SALT LAKE CITY — Oct. 6, 2012, was the day Tanner Poulton’s life changed.
He was sitting with his family in their home in American Fork, Utah, watching the opening session of the 182nd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To be honest, he said, he was only “casually listening” as President Thomas S. Monson stepped to the Conference Center podium to open the conference and began to review some of the events of the previous six months. But his ears perked up when he heard the man he considers to be God’s prophet on earth say, “I now turn to another matter — namely, missionary service.”
Tanner was looking forward to his turn to serve as a full-time missionary for the church. From the time he was a little boy he knew it wasn’t if he was going on a mission, but when. For him, he was still at least 18 months away, since he wouldn’t turn 19 — the minimum age for young Mormon men to serve as missionaries — until January 2014.
Meanwhile, there was plenty of time to enjoy his senior year of high school and maybe a little college before he had to start thinking about filling out his missionary application.
Then everything changed in an instant.
“I am pleased to announce that effective immediately 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 the age of 18, instead of age 19,” President Monson said. “I am not suggesting that all young men will — or should — serve at this earlier age. Rather, based on individual circumstances as well as upon a determination by priesthood leaders, this option is now available.”
Tanner sort of missed the next part — the minimum age for service was also being lowered for young LDS women from 21 to 19 — because of the flood of feelings he was experiencing.
“It made my stomach knot up,” he said. “I was only three months away from being 18, and six months away from graduating from high school. My mission had always been somewhere down the road. But suddenly, the road got a lot shorter.”
Today, with the 183rd Semiannual General Conference of the church set to open this weekend, exactly one year after President Monson’s historic announcement, Tanner is an 18-year-old serving in the Philippines as Elder Poulton, one of thousands of younger-than-ever missionaries, both male and female, who have flooded the mission fields in response to what they felt was a prophet’s call.
More than 80,000
“I have never seen a generation respond to a prophet of God the way this generation has,” said Elder David F. Evans of the First Quorum of the Seventy, who also serves as executive director of the LDS Church Missionary Department. “Nothing generationally has ever happened, that I’m aware of, like what happened as this generation heard and then responded to the words and invitation of President Monson.”
The numbers, Elder Evans said during an exclusive Deseret News interview, bear that out.
“We had 58,000 missionaries at the time of the announcement,” he said. “We have just over 80,000 missionaries in the field now.”
Those numbers have grown across the board.
“Right now, as compared to a year ago, there are about 11,000 more sisters serving, and about 10,000 more elders serving and hundreds of additional couples who are serving,” Elder Evans said. “That’s the net growth. We’ve gone from 58,000 to 80,000 in just one year.”
Which is about what LDS Missionary Department officials expected.
“What has happened is almost exactly what we thought would happen,” Elder Evans said. “It has happened in a little different way than what was anticipated. The response from the sisters, I think, is probably a little bit more than what we thought it would be, but not very much more. There was probably a sharper immediate incline (in missionary applications from young women), but over the course of the year it was about what we thought would happen.”
Similarly, the response from young men has been “exactly President Monson’s vision.”
“They have been counseling with their bishops and parents and come to a determination about when they should serve,” Elder Evans said. “And so we’ve seen a little bit less of a spike right after high school and a surge that has lasted over a longer period of time than what some here would have predicted, but that’s all to the good from our perspective. If you look at where we are right now compared to where we projected we would be, we’re very close to exactly that number.”
Line upon line
The dramatic increase in the number of LDS missionaries called and sent into service during the past year has had significant impacts on Utah area colleges and universities, businesses, and even college sports teams.
But nowhere has the impact been more keenly felt other than, perhaps, in the individual lives of the new missionaries, than in the Missionary Department itself. Existing missionary training facilities were inadequate to house, feed and train so many new missionaries at one time.
The existing number of church missions — 347 around the globe at the time of the announcement — could not accommodate the expected surge. Even the Missionary Department staff was insufficient to review, analyze and respond to the sudden flood of new missionary applications that began just days after last October's conference ended.
“The Lord has promised that revelation would come line upon line and precept upon precept,” Elder Evans said. “The implication is that when one revelation is given, the next revelation is needed.
“So you have this dramatic announcement by the president of the church, which he describes as having been prayerfully considered and inspired of the Lord,” he continued. “With that, then the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have the important obligation of facing each of the issues and finding out how the Lord would deal with them.”
Which is exactly what they did in sometimes-miraculous ways.
For example, part of the answer to the MTC space issue came during a meeting on the matter when someone asked if the Missionary Department would be interested in training missionaries who were being sent to Spanish-speaking missions at the church-owned Benemerito de las Americas High School near Mexico City.
“The truth is,” Elder Evans confessed, “I didn’t even know we had such a school, so I didn’t know anything about it. But I had the impression that the answer to the question was ‘yes.’”
During the ensuing weeks leading up to First Presidency's approval of the suggestion, Elder Evans learned that Benemerito had been created under President David O. McKay during a period when the educational resource was desperately needed. And while it has continued to be a valuable educational tool for Latter-day Saints in Mexico, the time of great need for the facility had passed. On several occasions church leaders had agonized over what to do with the school, but each time they considered possibilities, they felt they needed to wait.
“So when the suggestion came forward to the First Presidency that consideration be given to change Benemerito to an MTC, there was an immediate confirmation in their hearts that this is what should be done,” Elder Evans said. “It was a joyful thing for the First Presidency as they considered these long years of wondering what to do with the school but having the impression to wait.”
As it turned out, “we could not have designed a better MTC” than the Benemerito facility, he said.
“It is beautifully suited for our purposes,” he continued. “It was absolutely ready. I do believe the Lord knew when he inspired the building of that high school, he was also building a future MTC.”
The church has also acted to create additional space for more missionaries at the MTC in Provo, and 14 other MTCs around the world are “filled” and being fully used “as they were envisioned rather than being underutilized in some respects.”
“The great abundance of missionaries has caused us to think through our training model at the MTCs,” Elder Evans added. “We reduced training times by 30 percent, and we’re learning a lot from that. And we’re looking for better ways to train. Maybe we can begin earlier. Maybe we could devise a mission-long language-training program so you don’t have this spike of intense language learning at the MTC that kind of levels off for the rest of your mission.
“We’re looking at all of these training models now,” he continued. “Over the next year you’ll begin to see implementation of some of that. But as we think about how we train missionaries — the way in which we use MTCs, the amount of time missionaries need to spend there, the number of buildings we need to build. All of that is going to be very positively affected by how we use digital technology both for proselyting purposes as well as learning purposes.”
Similarly, Elder Evans said, “to create 58 new missions in a very compressed period of time was a miracle.”
“To be able to define where the missions should be and then to get in place the structure for them, to find mission homes and apartments and so on, has been one of the really great miracles,” he said, calling it a “labor of love” as the Missionary Department worked closely with general, area and local church authorities to determine where new missions and missionaries could be useful and productive.
In that process, he said, “we didn’t plan for the peak, we planned for what we think is going to be needed after the peak, which we don’t think will ever be at the 58,000 level again.
“Of course, it will go up this fall, and it will go up again next year before the first of the surge missionaries begin to come home,” Elder Evans said. “But we believe more young women will always be going on missions now because they get to go at an earlier age, and we also believe that more young men will always be going for a variety of reasons. And so, with the approval of the First Presidency, we have implemented a plan for what is now 405 missions based on what we think our numbers will be after the surge.”
More of everything
Elder Evans said church officials have worked their way through all of the challenges and logistical issues based on the simple assumption that more missionaries meant more of everything associated with missionaries.
“We’ll have more great young people out serving,” he said, “but we’ll also have more medical problems, more visa problems, more temple marriages down the road, more joy — more everything.”
It isn’t that the percentages of medical and visa issues have increased, he added. It’s just that there are more of them because there are more missionaries.
“Do we have more visa-waiters?" he asked, referring to missionaries who are called to foreign missions but who must begin their service in missions in the United States while they wait for their visa applications to be approved. “The answer is 'yes.' But we don’t have a new or greater challenge. We just have more.”
Having so many more young sister missionaries (Sisters were 12-13 percent of our missionary force; now they are 24-25 percent) has stimulated changes in mission organization and leadership, including the creation of a new calling for sisters: sister training leader.
“The nurture and care of the dramatically increased number of sister missionaries is better done by other experienced sisters rather than by elders,” Elder Evans said, who added that the new calling, as well as the sister training leaders’ involvement in the new mission leadership council, is "one of the best received and most inspired things that has happened during this past year.”
Hillary Bowler, a recently returned missionary from the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission, agreed. She spent the last five months of her mission serving as a sister training leader, and she said having sisters as leaders and in the mission leadership council is already making a difference.
"We went from 18 sisters in the mission when I first came out to about 60 now," she said. "The elders who serve as district and zone leaders are great, but there are certain things that it is just difficult for sisters to talk to them about. I think it really makes a difference to a young sister to have an older, more experienced sister to talk to and receive training from."
Bowler said she is also excited about what this will mean for future ward and stake councils. "Fast forward 20 years," she said. "If I'm a Relief Society president, I'll know a lot better how to work with a bishop after serving in our mission leadership council."
Church leaders are also pleased with what they are seeing from the 18-year-old elders and 19-year-old sisters.
“If you go to the MTC cafeteria you’ll find that it’s a little noisier than it used to be,” Elder Evans said, chuckling. “Part of it is just more missionaries, but part of it is the exuberance of youth. What we are finding, in all honesty, is that the young missionaries are absolutely as capable. In many respects, as a group, they are maybe a little more worthy and a little more ready.”
When asked if there were issues related to the immaturity of the newer missionaries, he balked at the use of the word.
“I would not call it immaturity,” he said. “I would call it a well-thought-out, well-considered choice in which these young people are saying, ‘At this time in my life, this is what I choose. I choose to go on a mission. I choose to take this option that the Lord has made available to me.’
“And with that choice, I think, comes enhanced maturity.”
Looking back on the day of the announcement one year ago, Elder Evans remembers “there was just an overwhelming sense of joy” that he says was “palpable.”
“One could just feel the rush of joy and excitement and faith and testimony,” he said, “and one could observe by looking out into the audience the absolute joy of this generation in receiving something from the Lord that they could respond to.”
That sense of joy has continued through a year of responding to the physical, spiritual and logistical needs of so many new missionaries. And it undergirds future LDS missionary efforts, as church leaders search for ways to harness and empower what Elder Evans calls “this extraordinary resource.”
“I think the most immediate thing that we’re looking for in the future," he said, "will be a much broader implementation of our online proselyting efforts and the beginning of the use of digital devices that are programmed and suited for missionary use.”
The new technology, referenced by Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during the June mission presidents seminar and the Work of Salvation church-wide broadcast, will include mini tablet devices with Internet access and special software that will allow missionaries and ward mission leaders to interact digitally and to share schedules, appointments, goals and reports.
“We’re currently calling this an area book planner,” Elder Evans said. “It’s going to be a wonderful way in which missionaries not only communicate with non-members and investigators but also with local leaders and members so that they can more effectively work together.”
Elder Evans said the new technology will be launched in 30 missions between now and January, with worldwide implementation expected during the last half of 2014.
“This is a huge change in missionary work,” he said. “But we believe that missionaries need to communicate the way the world is communicating. Much of our proselyting model really hearkens back to the 1800s, and we need to be brought into the 21st century.
"We now have a generation of missionaries who are used to digital devices," Elder Evans continued, "so this kind of productive, wonderful use is just going to be a blessing as we joyfully move forward in the work of salvation.”