Are More Missionaries Returning Early?

earlyreturnOver 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?

Comments

  1. One local MP removed gave a fireside talk to the youth and parents, and then a stake conference talk, about how missionaries were MORE prepared to teach the gospel than they were 5-10 years ago, but LESS prepared to serve missions. I remember he widely blamed mothers for the phenomenon. ;)

    All joking aside, he said that too many kids weren’t very resilient and couldn’t overcome basic challenges the mission imposes to diet, sleep, stress, etc. He read from a letter he got from a parent saying her son couldn’t handle stress very well (apocryphal? maybe). He commented on how too many elders came into the mission experts at video games but couldn’t do laundry. He also complained about how parents, in an effort maybe to get kids into foreign missions, lie about medications, or decide that they will pull their kids off medications before they put in the papers, etc. “If you’re still experimenting with dosages, you’re not ready for the mission field.”

    I honestly don’t think the early mission push has helped things – you get kids going from HS graduation right into the MTC and haven’t learned to live on their own, yet. I think it’s great that girls can go at 19, but I’m not convinced that every 18-year-old boy should be going without a year of seasoning on his own. (Our SP seems to agree; he made a comment in a stake conference adult session that the decision on whether an 18-year-old elder was ready to serve was up to him, not the family.)

  2. There’s some stories of various misisonaries and their struggles here:

    http://sickrms.com/

  3. “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…”

    This has been the case, from my observation, in a couple of instances in my ward. With these particular families, Doing Hard Things is rarely required of their children. (Example: the youngest child (age 12) had an emergency surgery, with both parents at the hospital. Mom requested that a meal be brought in for the older children, ages 14-21.) Mission life can be grueling, and I don’t know that all of our teenagers are being properly prepared for the physical and mental rigors of missionary service.

    On a different note, however, I’m glad to see that mission presidents seem to be taking seriously the need for proper care and treatment for missionaries who suffer from psychological ailments, like depression or anxiety. Perhaps that will help remove some stigma.

  4. Chris G says:

    I’m in a pretty solid ward on the edge of the Mormon corridor and haven’t noticed the phenomenon, but it doesn’t surprise me. I currently serve in the young men, and it’s all still pretty nebulous what “preparing for a mission” really entails. Exactly who’s responsible to teach Johnny what, where the ideal focus should be, etc., is in pretty good flux in my corner of Zion. I think that’s okay, actually. In the end, our prophet laid out a new standard, said that 18 wasn’t a magic number but that it was an option available in the right circumstances, and left the rest to us. We’re all a little nuts about implementation, and that’s probably fine.

    Observing what I have, I think that queuno’s SP is spot on: many of the kids are better prepared to teach the gospel than ever, but far less prepared for missionary work, and I think the general reigning in of kids’ independence and helicopter parenting have as much to do with it as anything. The average teenager has far less opportunities for autonomy than he or she did 10 and 20 years ago.

    I don’t think there’s a fix for that that is particularly simple or that is the church’s responsibility. In the meantime, the church seems to quietly be taking the position of, “If you’re not really ready to serve, if you need medical management or baby-sitting, or recovery from illness, we’d just as soon not have to hand-hold you all through your mission. We’ll do our part to help you push through it if you want, but there’s not enough upside for anyone in our making you stick it out. Head on home and move on in the kingdom.”

    That might be harshly put and will never come out as policy, but it seems to be happening.

  5. The only two missionaries I know who returned home early in the last year or two were sisters.

    I think some of this is due to the age change–there’s a big difference between those who just graduated from high school and those who spent a year away from home at college.

    I think some of it is probably due to the sudden flood of extra missionaries, and that the number of missionaries going home early will decrease once the numbers stabilize. Quite frankly, I’m not sure a mission president has the resources to handle a large number of missionaries, and he might be less reluctant to let a few of them go if he knows he has plenty of missionaries anyway.

  6. ganymede says:

    I’ve seen this with elders, both in Virginia and in Salt Lake. A retired social worker cousin was called as a senior missionary; his specific assignment is to work with the troubled elders in his mission.

  7. When I served, 15 years ago or so, missionaries hardly ever got sent home. In fact, during my whole time in a fairly large mission, only one missionary got sent home or left early, for breaking the law of chastity. One or two others got transferred back to the U.S. to serve in another mission.

    This meant that quite a few missionaries with (mostly) undiagnosed illnesses remained in the mission field, untreated.

    One of my companions had a serious undiagnosed illness–not a mental illness–and unfortunately the mission president didn’t take his symptoms very seriously. He didn’t find out what was wrong with him until after he’d finished his two years in the field. I’d much rather that missionaries who are struggling with mental and other illnesses return home for treatment than that they remain in the mission field.

  8. John Mansfield says:

    My wife and I have talked about this a couple times. It seems to us, too, that more elders (and not sisters), fine young men who we like and respect, have been coming home after several months due to mental stress. This has been over the last decade and hasn’t involved any 18-year-old missionaries yet, and it could just be the small random sample of missionaries that we’re personally aware of.

    I have worried with my own sons about how hard it is for them to set apart Sundays from normal cares and recreations. It seems to be more boring and unendurable for them than it ever was for me, and for missionaries the whole week, months on end, is set apart like a never-ending Sunday.

  9. it's a series of tubes says:

    Some anecdotes: per a recent comment from a member of our stake presidency to me, in our stake the current rate of early return is above 50%.

    In my family, my niece and nephew who served in the last 2 years both came home early. Mental health / stress / etc.

  10. I was sent home early from a mission for medical reasons about 10years ago. I was told that I was honorably released, but if I chose I could go back and finish after the doctors gave the ok. I prayed and decided to go back. It was the right decision for me, but it could also just have easily been not the right decision for me. To be honest, I didn’t want to go back. A mission is hard. Its the best and worst of your life all at the same time. However the spirit told me I should go.

    I have also observed this recent phenomena of Elders being sent home early. It seems like a large percentage of them are for psychological reasons. Its great that individuals are starting to gain cognizance of their own mental health. However, I feel that while people are more aware of their own mental illnesses (and we all have them), they are not doing enough to heal themselves. They resort medication rather than real healing. Christ can help us heal all wounds. I know that medication can have a big part to do with healing and can help people become aware of the pathway to true healing, but medications treat symptoms and not the root problem.

    Treating root problems is hard and painful, but essential. I believe it is one of the main lessons that we are here on earth to learn. Are our youth really healing? or are they masking pain with meds? Are our youth getting soft? are our parents getting soft? Are our youth making the connection in their minds that true healing can be accomplished through Christ?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, but hope its good food for thought.

  11. Jonathan Green says:

    Russell, our stake president in Idaho mentioned these issues at a stakewide mission prep fireside a couple years ago, identifying emotional distress as the reason several missionaries were returning early. He specifically mentioned missionaries (male and, less often, female) who had never been away from home (and their electronic devices) before, and recommended that parents give their pre-mission children some opportunities to spend time away from family. Interestingly, from this perspective, sleepovers may be changing from deplorable events where bad things happen to essential missionary training.

  12. Personally, I feel like that year of college before my mission was a HUGE help in overcoming some of the issues I see now with missionaries. I was able to get over being homesick, learn to take care of myself (cooking, laundry, etc), learn to manage my time better, and learn to get out of my comfort zone, all without the added stress of a rigid schedule and missionary work.

    Just because our kids CAN leave at age 18 now doesn’t mean they should. I’m going to talk to my son about it quite a bit and let him know that taking an extra year to get ready is something I fully support.

  13. John Mc says:

    I have lots of sympathy for people who come home from their missions early due to various maladies. I had a slightly different situation than the typical case. Due to lifelong bad issues with headaches, I basically failed the initial health screening, and the recommendation of church doctors was that I not serve a mission. I was obstinate and got special permission to try and serve a 2-month mission (within the mission boundaries of where I lived but as far away from home as possible) to see if I could hold up. I threw up a lot and went home after a month. CSB. If church doctors say you shouldn’t be out there, you shouldn’t be out there.

  14. John Mansfield says:

    A relative who was a stake president, released six years ago, felt too many missionaries from his stake were coming back home, so he started making it an explicit requirement that they first spend several months working. He felt experience showing up each day and doing whatever your boss tells you to do was needed.

    The mission president’s family resides in my ward, and a son of the current president is one of the young men we are talking about. He described his own case for us in elders’ quorum when we were discussing the Holland talk on mental illness. So there is at least one mission president familiar with the issue from that side of it.

  15. I have seen the same alarming trend. Only with Elders and only over the last couple of years. I say alarming because I believe that kids can’t do hard things anymore and we aren’t making them. My mission was hard. It was uncomfortable. It was cold and hot and people were mean, and I was hungry and tired and sick and home sick and lost and you know what? I made it through. I became stronger because of it. The pain made me better. The loneliness made me more confident. The hatred made me more kind.
    I didn’t want to go on a mission at all. Then, 25 months later they had to drag me to the airplane. I would have stayed forever because I learned that through my personal trials I was becoming the person The Lord wanted me to be rather than the person I thought I should be.
    Go, serve, do hard things. Finish them. Feel better about yourself and be more confident the next time hard things come up in your life. Isn’t relying on The Lord and having the faith necessary to surmount your trials a key and significant part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

  16. Parents are missing the opportunity to teach basic life skills, like laundry and money management. Perhaps, more youth need to work more part time jobs, and manage their own schedules. Mom and Dad shouldn’t be responsible for getting a 16 or 17 year old to practices and other events.

  17. My understanding is that the surge caused by lowering the mission age did not result in the expansions of foreign missions, but rather that the supernumeraries were all absorbed into US missions. My theory is that this exacerbated the already significant disparity in the quality of the experience between foreign and domestic missions, and increased the ratio of missionaries getting the shorter end of the stick. Maybe this accounts for higher rates of burnout. If you hate missionary work but are in Korea, you can still have an occasionally interesting and rewarding cultural experience, if you try. Missionaries in the US, however, appear to be condemned to knocking on doors that have been knocked many times, cajoling weary members, sitting around our utilitarian meeting houses in case someone wants a tour, and posting Mormonads to Facebook. I’d quit too.

  18. GST, you bring up an interesting and possibly important point: every one of the examples I am aware of and which shaped my comments above involved an elder serving in the U.S. None of the early returners I know of had gone foreign. Again, there may be structural reasons which account for this–the higher “cost” of serving overseas puts greater pressure on missionaries to stay, etc.–but there may be other factors at work as well, and you list a couple of them well.

  19. Russell, food for thought… Most Elders who have a history of Mental/Physical illness end up being sent to the states.

  20. I’ve seen more sisters come home lately than Elders. I’ve wondered if it’s a combination of them not having really prepared before, assuming they wouldn’t go and then only going because it’s cool and everyone doing it, with knowing that it’s optional for them, so there’s potentially less stigma.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if we had more spiritual experiences and more difficult things that we did during the YM/YW years, we’d have fewer problems with this type of thing. Let’s get back to having activities with a purpose, not just bowling and buying smoothies or ice cream cones on the way home.

  21. We’ve had 3 missionaries come home early in my ward in the last year–out of 10 or so. One elder, 2 sisters. The young man was expected, I think. He’s on the autism spectrum. He is finishing his mission locally. The young women came home after a year. Released for health reasons. One is finishing locally as well.

  22. I suppose this trend is being fuelled by concern for missionaries’ well-being, but also by the organizational needs of the missionary program. The number of full-time missionaries is now larger than ever, but the rate of baptisms per missionary is dropping and there is greater concern about poor convert-retention rates. Within the missionary program, the greatest imperative right now is to figure out how to help missionaries be more efficient and more productive. Mission presidents will always spend a substantial amount of their time counseling their missionaries, and that is good. But carrying large numbers of missionaries who, for whatever reason, can’t adapt to the mission experience becomes unsustainable in a missionary force that’s nearing 100,000 and is younger than ever. It’s better to recognize that for some young people there are better ways to grow than by suffering through a mission — and that, for some, suffering through a mission can be damaging. I find it very encouraging to see the stigma disappearing for those whose missions are cut short.

    I would add, though, that I think there are a lot of smart observations in the comments about ways we can help people be better prepared for their missions, and about structural problems in the missionary system that could be making it harder for individual missionaries to thrive.

  23. Troy Bird says:

    I served in the CA Los Angeles Mission a few years ago, and was dealing with varying depression medications and kidney stones. I was ready to deal with the depression and wanted so badly to keep working through all the pain that I nearly scheduled surgery with a doctor before the mission pres. wife called and flatly told me to wait (not that I had the money to deal with such medical procedure prices). When I was sent home to have surgery and recover, I couldn’t help but think that I did something wrong, that my depression had sent me home because I’d given up. Truth be told, my stalwart mission president did everything he could to help me stay in the field.

    I still can’t shake that feeling. You could have called me an unprepared millennial, but I wanted nothing than to serve the Lord out in the field. Like someone before me said (sorry, I’m typing fast), there’s no set way to prepare to serve a mission beyond learning the Gospel and living in the world. But then again, how do you prepare to have doors slammed in your face, being yelled at, etc.?

    Though my mind tries to convince me otherwise, I didn’t leave the mission due to metal problems. But I agree: if you’re trying to balance medications, then the mission field is a tough place to be. It can be done, but boy it’s hard.

  24. A mom in my ward set up her son to spend two months with relatives in another state in the summer between his junior and senior year of high school. She was advised to do this by a mission president. It did wonders for her son. After one month, he called her every day and asked if he could come home. She made him stay. After two months, he was okay. Later he served his mission and stuck it out. I think this is a great model.

  25. I don’t have any visibility other than the few missionaries I know from a few wards in my stake. That said, I’m not aware of any uptick in early-returns from the mission field among that number. Take that for whatever anecdotal value it may have.

    As the father of a sons – one approaching missionary age, I am concerned – not only about him but also about his generation. We are raising a generation of youth – particularly in the United States – who are growing up cloaked in proverbial bubble-wrap. They get ribbons and medals just for showing up. Many of them lack the basic ability to endure any form of criticism (constructive or otherwise) because they have been cultured to believe anything other than self-esteem boosting happy talk is akin to bullying.

    Missionary work – and missionary life – is hard. I don’t believe – as a Mormon culture – we are exposing our potential missionaries to the bumps and bruises necessary to grow the thick skin it takes to ward off the slings and arrows of the advesarial life of the mission field. Better preparation – long before the missionary enters the MTC – is needed. Otherwise we’re sending hemophiliacs into a world full of broken glass and razor blades and then we wonder why they bleed out.

    That’s my two cents. Now if you’ll exuse me I have to go yell at the young wihpper-snappers to get off my lawn.

  26. I think kids should spend 4 or 6 years in Afghanistan before serving a mission. And also get a PhD.

  27. There are many factors for early release, but I would say the greatest factor in my opinion is that missions are too focused based on numbers and that comes from the top down! Please, get rid of the babylonian corpartate structure and let the missionaires serve first and I mean not just on occassions but that would be the main focus, to serve. Then teaching would just naturally follow. I don’t want my son who is 18 to go on a mission and stress about arbitary numbers. (luckly he dosen’t want to go) My two older boys struggled with the stupidy of this and they wanted to serve more and love the people, instead they were made to feel unworthy for not getting the weekly numbers.

  28. I’m a Viet Nam veteran who spent two consecutive years in SE Asia. I enlisted at 18 years old, and can tell you that I faced a ton of stress and loneliness. Quitting wasn’t an option. Granted, I’m a convert who never served a mission, but my younger brother served a mission and never thought about quitting, because 30+ years ago you didn’t quit something that you started. Today, taking the easier road is what people choose over the harder road……and quitting doesn’t bring the shame that it once did……

  29. I think helicopter parenting plays a big factor in missionaries not being able to complete a mission. Parents so often insist that their children avoid all uncomfortable and risky situations. Many parents don’t teach their children basic skills like laundry and cleaning and don’t their children meaningful work to do. How can you expect a 18-19 year old to flourish on a mission when they are not used doing basic self-care? When I served the mission almost two decades ago, I noticed that the missionaries who were the most effective were the ones who had been required to work at home. Other missionaries sometimes had a hard to focusing on the work and always had to do recreational activities to “de-stress.” I became grateful for my Dad for the times he told me (and I quote) to “Get you ass out and finish your job.”

    I have to admit that I smiled when my son came home from scout camp telling me how awful the food and sleeping accommodations were (he was not exaggerating I heard later). I know that in the end he will be proud of the fact that he got to share living space with scorpions. I hope that experiences like that will help him to be emotionally tougher not only for a mission but for the rest of his life.

    I think that in the past mission presidents were much more likely to keep a missionary with mental and behavior issues out on a mission just to avoid the stigma of coming home early. I am glad this has changed. These missionaries need all the love and acceptance they can get. I am also glad that thee church has given mission-age young adults opportunities to serve local service missions if they are not cut out for a full time mission. I have seen good things come from this.

  30. Adding to the anecdotes: i know a senior couple serving as the office couple in a stateside mission. They send more missionaries home than they want, but its probably only 10 per year (out of around 180 serving at any given time). Its both men and women.

    I don’t have any answers, but I agree with several posters on this board: my time away from parents before the mission helped out immensely. Not sure I could have done it without it.

  31. I served a foreign mission about fifteen years ago (sister missionary). It was hard at first, but I worked through the difficulties and was doing very well and loving it after a few months. But then I became seriously ill, which led to a great deal of anxiety as well because I wanted to stay so much. Eventually the illness and anxiety became so bad that I was sent home for medical treatment. After two months, they sent me back out to a U.S. mission. I didn’t feel like I was supposed to go, but I was afraid of disappointing people, so I went.

    The U.S. mission was a disaster. I became ill and depressed again within a short time. After a couple of months, I couldn’t take it anymore and told my MP I wanted to come home. It took a week to arrange the flight, during which time he never spoke to me or saw me again. After I got home, I got some comments from people at church and even some family members about how disappointing it was that I couldn’t finish. My physical and mental health were shot, and it hurt so much to have people say those things. My parents, though, were fully supportive which I greatly appreciated. But for years, I was consumed by feelings of guilt and failure for not finishing and suffered from severe depression as a result. Took me about ten years, counseling, and a number of understanding bishops and friends to finally let it all go and realize I hadn’t done anything wrong.

    I know a few other sister missionaries who served around the same time and either came home for mental health/happiness reasons and were stigmatized or requested to come home for those reasons but their MPs wouldn’t let them.

    I don’t think a mission is just a matter of “toughening up” or “sticking it out.” It is simply not for everyone and you may not know that till you get out there. I think it’s great that these missionaries who need to come home are being allowed to do so without as much stigma attached to it. The mission needs to stop being the litmus test for worthiness. It’s so damaging when we treat it as such. There may be a few missionaries who could have stayed if better prepared for living on their own, but I’d rather they come home without stigma than that those missionaries who truly need to come home be forced to stay or come home stigmatized. We need to err on the side of compassion and understanding. Judging and punishing people because this one experience isn’t for them is not and has never been appropriate, even though it’s happened. (Sorry this is so long and maybe too emotional, but I feel really strongly about this.)

  32. Back in my day, missionaries who were too sissy to finish were rounded up and fed live to the MP’s hogs at the mission wide Christmas conference. And you know what we ate for the mission wide Easter dinner? Effing ham, man.

    Nowadays, kids are all hopped up on psycho goofballs and The Twitter. Ergo, spanking. Spanking is the medicine they need, early and often. Spanked now, serving later. That is how it is in my house.

    And I’m sick of hearing about depression and anxiety. Bottle that s**t up and swallow it, the time tested way.

  33. Jack Hughes says:

    I don’t think it is so much an issue of today’s youth being “soft” or “weak”, but rather another indicator of the generation gap; specifically, the disparity in how different generations understand mental/emotional health. Today we are more aware and open about stress and mental health than our parents were. We are more likely now to prioritize taking care of ourselves rather than “be a man and suck it up” (to the point of causing permanent physical/mental/spiritual damage to ourselves) like our fathers did. Many young men of my generation and before were tacitly taught that the endurance of mission hardships (abuse, imprisonment, serious injuries, deprivation, parasites, near-death experiences, etc.) were badges of honor, made great war stories and were directly proportional to an increase in temporal and eternal blessings (i.e. attractive future spouse). Today’s youth are too smart for that. Their motivations are different. They tend to be more individualistic, so they are less likely to be persuaded toward serving a mission for reasons of family/church/social pressure or obligation. And if they do end up going for the wrong reasons, they are more likely to quit, so they can quickly move on to the next chapter of life, rather than waste their time trying to adapt to a program that isn’t working for them. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

    I think this perceived phenomenon is similar to the long-term increase in divorce rates; while many are quick to point to the trend as an indicator of a decaying society, it is more likely that a rise in divorces is due to people being more proactive in leaving unhealthy or abusive marriages, where previous generations of married couples chose to “stick it out” and avoid the social stigma of divorce, no matter how miserable they were.

  34. MOQT,

    The mission needs to stop being the litmus test for worthiness. It’s so damaging when we treat it as such. There may be a few missionaries who could have stayed if better prepared for living on their own, but I’d rather they come home without stigma than that those missionaries who truly need to come home be forced to stay or come home stigmatized.

    I don’t disagree with a single word of what you say here–as someone who really didn’t like his mission, and really doesn’t like much of what we do (or, more accurately, expect to be done, usually by other people, rarely ourselves) in the name of missionary work, I’m strongly in favor of us letting go of the kind of intensity which has long characterized our idol of missionary work. But, speaking from where I stand, I can’t deny I’m feeling a little divided and confused over this whole trend (to whatever extent it really is a trend; I still don’t know if anyone has any hard numbers here). I also can’t disagree with those who comment about missionary kids (it’s very hard for me not to think of them as “kids”) and wonder why they don’t seem able to emotionally deal with being asked to do something which is boring, hard, mostly unrewarding, often unhealthy if not outright dangerous, and did I mention boring? I wonder about cultural and structural factors which come into play. Mostly, I’m just looking for understanding. Please don’t feel yourself put on the spot by this post; that’s not me intention at all.

  35. I left my mission about a transfer early for health reasons. This was back in 2002 and the decision to leave tore me up inside. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, leave early or continue to serve haphazardly while I tried to figure out what was wrong with me. I loved being a missionary (the ministerial part of it, not the numers part) and I would have soldiered on if I hadn’t come to realize that the mission would be better served by having a healthy person in the role.

    Now, more than a decade later and a worsening of my health, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s okay to quit. Self care should always come first. Even some added wisdom, it still took a long time for me to come to grips with the way I left the mission. No career or course of study has been as genuinely satisfactory as the pastoral work I did as a missionary, and since I’m a woman that’s the only time I’ll ever really have that experience.

    And there’s my personal anecdote that doesn’t really answer your question. I haven’t noticed an uptick in early elder returns, but in my neck of the woods there are already so few young’ins that go on missions anyway. But if there is are more elders returning home early then that’s okay, too. You aren’t doing anyone any favors–yourself, your companion, the people in your area, God–by remaining in a position you can no longer fulfill.

  36. Thanks, Russell. Your post didn’t make me feel put on the spot; I just think there’s too much tendency to assume that missionaries who come home are lazy, selfish, weak, or incompetent. I think that is rarely the case. After all, they went in the first place – they tried. I think the least we can do is give them the benefit of the doubt about why it didn’t work out, especially since we will rarely know the full story. I didn’t talk about my U.S. mission for years and years because I felt like people could never really understand everything that went on. And even now, I don’t give all the details. It’s too complicated and involved to share it with most people.

  37. Btw, I’m not saying that’s your tendency, Russell. I think you’re just asking a question and that’s fine.

  38. My father-in-law has worked for over 20 years with the church on missionary mental health and early return missionaries. If the missionary returns to the Wasatch Front they are indeed seen & treated at a missionary clinic upon their release.

    He has worked so hard to help everyone recognize that mental illness is not a personality flaw that can be prayed away with increased fasting and blessings. These are actual chemical imbalances akin to a diabetic needing more insulin.

    Heaping scorn and shame on those with mental illness, or other reasons for returning early is not helpful. God asks us to serve. The length of time, location, and specific tasks are not what matters. What is important is a willing heart and hands, sacrificing to help build God’s kingdom and help our brothers & sisters.

    I’m glad there has been a change from “serve a full mission or you are dead to me.” That kind of attitude wasn’t making any of us better Saints. I think we do well to not make assumptions or judgments about another person’s mental or physical health and whether they truly needed to come home early or not.
    L.

  39. As a SAHM of 16 years, I have to say that this is about American culture changes. From kindergarten to mission, our children’s experiences are different than ours. Just like ours were different than our parents and grandparents. Remember all the stories of walking to school in 3 feet of snow uphill, both ways? Every older generation thinks the younger is soft because they don’t have to do all the really hard things of the previous generations.
    On one hand, you can absolutely make that comparison and feel justified in deciding these young people are whiny and unused to doing hard things. As a full-time mom with 4 kids, I see a different side of things. Granted, I make my kids do hard things so I try to compensate for the weaknesses of our culture. However, for all the ways my kids have it “easy” there are other ways they have it “hard” that are different than me.
    As parents, we expect all our kids to be successful. So we individualize our parenting in ways our parents never did. My parents were absolutely wonderful, but if they had to do it over again, they would have paid attention to the fact that some of their children needed different things.
    My kids work harder than I did for grades. Sometimes that means I don’t make them help in the kitchen. I make them do their laundry but it means they wear wrinkled clothes and I know that has a social cost which can affect their ultimate success. Every decision I make to do it for them or let them do it badly (or not at all), has a risk.
    My kids have a great relationship with me. That is good when you consider they communicate so well with me when they have a problem (sexual harassment from others, testimony weakness, confessing mistakes, discussing their decisions) and I consider my job is to help them figure out how to fix the problem themselves, if possible. However, if I hadn’t cultivated a good relationship with them perhaps when they leave home they’d be less likely to look back and miss me.
    I wouldn’t change it though. I wouldn’t choose to throw them in the deep end to sink or swim. I like giving them swimming lessons to avoid the traumatic drownings of the sink or swim method.
    As a society today, we are no longer willing to tell our kids to just suck it up and suffer when it comes to sexual assault/molestation, suicidal thoughts, being bullied, depression, medical problems, etc. The side effect is that they communicate to us about more of their problems and as a society we try to find solutions to their problems together rather than ignoring them and telling our young people to be quiet.

  40. I’ve noticed this trend for a few years now (well before the lowered age), and it isn’t limited to elders serving stateside. It is, however, far more common in affluent wards. Make of that what you will, but I don’t know of a single kid from an economically disadvantaged home who has left the mission early, and I know at least a dozen kids who have come home early because of stress/depression/homesickness/etc.

  41. porter rockwell says:

    This is why LDS Scouting is so important. Done correctly it can teach a boy self reliance and independence.

  42. Hi Kevin. I think it’s the bubble wrap and everything provided for free. I call it affluenza. Parents need to fight these tendencies. I make my 5 boys work for pay mowing lawns, watching dogs and working in my business to earn spending money and mission money to try to curb affluenza

  43. So: how to preserve the importance and difficulty of a mission while removing unwanted related stigmas, etc.? Because I believe missions really are valuable, and that they should be hard.

  44. I’m puzzled by all the comments about laundry. How hard is it?? About two rules will suffice (separate whites from colors and don’t put your suits in the washing machine–send them to the dry cleaners), and if a young man can’t learn those rules in 30 seconds maybe he’s not intelligent enough to be a missionary.

    What takes longer is teaching people to work, and to not expect instant results. Our culture–including the culture in the YW/YM organizations in the Church–is doing a generally lousy job at teaching those things.

  45. Jack, as a market researcher, I would call your last paragraph and conclusions into question. Yes, people are more willing to leave problematic marriages but divorce rates are actually down and lower than they were in the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. Yes they increased over what was seen in the 1940’s but the current rate as of 2011 of 3.6 per 1000 is significantly lower than the rate of 5.7 per 1000 in 1979 and 4.8 per 1000 in 1992. Preliminary numbers seem to show that an improving economy is leading to more willingness to separate over the last 3 years but at the same time, with marriage rates dropping (~10 per 1000 during the 50’s – 90’s and now at 6.8 per 1000 in 2011) , fewer marriages are happening due to “forced” circumstances.

    My point is, the numbers aren’t what many people perceive for various reasons so it pays to be cautious about drawing conclusions as to other analogous shifts in Mormon societal behavior.

  46. hope_for_things says:

    I would love to see the church allow the young missionaries the same flexibility that it allows to senior missionaries with respect to serving shorter missions. 2 years is a long commitment, so why couldn’t a young man or woman still serve but just for 1 year. What about allowing them to return home if something serious happens in their family. I’d also like to see the church offer service missions or family history missions to the youth. My kids are already getting into indexing and love it.

    I agree with you about getting rid of the serve honorably stigma. I think we should do everything we do honorably, but we should be our own judge for whether we served honorably or not. We don’t need a certificate from the mission president or anyone else to tell us if we did something honorably, we have our own conscience to tell us how we’re doing.

  47. I agree with Steve, missions are supposed to be hard because they ask the young man or woman to do uncomfortable things on their own without significant supervision. It is you and your companion against the world quite literally with a huge expectation to do things for other people in various forms of service that may never show fruits during your time in that area. Learning to cope with those struggles builds character and learning to follow and teach by the Spirit builds testimonies. A key question for every parent, YM/YW leader, Bishopric member, Primary leader is to ask yourself what you are doing to help the children and youth under your stewardship to prepare for life and in corollary for a mission.

  48. Ron Madson says:

    Not to be too immodest, but for seven years as a SMP and then as the first counselor to two full time mission presidents in the mission field, I went out at least three to four nights a week for the full seven years tracting, street contacting, teaching lessons, and working in the trenches with full time missionaries. I was also assigned to visit with missionaries struggling with depression, wanting to go home, etc. from time to time. Frankly, I gained far more sympathy and understanding of the missionaries then the platitudinal perspective of the mission presidents and visiting GAs. In the end here are my recommendations in highest priority to least for full time mission presidents to consider: First, the missionaries are most often sleep deprived. The concept of strict time to get up is harmful. I was working with sleep deprived zombies. All kinds of issues arise from sleep deprivation. 19 year olds need NINE hours sleep not 6.5 or 7 or emphasis on righteousness being tied to getting up earlier and earlier. I strongly recommended that they even be allowed afternoon naps from one to two hours and then when refreshed work the evening productive hours. The first MP I worked with relented and he we allowed it and many missionaries thought it was the single most effective,rejuvenating policy we implemented. Secondly, I believe they needed to eliminate pressure to baptize/convert—yes it is counter to all we emphasized forever and still do—but I argued that making a goal involving someone else’ free agency is unhealthy for all involved. I have lots more to say on this but last of all cut out all the comparing/competition done at zone reporting/conferences. It was so demoralizing for so many missionaries and crushing to their spirits.

    lowering the age was interesting but I am too cynical to comment on that right now

  49. Kristine says:

    Y’know, it has been more than 20 years since I came home early from my mission, and some of these comments are still making me cry. If missionaries coming home early now don’t feel that same degree of pain and shame, I think the Church is doing something right. I hope commenters who think it’s a good idea to keep struggling missionaries in the field by perpetuating a Church culture that inflicts such long-lasting damage will reconsider.

  50. Jack Hughes says:

    At what point did the 2-year full-time proselytizing mission become the gold standard for church service/mandatory rite of passage that we hold it up as today?

    I think we need to break away from that model as a one-size-fits-all, because clearly it does not. It’s not for everyone. We need more varied and adaptable ways for our youth to serve, particularly modes that better utilize individual talents and skills rather than try to force everyone into the same mold. The traditional models of preaching the gospel are becoming obsolete, being less effective at attracting and maintaining converts than they were before. And the missionary experience is losing value as members of the currently bloated missionary force find themselves chasing their tails and doing busywork. We are doing these kids a disservice, and in a few years we will pay for it when we see another wave of disillusioned RMs leave the church.

    Two years is just an arbitrary length of time. From my own observation, it is plausible that a hypothetical missionary might have a very productive and worthwhile experience for a time, only to be sent home early for reasons beyond his control and return to face stigma of perceived failure. Meanwhile, another missionary could coast for his entire 2 years and “return with honor”.

  51. “Meanwhile, another missionary could coast for his entire 2 years and ‘return with honor’.”

    Uh, I’m right here, man, I can read this. Jeez.

  52. Spiritually, I believe a mission can make you, but I also believe it can break you. I’ve met many I would say who have never fully recovered. So many have commented that prospective missionaries need time away from home, need a chance to work first, need to learn to do hard things on a smaller scale, etc., first before serving. So what is a bishop supposed to do when an 18-year-old says he’s ready to go out and the bishop is concerned he isn’t? The kid’s family is all on-board and excited, the kid’s all excited saying he knows the Lord wants him to serve now, but the bishop sees maturity issues he’s concerned could turn the mission into a bad experience. Is there a situation when the bishop should say “no, go to school or work for a year, you’re not ready yet,” when there’s no worthiness issue? Or should bishops stick to worthiness and simply stay out of it?

  53. gst, that was hilarious. :)

  54. porter rockwell says:

    A lot of the comments here make me understand WHY our kids are not strong. “let them choose how long to serve” “this mission expectation is too tough” My gosh.. no wonder the are cake now-days.

  55. I nominate GST for some sort of award for best commenter! Imagine if they actually gave those out.

  56. Jack Hughes says:

    “Is there a situation when the bishop should say “no, go to school or work for a year, you’re not ready yet,” when there’s no worthiness issue? Or should bishops stick to worthiness and simply stay out of it?”

    Bishops do it all the time–the good ones do, at least.
    I have seen bishops frivolously wave prospective missionaries through the process, almost push them out the door. Fortunately, though, have seen plenty of instances in which bishops are more circumspect in getting kids to a certain minimum level of readiness, even if it means waiting, or even not going at all.

  57. Are the missionaries more unhealthy or has the mission experience become more unhealthy?

    As one example, it appears to me that mission rules have become more strict in preventing missionaries from forming and maintain meaningful relationships with other people. In other words, missionaries are not allowed to have friends unless they are lucky enough to enjoy the company of their companion. How healthy is it to not have friends?

    When I served a mission in every area we had regulars (members and perpetual ‘investigators’) that we visited at least once a week. There was no teaching, no spiritual message; sometimes the tv was on. We hung out as long as we felt welcome (i.e., more than an hour). These families were an oasis when everything else was tough.

    I may be wrong, but it appears rules are more strictly enforced and missionaries are not permitted (or no longer avail themselves) of such outlets. In what other experience in life are you not allowed to have friends?

    In leadership training we were told that there has been an increase in missionaries coming home early (this was before the age change) and blame was place on the parents. Above, Ron Madsen shows that structural changes in the mission can improve the well being of missionaries; if the mission structure has changed over the last 20 years (such as new rules, “raising the bar,” more strict enforcement of existing rules) then I do not think it is fair to blame the parents and “kids today” without more information.

  58. I’d probably have to share it with some kneebiter, like Ronan.

  59. I’ll admit I’m quite bothered by the remarkable amount of ageism in this thread. Youth are not lazy, entitled, materialistic, and helpless. With each generation comes a new set of challenges as well as skill sets. The recessed economy has played a large role in forcing young adults to remain more dependent on their parents and nuclear families, not their inherent laziness. Teens who used to easily find low-skilled jobs in retail and food service are now competing with out-of-work candidates with bachelor’s and even master’s degrees.

    Moreover, I’ve found that this upcoming generation is far more compassionate and concerned for others and their environment. While this may make them “soft,” I feel like the trade-off is far worth it.

    I’m inclined to agree with hplc. I think the mission experience is likely to blame for its unhealthy and out-of-date structure.

  60. “Youth are not lazy, entitled, materialistic, and helpless”

    SPOKEN LIKE A YOUNG PERSON

  61. Last Lemming says:

    What Ron Madson said. I didn’t go home early, but my attitude would have been much better if I could have spend another hour or two sleeping in a horizontal position instead of slumped over in a chair with a discussion book on my lap. (But my now-diagnosed sleep apnea might have prevented even that from helping–who knows.)

  62. In my opinion it is a baseless assumption that missionaries sticking out a mission with emotional or mental health issues, which did occur in previous years and decades, is optimal. The reality is the age of the mission coincides with the age of onset for many mental illnesses. No amount of tough parenting can predict whether an individual will develop certain mental illnesses that are in fact genetic and are a not a result of helicopter parenting. When treated correctly and timely most issues of depression, anxiety and psychosis can have successful longterm outcomes. In fact in many cases more successfully than common physical diseases. Also if an episode of mental illness is treated early and correctly more than fifty percent of individuals will go on to NOT have another episode in their lifetime.

    It is possible that some of the other problems that adult men and women have suffered with in the church is in fact correlated with sticking out a situation rather than receiving proper mental health care.

    It would be short sided and tragic to choose having the appearance of mentally tough missionaries who get hazed into greater spiritually rather than doing the complex task of meeting individual needs with the hope of long term happiness and stability.

    The fact is we have many older adults who served missions who struggle daily to function in a healthy way. I don’t think enough research has been done to conclude that the way things were done in the past is better than the way things are being done now.

  63. When it comes to psychological issues we need to tread carefully. Some issues may not show up until the mission. The human brain doesn’t stop developing until early adulthood. As a result, signs of mental illness may not appear until young adulthood. It is also important to note, some illnesses are triggered by major stress (a bad stress like a divorce or death or a good stress like going to college or a mission). With the age lowering and the increase in missionaries going out it would appear to make sense that some may come home due to psychological issues, however, it is important to realize that those issues may not have appeared prior missionary service.

  64. This reminds me of hearing my way older sisters-in-laws become mothers-in-law. They just can’t believe their DILs have it so easy. DILs who have husbands who change diapers. One SIL even calls her DIL a “princess” because the husband made her a sandwich (DIL was pregnant with #2 and taking a nap and worked full-time and this was her vacation).
    These new MIL are resentful that their sons play with the kids more than their fathers did. These new MILs think that the younger generation has it too easy because they don’t have mountains of reasons to resent their husbands for never helping around the house.
    That’s was motherhood is, isn’t it? Being overworked, not getting any respect, being miserable, doing it all because no one else will? It doesn’t count if you aren’t miserable. And if they are miserable, I will rejoice that they have more options because people are more aware, and they will have more choices to change their circumstances. I will just hope that they make good choices. I will try not to just think they are soft because I had a baby and breastfed and went back to work after only 2 weeks taking the baby with me and had post-partum depression and when my husband took care of the baby he would call me and tell me to come home after only 20 minutes and didn’t take medication for it yet I kept plugging away. It built character, for sure, but it also caused damage and scars.

  65. Chris Kimball says:

    In my era ‘nobody’ left early unless they were sent home in shame or required medical care that was not available locally. It was not an option, not a question, not even thought about. And yet I knew the whole time (as Lorelei describes) that there was a regular mental health counseling practice going on, on the Wasatch front at least, for returned missionaries who had been traumatized in one way or another. Since that time, I’ve heard many troubled and troubling stories from returned missionaries. Contrary to some of what’s been said (above), the stories I hear are not about hours of walking, doors slammed, early hours, or even mixed color laundry! The stories are about tyrants (usually mid-level missionary leaders, not mission presidents), spiritual and ecclesiastical abuse, numbers games that ensure failure, a feeling of “lying for the Lord” (in their minds) that stemmed from or that generated a spiritual crisis, and a sickly brew of doubt plus exhaustion in a pressure cooker that became unbearable. It’s rough out there (for some people some of the time).

  66. Lets see.., I grew up in an affluent home and went to a US mission (English speaking!).. Therefore I was a weak, unprepared slacker who was not valiant enough to handle the rigors of a “real” mission overseas. Nice message folks.

    And I’m sure you can tell me more about how those of you you don’t live in Utah are the “authentic” Mormons?

    Mormon tribalism at its best.

    FWIW, I think some (but not all) of the “mental health” returnees are kids who don’t like their mission, don’t want to work or have worthiness issues. The “mental health” issue can sometimes just be smokescreen.

  67. I went a a very low baptizing mission. I guess I was just lucky or blessed to get a really good mission president who put his missionaries first. Ron Madson your comments on missionaries being sleep deprived is spot on. I remember telling my MP in an interview that I was really tired and needed a nap in the afternoon. He simply replied, “Then take a nap.” That was it.

    hplc Your comment resonated with me too. I remember in zone conference our MP and his wife told us, if you are having a bad day and need some cheering up. Pay a short visit to a member who would be happy to see you. Give them a spiritual thought and pray with them.This made a big difference. Some of my best memories of my mission are of the wonderful members I got to know. I look back to their example even today. Nowadays there are so many rules for the US missionaries. They can’t come inside unless another man is home. I guess there is a good reason for this rule, but a rule like this has significant negative side effects including isolating the missionaries as you mention.

  68. I apologize in advance for the length of this “comment.” This is the (shortened) text of a letter I sent to the church mission department after my daughter returned home after only 10 days in a Central American MTC. The OP called for personal experiences, and so I thought this might be on topic. If it’s tldr, feel free to skip or delete. (Not sure if it’s relevant, but I served a 2 year South American mission in the early 80s.)

    My daughter returned from the CCM in Guatemala City last night, which gave us very mixed emotions. Mixed because while we were overjoyed to have her home safe, we were saddened that she came home after only 10 days in the CCM (never making it out to the field).

    Of course, the mission presidents in the field have always had a very difficult job managing, parenting, corralling, and herding hundreds of energetic, sometimes homesick, sometimes unprepared young men and women. A herculean task to be sure.

    My daughter’s experience comes at the beginning of the tremendous increase in the number of missionaries entering the field as a result of the age eligibility change. She did not immediately choose to go, but when she did hear the call, it was unmistakable and powerful, a direct communication from our Heavenly Father to her. She has spent a lifetime getting ready, and spent several months in final preparations.

    Unfortunately, the culture shock of going directly to an overcrowded CCM in a 3rd world country, away from anything she’s ever known, destabilized her immediately and proved a shock she could not recover from. From nerves, to anxiety, to depression, to crushing claustrophobia, and finally to debilitating physical pain, she crumbled in the first week.

    When my daughter went with her companions to talk to the mission president’s wife (the president was too busy), the advice she got was “Don’t tell your family, because then your mom will call us, and then we’ll have to send you home.” Followed by, not a comforting hug or a nice compassionate talk, but rather, being shown to an empty room where she was invited to “work it out alone,” and was left sobbing by herself. For 3 hours.

    To back innocent young people into a corner and bully them with statements like “how are you going to explain your failure to your younger brothers?” and “do you think you will be able to handle your parent’s disappointment in your failure?” is what the enemy does. To dismiss mental difficulties like depression, anxiety, and panic, and the sometimes accompanying debilitating physical pain as something that is “all in your head” is dark ages behavior.

    I’m reminded of something president Spencer Kimball said during a missionary conference long ago in Central America. “If baptizing converts were the primary aim of the missionary program, we would have called your fathers as missionaries. This is about you becoming good lifetime members of the church.” And I know that the church has redoubled efforts recently to fellowship and retain missionaries who are sent home from missions, because without such efforts, the activity rate of those young men and women is essentially zero.

    In the end, my daughter came back to us with an honorable medical release, grateful for the call, but more grateful to be home and getting the professional help she needs. She now regards her mission as a kind of personal Zion’s Camp. She couldn’t just say she would go, she needed to raise the knife.

    I guess I can see what might be the underlying problem. The train is on the track, and the train is moving at tremendous speed. There is no time to stop and help those who are struggling. As these kids hold on desperately trying to fulfill their mission, rather than slow down and help, or even provide a few resources to comfort and succor, it seems we are prying their fingers off the side of the train because they are slowing us down.

    Full steam ahead.

  69. I agree with Ron Madson. Excellent important and life-changing suggestions. I hope people listen. My son came home early for illness and I believe he would have made it if he had been able to sleep 9 hours a day. His body still needs that much sleep. The rhetoric he received from his mission president and zone and district leaders about how if he would just work harder and have more faith and keep the rules better, that then he would get well, really did a lot of damage to him psychologically.
    Prior to his mission he had lived away from home for a year as a college student and had travelled internationally. He was about as prepared as he could have been.

  70. I haven’t served a mission. The idea of proselytizing has always terrified me. In fact, I am sure that I would need anti-anxiety medication after one day of tracting. I don’t think that is a reflection of my testimony or lack of character. Fortunately, I am a woman so the expectation is lower (or different, whatever). Anyway, I hope by the time my children are eligible to serve, there are more options available. Many might flourish on a service only mission, which I think is an equally honourable way to serve the Lord.

  71. Craig H. says:

    Wow, a lot of opinions on this subject, some of them probably valid. But I have a practical point Russell, that is also maybe generational: when I was on a mission in the 70s in Europe, and you in the 80s in Asia, didn’t the world just seem too big, and making long airplane trips too complicated, to ever arrange a trip home on your own? Sure there was the sense of shame that kept you going (for good or ill) but I never in the world could have figured out how to get home from Europe at the time, and as a result, couldn’t imagine going home period (for good or ill). With the internet, and increased ease of travel, and everyone seeming to go anywhere in the world nowadays, it all seems like a smaller place and you could at least imagine going home from anywhere in the world. In my time, we had one person return home early (again, I’m not saying that was necessarily good), and I think both shame and distance (real and psychological) had a lot to do with that. Europe seemed like another planet; there were no phone calls home at all, letters took forever to get there, etc. That’s all shrunk now.

  72. I think the faith crisis point is relevant and underexplored in the comments. I have seen a noticeable uptick in mission-age young men just plain not buying into the program. In my opinion, they shouldn’t be going out in the first place. An anticipation of some kind of Saul on the road to Tarsus experience is unreasonable.

    These experiences also cause undue stress for family members (not just parents, but siblings as well), which is something to be considered. With increasing technological connections (email, cell phones, Facebook, which is foolhardy), a missionary’s nervous breakdown can swiftly become your own.

  73. Wheat Woman says:

    Russell, it’s hard for me to respond nicely to your post. I mean, you say the boys you knew of or heard of had serious issues, but your overall tone is “what’s the big deal?” It’s casual and cruel at the same time. My son’s early return came down to this – he hated selling the Book of Mormon like crappy used car. He hated the “methods” and “techniques” and the double speak. Coming home early nearly destroyed him and two years later, he’s still not back on his feet. There is NO PLACE in our church for young men who don’t serve a mission or come home early. It’s indefensible.

  74. unendowed says:

    I think this thread shows (Captain Obvious alert) that there’s an enormous spectrum of opinions about the purpose of missionary work and the definitions of words like “strength.” There are definite generation gaps, too, which kind of blows my mind. As a young’un (25), I tend to see the stiff-upper-lip generation(s) above me as extolling a kind of strength to which I see no benefit. What’s the use of “toughing it out” if doing so causes lifelong pain? And yet, on the other hand, how else *can* you build strength but through endurance? How can someone tell the difference between a spiritually fatal situation and a growing opportunity? I’ve been asking myself these questions for years, and I still haven’t found good answers.

  75. whizzbang says:

    I have a lot of opinions on this. First there was that Mission President’s wife’s blog from Colorado that highlights all these issues. Second, I am a ward mission leader here in Canada and have been so for 2.5 years. I LOVE the missionaries. Some of the best ones I’ve seen were the 18 year olds and we couldn’t have asked for better. This mission in the last 18 months give or take has sent home about 30-40, 6 coming from our ward in the last year. 2013 was a gigantic mess. 4 sisters and 2 elders from our ward I keep in contact with all of them, all but 1 is active and seem…to be doing okay. It breaks my heart to see them leave, but I served a mission so I understand why they leave. In this mission they went from 56 missionaries to 156 ish in such a short time that you could literally train someone after 6 weeks in the field or have two missionaries be together who have only been out for 6 weeks. I think there are FAR too many here but there isn’t anything the MP can do about it. There are typically 6 missionaries per ward and in smaller areas there are sometimes that many. This whole mission is crawling with missionaries. It’s too much and there isn’t much to do with so many. They are doing service but it isn’t paying off as much and I think they are being taken advantage of. I kind of think there is a pep rally mentality when it comes to going on a mission but when the rubber hits the road it is a totally different story-that is the same when I was out and it isn’t just in the mission field. When I was out (1998-2000) missionaries just gave up and stopped caring, they didn’t do the wrong things but weren’t doing the right things either (I didn’t blame them). I think the Lord knew all this was going to happen and he prepared means and ways to deal with it, at least in our case here. I love the missionaries and if it wasn’t for them our Stake here on the prairies would shrivel and die!! But it would be nice if there were less of them!

  76. I’m with gst. Well, at least in regard to his comments on overwhelmed states-side missions. I wonder if “the surge” and “catch the wave” were done in part to take advantage of the “Mormon Moment” which was a decidedly USA centered media phenomenon. As such a disproportinate number of missionaries are now serving in the US. I hear that many Wasatch Front wards are overwhelmed by the number of missionaries suddenly serving in their areas.

    At some point throwing more and more missionaries at a limited geographic area is going to have diminishing returns or even create antagonism. I can only imagine how frustrating this is for the missionaries getting sent to such areas. A mission is hard, but I wonder if current policies regarding the surge have made it much harder for some.

    Luckily for new missionaries the surge is about to end and numbers will drop back to (or below) baseline.

  77. While I’m here, I nominate Ron Madsen to be in charge of the Missionary Department for a few years to implement some much needed reforms.

  78. marginalizedmormon says:

    Well, missions are not a natural state of being. At all. Life has always been hard, but human beings were created to be connected, at some level, however slight, to nature.

    To Creation.

    How many missionaries have a chance to take a walk through a woods or along a river or somewhere appropriate for wherever they are. Not a ‘survival’ experience; not a ‘show everyone how buff you are’ experience (those are common enough on missions)–

    Many of them live in filthy apartments. Perhaps it is because they have never cleaned anything. Maybe it is because for 20-30 years LDS women were told that there were more important things to do than clean houses?

    I don’t know. Or men and children were told, “you have to become educated; you don’t need to learn (and apply it consistently) how to clean a toilet.”

    But the lack of nature will turn people mentally unstable faster than anything.

    It happens to animals all the time, too. Zoo animals often don’t survive.

    Most missionaries work on city streets.

    And, yes, this isn’t the ‘fault’ of the ‘church’, though I think the mission program is terribly flawed; I think it should be at least 75% service to the poor, needy and even to natural areas, if they exist anywhere there are missionaries–

    I think there should be strict requirements for keeping apartments clean.

    Most American missionaries do not know how to eat. They grew up on fast food, so their bodies aren’t really as strong as they want everyone to think.

    Being a missionary should include a training period of learning to clean (and having to check it off as being as important as baptisms/contacts) and learning to cook wholesome foods, but it is NOT going to happen.

    It should also include taking high risk people (with proper supervision for everyone, because missionaries are young and tend to be very unwise) out into nature. To feel the Existence of God, who created it all.

    But I don’t live in the real world. I just have opinions. And, believe me, my children had to learn how to clean. It’s not a high priority to them–
    and they are embarrassed. But they didn’t get fast food from me–

    and if they can afford fast food, they can afford to pay more for things that matter more. And they will.

  79. marginalizedmormon says:

    amen to anon who talked about not enough sleep. Someone close to me (who hasn’t come home early and hopefully won’t) had a good diet before going on a mission and went out to a place where we was given pretty much constant junk, even in member homes–

    he got sick FAST–

    he made it through, but it was hard–

    his mother and father both cook. He had had home-cooked food his entire life. And he went to . . . everything out of a box or a can.

  80. Being a missionary is not a saving ordinance. Missions are not for everyone – it’s okay not to go. I’m sure their are some that go on missions just to get away from dysfunctional parents.

  81. I didn’t serve a mission myself, and while I have regretted it from time to time, I’ve gotten on with life, and have been active and served in leadership positions anyway.

    However, I know a few young men, who suffered from depression and anxiety before they left on their missions, and it was no surprise that they were unable to complete their two years. Neither should have been able to pass the medical exam, and both bishops probably had some reservations about sending them, but with no worthiness issues, probably felt pressured to sign the papers and forward them. Both returned with deep feelings of guilt and unworthiness, even though they had done nothing wrong. They have not done well after their returns.

    I currently serve as ward mission leader, and I see how the collective groupthink of missionary life can sometimes suck the life out of some missionaries. It hurts to see them set unrealistic goals at a zone conference, and then see them get disappointed when things don’t happen. I worry about what that does to their testimonies. I try to always be positive, and try to help them see things from an outsider’s perspective without discouraging them. But we have had to counsel them to drop some potential investigators that clearly are not on the track to baptism (I hate that phrase, but there it is).

    Final point, about sisters vs elders. We have had mostly sisters in our ward, and I will say that without exception, the sisters seem to work harder and more diligently than the elders. I can always count on the sisters to get the first and last names of potential investigators, addresses, and a reasonable estimate of ages, as opposed to the elders who often report something like “We talked to Bob, who lives in those white apartments. We don';t know if he is married, and he might be 30 or maybe 50. Hard to tell.” Perhaps the sisters have somehow gotten a better work ethic along the way, or just connect better to potential investigators than the elders. But I would anticipate that based on what I see, it wouldn’t surprise me if more elders than sisters go home early from our US mission. (Seattle Mission).

  82. We have had an elder and a sister return home in our ward in the same month (one foreign one stateside). I think they have been welcomed with open arms. I am grateful for their service and am glad they have the chance to come home now to heal from their afflictions. They have already been a huge service to the ward in the short time they have been home. I think mental illness is more recognized and more prevalent then it has been in the past. I am happy to live in a time when the kids can return from an honorable, albeit shorter, mission be welcomed and get on with their lives. If the trend is to accept and treat mental illness, it is a good thing.

  83. Molly Bennion says:

    I work fairly closely with the missionaries in my ward. I see many sources of stress and dissatisfaction in their daily living situations and in the work itself. Some, like the elder who asked me to find a sister to shorten his new pants (for free, of course), are not ready to manage adult life. Life skills and common courtesies (like telling a sister who is preparing your dinner you won’t be there to pick it up) escape them. Our ward is sometimes really strapped to provide dinners (and sometimes lunches) for up to 5 missionaries. They can only eat with the members 2 nights a week so they are isolated, as rk above mentioned, and it’s difficult to impossible for many members to deliver meals to them so they are not eating adequately. Even those who have no transportation must work in relatively high crime areas (and it’s dark here shortly after 4 in the winter). Conclusion: their poverty and ignorance cause avoidable stresses.

    The work can be very discouraging, even with the members. Last week the mission introduced a new program to set up 45 minute evening meetings with the members to teach them the lesson on the restoration and challenge them to read the Book of Mormon by Dec. No one signed up in Relief Society. Our members are swamped working, going to school, raising their families. They know the lesson on the restoration and they generally want to continue their own scripture study programs with their limited time. I feel for the discouraged missionaries but I suggested to them they need to go back to the MP and consider tweeks in the plan. Such plans must genuinely meet the needs of the members as well as provide contact and activity for the missionaries. Ours are not bad members; they’re good and busy members who don’t need another guilt trip and don’t want to cause the missionaries discouragement. But most don’t want to do this. The plan is poorly designed, imho.

    I wish we’d redesign missionary work to include more community service and less wheelspinning. Perhaps we need to call only as many missionaries as we can support financially and employ meaningfully. And can’t the MTC teach life skills and courtesies if the parents don’t? I think a reworking of the missionary experience would decrease the number of missionaries leaving missions early as well as bear more fruit.

    P.S. Venting over. Something more positive: where I have seen productive work was largely with less actives, with whom missionaries have been very helpful.

  84. FarSide says:

    Ron Madson’s comment was excellent. When we discuss the New Testament in Seminary or Sunday School classes, we mock the the scribes and Pharisees for their Byzantine rules and regulations that gut the law of its spirit and yet we are blind to how much we have become like them, especially when it comes to micromanaging the lives of our missionaries. My son’s mission president in Argentina wanted to impress his minders in Salt Lake so he decided to require all of his elders and sisters to rise 30 minutes early (no, I’m not making this up). Let’s face it—we only pay lip service to the notion of teaching correct principles and letting people govern themselves.

    A few thoughts on the phenomenon observed by Russell:

    –There is often a HUGE difference in America in the maturity of an 18 year old vs. a 19 year old.
    –The only apparent reason why the age was lowered for boys (no, they’re not men) was to get them in the mission field before they succumbed to the wiles of the opposite sex.
    –Sending home the problem children early makes a lot of sense. Mission presidents and bishops have one big thing in common: they spend 80% of their time counseling 15% of their missionaries/members. The less time a mission president is required to devote to persuading someone to be where they don’t want to be, the more time he’ll have to do his job.

  85. There is so much ridiculous and thoughtless judgment here that it breaks my heart. I had missionaries living in my not so perfect home. I can tell you that they are all very different and unique people. So individual, in fact, that generalizations cannot be made. Our last missionaries were ill as were we. I felt so much sympathy for their physical trials. As a former missionary mom and as the “mom” in a host family, it is absolutely appropriate to end a mission early if that protects the health of a missionary. This is not a problem.i

  86. About nine years ago four young men ( two from my ward and two from another ward, plus it is a small town) came home after being in the mission field only four months. They just could not handle being away from home. In my parents ward at the same time a missionary was caught in fornication. And another missionary from my ward went to South America and was shot, but he stayed. Eighteen year old males, in general and there are exceptions, are still emotionally and mentally immature compared to eighteen and nineteen year old females.
    When I served my mission in the mid 1980’s I became ill and my companion was a jerk. I was told to suck it up and was accused of faking. I had some medical issues but was cleared for a mission. When I needed to see a doctor while in the MTC and in the mission field, I was harassed by companions and treated badly. I never tried to get out of working or made excuses. I had my medications. I did not have family support. It ticked me off to be accused of faking. My mission was awful because 95 % of the missionaries in my mission were jerks. I finished my mission. I had a friend who went to Korea and ended up with parasites, and was very ill. Basically she did not get treatment until she came home, which was not right. Thank goodness the attitude towards physically ill missionaries is changing and they are getting treated for physical illness they got on the mission.
    I was a Welfare missionary but my MP did not want Welfare missionaries to do what we were supposed to do, so I had to knock on doors which is a waste of time. When I had a companion who was also Welfare trained we did welfare work and had more success. The MP was all about numbers, not true converts.
    I am glad to see the mentality changing towards missionaries who need help, whether or not they have to come home early and regardless of what the problem/situation is. I have a doctor who treats the missionaries and he said the church has become better at acco modating missionaries who need to see a doctor for whatever reason.

    There are some who are not prepared emotionally, mentally, physicaly, and should not even try to go on a mission. Unfortunately there are pushy parents. The majority of the kids today do not know what hard work is and do not know how to be independent nor do they know how to fend for themselves.
    U.S. missions are hard today. Due to the Internet there is so much anti Mormon stuff out there. Society has changed for the worse. Missionaries should not be made to feel bad regardless for the reason for coming home early.
    Sorry for typos, on phone.

  87. Maybe the real solution is changing missions from proselyting to service ones. That isn’t being wimpy, it’s being more Christ centered. Christ centered creates a heart of peace.

  88. whizzbang says:

    @Carrie-I agree with you the missionaries are and need to do service however being taken advantage of isn’t a good thing and wastes missionaries’ time when they could be doing more productive things with their time. At least have the service lead to a discussion. I tell the missionaries periodically if the member or non member can do it themselves then let them, don’t do something for someone else that they can do for themselves. I can give you examples of missionaries doing service for people that should be able to do it themselves

  89. One last supporting comment. 30 years ago when I was a teen I could get a summer job at 14 years old. Today my college educated graduate daughter was unemployed for 15 months due to the economy. None of my 3 kids – 18, 22, and 25 were able to obtain summer work during their teens – because no jobs were available. During the school year it is nearly impossible for an achieving kid to have time for a job, the school load, early morning seminary, sports or after school activities – which are required for students who want to attend Universities – takes up a teens time. This is a dynamic previous generations didn’t have.

    It is isn’t all laziness and video games. All the comments about not knowing how to do hard work maybe true – or maybe the worlds requirements for attending college changes the life skills teens can acquire. It’s a book learned world, with lots of extracurricular requirements, including LDS schools. These kids are exhausted from a different work then we had and it’s taking it’s toll.

  90. Ron Madsen made excellent points. The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve need to understand it is a different world today.
    Major changes should be made in the MTC and in the mission field. Bullying goes on too, from the MP, the MPs wife, zone leaders, companions, and ward leaders and even ward members where serving. There are so many stigmas and culture BS that need to be removed. Even some MPs really do not do a good job and that can affect many missionaries.
    And tying everything into worthiness needs to stop.
    Mission Presidents need to be better trained to handle any and real issues that arise among missionaries. And trained to be compassionate and to listen.
    A lot of crap goes on in some missions and some MPs do not want to hear it or deal with it. The thing about missionaries not being in one ward for very long and so not being able to make friends is because some missionaries make friends too good and end up breaking every rule. I witnessed both Elders and Sisters having inappropriate relationships with ward members and investigators of the opposite sex. Also some never did any work because they were goofing off with member and non member friends. There are pros and cons of missionaries making friends and staying in one place for a long time.
    Also I was in the U.S. Spanish speaking. I grew up in a 95% Hispanic town. I knew the bad words and a few phrases. When I was in the MTC I struggled to learn Spanish for some stupid reason (I now know it was because I was ADD). My companions were horrible to me about my lack of speaking Spanish at the level they felt I should be at. Actually, they were horrible, period. I became quit ill and they were mad because they had to go to the doctor with me. They were special because they were going to Central America and I wasn’t. Yes I was in a trio which does not work. This is one example of stuff that should not be tolerated, but yet it is. And the missionary who is being treated badly or bullied has no recourse.

  91. I thought about this post a lot today. I wonder if part of what is happening to these kids coming home early from missions is the psychological distress that accompanies realizing that the narrative you’ve been told your whole life bears no resemblance to what you are actually experiencing.

    This is especially relevant when you consider that this generation almost certainly got a lot more of the typical mission narrative than previous generations did, as many more parents of millennials served missions than was the case in previous generations.

    For context: I am a young person who has been home from her mission for a little over two years. I served in a high-baptizing mission in the U.S., Spanish-speaking. I’m glad I did it, and I feel like I learned a lot from my mission (although I sometimes feel like the most valuable lessons I learned aren’t the ones that fit into the typical mission narrative).

    When I think about my mission and what was hard about it, it has nothing to do with the demands of work. In fact, if anything, it had more to do with the fact that the work wasn’t that hard – but it also wasn’t that successful. You grow up hearing about missions, and you absorb this narrative and really come to believe that it will be hard, but if you forget yourself and get to work, miracles will happen. Then you get to the mission field and find out that the narrative isn’t really true. You’ll struggle to find things to do all day. You’ll feel like you are wasting time, and you do not know what to do in order to not be wasting time. You’ll realize that miracles aren’t happening for anyone, but the missionaries who baptize the most are the most charismatic good salesmen. No one tells you what will be hard about a mission isn’t the work (which really isn’t that difficult), the separation from family and friends, or the constant focus on the gospel. No, what is hard about a mission is that you’ll feel like you are just not good enough, and then you’ll start to believe that maybe missionary work just isn’t good enough and the whole effort is futile.

    Now, I’m not sure if this has always been how missionaries felt, and they just toughed it out more in the past. But I do think that it is how a lot of missionaries feel now, and that it does lead to enormous amounts of psychological distress.

    I’m sure a lot of that is generational, though I think it’s more about expectations and priorities than hard work.

    I also suspect the fact that the world has changed faster than missionary work has plays a part in how kids feel about their missions. Until very recently, missionaries could have been living in the 19th century and not much about the mission would have been different. The mission was, at best, quaintly anachronistic, and at worst, so painfully removed from the reality of the modern world that it felt like a purposeful and almost comedic highlight to the daily exercise in futility.

    That said – I don’t regret a minute of it, because, in the end, I learned the lessons that I needed to, and I’m a better person for it. I do wish someone had prepared me for how stupid it would feel 95% of the time, because I would better understood the stress and internal angst.

    And all of that is basically to say that if more missionaries really are returning home, I think a big part of the solution could just be shaping their expectations about exactly HOW a mission is going to be hard in order to better reflect the experience they are likely to have.

  92. Lots of discussion of how missionaries/youth have changed. Much less discussion as to how missions have changed. Success rates have fallen and are falling across much of the world including in the US. While the number of missionaries has increased greatly convert baptisms have not. This means more and more missionaries are experiencing less and less success both in terms of baptisms but probably aslo all the little successes that make someting so difficult manageable. Members have long been burned out of the referal process in most places and current actions by the church seem to indicate that they are having trouble coming up with productive things for them to do. Our youth are stupid nor are they immune to the psychological and emotional pressures of lots and lots and lots of failure. Missions have always been that way but at some point maintaining a healthy identity and mental and emotonal state requires feeling like your activities are worthwhile and you are making progress. Decreasing success and being asked to do things like facebook proselyte make the mission experience seem even more difficult and less rewarding.

    I served in a “hard” mission – Paris. We averaged at the time a bit less than one baptism per missionary per year. The rate is lower than that now. Other European missions, including the other french speaking missions averaged less than that. I would say that roughtly the 80/20 rule applied where 80% of the baptisms were experienced by 20% of the missionaries. A really good companionship was teaching maybe 6-8 first discussions a week where they were doing 40+ hours of street contacting or tracting. That is simply mentally punishing no matter who you are. Fortunately experiencing France helped compensate for the difficulties. It taught me a lot but I can only imagine what someone with even moderate mental health/emotional/spiritual issues might react.

    So my take is that the breaking point for any youth is non-linear to the fruitlessness of the mission (I bet we are seeing fewer cases of return missionaries from the high baptizing foreign missions but bet the low baptizing ones have higher rates). So even if the youth were equally prepared with those of this in the past a relatively small decline in success and increase in difficulty could lead to signficantly higher rates of early return. My mission couldn’t have gotten much more difficult and dispiriting before a signficnant number of missionaries would go from having a decent mission to one that might sink them.

    It would be no surprise to me that there are more men coming home the women. The lifted age restriction on women probably means on average you are getting stronger if younger sisters (and there are fewer of them dysfunctly socially pressured into going) and sister missionaries have traditionally had more success than elders because women tend to toward religion at higher rates then men and the elders usually cant teach many of the women. Plus due to the squeeze at the MTC missionaries are going to the field with less training making the transition between normal life and mission life even more abrupt.

    Point is missions have qualitatively changed not just the pool of missionaries.

  93. **I originally posted this on the facebook BCC page/link, but decided to move it over to the blog because I didn’t want any emails from my friends calling me out which, in my mind, proves the ‘complaining about your mission/coming home early’ stigma is alive and well.**

    “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 … 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.”

    This may be the first and only BCC article I’ve ever read and wondered if it wasn’t meant to be in the New Era or something as a shaming piece.

    The church activity retention rate for missionaries coming home early is extremely poor. I remember being warned in the MTC more than one time by the teachers that we had to finish our missions because, if we didn’t, we’d become like someone everyone seemed to know: a missionary that came home early, quit going to church, fell into (name some sin here). Tisk tisk.

    Furthermore, I wanted to snort at the idea that the stigma of coming home early is a thing of the past. Are you crazy, yo? The stigma is as strong as the iron rod.

    I served a mission from 2011-2012. Made it through the whole thing. I mention this because — stigma alert — I know that what I have to say has more weight BECAUSE I did serve my entire 18 month sentence. I was also sin free during my mission, not lazy, and was an extraordinarily successful missionary. I was also miserable. I had a completely jackass abusive MP, I served in areas with questionable at best leadership/bishops, I served with manipulative missionaries who were conditioned to report one another (I once got reported for taking only 2 hours to weekly plan instead of 4 (efficiency is a sin don’t you know)), I served in an environment of extreme high pressure for success. Long story short: my mission gave me anxiety (a condition I never had before), threw me into the worst depression of my life, and absolutely destroyed my ‘testimony.’ And I wanted to come home. Desperately.

    I reached out to a few people back home who knew how miserable I was. They all said it was my decision. So, I made my decision and told them I was coming home. “My decision” then became a chance for everyone to tell me that if I went home early, I should expect society to shun me, that no one would ever date me, that I would be obligated to pay back all the people who had given me money for my mission, that I wouldn’t be welcome to stay in the home I planned to go to (I’d be homeless), and that the “Lord’s blessings” would be taken from me.

    THIS WAS TWO YEARS AGO.
    Times have not changed.

    Just because “more” missionaries are coming home — whether they/their family/the mission psychologist/whatever — are smart enough to send them home, does not mean the stigma or shame of coming home is gone. The fear of that shame is the only thing that kept me in the field until the end.

    P.S. (then I’ll shut up) the missionary handbook STILL tells missionaries to not write home of any complaints to their parents. Why? I think there’s a strong case to argue that because they know if parents hear, parents will call and demand their kids home.

    And the church reserves the right to censor/read missionaries emails. Yikes yikes yikes.

  94. wonderdog says:

    My daughter came home due to health issues. We got her healthy again and she completed her mission. But her Mission President laid a BIG GUILT TRIP on her. He told her that her father (me) would be disappointed. I’m not, I’m proud of her.

    We had a sister from my ward who was disappointed to have been sent to Idaho on her mission. She put it off for two additional months. Then she returned home with mono. She has chosen to go back to BYU rather than to complete a mission that she admits is not as cool as she expected.

  95. Geoff - A says:

    I am in a ward in Brisbane Australia. Two young men in our ward have been sent home early by their mission presidents.

    One was in Ghana, with a mission president he liked. The mission was divided, and he got the new mission president. The missionary was continually taunted by another missionary, and eventually he hit the taunter, and with no investigation by the MP was sent home, 6 months into his mission. He was enjoying his mission, and very successful.

    The other was sent to New Zealand and 22 months into his mission was sent home because he and his companion visited the sister missionaries, when one was told her father had died, to offer their support. No questions -compassion not acceptable, against mission rules.

    How many others from these families are going on missions?

    My wife and I are retired and have considered going but don’t want to put ourselves in that kind of environment. There is talk about bishop lottery, but mission president lottery is even worse.

    We had a new mission president from Utah speak in Stake Connference, and he spent part of his talk on the toxic world. On my mission we were told to love the local people, now we describe them as toxic. Would you be impressed if an Australian mission president was called to your area and described you as toxic?

    Our missionaries are not allowed to visit members unless they leave a message, and do a hard sell on member missionary work. They also make rediculous promises about answers to prayers, about missionary work.

  96. are youth *aren’t* stupid :)

  97. Let us not forget that Mission Presidents have a lot to do with stress and fulfillment for their missionaries. Perhaps looking at both the readiness of the young missionaries, as well as the readiness of the Mission Presidents is important. I had one excellent Mission President. Then I had one who was terrible. Perhaps the nightmare legacy that he left could have been avoided with better training and screening. Or closer supervision. This is the next generation of men in the church, and they deserve the very best of wisdom, guidance, and love.

  98. rah, when did you serve?

  99. My earlier comment was snark. This one is not.

    My parents recently returned early from a mission outside the US. The primary reason was for a serious health concern. But my parents, my father in particular, has no interest in going back and has emphatically stated that he won’t do another one (both had planned on doing multiple missions since they are young retirees). Local missionary service or temple missionary service? Yes. Remote missionary service whether inside or outside the US? Never again. The reasons? Totally jaded with the mission (dis)organization. He feels like the senior missionaries were put out to pasture and ignored at best or treated like liabilities at worst, even those who were skilled in that country’s language and were begging for things to do or the freedom to do what they thought best. Further, on top of seeing the young missionaries with nothing to do, there was no attempt to utilize the expertise and skills of the senior missionaries, for which skills they were specifically called, in their mission call, to that mission. Also, my parents were dismayed that the MP never once communicated with my parents as they were weighing their options about staying or returning to the US. Another reason: exposure to seeing how the sausage is made (i.e. how the church pays its various employees in the country, expends resources, local elite cultures springing from church employment status, etc.).

    Both parents are highly traditional in their faith and almost extreme in their willingness to serve and take on hard assignments. For them the difficulty factor had nothing to do with their current feelings. It was the boring, demoralizing, and largely pointless mission experience itself. My father’s take on senior missions abroad: don’t waste your time, serve locally. It’s a weird thing to have your traditional/orthodox/conservative parents say stuff like this to you post mission. As is their wont, they are now deeply invested in local service, doing what they do best.

    Missions have a problem when folks like mine leave them early and swear off them.

  100. Wow. It’s been a while since one of my posts started a firestorm. Sorry I wasn’t part of the conversation yesterday; I was traveling (and now I’m having computer trouble). For what it’s worth, here’s a few thoughts:

    1) While I am pretty confident that I captured the reality of the situation for at least a few of the former missionaries I had in mind when I wrote this post, it was pointed out to me via some backlist e-mail conversations that I nonetheless indulged in a fair amount of unsubstantiated (and probably impossible to substantiate) generalizations as well. I shouldn’t have done that. My primary purpose in writing the post was to generate thoughts from others who may have had observations similar to mine; this thread proves that I’m not alone in having observed something that may amount to a new norm or understanding vis-a-vis missionary work, but it’s also made very clear that that “new norm or understanding” is by no means universal, and really mustn’t be taken as a basis for judging what is happening in the hearts and minds of missionaries, their leaders, or their parents. My post indulged in some of that judgment, and opened the door for others to do the same, and it shouldn’t have been written that way. I apologize for that.

    2) My apology won’t do much, of course, because the fact remains that people who served a mission can ultimately only really make use of that experience in thinking about missionary work in general, and it would be simply dishonest to pretend that, given the understanding that at least partly guided my own mission experience, I’m not divided in my thinking about what I’ve observed. I’d like to think that the original post was pretty clear: I have very few fond memories from my mission, never liked or was able to make much moral sense of missionary work, and generally disliked most (not all, but most) elements of the church’s whole missionary program. To the extent that young men and women who aren’t emotionally or psychologically or physically up to dealing with the unpleasant work of proselyting are increasing able to come home and suffer no or minimal social consequences for it (which is, as has been made clear in the comments thread, a highly debatable proposition!), I can only consider that a good thing. And yet, I remain divided in my feelings here…or as I put it in the original post, “nonplussed” about the whole thing. As was also pointed out to me in an e-mail discussion, we all have a little bit of Jonah in us: we feel like all people ought to suffer on their way to forgiveness or peace of mind or health or enlightenment, just like we did! So, if anything, the way this discussion developed is only more evidence (as if I needed any more!) of my own need for greater Christian charity.

    3) For whatever it’s worth, my thinking tends toward structural explanations when I encounter something I want to understand, and so generally I haven’t cared for many of the comments here which have spoken harshly of the current generation of missionaries (though, again, I realize I did that myself as well). I’m more interested in thinking about missionary training and rules and norms, about the costs and bureaucracies of the missionary program, and about the sociological and environmental factors at work in the lives of young people, both before and during missionary work. To that end, I really appreciate the observations of Jonathan Green, GST, Craig Harline, Ron Madson, Molly Bennion, Whizzbang, Rah, and others, because they highlight the huge range of variables at work here. We have missionaries who are overworked and tired, who are unprepared for (and sometimes are officially limited in their ability to engage in) independent decision-making, who are obliged to psychologically create–while under formal and informal–their own narratives of success, who are in situations where communicating with and thus being able to conceive of the option of returning home is far more organizationally plausible than in the past, who are far more familiar with both the symptoms and the costs of untreated mental problems than folks like me were, who are far more dependent (indeed, are often required to be dependent!) upon technology, which might only exacerbate some of the aforementioned issues….and so forth. Of course, whether any of that amounts to anything substantially different than the struggles missionaries faced 25 years ago, or 50, or 100, is something I can’t (and should stop myself from trying to) judge. But it’s all there, and is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

  101. I recently attended parent meetings as part of freshman orientation at Utah State University. The doctor in charge of the student health center said that the number one reason that students visited the health center was not mono, or sexually transmitted diseases, or strep throat. He said it was for anxiety and depression. He also said that the LDS church is interested in this situation, that more than 100 missionaries are coming home early- every week. This is very concerning, to say the least. What can be done to help our young people be ready to cope with college life, mission life, life life?

  102. John Fowles’s suggestion a while back that missions become much more service oriented would, in my mind, solve a whole host of these issues. If missionaries did productive service work during the day and proselyting in the evening you would see more good mission experiences, fewer missionaries coming home early, more young people willing to go on missions, and more proselyting success. Instead we have daily torture sessions for missionaries that last for several hours, with more of the same scheduled for tomorrow.

  103. Also, more service missions abroad could reverse the trend of limiting the valuable foreign cultural experience to a shrinking minority of missionaries.

  104. I was a convert that became a member in my early 20’s and served a mission a year later. Not having experienced parental or cultural expectations to serve a mission and having lived at least a little bit of life after high school, I was a little nonplussed when I got to the mission field and realized a good chunk of the elders were only there because it was expected of them.

    I also found that many elders would openly admit that they had become missionaries because they didn’t believe they could marry a good, attractive LDS girl unless they did so. Some because they already had a girlfriend back home that told them they would never marry them unless they served a mission (and many of these girlfriends said so because they knew their parents would not be happy with them marrying a man that did not serve a mission).

    Others were there because being a missionary was just always a part of their families expectations of them… finish high school, serve a mission, go to BYU seemed to be a common formula.

    One of my companions was actually one of these missionaries that had gone home for medical reasons and after a few months requested to be come back out. His medical reasons seemed a bit iffy, but one thing was clear… he came back out to the mission field due to cultural pressure and to alleviate some of the shaming that he experienced when he came home early from his mission. He was a pretty unhappy missionary, and he was always telling me of different experiences he had when he had gone home where family and members in his ward would make a comment or he would hear of things being said behind his back, etc.

    I don’t know the statistics in regards to any of this affecting elders more than sisters, but my first thought is that if this is true it’s easy to see why. Most sisters do not have the same cultural and parental pressures to serve their missions and are there because they want to be, more or less, whereas many elders are there simply because that’s what young men are expected to do in the Church and in Mormon culture and less because they want to be there.

  105. “2 years is a long commitment, so why couldn’t a young man or woman still serve but just for 1 year.”

    For one thing, the Church has tried that, with 18-month missions. I served in France, and had taken French in high school. Even so, I felt like I was just reaching my peak performance around the 18 month mark. Given the easiness and relative familiarity of French language and culture, I think 12 months somewhere much more foreign with a less familiar language (China? Africa?) would prevent all but the most innately capable, sensitive, and hard-working missionaries from achieving any kind of native sense, which is important for doing missionary work. A senior companion or trainer might not have much more experience, skill, or time on the ground than the new arrival.

  106. But women already serve 18 months!

  107. Indeed, Charly.

  108. My dad, a physician (very active LDS, now in his 11th year as a humanitarian missionary w/ Mom), told me when I left for my mission that if I got seriously sick and “some overzealous jerk of a mission president” ignored my situation, to call him and he would come and get me. In the event, I didn’t get sick and adored my MP, but it was nice to know that my folks had my back.

  109. whizzbang says:

    I wonder about Mission Presidents and their wives as well. They get shot at from all angles, dealing with missionaries, members, converts, investigators, GA’s,local priesthood leaders, parents, police i’m sure on ocasion, therapists etc-to say nothing about doing all the zone conferences and other meetings- It’s a wonder they don’t lose their minds. It’s something new every week.

  110. Matter Unorganized says:

    When Pres. Monson announced the age change, he specifically said that it was not mandatory, but I turned to my wife and said, “Just watch, the new age will become an expectation. If a boy isn’t on a mission at 18, people will wonder what the problem is.” Sure enough, that’s exactly what’s happening.

    Furthermore, failure to serve, or an early return, can only mean one thing, and one thing only, in the minds of most members: Worthiness. Case in point: a young man in my ward recently came home early from his mission. I overheard a woman say to her husband “I guess he couldn’t stop playing with himself.” Who on earth does she think she is to make such a snap judgment? But that’s the way it is in LDS culture. Failure to serve = unworthiness.

    Now we’re seeing young men get their mission calls before they’ve completed high school. One guy in our ward had ONE WEEK between his last exam and entering the MTC (although the average here has been about 2 months).

    There are too many going into missions with the attitude “The Spirit will fix everything”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever happened to “… after all you can do”? Experts in video games don’t help, but that’s what they’re getting. That extra years between high school and leaving was critical for preparation. The young man had the chance to get a real job, earn some money, learn what it’s like living in the “real world” without the buffer of seminary and all their LDS friends at school, and actually learn how to WORK.

    And on a side note, this business of boys leaving right out of high school also puts a HUGE financial burden on families. In the past, the young man would earn most of his mission money. Now, the parents have to fork out. Fortunately, our son has decided to work for a year and leave at 19, otherwise we’d be sunk financially.

  111. In some ways, this conversation is the same as conversations surrounding divorce. You leave something that you’ve committed to do, and there is a negative stigma associated with it. As with divorce, we generally oppose it, but recognize there are always individual circumstances. And similarly, you can’t deplore divorce, without offending someone; and you can’t deplore increasing numbers of missionaries returning early without doing the same.

    Everyone who gets divorced has a pretty solid reason, and the same with everyone who leaves a mission. You wouldn’t break a covenant walk away from a calling for a poor reason.

    And yet, I can’t help but contrast that with the exceptional (idealized) missionaries of the past who had rats eat the soles of their feet or were stricken with malaria and served anyway. I don’t know if anyone could blame the Savior for shrinking from the bitter cup, but he wouldn’t have been the Savior if he didn’t drink it. I don’t feel comfortable so easily excusing myself from hard things, but at the same time I don’t condemn anyone for not being able to do so as well.

  112. Troy Bird says:

    That’s a perfect non-judgmental attitude to have, DQ. Don’t feel comfortable avoiding the bad, but recognize when others aren’t able to do it. This is why it’s so important to have support of family, and if not that, then support of ward members or just friends. It has been an immeasurable help for me personally to have understanding friends, family, and ward family, but I know some early returners don’t have that.

  113. A couple of things:

    -I never served a full-time mission, and I’m realizing now—-FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY ADULT LIFE—-that it’s possible that all mission presidents might not be great mission presidents. That it had never occurred to me might be evidence of my own ignorance (definitely possible)….or perhaps more systemic in nature. If we, as a culture, don’t really discuss the realities of mission life, candidly, on a regular basis, it could be contributing to the problem.

    -In the past 7 years that I’ve lived in my ward, we have had about half of our missionaries come home early. Our current bishop, however, has welcomed them home over the pulpit in sacrament meeting, and explained to the congregation that their release was honorable, and that we look forward to serving and fellowshipping with them in our ward. It’s such a refreshing experience.

  114. I have observed a number of issues that contribute to missionaries coming home early:

    1. Mission presidents who are more concerned about the number of baptisms that the spiritual growth of their missionaries.

    2. Mission presidents who use abusive and manipulative tactics to shame missionaries who do not achieve their baptism goals, contributing to depression and anxiety of missionaries.

    3. Mission presidents who send missionaries home before they can recuperate from an injury (that might have required a couple of weeks).

    4. Missionaries who are addicted to pornography who leave on missions.

    5. Missionaries who are leaving right after high school and have no opportunity to adjust to “real life” and work situations outside of their homes.

    I agree that having missionaries devote more time to service-oriented activities would be excellent in areas that at saturated with missionaries. Our missionaries in some areas of the Salt Lake valley have no one who has not been taught. Getting them into schools, retirement centers, and other areas where they can serve others would be a positive thing for the missionaries and for those whom they serve. This needs to be seriously considered.

  115. anonymous says:

    My comment is less about missionaries coming home early (though I’ve seen 5 of those in our ward alone, one of them a sister, just in the last year or so… from my anecdotal evidence it’s increased, at least where I live in Utah County) and more about the reality of mission life vs. the trumped up romantic version.

    My retired in-laws served a 2 year foreign mission a few years ago – mostly digitally photographing old documents/records in the basement of a very old European church then forwarding to Salt Lake. They’d been looking forward to their mission together for years, and had built it up to be a pinnacle of their life together. Now, after the fact, I don’t think they’d go on another one. My MIL mentioned to me privately that if a married couple has any problems at all, a mission is not the place to go – their marriage was a lot rougher having to spend 24/7 together with no breaks. My FIL’s health declined rapidly. He came home having aged considerably (his handwriting visibly shaky, much weaker, much less vitality..) I thought it was just his normal aging, but since being home, he’s regained much of his youthfulness. He seems to have de-aged a good 10 – 15 years now, and I think it’s as simple as he gets out in the sun and walks and golfs and is not cooped up in a dark, musty basement all day long. (It sounded overly simple to me, at first, the poster who suggested more communing with nature for missionaries, or getting more sleep, or having more ‘down time’ – but these solutions seem to be exactly what my FIL was missing and perhaps what aged him so.)

    They performed a great service (the # of documents they photographed was something like 1/2 a million or so) but at great cost – and I’m not convinced they needed to sacrifice so much of their health. Shades of the “never leave the mission field for anything – not even an immediate family member’s death” – that misguided idea that ‘the work’ is more important than an individual soul, seems to be decreasing, and I think that’s good. Each individual soul IS the work – or should be, imo. And I’m glad to see the tide turning toward compassion and understanding, and accommodating of individual differences. Any change that highlights our humanity over machine thinking seems healthy to me.

  116. Steve

    I served 1995 and 1996 under Thompson (the original Silver Fox) and Brown. How about you?

  117. Rah, I laid the foundation for your work: Jones and Thompson. Silver Fox, indeed.

  118. Matt Thurston says:

    I guess I got lucky. Lucky to have had the foreign mission experience (Taipei, class of 89-90). Lucky to have spent a year in school, out of state, prior to my mission. Lucky to have slept in until 8am, on average, for my entire mission, and to have companions who liked to do the same. Lucky to have invented the “36-hour P-day” (trademarked), and to have companions who eagerly co-signed on the plan. Lucky to have had a Mission President who didn’t place an over-emphasis on numbers, and who created a mission culture where breaking minor mission rules (see “sleeping in” and “36-hour P-day”) (also see “playing basketball” and “busking”) didn’t leave us feeling wracked with guilt. Lucky to have gone to a country where knocking on doors was impossible, because everyone lived in locked apartment buildings, meaning we “street contacted” instead, which is basically just walking around like a tourist in a beautiful foreign country, hanging out at the park, shopping, etc. all while talking to really friendly people. Return with honor, indeed.

  119. I feel for Mission Presidents as well. They are usually very successful people and very, very devout. They show up and there is immense pressure to get numbers both from their internal desire to succeed and from those above them. If the results drop on their watch it raises eyebrows. Imagine having an apostle (whom the most devout can see as close to infallible) come through and do a review of the mission. They want to in good faith live up to all the expectations. And with the rhtetoric that it is a test of your faith and obedience is just as internalized for many MPs as it is for missionaries. And then it all rolls down hill. The worst MPs I have seen have come from sales backgrounds. They start using the professional tools they know and who can blame them. They too are facing decreasing yields and therefore more pressure.

    True service missions are the answer with a minority of time proselyting. Let our kids serve the poor and needy the way Christ did. Let their lights shine not as obedient automatons but as servants of the least of these. Teach when the opportunities come but tie the missionaries identity service. You can’t fail at that.

  120. Steve,

    My generation heard tell of pre-Silver Fox (may he rest in peach) era being one of those obedience challenged eras that seem to hit French missions like clockwork. I am sure rumor and telephone exaggerated and the sense of my generations own self importance and righteousness happily let it. Thanks for all your hard work and seed planting :) I felt lucky to have served in that mission. We would do bilan d’equipe at a different Paris landmark every week. My favorite was at the Eiffel Tower listening to the djembe drummers on warm summer Sunday nights. Somehow that seemed to make the next week of 50 hours of street contacting bearable.

  121. Rah,

    Just another former Paris missionary here (Brown, Madsen). I wish I had some companions like you! We just did bilan d’equipe chez-nous, if at all. I see you also created a new post re doubt… Que Dieu vous benisse!

  122. John Mansfield says:

    “Let our kids serve the poor and needy the way Christ did.”—rah

    How did Christ serve the poor and needy? Teaching them the same things he taught everyone? Miraculous healings? Which particular acts by Christ do you have in mind?

  123. marginalizedmormon says:

    @Emilee,

    Thank you for your courage and honesty. I, too, made it through an extremely difficult mission 40 years before yours.

    Six sisters who went together; three made it to the end. I was the least miserable, because I actually loved/adored the country where I served, and the other two did not.

    But as far as the missionary work goes, I have nothing but sad memories. I did ‘everything right’, and I have nothing but regrets now. I wish, with all my heart, I could have served people. I wish our MP had not been a Nazi. I wish the APs had not been Nazis.

    I wish; I wish; I wish.

    I wish I could have SEEN the country where I served instead of just knocking its doors down–

    SO many regrets. I made it through, and I suppose I am a failure, because none of my children have served (or will serve) missions, but I am actually glad, because missions are perfect set-ups for abuse.

  124. marginalizedmormon says:

    @MOQT,

    I’m so sorry.

    I was able to stick it out; health problems were supposedly resolved, but I was out 40 years ago–

    But I can tell you, now, that if a person has a chronic, ongoing, debilitating health problem for years (over a decade) even as an older person who has raised a family–

    there is no difference, even if that person is ‘at home’–

    The ancient Israelites, and Nephites under the Mosaic law, believed that righteous people were blessed with health, so when *we* aren’t, even though those laws do not apply to us now–

    we are . . .

    marginalized.

    Oh, did I say that?

    Ill health equals rejection, especially when the ill health keeps the person from being able to be actively engaged–

  125. marginalizedmormon says:

    I was going to say that, especially where it’s chronic and not well understood by the majority–

    it’s interesting how the scriptures (there are plenty in the Book of Mormon) about taking care of the sick or visiting the sick (which doesn’t always work, so it must mean more than physically visiting)–

    seem to be ignored.

    When it’s a one-time shot or a hospital visit, and all is resolved, etc.–

    and “we’re all fine now”–

    then love and help often comes–

    anything more complicated and more long-term . . .

    no.

    But those scriptures must apply to people who have ‘regular’, well-behaved illnesses, right?

  126. I’ll happily be the nine-millionth person to weigh in on this obviously emotional and important topic.

    Like you, Brer Fox, I’m in my late 40s – I served my mission from 1987 to 1989 in Italy. Unlike you, I didn’t grow up in the Church; I had been a member for 13 months when I entered the MTC at age 21. However, I had a long history of undiagnosed anxiety and depression. Missionary work was hard, and it seemed to me, mostly futile. We got relatively little member support, people were not terribly receptive, and my dreams of being the Wilford Woodruff of Sicily were soon recalibrated. But I toughed it out, because I couldn’t imagine any other option.

    One lovely friend of mine – a sister missionary who had been serving in my home ward before I left – understood what I was going through, and our exchange of letters (while she was in the field and after her return) did much to help and sustain me while I was out. At one point, when I had been out for about 17 months, my circuits finally blew and I left my apartment one morning and just stood there in the street with no idea what I should do, or where I should go. My companion finally took me by the elbow, led me to a local park, and sat me down for three hours and told me stories of his upbringing and experiences in the national guard while I stared blankly off into space. I recognize that now as an anxiety reaction, but at the time, I had no idea what was going on. I went to the doctor, and they put me on Xanax since my blood pressure was through the roof, and my mission president cautiously OKed it. I don’t think he knew what to do. He knew me well as I had served as mission secretary for five months earlier.

    I made it back, and kept quiet about the fact that I hated my mission. It took me years to get past the common trope that it should have been “the best two years.” It was hell. At one point, a GA (a seventy, now mercifully dead) visited my mission and told us in a zone conference that if we didn’t give the mission everything we had, “the Lord would never trust us again” (exact quote). It took me years to be convinced that I hadn’t failed and doomed myself to a terrestrial eternity at best.

    My second son came back from his mission three months early, about a year ago. Like me, he had depression and anxiety issues. He had meds; they didn’t work. He worked his tail off, he taught, he baptized. His mission president pleaded with him to go home to take care of his health. He was talking to a mental health professional, at Church expense, at the direction of the Missionary Department, during the last six months of his mission. His mission president finally called us and spoke with us at great length. He told us how much he loved our son, how hard he had worked, how many lives he had blessed, how strongly he brought the Spirit into his work. He told us that my son simply shouldn’t have to deal with his crippling anxiety and depression anymore, that his sacrifice was more than acceptable to the Lord, and that he would be sending our son home to us with an honorable release. The Missionary Department called. They told us that a GA had reviewed our son’s case, and that as far as the Church was conceerned, he had managed to complete a 24-month mission in 21 months, and that he should not feel as if he had fallen short in any way. He was given a blessing by his mission president before he left, in which he was released from all guilt or feelings of inadequacy, and another confirming blessing when he got home – two, in fact, one by our wonderful stake president and one by me. He is now at school at BYU-I, he is not-quite-but-sort-of dating a wonderful young woman, and he is at peace. he knows he did his part.

    Oh, what a wonderful difference! I am so glad that he has not had to suffer what I did, that he had the help and understanding that I didn’t have. I am so glad that somewhere in the great plan, the Lord has bumped some hearts and opened them to young men like me and my son, to make it easier for them to be the men they are capable of being, without being handicapped by unnecessary guilt and shame.

  127. Kristine says:

    Thanks, New Iconoclast. That sounds like the ideal answer to the questions raised by the original post–I don’t know how anyone could think that the greater light and knowledge we have acquired on the subject of mental illness is anything but a blessing to our missionaries and to Mormonism, or wish for the days when people had to suffer needlessly because of ignorance and stigma.

  128. I returned from my mission 6 months early from a kidney infection. After hospitalization, I re-entered the field, only to come back after a week. The responses from my various ward members were baffling: They chuckled, “Couldn’t you take it?” or “What was the REAL reason?” Some would watch me as I would take the sacrament. Finally one an angelic older woman took me aside, saying, “Elder, the only thing you didn’t give in the mission field was your life.” She was right. This dear, compassionate lady showed me kindness whereas others judged me critically. I have never forgotten her benevolence and have reached out to many elders who have come home since. She truly lived Christ’s teachings.

  129. Steve S says:

    I’ve skimmed through the comments and read the OP and feel like I’m the only one who thinks, “who cares?” Coming home early from a mission, or not going on one, doesn’t necessarily help anyone in their career or in college. Employers (who are not church-owned) are not going to look into how good someone was as a missionary or how long they stayed. Non-BYU colleges aren’t going to care about mission completion. And even BYU won’t inquire as to the reason for someone coming home early or not going on a mission. Early returners can still hold temple recommends, marry in the temple, and hold all callings. There are lots and lots of girls (speaking from a male perspective) for early returners to date. Of course, coming home early may reduce one’s chances of marrying a TBM girl in the Mormon belt. The only thing an early returner may have to worry about is being shamed by parents, family, and his immediate LDS ward. Some of his friends also might think less of him for returning early. If the early returner can just see through the matrix on this and learn that he is a legal adult and can work and live wherever he pleases and that he can and will make all sorts of new friends, he has nothing to worry about. Now as for parents who try to place undue pressure on the early returner to go back and threaten him with strong disapproval, shaming, ostracism, and even banishment, they don’t deserve their son or his love, and can go screw themselves. But the fact that more missionaries are returning early is a testament to the fact that the austere and rather backwards culture of shame in the LDS church is being broken and that an increasing number of LDS people are waking up to a set of facts, which may or may not be rather inconvenient for them: missionary service is strictly voluntary, people who are 18 and above are legal adults and cannot be restricted in their movement, and that the LDS church can’t actually punish early returners other than through shame and social pressure.

  130. “feel like I’m the only one who thinks, “who cares?””

    Yes, that’s an astute observation.

  131. Some of the comments on sleep deprivation and the overall experience/well-being of the missionary force are spot on. When I was a missionary, I probably would have slept 8.5-9 hours a night if left to my own devices. As it was, 8 hours was barely doable (with a bit of falling asleep during lessons and study) because the hours were so regular, which probably allowed me to get better sleep than the erratic college sleep schedule I had been on did. But I could never have gotten up half an hour or an hour early for additional language or scripture study and still functioned well.

    I think this speaks to a broader point about standards in the church (and particularly the mission field) and how often we turn ideals that are actually far from normal into tests of a missionary’s worthiness or ability. We aspire to be like stake presidents or mission presidents because they’re held out as examples, when so often those people are by the nature of things the ones who need less sleep and are naturally gifted in many other areas as well. Whether those things are the result of righteous living is another discussion; I’ll only say that I doubt an 18-year-old needing 9 hours of sleep a night is either a result of unrighteousness or something that will wane as a result of keeping all the rules. And then the missionaries who are promoted are often the ones who are putting in the extra language/gospel study time and then further reinforce the skewed standard. The rich get richer etc. A humanistic approach that doesn’t hew to the legacy of treating all of our physical imperfections as things that can be cured in this life by righteous behavior would go a long way toward helping our missionaries experience less physical and emotional stress.

  132. PP,

    Quel dommage! J’ai eu le benediction de retourner et habiter a Paris comme expatrie quelques annees apres ma mission. Une de mes filles etait nee aupres du Gare de Lyon. L’amour pour France et les Francais etait ne en explorant Paris. Je suis reconaissant pour mon entraineur qui me montrer Paris pendants ces bilans, un pratique que j’ai partager avec tout mes autres colleagues.

    (Man I am sure my orhtographie sucks.) Glad you liked the other post.

  133. Living in northern Utah, I’ve seen it more recently, too–including my own son. He’s tough as nails, raised to travel and be self-sufficient, and was very mature for his age. Nevertheless, anxiety and depression hit while on his mission, and there was no way to treat him while overseas.

    My personal belief is that this generation isn’t too soft or too lazy or unable to iron a shirt. This generation doesn’t see the world as black and white anymore. None of my children or their friends are against marriage equality. They are all supportive of women and the priesthood. They respect other religions as just as honorable as their own. The once hidden realities of our history are now on full view. These kids just know too much and can’t reconcile what they are being called to teach–that others aren’t as perfect as we are and that they need to change. I taught my children (all of whom served missions) to not worry so much about telling others that they are wrong or that our church is “right”. I encouraged them to love and serve. That’s a good place to start, but I truly believe the old US versus THEM mentality is no longer part of these kids’ world view and two years of pretending our church is perfect isn’t very appealing–even anxiety inducing.

  134. If I knew then what I know now concerning the church there is no way I would have gone on a mission.
    This rising generation of youth have much easier access and much easier ways to discuss church doctrine and history now.

  135. On a related note, when my son was dealing with his anxiety/depression illness while on his mission (and getting horrendous care), my husband and I got the distinct impression that these kids are just an expendable resource to the church. If they go home, it’s not big deal–there’s a thousand others ready to take their place. A doctor who was over 1,000 miles away, spoke to my son on the phone and prescribed some medication which he took for quite a while before coming home. When he got home a few months later, our specialist said the medicine prescribed was the absolute worst thing you should give to a patient with anxiety disorder. He then went on to suffer a series of seizures–even having to be taken via ambulance to the ER–until we go those drugs out of his system.

    Happily, our bishop and Stake President fully supported our assertion that he be treated like a regular returned missionary. He accepted a call faithfully and honorably. He completed the mission to the best of his ability. When he got home, he was welcomed with open arms and even spoke in sacrament meeting like any returned missionary would have. He served six months–I’m proud to say.

  136. New Iconoclast,

    I’m catching your comment late, but let me add my voice to Kristine’s compliment from yesterday. Your contribution is a wise and balanced one, which ultimately points us towards recognizing that the new reality in missionary work (a broader understanding of mental issues, an at least partial lessening of stigma) is a genuine improvement over our experiences from 20 or more years ago, and any of us (like me) who feel somewhat divided about this shift needs to get over ourselves and exercise some charity. So thank you for sharing.

    At one point, when I had been out for about 17 months, my circuits finally blew and I left my apartment one morning and just stood there in the street with no idea what I should do, or where I should go. My companion finally took me by the elbow, led me to a local park, and sat me down for three hours and told me stories of his upbringing and experiences in the national guard while I stared blankly off into space. I recognize that now as an anxiety reaction, but at the time, I had no idea what was going on.

    This actually puts me in mind of an event or two from my mission, which were superficially nothing like yours, but which outwardly share some similarities. At multiple times, when various stifled emotions–anger, guilt, exhaustion, boredom, fear, whatever–brought me to the breaking point, I would stay awake until my companion was asleep and then leave the apartment, and just walk the streets of Seoul or Suwon or wherever. I’d be gone for hours. So far as I know my companions never knew. I’d like to think that if they had they would have responded with the generosity of spirit that your companion did, but I’m sure we can both imagine what the more likely disciplinary response would have been. I’m glad you were blessed at your moment of need.

  137. I have an attitude about my mission time somewhat similar to Russell’s, but I can’t imagine wanting to give any of that time or those experiences back. The attitude is dissonant compared to the fierce sense of identity I ended up drawing from the experience.

    Certainly there was depression, and confusion, and by the end, no desire whatsoever to tract. Whatever else is wonderful and true about Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, the people there do not gladly receive surprise offers of a religion at the door.

    A companion or two might have been kinder, but I was never exactly Francis of Assisi myself; anxiety doesn’t lend itself to remembering to be kind. But near the end I had a companion like Iconoclast’s, complete with experience in the National Guard, who was enormously kind and tried his innocent best to help me work through my own anxiety. (Seth Leigh, wherever you are, I remember you with great fondness and gratitude for that.)

    I’ve begun to wonder, thinking about them all, whether fully half or maybe close to all of my companions then (late 80s) might have been suffering from stress-induced anxiety. So often there really was nothing better to do than knock on doors. My own wish for upcoming missionaries is that they’ll be given permission to do meaningful acts of charity with a much greater scope than they now get. Or that they’ll eventually get to treat the work as something which carries an 8 or 10 hour day, rather than 2/7/365. A decent respect for the limits of the human body and psyche would be nice. Six month service windows with opportunities for an honorable release or up to three extensions might be another approach.

  138. I am seeing many individuals with a complete lack of empathy or sympathy in the comments. Being hard and lacking experience is different than mental or physical illness. I came home early due to a combination of both mental and physical illness. I went to all sorts of doctors. It was not because I did not work hard, persevere, had helicopter parents, or learn about the ” real world”. In fact I went to a year of school over 5,000 miles away from home prior to a mission. I now have experienced numerous hardships and trials and am even graduating with a PhD from a R1 school (7 years of perseverance). So clearly doing something hard was not the issue. My illnesses were not taken away through prayer or reading my scriptures. My point is simply to illustrate that general statements about why missionaries are coming home are unfounded, oversimplified and harmful.

  139. citizen16 says:

    I had to stop reading the comments very early. The ignorance and misunderstanding of mental illness in these comments is sad and reinforces the reasons for Elder Holland’s recent talk on the subject. As a church culture, we do not seem to understand the difference between major depressive disorder and being upset because something went wrong during the day. The missionaries who come home because of depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses are sick. Plain and simple. I know several missionaries who came home early because of depression. Some members then express the same ignorant attitudes about depressions a we see in these comments. It’s disheartening to see people pass judgment on someone when they don’t know even a small sliver of the full story. I agree that it’s good that the US church is starting to understand this better, but if these comments reflect members’ true opinions in the subject then we still have a long ways to go. See Mosiah 18:8-10.

  140. Ron Madson says:

    Thank you for your comment “Citizen 16″ and “Simon.” As a counselor to the FT mission president, I was assigned to visit with missionaries in our mission that were suffering from depression/anxiety, etc. Our first objective was to get them professional help. I would estimate that approximately one-tenth of our missionaries had clinical depression/anxiety issues. I had the “fortune” during this time to have a very violent roller over car accident with my family which led to PTSD, anxiety and then full blown depression which only medication fortunately helped in my case. Up to that time I had not suffered from depression/anxiety and had already served as bishop for six years telling people to essentially get their life in order (pray, pay and obey, etc.) to get over depression. I shudder at my previous lack of empathy and understanding. My personal experience and mission assignment changed my perspective dramatically—and thankfully. There are things that can be done as a practical matter (sleep/exercise/diet, etc) to alleviate dot a degree anxiety and depression while on a mission but it is not helpful and in fact harmful to lay more guilt/shame on missionaries or pressure to perform/toughen up. I used to tell the missionaries that some of the toughest people we know of had major depression—Lincoln, Churchill, Lewis of Lewis and Clark, etc. etc. —heck one of our presidents of our church was bedridden and institutionalized for a period of time for mental disorder. anyway, thank you for your comments.

  141. I served in Japan in the early 80s, and had terrible, terrible depression. My MP only told me to go and pray more, and gave me a guilt trip for not having enough faith. I come from a family with a long history of mental illness. My father was psychotic, my mother attempted suicide when I was a child, several siblings have been hospitalized for various mental conditions.

    Not everyone should go on a mission and many symptoms don’t come out until a person is under stress.

  142. I wonder if anyone has any information if the rates of missionaries coming home early actually is up, or if it just appears to be.

    I’ve noticed that on a lot of these things, there is a perception that things are worse(or better), but often are not. maybe us noticing a difference is a difference in noticing, rather than a difference in what is actually happening.

    I really don’t know. My mission, stateside, ’89-’92, sent home about 5 missionaries a year, that I knew of. Out of about 200. So, that’s a lower, rather than an upper bound.

  143. I served stateside 09-11 and, perhaps unusually we had more sisters than elders leave early. I never knew them very well so I didn’t know know why, but the rumors that circulated in our mission pointed to stress and anxiety issues. And this was before the age change, these sisters were 21 and older.

  144. In addition to addressing questions of preparedness and identifying and treating mental illnesses, there needs to be a good look at the circumstances triggering these conditions. People who are normally mentally healthy can develop mental illnesses in unhealthy conditions. To use an extreme example, if someone became mentally unstable after a long period of solitary confinement, I think most would recognize that the mental illness was caused by the solitary confinement rather than weak mental health in general. The first step in treatment would be removing the person from solitary confinement. There would not be any suggestion that the person was somehow not adequately prepared or strong enough for solitary confinement the experience (even though some people manage to psychologically survive long periods of solitary confinement).

    I’m certainly not suggesting that being a missionary is akin to solitary confinement. However, if so many missionaries suffer from anxiety and depression while in the mission field (whether or not they come home)–the negative effects from which can last one’s entire life–there needs to be a honest evaluation as to whether the psychological stresses to which missionaries are subjected are reasonable. Sure, the individual missionaries need to do their own personal preparation, but there are certain things for which one cannot prepare and perhaps to which one should not even be routinely exposed. I am grateful for many aspects of my mission experience and I love France (Paris mission, 90-91), but the isolation, pressure of “numbers,” pressure to set unrealistic goals, constant message that if one just had enough faith and employed the right techniques, one would meet those unrealistic goals, mission-wide publication of each companionship’s reported proselyting hours (for a short period of time), sleep-deprivation, little opportunity to engage in real exercise, inadequate “down time” to mentally recoup, and more really did a number on me mentally, and it took me quite some time to come to peace with that experience. That, even though I feel that my mission presidents were good and kind men.

    The Church bears enormous responsibility for caring for the mental and physical well-being of its missionaries. Especially since missions are touted as one of the most noble and spiritual experiences. Young men are commanded to go on a mission and there is a high social cost for them for not going on a mission. There also can be a high social cost for any missionary returning early. By lowering the age to 18 for young men, the Church should ensure that its missionary program is appropriate for most young men of that age, or make it very, very clear that under 19 is the exception rather than the rule.

    I read above that the Church is very concerned about the mental health of missionaries, and I applaud that concern. I’m not surprised, as I believe that most leaders in the Church are trying to do the right thing. And of course, even under the best of mission circumstances, there will be those who should not serve or should serve under modified conditions. But, to the extent missionaries develop mental illness because they are routinely subject to unhealthy circumstances and expectations, the solution should include an improvement of circumstances. It would be unacceptable for the Church to consider those who suffer from mental illness as a result of unhealthy circumstances and expectations as “collateral damage” or the price to be paid for an otherwise successful missionary program.

  145. BeenThereDoneSomeOfThat
    I served a mission in the US mid-west about 30 years ago.
    I was a recent convert, older than most. I saw immediately once I got there that I would have
    to adapt to survive so much unproductive repetition, yet still figure out how to progress spiritually and have a “ministry.” So I decided that as long I didn’t break any laws or commandments and did what I could to move the work along substantively (not “righteous” “make work”) I was content.
    In some ways it was easy, as I never really knew of a companionship that strictly abided by all the mission rules anyways. The 1980s mission experience was a bit over the top. We arrived from the MTC with so many different books, companionship study cassette tape collections, etc that it was impossible to comply with all the various mandates. Once I made up my mind that I was there to serve, but not at the cost of mental health I was at peace. We read our scriptures, but tossed most of the other stuff. Never missed any of it. Did plenty of service, too. Helped build out buildings, repair roofs, do landscaping, etc. Amazing how people will warm to you and converse openly with you when you are helping them with no strings attached. Mission President and his “administration” thought it was all a waste of time, better to remain in shirt and tie and tract with no results as you were “being an example in public.” I do not know a single missionary, including ZLs and APs who did not continuously inflate their reported weekly results so that they wouldn’t get singled out for criticism.
    We read books from the local public library for fun, did some half decent cooking (few members equaled few dinner appointments), went to local free attractions and had some good clean fun while trying to make the best out of what seemed like a potentially bad situation. Reflecting on it all now,
    missionary life seemed almost like a “lifestyle designed by a committee.” All the rules, regulations, materials, etc may have looked good on paper, but it just didn’t seem to work in everyday life. The super strict missionaries who were held up as examples were no more successful than any other.
    How could they be? All their time was spent in the Pharisee-like pursuit of hyper-technical compliance!
    The world was not yet online during my mission, and for that I am thankful. We even had a couple of missionary apartments that didn’t have telephones in them. This made us more self-reliant, and gave our experience a bit of an adventuresome flavor. No one was micromanaging us! We could sink or swim on our own, and we liked it that way. These days it seems that the missionaries are in a 24/7 pressure bubble that I wouldn’t have put up with for two years. We learned that the missionaries can, and are being monitored 24/7 by gps/locational features of the smart phones and IPADs they now carry everywhere. I don’t know if they understand the implications of that. I wonder if the mission vehicles are also monitored in some way? Much too 1984 for me.

  146. Where to start?
    N8– if I ever hear another person accuse psychiatric patients of hiding in their Meds and not letting the gospel of Christ “heal” them, I will just puke. That is a completely asinine, insensitive and uncharitable viewpoint. So those diabetic missionaries should stop hiding in their insulin injections and let the gospel heal them? Seriously?? I call B. S. Self-righteous IGNORANT attitudes like that are EXACTLY why I now rejoice that my sons chose not to go on missions. It is also why I find myself in a bit of a faith crisis— most people have enough to deal with without your judgement. But in true Mormon fashion, I reckon you and those like you think you know what’s best for everyone.

    Thank you , New Iconoclast, for your story. My husband served with a severely depressed elder in the mid80s. I have always been appalled that the poor guy felt obligated to be there. Couple that with the fact that they rode bikes dozens of miles each day, frequently in terrible heat and humidity (Japan), and their mission prez “encouraged” them to only eat 2 meals a day (no sense wasting time on fueling your young, growing, changing body!)–my husband, already average weight to start, lost 25 lbs on his mission. It was a recipe for disaster.

    The ridiculous austerity that is allowed/encouraged on missions boggles my mind. I have seen too much self-flagellation and hair-shirtism. We need to teach young people that there are not extra points for suffering needlessly, and especially not for expecting others to do so.

    Sorry, having suffered most of my life from depression and anxiety, and watching some of my children do the same, it is a sensitive topic. And until it is addressed appropriately from a church-institutional standpoint (Elder Holland’s talk was a good step), we will only continue hurting good people in the name of some misguided Mormon ideal.

  147. Sister Elderly says:

    Here’s what I’m hoping: I’m hoping someone finds a backer to finance publication of a book, containing every single comment above put together in a book and distributed far and wide throughout Zion.

    Between the comments that are thought-provoking and heart-breaking, and the ones that make a person think, “The Pharisees are on the loose again!” these writings could provide material for at least a year’s study, in church meetings, in the mission field, at the TMs, and in FHE. Every Latter-day Saint twelve and over would benefit from an in-depth discussion on this matter, using these posts as primary sources.

    I was a missionary in Europe more than 50 years ago. It was a good time in that particular mission; missionaries baptized in unexpected numbers, and we were led, during my two years there, by two giants, men of such goodness and loving-kindness, such wisdom and insight, that I expected each of them in turn to be called to preside over the Church.

    We did not see many missionaries return home prematurely. But I learned a lot from those who did. One young woman, after struggling with the language for about sixteen months with no audible progress, was transferred to England. One elder had shown signs of serious problems, which were reported to the President. That loving, forgiving man asked to see the elder, saying before he entered the missionary’s room, “He’s just under a lot of stress, I’m sure.” President came out ten minutes later, his eyes wide, saying, “That boy’s off his rocker!” (He would never have used those words aloud under normal circumstances.) The “boy” (a 6’8″ football hero), who was indeed having mental and emotional crises, quickly flew home under the watchful care of a General Authority who happened to be in Europe.

    Another huge football champ called the President from his lodging in North Nowhere, saying he couldn’t take it; he needed to come to the Mission Home and see the President. But when he came in, it was not to give up, not to ask to be released. He said if he could just see the President and Sister P once a week or so, he thought he could make it. He was transferred close to the Mission Home; he came in for hot chocolate once or twice, and before a month was up, he was rolling along on all two wheels and happy in his calling.

    Another elder clearly didn’t have his heart in the work; what he did have was a box of porn under his bed and cigarettes in his kit. The President didn’t send him home, despite his desire to do so. Instead he had frequent chats with the missionary and managed to get the lad to his expected release date.

    The fellow I have remembered for 50 years had been a Big Shot in his little western town. Captain of the football team, president of the student body, Prom King, 4.0 average–really, all of it. Came in full of enthusiasm and purpose, oozing confidence; bore a powerful testimony before he and his cohorts were sent out to their various posts. Before a month was up, he drooped back into the Mission Home, lifeless, despairing, undone. Had to go home. Had to go home fast. There was no changing his mind. He couldn’t take it.

    Then there was me. Everyone expected me to be a successful missionary. Lots of indicators pointing in that direction. But ten days into my mission, I couldn’t take it any more. The work wasn’t unduly hard; we hadn’t been mistreated by the locals; my companion, a mild-mannered, rather timid sister, was blameless. I just felt as if I were suffocating. I thought my mind was going. I wanted to leave on the next plane. Instead, the President and his very insightful wife told me I was sorely needed at the Mission Home, that in fact they had wanted to assign me there from the beginning but felt in fairness I should have some time in the field, etc. Much later, I did serve in two different districts, both briefly, both without any distinction whatsoever. If I had been graded, with generosity I might have deserved a C; if the Church had been a business, I would certainly have been fired, however gently. To this day, I am grateful for the kindness and patience of my beloved “patron Saints.”

    There is much that can be done to improve the situation of missionaries who need special attention. The Church leadership apparently is working hard on that . Right now, what needs to be done is for church members to acquaint themselves with the various problems a young person can encounter in the mission, to learn how to identify possible issues in advance, to develop options when the issues arise, and most of all, learn how to manifest Love and keep idiotic judgments in their roomy skulls where the brains ought to be.

  148. Sister Elderly says:

    OOPS! That last phrase of mine about “idiotic judgments” was definitely NOT a manifestation of Love. I just got over-heated, I guess. Mea culpa. I apologize..

  149. Host Sister says:

    I’ve been thoughtfully reading all the comments finding great insight and wisdom. I thank all for sharing their personal experience. My heart goes out and my horizons are broadened all the more. I live in an area where the Church has the missionaries living with a ward host family instead of in their own apartments. We housed them for about two years.
    I can share my experience and that of other host families in my ward. I’ve had different boys here and some find it harder than others–because of emotional issues that surface when you’re young,isolated and on edge changing places and people potentially every 6 weeks, or affluenza, and others just immature and all the other reasons everyone has mentioned. I loved them all but they were all different. I’ve known sister missionaries as well. There are hardly any nonmembers to teach in our area so they wind up visiting the members most of the time and ask to leave a spiritual message, so that’s their teaching experience–with members not nonmembers. Every Sunday, the RS Missionary Dinner calendar is passed around and we are told it is our responsibility to see they are fed dinner each night with a ward family. The sisters are actually voicing displeasure about it being every single night of the month and why? We’re told we just need to do it. The Church has cut their money allowance back even further now, as if the Church can’t afford to feed their missionaries. If that’s the case, then I think it only wise that the missionaries come and help cook the dinner because they need to learn that skill. When the boys didn’t have dinner scheduled, they simply sent out for pizza or expected to join their host family. If that didn’t happen, they’d come over to my house an hour before dinner and ask to eat with us. They started their laundry on Sunday night so that Prep Day could be 6 hours of basketball at the gym. When they live with a “mom” in the house, they will leave their wet laundry in the hopes that the “mom” will finish drying it for them.Some bring toys like helicopters that fly and member families have bought them Nerf guns. They show up at any event where there’s food–even catered wedding receptions with no invite, and they’re graciously accepted. I had a few sisters from the ward come over for lunch one day–not a church activity. The elders heard about it and came and were surprised that there wasn’t enough food for them. They usually, no never, call ahead to say they’re coming over. I had two elders disregard the doorbell and literally pound on my front door with their fists an entire 2 minutes (I was one the phone) and when I finally got there, they told me they couldn’t come in because my husband wasn’t home. Now when elders lived here, my husband was not always home and they did not have to stand outside and wait until he came home.
    They asked me not to turn the lights on outside at night so they wouldn’t have to remember to turn them off. I had to check all the doors before going to bed because they’d forget to lock them. When they did lock the doors, they locked us out. They’d forget to close the garage door after they drove out and no one was home. They had host families buying their cold medicines, and toiletries saying that the church just doesn’t give them enough to live on so they’d spend their money for a new tie. I told them if I do that for them, then I’m keeping them from learning how to manage a budget. I told them when they were sick and coughing with a cold that no, no one wants them knocking on their door and coming in to cough out a lesson and get them sick. I think the mission presidents/wives need to teach them some basic universal manners. Cold and flu season, no, not everyone wants to shake your hand.
    I’d say 1 out of 8 boys would cook a meal for themselves–most would rather eat cold cereal and milk than cook.The one was from a foreign country and expected to have to do things himself. I gave more life instruction and direction in those two years than I ever did all the years raising my daughter. I loved these boys but it was rare to see one with a good work ethic and they weren’t suffering from clinical depression (which genetically runs in my family so I understand it firsthand).
    The sister missionaries
    would ask what they coud do work-wise or they’d see and do. They were just more mature and were serving a mission because they wanted to, not because they had to or they wouldn’t get married. I asked one elder living with us to vacuum my floors. He asked which ones. I said the ones that exist. I think it’s wise to focus the mission on giving service and working when there aren’t nonmembers to teach. Otherwise they just hangout at the ward members houses. My point is that some really need support to keep on going and it’s legitimate. Others have a sense of entitlement that they are special doing the Lord’s work and it’s our job to support them, feed them ,even take them out to a restaurants, give them referrals as if we haven’t maxed out everyone already, house them, put their laundry in the dryer. I hope I don’t see the day when we are expected to teach their lessons for them. Yes, it’s hard being a missionary. But it has has been. Read John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff’s missionary journals–what they would have given to know where dinner could be found, just once. I think it’s better for the elders to be in their own apt. like it used to be. I’ve actually heard an elder say he didn’t need to learn how to cook because he would be married one day. I told him no, his wife would be sick in bed and he’d have two hungry toddlers pulling on his legs expecting him to feed them. The elders need to live on their own without a mother. Granted, some will do better with a mom. But must a mom accompany them to college and leave him only when his wife takes over? Yes, a mission is hard and one must be healthy to do it. But it’s always been hard. The Savior was rejected and we all must experience these things in order to come to Him. Today, their every need can be met and they know it –sometimes it should be and sometimes it shouldn’t. They’re really young and most come from less than ideal LDS home lives–they come from real homes with real issues. I admire that they do a mission at all–whether it’s out of duty or devotion. It’s just hard. They get lonely. They don’t always have a compatible companion. Reach out to them when you can but that doesn’t mean buy them Nerf guns. Please, my daughter will marry one of these guys. I just want him to be a man, whether he’s served a mission not at all–like Thomas Monson, or the whole 2 years or came home early.
    I’ve had it with delayed adolescence and if Pres. Monson wants to stop weeping over them at night because they’re coming home and still playing with the guys, then put them back in their own apartments with a set of pots and pans. Most of them will figure it out and do just fine. If they can’t, then those are the ones with the problems that need our attention and help.
    Just my thoughts. I apologize for the length.

  150. Despite the wonder and awe I feel at the willingness of Host Sister to put up with additional young people in her home for several years, her comment reminds me that whatever my children do on their missions, someone will criticize. Not self sufficient at age 18 or 19? They’ll be raked over hot coals. Self sufficient but not mature and gregarious extroverts? Members will condemn. Commit a social faux pas? People will talk.

    Life in a fishbowl must be exhausting, or in other words, it’s a wonder more missionaries don’t develop stress disorders.

  151. The church of my youth worked well for me, so this comment is not a condemnation in any way of the church of my youth.

    There are any number of reasons I am glad that the LDS Church is not the church of my youth – that it has changed in significant and important ways. One of the biggest reasons is allowing so many missionaries to return home early with honorable releases for emotional, mental, physical, etc. reasons. Those who obviously shouldn’t serve can stay home and serve non-traditional missions – with the only obstacle being local leaders who aren’t sensitive to the options available. However, those whose issues are not apparent when they leave and who experience severe difficulties in the field can return now with an honorable release – and Mission Presidents generally are far more aware of the validity of the myriad issues and far more willing to allow missionaries to return honorably than in the past.

    Missions are hard, and I don’t want to restrict service only to those who seem to be totally prepared, since I’m not sure total preparation is possible – even for senior couples, much less for young men and women. I want reasonable discernment by local leaders prior to approving missionary papers and readily available assignment flexibility and/or honorable releases for missionaries who develop or exhibit serious issues in the field – and those things are possible right now, much more so than when I served.

    Nothing we can do will eliminate the issue of missionaries needing to return home early, since so many issues never emerge until times of stress and trial, but we have come a long way in recognizing and handling properly issues that arise. There still is the core issue of leadership roulette, but even that has been reduced greatly in this particular arena – and I am very happy that is the case.

  152. “still playing with the guys”

    Does this mean what I think it means?

  153. Does anybody remember when part of the MTC curriculum included “Ambassadorship” classes?
    These classes were about things like table manners, being complimentary to hosts, being aware of and extending common social courtesies, etc. Sounds like they would be useful again.

  154. Host Sister says:

    Amy,
    No reason to feel awe or oversensitivity. I assume we all do the best we can to teach our children well. View a critique as a positive thing because it offers us a chance to improve. I We are all quite imperfect and the Lord accepts us where we are yet He still desires that we keep progressing.
    Know that people will welcome your children with open arms and hearts and will feel like a parent toward them. Good parents give guidance and kindly point out a better way when they see a mistake. They don’t normally give up on their kids because of it. No, it takes a village, and thankfully because there is no 19 year-old who leaves home “finished”. When my daughter left home and still made mistakes, I hope someone cared enough to nicely clue her in and that she was humble enough to consider it and better herself. I’m sure I had the same conversations with these kids that their parents had with them –and what they said went in one ear and out the other. If they hear the same thing from another parent, they may finally get it and realize their parents know what they’re talking about.
    Yes, people will form impressions of you based upon their interactions with you. That’s why graduate schools and employers interview candidates and how they decide who gets the position and who doesn’t. The sooner our kids undersand that, the better off they will be.

  155. Host Sister says:

    P. S. Amy, please know the ward families your children associate with will have more positive memories than negative. They will be warmly received. Any “social faux pas” overlooked because it should be.
    We all make mistakes and hope others will overlook and love us anyway.
    My comments were meant as ways to improve things–not that people reject missionaries who are introverts or forgetful. Those are the ones I dote on the most.
    The mission home explicitly tells host families to realize these are teenagers, not adults, because that is the age group. And to know they come from different places with different backgrounds and may not have certain etiquette. The boys that came to the wedding were made as welcome as any other guest. People understood that they just showed up because they considered it a ward activity. Given time, they’ll learn. You’ve heard the phrase, ‘The Church must be true or the missionaries would hae destroyed it by now’. “Ambassador” classes sound like they would be beneficial again.
    And “P” days meant preparing for the rest of the week–cleaning, groceries, writing home, having some fun, making dinner and heading out for an evening appt. Dinner at a family’s home was an unexpected delight–not a daily entitlement. And I think the guys grew up faster that way.

  156. Thanks for the reassurances, H.S. Missionary service is a complex equation of personality and belief and hope and duty and social expectation and testimony and service, and it’s an act of real faith for these young people to go out, and for their parents to send them, and there are certainly many deeply felt hopes that everyone involved will have a beneficial experience. In any case, thank you for adding your perspective to the discussion here.

  157. Host Sister says:

    Indeed, that very act of faith is why I wanted to house them. If they and their parents could do this, then I can do that.

  158. I’m certainly late to the party and don’t really imagine anyone will ready this. So perhaps I’m writing for my own catharsis as a parent of a son who came home from the MTC with some serious mental issues without ever having made it into the field.

    It’s been over a year now since we received the phone call from a tear-filled son at the MTC who truly wanted to stay but deep down knew he couldn’t. We had been aware of his condition for several years and had been working on helping him cope with it…not so that he could serve a mission, but so that he could live his life. This work included counseling and medication. In addition, even though he could have gone out earlier, we all decided to put in a full year of college away from home, living in an apartment, dealing with roommates, managing his school and work responsibilities. The year at school went great with success on all fronts and so papers were put in and a call was received. Of course, in the back of my mind, I was afraid for him. He got to the MTC and we quickly learned that his coping skills, which worked perfectly well in the real world, were completely unavailable to him in the MTC. To manage his OCD he would run 7-8 miles a day and take the occasional nap. Because he couldn’t do these things, the anxiety and obsessiveness built up and shut down all of his other facilities. Looking back, these issues and potential problems seem clear but we were not experienced enough to recognize them and pursue a different path. The folks at the MTC were upbeat and assured us all that he could return once everything was put into place. I’m not sure that we really believed it would be possible to put the pieces back together but we smiled and said okay we’ll do our best.

    So he came home…

    In every other way he was prepared for a mission life. He got along well with everyone, he wasn’t afraid to work hard, he had been taught as much as possible, and he wasn’t coddled. I understand as a parent I likely have several blindspots when it comes to evaluating my own parenting (it’s so much easier to evaluate others’ parenting) so perhaps there were things that could be done better. But we did our best.

    Coming home was devastating to him. The shame was crushing. Whether real or perceived he felt that there was no place for him. We decided to get him back into school for the coming semester because just staying at home in our small town was not a good option. He needed to be somewhere where he could have some anonymity. His first couple months back at school were very tough and he reacted perhaps understandably, perhaps not, by turning his back on what he had been taught. After getting that out of his system he started to find his place again in the church culture. Attitudes were varied from girls who proclaimed “How can I marry someone who did serve a mission?” to others who embraced him and encouraged him to move forward proudly.

    I can report that he is in a better place spiritually and emotionally and mentally but I’m not sure he will ever fully recover from the trauma of the last year.

    So that is the story in a nutshell…

    So where I see a blog post or new article about missionaries coming home early I always read them with tears and, quite frankly, seeking some inspired wisdom that I might employ with my son (and, honestly, for myself).

    What are my thoughts on this blog post?

    1. I believe more compassion and less judgement is in order. We (and I’ve done it too) seem to find it way to easy to judge others’ parenting styles, to judge others’ hearts, desires, intentions, and to judge others based solely on anecdotes (anecdotes are so much fun to base heartless generalizations on).

    2. Missions are not supposed to be hard, they are supposed to be about converting and serving. My mission wasn’t hard…but I worked hard and converted few. I believe I was just adapted to working in that capacity. It fit my personality and style. I wasn’t great but I wasn’t bad. I was a good, solid missionary who didn’t think it was the hardest 2 years of my life. Are we really trying to make it a Darwinian experience? Is this the attitude of mission president’s? I wonder how many missionaries might be just fine and continue serving if their mission president was compassionate, wise, and encouraged them to stop worrying so much about being perfect and just be a missionary. Are mission presidents more willing to quickly pull the plug on a missionary and just send them home rather than work with them. I honestly have no idea. But I do know that every mission president is different and I pray that my sons have a good one.

    3. Our church culture idolizes missionaries and mission service. Which is fine until someone doesn’t fit that mold and then we lose all of our bearings. After my son came home I became bitter when every prayer that was offered included asking that the missionaries be blessed and didn’t bother asking that family members who are struggling and serving in other ways be blessed. I made it a point to stop praying only for the missionaries but start praying for all who are serving away from home in one way or the other. I know, it was childish, but it was slightly indicative of our feelings about missionaries in the church. I have since repented and now pray for the missionaries specifically and for others serving away from home.

    4. After all the wasted space above here is what I have learned from this: I believe that we should stop preparing youth for their mission and start preparing them for their mission in life. Not everyone is meant for typical missionary service. I wonder if we, in the US, have forgotten this. Perhaps those with more international experience can comment on whether there is as much pressure on the youth to serve missions in other countries as there is here in the US. Kids are being forced (yes forced) by serious peer pressure into choosing a mission path when that may not be the best path for them.

    As I consider how I will continue to raise my remaining 3 children I will pray that I might be inspired in directing them into the path that fits them. If it is a mission then great. If it is school then great. If it is work then great. If it is into the circus then….well that depends on whether they are cleaning elephant cages or not. I love missions, missionaries, and my mission experience but I pray that I won’t force a kid into a situation that is crushing to his soul just so I can say I’ve got a missionary in the field.

    I pray that none of you ever have to go through such an experience that I have described. And I pray that your children or grandchildren don’t either. As a parent I feel now that I have learned alot from the experience but I really don’t matter in this story. I worry (still) for my son and hope that one day he, too, may look back and feel that he gained something instead of lost something.

    I apologize for grammatical errors. This was something I needed to write from the cuff, without editing, and without proofing.

  159. Thank you for sharing that story, DB. I appreciate what you had to say (especially: “stop preparing youth for their mission and start preparing them for their mission in life”) very much.

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