Tim Gunnell predicted that his life wouldn’t be much different when he begins his mission next month in Monterrey, Mexico, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — except for “getting up at 6:30 a.m. and going to bed every night at 10:30 p.m. and having to shave every day.”
“I’ll just have to do everything a little bit better,” the 18-year-old Hampden resident said earlier this year.
Gunnell left home about two weeks ago for the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, where he will be paired with a companion of the same gender, be trained in how to proselytize door-to-door and learn Spanish.
He is one of about 10,000 Mormons who are taking advantage of the decision to lower the age at which members may embark on missions from 19 to 18 for men and from 21 to 19 for women who have graduated from high school. Mormon men are encouraged but not required to go on a mission, while it is an option for women.
“It’s a duty, but I’ve never looked at it as one,” Gunnell said a few weeks before leaving. “Really, it’s a privilege. I hope to get blessings from it. I know I’ll get experience from it.”
Church President Thomas S. Monson made the announcement in October in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the denomination’s international headquarters. LDS church officials have said that the age requirement was lowered for the entire church after positive experiences over the past decade in 48 countries outside the U.S. where the age for men was set at 18. The response to the announcement has been enthusiastic, according to Eric Hawkins, senior manager in the church’s Public Affairs Department.
The length of service will not change. Men, called elders, will serve two years and women, referred to as sisters, will serve 18 months.
Prior to Monson’s announcement, there were 58,513 missionaries serving worldwide, according to statistics provided by the LDS church. As of April 30, there were 66,700. The average number of missionaries assigned each week before the announcement was about 600 compared with 1,600 now.
Maine is part of the New Hampshire Manchester Mission, which includes northern New England, a small section of New York and some communities in Massachusetts. Individual figures for Maine were not available Friday but figures for the mission were.
In September, there were 100 men serving in the New Hampshire Manchester Mission compared with the 128 expected to be in the field soon, according to figures provided by Hawkins. The number of women in the region on missions has jumped from 16 to 52.
There also will be more missionaries knocking on doors in the area served by the mission, which has a population of 3.7 million people. In September there were 116. That number will increase this summer to 180.
Gunnell is one of three young men from Greater Bangor who recently left for missions. Wyatt Frost, 19, of Bangor, is serving in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Jordan Kilgour, 18, of Hampden, is bicycling on the streets of Las Vegas.
Before the trio left, Paul Giles, 21, of Ogden, Utah, and Riley Woodruff, 20 of Nampa, Idaho, who are finishing up their missions in New England and currently based in Bangor, offered some advice.
“Follow the rules and always study so you know better what to teach others,” Giles said.
Those rules include paying your own expenses during missions, estimated at an average of $10,000 per person, calling home just twice a year but writing home once a week, working six days out of seven, representing the LDS church 24/7 and, for men, wearing a dress shirt, slacks, a tie and being clean shaven.
Missionaries’ days begin at 6:30 a.m. and end at 10:30 p.m. Days are filled with prayer, study, reflection and sharing the faith. Elders and sisters also are expected to meet with their mission supervisors every six weeks. They receive support, financial, emotional and religious, from Mormons living in their mission fields.
“The biggest challenge is being with another person twenty-four-seven,” Giles said.
Another is knocking on strangers’ doors.
“People have some preconceived notions about the LDS church and that can be challenging,” Riley said. “We’ve gotten a lot of questions about polygamy.”
The LDS church has not sanctioned polygamy since 1890, according to information on its website, mormon.org.
“People think we don’t believe in Jesus Christ but we have his name on our nametags in bold letters,” Giles added. “Sometimes, they get us confused with other denominations.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses also proselytize door-to-door in Maine.
Riley said their goal is to talk with people, help them understand the basic tenets of the faith and invite them to attend a service. Just as people are told on airplanes to put on their oxygen mask first before helping others, he said, missionaries should “make sure one’s own testament is strong and firm” before sharing it with others.
Matthew Erickson, 48, of Bucksport served his mission in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in the mid-1980s. The Utah native said that lowering the age was a great idea.
“If you’re from a strong LDS home just out of high school, it’s easier to go on a mission now, instead of waiting until you are 19,” he said Friday. “A lot of my friends wound up not going on missions who would have gone if they’d been able to go at 18. If you go off to college for year, you’re on your own, get a girlfriend, a job, or play sport, when you turn 19, you might think, ‘Gee life is pretty good,’ and hold off or not go at all.”
Erickson, an attorney with an office in Brewer, said Friday that he spent a year working after high school before serving in a Spanish-speaking mission. He got around on a bicycle in Corpus Christi, Laredo, San Antonio and Texas border towns smaller than Millinocket.
“Not much can terrify you after knocking on strangers’ doors and talking in a foreign language about your church or Jesus Christ,” Erickson said. “That kind of gets you out of your comfort zone. I never had any heartburn in law school [at the University of Maine] about being called on by a professor.
“The other aspect is that once you’re out there doing that, you either gain a strong belief in the truthfulness of the church or you’re going home,” he said. “A mission helps cement your belief in the truthfulness of the church.”
What makes it most worthwhile, Giles said, “is the opportunity to change someone’s life” by bringing them into the faith.