SALT LAKE CITY — The days of young women and men walking out to the mailbox each day hoping to find an envelope carrying their mission call are nearly over.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Wednesday that its Missionary Department will begin to instead use emails and texts to alert tens of thousands of new missionaries that their mission calls are ready and can be accessed online.
The announcement drew nostalgic responses from former missionaries who wondered about the impact on Latter-day Saint culture, with its rich tradition of anticipation surrounding the mailbox and large gatherings of family and friends watching a young man or woman open a big white envelope to find the letter telling them where they will serve, what language they will speak and when they will leave.
But missionaries who have received their calls the new way during a pilot program said they like the digital delivery. Some still organized a large gathering. Others took advantage of the flexible delivery.
"At first I was kind of disappointed my mission call wouldn't be in the mail like my sister's was, but then I was just as excited to see the email," said Morgun Olcott, 19, of Fruit Heights. Olcott received her call on May 1.
"I think I got mine a few days faster, and it was nice because I didn't have to be home to get it. It was super easy to have it all online."
She was in Logan visiting friends at Utah State University when she received an email saying her mission call was ready.
"If I had been getting it in the mail, I would have had to stay home and watch the mailbox," she said. "Instead, I got the email and went to the computer lab right away and printed it off."
The online missionary portal allowed her to print her call without seeing her assignment. She hadn't told her family about her plans to serve a mission, so she took the printout to a nearby lake and read it by herself. Then she went to her mother's office, where her family was gathered on a pretext, and read it to her parents, brother and sister, revealing that she will enter the Missionary Training Center on Sept. 19 to prepare to serve for 18 months in the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission.
Her older sister is now serving in the Chile Santiago Mission.
"I don't know if there's anything in the world to compare with opening a mission call," said Lawrence Flake, a retired BYU religion professor known for his collection of humorous missionary stories. "As you open a mission call, you realize you could go anywhere in the world. I don't know if there's anything like it in the modern world."
For decades, prospective missionaries have submitted their mission applications and waited weeks for a response, but Flake pointed out that mission calls already are largely digital. Applications are filled out and submitted online. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles make mission assignments while viewing applications on a computer screen. And on Tuesday night, Flake and his wife watched from their Springville home via FaceTime as their granddaughter opened her call in New Mexico.
She was called to serve in Kiev, Ukraine.
"We could see her and hear the screams around her," Flake said.
Mission calls to those in Utah and Idaho will now begin to arrive via email and text. The Missionary Department plans to implement the system for nearly all new missionaries around the world by the end of the year.
The church has 63,597 missionaries serving in 407 missions in more than 150 countries.
"Technology is there, and it's so easy to do," said Elder Brent H. Nielson, executive director of the Missionary Department. "We just put it online and they can read it in a matter of minutes."
That cuts out postal delivery time.
A young woman in Brazil opened her call online hours after receiving it instead of waiting weeks, he said.
Every day that a call arrives earlier can cut down on visa waiting time, Elder Nielson said. The entire program also cuts significant postal costs.
But that savings highlights the cultural significance of the change. Eliminating mail cuts out the courtesy calls some post offices in Utah have made to alert soon-to-be missionaries their call was in that day's mail.
Still, there's no reason to believe big, mission-call-opening events won't continue. Another Fruit Heights teenager, Billy Elliot, had friends and family read for him at home when he got back from work three hours after getting a text that his call was available online.
Reading from an iPad, he announced his call to serve in the Peru Chiclayo Mission beginning in November.
"I forgot that he was holding an iPad," his mother, Liz Elliott, told Mormon Newsroom. "It just felt like a regular mission call. It was awesome."
Young Latter-day Saint men can receive assignments to serve two years as missionaries beginning at age 18. Young women 19 and older may serve for 18 months.
Senior missionaries generally serve from six months up to two years after their retirement from the workforce.