The mission has traditionally been a rite of passage for young Mormon men, often recognizable by their trademark white button-down shirts and dark suits, as they roam neighborhoods across the world looking for converts.
Now their female counterparts are flocking to missions in record numbers after a subtle, yet critical, change in church policy lowered the age minimum from 21 to 19 for the women, known as sisters.
“Each of my sisters were married by the time they were 19 or 20,” said Sister Rachel Thomson, 24, from Hamilton, New Zealand. “They didn't have the opportunity to go when they turned 21.”
In a community where women tend to marry and start families earlier than is today’s norm, that two-year shift for female missionaries -- along with the message that it sends -- seems to have made a big difference. Church leadership has said that women do not have the same mandate as men to become missionaries, but that they are welcome.
“I was 18 when it happened,” said Sister Harley Buxton, 20, from LaVerkin, Utah. “But I turned 19 and then 17 days later, I went to missionary training center.”
There are now more than 22,000 women serving on missions, making up more than a quarter of all missionaries, according to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the church is officially called. The number of sister missionaries has nearly tripled since the age minimum was lowered in October 2012.
“Women have always been the powerhouse of the church,” said Sister Thomson.
“Nightline” was given a rare glimpse inside the lives of six sister missionaries from three different continents all serving on a mission in Florida. All are the first women in their families to go on a mission.
“Inside I really hoped that I would go to the States,” said Sister Anne Sofie Kreiberg, 21, from Denmark. “When I opened my call, I just felt calm.”
The missionaries work in pairs. Her partner, Sister Thomson, came from New Zealand, where she said her grandparents were once converted by missionaries.
As they walked around a neighborhood in suburban Orlando, the sister missionaries bumped into a man they had previously met and to whom they had given a copy of the Book of Mormon, one of the faith’s sacred texts. When they asked him if he had read it, he responded, “I have not cracked it open yet.”
“Apparently the statistics say that, for every 1,000 doors you knock, you might have one convert,” Sister Thomson said. “I think it builds a lot of character. Rejection isn't easily handled by anyone.”
Part of their mission work involves community service, which they say is about emulating Jesus’ life and not specifically about looking for converts. They take on even menial jobs with surprising enthusiasm.
“I cleaned someone’s bathtub one time,” said Sister Janni Collins, 21, of Oroville, California. “It was actually a really cool experience.”
The missionaries also hold teaching appointments where they talk to people who are interested in exploring the faith. During Nightline’s visit with the missionaries, Sisters Kreiberg and Thomson ate dinner alongside one such man, Richard Santana, at the home of a local Mormon family. Sister Kreiberg had originally met him by a mailbox. Santana said that the fact that he was approached by a female missionary was far from a negative.
“Always I’m going to respond to a woman,” Santana said. “I’m a man.”
“People are definitely more open to a female missionary,” said Sister Thomson. “Part of it may be what we wear.”
Unlike their male counterparts, they say they are are encouraged to wear cheerful clothing. Female missionaries wear blouses and long skirts, which can be flowery and feminine.
“Just recently they told us to be colorful and look cute,” said Sister Thomson.
There are guidelines about their underwear, too, which must be white or nude.
“We wear modest, attractive clothing,” said Sister Lindsay Pugmire, 22, of Snohomish, Washington. “You don't want a flower bra to be seen through your shirt.”
The missionaries are expected to follow a number of other rules. They are up at 6:30 a.m. daily, are only allowed to call home twice a year, and may only use iPads and cell phones for missionary work.
“We do live a very different, more conservative life,” said Sister Collins. “I think that really just becomes such a way of life that you don't really notice the rules as much.”
During the course of their 18-month mission, the missionaries can face stereotypes about a faith that is often the subject of satire, from the popular Broadway show, “The Book of Mormon,” to “Big Love,” a TV show about a man from a splinter fundamentalist sect with three wives. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy in the late 19th century.
When non-Mormons they encounter ask the female missionaries about polygamy, “we just politely tell them the truth,” Sister Buxton said.
“It was in our true history, but now that's been done away with and we do not practice polygamy,” Sister Buxton said, elaborating on how the missionaries respond.
The Latter-day Saints have also been in spotlight recently over the issue of female ordination. The church is run by layman, and virtually all adult men in good standing are ordained as priests, allowing them to give blessings. Women can’t become priests despite protests from activists.
All of the missionaries who spoke to “Nightline” about this issue defended the church.
“When God created Adam and Eve, [He said] that they both were equal but they had different responsibilities,” said Sister Leslie Fisi, 22, from Federal Way, Washington.
“Never will men necessarily be able to procreate on their own, and women won’t hold the priesthood,” Sister Collins said.
“I think we have our own kind of power,” added Sister Thomson.