“To serve the Lord as a missionary is a glorious, sacred privilege that brings eternal blessings to the individual and those he or she serves,” the First Presidency said in a letter dated November 16, 2018. And since the announcement in October 2012 general conference that young men could begin full-time missionary service at 18 and young women at 19, thousands have been blessed—both those who have become missionaries at 18 (sisters at 19) and those they have helped come to Christ.
In that announcement, President Thomas S. Monson (1927–2018) also 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.”1 The option was meant to provide flexibility, not to create a feeling that young men are somehow unworthy if they don’t serve immediately when they turn 18.
In my own experience, even though I was eager to serve a mission as soon as possible, I wasn’t able to go until I had fulfilled a military obligation. I wondered if I would fit in with missionaries who were younger than I was, and was grateful to find some other missionaries in the France Paris Mission who were a little older too.
One elder was from England. A convert, he came on his mission at 24, after he had finished college. Because he had already lived away from home, he helped younger missionaries rise above two common concerns: homesickness and fear of talking to strangers.
Another elder came from Argentina. He became a full-time missionary at 21. His native language was Spanish, so he had to learn both French and English. He helped all of us be more patient as we learned just one new language.
A 25-year-old sister from California felt so prompted to serve that she left behind running her own business. Her organizational and leadership skills strengthened every branch and ward she served in.
As I look back on my mission, I also look ahead for two young men I know. One is a faithful but shy young man. He used to talk regularly about going on a mission but hasn’t gone—yet. He’s 19, still in his first year of college. When he comes home to visit, ward members invariably ask a well-intentioned question: “So, when are you going on a mission?” Even when asked by people he loves, he sometimes cringes. I have also overheard speculation about what has caused him to be “late” in entering the mission field. Health problems? Transgressions? Maybe he just wants to finish a year of school.
The other young man hasn’t been to church in several years. He has watched friends leave on missions. He has watched them return. A 23-year-old prospective elder, he feels his opportunity to serve has passed. He was surprised when I told him of the “older” missionaries in my mission and how they inspired me. “There is always a place for you in the Church, whether you serve a mission or not,” I told him. “But if you still want to go, there’s time.”2
Some young men may not have been properly prepared at 18 (and some sisters at 19). But more than anything, they need encouragement, reassurance, and support. When they are ready to serve, the door is still open.
How should the timing of a mission be determined? The same way you schedule other significant events, with consideration for worthiness, family needs, finances, health, and academic possibilities thrown in.
But one component outweighs all others—the will of the Lord. When President Monson announced the age changes, he also said, “We have prayerfully pondered …”3 That’s an example anyone thinking about missionary service should follow. The best time to serve is when the Lord confirms the time is right, even if that timing might appear inconvenient for other reasons.
As you prayerfully ponder the timing of your life, including your mission, here are some additional things to consider.
When you fill out the forms for the online Missionary Recommendation System, you are asked to specify a date of availability. Sometimes prospective missionaries select a date based on family events—marriages of siblings, for example, or the pending birth or death of a family member. Sometimes parents or siblings have strong feelings about when you ought to serve, based on their experiences.
But the most common consideration for many prospective missionaries is school schedules. Many want to leave right after they finish secondary education and hope to return from their missions when they are able to enter college or other training programs without delay.
Those who decide to leave before going to college may find themselves with time on their hands, particularly if their call includes a date to report to the missionary training center that is months away. Finding productive activities to occupy the time until they enter the MTC can present a challenge. For some prospective missionaries, a period of idleness can become a time of temptation as the adversary works to keep them from being worthy to serve.
Prospective missionaries who have already attended a university may try to time their return in order to take advantage of deferred enrollment and scholarships, class sequences for major fields of study, and other seasons and schedules tied to the academic world. In fact, timing when to return may be a bigger consideration than timing when to depart.
Because prospective missionaries cannot specify their reporting date, many set their availability date for the earliest possible time, in order to increase chances their reporting date will fall within their desired window.
But the truth is, when so many want to leave right after high school and so many want to return just before fall semester, challenges arise. It is difficult for missionary training centers to adjust housing, numbers of teachers, and other accommodations if there are extreme peaks and valleys in the number of missionaries arriving. Missions face similar challenges in arranging housing and having trainers ready. This can be disruptive to the mission and to the work.
As a missionary, you may study and live in less-crowded MTC facilities, receive more personal attention in the classroom, and have more seasoned training when you arrive in the mission field, if you time your missionary experience to coincide with the “off season.” This may, however, require sacrifice with regard to your personal timing.
The “right time” to serve may vary for each individual, but there are some things every prospective missionary should do.
1. Don’t delay preparation. Whatever the Lord’s plan for your future may be, becoming better prepared to serve is always a good plan. Strengthen yourself spiritually through scripture study, prayer, and repentance. Counsel with your bishop and stake president to ensure that standards for worthiness are being met. And remember, the Lord’s timing is better than timing you try to work out on your own. When you feel the Lord is calling you to serve, that takes precedence over other considerations.
2. Make a plan. Your goal should be to serve God throughout your life. Although the timing of a mission may affect education or training, ask yourself, What is the best way to serve God now? What will be the best way to serve Him later? If the right decision is to serve a mission now, then don’t delay.
Counsel with family members, inspired leaders, and trusted friends about factors that might affect timing. Advisers and counselors can help you become familiar with policies concerning deferred scholarships, leave of absence, and readmission. There may be more flexibility than you thought.
If the timing of your mission is flexible, consider providing an availability date during off-peak times (for the Provo Utah Missionary Training Center, this is between November and May). If that means you’ll arrive back at the university off track, consider attending short semesters (while others are taking a break) in order to graduate faster or to realign with academic schedules. Consider the possibility of working for a few months when you first return.
3. Seek divine guidance. When you do your best to find a solution, then humbly ask Heavenly Father for help to do His will and not your own, He will help you see the path forward. As you seek to do the will of the Lord, if you feel prompted to serve a full-time mission as soon as you’re 18 (or 19, for sisters), don’t hesitate. However, counsel with parents, Church leaders, and the Lord as you make your decision. Then trust in God and go forward with faith. (See Proverbs 3:5–6.)