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From campus to mission field: Missionary age impacts wards and young people

President Thomas S. Monson announces on Oct. 7, 2012 that men may choose to begin serving missions at age 18 and women at age 19.
President Thomas S. Monson announces on Oct. 7, 2012 that men may choose to begin serving missions at age 18 and women at age 19.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Keaton Moore will always be able to say his life was changed by the man considered a prophet by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Like thousands of other young church members, Moore was watching Saturday morning's LDS general conference with his family at their home in Vidor, Texas when LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced that young men could begin serving missions at 18 instead of 19, and young women at 19 instead of 21.

The announcement sent a shock wave through the church. Mormon teenagers around the country soon were calling suddenly busy LDS bishops to set up appointments, either to start the process to leave on missions or to accelerate the timetables.

Moore, 18, was stunned. He quickly calculated how soon he could leave. "I thought about it and decided to take advantage of the opportunity."

"Immediately it was just tears and cheers," said Moore's mother, Melissa. "(Keaton) immediately embraced it. Just within minutes of hearing what the prophet announced he said, 'I can leave early, I can leave as soon as school is out.’ ”

Moore turns 19 — the traditional mission age for Mormon young men since 1960 — on Feb. 25, so he was already well under way with preparations to leave. He called and met with his bishop on Saturday. He then met with his stake president Sunday morning and by Sunday night they had "turned in his papers" — the paperwork submitted to the church by a prospective missionary, his bishop and stake president.

Stories like Moore's are plentiful, and the announcement was still the talk of young men and women on Monday, including in the classroom of BYU professor Joseph Livingstone, who teaches mission prep classes on the Provo campus.

"I had a class at 8 this morning, and then 9 and 10 as well. And of course they're all abuzz about it, excited about the changes," Livingstone said. "Some of them wish they'd had the opportunity before they started school. One student asked me, 'How do you feel about your job security?' They forget we teach other classes … but I thought it was a cute comment."

The majority of students in Livingstone's mission prep classes are boys, but he said more girls indicated they have plans to serve a mission now. "This 19-year-old change for women may have a greater impact than we might think," he said.

It is certainly having an impact on young women already, including Erica Pitts, a 20-year-old at Utah State University, who is ready to serve as soon as she can.

"I have always been interested in serving a mission and was going to serve at 21," Pitts said. "My whole plan was staying (in school) a year, but now I'm switching that and selling my apartment contract, and will go back home (at the end of the semester) and start to work on going on a mission as soon as possible."

Pitts has already made an appointment with her bishop and is starting to read the missionary manual "Preach My Gospel" to prepare.

"I think it's a huge thing and I'm excited to be a part of it, to go early," Pitts said. "The amount of missionaries to go out will skyrocket, with a lot of girl missionaries serving."

Carey Wasden, a bishop of a young single adult ward at BYU-Hawaii, had a much different weekend than he expected after the announcement was made.

"Between the Sunday sessions we always get some guys together and take cinnamon rolls to sisters in the ward, and when we went out the sisters were all over us to set up appointments," Wasden said. "During the session I got 12 emails, 12 sisters wanting meetings with us for mission papers."

In his ward, Wasden knows of 10 sisters who have just been waiting for their 21st birthdays to put in their papers. None of the 12 who contacted him over the weekend was amongst those 10.

"I have to clear all mission papers with home wards; I've been on the phone all evening with bishops, and they've said they (those girls) are not the only ones they've talked to," Wasden said.

President Monson's announcement clearly sparked a sense of excitement and made the work of missionaries even more urgent, Wasden said. He also believes it will help young people, young men especially, carry their momentum from high school seminary classes out into the mission field.

"It's going to be interesting for college," Wasden said. "From campuses to mission fields, it's going to change the patterns of who's in school and who is not."

Jenessa Nielsen, 19, attended the conference session where President Monson made the announcement with her best friends. Afterwards the friends looked at each other and knew they would be going on missions soon.

"I feel like my whole life has been changed, this has changed everything," Nielsen said. "I'm hoping to go out in May or June, right after school gets out, I just want to get out there."

The feeling was contagious. So was the feeling of being part of something so many are considering special, which Moore related to his family.

"He made the comment a little while into the meeting," his mother Melissa said. "'I'm so grateful as a family we got to watch conference and that we got to hear that. We actually heard the prophet announce it. For him he knew that it was an exciting moment … to actually be in the group to benefit from it."