Desperately Seeking Seniors


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I was surprised a week ago when a senior missionary serving in our ward said that the Church is struggling to get senior missionaries, something that an article in the Deseret News last week confirmed. But my senior missionary friend went further than the article did, saying that the number of senior missionaries has declined by 40% in the past decade.

My surprise at this news came not just because I was unfamiliar with it, but because it ran counter to my assumptions. Here in the U.S. we have a growing senior population, due to the entrance of the baby boom into retirement. I have therefore assumed that the number of senior missionaries was going up, not down.

Of course, I realize that I don’t have much information to justify this assumption, and the demographics behind the senior population in the Church is more than just what is going on in the U.S. As is almost always true, its likely much more complicated than I think. However, I don’t have enough information to even make reasonable guesses at the reason.

I doubt that the bad economy is the reason. As I understand it, the number has been declining over the past decade, not the past three years when the economy turned sour (although I suspect the bad economy isn’t helping to bring the numbers up).

I’m also assuming that the reasons don’t have anything to do with Church members becoming less faithful or less willing to serve and sacrifice. From what I’ve seen there hasn’t been any great change in the number of faithful seniors during the past decade — so why would the percentage wiling to serve missions change?

There is a small silver lining in all this. For the past decade or more the total number of missionaries declined from about 60,000 in the field to a bit more than 50,000 at the moment (see line 39 of this spreadsheet). I had assumed that this decline was mostly due to a decline in young men serving. It now appears that one of the reasons for the decline is a decline in senior missionaries, which means that the number of young men and women serving hasn’t gone down as much as I had thought.

However, that doesn’t really answer the basic question: Why have the number of senior missionaries gone down so drastically in the past decade? Does anyone have any insights?

78 comments for “Desperately Seeking Seniors

  1. Here are some ideas.
    1. They don’t feel they can leave their aging parents.
    2. They don’t feel like they can leave their adult children, or their grandchildren.
    3. They are worried about finances.
    4. They want to “enjoy” retirement.
    5. We have cycled through all the older people who didn’t get to serve a mission while younger and always regretted it. Now the people who are aging in have already served when they were younger (all young men and some young women) and are less motivated to serve again.
    6. The stats on this retiring generation says that they are very likely to like expensive toys and immediate gratification, to have not saved for retirement, care about not looking old,etc. They aren’t the old, frugal, hardworking, raised on a farm, up hill both ways old people we used to think of when thinking about old people.

  2. Kent,

    There could be a myriad of reasons for the decline. My initial thoughts are those associated with Daymon Smith’s insightful analysis of the effects of “corporatism” in the Church. Many senior couples are used as replacements to reduce the need to pay regular employees. This is especially true in the welfare system, the social services department and the for-profit enterprises owned by the Church. Perhaps it is discouraging to go on a senior mission and feel like an employee of a corporation instead of being an ambassador of the Lord.

    My secondary thoughts are that the younger generations are needing more help from their parents in raising the grandchildren or in meeting the gaps in income (either by living at home or still receiving financial support from parents). This is precluding the ability (or desire) of many couples to serve.

    Additionally, if you read Elder Holland’s words in the DesNews article as well as the comments to the article, you will notice the absence of any call for older single sisters and not a single peep for older single men to go on missions. The obsession we have with married heterosexual couples continues and the cultural and religious isolation of older singles remains such a glaring testament to our non-inclusiveness as a Church.

  3. One recurring theme I’ve heard (from various people and places) is a reluctance to leave their respective wards behind.

  4. I echo JKS’s points and can only add my anecdotal experience with baby-boomers v. “the silent generation” v. the greatest generation folks as an elder law attorney.

    Based on the folks I interact, the baby-boomers’ parents were/are hard-working, frugal, and even those with primarily blue collar backgrounds are dying with six-figures and the home they bought for five figures to pass on. The baby-boomers have no such inclinations, are in their peak earning years and are either drained taking care of mom and/or dad and are banking on their inheritance to provide for their own retirement.

    Those who manage to remain exceptions are powerful ones with a lot of potential, but I worry that they’re fewer and farther between than we’d hope.

  5. Ten years happen to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary. Perhaps the fear of global terrorism has caused them to rethink their missionary desires.

  6. I wonder if health concerns play a role. Is this generation less healthy (and thus more limited in the ability to serve) than the last generation?

  7. I should add–I think the economy, for various reasons, might be a big reason people aren’t serving. Serving missions is expensive, and with retirement accounts plummeting in value, there’s less money to spend on a mission.

  8. I think you discount the economy too quickly. It isn’t just a question of whether seniors have the money now to serve a mission, it’s the uncertainty of wondering how spending that money and time on a mission will impact future needs.

  9. Many seniors I know are (to use older parlance for descriptive purposes only) less active or active in name only. For some couples, one spouse is active in the church and the other is not.

  10. Michael and Umkay may be correct. Instead of focusing on economic factors or the personality traits of the baby boomers, could it be disaffection with the church that is leading to the decline?

    I have seen that once the children are raised and gone, many older couples pull back their activity in the church.

  11. I agree that it is mostly the economy, more specifically the transition from defined benefit retirement plans to do-it-yourself 401k/403bs that rely on the stock market to some extent. I only have a 403b; my husband has a small guaranteed pension but most of his is in a 401k. We try to invest appropriately for our time horizon, but still, the value of our portfolio has lost a chunk since 2008.

    According to this report, which is typical of many others

    most of us have to work longer, so we are not healthy enough to serve a mission by the time we are able to retire.

    I resent very much being told that baby-boomer me is not as frugal as my WWII-veteran parents. We have had to make MUCH more effort to save for retirement than they did.

    My parents did basically nothing. A certain percentage was withheld from dad’s paycheck, and they were set for life with a defined-benefit pension and social security.

    Whereas in my family, we’ve been saving a third of our income for a decade. We’ve had to learn about EFTs, whether savings bonds are efficient, and the ins and outs of Roth IRAs, SEPs, etc. I probably spend 1-2 hours a week on portfolio management and retirement planning issues, and we are 10 years away.

    As far as jks’s list, I think points 1-4 have always been a factor. I am not sure about point 5, because where I live, there are lots of us who joined as converts and never had the opportunity to serve as young people, so we are looking forward to it.

    Also, the spiraling cost of college is having an effect, since we are also paying those bills even as we get ready for retirement. We don’t want our kids saddled with student loans, so we hope to see them through their undergrad. Even with investing in a prepaid tuition plan and their academic scholarships, it is our biggest expense right now.

  12. Serving a mission(s) is on our to-do list for about 10 years from now (still have kids at home). But it will take a financial miracle. We lost all in the market crash, followed by a couple of years of under-employment.

    That said, I fully expect the financial miracle.

  13. I’ve also seen a trend among current young adults (both married and single) to rely on grandparent’s for money to help make ends meet. The number of people who have suggested that I ask my parents or even my grandparents to foot the co-pays on my hospital bills is astounding. It’s also parents/grandparents who tend to be the first refuge (food, water, utilities, housing) when a child/grandchild looses a job. So financial drains is a very real possibility.

    On one hand, As a young-ish adult myself I often do here stories from one sister who has formerly served 3 couples’ missions. She speaks glowingly of her times of service. That’s motivating.

    On the other hand, she’s the only one I hear such things from. The couple missionaries I tend to see serve within my stake are chaperons for YSA and SA activities, organizers at the Bishop’s storehouse, and largely tasked with seeking out less active members. Why pay to serve a mission when I could stay in the comfort of my own home and serve in those same capacities within my home stake?

  14. As an expat in Europe, I see a more pragmatic side of the senior missionary issue because I’ve watched the missionaries come and go for many years. In talking with them, the mission presidents and the area presidencies, this is what keeps coming up:

    1. Economics. I have heard multiple times from several mission presidents in our area that couples have had to pull out of mission assignments because their retirement plans collapsed. Once is anecdotal–multiple times tends to be more indicative of a trend.

    2. Unstable world economy–along with retirement funds being in trouble, the hard reality is that the dollar has weakened against many currencies over the last 4-5 years and that diminishes the buying power of a couple when they leave the US. In Europe or Eastern Europe, to secure a decent apartment in a safe area can be expensive, especially when the cost isn’t subsidized by the church. What was affordable 10 years ago may be 40% or more expensive today, not to mention fuel costs, transportation etc.

    3. Health–advances in health care mean that more seniors are living longer. It also means that some are living longer due to pharmaceutical management or sophisticated surgeries. The downside to some of these advancements are that yes, you live longer, but you rely on access to pharmacies, doctors, clinics, laboratory tests etc. Some couples can’t serve not because they don’t want to but because they can’t be cleared medically or they can’t access the maintenance health care they need outside the Western world. I’ve brought back medication for senior missionaries in our area that would cost $3K per month on the local economy but is underwritten by insurance in the US. What happens to missionaries without access to expats with extra space in their luggage? :)

    4. Inadequate financial plannning. My parents are boomers. I love them. They have served the church faithfully. Their retirement planning is a mess–they have spent and consumed themselves proud since my birth. However, all those Ritz Carlton vacations in the 90’s aren’t doing them much good as they’re staring down retirement expenses, including missions.

    I’ve met a few senior single sisters serving, most successfully. I’ve heard through the grapevine that there are “companion” issues, however. What do you do when you’re 60, going out by yourself, and you literally are assigned one person that you’ve never lived with before to be your shadow 24/7 for 12-18 months? I think if you can go with a friend or sibling, it’s a different story. I’m sure part of the reason the church encourages couples is pragmatic–you are less likely to have companionship issues with a married couple that is CHOOSING and VOLUNTEERING to serve a mission.

    The church’s new policy on couples service and finances was probably designed, in part, to neutralize the impact of some of the issues I’ve listed here. It will be interesting to see if it actually provides an incentive for more couples to serve.

  15. I think it’s also because of the general disinterest to serve a senior mission. Over the past ten years I don’t recall ever hearing a talk in General Conference calling retirees to go–it’s all emphasized on the young men. When I see the seniors in my own ward the vast majority simply are not interested.

    After all, don’t we always hear stories about the guy that served because dad said he’d buy them a car? Or how women will not date someone that did not serve, and thus by not serving a man is signing his own death certificate where marriage is involved? Kinda hard to create bait for the older sect.

  16. I think something that is being left out is that many senior couples have a miserable experience when serving. Word gets around. There are things that can be done to make it better.

  17. There’s one thing that hasn’t been mentioned here yet that has actually played a roll in the seniors in our ward/stake not wanting to serve missions – Pets. Pets are “kids” to many of them. I don’t think it’s always been that way, but more than a few senior couples in my ward said they could not leave their pets, and I don’t think it was a convenient excuse. It was such a concern that a member of the stake presidency in stake conference gave talks on the different ways pets could be cared for and called on other members to offer to care for seniors pets while they were away. Maybe this does speak to what previous commentators have alluded to – a more pleasure/leisure-centered generation, or maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s a lack of prioritization. Or maybe it’s nothing of the sort.

    I personally believe the reasons are more financial than anything. Starting in 2000 the economy has never really been healthy (just has moved from one boom-bust to another). And the decline in home values cannot be underestimated. Seniors used to sell their homes and downsize to smaller dwellings as they aged, pocketing the equity difference. That home equity has cratered, which means those funds from downsizing aren’t available for missiones anymore. That also jibes with Elder Holland’s acknowledgement that the church needed to change the policy on mission duration (now for as little as 6 months) as well as a cap on housing costs.

    And one last reasonh … Perhaps the lack of seniors serving it’s that they’re just worn out. I’m in my mid thirties and have already served in a couple of bishoprics, as young men’s president, a high priest group leader, an elders quorum president, a scout leader, and doing all the other stuff – home teaching, service (welfare farms, bishops storehouse, cleaning the chapel, moving people, etc) – while trying to fulfill and magnify my primary and most important calling as a husband and father. I’m burning out. I imagine many of those seniors were in my place when they were young and, frankly, they’ve been giving and giving and giving all their lives, burning the candle at both ends, and they’re just burned out. But I don’t really see that generation as having to work any harder as previous generations … but maybe they don’t count it to be as great a “blessing” to sacrifice as other generations and would like to start their “eternal rest” a little earlier. Can’t blame them …

  18. Taking my parents as an example, I don’t think a lot of people can afford it. They’re still working, helping out grown children who are struggling financially because of layoffs, and looking at retirement accounts that have shrunk alarmingly. My parents have always been very frugal, but they used to travel a bit. They haven’t done that for quite some time. I don’t think they expect to retire for a while.

  19. I was talking with David Paulson last night (he was here to give a fireside). He’s just retired from BYU, and he and his wife are planning on doing a mission. I asked him about whether costs are equalized for seniors as they are for the young uns, and he said just recently housing costs were equalized worldwide. I think he said the figure is $1,400/month. (I choked a little bit; that’s more than double what our mortgage payment is.)

    There was a time when I thought I would serve a senior mission. Now I think it’s very unlikely, for a whole host of reasons. One, my wife is the shy type and I can’t imagine her consenting to go. Two, we’ve had to basically support our kids through a decade of schooling and looking for jobs, and that process isn’t over even now. [My little joke is it’s the financial equivalent of being divorced–twice.] Three, retirement finances are a concern (like most people I won’t get a pension). Four, although I realize things are different somewhat for seniors, there is no way I’m going to subject myself to mindless mission bureaucracy and numbers games. Five, we have parents on both sides that are getting up in years and are going to need our help. Six, to be honest, as I get older I think leaving all of my loved ones is something I just don’t want to do.

  20. I see senior missionaries a lot in downtown Salt Lake, especially in the Family History Library, and frequently feel sorry for them. Patrons come in needing specialized advice on genealogy research, and many of these well-intentioned missionaries, usually only somewhat familiar with research and with the technology required to access some of the most important genealogy tools, quickly get frustrated with their inability to assist patrons with more than basic questions. Even worse is when the patrons themselves get impatient with the missionaries, which is not uncommon. If the paid expert genealogists happen to be working with other patrons at the time, it can get very stressful for the missionaries. When I see senior missionaries serving in such capacities, I pray that I’ll have enough money when I’m a senior to go overseas and serve a humanitarian mission where I’ll feel much more useful and valued.

    I’m sure there are many factors contributing to the trend, but I think jks’s #5 is spot on. My mom’s dad was a WWII vet who didn’t have a chance to serve a mission as a young man and has served two missions as a senior, the first with my grandma and the second with the woman he married after my grandma died. Neither of his wives had previously served a mission or even considered the option of serving as young women, and they both enjoyed it. I think it was a bit of an adventure for all of them, who all married young and didn’t go to college.

    My own parents (born in the early 1940s) are not interested in a mission, though my brother and I have asked more than once if they are at all interested and have emphasized how flexible the Church is in allowing seniors to design their own missionary experiences. My dad hated the mission he served in New Zeland as a young man, felt pressured into it, and doesn’t hide the fact that they were NOT the best two years of his life. My mom, though she married late, made a conscious decision to not serve a mission (started her career and did graduate work instead) because she was afraid to talk to strangers about the Church. She seems to feel the same today, though she is very active and faithful in the Church. The fact that there are many non-proselyting mission options for senior missionaries doesn’t seem to change their view.

    Another issue might be that the baby boomer generation was the first generation where going on a mission was perceived as a true requirement of all those who wanted to be perceived as devout. (My dad’s dad, for instance, didn’t serve a mission, not because he wasn’t interested, but because he was needed on the farm, and he wasn’t stigmatized by those of his generation for putting forward that excuse — these days and excuse like that would be branded evidence of a lack of faith that precedes miracles.) The fact that missions for my dad and the men of his generation were pushed on them as an obligation when they were young, and so many of them served somewhat reluctantly, might have taken all the romance out of it for them. They did their time for the Church — why is it banging on their door again?

  21. Kevin Barney, I think you’re hitting on several good points, but the one that stood out to me the most is your having parents to take care of. One of the corollaries of having a growing senior population is that, as people live longer, folks hitting retirement age (or potential senior missionary age) are more likely than past generations to have living parents, which only adds to the responsibilities, financial and otherwise, that make it difficult for them to serve as missionaries.

  22. I’m seeing a pattern in my ward.

    Right now we have 4 sets of senior missionaries out. One is a single sister the others are couples.

    Of note, 3 of the 4 are serving from home.

    Two sets are local proselyting missionaries. One set works at the local temple visitors center. And the other set is at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake.

    None are really out in the mission field. One couple told me that they flat-out weren’t willing to leave their family and this was the compromise. They claimed that was true with the other two local sets.

  23. In the past, you may have noticed that there was a blue multi-sheet sheaf of papers on your wards bulliten boards that was titled something to the effect of “Missionaary Opportuinities”. It was full of different needs the church had in various capacities and locations. It listed how much per month, etc., and seemed like a great idea (especially in a church where you NEVER get to choose where or how you serve). In talking with some of the guys in my HP group, it came up that this “opportunity” sheet no longer comes out, and that once again, you have to put your papers into some magical void, with hopes that you’ll get the call where the Lord really needs you. I think that this is a problem, since we had some couples choose where to go and enjoyed their service. Now, one of my friends chose to go teach english with a local university in China for a year rather than trust in getting a call somewhere they didn’t want to go doing what they didn’t want to do (like proselyting).

    I really think that this lack of choice is hurting the senior program. As for me, when I retire in a few years, I intend to hook up with some real humanitarian agency and go do some real helping on this planet.

  24. Paolo,
    I don’t have any idea if wards still get the Missionary Opportunities bulletin (my ward has, at most, one couple at the right age to be missionaries), but the bulletin still exists, and you can see it here.

  25. The other thing that would help is if the church would allow the establishment of foundations to fund the missions of seniors who are willing and able to serve, but merely lack money. Those who can’t get away due to family or health issues might be able to contribute something financially to help those others serve. In third-world places where retirement income doesn’t exist, this would allow local seniors to serve, which is a big plus.

    Right now, young men can serve a mission even if they can’t pay. But seniors have to pay their own way.

    In the country where my husband served, some of the returned missionaries were trying to get that together–but I hadn’t heard that they pulled it off. Does anyone know about such funds?

  26. Dster, I nodded my head reading your comment about burning out. Once again last Sunday we had the high pressure push for more people to clean the building. There is a core group who willingly volunteer but that core group isn’t very big. And in October our ward has three temple sealing assignments (out of 15 for the year), each one for 3 men and 3 women. If you assume 3 families to clean the building that adds up to 42 adult assignments in one month just for these two demands. Then add in stake temple night, ward temple night, DI assignment, bishop’s storehouse assignment, soon the assignment to put up the temple Christmas decorations and then take them down, scouts, superactivities, girls camp, pioneer trek, achievement days and early morning seminary on top of our ward callings. It can get to be too much.

  27. This reason, which I hear occasionally from sisters who don’t want to serve a couples mission, hasn’t been mentionned yet,and rarely admitted to openly, so I will put it out there. Sisters feel that being with their husbands 24/7 is a tough assignment.

  28. KLC, you left out the jewel in the crown, yea even Saturday church, i.e. Stake meetings. Maybe there could be an incentive package where your mission cost gets reduced in consideration for previous time served. You could get little tickets from your bishop and stake president for your church service and attendance at various events and function. It would be like collecting Betty Crocker points. It could also be tracked on like the YW and YM awards. Any takers?

  29. Other options for increasing senior missionary numbers: 1) guarantee of an off-correlation deep doctrine bull session with a GA and 2) special-issue, friend-of-the-prophet G’s made with high quality all-natural fibers.

  30. “I see senior missionaries a lot in downtown Salt Lake, especially in the Family History Library, and frequently feel sorry for them. Patrons come in needing specialized advice on genealogy research, and many of these well-intentioned missionaries, usually only somewhat familiar with research and with the technology required to access some of the most important genealogy tools, quickly get frustrated with their inability to assist patrons with more than basic questions. Even worse is when the patrons themselves get impatient with the missionaries, which is not uncommon. If the paid expert genealogists happen to be working with other patrons at the time, it can get very stressful for the missionaries. When I see senior missionaries serving in such capacities, I pray that I’ll have enough money when I’m a senior to go overseas and serve a humanitarian mission where I’ll feel much more useful and valued.”

    Hmm… My MIL was one of those family history missionaries in SLC. She extended beyond her original 18 months because she was having so much fun. She did feel overwhelmed at first, but was well trained and also provided training to others. (This was her second mission, BTW; the first was a CES mission with her husband (deceased prior to mission #2) to Southern California.)

    It would be interesting to track where senior missonaries come from and where they serve. In our stake in the midwest, many seniors retire from their jobs and then move away; they may serve missions, but many don’t do it from here. And those that stay are often very busy serving locally in our local church welfare complex (storehouse & employment services) or in the local temple (staffed entirely by volunteer workers with no missionaries) or in leadership assignments in inner city branches.

    My parents never served a full time mission mostly because their stake president (in two stakes) wouldn’t let them out of their callings to serve; they were needed in their home stake.

    My wife and I are hoping to serve, though we’ll definitely hope for (read: ask for) a non-prostelyting assignment b/c of my lovely wife’s concerens. (#24 Sam, thanks for posting the link to the bulletin; my wife and I browse occassionally and dream…)

    All that said, we will also likely have to delay our “first” senior mission because of a need to work longer than we otherwise would have, and since the first will be later, we may not be able to serve as many as we might otherwise have.

  31. For the record, Senior Missionaries were a major issue when I was in the MTC 12 years ago, so this is not a new problem. The Stat then was that they have over new 100 requests for senior couples every week that could not be filled. There were at the time around 4-5K senior missionaries, not too different than now. My wife and I want to go. It’s a goal we set before we were married. Of Course, I think we have about 30 more years until we can retire.

    Some challenges which I think the church could address include:

    1. People retire later than they used to, because financially they feel obligated to be prepared to live to be 100. So they are working until they are 65-70, and only retiring then because they are physically no longer able to work. This means people can’t go on missions because they don’t have the physical health to go.
    2. People can’t go on missions as a senior couple because they are not an lds couple. (widowed, divorced, part-member, or never-married) and thus can’t serve because there is no opportunity for them to serve.
    3. There is a general misunderstanding of the requirements for missionary service, where seniors do not feel capable to meet the requirements they faced as a 19-21 year old.

  32. I know the church has changed senior missions from being 18 months to being a choice of 6 months, 12 months and 18 months for senior couples. Also, they have tried to help by having mission opportunities where the couple stays in their home and just works at the mission office or does other things. Hopefully that would help those who desire to go but have limited resources.
    I also think that senior missionaries still have a lot of control over what kind of service they provide/ feel comfortable with.

  33. Couples, couples, couples. Everyone still talks about this problem only in terms of couples. Why not expand the pool by making single brothers and single sisters more welcomed?

  34. People who served their missions in Japan with my Dad in the early 1950s also volunteered as retired couples to go back there, especially after the Tokyo Temple opened in 1980. My Dad’s health was not too great, but my parents served over 12 years in the Jordan River Temple on a pretty rigorous schedule that only allowed them a couple weeks off for vacations each year. My guess is that people who served missions, and stayed active through their adult years, are even MORE likely to volunteer as senior missionaries than people who never had the experience.

    May I suggest that the proliferation in the number of local temples is drawing on the same pool of faithful seniors who would otherwise be free to serve as missionaries outside their home region? Additionally, I think the Church has been so successful in using senior missionaries to provide community services that the opportunities have grown faster than the available people.

  35. For me, the only posting here that struck me as possibly true is RTS’s comment (#35). Local temples, and lots of them, may be occupying many seniors who otherwise might have served.

  36. I have Protestant friends who every year or two will go on 2 week to 2 month missions. These tend to be humanitarian missions and those that go, tend to go more than once. Even 6 months is a long time. Shorter, service missions would be more palatable to many older people.

  37. Some of the comments here seem to have missed the basic points in the op:

    * The number of senior couples has DECLINED by 40%. The point isn’t that we need more (I think we’ve always needed more), its that FEWER couples are serving.

    SO, while its nice to know reasons why seniors aren’t serving, to address the op, we need to discovery why the number has DECLINED. What changed to make things decline?

    I think many of the comments do reflect this, and I’ve found a number of them persuasive. But please, when you propose a reason, please think about why the reason would be different for seniors now than a decade ago.

    For example, I’m sure that grandparents today love their grandchildren just as much as those a decade ago — so why would that love of their grandchildren mean FEWER senior missionaries than a decade ago? Given current U.S. demographics, you would think that overall there are actually fewer grandchildren to pull grandparents away from service!

    Also, I’m surprised no one has mentioned different demographics around the world. Is the baby boom an International phenomenon? I assume that the number of missionaries (seniors and young adults) from outside the U.S. is increasing in general. Wouldn’t U. S. demographics be mitigated by changes elsewhere? Or could changes elsewhere cause a large portion of this decline?

  38. I have to agree with Marie’s dad. The two years I spent 41 years ago as a missionary at 19 are an experience I have no desire to repeat.

  39. My wife and I have been contemplating a mission together for some time. Finance is not a problem, self made millionaire.

    Being more liberal in our views our Church service has had a glass ceiling, My wife has been RS President and on Stake RS boards. I have been on Bishoprics and even an acting Bishop (the bishop had been a Stake President previously and Bishop was … He has since been Stke Pres again) he went inactive 6 months after being called, so I was the acting Bishop for 6 months. I was then replaced by someone with much more conservative attitudes who was a terrible Bishop.

    That was 25 years ago, 5 years ago I was HP group leader and my wife RS pres but we upset the Bishops wife with our view of the Gospel so for a couple of years had no callings.

    We feel our abilities have not been appreciated, and would wonder why that would be different on a mission especially if the Bishop has input into calling.

    So we would expect to be called to do something fairly menial. Both of us are very capable people but so far the church has been more concerned by our view of the gospel ( we have held TRs continuously for over 40 years and did 12 months as temple workers a few years ago, just after I retired.

    I did not particularly enjoy my mission in Ireland in the late 60s and am concerned about obedience to pointless rules (which I associate with missionary service.

    On sunday we attended a stake fireside to encourage senior missionary service. At present we are rebuilding a house we own that was damaged in the QLD floods, which should be done by Christmas. Have children and grandchildren to think about but understand we can visit every 6 months, at our expense.

    Still thinking about it. Perhaps if something like an Institute lounge at a university in a non church area such as UK where our inclusive view of the gospel would be useful/appreciated?

  40. Geoff – A, you should clearly take a look at the “Missionary Opportunities” flyer, if you haven’t already. The variety of positions is surprising.

    I do hear your frustration about callings. I sometimes feel that way myself. Its like there is some blackmark on my records that I don’t know about or know why it is there.

    But my 19-year-old experience was quite good, and the biggest issue for me about potential senior service (I’m at least 10 years from getting the last child out of the house) is whether my wife can learn Portuguese or not so that we can serve overseas. I’d really prefer to serve overseas.

  41. My parents are finishing the last month of their mission in Bulgaria, and it has been a wonderful – albeit challenging – experience for them. As they have tried to encourage their friends to serve, they have been shocked and dismayed at how few of their cohort are willing to serve missions. Unfortunately, they have also learned that a significant percentage of those who are willing to serve overseas (in areas where they are desperately needed, like the Balkans) are simply medically ineligible for that service. Diseases of excess (diabetes mellitus, obesity, etc.) are taking their toll on this generation of American seniors in the Church.

    Many people have told them “If you loved your grandchildren as much as I love MY grandchildren, you could never leave them.” (Their response, in my dad’s church-voice… “You aren’t LEAVING your grandchildren… you are LEADING your grandchildren.”)

    @Geoff A – Senior missionaries have significant leeway in their activities, and are not expected to follow the same strict sets of rules as their younger counterparts. I am SURE that you could find a place for your talents and abilities. In fact, Bulgaria just had Turkey added to its mission boundaries, and I know that they are in dire need of senior missionaries!

  42. the absence of any call for older single sisters

    Give it a break. My widowed mother is serving a mission and is in a group of widows who are serving with her.

    My parents served in Kenya, Washington, D.C., Korea and the Philippines on missions before my dad’s Parkinson’s disease affected him so he could not serve, and they worked in the L.A. and Dallas Temples after that until his disability and death.

    Then, after some time, my mother applied for and accepted another mission call. I expect she will follow-up with another after this one.

    A few points.

    First, missionary service is not retirement.

    Second, there is a definite need for service. Older single men are still of use for local service missions if they have an interest even if they are not called in the broader context.

    Third, in my parents experience, serving missions (and leasing their home out) was the same in expense as just staying home or less expensive.

    On the other hand Why pay to serve a mission when I could stay in the comfort of my own home and serve in those same capacities within my home stake? is a question I’ve had of some missions I’ve seen. I’ve even seen people doing that — especially as the framework for temple missions has changed a great deal.

    I suspect a large number of temple workers who would have been temple missionaries fifteen years ago are now just temple workers at their local temple. I’m curious how the math on those numbers works out.

    I also see #18 Kevin Barney’s comments as applying. I went through some tough times and some funerals without my parents, though I appreciated the funeral they attended. It is rough having them at a distance at what really feels like a time of need.

    Paul — you may have met my mother then ;)

    She is loving it, as are the women in her group.

  43. babyboomer’s comment had me laughing out loud! But I feel I should inform you that it is a misconception. We have a couple missionary in our branch here in Bangalore. They do a mix of proselyting and humanitarian efforts, and they pick the mix.

    They are not tied to each other 24/7. Elder Funk goes golfing with me and my other expat Mormon co-worker here every Saturday morning. I’m not sure what Sister Funk does during that time.

    I think missions for the 21 age set are perhaps harder than they used to be. More rules (because the world requires more rules) and the idea that the best have already been found makes the work more difficult. And I think people don’t understand that couple missionaries can do what they please. It should not be a repeat of the worst two years.

    So perhaps it is true that, as proselyting missions get harder, each generation is more reluctant to re-experience the worst two years. If only they knew that they can golf on Saturday mornings they might feel differently!

  44. I think it’s finances. Many people were already starting to struggle before the economy officially tanked.

  45. Geoff-A,
    “Perhaps if something like an Institute lounge at a university in a non church”. My older sister and husband did that for 6 mo. All they did was pick up paper cups and mop the floors.
    These senior “Opportunities” should be called just that_not Missions. Unless they are going to BE missionaries and not some other kind of worker.

  46. Stephanie (45), the number of seniors started going down BEFORE the economy tanked (officially or not). I’m not even sure that Stephen M’s idea works, since I don’t think the timing quite works.

  47. My husband and I just returned from a proselyting mission. We live in a ward where at least half of the retired couples and single sisters have served or are serving missions. The economy did have an effect as mentioned by several of the couples who want to serve again. Also many have very elderly parents who need care and some are assisting their children and grandchildren and don’t have the resources to do both.
    Also I am a baby-boomer (61) and my husband is 72. Our mission was a wonderful experience and we may do it again but our 21 grandchildren are a priority right now!
    Also most of us in that age bracket are in great shape and not ready to slow down and change our lives completely yet! Maybe some will go when they are older!

  48. I just don’t think we can overstate how remarkably unexciting most of the work performed by senior missionaries is. If I worked long enough and was fortunate enough in my career to enjoy a retirement that could fund a senior couple mission, I don’t know how excited I would be about basically going on a mission to do the kinds of entry-level-type work done by senior missionaries. Moreover, if I were a professional whose services were highly valued in a field, I wouldn’t be very comfortable with it if the Church tried to force me to give those services to them for free. (I know that new-look Deseret News has gotten bishops and stake presidents to strong-arm some people into writing columns and so forth for free even though they’re way past the stage in their careers where they do it for free.)

    If I have a successful and fulfilling medical practice, why would I leave it to practice medicine in an uncertain environment on a “mission”? If I’ve been a successful mid-level executive at a respectable company, why would I want to basically go work in retail at a Distribution Center?

    I guess that a lot of this is somewhat offset by a couple’s (limited?) ability to choose their assignment. But I also know that the Church relies on return business and word-of-mouth marketing to keep their senior missionary numbers where they want them to be. Senior missionaries who didn’t enjoy their service aren’t likely to serve again. Nor are they likely to recommend it to anyone else. (Anecdotally, it seems like lots of the senior couples in a ward/stake go on missions or almost none of them do.)

  49. Kent, wouldn’t that indicate that finances are a factor? People were starting to struggle financially AND the number of seniors started to decline before the economy officially tanked (2008). I think there is a correlation there.

  50. I guess what I mean is that I don’t think people are prepared for retirement as well as they used to be – and that’s not just because of the downturn. Part of it is that is individual choices (not saving as much) and part of that has been steadily rising core costs with flat incomes. None of the grandparents on my side or my husband’s side are supporting themselves – all have been supported by their children. I anticipate that we are going to see more and more of that.

  51. Oh, I wouldn’t worry, sterileabraham. I am confident that a place could be found for you that would put to good use the extraordinary talents with which you have been so richly blessed.

  52. I know a couple that would like to serve, and would probably be effective and useful. Their single obstacle is health-related; like many of the rising generation, they’re overweight, high-cholesterol and have a laundry list of over mostly minor problems, which add up together to serious problems.

  53. We are in this demographic and we almost did go. (We were sitting in our bishop’s office with our papers when after a long pause he said he felt impressed to have us rethink it.–When did a bishop ever say that?) As we have rethought it a full time mission has moved off our lifetime list. However we both spend many hours a week (especially my husband) in activities that benefit the Kingdom. He is a temple worker 2 days a week and has indexed almost a million names (among other things).

    My experience is different. I applied for a mission off the lists. This one claimed to want someone with a graduate level degree in exactly what my degree was in. I talked to them before I got the call and they seemed to really want me to come. When I got there, they had no idea what to do with me, and the things I did were mostly “grunt work”, unrelated to my degrees in any way. It was a very unsatisfying experience. I am now serving a totally idiosyncratic mission that another organization in the Church called me on the phone and asked me to do. I do bring a unique body of skills to this position and I am pretty much my own boss. I am enjoying this very much and can see where what I am doing is making a difference. (I doubt I would be doing this if I had gone on a full time mission.)

  54. Now for some comments on some of what I see has changed in the last ten years. The Missionary Department seems to think that wives are the problem and they may be right. But many of us are not the problem they think we are. They think we won’t leave the grandkids. I think that is seldom the case. In fact, I know one couple who went, primarily to get away from the grandkids.

    One big and unaccounted for change I see is that 10 years ago the missionary program was still mostly drawing from a pool of wives who came of age in the 1950s or before. They had very different experiences and expectations than those of us to were part of the 60s and beyond. Many women have had real leadership roles in the broader secular culture, often supervising men and receiving positive feedback on their own skills. Missionary culture makes them absolutely subservient to any “priesthood holder” they encounter. Unfortunately there are even a few young elders who have pointed out their own superiority (because they have the priesthood) to very accomplished women.

    Callings are almost always based on the husbands background and skills. Even mission president’s wives are simply “called” to be “wife”. (She could stay home and do that.) Women are almost always “tag-alongs”. The men can’t go without a wife, but most of the time little attention is paid to the wife’s own gifts and needs.

    I also think it is presumptuous for the Missionary Department to dictate women’s clothing. The only rules should be clean and modest. (And hardly any women of a certain age need to be told that either.)

    And finally, women talk. What we hear from friends who have been on missions is certainly a mixed bag. The potluck assignments of personalities and tasks (with no respectable way out of a dreadful experience) is very off putting.

    Many women find much of the traditional missionary experience not something they want to be a part of and know they can serve from home (temples, welfare, etc.)with more options and leverage if things don’t work out. I think the real problem starts with a mindset in the Missionary Department.

  55. Perhaps the change is due to a change in emphasis from full time missionary service to church service missionaries and/or serving in local temples (due to the increase in temples worldwide). The spreadsheet only has last year with a number for church service missionaries, so I wonder if that number has grown since the full time number has decreased. Also, I have seen an emphasis in service missions over full time missions over the past year.

  56. bnice (58):
    “The spreadsheet only has last year with a number for church service missionaries, so I wonder if that number has grown since the full time number has decreased.”

    FWIW, the spreadsheet (found at only includes the Church Service missionaries number for last year because the Church just released that information in April of this year for the first time.

  57. Another problem for those deciding whether to go is that they can not expect a truthful evaluation of what will be expected of them or the conditions. The church sanitises information.

    It’s difficult to make a decision when you can’t trust the information upon which to make that decision. You could just have faith but you may have 40 or 50 years of assessing what you are told by church information and no longer trust leaders with a year or 2 of your remaining life.

  58. In my own area, the temple being built about a decade ago has made a big difference. Couples and single sisters who may have served missions as temple workers elsewhere just serve as temple workers locally without doing a mission. Which, frankly, probably means an overall net-loss of service time, but its still a blessing to have the temple nearby.

  59. So many people and so many different reasons for not serving.

    I am slightly in the pre-boom generation. I served a mission (2 1/2 years) 50 years ago which was not really delightful. It was pleasant but not because of the church leadership. I served 3 more stake missions. I am truly tired of missionary work.

    For many reasons I have had a very spotty record with comfort with church leadership starting on my mission and culminating in prop. 8. Why would I really want to go out an make more converts to a right wing, homophobic, sexist, ex-racist organization which doubts my faithfulness and commitment? (Yes, I do have a commitment problem, but not to the gospel of love, the true gospel of Jesus Christ.) Am I alone in this perception?

    I remarried after a death. My spouse is a true introvert and would never like a proselyting mission. I would die in an office job or any of the other infrastructure callings.

    Instead I am doing a new business start-up where my skills are appreciated.

    A boyhood friend who never went on a mission is now in Chile and loves it.

  60. I imagine (hypothesize rather) that the decrease would be due to a combination of economic factors and changing attitudes in the church. Although the economic bubble didn’t burst until three years ago, before that household debt was rising significantly and overall household savings was decreasing. People may have been getting by alright, but they didn’t have the same amount of surplus savings that they used to in earlier decades.

    Second, over the last few decades Mormons have by and large become more educated in secular institutions and cosmopolitan. This may have led to an increase in moderately liberal attitudes among active Mormons. There is not as much ostracism of people who aren’t as tightly bound to the flock as there used to be. This makes being part of a ward less stressful and time-consuming. But at the same time the expectations of commitment that both the leadership and culture have on active members has probably dropped. Thus there is less unspoken social pressure, emanating from within the ward, for older couples to serve missions. Such social pressure, however, has not changed for youth.

    Personally I have no desire to serve another mission for the church. I would gladly give of my time and resources for humanitarian service in my older years, however.

  61. Picture this hypothetical: a married couple has finally paid off the house, kicked the last kids out of it, finished paying for (some of) their college educations and missions, and are now living off of Social Security and 401k savings.

    The newly retired couple thinks about a mission, looks at the mission opportunities list, and sees that it’s going to cause them to start shelling out $2,000+ a month again (over $50,000 for 2 years). They look at each other and, without saying anything, simultaneously recognize that they are financially stable for the first time in decades.

    They opt for local genealogy/temple/humanitarian/public affairs work instead.

    Frankly, I’m surprised that a young missionary only costs $400 a month, but a senior individual can be 2 or 3 or 4 times that much (times two people). I’m guessing the pricetag alone is a dealbreaker for many seniors.

  62. Don’t any senior missionaries rent out their homes? Wouldn’t most of the economic arguments go up in smoke if that were factored in?

  63. We live in the US. I’m 5 years younger than my husband and a cancer survivor. My medical coverage is provided by his employer. He could retire at 65 and get full retirement, Social Security, and Medicare benefits, but because I am uninsurable, he can’t retire until he is 72 (assuming that SS/Medicare benefits will be delayed 2 years for my age cohort – currently 53).

    Our kids, now finishing college, are underemployed and needing financial help. This sucks up all our discretionary income.

    Every once in awhile I feel the general pressure to serve from our bishop, but we’re socially weird enough that peer pressure isn’t much of a factor even in Utah County. We could work around all the problems, if we felt it was important enough. My husband could probably do it whole-heartedly, but I can’t. I stay in the church by keeping a certain emotional distance–I don’t think it would be possible on a mission.

  64. Mark B:
    The rent you can get for your LA home, that’s now worth half as much__is half as much also. And, if you leave all your things in it, you will end up losing money.

  65. I think it would be really nice if the church would simply ask people for their reasonings. If the church would just survey older adults and ask why they are or aren’t planning to serve a mission. If the church would ask young adults why they are or aren’t inactive (or less-active, or whatever euphemism is in vogue). Why primary age kids like or dislike primary. What parents think about three hours of church on Sunday and other time & effort requirements. And then it would be nice if the church would truly consider making changes to programs. Now, my husband did receive and answer a survey regarding his missionary experience, so I know the church does have some interest. However, I think it would be validating if there was more asking and listening.

  66. I was a teenage convert in the 70’s and loved my mission to England & Wales. I have always looked forward to serving several missions with my wife and would go tomorrow if I could. The big thing for me is economic uncertainty. I had a goal to be serving as a missionary couple by my 60th birthday (still a year away!. I was preparing myself financially so that we could start a new mission every 2-3 years for as long as we had our health. We were almost there! The problem is that my net worth has dropped to about 1/3 of what it was 5 years ago (rental property, IRA tied to the stock market, etc). In addition I made a foolish investment with a dishonest partner and lost a boatload of home equity loan money that I have to pay off. One of my sons was out of work for 9 months so we had to help him & his family out, and will probably do so for the next few years. I honestly don’t think we will be able to leave until I am 65. Hopefully we won’t have health issues that will prohibit us, we really want to go!!

  67. Erin (69), it is my understanding that they do surveys like this regularly. I don’t know if it is enough or that they ask the questions you expect, but I suspect they do ask a sample of the population.

    I agree that if they are not, that they should. However, Elder Holland’s statements sure make it sound like they aren’t asking.

  68. 56-57 Yikes, Marjorie, a lot to think about. I wasn’t aware of that prevalent sexism. In many cases we know, it was the wife’s talents that were the reason for a particular call (auditing, music, teaching) and the husband was the tagalong/support staff/organized appointments, etc. But I am sure you are correct, and I need to be prepared for that.

    About renting out your home, not always easy. We rented ours when we went abroad to do research, and it was a challenge finding a renter. Nowadays it is about 10 times harder, there are lots of homes for rent due to folks moving away but not willing to take the loss of selling it yet.

    I am also learning a foreign language so that we can serve in my husband’s old mission area, if possible. There are lots of iPhone apps that let you practice while in the checkout line, etc.

  69. My first responsibility is to God. Then comes my wife. Then my children and and grandchildren. Next comes the Church, then country, then all mankind. I believe this is what the Church teaches. Keeping this in mind, I can think of several reason why senior couples are not going on missions in as great number as they once did. Many children have moved back in with their parents and hence need their parents around to help solve the problem. Many seniors are now renting where once they owned a home, and in the past most senior missionary couples have been homeowners. Many missions for seniors derive their funding in part from homes and home equity. These have been cut in half, and in some cases more than half. Many brethren who might otherwise serve a senior mission with their wives, are having to put off retirement and live on much less during retirement because of recent economic difficulties. Those who retire later are often not as strong and healthy as they might have been had they been able to retire earlier.

    My wife and I retired at the end of 2007. Most of our thirty-three year marriage we have planned to serve a senior mission when we retired. But our daughter is disabled, and her husband was forced to quit his job about a year ago because of a disabling medical condition. They have had to choose between asking the Bishop to support them and moving in with us. It is my understanding that many children have moved back in with their parents. I don’t know if potential senior missionaries are any less healthy than they were, but I do assume that whatever care they need is enormously more expensive, and health insurance premiums have gone through the roof as well. It is almost as if Satan were conspiring to keep faithful saints from serving missions. Hey wait! He has been doing that since our First Parents left the Garden of Eden.

    Maybe some members of the Church including some of the older ones, no longer have the depth of testimony they once did, but I doubt it. My guess is that economic conditions accounts for most of the dearth of senior couples signing up to serve missions.

    How many older couples in the poorer areas outside of the USA serve senior missions?

  70. Where I live I know one couple in say 25 years who served a senior mission, there was another one around 1980 that went. There have been several single older sisters who went. No one from here has ever been called to be a Mission Pres., GA or a version of the Area Authority. I think any couples that were maybe thinking it are going to be tapped for Temple Service here when the Temple comes.I think for here, lack of senior couples that still live here when they hit 65, finances and used for other things are the reason that they don’t go.

  71. I have not read all the comments, but of the ones I have read none have mentioned the idea that the increase in temples may be utilizing many seniors who might otherwise opt to serve a mission. Over the past 15 years or so the number of temples has more than doubled. Those who staff the temples are generally seniors. Seems to me this might be taking away from the pool of potential senior missionaries.

    Here in the Phoenix area, for example, we are going to go from one temple in Mesa to three temples, overall. That is going to require a significant number of local seniors to be volunteering their time.

  72. Normal retirement for me is 6 years away, but because we are raising grandchildren, it’s at least 12 years away. And with health issues, a mission is not in our future.

  73. We talked to our Bishop about doing a senior mission. We were told that we couldn’t be eligible because we have no children. According to the church, your children must be grown, and since we have no children, we were ineligible to do the mission without a special dispensation. We requested they give us this, but we were then told our income was impossibly low to do the mission as well.

  74. Someone in your area is badly misreading the guidelines, Betty Jean. Senior missionaries are not required to be parents; the statement about grown children only indicates that couples cannot serve if they still have dependent children. No “special dispensation” is required. I know many senior missionaries (at stake conference last week, the routine report stated we have about 180 senior missionaries in our stake; I also know many from my near daily work in the Church History Library), some who have no children either because they are single sisters who never married or are couples who, for whatever reason, did not have children. (None of that addresses the income problem, of course.)

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