In April 1982, the First Presidency announced that male missionaries would thenceforth serve missions of 18 months, rather than two years. The justification for the change: “It is anticipated that this shortened term will make it possible for many to go who cannot go under present financial circumstances. This will extend the opportunity for missionary service to an enlarged body of our young men.”
I had been a member of the Church for less than six months. In September 1982, I was called by President Spencer W. Kimball to serve in the Austria Vienna Mission for a period of 18 months. After returning home, I obtained a teaching position at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. On November 26, 1984, during my first semester as a teacher at the MTC, the First Presidency announced that the length of missions would be changed back to two years.
Some of my fellow 18-month missionaries were disappointed. They felt cheated out of six months. Others felt like they had dodged a bullet. I loved missionary work, and I enjoyed Austria immensely, but I was satisfied with my 18-month mission. No regrets. (Indeed, there is a sense of symmetry in my family, since my wife also served an 18-month mission. As for why men and women now serve different lengths of time today, I will leave that discussion for others.)
Being intimately affected by this important change in Church policy was a great lesson in the nature of Church administration for me, a recent convert. If I recall corectly, President Hinckley announced the change in 1982, and given President Kimball’s frail health at the time, I suspect that President Hinckley was an important force in deciding to change. I have never doubted that President Hinckley was called of God to be an Apostle and now Prophet. Nevertheless, I think the change in policy regarding mission length was an obvious mistake. What the Church learned is that the demand for missionary service among faithful young men is inelastic. Good to know. Change back to two years before things really go south. Fine. Move on.
The Church is administered by inspired men, but some decisions are more inspired than others. That is to say, I think that for the most part, God lets Church leaders figure things out on their own in the same way that you and I figure out our callings. We experiment, sometimes with success and other times not. We feel prompted by the Spirit. Or not. But over time, if we strive diligently, we develop a greater understanding of God’s ways, and we embrace those ways. This seems natural and right to me.