Over the past year, I’ve become aware of something which I wonder might be a new trend, or at least a new understanding, abroad in the American church. Specifically, I have seen missionaries (invariably elders; none of my examples involve sisters) returning from their missions early, never (or at least never explicitly) for reasons of disobedience or financial obligations or sin, but rather for reasons of stress, or stomach-aches, or homesickness, or a fear of losing their testimony, or anxiety, or anger management issues arising from conflicts with companions, or depression, or headaches, or some combination of all of the above. I am not in any way disparaging any of those reasons for returning from one’s mission; every one of the half-dozen or so cases I know of personally–and all of those I’ve learned about from others, of which there seem to be many–involve genuine struggle and legitimate concerns, and I have a lot of sympathy for the hard choices these former missionaries (a few of whom being young men I’ve known for years) have had to make. But still, I’ve seen these boys return, and attend church and receive callings and make plans for college or finding jobs or going on dates or returning to the mission field (though that option, while always spoken of, has never actually been taken by any of the ex-elders I’m thinking of), all without dealing with any church discipline or any kind of medical supervision or really from any real social costs that I’m able to see, and I think to myself: man, times have changed.
I’m 45 years old; I served a mission from 1988 to 1990, so a quarter-century ago. I’ve long since made peace with the fact that I was no good at missionary work and generally had (and still have) no love for the whole missionary program itself. Still, I suppose I can’t quite shake the attitude which shaped my own understanding of being a missionary as I grew up in the 70s and 80s, that understanding basically being summed up as “Come home honorably or come home in a coffin.” (I don’t remember every being told that in exactly those words, but I do recall my mother telling me quite straightforwardly that she wouldn’t acknowledge any son of hers returning early, since of course such a person would have to be an imposter–her real children would never give up.) If this trend–if it is a trend, and not just some odd local statistical aberration–means that the American church really is leaving those old attitudes behind, and we are recognizing both that 1) deep unhappiness, constant nervousness, serious depression, faith crises, or protracted illnesses are perfectly legitimate reasons to end a mission early, and that 2) there’s really no reason to feel ashamed or to put one’s life on hold just because missionary life and you weren’t a good fit, then on one level I’m delighted. This can only be a good thing, obviously. (The fact that the church appears to be aware that, in lowering the age for young men to serve missions, it has also increased the pool of those who can’t quite make it work, probably reflects that.) But I can’t deny that on another level I find I’m a little….nonplussed, I guess. Not that I want these poor guys to suffer guilt or to be ostracized or to have to meet with the bishop regularly for no particular reason at all! No, that nonsense is good to get away from. But, well, still, I suppose the other side of an actual shift to an understanding that full-time missionary work is something that you do at the right age as long as you can, and then when you can’t you don’t…it’s something I need to get used to.
I wonder what the readers of this blog have observed regarding these matters in their own wards and branches. Is the American church really normalizing the idea–perhaps up to and including instruction being given to mission presidents–that missionaries shouldn’t feel obliged to stick with the work solely up through their own death or near-death from illness or accident (as I’m pretty confident was, for a long time, the reigning assumption); that it’s actually right and good for missionaries to recognize their own emotional or psychological or pharmacological state and do what’s best for themselves accordingly? In short, is coming home early from a mission become less of a big deal? And why do all my stories involve elders? Is this a case of a lot of First World 18-year-old male children of suburban helicopter parents being sadly overwhelmed by a shock exposure to the real world, or do structural explanations–more and younger men serving, greater awareness of and sympathy for mental illness, etc.–not account for the changes were seeing? Or am I just wrong, and there really aren’t any changes besides just what you’d normally get as the size of the mission force increases? What say you all?