In the kitchen, bare foot and pregnant, was how one missionary suggested my life would be better served. As a new missionary it shook me to my boots to think that my sacrifice was not as valid as the Elder’s standing next to me. In my eyes the only difference between he and me was our gender (and certain priesthood responsibilities). But in a day where sister missionaries were the exception rather than the rule, it highlighted a misconception within church membership that suggested a divide.
But when I look at the statistics quoted recently – within two weeks of the October 6th 2012 announcement there was a 471% jump in mission applications and more than half of those were women – it screams at me that the notion of sisters serving missions has come a long way.
I was delighted to read recently an article titled ‘A Letter to Girls About Lady Missionaries’ – written by a returned lady missionary way back in 1972 (even before my time as a missionary). While it was on the whole a fair depiction of what it meant to be a missionary in the 70s, the thing that jumped out at me was the suggestion that a sister’s success was based more on how well groomed and presented she was than on what she could do to prepare herself spiritually to teach the saving ordinances of the Gospel. It threw me straight back to that gender comment by the Elder in my mission.
I’m confident we ‘ve come further along the scale of understanding today to be able to identify that there are far more pressing concerns for a missionary sister than how long her hair is, or whether or not she outwardly presents a perfect persona to the mission president after having ridden a motor cycle to an interview in the pouring rain.
Indeed, on further introspection, I realised that I had had similar comments tossed to me when I was determining whether, as a young 20 year old, a mission was the right thing for me. “Oh, a mission is only for those girls who can’t get married”, or “You’re too young and good looking to serve a mission”. As much as that last comment fed my ego, it fell short of allowing me to understand that the decision to serve a mission for a sister is based purely on spiritual enlightenment and inspiration from the Lord – nothing to do with age, marriageable potential or looks.
As the parents of three daughters my husband and I may have unwittingly reinforced this barefoot and pregnant notion. Suggesting to our girls during their teenage years that if they were not married by the age of 21 then we would be encouraging them to consider serving a mission. But let me say in my defence, it was spoken more in excitement on our part. As parents we had both experienced the joys of serving a mission and knew that such an event in their life would not only bless the lives of countless sons and daughters of God, but also bless the lives of each of our daughters. In my heart I really wanted them to taste the bitter/sweet fruits of missionary labour.
However, I’m not here to slander the deeds of the past – be them mine or anyone else’s – just to highlight the changes that have occurred. History describes our progression as a people. It’s our progression that describes the things we have learnt along the way…
When my daughter announced she was preparing to serve a mission in 2010, much had changed in terms of attitudes and expectations. Of course as parents we were over-joyed at her decision. But more importantly, amongst her friends and peers there was generally an overall sense of excitement and support; a recognition that this decision had come through sincere prayer and preparation on her part, and not because she had been ‘left on the shelf’.
In 2010, the words of one LDS returned missionary sister, when asked, ‘How is missionary preparation different for women than men?’ reveal the changes in thinking that have occurred in the last 40 years,
“I don’t know that preparation for a mission is much different. You have to be physically and spiritually strong, you have to know the gospel, you have to have a deeply rooted testimony, you have to have a desire to serve and share the gospel. Both young men and young women need all of these things.
—Wendi Condie, Montana Billings Mission
More recently, with the announcement of age changes, and new leadership roles for sister missionaries, prospective sister missionaries have greater flexibility of choice, and greater opportunity for input and service. It is wonderful to see that mission organization is fitting in more with the pattern of ward and stake councils. Sisters will now not only have the opportunity serve at an earlier age but also contribute to the success of the Lord’s work worldwide in a more focused and united way.
While I would change nothing about my experiences as a missionary, I welcome the dying notion of the sister missionary of the past. I think it opens the door to a wave of more focused missionaries and closes the divide of the past; missionaries – both male and female – who understand their role, are prepared spiritually to perform their labours wherever they serve, and who work in harmony to extend the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ to every one of His children on earth.