In 2002, my oldest son returned home from his mission after only five months. I was shocked, confused, and had no idea what to do—this is not something a parent expects or prepares for. While I was wrestling with my own feelings, I also felt great compassion and sorrow for my son, who was struggling. Over time, my son adjusted to post-mission life, was sealed to a wonderful woman, started a family, and moved to another state to pursue better employment.
But then, in 2010, it happened again—my youngest son returned home after four months due to anxiety. He was deeply disappointed and did not want to be released. He worked hard to get back out into the mission field only to be released again when the anxiety returned. Feeling a deep sense of failure, he fell into inactivity and moved away, hoping to escape the shame he felt.
Some months later, I was visiting with a student in my university office who shared with me his story of returning early from a mission. As he spoke, familiar memories came back to me, only this time they were coming in the form of questions. Why does it appear so many missionaries are returning early? How does this affect them and their parents? How can families and ward members help early returned missionaries adjust to this unexpected challenge?
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I felt a distinct prompting that I needed to research this phenomenon. Since 2010, in my capacity as a university social science researcher and clinical therapist, I have conducted several studies related to early returned missionaries and their families. I have learned so much from the wonderful missionaries and parents I have interviewed and surveyed, and also from those whom I have treated in my cli
The reasons missionaries return early are varied, and the returns are often a complex issue that have more questions than answers. As a therapist, a researcher, and a parent of two early returned missionaries, I’ve learned some ways that early returned missionaries can empower themselves to adjust to their new circumstances and ways their families and ward members can support them and find their own peace.
To Early Returning Missionaries
Do not avoid attending church.
Many early returned missionaries tell me the worst part of returning early is going into the chapel their first Sunday home. What will people think? What will they say? Do not dwell on those thoughts; you belong there! And the longer you wait to go, the harder it will be. You may be surprised how many advocates and supporters you have. But to make it a little easier, it may be helpful to consider in advance how you will respond to people who are surprised to see you. Practice answering ward members’ questions or responding to their comments with someone you trust. Talk with your bishop about whether it is appropriate for you to give a talk, share your testimony, or for him to make an announcement on your behalf.
ame and embarrassment.
Accept that some interactions may be uncomfortable at first because people may not know what to say and may say something unintentionally hurtful. In an attempt to avoid hurting feelings or saying something awkward, some ward members may say nothing at all. Choose not to be offended but to go forward with confidence and faith in the Lord that all will be well.
Be direct and assertive.
Let your parents, bishop, and others know what you need, such as counseling or a calling. They will welcome input and value your openness, which will give them guidance as they support you.
Focus on your healing.
Use the spiritual tools learned and practiced on your mission, such as scripture study, fasting, and prayer, to work through what brought you home. Seek understanding from the Lord. T
his experience, and the learning you are meant to gain from it, is unique and designed by the Lord especially for your growth (D&C 122:7). It will require your dedicated effort to find answers. Avoid asking why this happened to you; instead, ask Him what you are meant to learn from this experience (D&C 58: 2–4). Once you have healed from the early return, you can then focus your spiritual and mental energies on your future path.
Engage in meaningful service.
This will help continue the pattern you established on your mission of focusing on others as you take a break from your own concerns. Exercising compassion by assisting others is very healing and will help you grow. This is a valuable skill you refined on your mission. Use it!
Attend the temple often.
You will find great strength and peace there. In my experience, the early returned missionaries who regularly attended the temple following their release found greater peace and were able to stay active and adjust to the early return better. You may wish to discuss with your bishop the possibility of serving as a temple worker.
Access Christ’s Atonement for peace and comfort.
Know the Savior loves you deeply, completely, and intimately (Alma 7:11–13). He knows the pain you are feeling and wants you to “come unto Him” and leave your burdens at His feet (Matthew 11:28–30). T
his is the opportunity to put that invitation to the test. By practically applying all you have learned about the Savior throughout your mission preparation and service, you will gain a deeper appreciation and testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Finally, it is important to accept the counsel offered by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland given to early returned missionaries in a video created just prior to his Face to Face conversation with young adults in March 2016. He stated:
“Commendation to you, and the love of the Lord to you, and the blessings of the Church to you, for trying to go, for wanting to go, and for the fact that you successfully served. . . . It obviously wasn’t the full term, but it was missionary service. It was honest. You were loyally participating and testifying, and I want you to take credit for that. I want you to take the appropriate dignity that you deserve from that, and to know that the Lord loves you and the Church loves you for serving. . . . I don’t want you to apologize for coming home. . . . Please just consider yourself a returned missionary, who served and was faithful and will continue to serve, and you’ll continue to be a great Latter-day Saint.”
To Families, Friends, and Ward Members
Acknowledge your feelings.
Although early returned missionaries struggle the most, many family members, especially parents, can experience a variety of deep emotions as well. It is important to recognize
your feelings and to talk about them with a trusted family member, friend, or counselor. Be assured that the feelings will pass in time, so try not to dwell on them. Avoid sharing your feelings with your early returned missionary, though, as that can make his or her adjustment more difficult.
Listen with compassion.
Many missionaries have planned and prepared their whole lives to serve full-time missions. An early return can be a traumatic experience. Missionaries need the opportunity to share the story of their return in a loving, nonjudgmental environment. Do all you can to set the stage for such an environment. In some cases, early returned missionaries may require professional counseling to work through the transition of coming home as well as other mental health concerns that may be present. Family Services and some private mental health providers and organizations offer services designed especially for early returned missionaries.
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Welcome early returned missionaries home regardless of the circumstances.
ditional love and gratitude for his or her service. Allow them to share positive stories and spiritual experiences gained. When appropriate, they should be invited to bear testimony or report on their mission in sacrament meeting. Most missionaries, regardless of how long they served, have wonderful experiences to share. In the long term, it is healthier for their transition if they focus on the positive events of their mission.
Be sensitive to the missionary’s situation.
Many early returned missionaries are uncomfortable returning to church because they are embarrassed and do not know what to say to ward members. Members of the ward council can set the example by expressing love and gratitude for the missionary’s safe return and encouraging involvement in the ward. A loving bishop can carefully interview the missionary and determine what his or her needs are for immediate assistance and how ward and stake resources can be utilized to help.
Avoid speculation regarding the early return.
Parents should let the missionary guide them when it comes to knowing how and what to tell others about his or her return. Ward members and others can best help by avoiding speculation
about why a missionary has returned early. Because less than a quarter of all early returned missionaries come home for transgression, such speculation can be hurtful, and even harmful, to the missionary and his or her family (Doty, K. J.; Bullock, S. Z.; Packer, H.; Warne, R. T.; Westwood, J.; Ash, T.; & Hirsche, H. . “Return with trauma: Understanding the experiences of early returned missionaries.” Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy, 37, 33–46).
Avoid talking about returning to the mission field.
Some missionaries may be able to return, but others may not. Before such a discussion takes place, the missionary should completely work through the reasons that brought him or her home early in the first place. Allow the missionary to broach the subject of a return when and if he or she is ready. Whether a missionary decides to return to the mission field or move on and pursue education or employment
, family and friends should be supportive and encouraging.
When we put an early return into the proper perspective, we can accept that every missionary’s path may not be the traditional 18-month or 2-year journey. We can exercise faith and trust that a wise Heavenly Father knows what is best for His children and that He sometimes leads them into unique roads for His purpose. As we demonstrate our faith, we can accept these differences in length of missionary service by showing unconditional love and support to early returned missionaries as they navigate this unexpected twist in their life’s journey.