Utah is below the national average in terms of women holding leadership roles within nearly all settings (e.g., business, education, government, politics, state boards and commissions, and religious). In fact, figures from Wallet Hub [1] rank Utah 50th as the worst state for gender equality. A more detailed picture is provided by the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) that reports, in nearly all sectors, the percentage of women in leadership roles lagging national figures. [2] For example, in business, women comprise 32% of managers in Utah, compared with 40.2% nationally. [3] And in terms of state leadership, women represent only 32.7% of state board and commissions. [4] This is the case most often for two overarching reasons. The first is the organizational and societal cultures in Utah (and in most places in the world) that have gendered systems, processes, and practices. The second reason centers on the fact that many women themselves do not have the confidence, aspirations, ambition, or perceived knowledge, skills, and abilities to “lean in” to leadership opportunities. Yet, we argue that Utah women are much more prepared than they might think.

Although there are many types of developmental experiences and relationships shown to provide powerful learning and growth, one that has not been explored is the leadership development, knowledge, skills, and abilities that come as young women serve full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet, there are tens of thousands of returned sister missionaries who live in Utah and thousands more who live beyond Utah in the United States and in other countries as well. Hence, if full-time missionary service provides leadership development opportunities for women, as has been argued for men, [5] there could be thousands of women prepared—whether they know it or not—to lead in a variety of settings (e.g., home, community, schools, businesses, governments) around the world. As President Russell M. Nelson once stated: “I plead with my sisters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to step forward! Take your rightful and needful place in your home, in your community, and in the kingdom of God—more than you ever have before. I plead with you to fulfill President Kimball’s prophecy … And as one of His Apostles … [I] bless you [dear sisters] to rise to your full stature, to fulfill the measure of your creation, as we walk arm in arm in this sacred work.” [6] Church leaders are increasingly calling for women to rise to their potential as leaders in various settings, and it is critical at this time in history that all Church members, including women, use their voices and examples to lead in positive and productive ways.

The UWLP has a series of research and policy briefs that focus on providing specific, timely data on the status of Utah women leaders in a variety of sectors, as well as other topics that influence girls and women to find and use their voices, to increase their knowledge and skills, and ultimately, to become leaders. Yet, many of these research studies also apply to members of the Church who live outside Utah. This is the case for a recent research and policy brief published on Jan. 7, 2020 titled, “The Leadership Development Gained by Women Serving Full-Time Missions”. [7] This SquareTwo article has been adapted and enhanced from a portion of this report.

We set out to document the skills that women acquire while serving full-time missions by gathering original data through qualitative research methods. Involvement in the study as a whole provided many Latter-day Saint women with insights into what they have gained, how they are using mission-acquired capabilities today, and what additional experiences would have been helpful during and after their missions. The results are also useful for those individuals, initiatives, and organizations that are focused, at least in part, on strengthening the impact of Latter-day Saint women through leadership development strategies. They also prove useful for influencers who highly value youth and young adults having opportunities to become leaders.

Background Literature

The full-time mission experience is regarded as a “rite of passage” into adulthood, particularly for young men. Historically, Church missions have emphasized the importance of leadership (especially in contrast to missionary work in other religions). This aligns with the new General Handbook for Church Leaders and Members, which describes “Christ like leadership,” [8] and counsels members to understand and know Christ deeply and emulate Him. It also encourages members to learn “how to prepare spiritually, counsel together and build unity with others in one’s congregation and [to recognize] the importance of delegation.” [9] For men in particular, missionary service has not only been widely recognized as key in fostering a Latter-day Saint identity, but also as a method for promoting leadership skills. [10] In fact, many notable male leaders of major corporations and entrepreneurs received training from serving Latter-day Saint missions. [11]

A few key shifts in female missionary work throughout Church history have affected women. Prior to 1898, married women accompanied their husbands on missions. Although not officially missionaries, they engaged in important work for the Church. Through the ministering of care and love to families in the areas where they served, they built strong links between the community and the Church. [12] This strength was recognized by Wilford Woodruff, who then called for single women to be included as official missionaries for the Church for the first time. He could see how women’s abilities to develop strong relationships and promote a positive view of the Church could benefit mission purposes and the growth of the Church. [13] In 1974, President Spencer W. Kimball stated that “Every young man should fill a mission,” with a clear message that a mission was more of a male prerogative. Even as late as 2012, Church presidential discourse signaled a dominant role for men and an auxiliary role for women, with the following statement: “We affirm that missionary work is a priesthood duty—and we encourage all young men who are worthy and who are physically able and mentally capable, to respond to the call to serve. Many young women also serve, but they are not under the same mandate to serve as are the young men. We assure the young sisters of the Church, however, that they make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome their service.” [14]

Women have traditionally completed missions at slightly older ages and for shorter lengths of time. [15] According to some sources, [16] the terms of women’s missionary service have been structured differently in order to pose as little interference as possible with prospects for marriage and child-rearing. Thus, the Church policy toward women serving missions has historically been aimed at keeping the number of sister missionaries lower while still welcoming their contributions to missionary work if they choose to participate.

Overall, women have served missions alongside men for much of the history of the Church, yet their service has not been traditionally conceptualized as a leadership training ground as it has been for men. [17] However, lowering the age for female missionaries from 21 to 19 years old in 2012 was the beginning of a shift in attitudes toward women and missions. This led to a rapid increase in the number of sister missionaries and by 2013, news of a change in mission leadership structures was announced: “Each mission in the Church will organize a mission leadership council that will include both elder (male) and sister (female) as missionary leaders. The new mission leadership council will consist of the mission president and his wife, assistants to the president, zone leaders and sister training leaders — a newly created role.” [18]

Even with these changes, we believe that many Latter-day Saint women have not seen themselves as leaders and that returned sister missionaries do not consciously view their mission service as a transformative “leadership development” experience. Of course, there are many reasons for this, from the hierarchical masculine structure of the Church to the limited formal leadership roles that exist for sister missionaries. [19] However, scholarly research across the spectrum (not specific to religion) relating to the importance of gender roles and leader identity has shown that the notion of leadership itself is gendered. [20] Most still view leaders as men [21] because that is our experience and what we are used to seeing. [22] Because of this, men in most sectors of society continue to make most of the decisions that impact people and society. Because of the well-documented “double-bind,” in many contexts, women in leadership positions (and those who experience women in these roles) perceive a conscious or unconscious deviance from the norm. [23] This explains why women face difficulties when trying to claim their own leadership identity. A woman may struggle to see herself as a leader, but more importantly, others may not see her as a “rightful” leader. [24] In fact, many individuals may even be reluctant to grant a woman the identity of leader. And in more masculine societies, industries, and even in organizations with strong gender role differentiation (like most formal religions), it is even more difficult for women to effectively take on the identity of leader. Because of this, girls and young women do not aspire (compared to boys and young men) to become formal and informal leaders and therefore do not consciously view experiences as leadership development. Overall, Latter-day Saint children and youth are raised to see many more Latter-day Saint men leading inside and outside the church than women.

To help us wrestle with some of the issues addressed in this section as well as to help returned sister missionaries and others understand the leadership development gained through serving full-time missions, the broader study focused on the following three research questions (only question 3 will be highlighted in this article as outlined in the following section):

  1. What are the leadership knowledge, skills, and abilities women develop throughout the experience of serving a full-time mission during young adulthood?
  2. How are returned sister missionaries currently using these knowledge, skills, and abilities?
  3. What other missionary experiences or opportunities do these women wish they would have had during their missions that they believe would have helped them to be more prepared to lead in their current lives?

Research Methods

The research instrument for this study included a number of demographic questions and four open-ended qualitative questions which consisted of three research questions plus space for additional comments. The study also included a nine-item scale with a variety of questions to measure participants’ perceptions of the value of their experience, particularly as it focused on their views of missions and leadership learning. Data were collected in December of 2018 and in early January of 2019 via an online survey instrument. Participants were recruited through email newsletters, social media posts, announcements in women’s group meetings, distribution lists within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and invitations sent to key faculty and administrators at Brigham Young University and LDS Business College. We aimed for 100–200 responses, but we closed the survey early when we reached 687 responses, most of which were very detailed. The flood of responses provided an extremely large sample for qualitative research, and five researchers spent nine months completing the complex analysis. All data were carefully coded and analyzed, and only select highlights were included in the original brief, just as in the following article.

This article focuses on the data we collected from the nine-item scale and from the third qualitative question regarding the missionary experiences or opportunities the returned sister missionaries wish they would have had during their missions that could have helped them to be more prepared to serve in their current lives as leaders. An overview of the results of the first two open-ended research questions can be found in the initial research and policy brief. In addition, another scholarly paper that focuses on the findings related to the first two research questions is currently under review.

Of the 687 survey responses, we were able to use 625 for our analysis. The survey participant demographics are summarized in this table.

We viewed that the sample was somewhat diverse in terms of age, marital status, and the age these sisters started serving. Unfortunately, we did not collect data on race and ethnicity. We were surprised at the high level of educational attainment found in this sample and would like to be able to compare it with the educational attainment levels of all sisters who served missions, as well as the general population of sisters in the Church. Although most of the participants were currently very active in the Church, we were pleased to have participants who were of various activity levels respond. Finally, we were surprised that over half of the respondents had full-time careers as well.

The Influence of Missions on Learning, Growth, & Perceptions

We used a 9-item scale to measure general perceptions of the mission experience, its influence on learning and leadership development, and the responsibility and role of women preparing to become leaders (see table below). The 625 respondents used a 7-point scale (1 = Strongly Disagree to 7 = Strongly Agree) to answer the following questions. The statistical mean and standard deviation are listed for each question in the table below.

Most participants felt that their mission was a powerful experience in their life (Q1) and were glad they served (Q9); there were no statistically significant differences between responses in all demographic variables except for activity level. Expectedly, most active respondents were more likely to agree with these two questions. Younger women (including those not married and those with lower education levels) were significantly more likely to agree that their missions taught them to lead, although high ratings were found in all ages and levels. However, those who started their missions at 19 or 20 were more likely to agree with this question.

There was little accordance with the statement (Q8) that men needed to learn to lead more than women (12.8% disagreed and 64.2% strongly disagreed), while only 7.1% expressed some level of agreement. Over 76% of participants answered “strongly agree” to the question about women needing to be prepared to influence (Q6), with 17.5% answering “somewhat agree” to “agree.” In response to Q7 (women need to be prepared to be leaders), 79.3% strongly agreed, while 17.6% also either agreed or at least somewhat agreed, leaving only 3% on either question as neutral or in the three “disagree” options. Although we do not have a control sample in this study to compare them to, we found the responses to these two questions particularly strong. It would be interesting to compare these responses with the responses of women in the Church who did not serve missions.

Leadership Development Wish List for Returned Sister Missionaries

One of the open-ended questions we asked was, “What other missionary experiences or opportunities do you wish you would have had so that you would have been more prepared to lead and/or influence (or to do other things) now in your life?” Overall, 413 people replied to this question, but 26 only wrote a word or so to let us know they had no response to the question, so 387 contributions were analyzed. Although a host of categories emerged during the analysis, they were combined into five core themes:

  1. Leadership Roles & Assignments (62%): The majority of respondents discussed leadership roles and assignments they wish they would have had or thought other sisters should experience. Although a few mentioned being a senior companion as a leadership role, most did not consider it as such. Over 8% mentioned serving as a trainer, while 18% felt that the position of “sister training leader” was a significant improvement and appreciated serving in or wished they could have served in that role. Nearly 10% specifically mentioned that they would have liked to be a district leader, zone leader, or assistant to the president, roles held only by male missionaries.
  2. In fact, there was a striking difference between sisters who served in all-sister zones (mostly at visitors centers) and those who did not, particularly in their perceptions of leadership opportunities. Sisters in all-sister districts or zones did get more leadership assignments, which they highly valued. Other respondents wanted to serve in mission councils, ward and stake councils, and to have mission office roles. Others wished they could have had assignments such as speaking or delivering trainings at conferences, planning meetings or projects, and managing people and reporting.
  3. Equal Opportunity Issues (38%): More than one-third of respondents mentioned unequal or unfair opportunities or treatment either directly or within contexts of the other discussions (see other categories in this section). Only a few comments had to do with women getting the priesthood. Nearly all related to lack of opportunity (e.g., leadership, training, providing input, being in strategic conversations); disrespectful and unfair treatment from elders, ward leaders, or mission presidents (e.g., “unrighteous dominion”); unconscious bias and attitudes that sisters are “less than”; not feeling valued and being underutilized; and overall inequality in opportunity and treatment. Some felt that gender and unconscious bias training for mission presidents and their wives would be helpful in raising consciousness and providing tools to missions. Finally, 4.4% of respondents specifically stated that sisters should have more opportunities to lead both elders and sisters, not just sisters.
  4. Learning & Growth (26%): Study participants mentioned a host of topics that they felt would have been beneficial for them or others to learn about during their missions. Some of the topics mentioned included language skills, overcoming perfectionism, teaching, public speaking, dealing with sexism, management/administrative skills, mental health, developing others, self-understanding and love, courage and confidence, gender differences, giving and receiving feedback, communication skills, and human relations, as well as Church doctrine, structure, and spirituality.
  5. Developmental Relationships (25%): About 10% of the respondents mentioned the desire to have more female role models (including more meaningful interactions with the mission president’s wife and the desire for her to be viewed as having a higher mission status and formal title), networking, women-only learning opportunities, and additional exchanges and time with sisters in the mission. Another 10% discussed characteristics of their mission presidents, with a striking difference between the experiences of sisters with presidents who respected and appreciated sisters and those who did not (consciously and unconsciously). Many wrote about presidents who sought for equality in mission experiences for elders and sisters, as well as the sincere desire to find ways to have more meaningful interactions. At least half, however, mentioned that their presidents did not respect sisters, didn’t take sisters seriously, made sexist comments, or didn’t understand subtle discrimination that took place. Another 5% mentioned a desire for mentorship from adult leaders, senior missionaries, and others.
  6. Formal Training & Development (25%): Respondents also suggested that additional training during their missions would have enhanced their experience and performance. These included specific training for roles (i.e., senior companion, trainer, sister training leader) and leadership training and related elements (e.g., communication, conflict management, planning, resilience, counseling others, culture). There was also a clear recognition by many that sisters had significantly fewer opportunities for leadership training than elders, primarily because of less availibility of formal leadership roles. Again, many participants expressed a desire for more sister-only training, development, and conferences.

Although there were hundreds of topics that arose from these responses, only two more are noted here. First, some respondents (20%) felt their missions gave them all of the opportunities and experiences they needed to lead and influence. They made comments such as, “I wouldn’t change anything about my mission”; “My mission did everything that I needed it to for my life”; “I had wonderful opportunities”; “It was sufficient”; “I had a full and plentiful mission,” and “I wouldn’t change a thing.” Secondly, about 7% of respondents expressed the desire for improved preparation before serving. Some mentioned they should have done better with learning from scriptures, seminary, and personal study. However, more wished they would have had more leadership training, more practice sharing the Gospel through experiences with full-time missionaries or ministering assignments (including role playing and teaching), and more responsibility as a youth.


Overall, we carefully analyzed hundreds of responses to see what categories and themes would emerge during the research process, and only the most prominent were reported in this article. Most respondents were positive in looking back on the leadership skills gained or strengthened while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nearly all study participants also stated that they currently use those abilities and competencies in many different roles in their homes, Church congregations, and in their workplaces, while only a few stated they are currently using them to influence and lead in their communities. Yet, the majority of those who participated in the study, no matter their current activity status in the Church, offered suggestions on ways to improve their experience specifically related to the development of leadership knowledge, skills, and abilities. These comments, along with findings from women’s leadership development research reported in our initial brief and a forthcoming scholarly article, provide the foundation for the following recommendations.

First, Church leaders and other influencers who are invested in developing more women leaders can be more intentional and explicit in framing the numerous competencies missionaries gain. One of the barriers to women leadership is that, because of socialization during childhood and youth, girls and women fail to develop a true “leader identity,” in comparison to boys and men. Intentional framing can assist.

Second, Church and mission leaders can carefully and critically consider which missionary roles can be expanded or created to include more formal and informal leadership positions and experiences for sister missionaries. This will then increase the available opportunities for more sisters to participate in mission leadership meetings and trainings.

Third, unconscious bias workshops and gender trainings can provide mission presidents, area authorities, and their spouses opportunities to strengthen their capacity to provide more intentional, thoughtful, and beneficial guidance and development for all missionaries, leaders, and members serving within their areas of influence.

Fourth, training and development for missionaries at missionary training centers and within missions can be more strategically designed to include consistent curriculum for those moving into leadership roles, as well as specific leadership skills training for all missionaries. Presidents could consider calling senior couples to coordinate training throughout the mission to make this a priority.

Finally, mission leaders can create and support additional sister-only learning opportunities, including trainings, conferences, developmental networking, exchanges, peer coaching, and one-on-one mentoring with mission president wives, senior sister missionaries, and influential sisters in wards, stakes, regions, and communities. Research shows that women-only developmental experiences are particularly impactful if they are strategically designed and created for open and meaningful interaction and learning. [25]


Overall, our research shows that women who serve full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints experience powerful developmental experiences and relationships that provide leadership development, learning, and growth, particularly when sisters are given formal and informal opportunities to lead. This is the first study we have found that has documented the experiences of returned sister missionaries in this way. These findings can assist influencers who care about raising the next generation of leaders to positively impact families, wards, stakes, schools, colleges, businesses, nonprofit organizations, communities, states, and even nations. Though this research was specific in scope, the findings and especially the recommendations are generalizable to a wide variety of settings and situations. As we continue to focus on increasing women’s representation in positions of influence, it is vital to understand how we can develop and strengthen girls and young women in all arenas, including religious settings. If we do not, entities and communities will continue to miss many of the benefits that come when men and women work, serve, and lead together. [26]

In 2015, President Russell M. Nelson told the women of the Church: “We, your brethren, need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices. The kingdom of God is not and cannot be complete without women who make sacred covenants and then keep them, women who can speak with the power and authority of God!” [27] Here, President Nelson was not only referring to the home and Church settings, but to leadership settings in the community and beyond. As President Gordon B. Hinckley proclaimed in 1985, “I have often thought that if great numbers of women of all nations were to unite and lift up their voices in the cause of peace, there would develop a worldwide will for peace which could save our civilization and avoid untold suffering, misery, plague, starvation, and the death of millions.” [28] To do this, we need to assist girls and women in seeing themselves as leaders by helping them understand the key experiences—like serving full-time missions—that have already given them the leadership development opportunities to influence others. In addition, Church leaders must continue to address existing gendered policies and practices and consider implementing the recommendations from this and other research studies in order to positively impact the growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints moving forward. Unleashing the leadership potential of returned sister missionaries in this Church can help fulfill President Spencer W. Kimball’s decree that “Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world … will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world.” [29]


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Full Citation for this Article: Susan R. Madsen, Wendy Fox-Kirk, Sara McPhee Lafkas, and Robbyn T. Scribner (2020) "Leadership Development Perspectives and Recommendations from Sisters Who Served Full-time Missions During Young Adulthood," SquareTwo, Vol. 13 No. 3 (Fall 2020), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMadsenKirkLafkasScribner.html, accessed <give access date>.

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