More LDS missionaries planned for Southwest Idaho

The Western U.S. is one of the regions around the world in which the church is focusing its resources.

BOISE STATE PUBLIC RADIOSeptember 3, 2013 

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Behind Colby Denton, left, and Davis Jones at the Boise Mission headquarters are pictures of those serving in the mission on one side and those arriving this month on the other.

ADAM COTTERELL — Boise State Public Radio

  • In Utah, more missionaries lead to fewer college students

    SALT LAKE CITY — The decrease is less than officials expected when the Mormon church announced last year it was lowering the minimum age for missionaries.

    A waiver created earlier this year by the Utah Legislature allowing public universities to offer in-state tuition to high-performing students from other states has helped some schools withstand the exodus of Mormon missionaries.

    At Utah State University in Logan, about 300 students coming this fall were given the new waiver, said James Morales, vice president for student services. Snagging those students helped make up for the loss of outgoing missionaries and keep enrollment down just 3.5 percent from last year, about half of what officials expected, he said.

    “We felt the best thing of us to do was to go out of state and recruit students who we were not already recruiting,” Morales said. “We weren’t going to stand around flat-footed.”

    In October, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it was lowering the minimum age for missionaries from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men.

    The change in the minimum age, the first since 1960, led to a historic surge of missionaries, with younger missionaries joining older ones already planning to go. The 75,000 missionaries proselytizing around the world today are more than at any time in church history. Prior to the change, there were about 58,000 missionaries, church figures show.

    Official enrollment figures won’t be compiled for several weeks, but the early returns appear to confirm that universities were able to avoid massive revenue cuts by planning ahead.

    The Associated Press

At 23 and 21 years old, Colby Denton and Davis Jones introduce themselves as Elder Denton and Elder Jones. That’s traditional for young men serving as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both are relentlessly cheerful. Both say they wouldn’t trade their two years in the Boise Mission for anything.

But that wasn’t how Jones saw his assignment at first. For young men who grow up Mormon, a mission is many things: a rite of passage, a sacred duty. But it’s also seen as the adventure of their life. That’s how it was for Jones growing up in a small town in central Utah.

“Growing up in the Mormon community, you always want that sweet experience where you’re going to a third-world country, you’re eating all sorts of nasty stuff, you have a machete in the jungle somewhere,” Jones says. “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted all that stuff.”

At 19 he sent in his application to be a missionary. Eventually, a big envelope arrived from church headquarters in Salt Lake City. This is known as the “mission call.” He gathered his friends and large family in the living room as he tore open the envelope.

“I have the call in my hand, and I open it up. And my eyes go directly to Idaho Boise mission” he says. “And I dropped my call on the ground and said ‘Boise, Idaho,’ and I stood up and walked out of the room. So, not the best initial reaction for someone that’s pumped to go on a mission.”

Now, Jones has just two months left before he returns home to Utah. And a lot more young Mormons will be spending their missions like him in Southwest Idaho — about three times as many.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints divides the world up geographically. Everything has well-defined boundaries, from local congregations to its missionary program. Until last month, the Boise Mission stretched from La Grande, Ore., in the west to Rupert in the east and from McCall in the north to Jackpot, Nev., in the south.

Starting July 1, the church split the Boise Mission into three. The new Nampa and Twin Falls missions cover the west and east ends of the old mission. And the new Boise Mission is now just Boise, Meridian, Eagle and Star. That leads Denton to predict that people in the Boise area will soon be seeing a lot more missionaries on bikes.

Jones and Denton have spent the past few months in a special assignment called Assistants to the President. In addition to typical Mormon missionary duties, they assist the head of the mission with administration. They helped oversee the change from one mission to three. Denton says the 200-some missionaries in the old mission were split among the three new ones. Now each has about 70.

“Towards December they’ll have 200 missionaries in the Boise Mission.” Denton says.

“Between 200 and 250,” Jones says. “Twin Falls and Nampa will be right around the same numbers.”

This is part of a church-wide trend. Last year, the church lowered its age limits for men and women going on missions. Since then it has seen a nearly 30 percent increase in missionaries. But the increase in Southwest Idaho is much bigger than that overall growth.

The church is not ramping up its missionary force evenly worldwide, says Matt Martinich, who analyzes membership and missionary numbers for the Cumorah Foundation, an independent but Mormon-friendly nonprofit. Africa, South America and Mexico are all getting a lot of the new missionaries. That's not surprising, since the church has seen rapid growth in those places for years. But Martinich says another area that’s seeing a significant missionary increase might surprise people.

“We’re seeing a much greater allocation of resources to areas like the Western United States.”

According to Martinich’s calculations, the West is seeing the largest missionary buildup in the world. A church spokesperson disputes that, saying the increase in the Western United States is “significant” but not the largest.

The West, of course, is Mormon central. Martinich says there are good logistical reasons for the focus on the West. The influx of missionaries has been so fast it’s created challenges like housing, transportation and leadership. Logistically, these may be easier to solve close to home.

But Martinich also says it fits with the church’s long-time strategy to make member involvement central to missionary work. Denton knew about that long before his mission. He didn’t grow up LDS. He joined the church in college with support from a network of Mormon friends. His parents aren’t Mormon. His mom did not want him to go on a mission.

“‘You can get murdered, you can get thrown in jail, and you’re thousands of miles away where your parents can’t do anything about it,’ Denton recalls his mom saying. “One of my best friends had served in the Boise, Idaho, mission years ago. And so I prayed and prayed for months before my mission call came that I’d serve in the Idaho Boise Mission. I just knew that she would be OK with it if I was going to go somewhere safe. And it’s Idaho, you know, what could go wrong in Idaho?”

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