Some choose Mormon missions over graduation ceremonies
Taylor Hart's high-school yearbook will likely have a few more blank pages than those of his classmates.
That's because he won't be around the last day of school to gather yearbook signatures. He'll have left to begin training for his Mormon mission in Portugal.
"I've always liked to just move on to the next phase of my life, and this is the next phase for me," said Hart, who graduated early from Taylorsville High so he could leave for his two-year mission in mid-April.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't track how many young men choose to graduate early from high school to go on missions. But teachers and counselors across Utah report at least a few here and there who decided to take the leap this year and last after LDS leaders lowered the age at which men may go on missions to 18 from 19. The church requires missionaries to have high-school diplomas.
Like Hart, those who choose to leave for missions early are swapping high-school experiences for religious ones, trading caps and gowns for suits and ties.
Many will miss not only yearbook signings, but proms and graduation ceremonies as well.
To them, it doesn't feel like a sacrifice. It feels like an opportunity.
"Some of [my friends] said, 'Why would you give up graduation? Why would you want to do that?' " Hart said. "I said, 'Well, it's not important to me.' "
No pomp, no circumstance • Hart has always known he'd go on a Mormon mission. His older siblings served before him, and they each returned home wiser, more independent, more religious.
"It's important to me because I know that everyone that goes on a mission, they grow spiritually," he said, "and they help others grow, too."
Taggart Befus felt much the same way, which is why he too decided to cut high school short in favor of missionary work.
Befus will pack his bags the same week the rest of his classmates prepare for prom. He's leaving for the Missionary Training Center just days before the dance.
But Befus, who graduated from American Fork High in January, isn't bothered by it.
"I just felt like I was more excited to move on and get on to a mission and college more than I was to be in high school and do high-school activities," said the 18-year-old, who will serve his two-year mission in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia.
Not surprisingly, Befus' graduation lacked all pomp and circumstance. He picked up his final transcript, said goodbye to a couple of teachers and left hardly the tassel-flipping celebration his classmates will experience.
He still hasn't gotten his physical diploma.
"I'm not bummed about it," he said, adding that he's been looking forward to serving a mission his whole life. "I'm more excited to leave than to stay."
At least one student, Max Daybell, has found a way to graduate early and experience his senior year sort of.
Daybell, a junior at Grantsville High, plans to graduate this May, a year early. He'll technically miss his real senior year, but he plans to go to prom and walk at graduation with this year's seniors.
He'll submit his mission papers in May and hopes to leave in September after he turns 18.
"I've had a lot of fun [in high school]," Daybell said. "I've been able to do basketball and tennis and a lot of the music programs and had fun with those, but I'm ready to move on."
Setting an example • Matthew Gundersen, an instructor at American Fork LDS Seminary, said the few students he's seen graduate early to serve missions don't seem to mind missing the typical high-school experiences.
"There are young men who are really anxious to get out there and do what they've always wanted to do," Gundersen said. "I think they're excited to be missionaries and those things, prom and graduation ceremonies, aren't as meaningful to them as being a missionary is."
Last year, he remembers one American Fork High student graduating early to go on a mission; this year, he knows of two.
Even those who aren't leaving high school early for missions are eager to go, he said. Out of 27 senior boys he now teaches, five have received their mission calls and another five are waiting for them.
Cyprus High senior Samuel Hepworth is among the many seniors statewide who plan to leave shortly after graduating with their classes.
He'd like to leave in July after he turns 18 and has a chance to see his sister, who will return from her 18-month Mormon mission that same month. But he understands why some choose to graduate early and why others wait until the summer or fall after graduation.
"Maybe a lot of them want the high-school experience," Hepworth said of teens who wait. "They want to go to prom. They want to walk with their class. I think maybe the students who really got a lot of out of high school and enjoyed it a lot want to finish it up.
"I've always looked forward to my mission more than I've ever liked high school," added Hepworth, who's watched seven of his older siblings do these proselytizing stints before him.
Gundersen said those leaving early for missions have helped set good examples for other seminary students.
"It changes attitudes," he said of students planning earlier missions. "It helps them be more serious, not just about seminary class but about their lives. Their interests aren't so much on things that are frivolous."
Befus said he never anticipated he'd lead the way into the mission field. But it has strengthened his confidence in his choice to leave early.
"I know it's really for me," he said, "rather than trying to live up to an example."
firstname.lastname@example.org A change for the ages
For 18-year-old Mormon men and 19-year-old Mormon women, "mission pending" is now "mission possible" thanks to the lower age limits for full-time proselytizing service.
Ever since that historic pronouncement, young Latter-day Saints by the thousands have been jumping at the chance to go on missions earlier.
The sweeping change has had a sweeping effect on everything from LDS dating and marriage patterns to college scholarships and enrollments, especially in Mormon-dominated Utah. Some teens, as this story explains, are even skipping the pomp and circumstance of high-school graduation ceremonies for the rules and rewards of LDS missionary life.
The age shift also has ballooned Mormon missionary ranks (especially among women) by 40 percent, from 58,500 at the time of the October 2012 announcement to more than 82,000 and counting.