I suppose that I'm as guilty as the next Mormon in finding myself curious to know what other members thought about the new LDS Church policy, lowering age requirements for missionary service -- for both young men and young women. I think Elder Holland's enthusiasm for President Monson's  announcement, expressed as "bordering on giddy," is shared by the majority of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who see this as both inspired and positive -- and perhaps as personal revelation! 

However, in my quest to connect with other excited members I came across a disturbing narrative, that I suppose shouldn't surprise me, but did: progressive Mormon women making it about themselves -- and even advocating the policy change as another incremental move toward women's equality in the Church --  motivated by outside advocacy

I'll be the first to admit that in my learning about this new option for LDS young women to serve a mission as young as age 19, I briefly reflected on myself at that young age -- and also on my own three daughters, now mothers -- one whom I feel may very well have served if that option had been available then.  So I do understand this momentary pause, by probably most women in the Church, to personally reflect on what might have been, and how, for those who did not serve a mission, it could have potentially changed their lives. 

And yet, the thought never once occurred to me to feel either sadness or anger for what I perceived to be a missed opportunity, that I felt should have been mine. And no, it never once crossed my mind that making the choice to be sealed to my eternal companion, at age 18, should be viewed as settling for my only option as a young woman in the Church at the time. And certainly the idea that withholding the opportunity to be a sister missionary until age 21, by the Church, was ever intended to be an issue of gender inequality within my Mormon faith. 

Such reflections, intended to cast a negative light on past missionary service age policies, and Church leaders, is in my opinion, a complete disregard to much of what both Elders' Russell M. Nelson and  Jeffrey R. Holland, Apostles of the Lord, explained during a live press conference, intended to clarify the new policy and answer questions -- and certainly to that which President Monson conveyed in the initial announcement.

I don't think anyone would argue the positive, personal impact that serving a full-time mission for the Church has on a person of either gender. I also, with gratitude, acknowledge the great blessings that have come to my own family due to my husband's two years of missionary service. And I certainly recognize that such dedicated service, early in one's adult life, can add greatly to one's testimony and the service capacity of many upon their return -- and throughout their lives. 

For the women of the Church, however, we cannot forget, nor disregard, important clarifications, and the re-emphasis, about sister missionary service well stated in regard to this new policy change, of which none have any allusion of trying to level the playing field for women in the Church -- in relation to issues of gender equality. 

During the LDS Church Press Conference following President Thomas S. Monson’s stunning announcement at the Saturday morning session of the October 2012 General Conference that “all worthy and able young men, who have graduated from high school, or its equivalent, regardless of where they live will have the option of being recommended for missionary service beginning at age 18 instead of 19.” And also 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,” Elder Russell M. Nelson said, “this matter has been studied prayerfully over many, many months. This is an option that will allow more young men and women to enjoy the blessings of missionary service.” 

It is interesting to note that when presenting the new policy for young women, the application is to those who "have a desire to serve" versus how it was given to the young men -- "all worthy and able". This is a very important distinction that cannot, and should not, be overlooked. 

Elder Nelson then referred to the Savior’s Biblical mandate that He extended to the Twelve Apostles to, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature”. He noted that “from the earliest days of the Church that mandate has been followed”.  With significant emphasis Elder Nelson said that with President Monson’s announcement, “we are accelerating our efforts to fulfill that mandate and give more young men and women an opportunity to participate in that divine commission”.

Elder Nelson went on to express a hope that “many will seize this opportunity” by allowing greater flexibility to the youth of the Church – many who are anxious to begin service.  He stated that, “the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are united in our decision to make these important adjustments”.

Elder Nelson in speaking specifically about the young women of the Church: “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. These age adjustments are new options, now available to bishops’ in evaluating what is best for each of his youth.  Young men or women should not begin their service before they are ready spiritually and temporally."  

Following Elder Nelson's remarks, Jeffrey R. Holland gave some very pertinent instruction that I feel make it quite difficult for any of us to make this policy change about us, and our reactions to it -- in fact, he went so far as to say so...

To the prospective missionary, male or female: “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 of 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. (Emphasis added.) 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 which starts long before you get your call to serve. 

We ask parents to take a strong hand in this preparation and not expect that it is somehow the responsibility of local Church leaders or the missionary department of the Church, or MTC, to provide and direct all of that.”

So, to those who question why this change was made, Elder Holland is very specific in answering the question: "God is hastening His work and He needs more missionaries..." In other words, this policy change is about His work, timing, and what He needs to teach His children -- and not about what any of us might feel we needed, or perhaps believe His servants have caused women to miss out on in the past. 

One might even feel he was speaking to those (now parents) who feel that they did miss out in the past, with his admonition to take part in the preparation of their children who have been given this new opportunity for earlier service. Missionary service can and should be a family affair. Preparation and support of a missionary, by family members, I feel, is part of the sacrifice of missionary service in the Church. And in fact, its importance too frequently overlooked.

Said Elder Holland, “Missionary service remains a priesthood duty for young men. That has been said emphatically, and was said by President Monson. We put great emphasis on this for our Aaronic priesthood bearers through their years as a deacon, a teacher, and a priest. We hope all who are physically and emotionally able to serve will do so following their ordination to the Melchizedek priesthood. 

We do not express that same expectation for young women in exactly the way we do for our young men. There are some places in the world where sister missionaries cannot serve, but those who do serve are stunningly successful and we enthusiastically welcome your service. Personally I am absolutely delighted if this change of policy allows many, many more of our young women to serve – a prospect that thrills me. But always this is an option and is not to be seen as an obligation.”

This tells me that although parents and leaders are responsible to help prepare young people to serve missions, this will not be an over-emphasis, nor should it be, in the young women's program of the Church. 

While not wanting to lessen this beautiful invitation to the young women of the Church, who desire to serve at a younger age a full-time mission -- and probably many will -- for just a moment let's ask ourselves this question: what do missionaries do? Answer: they teach the saving truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ and administer the saving ordinance of baptism to God's children, thus putting them on the path to salvation. 

And now this question: Is the young woman who chooses eternal marriage and motherhood instead of first taking the option to serve a full-time mission any less serviceable in the kingdom of God?

The LDS young woman who chooses to focus her personal, spiritual preparation on a temple marriage and motherhood, not including a full-time mission, should never be made to feel that she is making a lesser choice, or is less valiant. The choice to serve a full-time mission, although an important service and option, should never take the place as the number one priority and/or responsibility of the daughters of God. 

These realities bring us back to the most important reason that young women are not obligated to serve full-time missions, nor are they missing out if they choose not to -- as are the young men: the mandate for such service is required of those who bear the priesthood. 

I see, as one of the greatest blessings of lowering the age requirement for young women, support for encouraging all of our young people to find their eternal companions, as soon as possible in life. With young women, who desire to serve a mission, now able to serve relatively at the same time as the young men, instead of having to wait, meeting this goal may very well prove even more successful for both sexes.

The measure of a faithful Mormon woman, over another, will never be because one has chosen to first serve a full-time mission. First and foremost in importance to God, is that each of us prepares to make and keep sacred covenants enabling us to build eternal families. For a few progressive Mormon women to suggest otherwise is simply a misguided understanding of our Heavenly Father's plan for all of His children.

As a woman in the Church, do you feel that not serving a full-time mission as a young woman, in any way, kept you from developing your full potential to serve in the Church -- or has in some way suppressed your personal growth as a woman? 

UPDATE: Explosive Confirmation of Increased Numbers Applying for Missionary Service

Kathryn Skaggs 

Highlights 2012 General Relief Society Broadcast: Challenges of Mortality

Deseret News: LDS Church lowers age requirement for missionary service

LDS Newsroom:  Mormon Women in the Church

Photo Credit: LDS Newsroom

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