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New Wave of Mormon Missionaries Is Young, Energetic and Female

Women flocking to missions in record numbers after a change in church policy.

ByABC News
January 27, 2015, 12:39 PM

— -- 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.”

The Church announced another policy change Tuesday, saying it will now support national and local anti-discrimination laws for the LGBT community, if those laws also follow church doctrine.

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.”