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Young men, women can serve LDS missions earlier but shouldn't be judged if they don't

In a conversation with two friends, one mother excitedly described the girl her 23-year-old son was currently dating: accomplished, lovely and the most incredible testimony. “But,” the other woman interrupted, “she didn’t serve a mission, did she?”

“No,” my friend answered. "She prayed about the decision many times but never felt like it was right for her.”

“I’m not saying she’s not a nice girl,” the friend replied "but she’d be much more impressive if she’d served a mission.”

I’m fairly sure steam erupted from my ears; I know my face flushed with heat as I entered the conversation, but I tried to measure my words, “You’re not serious? Prophets instruct our girls to rely on personal revelation. I’m proud of every girl who serves and every girl who follows a prompting to follow a different path.”

“But you have to admit,” she persisted, “these returned missionaries will make much better wives and mothers. They’ll be more prepared to serve in the church.”

“You know, I didn’t go on a mission,” I reminded her.

“Sure, but times were different then. With the age change, no girl has an excuse not to serve.”

And that was the moment I knew had to walk away before I exploded in anger.

Since that conversation, I’ve talked to several girls and mothers of girls who haven’t joined the recent wave of sister missionaries. I’m sure there are some who never considered a mission, but I talked to young women who pondered, prayed and struggled with the decision.

“I know I’ve made the right decision for me,” one girl said. "But I wish people would stop questioning me about it at every turn.”

Girls aren’t the only ones badgered with questions about their mission. I’m worried about boys feeling pressure to leave missions straight out of high school. I know several boys who’ve chosen to attend a year or two of college before they depart. Although I’d love to have my third son home for another year, he’ll begin his service a month or two after high school graduation. I also respect his agency and his ability to receive personal revelation.

One boy who chose to wait until age 20 said, “I can’t count how many obnoxious questions I dealt with. At first, people just asked out of polite interest, but as time went on, they asked me outright if I had worthiness issues. Don’t people understand the age change means we can choose to leave at 18, not that we’re required to?”

This seems like a good moment to review exactly what President Thomas S. Monson said on that eventful Saturday morning in October 2012:

“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.

"As we have prayerfully pondered the age at which young men may begin their missionary service, we have also given consideration to the age at which a young woman might serve. Today I am pleased to announce that able, worthy young women who have the desire to serve may be recommended for missionary service beginning at age 19, instead of age 21.

"We affirm that missionary work is a priesthood duty — and we encourage all young men who are worthy and who are physically able and mentally capable to respond to the call to serve. Many young women also serve, but they are not under the same mandate to serve as are the young men. We assure the young sisters of the church, however, that they make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome their service.”

President Monson’s words are concise, clear, and filled with compassion and love. I know he wouldn’t approve of any judgment placed on fellow members of the church. As I spoke to varied people on this subject, I was sickened to hear of missionaries who returned early who were ostracized by their ward; one boy's car was egged and painted with the word "quitter." I’m sad to hear of kids who don’t feel ready and end up coming home because of anxiety. I hope we exercise compassion. Really, what good comes from making our fellow saints feel unwanted; do we want to drive them away?

And how about this: What if a young man or young woman really was lazy, unworthy or just disinterested? Would the Lord want us to belittle and berate them? Of course not. God doesn’t throw people away; he extends his arms to all, and in our own imperfect, mortal, flawed ways, so should we.

Writer, photographer, Michelle Lehnardt loses at chess every time to her five sons, one little daughter and brilliant husband, but they'll never beat her at Scrabble. She writes at scenesfromthewild.net and Segullah.org