Remembering 18 Months

September 4, 2009 | 39 comments
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Saturday, my son passes the 18 month mark of his mission–and he will then also pass me, having served longer on his mission than I did on mine.

I confess, I’m a little jealous.

I served my mission in the early 1980s, and about 6 months into my mission the rules were changed. The length of missionary service was shortened to 18 months from 2 years. Those who had been in the field for less than a year were told they would serve for just 18 months. Those who had been out more than a year had their choice–they could serve just 18 months, or for a full two years, if they wished.

Looking at this change from a historical perspective, it might have even been predicted, although the timing wasn’t obvious. In the early 1900s missions lasted for three years. By mid-century mission length had been shortened to 2-1/2 years, and then to 2 years. I have heard that each time this change was made, the number of missionaries increased. It could also be that, knowing they had less time, missionaries worked harder. But this time, (according to what I’ve heard–no actual evidence available) that did not happen. And just a few years after I returned, missions were moved back to two years.

For someone, somewhere, this change was probably a great thing. Perhaps for others it was actually bad in some way. I was very disappointed, and would have served another six months if I had been allowed to. But, except for my disappointment (a very minor thing, really), there was really little or no effect on my life. I might have gone back to school 4 months later than I did, and had less money to do so, and those things could have delayed my life a little. But I have no reason to think this would have been better or worse for me. As far as I can tell, it also had no efect on my Church life–I can’t imagine that I would be more faithful somehow. I do think I’ll eventually give that six months of service (and more), but that is at least 12 years away.

As a result, more than 25 years after I returned from my mission, I still don’t know what this all means to me, let alone to the Church. The Lord must have his reasons for why this happened. But I can’t figure out what they might be.

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39 Responses to Remembering 18 Months

  1. Julie M. Smith on September 4, 2009 at 11:04 am

    I heard a GA say once that the change was done to accommodate the needs of a cohort of missionaries who had been less valiant in the pre-existence and wouldn’t have made it the whole 2 years.

  2. Ardis E. Parshall on September 4, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Sometimes an experiment is just an experiment. It didn’t work out, so was soon reversed. Must there be a cosmic reason to it all? (The elders who went out with me were called for two years, disappointed initially in the cutback to 18 months, then ultimately relieved to escape our mission president with some shreds of testimony and health intact. Maybe that’s the reason. Maybe my elders would all have jumped off cliffs had they had to serve under that man for another six months. Your shortened mission was just a byproduct of their salvation. Though it would have been simpler for God to just send a lightning bolt to blast Pres. H. off the face of the earth, wouldn’t it?)

  3. Allen on September 4, 2009 at 11:32 am

    When I served as a missionary in the mid 50s, we had to be 20 or older to serve. I don’t know when the change to 19 occurred, but I’ve wondered about the effect of that change. I’m hearing rumors that the age might go down to 18.

    I’ve recently started a blog to collect attitudes of people toward their missions. We like to think that all missionaries had wonderful experiences, but reality is, as Ardis gave an example in her post, many missionaries had terrible experiences. I would like to know if the problems were with mission leadership, maturity of the missionaries, or what ever else might have been involved.

  4. John Mansfield on September 4, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I thought that the Volcker recession (Aug. ’81-Nov. ’82) was a factor. That was the last serious economic downturn before the current one, and for the hype about this one being Great Depression II, that one felt worse to me. Maybe I lived among more vulnerable people then.

  5. Hunter on September 4, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Dang, Julie Smith! I was going to make a similar joke about valiance in the pre-existence.

    And here I thought I was so unique.

  6. Frecklefoot on September 4, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    I’d like to see a rule where when your 18 month mark neared, you could CHOOSE to go home (honorably) or stay another 6 months. For some people, missions are awesome and life-changing. For others, they just suck. Not everyone experiences them the same.

  7. Mike on September 4, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Ah, those missionary days. The best 6 months of my life.

  8. Kent Larsen on September 4, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Awww, gee. Thanks, Julie. Just what I needed to hear.

  9. Hans in California on September 4, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    When I served my mission in Norway in the late 1960s there was no Language Training Mission in Norwegian. Thus we were called for two and a half years (30 Months). A few months after I was called an LTM was opened at Ricks College for the Scandinavian languages. The first group of LTM missionaries, who had been called on two year missions (24 months) had release dates before mine! We, the older guys, were later given the option of leaving for any reason at the 24 month mark or anytime thereafter, or serving the full 30 month term if we chose to do so. I came home right before Christmas at my 27 and a half month mark. The idea of going through a third Norwegian winter didn’t cut the mustard. They don’t call the Norwegian saints “The Frozen Chosen” for nothing!

  10. Hunter on September 4, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Kent:

    Having gotten rid of my snark, let me make a more serious comment. To me, I’d have to say that the whole 18-month thing is still kind of a weird step-child in the panoply of Church administrative changes. There have been lots of disregarded policies in the Church. We speak with a certain reserved affection for the old pre-consolidated meeting schedule (now disgarded); we speak with righteous fervor at the now-disgarded policy of excluding blacks from priesthood ordination; we chuckle at the quaint (but now disgarded) Gold & Green Balls; we quietly marvel at the revelation that discontinued Regional Representatives in favor of an expanded Seventy; and etc., etc. The list goes on and on. Most of these policy or administrative changes we understand within the context of a growing church. But this temporary mission change doesn’t quite fit that model, I don’t think.

    On top of that, in the case of the 18-month mission, my fuzzy perception is that there wasn’t ever much of a *reason* given for the change. And even less reason given for the change back to 24-month missions.

    Perhaps we just don’t like not knowing. And without being given reasons, frankly, the vacuum is filled with a perception that the 18-month mission change was a confused or failed policy.

  11. jimbob on September 4, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    “Dang, Julie Smith! I was going to make a similar joke about valiance in the pre-existence.”

    Hunter, the cycle continues. As you might be able to guess, she was able to think of that joke about the preexistence quicker than you because she was more valiant than you in the war in heaven. Try not to be such a fence-sitter next time.

  12. Dan on September 4, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Had I only been out for 18 months, maybe I would have helped my sister not leave the church (she sent me a letter in my 20th month telling me she was leaving the church, and included several anti-Mormon pamphlets thinking they would “show me the light and real truth” about Joseph Smith). Those last four months were killer. I’d like to think they helped someone (we did find a drunk three days before I left who eventually got baptized, but last I heard he was inactive), but who knows, it may have helped me more than anyone else, to stick with it to the end no matter the cost.

  13. ji on September 4, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Although I believe in revelation, I disagree that every action or decision made in SLC must be seen as a result of revelation. The Lord calls servants, and then those servants do the best they can. That’s how I see the 18-month mission circumstance — a decision by holy men doing the best they could to magnify their callings. And after a while, they changed back to the previous approach. This should not be seen as a faith-damaging circumstance, and one may wonder in vain and fruitlessly forever about why the Lord implemented a flawed approach or whether there was a reason for that short time.

  14. John Mansfield on September 4, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    From the Ensign, May 1982:

    Single young men accepting mission calls will now serve eighteen months instead of two years, the First Presidency announced in an April 2 leadership meeting with Regional Representatives.

    In speaking for the First Presidency, President Gordon B. Hinckley said that “much consideration has been given to the term of service for young men in the mission field. Costs of maintaining missionaries have risen dramatically. Many of our families face extremely heavy economic pressures. The problem is aggravated by the fact that more and more young men are being called from lands outside the United States and Canada, many of them from lands where rates of inflation have been extremely high and have taken a serious toll in the real incomes of people.”

  15. D. Michael on September 4, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    In answer to your question, Allen, my mission experience was not exactly horrendous, but certainly mediocre at best. I attribute it to several factors.

    I wouldn’t call my mission president especially bad, although in hindsight I consider him a twit.

    I was definitely too immature to make the best of the experience.

    But I think the main reason I wasn’t enthralled with being a missionary was the system itself. Maybe it works for young elders generally, or perhaps it’s geared toward the lowest common denominator elder. But for me it was a sterile, business-like, rigid system that I did not thrive in. No amount of effort to inject the spirit into the system mitigated those characteristics sufficiently to make a significant difference.

    I’ve never been in the military, and I thank God for that. The military mindset would have killed me, if the shrapnel didn’t first. The missionary mindset is not far removed from the military one.

  16. Katie M. on September 4, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I think John’s quote explain a lot. When did the Church change to having all missionaries pay the same flat monthly rate regardless of location? That policy might be seen a solution to putting back the mission length to two years while also dealing with famiies’ financial burden.

  17. Craig H. on September 4, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Why no fuss over a mere 18 months for sisters? Does anyone know whether in the old days of 30-month missions abroad sisters served that period of time as well? Or did they have an abbreviated tenure then as well?

  18. Allen on September 4, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    I served in the mid 1950s when Asian missions were for Elders 36 months, other non-English missions for Elders were 30 months, and English missions for Elders were 24 months. Sisters in English missions served for 18 months. I don’t know about Sisters in non-English missions.

  19. Hunter on September 4, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    jimbob – Awesome.

    ji: I don’t think there’s any shame in recognizing that the Brethren are doing their best, working within the limits of mortality. To the contrary, I think there’s honor in that proposition. I think Church members should be able to say that the 18-month policy was an experiment and it evidently didn’t meet the needs that a 24-month mission does. Like Ardis said, it didn’t work out.

    John Mansfield: Thanks for that quote. This provides some reason for the shortening of the missions. What about why they changed it back?

    Katie M.: The change to a flat rate for missionaries occurred years and years (10?) after the return to the 24-month mission, IIRC. So, any connection between the two is probably very attenuated.

  20. Daniel on September 4, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    I happen to know firsthand there is a Research Information Division of the Correlation Department of the Church. It is staffed with professional social scientists who conduct research (surveys mostly, but some “action research”) to answer questions about the population of the Church members. As I understand it, the change from 2 years to 18 months was partly a decision resulting from RID research, and partly a bit of action research to test the effects of a reduced tenure (or as some may call it, “sentence”). Obviously, the Brethren did not see the reduced tenure as producing the outcomes they were seeking. Since I was caught up in that change as well, I found it a bit disconcerting that 1) we would be experimented on like guinea pigs, and 2) that social science was really behind what was commonly seen as “revelation”.

  21. Kent Larsen on September 4, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Daniel (20), I think you bring up a very good point. We are taught that the brethren and Church leaders are inspired, and you and Ardis and many others suggest that wasn’t the case regarding switching to 18-month-long missions.

    I tend to agree that it probably was experimentation, as you suggest, but I’m not sure that makes me feel any better (as you also suggest). My memory is very fuzzy about the details, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was presented as inspiration.

    Part of the problem comes down to what this does to our confidence in our leaders. I don’t think we need to be regularly asking, “Is it inspiration or experimentation?”

    But, having seen a little bit of the process that a bishop goes through, I like to think that I’m comfortable with some “experimentation.” I even think that the Lord might want leaders to explore a bit, work out what will work in many situations.

    And in my own case, there was certainly no harm done.

  22. Daniel on September 4, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Kent, I don’t disagree. In my case, I was given the choice to extend or go home at the 18 months to which I was called. Because I was AP, I compromised and extended about 4 months (the president said he needed me because the change left him with too few to serve in leadership positions – ZLs, DLs, etc.). I suppose some may say it did me “no harm” because I was a ZL and AP: a “successful” missionary ;-)
    //Part of the problem comes down to what this does to our confidence in our leaders. I don’t think we need to be regularly asking, “Is it inspiration or experimentation?”//
    The issue for me was and still is about confidence in our leaders qua “prophets, seers, and revelators”. I think it is one thing to have confidence in them as good men, just as I have confidence in any good man who, for example, leads a company or a military unit (my mission president was former military). But it is quite another to have confidence that they are “prophets, seers, and revelators” and that their decisions and directives come from some “unearthly” source.

  23. Kevin Barney on September 4, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    I served before this time, and I was a little envious when the change was made; I would have liked to be able to go home after 18 months.

  24. Ardis E. Parshall on September 4, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    and you and Ardis and many others suggest that [inspiration] wasn’t the case regarding switching to 18-month-long missions.

    Be careful how you say that. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea.

    Whiile I believe God may and often does inspire, I don’t believe for a moment that he inspires every last step taken by leaders of the church. That expectation would put inspiration to General Authorities on a completely different footing than the inspiration with which I am familiar:

    I am certain that God does inspire me from time to time in the fulfillment of my callings — sometimes I’m keenly aware of that inspiration, other times things work out so perfectly that I attribute it to inspiration whether I was conscious of receiving it or not. But most of the time, all I can do — all I think God expects me to do — is to bring my best talents and information and efforts to do the best I can.

    I don’t see why we need expect anything else of even prophets, seers and revelators. Must their every action be the result of inspired dictation from God? Can’t we allow them the same expectation that they will bring their best talents and information and efforts to their callings, without their being seen as mere tools manipulated by God?

    In that sense, I see the 18-month deal being a good faith attempt to meet some need; I see the prompt switch back to 24 months being the same. Heaven forbid that we should all be fallen prophets or fallen Sunday School teachers if we try some technique that doesn’t work out as well as hoped!

  25. Eric Chambers on September 4, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    I am part of that extremely small cohort of missionaries whose call was for 18 months and who returned home 3-4 months before the switch back to 24-months. For this group there was no decision to be made regarding should I extend or not and of course there was never any option of serving 24 months. We just figured this was the new reality.

    I must admit to being a little envious of those who were able to serve 2 years. I think I was just hitting my stride in terms of teaching ability and language ability when i went home. Besides, Ecuador was a very cool and exciting place to be.

  26. queuno on September 4, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    When did the Church change to having all missionaries pay the same flat monthly rate regardless of location? That policy might be seen a solution to putting back the mission length to two years while also dealing with famiies’ financial burden.

    Summer of 1991. I spent almost my entire mission paying a pretty low amount, and then it more than doubled about a month before I came home.

  27. Mark Hansen on September 4, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    I served during the 18 month time. For me, personally, I probably wouldn’t have gone if it had bee a two year call. At the time that I left, I wasn’t that committed. Commitment came while working, I found.

    As far as the question “why”, I side with the “experiment” group. I heard that the reason they switched back was that they found that missionaries going home at 18 months were leaving the mission at the peak of their effectiveness.

    Who knows why? Doesn’t matter, really.

    My mission, while not the “best years of my life” (those came during my marriage), was certainly one of the best things that I ever did. And the fact that it was 18 or 24 months is really insignificant in the long run.

  28. ed42 on September 4, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    God shortened it to 18 months to keep me from killing myself

  29. RickT on September 5, 2009 at 6:04 am

    I went for 2 1/2 years. First six months were the worst. All our mission president did the entire time was tell us how bad we were. Didn’t hear a positive word until a new president arrived. Went through deep, serious depression. Funny thing is, though, I had become so Europeanized by the time I was released I was in no hurry to go home. In my case, I doubt it would have made any difference whether I was there for two years or 18 months. It wouldn’t have made any difference at all.

  30. Allen on September 5, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Concerning the GA acting through inspiration or on their own initiative, the Lord won’t necessarily inspire the GA with the “final” answer. His purpose is to help us grow and learn from our experiences. He doesn’t want us to be robots. He wants us to be thinking, creative people. He may inspire the GA to find the next step in a process that can eventually lead them to the “final” answer. From this viewpoint, the decision to go to 18 months for Elders could have been inspired as the “next” step that would allow the GA and the Church in general to learn and grow. The later decision to go back to 24 months could have been further inspiration, based on the experience the Church had with the 18-month term, to the “next” step.

    However, concerning missionary work, there probably is no “final” answer since people change, our economy changes, government regulations change, etc. The Gospel mandate is to carry the Gospel to the World, and that mandate doesn’t change. How that mandate is carried out does change and will continue changing. It’s important that we learn to adapt to the changes and not get hung up with how things were done in the past.

    I agree with previous comments that the expects us to do many things on our own initiative without direct revelation from him, for that is how we grow. I also believe he does inspire us with hints, suggestions, and sometimes actual answers to help us discover what we should be doing.

    By the way, I’ve enjoyed reading all of the comments about missionary work. If you’d like your comments to be saved in a blog that is dedicated to such comments, click my name.

  31. Alison Moore Smith on September 5, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Logistically, I really like the idea of 18-year-old missions. None of this stopping/starting/waiting after high school.

    OTOH, my husband served in Samoa before there was a temple there. The native Samoan missionaries served on the island at 18, with no endowment, etc. There did seem to be some maturity issues with such young kids, probably compounded by not going through the temple and not being away from home.

  32. William Ray Fullmer on September 5, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    I was called on an 18 month mission in 1983 by Spencer W. Kimball, to serve in the Thailand Bangkok mission. I am grateful to be born in this dispensation and for the remarkable opportunity to serve a full time mission. My testimony is that our church is lead by a prophet of God who holds all of the keys necessary for us to attain our exaltation and for us to be able to carry the message of the restored gospel to our brothers and sisters across the world, to afford them the blessings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God lives Jesus is the Christ, they live and they in reality appeared to Joseph Smith and did direct him to restore the Gospel to the earth. The keys necessary to usher in the gathering of Israel and the restoration of the Gospel were returned to the earth by God’s designated and resurrected messengers. The sealing power and the power and authority to act in God’s name are on the earth and administer by God’s living prophet. We have been given the responsibility to carry that message to the entire world, no other people has ever been given such a great responsibility. To live in this dispensation is a great blessing and responsibility. As one of the sons of Ephraim it was and continues to be my privilege to play a small role in the great work of this Church.

  33. Jennifer Vaughn Breinholt on September 5, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    In the late ’80′s, the Missionary Dept. conducted an experiment which included my mission, the New Mexico Albuquerque Mission. They tested out a program wherein only sister missionaries were called to be Finding Missionaries. Their mission was to tract, hit up members for referrals, hold open houses, etc. to find investigators. Then they were to refer these investigators to the full-time missionaries for teaching. These sisters were to serve 9 months finding, then switch to serving as normal full-time missionaries. This experiment was tested in my mission and a few others. I finished my mission a few months before the first batch of finding sisters were to be rotated among the normal missionaries. My friends the finding sisters wrote me many a letter expressing relief that they’d been rotated in. Then a few months later, they wrote me expressing dismay that they’d been guinea pigs in a social science experiment that was pretty much pointless. So, yeah, not everything from the GA’s is inspired. Sometimes they have goofy ideas, too.

  34. Allen on September 5, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    My wife and I served as Stake Missionaries in Washington DC in 1963-64 when Stake Missionaries were teaching missionaries. We had more converts than the full time Elders because we lived in the Washington Ward and the members knew us and trusted us. Now Stake Missionaries are mostly Finding Missionaries….

  35. Jennifer Vaughn Breinholt on September 5, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    #34–No, these Finding Missionaries were full-time sister missionaries, not stake missionaries. My mission was in New Mexico, these sisters were from TN, UT, CA, etc.

    #32–so what’s your point?

  36. Allen on September 6, 2009 at 2:29 am

    #34, I understand that your finding missionaries were full-time sister missionaries. I was just drawing a parallel between your finding missionaries and the stake missionaries of today. Today, the stake missionaries exist to set up appointments with the full time missionaries who do the teaching. In the 60s, the stake missionaries did the teaching as well as having the teaching done by full time missionaries. I don’t know when the role of stake missionaries was changed to be “finding missionaries”.

  37. Murray on September 6, 2009 at 6:51 am

    The question of inspiration or experimentation is an interesting one. Pres Hinckley didn’t say they had been inspired in anyway to make the change. He said “careful consideration” had been given. My point here is that we should not be considering that this was inspiration when the First Presidency themselves never claimed that it was inspiration.
    To me, this “careful consideration” and then implementing a change of policy, is all part of “studying it out in your mind”. So is the social science. Perhaps the inspiration came (does someone have another quote from the First Presidency?) when the change was made back to 2 years?
    As an aside, I served the 18 months. A couple of weeks before I was due to leave I received a call from my much loved President, Grant L. Spackman, that I could choose to stay the extra 6 months and therefore serve 24 months. But I was trunky, I was due to be home just a few days before Christmas, I was 27 years old, so decided to go home for Christmas. But I do feel I was at the (low) peak of developing my finding and teaching skills.

  38. Daniel on September 8, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    I guess the issue becomes this: If a religious organization can get along just fine with social science and good, intelligent men “studying it out”, making wise decisions, and experimenting, then who needs “inspiration” and “revelation”? And if it is such a difficult thing to figure out when something our leaders say is “inspired” or “revealed” or when it is not, and is just their own personal opinion, or an administrative decision, and we have to figure things out for ourselves anyway, then the authority to receive “inspiration” and “revelation” is pretty meaningless in actual practice, right?

  39. Kruiser on September 11, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    If I did the math right, it would take 33% more missionaries serving over a two year period to keep the number of missionaries in the field up to strength at any point in time. It seemed like the idea was to entice more young men out into the field with the 18 month change. Perhaps they got an increase but not the 33% they were looking for. It seemed to me like someone was trying to “discount” the missionary experience in exchange for more missionaries in the field. Maybe a viable trade-off if it worked.

    As to revelation, it could go back to the Kirtland Safety Society bank which was purported to be pure revelation which should have guaranteed success. One can give many explainations for its failure, but if the Lord knew it would fail, why did He set it up? Because there is much we can learn from failure, even failed revelations.

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