What fraction of missionaries are sisters?

It has been five years since President Monson announced the change in minimum ages at which missionaries can serve. It’s clear that much of the increase in the number of missionaries that followed that announcement came from an increase in how many women were choosing to serve. For example, a 2015 ABC News article on sister missionaries reports (I assume quoting a Church spokesperson) that there were 22,000 sister missionaries at the time, that they made up more than a quarter of all missionaries, and that their numbers had nearly tripled since the age change was announced. Along similar lines, a Deseret News article from one year after the age change reports that there had been increases of 10,000 elders and 11,000 sisters in the previous year. There’s also a Deseret News article from 2014 that gives actual percentage breakdowns: 64% single men, 28% single women, and 8% senior couples.

This increase matches my anecdotal experience. I haven’t tracked anything systematically, but just from following friends on Facebook, it seems like a lot more families who I would have thought were pretty conventionally Mormon have sent daughters on missions in the past few years than did before. I note that they’re conventional because my impression is that having women serve missions before the age change always seemed to me to be a little out of the norm. Like the thinking was that it was a nice thing to do and all, but really shouldn’t women be getting married instead?

It’s great that the news articles I mentioned give some point-in-time snapshots of how many women are serving missions, but what I’m really interested to know is what the trend over time is. For example, I wonder if the number of women serving increased suddenly right after the age change, but then leveled off. Or perhaps it increased at that time, and has continued to increase since then. Or maybe there was a temporary spike and then the number of women serving have decreased.

Like with so many other questions about Church-related data, I’m sure the numbers are available somewhere in the COB, but I’m never going to get to see them. So I did the next best thing and gathered a little data from what I could find. I considered possibilities like counting women and men in missionary alumni Facebook groups, or on a website like LDSMissions.com that allows returned missionaries to register and join a group of others who served in the same mission (although it doesn’t look like the site has been updated in a while). I ended up, though, choosing to gather data from MyMission.com, though, for a couple of reasons. First, it has lists of links to missionary blogs in a nice standard format that was relatively easy to grab. Second, it has missionaries listed as “Sister” or “Elder,” so I didn’t have to make any assumptions about whether someone with a particular first name was female or male.

There are about 15,000 missionary blogs listed for single missionaries (I excluded senior couples, mission presidents, and other miscellaneous blogs). For each, I just noted whether it was for a sister or an elder, the start year for the mission, and (because it was easy to add), the location of the mission. Most of the blog links come from after the age change, but about 1,600 come from 2011 and earlier. The distribution of years is a little strange. A surprisingly large number have a start year of 2001, considering how few total are in years 2001-2009 in total. I ended up just lumping all start years from 2000 to 2009 together, and throwing out any years prior to 2000.

Before I even get to showing you the results, I need to point out the limitations. The missionaries who have blogs are certainly not a random sample of all missionaries. I suspect they skew to being more English speaking and wealthier than the norm. Plus, it’s possible that norms around which missionaries blog (whether sisters or elders do it more) could change over time, and the result might be differences in the data I got that don’t actually reflect differences in who is actually serving. So be ready with your grains of salt.

Here are the percentages of single missionary blogs kept by sisters by year.

I’m comforted to see that the increase occurs at the time that would be expected: 2013-2014. This gives me hope that the data aren’t totally wrong. However, the peak percentages are clearly off, as they’re 40-50% in 2014-2015, and these are quite a bit higher than the Church-reported percentages of “over a quarter” and 28%, even when these are converted to percentages of single missionaries only, which gives about 30%. If we assume that there’s some constant bias that pushes the percentages in the blog link data higher than the actual percentages, I’m still really surprised at the decrease since 2014. Sisters go from having nearly half the blogs to only about a quarter of them. I would have guessed that an increase with a leveling off or a continuous increase would be more likely.

I also broke missions down into regions of the world because I was curious to see if more sisters were being sent to one area than another. Here are percentages of single missionary blogs kept by sisters by year by region.

There’s surprisingly little variation by region, other than that it looks like not many sisters are in Africa (although there are only about 600 blog links for Africa, so this isn’t much data to go on).

Several years before the age change, I blogged about women serving missions, and why it was being so discouraged. In discussion following that post, several people raised the point that it wouldn’t take much of a change for going on a mission to become the norm for women like it is for men, and for those who don’t go to be looked down on. I didn’t buy the argument at the time, but looking back now, I think the dramatic increase in women serving since the age change has proven the commenters who raised the point right and proven me wrong. It does seem like the norm has shifted pretty quickly and dramatically, even if it still isn’t nearly as strong as the norm for men.

It’s difficult to know what to make of the declining percentage of sisters since 2014 in the data I gathered. It could be caused by some non-randomness in the sampling of choosing links to missionary blogs. Maybe as women started serving more, they also chose to blog about their missions at at even higher rate. If we take the data at face value, though, I guess it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the age change had temporarily increased the number of sisters serving, but that then women’s general enthusiasm for going maybe declined. Or perhaps again it was just a temporary increase in enthusiasm for blogging about being a missionary. I don’t know.

One other related issue I want to raise, even though it seems less likely looking at these data, is what Church leaders might say if sisters move toward becoming a majority of the single missionary force. Here are a few possibilities I came up with:

  • They might just ignore it. It’s not like the annual statistical report in Conference tells how many sisters and how many elders are serving, so it’s likely that people in general wouldn’t necessarily notice. If people talked about it, it would probably come down to competing anecdotes: person X served in a mission with lots of sisters, but person Y served in a mission with lots of elders, so who’s to say whether there are more elders or sisters overall?
  • They might give more talks like the one President Hinckley gave in 1997 where he discouraged the norm of women serving missions.
  • They might give more talks like the one Elder Christofferson gave in 2012 where he chastised men and young men for not keeping up with women.
  • They might make it harder for women to serve missions, either by directing bishops to discourage it, or by blunter changes like raising the age for women back to 21.
  • They might ordain women. This would mean they would no longer have to worry about non-priesthood-holders serving in what is supposed to be primarily a priesthood responsibility.

I would guess they would lean toward giving talks to try to change the norms, and if that fails, raising the age for women again. I doubt they’ll ignore it if sisters really did approach becoming half the missionary force, but I could be wrong. I raise the possibility of ordaining women only because it’s my favorite solution. I doubt it will happen soon.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on these issues. Do you think the pattern of change in the data I showed is real? Do you know of a bias that might be driving it if it’s not? Could you point me to some better data? And of course, what do you think of my last question about what Church leaders might do if sister missionaries become the majority of the Church’s single missionaries?

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I think one reason for the drop off after the spike is because in that first year of the age change you had three years worth of ‘regular’ sister cohorts going out all at the same time (those who were 21 and were already going to go that year and the 19 and 20 year olds who had been planning to go when they hit 21). Then, on top of that was the increase in numbers caused by sisters who wouldn’t have gone at 21, but would at 19, which is the only part of the bump you’d expect to stick around over time.

  2. Yeah, there was a big ‘surge’ right after the age change that has since leveled off. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that during the last few years almost all the young couples moving into my ward have both served missions. This is a big contrast to the fact that among women in my age group I am one of the few returned missionaries. I work at BYU and I’ve also noticed a lot more returned sister missionaries on campus (like when I’m hiring student employees, most of the women have served missions). I really think that women serving is becoming normalized, especially among active, college-going TBM, mid/upper level income Mormons.

  3. With regards to normalizing missions, I was working on an Achievement Days project last night, and their “Faith in God for Girls” item on budgeting now directs them to start saving for a mission (not school or even some other purchase).

  4. FWIW, the big surge was evident in my chapel’s parking lot. The mission home is in my ward boundaries, and the mission bought a lot of vehicles a few years ago. About a year ago there was a small fleet of unused cars in our parking lot. They must be coming off of leases or something by now.

    I don’t know what to make of the numbers, but I doubt the cultural expectation for women to serve or not serve has really changed much. The emphasis is still on motherhood and marriage, by far.


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