” right along with the boys since they were 3 years old.
That hope, quite suddenly and remarkably, can be realized much sooner.