I'm breaking my blogging silence to express my profound gratitude for the announcement in today's General Conference session that lowers the age of missionary service to 18 for men, 19 for women. For the first time in parenting history, my children stayed quiet all Saturday morning, so that I slept until 10:45. Seriously, how did that happen?? I couldn't even rejoice in that because as soon as I went to FB to catch up on the urgent happenings from the last 12 hours, I saw the announcement. I can't believe I missed it!!! But thanks to the wonders of the internet (and By Common Consent's liveblog of conference) I was quickly caught up and able to join the rest of the Mormon world, reveling in the Spirit that came with this announcement.
My first thought was how this change impacts my family specifically. Brad was watching with me, and he immediately had his TTM (Time To Mission) decreased from four years to three. I already knew that four years was going to zoom by, but now? Oh my gosh, he might as well be leaving next week, that's how fast it's going to come. In some ways it'll be easier, in some ways harder. He's not going to have that buffer year of making sure he really wants to go (or not!), he's not going to have an extra year of dating girls that he could get serious with, he's not going to spend a year working to pay for the mission, he's not going to be able to put off gaining a serious testimony for himself. I think it just got real for him. And for me: if he's going to be ready to go in three years, I can't put off preparing him and hope that he figures it all out for himself. The clock is ticking.
But the impact extends to others in the family as well. Noah could go 6 months sooner, Zack a full year, but 18 and 19 are so distant to both of them it really doesn't matter. The one who will feel the biggest impact, even more than Brad, is Darcey. She'll be able to go on a mission at 19 instead of 21. While this is still 14 years away, the next 14 years are going to be vastly different for her. I expect there will be a huge increase in the number of young women serving missions now that the TTM is so much more convenient. With girls leaving shortly after they graduate the Young Women's program, the YW program will have to be focused on preparing girls for a mission. The new curriculum will go a long way to shifting this focus onto gaining testimonies and preparing for leadership. With more girls going, more girls will see it as an option; they will have more role models; they will incorporate the idea of a mission into their list of immediate possibilities. It will be so much easier to encourage and even expect Darcey to go on a mission, instead of leaving it as a last-resort, if-you're-not-married option. And can you imagine how fantastic wards are going to be when all these returned missionary sisters are teaching Relief Society, Gospel Doctrine, Sunday School, even Primary? Women who have served are already some of the most amazing women that I know--well-rounded, experienced in the world, with a serious foundation in the gospel and the scriptures. When the number of those women are flooding wards and stakes, the teaching and leadership these women will provide will improve everyone in their ward.
Of course, I can't help but wonder what my reaction would have been if missionary service had been an option for me at 19. An oft-repeated anecdote goes like this: I was married at 19 1/2 and had Brad two months before I turned 21. When Brad was five or so, he asked if I went on a mission. I said, "By the time I was old enough to go on a mission, I already had you!" Of course, when he told this story, it came out like this: "My mom couldn't go on a mission because she had me." Thanks for casting aspersions on my morality, kiddo. But what if when I was in YW I had been encouraged to go on a mission? What if I saw Laurels preparing to turn in their papers when I was a Mia Maid and then saw them come home when I was a Laurel myself? I didn't put much emphasis on my spiritual development the last couple of years of YW--I didn't finish seminary or get my YW Medallion--but if a mission was a very real possibility, would that have changed? I think it might have. It would have forced me to think longer term, at least, and to make a decision about whether I wanted to go on a mission or not, and if not, why not. When I moved to California, the singles ward was a fantastic place of spirituality for me--if a mission at 19 was a possibility, I would have been surrounded by faithful girls who I know would have encouraged and inspired me to go. If I had served a mission, I would have started my family when I was a little older, a lot more mature, and while I think we've all survived just fine, I think a few extra years would have been a great thing. The last year or so has brought me some real spiritual growth, but how much deeper would my testimony be with the kind of dedicated service a mission requires? How much more of the scriptures would I know? How much better would I be able to teach my children? As great as missionary work is for converting and reactivating members, I believe the greatest impact of a mission is on the missionary him- or herself. I'm sad that I didn't get that chance and thrilled that my daughter can much easier, if she wants to.
One point of the announcement has been a little controversial, and that is keeping the age disparity between the young men and the young women. The feminist argument is that stopping the women from going at 18 is another way of showing that they are second-class citizens, that the mens' service is more important and takes priority, and women are an afterthought. I thought I'd share my reckoning of this issue so that I found some comfort in it. Elder Holland (I think) said in the Q&A after the press conference that they have a lot of experience with men and women on missions and that they believe it is in everyone's best interest that men and women are different ages when they serve. They believe it works better for the women to be older. I actually found great comfort in this--first, that it was examined and considered thoughtfully and not just retained as a policy out of habit or laziness or even malevolence. Second, it makes sense to me that men and women ought to serve at different ages, because it keeps things off-balance, relationship-wise. And third, having women go later actually gives them an advantage. When we see age as being a marker of seniority, it makes sense to give women a leg up in this. As much as we'd like it not to be the case, men having the priesthood and women not gives the men an advantage, perceived or real, over women. Allowing women to have an age and maturity advantage over the men evens the playing field somewhat. The beauty is that now the advantage is there without there being a massive impediment to women's service; that is, they don't have to bide their time for three years after high school before serving.
Is the situation perfect? Of course not. Elder Holland said, in response to a question about why women are still only serving 18 months instead of the men's 24, that they considered length of service but decided to make this change first and let it play out, then make other changes. "One miracle at a time," he said. And that might be the best aspect of this whole event--my testimony of these men as humble servants of the Lord was strengthened today. My testimony of the Lord as someone who hears my concerns was strengthened. I cried tears of joy today, lots of them, several times. Miracles happen, miracles will happen. Brad said to me, "I love when the church changes." Me too. It is probably the best thing about this church, that it does change, even when it is glacially slow and my impatience makes me question. Because when it changes in big ways like this, I have confidence that it is the will of God and not the random shifting of human opinion. I feel secure even in the midst of change--evolution instead of upheaval. I have never felt so optimistic about the place of women in the church and the expanding role we will have the opportunity to claim. We're not to the place a lot of members would like women to be (although if a woman says a prayer tomorrow, I think my head will literally explode) but it will happen, I have no doubt. I am so grateful for continuing revelation and a day spent in confirmation that the Lord is the head of this church and that He speaks to us, both privately and as a church. One miracle at a time. I can't wait to see the miracles the Lord has in store for us.