My 18-month Mission

February 19, 2004 | 6 comments
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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.

6 Responses to My 18-month Mission

  1. Bob Caswell on February 19, 2004 at 10:41 pm

    I like this post, Gordon. You seem to have found a good way of explaining how Church administration can “make a mistake” but still be inspired.

    In fact, over at bobandlogan.com, I just recently posted about a new administrative change: part-time interpreters can now be paid for General Conference.

    I’ve always felt the Church has been making a mistake with the way they handle interpretation/translation. But I usually find that I will be eaten alive for just coming out and saying, “the Church has made a mistake”.

    You, on the other hand, have the uncanny ability to discuss something potentially controversial without the reader seeing the controversy.

  2. brayden on February 20, 2004 at 12:04 am

    There is no denying that the Church administration is an evolving structure. As times goes on, the demands placed on church membership and leadership change. I’ve heard local leaders state (and they are probably communicating this message from other, more senior leaders) that the Lord expects leaders to make decisions following the inspiration they receive, but this does not mean that they will not be expected to learn from past experiences. This is why it sometimes takes new bishops some time to adapt to their role. They make mistakes and adjust the way they do things (following the Spirit along the way).

    I have to wonder though if the decision to shorten (and then relengthen) missionary service was reflective of a larger internal struggle Church leadership faced over the future strategy of resource distribution. The decision to shorten mission length was just one facet of this larger problem. At the same time of the 1982 decision, members were expected to contribute significantly to building budgets. My dad told me this weekend that in 1980 our family was assessed an annual building budget payment of $1200. This assessment was in addition to the ten percent tithe. $1200 may not seem like much now, but at the time my father was the only wage-earner in a family of four children and he probably made less than 20K annually.

    Of course, we all know that the Church has since made many policy changes regarding distribution of resources. No longer do local members have to foot half the budget for building renovations or constructions. Members aren’t expected to lay the carpets in church buildings. The budgeting is now centralized, and remarkably, this allows the church to build more buildings and temples than we ever thought possible in the early 80′s.

    What does this have to do with missions? Well, perhaps Church leaders decided in 1984 that it was important for missionaries to serve twelve months even if this decision might entail future centralization of missionary funding (as we see now). I don’t think that individual families can afford missions any more now than they could in the 80′s; in fact, given the significant number of Third-World missionaries serving now, there are probably more families now that cannot afford to fund the entire 24 month mission. What changed was the Church’s funding philosophy. By centralizing the budgets and funding of things like missions, the church has been able to do more good than they would have otherwise. This was a great and prophetic change in strategy.

  3. Aaron Brown on February 20, 2004 at 4:30 am

    “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.”

    I served my mission in South America. There was a certain door-knocking approach I learned from my senior companions, and that every missionary utilized, more or less. About a year into my mission, a visiting General Authority dropped in at a conference and introduced a “new” door-knocking approach. He made it clear that this was the most amazing thing to come out of Salt Lake in recent memory. To hear him talk, you’d think that all LDS proselytizing since the Restoration had been a mere stepping stone to this latest, greatest system! After 160 years of our not quite getting it right, the Lord had finally seen fit to enlighten us with a nearly foolproof method that would revolutionize missionary work the world over!

    There was palpable excitement in the air. Almost all the missionaries were pumped! Motivation ran high, enthusiasm soared, and everyone couldn’t wait to hit the streets and try out the new system….

    About two months later, the same General Authority paid the mission a return visit. Once again, he spoke to us about our door-knocking strategies. This time, however, he came with instructions on an EVEN BETTER approach! With a few modifications, now we’d really get it right! Our numbers would skyrocket overnight!

    Once again, everyone was really excited. Missionaries were anxious to incorporate the new approach. Good times.

    About two months later, the General Authority visited us a THIRD time…. (You’re getting the idea)…

    It started to occur to some of us what was really going on. The Brethren were simply trying out new approaches. They were experimenting. They wanted to see what worked, and what didn’t work. But they couldn’t say that outright, of course. They needed a constant level of motivation among the elders to receive truly accurate feedback regarding the efficacy of the various methods. Thus, each new approach was accompanied by rhetoric designed to maximize our youthful enthusiasm. It was probably an effective strategy. (It also struck me as a bit dishonest.)

    It also occurred to some of us that to the extent we saw the programs for what they were, we were rendering ourselves comparatively ineffective as missionaries. It’s a lot harder to get enthused about a program when you’ve convinced yourself that those pushing it don’t necessarily believe their own rhetoric.

    So yes, Church leaders experiment. There’s nothing wrong with that. I often wonder, though, how effective certain experiments will be if we recognize that much of what Church leaders do is, after all, only an experiment…

    Aaron B

  4. Aaron Brown on February 20, 2004 at 4:30 am

    “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.”

    I served my mission in South America. There was a certain door-knocking approach I learned from my senior companions, and that every missionary utilized, more or less. About a year into my mission, a visiting General Authority dropped in at a conference and introduced a “new” door-knocking approach. He made it clear that this was the most amazing thing to come out of Salt Lake in recent memory. To hear him talk, you’d think that all LDS proselytizing since the Restoration had been a mere stepping stone to this latest, greatest system! After 160 years of our not quite getting it right, the Lord had finally seen fit to enlighten us with a nearly foolproof method that would revolutionize missionary work the world over!

    There was palpable excitement in the air. Almost all the missionaries were pumped! Motivation ran high, enthusiasm soared, and everyone couldn’t wait to hit the streets and try out the new system….

    About two months later, the same General Authority paid the mission a return visit. Once again, he spoke to us about our door-knocking strategies. This time, however, he came with instructions on an EVEN BETTER approach! With a few modifications, now we’d really get it right! Our numbers would skyrocket overnight!

    Once again, everyone was really excited. Missionaries were anxious to incorporate the new approach. Good times.

    About two months later, the General Authority visited us a THIRD time…. (You’re getting the idea)…

    It started to occur to some of us what was really going on. The Brethren were simply trying out new approaches. They were experimenting. They wanted to see what worked, and what didn’t work. But they couldn’t say that outright, of course. They needed a constant level of motivation among the elders to receive truly accurate feedback regarding the efficacy of the various methods. Thus, each new approach was accompanied by rhetoric designed to maximize our youthful enthusiasm. It was probably an effective strategy. (It also struck me as a bit dishonest.)

    It also occurred to some of us that to the extent we saw the programs for what they were, we were rendering ourselves comparatively ineffective as missionaries. It’s a lot harder to get enthused about a program when you’ve convinced yourself that those pushing it don’t necessarily believe their own rhetoric.

    So yes, Church leaders experiment. There’s nothing wrong with that. I often wonder, though, how effective certain experiments will be if we recognize that much of what Church leaders do is, after all, only an experiment…

    Aaron B

  5. Paul S. on February 20, 2004 at 10:13 am

    Gordon, did lower the mission to 18 months have anything to do with your decision to go on a mission? The reason I ask is because often times one feels, for example in General Conference, that a speaker is speaking directly to you. In other words even though 10 million other people weren’t inspired by the talk, 1 person was…maybe this was the case here. I would certainly be more inclined to feel that way at first glance than to think it was a mistake.

  6. Gordon Smith on February 20, 2004 at 10:34 am

    Paul, As I relate (here, I made a decision to go on a mission before I was baptized. My reaction to the announcement was mixed. On the one hand, I was disappointed because I was very excited about the prospect of serving a mission. On the other hand, I knew that the shorter period of service would make things easier for me financially, since my parents (not members) were understandably willing to offer only modest support. Members of my Wisconsin ward paid for about half of my mission. I will be forever grateful for that.

    I can relate to the feeling that “this was for me.” As you might imagine, my parents were not thrilled about my decision to serve a mission, and they wondered whether I should graduate from college first. They thought I would go off for two years and abandon school altogether, I suppose. Anyway, they were quite pleased with the news that it would require only 18 months, and I thought at the time that this might be the Lord making the adjustment to Mormonism a bit easier for my family to swallow.

    Of course, things look different now. They still are not members of the Church, and news that I served an 18-month mission inevitably elicits snide remarks about it not being a “real mission.” To which the standard reply is something about being an elect generation, able to accomplish in 18 months what takes others two years. (And take note: just because it is the “standard reply” doesn’t mean it’s false!)

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