U.S. politics means Brazilians serve missions at 18

A couple of posts on the social network Orkut claim that the age to serve an LDS mission in the Brazil Area has been lowered to 18—and claim that politics in the U.S. has led to the change.

While these posts aren’t as reliable as a statement from the Church, the posts were made in two different Orkut communities (see here and here — posts are in Portuguese) and were made by two different groups of people in response to rumors in Brazil about the change. In both cases, the commentors that gave the most complete and credible explanations cited authoritative sources (Stake Presidents, Mission Presidents) as their sources.

Apparently the change applies just to the Brazil Area, and only applies to males. The prospective missionaries must have completed their secondary education and have fulfilled the Brazilian military requirements before serving. The posts say that the policy change is motivated by current difficulties U.S. citizens experience in getting visas to Brazil. And much of that difficulty comes down to diplomatic  and U.S. politics.

Since 9/11, the U.S. government has made visiting the U.S. increasingly difficult. Fees have increased substantially in order to pay for a visa stamp (now a sticker) that is more difficult to forge and many visitors must be fingerprinted in their home country before they can come.

While security is a large part of the issue, immigration fears also play a huge part. The law now requires that visitors have sufficient ties to their home land to compel their return after a short visit to the U.S.—and in the case of Brazil the income and property needed to successfully obtain a visa is very substantial (as this example shows).

Brazil, in particular, has had it difficult. Getting a visa to visit the U.S. from Brazil (South America’s wealthiest country) is more difficult than for those in most other Latin American countries. The country protested the fingerprinting requirement, and, in response to the increased fees, has retaliated by raising fees for U.S. citizens trying to visit Brazil. Apparently, according to the posts from Orkut, Brazil has also retaliated against some of those trying to visit Brazil, including LDS missionaries.

With 26 missions, Brazil has more LDS missions than any other country outside of the U.S. Even though Brazilian wards and branches provide a large proportion of the missionaries serving in those missions (something like 2/3rds, if what I hear is correct), they still need missionaries from outside Brazil to keep those missions fully staffed. One of the posts I saw on Orkut reports that the Curitiba Brazil Mission alone is 44 missionaries short of what they need (the number of full-time missionaries worldwide divided by the number of missions is about 150 missionaries per mission).

Lowering the age at which missionaries serve is likely a short-term solution, although it theoretically could raise the number of missionaries serving in Brazil by as much as 50%. Returning the age to 19 would then reduce the number of missionaries serving by the same amount. Of course, the difficulty in getting LDS missionaries from the U.S. into Brazil is also probably a short-term problem.

What happens next? If the Brazilian authorities change their current policies and permit more LDS missionaries into Brazil, will the age for serving a mission return to 19 there? Or will the Church’s experience with this change make it a permanent change? Perhaps other countries might benefit from this change also, even if it isn’t difficult to get U.S. missionaries there.

If nothing else (and assuming that these reports are as accurate as I believe they are), this shows that the age of 19 is not set in stone, and that it can, like other standard missionary rules, be changed to fit local conditions.

I’d be interested in your thoughts about what this means and what changes could be made elsewhere that would benefit missionary service. Of course, any information that could verify these claims would also be appreciated. And, I’m especially interested in other mission rules or practices that differ locally from the general rule. [For example, on my mission the curfew was an hour later than specified in the mission handbook because of the local culture in Portugal.]

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24 comments for “U.S. politics means Brazilians serve missions at 18

  1. Interesting. It seems to me that if they really want to increase the number of missionaries, it would make more sense to drop the age of the sisters. I know plenty of women who would have served a mission if they could have served earlier but whose life circumstances made it impossible to wait until 21. I know for me that it was a much bigger sacrifice to serve a mission at 21 than it would have been at 18 or 19. I imagine that would hold true worldwide.

  2. Are they expecting more people to be able to go at that age than at 19 (because of fewer life conflicts, etc)? Otherwise, this is a VERY short-term solution, i.e., it provides a 1-time boost of 6 months to a maximum of 1 year’s worth of “crop” of missionaries. This amount is borrowed against future crops, because missionaries who embark at 18 won’t also be available to embark 1t 19 (they’ve already gone). It is very analogous to a payday loan.

    I think moving the age makes sense for other reasons, as far as flexibility and convenience for the missionaries in organizing their life plans, schooling etc. But I don’t see how it really makes sense in terms of filling openings, or increased visa fees. Unless we’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars, I can’t see visa fees being an overwhelming impediment for the church. If they need 44 more missionaries in Curitiba, frankly, they should just send more there instead of places where the whole mission gets a handful of baptisms a year.

  3. I wonder what is the ratio of other Latinamerican missionaries in Brazil. I’m sure it has increased. This happened in Greece in the year 2000. I think they were retaliating against a similar thing against the US and then a huge number of European missionaries were sent there.

  4. Keri (1), I think you are right that reducing the age for Sister missionaries would increase the number of Sister missionaries by a much larger percentage than it would the Elders. However, the number of Sister missionaries is small enough that such a move would not solve the problem alone — they would have to do something else also. Even if reducing the age for Sister missionaries quadrupled the number serving, it still wouldn’t solve the entire problem (although it would be great to see so many Sister missionaries!).

    Just so I’m clear, as I understand it, the age for Sister missionaries has NOT been reduced in Brazil. Only the age for Elders has changed.

  5. Cynthia (2), I agree with your analysis — its a very short term solution. But, I do think that the problem could be very short term also.

    IMO, the amount of the visa fees has nothing to do with the problem. While Brazil did raise its fees to retaliate against the U.S., the amount it increased was similar to the amount that the U.S. charges for a visa to come here — $140 (see this page – but note that Canadians pay only $65 and Mexicans just $30).

    I’m not sure what you mean by your statement:

    “If they need 44 more missionaries in Curitiba, frankly, they should just send more there instead of places where the whole mission gets a handful of baptisms a year.”

    I’d bet that they are doing that where possible. The problem is that, I believe, the U.S. is the only country (or one of very few) that produces more missionaries than it needs. It may be possible to shift native missionaries from the rest of Latin America, and replace them with missionaries from the U.S., but that also raises additional problems, like needing native Spanish-speaking missionaries to learn Portuguese, which is still a big deal, in spite of how similar Spanish and Portuguese are.

  6. Difficulties in getting visas for missionaries to Brazil seems to be a recurring problem. I suspect that the underlying reasons differ, but the results are the same.

    A friend of mine who began his mission exactly one year before I did spent several months hanging around the LTM in Provo in the fall of 1972 as he waited for a visa that would allow him into Brazil.

    Here in New York we’ve had several “visa-waiters” who have spent weeks or months here. I don’t remember whether they were headed to Brazil or elsewhere.

    I’ve heard that some football players or other athletes are sent out at 18–but not from any authoritative source.

  7. Regarding local adaptations of standard mission rules… While I served in the Argentina Cordoba mission, a couple of the more rural zones (which were also much hotter) worked 8:00 a.m. – noon, then 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. to accommodate the strict observance of a long siesta. It was not uncommon to do street contacting in a plaza well after 10:00 p.m. and meet families with young children out and about at that hour.

  8. However, the number of Sister missionaries is small enough that such a move would not solve the problem alone.
    This assumes that the percentage of women who would serve missions at 21 is the same as the percentage of women who would serve missions at 19. I think that is at the very least debatable, and very likely untrue. President Hinckley outright said that they keep the age for Sister missionaries higher to discourage women from serving one. So not only do you get the Sisters who just haven’t turned 21 yet, but you also get the all the women that wouldn’t otherwise serve a mission.

  9. Kent, I was just thinking of, say, my stake. We have a pair of missionaries per ward, and it seems rather excessive. I know the church is making adjustments all the time in allocation of missions, but it still sometimes surprises me how many missionaries we send to less fruitful areas. (Yes I realize that I am somewhat implicated in my area’s unfruitfulness. :))

  10. Brad (8), thanks for the correction.

    Starfoxy (9), I’m not sure what you mean. I’m fairly sure that Sister missionaries are less than 5% of the missionary force (hopefully someone will correct that if I’m wrong). If you quadruple that, it still won’t make up the 33% shortfall.

    I’m not assuming that the percentage at 19 will be the same as that at 21. I’m saying that even if it increases 4 fold, it still won’t solve the problem.

  11. Also, Brazil wouldn’t be the only place where elders can serve at 18. Taiwanese male missionaries are eligible to go on missions at age 18 as well, and have been for some time. I think it has something to do with their military service obligations at home in Taiwan.

  12. If nothing else, this shows that the age of 19 is not set in stone, and that it can, like other standard missionary rules, be changed to fit local conditions.

    It’s never really been set in stone. When my husband served in Samoa (1978-1980), the native Samoan missionaries were right out of high school (and not endowed — not temple there then). The explanation given was that if they waited, they’d get married and never serve. (Sam never had a non-Polynesian companion, so I assume the percentage of Polynesian to other was relatively high.)

    Also have a couple of female friends who served missions earlier than 21 due to the fact that their fathers were mission presidents. Most of them served in their fathers’ missions, but one — whose father was the mission president at the MTC — served a regular, foreign mission at 19. Lucky.

    FWIW, the old saw about having sister wait until they’re 21 because it’s more important for them to get married hasn’t seemed to fit my observations for nearly three decades. Even 25 years ago I only had one friend get married before turning 20. I was 21 and was the *second* of the entire, large group of friends. In fact, I’d say going at 21 is much more likely to keep young LDS women away from men at the time they are actually likely to get married.

    Trivia: Have you ever noticed ward libraries have no pictures of female missionaries? Oh, and they don’t have any of Esther, either.

  13. This is a threadjack, but why in the heck do “they” want to keep women from serving missions? I find it baffling and have never heard any official explanation for it. From my POV, it would seem like a no-brainer that increasing the missionary participation of young women would benefit the women as well as the church. Anyone have any clue? Also, is it just me, or did President Monson throw out a little more encouragement for young women to serve in the last Conference?

  14. The ratio of Americans to Brazilians was about 1 to 1 when I served four years ago. As I understand it Brazil has long capped the number of American missionaries they would allow into the country. Unless this has been reduced I don’t think getting American missionaries into Brazil would be any more difficult than it has been in the past.

    Brazilians have one less year of high school and therefore if no grades are repeated they finish a year early. I would bet that reducing the age limit to 18 has more to do with this than anything else. Maybe the church feels it is losing missionaries between when they finish school and when they turn 19?

    @3 – I never heard of missionaries from other Latin American countries serving in Brazil but it must happen on rare occasions.

  15. Azlanja (16), the reports on Orkut are specific on this point; the reason that missions are down missionaries is because Brazil has reduced the American missionaries it allows in. This is plausible because of other news items I’ve read about Brazil’s reactions to U.S. policies on visas.

    I also think you may be a little bit incorrect in claiming that Brazilians have “one less year of high school and therefore if no grades are repeated they finish a year early.” Earlier than here in the U.S.? That isn’t my understanding.

    Remember, here in the U.S. most LDS youth have a year or more between High School and serving a mission at 19. My son finished 1 1/2 years at BYU before he left!

  16. Not so much an “adaptation” of the standard missionary rules, but we used to go through our white handbooks with a sharpie and line out stuff that just wasn’t applicable – like the entire section on use of cars.

    One recently-returned elder I know actually edited some lines to make it more reflective of ACTUAL possiblities:

    “In some cases, you may be authorized use of a car HOVERCRAFT.”

  17. Senior high grads AND military service completed AND 18? I seriously doubt that…

    I imagine that for most countries where this happens it has to do with military service (and maybe schooling requirements or else) rather than politics. Perhaps in some countries, economics and temple marriage stats also play an important part in the consideration.

    IIRC, Mexico (a while ago) and Taiwan (not too long ago), for example, are also 18. Perhaps Korea, Italy, a few SA countries, etc.

    Senior high school, university, a year or more military/ substitute social service, mission, and then marriage (how many BYU’ers could do that? ;) ).

  18. I heard a rumor that they were shortening the missions of elders serving in Brazil to 18 months and sisters to 12. I have heard it from several sources. Has anyone heard anything about this?

  19. Sorry, Flora. I haven’t heard that (at least not yet). And, given the need for missionaries (the number has been slowly declining worldwide for more than a decade, exacerbated by the Brazilian visas drying up as explained above), I have to say it doesn’t make sense to me.

    FWIW, while I was serving my mission in the early 1980s, the Church tried shortening missions to 18 months — we always assumed that it was an attempt to attract more missionaries to serve by making the commitment seem easier — but went back to 24 months within a couple of years. Because that change seems to have failed, I doubt that the Church would make it again now.

  20. Kent,

    Is there evidence that the Church change to 18 months failed, that it was actually going to be permanent, that it wasn’t something that just fit in with the time? Just curious.


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