Updated: October 6, 2013 at 3:25 pm
Growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Grace Hansen never seriously considered putting her life on hold for 18 months to embark on a mission.
Though it's a practice fundamentally embraced and encouraged by the Mormon church, for Hansen and many young women like her the timing simply didn't work out. In order to serve a mission, the church required women to be at least 21 years old. So, when Hansen sat down to evaluate her options after high school graduation last year, mission work wasn't in the running.
"Everybody always told me that I'd be married by the time I was old enough to go," said Hansen, who took a part-time job as a lifeguard supervisor in Pleasant Grove, Utah, while she figured out what to do next with her life.
Then in a major and unanticipated move last October, the Salt Lake City-based faith announced it was lowering the minimum age for full-time missionary service from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men.
"Suddenly, all these friends I'd graduated high school with were going on missions," said Hansen, who's now 20 years old and is seven months into her missionary deployment in Colorado Springs, where she is known as Sister Hansen. "If it (the minimum age) was still 21, I probably wouldn't have gone because there were a lot of different opportunities coming up in the next couple years and I probably would have taken one of those instead."
The church expected the move would boost its missionary ranks, and it was right.
Before the change, about 58,000 full-time Mormon missionaries served worldwide, roughly 9 percent of them female, said J. Patrick Anderson, Colorado Springs mission president for the LDS church. That number is now closer to 75,000 and climbing. By next year, the church expects as many as 100,000 of its missionaries will be sharing the gospel around the globe. A third of them will be women.
"As soon as the announcement was made, the applications just started to flow in. The speed with which it's happened maybe even surprised a lot of people," Anderson said. "I think what it says is that we've got a lot of young people that are very interested in sharing what they believe to be true."
After a 12-week training program, missionaries work in two-person "companionships," proselytizing, studying, teaching and volunteering in the communities where they live. To accommodate the recent influx, the church has added 58 missions, bringing the worldwide number to 405, Anderson said.
Since the age requirement change, the number of missionaries stationed locally has jumped from 180 to 250.
"Just last year there were 15 sisters; now there are 38 that are based here," Hansen said.
Before the church dropped the age limit, Leon Joyner, from Glen Bernie, Md., always knew he would embark on a mission helping the needy and teaching others about the faith that's so important to him. He also knew that meant he'd have some time to kill after high school, waiting to turn 19. Joyner figured he'd attend a year of school to begin studying auto mechanics, wait for his birthday and revisit options then.
"Since the age requirement dropped, I decided to just go ahead and do my mission right now. I'm super excited I could come out right after high school," said Joyner, 18, who began a two-year mission in Colorado Springs in August, earning the title Elder. "Auto mechanics is the plan for when I get back home."
For Hansen's companion, Sister Kerry Green, of Dallas, Ore., the rule change means a smoother transition when she returns to Brigham Young University-Idaho to continue her studies in nursing in December 2014.
"I know with a lot of people, leaving at 21 was an awkward spot, especially for people in college because you're right between your junior and senior year," said Green, who recently turned 21. "Being able to leave earlier is better."
After watching five older siblings head off on missions, Green knew it was something she would do as soon as she came of age. Before the rule change, though, she struggled to work out the crowded logistics presented by school, faith and eventual career.
"My family and I are just super excited that I got to go at this point and be part of this first wave," said Green, who's awaiting a visa so she can serve the remaining 15 months of her missionary tenure in Sao Paulo. "I have a little sister who is planning to go on a mission and she is just so excited that she gets to go earlier."