Some Utahns graduating high school early to go on Mormon missions
Throughout high school, Brennan Rasmussen couldn't wait until he was old enough to go on a Mormon mission.
So, last year, when the church lowered the age at which men could serve from 19 to 18, Rasmussen jumped. The Timpview High student decided to accelerate his coursework at the Provo school to graduate early, so he could leave almost immediately after turning 18 in March.
Sure, he'll miss prom, graduation and a summer of freedom, but he's confident those sacrifices will be worth it.
"If I wasn't so sure that I was supposed to go early, then that would be a hard thing," said Rasmussen, who left for Provo's Missionary Training Center on Wednesday, where he will prepare to serve a mission in Baltimore. "I'm sure those things would have been fun, but I know this is what I'm supposed to do and this is more important."
Rasmussen is one of a number of Utah Mormons who decided this year to graduate from high school early to leave for LDS missions as soon as possible. It's difficult to say exactly how many teens have chosen that path, but principals across the state say they're seeing it at least occasionally.
Typically, students choose to graduate early for a number of reasons something they accomplish by taking additional courses online through the state's Electronic High School, completing course packets or simply loading up their schedules with required classes. What hasn't been typical, at least in the past, was for students to wrap up their courses early specifically to go on Mormon missions.
Until The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed its policy at last fall's General Conference, men couldn't go on two-year missions until age 19. Women, who serve for 18 months, may now go at 19, down from 21.
Kathleen Webb, Electronic High School principal, said she's talked to several young men who enrolled in online classes specifically to graduate early to go on missions this year. Charisse Hilton, principal at Brighton High in Cottonwood Heights, said she's also seen a couple of her students graduate early to spread their faith. Ditto for Dee Burton, principal at Kaysville's Davis High.
"They came in the Monday after the [Mormon General Conference] in October," Burton wrote in an email, "and announced they were graduating early so they could leave ASAP."
'The right thing' • The LDS Church, which requires missionaries to have high school diplomas, doesn't encourage teens to graduate early to go on missions. But it doesn't discourage them either.
"The decision of when to serve a mission is left up to the individual," said Scott Trotter, a spokesman for the church. "The lower-age opportunity simply provides an option to begin missionary service earlier if the individuals are prepared and have completed high school graduation requirements."
LDS leaders imparted a bit of additional guidance to prospective missionaries this past weekend at the most recent General Conference. There, apostle Russell M. Nelson urged young people with higher-education aspirations to apply to college before leaving on missions, so they don't have to worry about it during their service.
It's advice some teens are already heeding. Rasmussen, for example, said he's been accepted to church-owned Brigham Young University for fall 2015.
Had the mission ages not changed, Rasmussen probably would have attended BYU for a year before leaving. But he believes attending college for four straight years after serving a two-year mission makes more sense for him.
"The step from high school to college is obviously a pretty big one," Rasmussen said, "and that level of maturity I'll have gained from those two years will, I'm sure, be useful."
St. George resident James Christiansen also felt it would be better for him to serve a mission and then attend college. Christiansen also reported Wednesday to the MTC and will serve his mission in Long Beach, Calif.
He finished at Snow Canyon High shortly before leaving by taking classes online in addition to his regular coursework.
"I felt like it was the right thing," Christiansen said. " ... I'll get home sooner and start life quicker. Rather than being 21 and a half, I'll be just barely 20. I'd rather do it that way than do it and go and come back and try to get back into the swing of things."
It's a plan his dad fully supports.
"As parents, we kind of like it because it seems like after graduation and before they leave on their mission, there's trouble and mischief that's oftentimes gotten into, so this is a safer bet for parents, actually, in that he becomes focused," Brett Christiansen said. "He'll become focused earlier and when he comes home from his mission, he'll hit the ground running."
A different outlook • Sandy resident Cathy Miller said the idea of early graduation also clicked for her son Brandon Miller, though for an additional reason.
Brandon Miller graduated from Brighton High, by taking some electives online, about a week before departing March 13 to prepare for a mission in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He already had received a full basketball scholarship to the University of Utah before he left, and his mom said the U. has agreed to hold that for him until he returns. She said it made sense to her son to serve a mission first and then play basketball and attend college for four years in a row.
"He just has always planned on and prepared to serve a mission for the church," Cathy Miller said, "and I think it was a really exciting [mission age] announcement to him because he was 18 when that announcement came."
That excitement extends to many Utah high-schoolers, even those still planning to graduate on time with their classmates. Many of those teens, though not graduating early, now plan to leave for missions soon after picking up their diplomas. So besides talk of prom, sports and graduation parties, conversations about mission plans now also fill the hallways of Utah high schools.
Trotter said the LDS Church expects a surge of missionaries in August. It already has seen missionary applications double since the announcement with more than half coming from women.
Kaleb Shoell, a senior at Brighton High, plans to report to his training center in Spain about a week after he graduates in June.
He turned 18 in October and said he didn't see any reason to put off serving a mission beyond high school graduation. He said he knows at least half a dozen other teens at Brighton also leaving shortly after stepping out of their caps and gowns.
"Each week there's more and more kids that just keep getting their calls," said Shoell, who is Brighton's student body vice president.
He said knowing his mission is right around the corner has altered his senior year. He's more serious and focused on the future.
"It's changed my whole outlook," Shoell said. "Whereas senior year was more for fun [before], it's definitely become a time to work hard and prepare."
Shoell is eager to share his faith with others, and he likes the idea of attending college for four straight years when he returns.
But, ultimately, he said, each individual has to decide for himself when to serve, regardless of the earlier mission ages.
"It is," he said, "really a personal decision between you and God."
Mormon missions by the numbers
65,634 • Number of missionaries
405 • Number of missions
58 Â» Number of new missions after age change
12 Â» Number of new missions in the western U.S.
8 Â» Number of new missions in Mexico
3 Â» Number of new missions in California
2 Â» Number of new missions in Idaho
1 Â» Number of new missions in Utah
Source: LDS Church