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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
FILE - Missionaries sing a hymn during a MTC devotional address by Elder Quentin L. Cook held as part of 2018 Mission Leadership Seminar on Sunday, June 24, 2018, which was broadcast around the world to the Church’s 14 missionary training centers.

SALT LAKE CITY — Friday's announcement that missionaries may phone home or text their families weekly instead of just twice a year is another profound shift among a string of recent changes that are transforming the missionary culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The news brought swift reaction from church members around the world.

"Really?" said a stunned Gary Reynolds, who served as president of the New York New York South Mission from June 2015-18, when told of the change. "Wow. How cool. That's awesome."

"Whoa, that's crazy," said Ben Ostler, 17, of Murray, a high school senior who received a mission call on Tuesday to serve in the Samoa Apia Mission. "It seems so weird because I've always seen it happen twice a year. It's a big adjustment."

Many missionaries and missionary parents immediately rejoiced, whether they had a missionary serving now or a child like Ostler with a new mission call who hadn't left yet. Many returned missionaries and parents of recently returned missionaries took to social media to express the wish the news had come just a little sooner.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Friday, Feb. 15, that missionaries worldwide are now authorized to communicate with their families each week on preparation day by text messages, online messaging, phone calls and video chats, in addition to letters and emails.

Still other parents and former mission presidents said the change will require major adjustments, including a new type of discipline on the part of both missionaries and families to avoid increasing homesickness as they strengthen each other.

The announcement was made by the church's First Presidency, which said regular communication with family is an important part of a missionary's service. Until now, that communication had been done in weekly letters or emails and two phone calls a year, on Mother's Day and Christmas.

"One of the major purposes of this adjustment is to encourage families to be more involved in their missionary's efforts and experiences," the statement said.

Church leaders do not expect missionaries to call or video chat with their parents weekly, but even texting or instant messaging is a sea change for Latter-day Saint mission culture.

Ostler, who is scheduled to enter the Missionary Training Center in Provo in July, will be interested to see the part his family plays in his mission.

"I could help them as much as myself" with calls and instant messaging, he said. "I could teach them more about the mission because I communicate better by word of mouth than by writing, and I could use them as a tool."

Missionaries have sent messages home for decades on preparation day, the one day a week set aside to accomplish personal matters like grocery shopping and laundry. Some church members said Friday they are worried that letters, already an endangered species, will disappear altogether now, followed closely by email.

Ostler's mother, Sheila, has kept three binders of emails from the family's previous missionaries. He isn't sure yet what she will do to compile a record of his communications if they are mostly calls. But he also isn't sure he'll have a cellphone as a missionary in Samoa or be able to take advantage of regular calling.

The church's guidelines stated that whatever type of communication missionaries use, they should come at little or no cost and encouraged the use of Wi-Fi.

Missionaries, not family members, should initiate any calls, and leaders counseled missionaries and families to use judgment and wisdom about the duration of calls or instant messaging.

The new guidelines will require a new maturity from missionaries, said Max Checketts, who was president of the Australia Sydney North Mission from June 2015-18 and now teaches missionary preparation classes at BYU-Idaho.

He said 75 to 80 percent of missionaries will handle the change with ease but that for one or two out of 10, regular calls may be a challenge.

"We see a lot of homesickness, and it can come in funny ways," Checketts said. "They may see pictures or hear about a boat trip they really enjoyed as a family, and that can trigger a fresh bout of homesickness. The immediacy of a phone message could escalate homesickness episodes for some missionaries.

"Like almost everything," he added, "a lot of good can come out of something like this, but there are possibilities for abuse and misuse. To the degree that parents and families will be respectful of a missionary's calling and make sure communications are appropriate and will be of a nature that doesn't make them homesick or distract from their calling, this will be a great thing."

Matthew Baker, a Latter-day Saint bishop in Sandy whose son is serving a mission in Mexico, said the decision produced mixed feelings.

"I'm still trying to wrap my head around it," he said.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Sister missionaries smile after meeting with President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Lima, Peru on Oct. 20, 2018.

He said he's thrilled to talk to his son again before Mother's Day and completely supported the announcement, but he said it had been difficult to observe his son's struggles on a weekly basis when the family was allowed to instant message him during his two months in a missionary training center and his first month in the mission field.

"When that was cut off I felt he was better able to forget us and put his faith in the Lord," Baker said. "That's when he started to thrive. Now he's a district leader and senior companion and loves the language and is having success. I don't know if those are correlated, but this will be a major adjustment for me and maybe for him.

"How we figure it out in our home will take some major consideration."

With every change to missionary culture, some former missionaries say the old ways made them tougher.

Elder Dieter F. Utchdorf, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and chairman of the church's Missionary Executive Council, addressed the idea that missionaries will be distracted or become less tough by calling home more often.

"Our missionaries are pretty tough," Elder Uchtdorf said in an interview with the Church News. "They receive rejection every day. They have tough weather conditions. They have to learn a lot. They have to work with new cultures, with new circumstances. But above all, they know in their hearts and minds that they are servants and representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ."

Evariste Nininahazwe, 29, served a mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2015-17. His mother back home in Burundi didn't have email access, so he sent emails through his sister. Once, his sister called his mission president to ask for permission for Nininahazwe to call home when his mother was sick.

"This was like a healing to my mother," he told the Deseret News in a Facebook message. "And she encouraged me to serve well and (told me) that she prayed for me day and night." Friday's announcement is "good news," he added. "I am sure everyone will appreciate this."

The guidelines also say missionaries now can call home on Father’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and other culturally significant holidays. They may also call on their parents’ birthdays. If a missionary’s parents live in different locations, the missionary may contact each parent separately.

The church piloted the program in at least one missionary training center and saw positive results.

Missionary culture has undergone significant change over the past six years, beginning in 2012 with what now is known simply throughout the church as the missionary age change. Men began serving missions as early as age 18 instead of 19 and women at age 19 instead of 21.

Rex Warner, Deseret News
Missionaries await the arrival of President Russell M. Nelson and Elder Dale G. Renlund at a missionary meeting on Sept., 2018, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

The change dramatically altered the face of missions, with women comprising nearly a third of all missionaries, up from 12 percent.

In 2013, the church created new leadership roles for female missionaries. In the years since, tens of thousands of additional women have returned from missions and taken active leadership roles in congregations around the world.

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Other shifts include updated missionary attire for women — they can wear pants instead of dresses or skirts for all but the most formal occasions — and the increasing use of technology that is changing the way missionaries find people to teach.

In September, the church modified another cultural ritual when it began to send mission calls electronically rather than by mail.

Baker, the bishop whose son is in Mexico, said he is grateful for all of it.

"It's a thrilling time to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," he said, "and it's wonderful to be led by a prophet who knows the will of the Savior and whose guidance we can trust."