"We need many, many more senior couples," LDS President Thomas S. Monson said during the church's worldwide conference in October 2010.
The shorter term reflects the flexibility available to seniors serving in their own countries, who already have the option to fulfill six-, 12- or 18-month missions.
The church's announcement also included another significant change: how much senior missionaries must pay for overseas housing. Instead of footing the entire bill, senior couples now will have their lodging expenses capped at $1,400 a month, no matter where they serve. That limit, church officials say, is intended to free couples from cost constraints and allow for more predictable expenses.
Similar changes to mission expenses occurred in 1990, when the church chose to have younger missionaries, no matter where they were called, pay the same amount for their missions.
The new senior missionary policy comes as the church watches its missionary ranks thin from a high of 61,638 volunteers in 2002 to 52,483 in 2010. Senior missionaries usually make up about 7 percent of that total, according to David Stewart, author of The Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work.
The decline in missionaries, observers say, is most often attributed to the decreasing size of LDS families and higher standards to qualify for service associated with the church's "raising the bar" initiative.
With the help of its new senior missionary policy endorsed by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles the church hopes "to encourage more couples to serve full-time missions and to improve their missionary experience," according to a news release.
Kent Broadhead, a Taylorsville resident who served an 18-month senior mission to Malaysia with his late wife, believes the new approach allowing stints of six, 12, 18 and 23 months will appeal to prospective missionaries.
"I really think that you'll get a volunteer for six [months] that you would not for 18 or 23," he said.
For his part, though, Broadhead said that if he were able, he would have preferred to have served closer to two years. "There were times that we, if we were five years younger, would have been happy to stay those extra five months."
Doug Andersen, spokesman for the LDS Church, said the change is about adding "flexibility" into the schedule. He was unable to comment on what prompted the change, however, or if the church has a specific goal for how many more senior missionaries it hopes to attract.
Stewart believes the push for more senior couples could be aimed at increasing the number of missions by boosting LDS leadership in countries with little or no Mormon presence.
Currently, there are about 3,000 retired church members serving worldwide, according to the LDS Church. While the faith would like to boost those numbers, obstacles to service remain even with the shortened commitment.
Think cost: Paying for food, housing and travel can be daunting, particularly in pricey countries. Think time: Leaving home means forgoing valuable family interactions, especially with grandchildren. Think health: Traveling out of the country, perhaps to Third World locations, can raise concerns about how to deal with health problems.
Broadhead said that he and his wife were lucky. They enjoyed good health for most of their service in Malaysia, though his wife came home with a serious back injury.
With the changes to the time and money senior couples are asked to spend, the LDS Church hopes to see more retirees willing to accept the call to serve.
By the numbers
52,483 • Number of full-time missionaries in 2010
3,000 • Estimated number of seniors serving missions
1,400 • Maximum monthly dollar amount seniors would pay for housing under the new church policy
340 • Total missions worldwide
6 • Number of months seniors now can serve internationally
Source: LDS Church