Every month, about 2,800 LDS missionaries come home. The returning missionary or couple appears at the airport, at the front door, or in the chapel. Loved ones and old friends offer joyful congratulations and comment on changes they see: a brighter glow of faith, a more confident demeanor, a deeper tan, or a newly acquired accent.
But after the happy reunion is over and the tag comes off, returned missionaries (“RMs”) can feel lost between two worlds: the highly structured, gospel-centered life they left behind and the “normal” life they’re not quite ready to embrace. How can they better make the transition? How can families, friends, and leaders help?
The Homecoming Roller Coaster
Returning from a faithfully served mission is a singular experience, says a mental health advisor with the Church Missionary Department. “You’re about as happy and satisfied as it’s possible to be. You’re also as tired as you’ve ever been, and there’s an amount of sorrow: it can be a lot harder to come home than it was to leave.”
Wendy Ulrich, a former mission president’s wife and an LDS psychologist with Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), agrees. “For many missionaries, this can be a bittersweet experience,” she says. “It can be hard to leave behind the people and work you love dearly, a new understanding of who you are, and a structure to your days. RMs can quickly find themselves looking for something to give meaning to their lives again.”
Young returnees can be caught off guard by the complexity of post-mission life. “Your lifestyle literally changes overnight,” explains a Missionary Department spokesman. “While you served, you only had to worry about one thing. The work was not easy, but once you settled in, the daily schedule became a manageable, simplistic life. Then you go home and it’s not that way anymore. Your life suddenly has a number of dimensions: dating and finding a spouse, school, job, money, cars. It can create angst in the returned missionary who suddenly has a million decisions to make every day.”
Senior missionaries face challenges, too. “Seniors often develop rich, robust relationships and feel very valued as missionaries for the role they play. When they come home, it is hard for them to replicate that feeling of being valued by the ward or community.”
Even the most faithful RM can have a few regrets. “Hopefully, they feel like they’ve discharged a responsibility to the Lord,” says Ulrich. “But they may also feel disappointment or guilt if they didn’t do everything they wanted—and like there’s no chance to make it up. There are feelings like, ‘Did I do enough? Is my offering accepted?’” Those who return early for medical or other reasons may experience these feelings more profoundly, in addition to fear of rejection or judgment by those around them.
Advice for the RM
Ulrich describes three challenges RMs face: adjusting to—and finding meaning in—everyday life; making decisions about the future; and, especially for younger missionaries, integrating back into family life.
Adjusting to post-mission life
Even the most mundane mission routines are steeped in meaning. Every moment is spent helping others come to Christ or preparing to do so. At home, Ulrich says, “It’s hard to have that same sense of purpose. Maybe you’re going to deliver pizzas and take chemistry tests. It’s natural to wonder, ‘What’s the meaning of all this?’”
First, she advises RMs to take a short break. “Most RMs need a week or two to enjoy a vacation,” says Ulrich. “They haven’t had a day off in [up to] two years. But after that, they’ll start to stagnate. It’s easier to transition if they quickly find something concrete to do.”
Next, she describes a needed spiritual shift in thinking. “Instead of being in the middle of God’s work, you have to bring God into your work—the work of preparing for your future,” she says. “It might feel self-centered, but it’s what you’re supposed to do now. Keep communicating with the Lord. Be patient: answers to prayers may not come as quickly or directly. But the Spirit isn’t going to leave you just because you’re not baptizing people.”
Ulrich, whose own mission was cut short by illness, encourages those who return early to accept their release and move forward in faith. Coming home early “is not the defining experience of your life,” she says. “It can be lonely. But the Lord will find ways to use every experience of our lives for our good.”
Finally, claiming a spiritual home in a ward environment is critical for all RMs. “You can’t do church for 24 hours a day,” says the Missionary Department representative. “But don’t forsake everything in the spiritual dimension of your life. Maintain a high degree of spirituality in public and private religious practice. Strongly urge your bishop to give you a calling—and then magnify it.”
“Some missionaries think they’ll figure out the future during their missions,” says Ulrich. “But there are no zone conferences on whom to marry or what to choose for a major. They have to pick all those decisions up again afterward.”
However, most RMs are well equipped for adulthood, even if they don’t realize it. “Missionaries learn a lot about connecting with people, making decisions, setting goals, and organizing time,” says Ulrich. “Now they need to bring those skills to dating or student life! They should make a plan. The plan can include fun and leisure, but without a plan, depression becomes more likely.”
She continues, “Life is no longer about living rules exactly the way you’re told and doing only one thing at a time. Now you’re trying to figure out how to study for classes, participate in a student ward, date, be with your family, work, manage finances. . . . You’re not going to study the scriptures for two hours every day. Cut yourself a little slack. You need to ask, ‘What’s realistic for me, given what my life needs to look like now?’”
“The ones who recognize that the mission—as great as it was—is done adjust more quickly than the ones who sit there staring at their nametags,” says a Missionary Department spokesman. “Dealing with loss and change is to be expected. But keeping busy with productive things makes loss easier and is the best way to adjust from a mission.”
Senior missionaries face decisions about the future, too. “Be really proactive in finding meaningful things to do,” Ulrich advises. Some may serve another mission. She mentions other options, too: going back to school, doing genealogy, planning family reunions, or investing in the community. “Sometimes we have more of an impact by getting involved in volunteer work or politics or reinvesting in professional organizations.”
Understanding family relationships
During a missionary’s absence, both the missionary and family at home will change and grow, but in different ways and at different rates. RMs can find it both jarring and disappointing to come home to family environments that are less than ideal.
Unrealistic expectations are to blame for these reactions. “A missionary might come home expecting his family to be a celestial family doing everything right,” says a Missionary Department representative. “There’s this disconnect: the missionary feels like he’s been out there telling everyone how to live, and he finds his own family isn’t doing it perfectly. Families might feel like they’re letting [their missionaries] down. It takes a while for everyone to adjust.”
To families faced with this challenge, Ulrich says, “Keep your sense of humor! Be humble. Ask, ‘What would be one thing we could work on that would be helpful?’”
Advice for Families, Leaders, and Friends
Parents can also support a young RM by dropping old parenting habits that don’t apply to their grown child. Rules like curfews and household standards (when an RM lives at home) need to be negotiated, not dictated, counsels a Missionary Department spokesman. After all, “the missionary hasn’t answered to Mom and Dad for 18 months to two years, and they’re not interested in doing it now.”
Similarly, parents should resist the urge to coddle the young adult. “A special meal when they come home is welcome, but don’t go back to doing everything for your son or daughter or they will regress.”
Instead, parents of young RMs can listen, ask questions, and offer counsel. “Ask about their mission when they first come home,” advises Ulrich. “What do they miss? What were some good experiences? What about regrets, people they taught, relationships with companions, and the like?” This helps them process and file away those memories. “After that, ask what’s next—what choices they are considering?” Offering minimal assistance with unfamiliar tasks (like setting up health insurance, registering for school, or networking for jobs) can be productive, but don’t take over the process. “Try to ask them more than you tell them.”
What if a missionary does regress? “Some RMs are happy to dump the suitcase in the hallway and a week later, it’s still there,” Ulrich says. “They’re acting seventeen again.” Instead of giving directives, ask “What do you want to do with the suitcase?” This respectfully reminds everyone whose responsibility the suitcase is. The same approach applies to other areas: “What are you going to do about money? Transportation?”
Family and friends can also support younger and older RMs. Those who have served missions can become role models and sounding boards. Ward members can invite participation in social events. Former mission companions can offer support, even if only via Facebook or phone. All can welcome those who return early—for whatever reason—with extra love and lack of judgment. “Friends, family, priesthood leaders, and the ward need to wrap their arms around them and welcome them back and not probe,” says a Missionary Department representative.
Ward leaders can take special notice of RMs and extend invitations to serve. “A smart bishop has a responsibility waiting for returning missionaries,” says a Missionary Department spokesman. “ARelief Society president can assign visiting teachers and provide even a one-time opportunity to teach. (The sisters are always the best teachers in a mission!) It’s really wise for a bishop to have RMs on monthly follow-up, so he can monitor the transition.” Senior RMs might be asked to work with youth, young singles, or less-actives to take advantage of the expertise they’ve gained during the mission.
“Onward, ever onward . . . forward, pressing forward!” The familiar anthem of missionary work also makes a fantastic motto for post-mission life. A “press forward” attitude bids a joyous farewell to the past and turns with purposeful optimism to the unfolding future. “You’re not a missionary anymore,” a Missionary Department spokesman proclaims happily to those returning. “Get on with the rest of your life!”
Coming home isn’t the only difficult part about serving a mission. Sometimes your missionary will write you with struggles of difficult companions or reluctant investigators. Find out what you can do to help him or her at ldsliving.com/missionaryhelps. And to learn how to help missionaries who return home early, visit ldsliving.com/missionaryhomeearly.