Mormon missionaries and the stigma of early return

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FailureYears ago in my ward, I attended a farewell party for a young man from our community who was heading out on his mission. Let’s call him John. We all ate, swam, talked, and gave John gifts of hope and encouragement.

Then a couple of weeks later, he came home.

We didn’t see John in church much after that. In fact, I’m not even sure he is still LDS, since I no longer live in that ward and don’t keep up with his family other than a casual Facebook relationship.

What I do remember is hearing gossip in the ward: he was homesick, he had a breakdown, there was a girl involved, he was not mature enough, he couldn’t master the language, etc. This talk was well-meaning and not at all vicious, but it was still gossip. People wanted an explanation.

I said nothing and don’t remember contributing to the gossip, but neither did I reach out to John in any way. I should have said something to encourage him. I did talk to his dad, who brought up the subject in conversation. His frustration and his love for his son were both equally evident. He did not understand his son’s need to come home, and thought John needed toughening up.

This morning, LDS Living reposted a 2011 article by a man who had to return early from his mission due to depression and bipolar disorder. It’s a strong piece and recommended reading. He talks about his own feelings and also the enduring stigma of an early return. In Mormonism that stigma may be most acute in the immediate aftermath of the “failed” mission, but it can last a lifetime whenever people casually ask, “So, where did you serve your mission?”

I don’t have a shred of evidence to back this up (and if any of you have evidence or counter-evidence, I hope you’ll share it), but I strongly suspect that with the reduced age requirement for missionary service we are going to be seeing an increase in early returns. Some young missionaries, fresh out of high school with no prior experience of living on their own, will not be able to handle the considerable social pressure and physical requirements of a mission.

This is an opportunity for the Mormon people, a chance to show our love for them and our admiration for their willingness to try something new and difficult.

But the language we now use is of failure and damage. This language makes it worse. The LDS Living author hopes that we can find another narrative for these former missionaries, one that sees value in the time they did serve:

In the military, the view of completing missions and of wounded comrades is quite different from our view of similar situations in religious missions. If soldiers rush into battle and are wounded on their first mission or 50th mission, they are treated the same. They are given medals. They are applauded for their service, no matter how long. Their brothers and sisters at arms risk their own lives to rescue and restore those soldiers to their homes. No one looks at them differently. No one says, “Well, you didn’t really help the war effort, did you?” or “Toughen up, man. It’s just a bullet.” These brave men and women are honored and respected for their service.

So should it be with missionaries. We were willing to go where the Lord asked. Sometimes we get hurt. All we ask for is acceptance and love. We return with dread, hoping our partial offering will still be acceptable to those we care about most. My hope is that every missionary will be loved and respected. With your understanding and support, it can happen.

Amen to that. These people have already suffered enough.

  • tbone

    Your assertion about increased “wash” rates, due to the earlier opportunity age of 18, is very correct. A lot of the news about this is anecdotal, but will soon be backed by hard statistics. THERE IS A BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A 19 YEAR OLD AND AN UNSEASONED 18 YEAR OLD!!! I understand the need to do it to accommodate missionaries from non-US lands; I get it. They have military and other obligations, the new age works best for them. But get ready for a lot of wash-outs. It’s a no-brainer. It could be worse: they could wash out like my nephew–who was basically “talked home” by his helicopter mommy (who made him wimp from the get-go).

  • Doug2

    God’s children are made differently. If someone fails as a missionary, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a bad person. There are many other ways to serve the Lord.

    Failure is part of life. We all fail in some ways. Often failing as part of learning. Thomas Edison said he typically had hundreds of failures for every success.

    Like it is said. The road to success is paved with failures.

    It would be nice if one or more people would reach out to “John” and let him know he is still loved and welcome.

  • Marsha Memmott

    I have a friend who’s youngest son came home after six months. He was suffering from depression and had tried all the solutions that were offered in his mission area. He had learned the language, was diligent in his prayers and preparation, but discovered an illness that couldn’t be dealt with away from home.

    Another young man I knew well blew out his knee in a foreign country and was sent home for treatment. He then went to a stateside mission for the last few months he served.

    Both young men were valiant, both young men were forced to deal with challenges they could not foresee, but the first feels that he is looked at with suspicion and whispers. Not by his family or those who know him, but by those who judge on outward appearance. He has not failed, he has done what he could. We in the church need to recognize the service and the sacrifice whatever the length of time given.

  • Jessica

    I have two teenage sons and one tweenage daughter. I’ve had discussions with them about the very real possibility that they will experience mental health issues in their lives because of my personal and family history, and made sure they understand that if it does happen, it is not their fault. They also know that it is up to them how long to wait before they serve missions. They also have a friend at church who is dealing with mental health challenges, and knowing what is happening with him goes a long way toward helping them be compassionate. I did finish my mission, but it was far from the best 18 months of my life, and I am open about that fact. I will have to remember that, beyond sharing my own experiences, I need to validate other people’s as well.

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    From the article: “This talk was well-meaning and not at all vicious….”

    I cringe when I hear things like that. Few people are as practiced at being offensive as “well-meaning” LDS.

  • Kirk Barrus

    This sounds a little bit like the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality. I know it sounds harsh but telling someone “good job” for serving 3 months is never going to wash, with them or their friends. On the other hand – I agree that we MUST show tons of love, regardless. The early returning missionary is carrying a huge, forever, burden. It’s really none of our business why they returned. My advice is refrain from gossiping and judgement and overtly reach out and show an increase of love. I am guessing that a fairly high number of early returning missionaries do not fully return to church..

  • Wayne Dequer

    I’ve seen missionaries return early for a variety of reasons, including our own daughter. All these people need our love. Isn’t that what the gospel is about? The church is a school, laboratory, and/or hospital in which we lean and grow by serving and helping each other. It is not a country club only of the well-healed or perfected.

    Most missionaries return early for honorable reasons, although it is Not our calling to judge them at all. And those who return for transgressions need our love even more. Elder Ballard taught in an Ensign article: “To members and leaders of the Church who know of a brother or a sister who has been disfellowshipped or excommunicated: Love him or her without judging. Be sensitive and thoughtful without prying. Be warm and caring without being condescending. Be forgiving and forgetful. The Lord has said, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42.) Can we be justified in doing any less?” in an article entitled “A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings” in September of 1990. Elder Cook has said: “Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach.” The Gospel teaches us to comfort those that stand and need, and lift up the hands of the weary that hang down — to develop Charity which is the pure love of Jesus Christ, rather than sharing negative comments, petty gossip and unrighteous judgements. Gospel culture need to trump any negative aspects of Mormon culture in our lives.

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  • When I graduated high school, I turned down a very good art school to go on a mission. But then, someone in my ward gave me an “evil” thought. He told me to pray about going on a mission so that, while out, I could tell people that it was more than the Prophet telling me to go, God would tell me in personal revelation that I should and would be sent out on a mission. The problem was, God told me not to go. So I didn’t.

    A few years later, after a lot of good nurtured people trying to get me to talk to the bishop about me going on a mission, my bishop invited me to his office. I told him my story and I could tell he was about to chastise me. What he said shocked us both. He told he he knew God had answered my prayers and that I shouldn’t go on a mission. He then told me that those words were not what he had opened his mouth to say.

    To this day I get the question, “where did you serve?” And I give the same answer, Ohio. I’m always serving the Lord. If others don’t like than answer, that’s there problem, I’ve never really taken the time to find out what they thought about my answer or my story. Following the Lord can be hard, but it’s always the right thing to do and if our young men do not pray and are sent home early, it may very well be because they weren’t suppose to be in the field to begin with.

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    Wayne quoted Elder Ballard ““Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42.).”

    Jesus may forgive and forget, but the LDS Church certainly doesn’t; member records are not expunged and the church retains a full record of details that lead to excommunication or any other church discipline.

    It’s important information like this that never make it into the conference talks, and when learned, leave such a bad taste. If Jesus can forgive and forget, why does the church need to keep an everlasting file of every detail of everything a person has done wrong?

  • Megan

    I returned home from my mission one transfer early for health reason and it took me years to realize that I hadn’t failed, that I had performed admirably and honorably and that an early return was not a reflection on my spirituality or ability.

    Coming home from a mission is a traumatic event for a lot of missionaries, whether or not they returned home early. My younger brothers both served full missions and still had to struggle to readapt when they came home. And while returned missionaries in Mormon-heavy areas may have some kind of structural psychological support, people outside of that belt just have to make do as best they can.

    Between the comments on this piece and a similar one over at By Common Consent, I’m starting to think that members of this Church need to practice a little more empathy. Every missionary’s experience is unique and snidely judging the perceived performance of one person doesn’t make yours “better” or “holier.” We’ve let mission service become a bragging right which is ridiculous, there is no one-up-manship in the Kingdom of God.

  • Tyler

    I came home early from my mission, my homecoming was very different than what my family, my friends, and I were planning on. It was the best and worst three months of my life. Looking back from a vantage point of seven years I realize I learned so much from the experience. I learned that I have some limits I just have to accept, that I can do things differently than the cultural norm and be okay, and that my relationship with God comes first and can buoy me up in any situation. These lessons have blessed my life these last seven years in other areas, whither it’s another unique life circumstance I face or being understanding for someone else in their circumstances. In the end I’ve learned God can make anything beautiful.

  • john

    I have known missionaries who had strong testimonies, worked hard, and went home early.
    I have known missionaries who had no testimony, slacked off as much as possible, and served a full term.
    So, which was the ‘better’ missionary?
    I know which one I would choose.

  • Wayne Dequer

    Debbie — FYI: You are partially correct.

    If I was the bishop of the area to which you had moved after being excommunicated or having your membership canceled, I would know nothing about you under normal circumstances, Unless you applied to me for rebaptism. If you applied for rebaptism, I would ask your permission, and then call the Records Department and request pertinent parts of your confidential records which would Not be in the general membership record by last name first, but in a special file, somewhat curiously by first name and date of birth. I could then have the appropriate file sent to me so we could work on your rebaptism. I would have to provide passwords, etc. to get that information. This information is available only to Bishops and Stake Presidents who have need and a sacred duty to keep it totally confidential. It is never to be shared, and is to be used only to help and protect.

    General records available in wards and stakes contain nothing about past disciplinary actions with 2 exceptions: 1) Sexual Abuse, and 2) Theft of sacred church donation funds. Those are available by brief annotation that only shows up to the bishop’s password. Details can be gotten by the process I described above. They are there so the person will Not be placed in situation where temptations of that sort might be present as they serve in callings.

    When members move from one ward to another the previous bishop can check a box requesting contact from the new bishop to briefly share needed pertinent confidential information. The information is Not recorded on the record, only the request for contact. This occasionally includes ongoing (but not past) disciplinary matters.

    I understand your concerns which are reasonable. We are human and errors (innocent, sloppy, or even mean spirited) can occur. In 2 decades where such highly confidential information might have been mentioned to me or by me, I have never seen a breach of this level of confidentiality. I believe the system is a good as humans can manage.

    I always have an internal debate as to how much information to provide. This procedural information may, or may Not, satisfy you, but I thought you deserved to understand a few more details about the system and safeguards given your stated concerns.

    My personal take on the scripture, “I, the Lord, remember them no more” is the Lord is omniscient so he knows everything, but he will Never remind us of the time we did such and so, and he will Not hold it against us in any way. They will Not enter into his considerations about us. We do the best we can here in mortality. In D&C 19 the Lord reveals that he uses language symbolically when he speaks of eternal and endless punishments. I believe he is using language symbolically regarding his memory of our sins. This certainly is Not doctrine, but only my meager effort to understand something that is beyond me.

  • Iain

    One thing that I would note from watching the experiences of my son and two of his friends that all came home early is that sensitivity is needed. The boys feel bad enough coming home and imagining how they are being judged. The worst thing is the stream of well-intentioned people taking them aside for little advice sessions; one of the boys looked at me wearily one Sunday and asked me what my advice to him was, since every other priesthood holder had given him the benefit of their opinion. I told him to look after his teeth properly. He didn’t need advice from me, he knew what had gone wrong and what was needed to fix it. What he needed from me was to be treated like a normal human being and not to have his situation highlighted.

    We have to remember that only a tiny percentage of early returners will go back out, and many who return early feel that there is a sign around their necks telling the world that they failed. I know of young men whose lives have been warped by a belief that they are being punished by the Lord because they came home early. We have to live in the present, not concern ourselves with why they are back, and treat them in the same way that we treat everyone else. Only those with a direct stewardship over them need concern themselves with why they are back. When my son came home early, I naturally felt devastated and embarrassed, but that was my issue and a failing on my part. I tried not to let it show in any way, and I concentrated on being delighted to have my son home with me once more. It seems to have been the right thing to do, because he is returning to the mission field in a few months.

  • Thanks, everyone, for these comments, and for sharing your personal stories about returned missionaries. And Iain, based on what you say here, maybe I should stop kicking myself that I never said anything to John since a lot of other people probably did. Or I should have restricted my comments to dental hygiene. 🙂

  • Steve


    Your story touched me. Thanks.


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