Church lowers age requirement for missionary service
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In an effort to expand missionary opportunities for young Church members, President Thomas S. Monson announced during the Church 182nd Semiannual General Conference that men may now begin serving missions at age 18 and women at age 19.
"I am pleased to announce that effective immediately all worthy and able young men who have graduated from high school or its equivalent, regardless of where they live, will have the opportunity of being recommended for missionary service beginning at the age of 18, instead of the age of 19," said President Monson. "As we prayerfully pondered the age at which young men may begin their missionary service we have also given consideration to the age at which young women might serve. Today, I'm pleased to announce that able, worthy young women who have the desire to serve may be recommended for missionary service beginning at age 19, instead of age 21."
President Monson explained that for some time the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have allowed young men from certain countries to serve at the age of 18 when they are worthy, able and have graduated from high school. "Their faithfulness, obedience and maturity have caused us to desire the same opportunity for earlier missionary calls for all young men, regardless of the country from which they come," he said. "I am pleased to announce that effective immediately all worthy and able young men who have graduated from high school or its equivalent, regardless of where they live, will have the opportunity of being recommended for missionary service beginning at the age of 18, instead of the age 19."
He noted that not all young men will — or should — serve at this earlier age.
"We affirm that missionary work is a priesthood duty, and we encourage all young men who are worthy and physically able and mentally capable respond to the call to serve. Many young women also serve but they are not under the same mandate to serve as are the young men. We assure the young sisters of the Church, however, that they make a valuable contribution as missionaries and we welcome their service."
At a press conference following the announcement, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve and chairman of the Church's Missionary Executive Council, said the matter had been prayerfully studied for many months. "This is an option that will allow more young men and women to enjoy the blessings of missionary service," he said, noting that the Savior's mandate to His followers was to go into all the world and preach the gospel.
"From the earliest days of the Church, that mandate has been followed," Elder Nelson explained. "More than 1 million missionaries around the world have been called to serve."
He said with President Monson's announcement, the Church is "accelerating our efforts to fulfill that mandate and give more young men and women an opportunity to participate in that divine commission."
"Let me be clear, we are not suggesting that all young men will or should serve at this earlier age," he explained. "Many will still prefer to start at age 19 or older. Neither are we suggesting that young women are expected to serve or that they do so at age 19. Many will still prefer to serve at an older age or not at all. Their voluntary service is valuable and most welcome.
He said the adjustments are new options available to bishops in evaluating what is best for their youth.
"Young men or women should not begin their service before there are ready spiritually and temporally," he said. "We are thankful for each missionary who serves voluntarily at his or her own expense to so bless the lives of other people. Schooling, family circumstances, health, worthiness and personal preparation remain as always important considerations for the timing of missionary service."
Elder Nelson said the Church has had much experience with 18-year-old missionaries. "Over the past decade permission has been given for young men from 48 countries to serve at age 18," he explained. "This experience has been very positive, as President Monson mentioned today, we have found these missionaries are capable and qualified to serve."
Now, he said, the Church will have a single policy worldwide.
"This adjustment will be a blessing in the lives of many young men and young women who are eager to begin their missionary service," he said. "It will also be a great blessing to their families now and in the future. We hope that many will seize this opportunity. We hope that it will also allow our youth greater flexibility in planning for their schooling, careers, marriage and military obligations, when and if needed."
Elder Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve and a member of the Church's Missionary Executive Council called it a thrill to participate in the review of the matter and come to this inspired decision.
He said many will wonder how the growth that comes with the change will impact missionary work.
"We have a very simple answer," he said. "We don't know."
Noting that the current missionary force is 58,000 and growing, he said Church leaders expect missionary numbers will increase dramatically next spring.
He said many parents, prospective missionaries and priesthood leaders were surprised by this announcement. "You are not the only ones who have been surprised," he said. "The list of those who had no idea this was coming is long — including virtually all of the General Authorities, except the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve...."Suffice it to say, this will require some changes in how we administer the missionary program of the Church."
First, he said, "prospective missionaries will be asked to enhance and improve and take more seriously their pre-mission preparation.
"This should include total personal worthiness," he said, noting they will also need to study the Book of Mormon and other standard works, attend seminary and institute, and read the missionary handbook Preach My Gospel.
He announced that, to accommodate growth, time for each missionary at one of the Church's 15 missionary training centers will be reduced by one-third. At the Church's flagship MTC in Provo, Utah, officials will hire new instructors and staff, increase housing, and construct additional instruction and service facilities. He said the Church does not plan at this time to build any additional MTCs.
He said missionaries in the field are already benefitting from a highly successful, 12-week training course administered by their mission presidents.
"That helps us compensate the time that we are going to reduce at the MTC," he said.
He said the Church will also need to create new missions. "But we are waiting to see how many, exactly where they might be needed first, and we will do that in a systematic and methodical way."
In addition, the Church's current 347 missions can absorb the initial growth brought on by the change.
Speaking to prospective missionaries, he said, "What does this mean for you? First of all it means that God is hastening His work. And He needs more and more willing and worthy missionaries to spread the light and the truth and the hope and the salvation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to an often dark and fearful world.
"In the vernacular of the day this announcement — I say to these young people — isn't about you. It is about the sweet and pure message you are being asked to bear and the ever greater numbers God needs to bear it. You must prepare by personal worthiness and more cleanliness and you must study diligently to know the gospel you will teach. We want you teaching effectively from the first day onward. And that will require preparation that starts long before you get your call to serve."
Elder Holland asked parents to take a strong hand in the preparation of their children and "not expect that is somehow the responsibility of local Church leaders, the Missionary Department of the Church or MTCs."
He said young men may be recommended by their bishops and stake presidents for full time missionary service 120 days prior to their birthday or their availability date – and that includes high school graduation. They may enter the MTC after their birthday and high school graduation.
Young women may enter the MTC after their 19th birthday.
"This is an option and a wonderful opportunity," he said. "It is not an edict or a mandate.... We think that many will want to serve earlier in order to facilitate educational, military, marital or many other future pursuits."
He said some will ask about the difference in age requirements for young men and young women. "We have had a lot of experience in full-time missionary service and we have learned there is value is having at least some separation in age between the young men and young women that are serving and it works best when it is the sisters — rather than the elders — who are older."
He also added, with some emotion, that "there are those whose health or limitations or other personal circumstances make it either unwise or impossible for them to have this experience in this rigorous demanding work. These cases break our hearts. But the Lord and the Church honor the intent of the heart."
He concluded with expressing his own personal gratitude for the missionary program of the Church, "I love missionaries. I love being with them. I love teaching them. I love encouraging them. I just plain love them. The strength of their faith, the power of their testimony, the degree of their sacrifice, the goodness of their lives inspire me to no end. It is obvious that the Lord loves them as well, to entrust them with his precious gospel at such tender ages."