Mouths of Babes — Does Can Mean Should?

O be wise, what can I say more?

Jacob 6:12

A Mormon boy from an affluent neighborhood in Utah, barely 18 years old, will leave a few days after graduating from high school for the crushing poverty, suffering, and misery of Sierra Leone. This isn’t the plot of an off-color Broadway musical. It’s going to happen in a couple of months to a real person.[1] He’s not going to experience mere culture shock; it will be an entirely different world, a different universe. Nothing in the boy’s lived experience up until this point is going to have prepared him for even the smallest percentage of what he is going to observe landing there. I hope and pray he survives!

There isn’t much difference between an 18 year old boy and a 19 year old boy — both are teenagers still, both usually as green as can be. On paper it’s a wash.

18 Is the New 19: A Much Needed Policy Change Outside the United States

The rule that boys must be nineteen to serve a mission long caused problems in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world where the system for higher education is based on different age milestones resulting from the different educational systems than in the United States. Ronan explained the phenomenon two years ago.[2] His explanation accords with my own observations of the educational problem for Mormon youth in the United Kingdom. Simply stated, far fewer young men were planning on attending university because the mission effectively functioned as a bar given the structure of the educational system. So they did not even view that as a possibility and consequently did not set that as a goal as they plodded day by day through their secondary education (i.e. their equivalent of high school). In contemplating the problem at that time, Ronan recommended lowering the missionary age from 19 to 18 for young men in the UK.[3]

The traditional 19 year old policy appears to have been based specifically on the educational system in the United States: you finish high school at 17 or 18, attend a year of university, and then take a leave of absence for two years to complete your mission, returning to university after the mission to finish your studies. The two year deferral for the mission was, of course, a given at universities in Utah and the Mormon Corridor more broadly. Even outside of Mormon country, American universities proved very amenable to allowing such a leave of absence for this purpose. Catering to the needs of your customers has always been a hallmark of American culture. The prospect of a mission did not even function as a bar (in most cases) for considering studies at America’s most elite colleges and universities.

The problem arose when that rule was applied universally to the whole world, apparently ignoring the very different educational and professional systems in which our youth operate outside the parameters of life in the American suburbs.

British and European boys, for example, faced dual challenges in many cases complying with the 19 year old rule: the different process of advancing in the various countries’ educational systems and a kind of social inertia[4] that resulted as a natural but unintended negative consequence of generations of youth being effectively barred from studies at elite universities in their countries because of missionary service. With the mission as an effective bar to pursuing university education, many young men had little motivation to find ways around it, as Ronan did, and he was only able to do it with considerable support from his family.[5] But this is the follow-on inertia problem, as I noted in Ronan’s 2011 discussion about this problem:

[O]ne point I was trying to make is that this is definitely a self-fulfilling cyclical prophecy. In other words, Mormon men who faithfully went on missions and therefore had to forego any hope of Oxford or Cambridge for their undergraduate degrees simply will not raise their own children with the goal of attending Oxford or Cambridge, especially since they will undoubtedly raise their children with a view to faithfully serving a mission. What Ronan’s post is trying to point out is how mutually exclusive these two things are. Ronan himself did not attend Oxford as an undergraduate but rather for his master’s. And yet in the UK, it might surprise many Americans (including perhaps many General Authorities in SLC?) to learn that an undergraduate degree is all it takes to enter many of the professions, including law, medicine, accounting etc. With undergraduate work at Oxford and Cambridge out of the picture for Mormon men, this puts our whole community at a disadvantage in terms of raising our youth with a sense that reaching the top of their chosen profession is a possibility. Of course this is not impossible but it is much more difficult. (emphasis added)

I have personally observed the existence and effect of this inertia in the UK. Ronan and I had discussed this problem many times, and I had discussed it with many other young Mormon professionals in the UK who had similar concerns, so I was in complete agreement with Ronan’s suggestion. I wrote at the time that “such a simple step as officially stating that men in the UK can serve their missions at 18 could go a long way to resolving this. It would take a generation but the people for whom this allows them to attend universities and enter the professions would then raise their children with university as a main goal of their education all throughout primary school.”[6]

Only a few months after Ronan’s post it became clear that this problem was also on the radar for General Authorities and likely had been for some time. In late Spring of 2011, a letter went out from Salt Lake City to stake presidents, bishops, and mission presidents that young men could now choose to serve missions at age 18 rather than waiting until age 19 in Germany, the United Kingdom, Albania, Cape Verde, Spain and Italy. Through its spokesman, the Church confirmed that “educational or military requirements in those countries” precipitated the change, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune on August 25, 2011.[7] This was wonderful news for young Mormon men in those countries who wanted to serve missions and also attend their countries’ elite universities to pursue professional careers.

Does Can Mean Should?

In October 2012, President Monson opened General Conference by announcing a change in the missionary age policy for young men and young women.[8] The change of the missionary age for women from 21 to 19 was by far the bigger news from this announcement.[9] But President Monson began by acknowledging that “[f]or some time the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have allowed young men from certain countries to serve at the age of 18 when they are worthy, able, have graduated from high school, and have expressed a sincere desire to serve. This has been a country-specific policy and has allowed thousands of young men to serve honorable missions and also fulfill required military obligations and educational opportunities.” (It really was wonderful to hear President Monson acknowledge that one size does not fit all and that a policy had been tailored to the specific needs of local members in areas where US conventions did not govern.)

Continuing, President Monson noted that they had received positive feedback about the service of these 18 year old young men serving missions in the affected countries: “Their mission presidents report that they are obedient, faithful, mature, and serve just as competently as do the older missionaries who serve in the same missions.”[10] President Monson then said that “[t]heir faithfulness, obedience, and maturity have caused us to desire the same option of earlier missionary service for all young men, regardless of the country from which they come” (emphasis in original). In other words, he announced that based on positive results in countries where this policy had already been implemented nearly 18 months previously, the lower missionary age would be applied universally.

Specifically, President Monson stated that “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″ (emphasis added).

The Church has strongly stressed that serving at 18 is only an option and not a new mandate for young men. In fact, President Monson stated this directly in the announcement, “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.” This is a strong caveat, all the more so because it followed in the sentence immediately after the announcement itself. Elder Nelson reinforced this in the press conference following the session:

Elder Nelson emphasized that the change is an option, not an edict:

“These age adjustments are new options now available to bishops in evaluating what is best for each of their youth,” he said. He continued, “Young men and young women should not begin their service before they are ready spiritually and temporally.”

He stated that schooling, family circumstances, health, and so forth still remain important considerations for the timing of missionary service.[11] (emphasis added)

The Church also noted that “[o]ver the past decade, permission has been given in 48 countries to let young men serve at age 18. Now, the Church will have a single policy worldwide” (ibid.).

This guarded message about the option to serve at 18 also comes through clearly in the Church’s online guidance about missionary service that now appears on the Church’s website: “Young men can now go on missions at age 18, provided they have completed high school. But because they can serve earlier doesn’t mean they have to. . . . Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles clarified, ‘We are not suggesting that all young men will—-or should—-serve at this earlier age. Many will still prefer to start at age 19 or older‘” (italics in original, bold added).[12]

The age change to 18 undoubtedly makes sense — and in fact is a much needed change — in many countries in the world outside the United States. And it is understandable that a universal policy was viewed as desirable. But on a practical level, does it make sense in the United States for boys to be taking advantage of this? The system in the United States is what the 19 year old policy was constructed around because the system allows a smooth transition from high school to one year of college/university to mission service premised on a deferral of university admission after the first year. This deferral is the mechanicism that is often not easily available in other countries such as the UK.

I have already witnessed a number of 18 year olds go on missions since the announcement. Is that a desirable outcome if they have not yet attended a year of university or worked for a year first? Is this going to hurt their prospects for a university education? Also, although Church leaders have received positive feedback about the maturity and faithfulness of 18 year olds who have served in the UK, Germany, and elsewhere since the policy change was announced for those areas about 18 months ago, legitimate questions still remain about whether 18 year olds coming straight out of high school in the US context are going to be as able to adjust to missionary life as someone who has lived for a year with a roommate at a university or while working for a year after graduating high school.

Are we ignoring the special and intentional emphasis the Church has put on the fact that serving at age 18 is an option and that, as Elder Nelson admonished, “Many will still prefer to start at age 19 or older”? I was especially intrigued by Elder Nelson’s quoted statement for two reasons. First, my feeling is that for the US context, it is still preferable for young men to serve at age 19 because our system here allows for that to happen without irreversible social consequences relating to education and career. It seems that General Authorities are saying that exigent circumstances are what would influence a young man to consider going at age 18 rather than at the traditional 19. IS it not preferable to have more mature missionaries? Second, this statement implies something that has always been the case but that seems to have been ignored by many (most?) members: serving even at 19 was always optional.

In other words, though there has long been a mandate for all young men to serve, a young man was always able to choose to serve later, for instance at 20 or 21, if circumstances required it. But in our discourse about missions, for the last several decades at least (I think it’s more accurate to say for the last fifty years at least), we have always spoken of age 19 as an absolute rule, even though this was not entirely accurate. But this was the received understanding among the mass of Latter-day Saints, including in such places as the UK, where in truth boys could always have set goals to attend university without worrying that the mission would effectively bar them from doing so because they could have decided to attend and complete university first and then serve their mission. In many cases in the UK, completing an undergraduate degree, including at the top institutions, only takes three, sometimes four years. Boys heading to university at 17 or 18 could have been out on their missions by 21 or 22. But I never once heard counsel of this nature given in any public address in the UK. The counsel was always a concrete mandate to serve at 19, which is what caused the mission to become a bar to our young men setting goals to attend university in the first place.

I am not sure why this approach was taken of teaching our youth in the UK that age 19 was an absolute rule during the period before they were allowed to serve at 18 as a means of making it possible for them to attend university (after they completed their missions). Did members, including local leadership up to the stake president and perhaps even Area Authority Seventy level, simply not realize that young men could choose to serve at 21 or 22 rather than having to leave strictly at age 19? Or did local leaders make a calculated decision to portray service at age 19 as an absolute rule because they believed that young men probably would not end up serving if they were allowed to choose to attend and complete their university education first?

Of concern, I have already observed that our discourse on missionary age at least in my ward in the United States is rapidly changing to present age 18 to our young men as the strict rule rather than as an option, an alternative tailored to special circumstances. Statements by the Church have led me to believe that age 18, in the United States, is intended to be an alternative, an exception, rather than the norm. But it is as if the strong caveat that the age change to 18 does not mean all should go at 18 is already being entirely ignored. Has anyone else noticed this? I have heard (with some sense of dismay) many lessons from teachers at Church and admonitions from the bishop on down to young mens leaders in all of the quorums to the effect that the boys have to work harder to prepare themselves because now they will need to be ready to go out right after finishing high school at age 18. It is being presented as a mandate just like age 19 was presented for decades.

* * *

I remember that some of the best, most effective and Christlike missionaries (by far) on my mission were Elders who had waited until their early 20s to serve a mission. Circumstances had required them to do this. At the time, they were not allowed to serve at 18 and so the mission would have prevented them from serving in the military and obtaining a university education in their home countries if they had gone at age 19.[13] Our mission president was very lucky to have them (they usually came from Switzerland or other European countries) and they always served as assistants to the mission president. Most missions could have benefited, I would think, from a greater number of more “mature” missionaries.

In sum, the Church has made very clear that can does not mean should on the question of whether boys should serve missions at age 18. From this I gather that the Church intends the Jacob rule to apply: “O be wise, what can I say more?” Early indications have hinted that we might be poised to violate this rule. If we can’t live up to this high standard, perhaps we can at least endeavor to apply its less noble corollary, the Bell rule: “Don’t do dumb things”.


[1] In his farewell talk, he referred to the change of the missionary age policy from 19 to 18 to be the “greatest revelation” announced in his life.

[2] “Consider the British Mormon male. His religious culture wants him to serve a mission and, if he has reached 17 and is still active, he probably has an interest in serving himself. If he wants to serve he will have to withdraw from the university applications process. If he is at an academic school, he will likely be one of only a few who are similarly sidelined. If he is very bright, he will rebuff all attempts to get him to consider Oxbridge. His extreme Otherness will be confirmed.

Americans may wonder why he cannot start university, pause for his mission, then continue. Alas, people do not drop in and out of university here; once you start a degree you continue until you finish. Also, because he is confronted by the oddity which states that he cannot serve until he is 19, he has to occupy himself until he is 19 and will thus, in effect, be taking three years out of education. All the while his peers are starting their degrees and he is delivering pizza. A year into his mission he will have to apply for university intake and hope that none of the universities wish to interview him because it is unlikely that he will be able to return home. Hopefully they will also not see his mission as wasted time.

It is no wonder, perhaps, that some Mormon men thus choose not to serve missions, and some that do, choose not to bother with university. Here I reach for anecdote, so take it for what it’s worth, but in my experience in the UK, there are significantly more Mormon female graduates than there are male. I have one female friend studying in a university town where there are no male Mormon students. The men who go to university before missions tend to go inactive; many who come home from missions feel at 21-22 more obligated to quickly marry and support a family than to ‘indulge’ in education.” (

[3] Ronan wrote, “I do worry at all the undereducated and professionally-stunted Mormon men I see in the UK, and I do wish we didn’t lose so many who feel that the choice in favour of missions over university is simply too hard to make. If I could hope for the church to consider one thing it would be to consider one year missions for Europeans, or, if that is too radical, to allow our men to serve at 18, as two years out of education is qualitatively less than three. If the goal is active, educated, professionally-satisfied, RM Mormon men, it is something to think about, at least.” (emphasis added)

[4] In his 2011 post, Ronan noted,

In relating some of these costs, I am aware that I am myself an example that they can be overcome. Some of my friends have been similarly successful. I watched as my friends left for university and tried hard to convince my teachers that I wasn’t brainwashed into giving up my life for a cult. I worked in a cake factory before my mission and in a travel agency afterwards. I came home and eventually earned three degrees whilst married and with children. Professionally, I have arrived where I want to be. It can be done if you want it. I had to forego a potential place at Cambridge because I couldn’t return from Austria for an interview, and it has taken me until 35 to reach pay equality with my similarly-educated colleagues, but I have worked hard towards a goal and was determined to achieve it, thanks in large part to my family’s support” (emphasis added).

So the 19 year old missionary age rule did prevent Ronan from attending Oxford or Cambridge as an undergraduate, though in his case a solid goal to attend university from a young age, supported by his family, landed him at one of the UK’s other fine universities. And, in the end, he was able to attend graduate school at Oxford.

[5] In response to Ronan’s 2011 post, I commented that

This has a more far reaching effect: many Mormon men who choose to serve a mission end up not attending university at all. If they have natural business acumen and are entrepreneurial by nature, they can still make it in the business world, although it really will have to be through pure entrepreneurship and not through a more traditional professional route. There are enough of these to make sure that there is still a pool of wealthy, self-made men who form a group of potential stake presidents in the UK. (This fact perhaps shields the problem from SLC because from all appearances, there seems to be enough LDS business leaders who are viewed as acceptable candidates for stake presidents?) But for the rest, they end up working in some business or other and because of the structural problem with universities and missions in the UK, they raise their own children with a view toward serving a mission and do not emphasize attending university very much, if at all.

This is a huge structural problem because here in the UK, if children do not have their eye on the goal of university by 9 or so years old (when they need to begin preparing in earnest for the 11+ exams, which will determine whether they get into the right schools and into the right study programs to put them on the track to make successful university applications), or at the latest by 14/15 as you note in your post, then they have precluded themselves from consideration at those universities ever. . . .

After primary school (= elementary school in American), children go into secondary school in a school based on what track they want to take several years down the road. Many of them, if they do not have university education in their future because of the priorities of their parents, go to a secondary school that is not even focused on preparing them for a university education but rather for a vocational career. So this starts very young in the UK and if the parents have not gone through the process then it is very unlikely they will raise their children with this as their goal.

The result is far fewer Mormons in the various professions. Mormon scientists, doctors, surgeons, academics, partners at top law firms, officials with high rankings in governmental agencies, not to mention the virtual army of business men and women with (or without) MBAs in the United States are a dime a dozen. Your post hightlights a key reason why this is not the case in the UK. ( (emphasis added)

[6] I also expressed my confidence that General Authorities were not aware that this self-defeating cycle was occurring and that if they did know about it, they would surely make an appropriate change:

I believe that if General Authorities in SLC learned that a certain policy that is crafted for a particular set of circumstances is actually detrimental to those living with a different set of circumstances when uniformly applied across the world to all circumstances, then they would quickly evaluate the issue and make surgical changes to ensure the well-being of all members of the household of God. For example, I have no doubt that if someone told the General Authorities that a particular mutable Church policy meant that very few, if any, Mormon men would ever be able to attend Harvard or Yale (or any other Ivy League university), then they would act very quickly in making a necessary change. Thus, I can only infer that our General Authorities are not fully aware of the situation on the ground in the UK — however I will note that Area Authority Seventies and Seventies in Area leadership are perplexed at why many of our returned missionaries in the UK (and more broadly in Europe) are too often going inactive very soon after returning home from their missions. I think the issue Ronan raised in his original post and this issue are very likely closely related. It isn’t until after the mission that the full realization of the consequences of this structural problem dawns on our young men, and this could very well be contributing to their discouragement and reduced enthusiasm in their Church life upon returning. ( (emphasis in original)

[7] Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Some Mormon men can go on missions at age 18,” Salt Lake Tribune Online Edition, Aug 25, 2011 04:58PM (

[8] President Thomas S. Monson, “Welcome to Conference,” Talk delivered on October 6, 2012 (

[9] In a press conference following the announcement, reporters somewhat bewilderedly asked why in the face of this change in policy the Church was maintaining a disparity between the age at which young men (now 18 instead of 19) and young women (now 19 instead of 21) were allowed to serve. Elder Holland explained that “there needs to be at least some separation” between the genders. When asked why in connection with this change the length of missionary service was not equalized so that women would serve two years like young men, Elder Holland acknowledged that it had been considered but that Church leadership was interested in first observing the effects of this policy change, to which he referred as a miracle, counselling to expect just “one miracle at a time”. Peggy Fletcher Stack and Lisa Schencker, “News of lower mission age excites Mormons,” The Salt Lake Tribune Online Edition, October 8, 2012 6:46 pm. (

[10] Anecdotally, my own observation was that the 18 year old missionaries seemed much younger than their 19 year old peers. This surprised me given my attitude that 18 and 19 year olds were equally immature and “green”. But that does not contradict President Monson’s evaluation that they were serving equally honorably and trying just as hard. To me, they just really looked like and seemed like babies compared to the other missionaries, despite only one year of age difference! But that year can make a huge difference during the teenage years when the stresses of maturing compound everyday.

[11] Heather Whittle Wrigley, “Church Leaders Share More Information on Missionary Age Requirement Change,” Church News and Events, Oct. 6, 2012. (

[12] “Missionary Preparation: When Should I Serve?” undated (

[13] (Here’s looking at you Elder Bolt!

10 Responses to Mouths of Babes — Does Can Mean Should?

  1. acfowles says:

    In my experience, I don’t feel that age 19 was presented as a mandate. Social/cultural norm, perhaps, but not an absolute.

    It is my understanding that many wards grapple with the difficulty of the young men, in particular, fully intending to serve a mission while in high school but then enjoying a year of college or other pursuits and thereby (so the logic goes) becoming distracted from serving a mission. Shifting the age to 18 may be a way to help the young men “keep on track.” Now, we can debate whether their effectiveness at this lower age and maturity level will be as great for the missionary work as otherwise. In some instances it will most certainly decrease efficiency. But I wonder whether the net result, at least in the life of the young man and his later sphere of influence, will still be positive.

    As far as your example regarding the young men who chose to serve at age 22 or such, it does not surprise me that they were held in such high esteem. But I wonder whether that is simply a question of maturity level generally, or rather a reflection of the fact that these young men, having so much time to consider and weigh other options, still chose to serve a mission. And, most likely, farther removed from the influence/pressure of parent and family. I think their spiritual maturity in still choosing to serve was a very strong factor in their missionary service. That does not answer the question, though, regarding the young man who waits a year and chooses to not serve a mission at all.

    I also wonder whether that is what is going on in the bishopric’s minds in those situations you mention where it sounds like they are now advocating 18 as a hard and fast rule. Perhaps we are only hearing part of that conversation – in council they are weighing/discerning the spiritual needs of the young men in the ward, but in public it only comes out as a hard-and-fast “get them out at 18.” No clue whether that is true, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    Besides, Are you assuming that there is a default at all? From my reading of the announcement, it could be simply interpreted as “let’s start considering a mission when a young man is 18, but if he doesn’t want to go yet or priesthood leaders determine he is not ready, then a later age is still wholly appropriate and sometimes the better option.”

  2. Mike says:

    Although it seems like we are sending our helpless 18 year old lads and 19 year old lassies out into the cruel world, actually we are not. A mission is so highly-organized and protected and supervised with an identical multi-level command structure (APs, ZLs, DLs) that it is more like sending them off to a very long summer EFY that happens to be in a “foreign” country. (Foreign being anything as far away as Idaho if you are from Utah).

    I am amazed at how homogenized the mission experience is across the world. Everyone gets excited about where they will serve but actually it doesn’t really matter that much. They will do pretty much the same things in every mission. The language in which they must teach is one exception and some places have more poverty and it gets hot and cold to various degrees everywhere. But the rules and daily activities and techniques and more especially the relationships with companions and leaders and investigators and members are so very similar and so very safe.

    Although ostensibly the mission is about service in sharing the gospel, the mind set of missionary work is extremely inwardly focused and regimented. What goes on in the minds of missionaries across the world is extremely similar and under strict supervision.They can only read from a limited number of books and are sheltered from exposure to any other thought that might prove distracting and are confined to a very narrow avenue of missionary work. I think it would work about as well if they were sent out at age 12 except the parents would revolt.

    Finally, it is rather difficult to fail as a missionary. Many do return home early but mostly for health reasons including mental health (which is just as legit as physical). That is no failure. If a missionary shows up and doesn’t completely and openly go apostate and keeps their hands off the opposite sex and forbidden beverages off their lips (or at least doesn’t get caught) and doesn’t openly defy authority, they will make it to the end.They will receive an honorable discharge and be welcomed home as a hero. Attrition at even non-competitive colleges is much higher, Military service is much harder and failure is a distinct and common possibility. Going directly into the work force at that age in this economy is far less secure. I guess if you are entirely codependent on parents or independently wealthy, a perpetual lay-about and/or a vacation might be less strenuous than being a Mormon missionary in the 21st century. It is only as hard as the missionaries voluntarily make it in their own minds.

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  6. jenilee says:


    Mouths of Babes — Does Can Mean Should? | ABEV: a bird’s eye view

  7. tandi says:


    Mouths of Babes — Does Can Mean Should? | ABEV: a bird’s eye view

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