As leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prepare for their 173rd Annual General Conference this weekend, the changes in the church's missionary program announced in October's conference are having an effect on the quality — and quantity — of potential missionaries.
Elder M. Russell Ballard of the church's Quorum of the Twelve told the Deseret News this week that higher standards of personal purity and physical and emotional health for those who plan to serve an LDS proselyting mission have made a distinct difference in how young people — and their local leaders — are responding to calls for personal preparedness.
The church's missionary force now numbers approximately 60,000. Elder Ballard said the number of potential missionaries submitting applications has definitely declined since the announcement of the stricter guidelines. He added that the exact number is difficult to quantify, but the decrease was expected.
Part of the decline is due to the church's changing demographics as smaller families mean a smaller number of young men as potential candidates, he said.
While young women are given the opportunity to serve if they desire, the church doesn't stress missionary service for them in the same way it does for young men.
The church still needs every young man to qualify for service, he said, but the governing First Presidency has "made it abundantly clear that missionary work is a privilege, it's not a right." Elder Ballard said missionaries who are well-prepared don't have time — and shouldn't be required — to serve with ill-equipped companions who aren't spiritually ready. Every missionary should be able to return home having had a positive, spiritually charged experience as preparation for future devotion and service in the church, he said.
"We've raised the bar for their own protection and fulfillment. We're not imposing anything for the church. We're trying to help the missionaries," he said.
In times past, many potential missionaries felt they could flaunt the church's standards for personal purity, "then repent and go." That's not the case any more, he said.
Though the church adopted a slogan during former President Spencer W. Kimball's administration that "every young man should serve a mission," it soon clarified the statement to say "every worthy young man. . . ."
Yet the definition of "worthy" had become, for many, something less than the standard that has now been codified, Elder Ballard said. Some had come to anticipate a "slap on the wrist" for past moral transgressions, so "we're trying to define what worthiness means" by setting out specific guidelines regarding any past sexual involvement or illegal activity by potential candidates.
A letter detailing specific guidelines was sent to bishops and stake presidents in December by the church's governing First Presidency, but a church spokesman declined a request for a copy, noting the church considers such communications with its local leaders to be confidential.
"It's true people can repent, and we want them to, but we're not going to have them do that flippantly. It will have to be sincere and genuine, and it may take time," Elder Ballard said.
For some with "serious challenges, it may take them a year or two to get spiritually grounded and fortified and do what has to be done of teaching and testifying of the restoration" of the gospel, he said.
As society's moral standards continue to erode, the church must set its own standard for measuring worthiness, he said.
"I think there was some danger that (potential) missionaries saw (a mission call) as a right, rather than a privilege," he said.
Elder Ballard said much of the feedback from potential missionaries, local leaders and mission presidents has been positive. While many young men welcomed the changes, some parents have been less than enthusiastic.
"Some think that maybe we don't understand the needs of their specific son or daughter. But we know this: that the bishops and stake presidents are much closer to it than we are," he said.
Cultural expectations, particularly in Utah and geographic areas that are heavily LDS, often put pressure on families whose young men don't serve a mission. Yet local leaders are up to the challenge of dealing with expectations by trying to better prepare their youth to serve, Elder Ballard said.
As bishops interview their young charges regularly, "they know in their own hearts whether or not a young person is ready to go. I think in the past they were just sending them through, in some instances. Some were just processing them rather than taking the role . . . of preparing them. There's a difference between sending them and preparing them."
In some cases, where local leaders are unsure about the potential missionary's qualifications to serve, "we work individually with individual cases as they surface," referring local leaders to the church's missionary committee for help, he said. In some cases, he said, applications that make it to top church leadership are being held pending further questions about the applicant's qualifications.
Some of the most delicate challenges regarding the new standards have to do with physical or emotional health of potential missionaries, Elder Ballard said. Contrary to the past philosophy of some local leaders, sending someone on a mission with unresolved physical or emotional problems doesn't "cure" them. Instead, it exacerbates the problem. And because missionaries must be paired with a companion at all times, health problems create a burden on the healthy companion, he said.
In such cases, the companion's experience "can be deterred by virtue of having to take care of someone who is valiant and good and wonderful but really, in kindness, should not be out there trying to do the work of a proselyting missionary in some parts of the world where it's very difficult."
The First Presidency has given local bishops the responsibility for missionary work within their boundaries rather than leaving it to stake leaders. So that recent change will allow those whose health prevents them from leaving home for two years to be missionaries in their own areas, Elder Ballard said.
Still, the changes are new and "we don't have all the answers yet." But he hopes "the day will come where we can extend a full-time mission call" for service in the ward or stake, or even in some selected activities yet to be specified.
Mission presidents, each of whom oversee a few hundred missionaries in various parts of the world, are "ecstatic" about the changes, he said. One told Elder Ballard this week that "the missionaries he has received in the past month are wonderful," and none have their "feet dragging behind them."