Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

The Research Information Division

November 18th, 2013 by John Mansfield

[Editors–we hope that this unusual account of a Church-run focus group, along with the ensuing discussion, will be of general interest]

The church was mostly quiet last night. Brother and Sister Markoff were in the cultural hall with their two younger children planning the stage arrangement for the Christmas program Sister Markoff has been rehearsing with Primary children for the past month. There was no sign of anyone downstairs around the bishop’s and clerks’ offices. Back upstairs, outside the Relief Society room, a few middle-aged parents sat waiting and talking. More arrived. Brother Fletcher joked that we were going to find we had came for a half hour presentation encouraging us to prepare for senior missions. Some continued along that theme that we had actually been summoned to discuss lowering the age for senior missionaries. A quarter before eight, the Relief Society door opened, and four priests and six laurels walked out. In we went, where a man in his young thirties sat dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt and tie.

He started with a preamble regarding the Research Information Division of the Correlation Department. It had started out in the 1980s with Neal Maxwell as its first director. General Authorities visit stakes and observe matters and form impressions, but that has limitations such as small sample size. The Research Information Division is tasked to use methods of social science to investigate matters the General Authorities of the Church are interested in. He said his group is sometimes called the “study it out” division. The Church leaders receive their reports and then seek inspiration and make decisions “regardless of what we tell them. Hmm. ‘Regardless’ wasn’t quite the right word.”

Our interviewer had been with missionaries in Virginia earlier that day, and the next day he would be in Baltimore. He asked us to try to tell the truth, as opposed to feeling an obligation to be only positive and uplifting. And if there were no objection he would turn on his audio recorder.

The first question was what our initial thoughts had been on hearing the change of mission ages from 19 to 18 for young men and from 21 to 19 for young women. Each of us in order of our seating was called on for a response. After that no specific person was solicited for a response to subsequent questions. Some spoke more than others as is our habit, but no one monopolized the discussion, and everyone had something to say at some point or other. We were asked what changes there were in our families’ plans, anything we were doing differently to prepare our children, what the church could do. Many of our responses were broader than the questions and were probed further. The interview continued until half past eight.

I won’t go into any detail about others’ responses, but it was mostly the case that parents liked the age change for young women and felt leaving on a mission straight out of high school is a bad idea for many reasons. The evening made me mindful of the wealth of experience raising children found in my fellow ward members, men and women who have seen many sons and daughters leave home, many of whom served the Church and the world as missionaries, and others that did not.

The ward young men and young women leaders who asked us to come recruited twice as many parents as were needed, perhaps to make sure that enough of us came to provide a group of eight. The interviewer seemed to wish for a smaller group, perhaps to hear more from each individual, but he didn’t send any away, and none of us left when he told us we were more than he needed and could leave if we wanted. This was the first time the Church had ever wanted my opinion about anything, and at this pace it would be the last time, so I didn’t feel like missing it.

Comments (22)
Filed under: Deseret Review | Tags: , , , , , , ,
November 18th, 2013 04:32:17
22 comments

Vader
November 14, 2013

Hmm. Kind of my take. It’s been a wonderful thing for sister participation in missionary work. Young men, not so much.


Bruce Charlton
November 15, 2013

As an outsider I have always been awed, and (vicariously) somewhat frightened, by the missionary experience, its conditions and its length (two years at that age is felt like ten years or more at my age).

I now understand much better how this works; but I remain puzzled as to why the LDS would *encourage* young women to serve missions.

Permit? Yes. Encourage? No, I don’t see it.


MC
November 15, 2013

I’m a bit surprised at the unanimity of wariness toward the idea of young men leaving after high school. Perhaps because my brother went to an Ivy League school for a year prior to a mission he never ended up serving,* I’ve always perceived the gap year between high school and a mission to be a bit perilous. I find the change to be somewhat of a relief, personally.

*He’s since served in a bishopric and has seven very active kids, so he found his way back.


Adam G.
November 15, 2013

Agreed, MC. But I don’t have sons that age, so maybe I’m missing something.


John Mansfield
November 15, 2013

Four things that I said to the interviewer:

My initial reaction to the announcement last year was that I wish more missionaries would leave when they are twenty.

On the subject of financial preparation, I noted that a shift to recent high school graduates meant that President Kimball’s call for missionaries to pay for their own missions is very much part of the past. That was already mostly the case with some individual families holding to the old counsel because it is a good idea or by necessity, but it is clear now that general Church leaders don’t care if a youth pays for his own mission.

On changes we have noted with younger missionaries coming to serve among us, last month I went to the stake center alone for one General Conference session to watch in a quieter setting. I observed with the missionaries there much more flirty banter.

On what the Church could do, it could clarify its message about what kind of missionaries it wants. On the one hand we talk about the “small and simple things” out preaching to the world. Nineteen wasn’t simple enough, so now we need simpler 18-year-olds. But then there’s the drumbeat that we need to prepare them better than ever, faster than ever to leave sooner than ever. Well, which is it? Do we want simple? Or prepared? Do we really need all of those representing the Church and preaching to the world to be simple, intellectually undeveloped people? Is there no place any more for 22-year-old college graduates like Gordon B. Hinckley?


John Mansfield
November 15, 2013

Something I didn’t say, because my only daughter is four, and parents of Sunbeams hadn’t been sought explicitly sought out, is I wonder about how missionary work will remain a priesthood duty if young women are called to it in much greater numbers.


Adam G.
November 15, 2013

My personal observations, by no means meant to invalidate yours:

I think there is more flirtation going on that I’ve seen, unfortunately, but I think its just because there are more girls, not because the missionaries are younger.

As a YM president, I *loved* the age drop. It made both us and the young men more focused.

A number of decent kids here are at loose ends from 18 to 19 and, idle hands and all, end up not going on a mission when they could have at 18. It’s to soon to say for sure that the age drop has helped with that, but my guess is that it well.

I have the same concern that you and Bruce C. do about pushing women to go. The countervailing thought is that the only real driver of feminism I’ve seen among actually-committed LDS women is a feeling of inferiority towards their husbands, not because their husbands have the priesthood, but because their husbands have real, measurable accomplishments that they don’t, the big one being the mission. My speculation has been that missionary service would help there. It’s just speculation though.


MC
November 15, 2013

“I think there is more flirtation going on that I’ve seen, unfortunately, but I think its just because there are more girls, not because the missionaries are younger.”

Not only more but, um, cuter girls. A lot of the women who make it to 19 unmarried would never have made it to 21.

As soon as I heard the announcement, I assumed that the decision had been made to have young men leave at 18 for the reason I stated above, and that the change for women was simply a secondary accommodation, due to the absurdity of 23-year-old RM sisters with nearly all their schooling done trying to attract 20-year-old RM men. It didn’t occur to me that this would be thought of as an affirmative signal from the Church for women to go on missions. Only later did I find out that most people thought the women’s age change was the most significant element, and in fact that is the change that has had the biggest effect on numbers.


Bookslinger
November 15, 2013

Bruce, I don’t know what it’s like in individual wards in individual YW programs, but from the church’s top leadership levels, women are _not_ pushd or encouraged to serve missions. It’s always been presented as merely an option if the woman wants to.

MC, as to your 3rd paragraph concerning 23 year old RM sisters vis-a-vis 20 year old RM men: If that match/mis-match were a consideration, then the age for sisters would have been dropped by just _one_ year, as the men’s age was. IE, the reduction in ages would have been in lock step.

As I see it, the _2_ year drop in age for women is a real “game changer”, because that allows (many of) the sisters to get back before the time they would have otherwise gotten married.

Therefore, I deduce that the 2 year drop in age for women really was intended to get a _significant_ increase in sister missionaries.

Because after a 2 year surge or “double dose” of elders, that is 18 and 19 year old cohorts going out together, the number is going to stabilize back down to where it would have been, with essentially one cohort going out at a time. The only permanent increase in elders will be gleaned from those who would otherwise have gone inactive between their 18th and 19th birthdays. (Perhaps like in your brother’s case.)

Hence, I also deduce that (prior to this change) the percentage of men going inactive between their 18th and 19th birthdays had reached alarming levels, and the Brethren took this step so as to reduce that loss.

Yet, because of the marriage-age issue, the 2 year drop in age for women could result in a permanent increase of as much as 25% to 50% more women going than before. It’s not a “gleaning” type of thing, but significantly more.

Of course the “surge” for women has been even greater, with 19, 20, and 21 year old cohorts all going at once, a “triple shot”. Whereas the men merely had a “double shot” (18 and 19 at the same time). Therefore 18 months after October/November 2012, there will be a huge drop in the number of women serving, and 24 months after Oct/Nov 2012, there will be a big drop in the number of men serving. And at that poing it will stabilize.


Vader
November 15, 2013

While I’m sure these considerations were a part of studying out the issue in the Brethren’s mind, I suspect the ultimate reason it was done was because it felt right with the Spirit. Which means we may not necessarily ever know the “real” reason.l

“Bruce, I don’t know what it’s like in individual wards in individual YW programs, but from the church’s top leadership levels, women are _not_ pushd or encouraged to serve missions. It’s always been presented as merely an option if the woman wants to. ”

I agree. But then the Brethren were careful to emphasize that the option of going at 18 was simply an option, not an expectation; yet people already talk about 18 as being “the age” for men to leave. I liked what Mr. Pecos Bill’s stake president said about insisting that some young men [i]not[/i] leave that young.

My gut tells me that the significance of things like this is that time is short. But then I’ve been saying for some years now that Western civilization is in free fall, and the pavement is coming up fast. Seems truer all the time.


MC
November 15, 2013

“If that match/mis-match were a consideration, then the age for sisters would have been dropped by just _one_ year, as the men’s age was. IE, the reduction in ages would have been in lock step.”

Not necessarily. The length of a given gap in life experience is magnified the less life experience you have. Under the prior system, a 21-year-old RM had about two-thirds as much adult life experience as a returned 22.5-year-old sister missionary. Not that big a deal. Just lowering both ages by a year would have meant sister RMs would have almost twice as much adult life experience as a 20-year-old returned elder. Lowering the sisters by two years narrows the gap to only about a half a year for elders and sisters.

It might sound like a small difference, but my recollection is that little nuances like that matter a lot in the LDS dating scene.


Bookslinger
November 16, 2013

Vader: agreed. I’m very confident that all church-wide decisions that the Brethren take are in accord with the Lord’s will. And thanks for the reminder that age 18 is still merely an option. The range for men is now 18 through 25 (age at start of mission), if I remember correctly. I don’t know what the upper limit for women is. I’ve seen retired single sisters, and even middle age (40-something) single sisters working in mission offices. but that was before oct 2012.

MC: intersting analysis. I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes sense.


Bruce Charlton
November 16, 2013

I have spent a lot of time watching videos on the lds.org website (love it!) – and the impression I got from what is depicted, is one of an ‘equal opportunities’ approach to women missionaries – since there are approx equal depictions of men and women serving missions, and there seems to be considerable efforts to suggest symmetry between the sexes.

@Adam: “the only real driver of feminism I’ve seen among actually-committed LDS women is a feeling of inferiority towards their husbands, ”

That’s exactly what worries me. If missionary service is seen in that way, then it will have the same effect on women as does higher education – ie. they will delay/stop marrying and have smaller numbers/zero children.

(Among secular people in the UK, I think it is now more than a third of all women bachelors degree graduates have zero children, and it gets worse the longer education continues.)

I agree that I do not know the real reason for this change (and in that sense I am not very worried by it), and in itself it is not a bad change (especially for men) – but I do worry how this change will be interpreted and what its consequences may be.

I would have thought that it would be better if fewer, not more, young women became missionaries; but as Vader said maybe it is because time is running-out. On the other hand, sending the womenfolk out into battle is usually left for the final desperate defense, when the enemy is at the gate.


Vader
November 16, 2013

“On the other hand, sending the womenfolk out into battle is usually left for the final desperate defense, when the enemy is at the gate.”

I think this is too accurate a description of where we are now at.


Bookslinger
November 16, 2013

Vader, Bruce: Who knows what the unforeseen (to us) results of the lowering of the sister missionary age will be?

If a woman goes out at 19, and comes back at 20.5, that will still be before she would have otherwise graduated from college. The mission may end up giving her the perspective to want get married and start a family _rather than_ complete her undergrad degree. So if that comes into play, the lower mission age for women may end up causing more of them to get married, and to do so sooner.


Madera Verde
November 16, 2013

” If missionary service is seen in that way, then it will have the same effect on women as does higher education – ie. they will delay/stop marrying and have smaller numbers/zero children.”

I would submit higher education has that effect because it indoctrinates women to hold motherhood in contempt and at the same time increases their value on the labor market. I don’t see missionary service having the same effect.


MC
November 16, 2013

Bookslinger,

I have seen some Mormon feminists-types express concern that this will actually lower the marriage age on average, which we like and they don’t.

Back when lots of BYU girls got married at 18-19, lowering the sisters’ mission age might have increased their average age at marriage. But now that many or most don’t get married until junior or senior year (or later), this might actually speed them along.


Adam G.
November 16, 2013

I think you have a point, MC.

Going along with what Madera Verde says, one thing Mormon missions do quite well is encourage you to think seriously about getting married when you are getting back. My guess is that Mormon missions significantly lower the age of marriage for Mormon men. Could happen with women too. So I wouldn’t be surprised if this move does end up lowering or at least holding the line on average marriage age.

Also, higher ed is destructive of marriage and feminity for two other reasons. (1) It encourages a hook up and irresponsibility culture, which makes people less marriageable and less fit to make grown-up choices. Missions are about the opposite of this. (2) Higher education saddles you with debt, requiring that you work full time to pay it off and making it more difficult to afford a home (which is correlated with marriage and childrearing). A mission is essentially cost-free. Anyhow, it is impossible to get much into debt on one.


Bookslinger
November 16, 2013

Bruce wrote: “If missionary service is seen in that way, then it will have the same effect on women as does higher education – ie. they will delay/stop marrying and have smaller numbers/zero children.”

Ah yes, but…. doesn’t the opposite hold for devoutly religious women (couples) of any denomination? Maybe I’m getting my stats confused. But I seem to remember reading that higher educated women among evangelicals and Mormons have a higher rate of marriage, and a higher number of children per family than do women (or couples) of the same faith with only a high school education. (Assuming that if the wife has a college degree, her husband will also.)

Or am I connecting the wrong dots?


MC
November 16, 2013

I should have also mentioned that there are some girls who grow up dead-set on serving a mission, with zero intention of getting married before mission age. This change will almost certainly lower the average marriage age for that subgroup.

Bookslinger,

I think your point has a correlation-causation problem. Highly educated Mormons get married more and have more kids because those things are all encouraged within our religion and culture. That doesn’t mean that pursuing education causes higher marriage rates and fecundity. Indeed, for the reasons Adam states, I suspect that more years of education for Mormon women has a moderately negative effect on the marriage and family figures.


Bruce Charlton
November 17, 2013

@Bookslinger “If a woman goes out at 19, and comes back at 20.5, that will still be before she would have otherwise graduated from college. The mission may end up giving her the perspective to want get married and start a family _rather than_ complete her undergrad degree. So if that comes into play, the lower mission age for women may end up causing more of them to get married, and to do so sooner.”

That makes sense.

(Especially considering that nearly all types of higher education does most of its participants more harm than good – in general, it is better not to go to college – unless you need to, for some specific and personal reason.)

And in general I feel substantially reassured by what I have read here – thanks to all!


Vader
November 17, 2013

We’re drifting slightly off topic, but … yeah. The effect of college on too many students is to turn them into liberal arts majors, which is no improvement. Even many of those in STEM fields are wasting their modest talents pursuing such degrees, because they don’t really have the appetite for a STEM career.

And they push out the students who have the appetite, but can’t or won’t compete on the curve for whatever reason. One of the finest mathematicians I know is virtually dyslexic — I wonder how he ever finished a degree. Society needs these talents.

There will always be a hard core of students who honestly love learning new things. They will endure even college for the opportunity to do so, and they are the one group who actually belong there for personal rather than societal reasons.

For most college students, the only real function of college is filtration and networking. There have to be far cheaper ways of accomplishing these things, which also contradict the traditional educational purposes of college.

Leave a Reply