[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.