In October 2012 general conference President Thomas S. Monson announced that young men could begin full-time missionary service at 18 and young women at 19, adding, “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” (“Welcome to Conference,” Ensign, Nov. 2012, 4–5).
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.
How Can You Bless Others?
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. I was grateful to find some other missionaries in the France Paris Mission who were a little older too.
One elder from England, a convert, came on his mission at 24, after he had finished college. He helped younger missionaries rise above two common concerns: homesickness and fear of talking to strangers.
Another elder from Argentina 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 where she served.
Can Some Questions Cause Cringing?
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: “So, when are you going on a mission?” Even when asked by people he loves, he sometimes cringes. I have also overheard speculation about why he is “late” in entering the mission field: “Health problems? Transgressions?”
The other young man hasn’t been to church in several years. He has watched friends leave on missions and return. As a 23-year-old prospective elder, he feels his opportunity to serve has passed. He was surprised when I told him, “There is always a place for you in the Church, whether you serve a mission or not, but if you still want to go, there’s time.” [Young elders may serve up to the age of 25. Sisters are considered senior missionaries at age 40.]
More than anything, such young men need encouragement, reassurance, and support. When they are ready to serve, the door is still open.
When Is the Right Time?
The timing of a mission should be determined the same way you schedule other significant events: with consideration for worthiness, family needs, finances, health, and academic opportunities.
One component, however, outweighs all others—the will of the Lord. Your goal should be to serve God throughout your life. 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. The best time to serve is when the Lord confirms the time is right, even if that timing might appear inconvenient for other reasons.
What Should You 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. 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.
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.
Can Timing Affect Your Experience?
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.
If you time your missionary experience to coincide with the “off season,” 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, This may, however, require sacrifice with regard to your personal timing.
What Can You Do?
Here are some things every prospective missionary should do:
Don’t delay preparation. 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. Remember, the Lord’s timing is better than your own.
Make a plan. 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 absences, and readmissions. 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 or working for a few months when you first return.
Seek divine guidance. Humbly ask Heavenly Father for help to do His will and not your own, and He will help you. Trust in God and go forward with faith. (See Proverbs 3:5–6.)
In “The First Presidency Letter to Leaders: Service Missions for Young Missionaries, November 2018” they stated, “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.”
Find Out More
To learn more about preparing to serve a mission, including options for those not physically and mentally capable of full-time missionary service, go to lds.org/topics/missionary-preparation.