The following has been republished with permission from senorwrite.wordpress.com:
It’s my sincere hope that something from my experiences will help those who find themselves in the same situation, dealing with the challenges that come with an earlier-than-expected return from a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I think all parties involved in this situation—including family and friends—can benefit from the experiences shared here.
On a Saturday morning in early June 1987, I hopped on my prized 10-speed bike and rode to the local post office to check the mail.
P.O. Box 225 was 33 steps from the post office entrance. I was expecting a letter from Salt Lake City but didn’t think it would be there for at least another week. Surprisingly, when I opened the box, my mission call was nestled between junk mail and bills.
I calmly gathered the mail, walked the 33 steps back to the post office door, and out to my bike. Straddling my bike at the curb, I decided then was as good a time as any to open my mission call.
“Dear Elder Martinez,” started the letter. “You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the Colombia Bogota Mission.” My report date to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, was in September 1987.
This is the point where, by today’s standards, people repeat the missionary’s destination to each other, cheer, “ooh” and “ahh,” and mention someone they know who’s served in that same mission or somewhere within a thousand miles of it.
Not in my case.
I calmly rode my bike home, told my parents about the call, called my brother, and then made a few more calls to friends and extended family to deliver the news.
That night, as I lay in bed, I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
Preparing to Serve
Like most newly called missionaries do, I spent a lot of time researching the country in which I was going to spend the next two years of my life. The thought of living in a foreign land scared me. The longest I’d ever spent away from home and my parents to that point in my life was one week. Two years terrified me.
As I thrust myself into mission-prep mode, I was able to stifle the feelings of fear and focused on the enjoyable experiences with family and friends who were excited and happy for me.
A letter from the mission office in Colombia pushed my MTC report date back to October, which seemed to come as quickly as a speeding freight train.
Saying goodbye to my friends and family was difficult.
With the painful goodbyes behind me, I dove into missionary mode. My companion was from Oregon and the rest of the elders in my district were from North Carolina, Washington, Idaho, and New Mexico. Our group got along royally and there was an instant sense of brotherhood between us.
My companion and I were a little older than the other elders; he was 22, I was 20. His reason for being older than the others was that he’d joined the Church just a year earlier. My reason was simply not being ready until then.
At least, I thought I was ready then.
Experiencing the MTC
The Spirit had a powerful impact on me from the moment I set foot in the MTC. I could feel His influence strongly, especially once my family left and I started living as a full-time missionary.
A hymn, prayer, and short devotional at a prayer meeting on my first day there had me—and my fellow missionaries—in tears and I didn’t know why. I’d never been brought to tears so easily since I was a child. The leader told us that what we felt was the Holy Ghost and that as we lived worthily and did our best, He would have a great impact on our missionary service.
It was at that moment that I began to wonder if something wasn’t right.
The reasons for returning home early from my mission are not important. Neither are the reasons for anyone coming home early. Suffice it to say, my full-time mission ended eight days after it started.
I met with several MTC leaders over the next week following that powerful prayer meeting, and it was eventually decided that I should go home to sort things out. It was apparent to all involved that I was not ready or able to be a full-time missionary.
So, on a rainy Thursday afternoon in October 1987, my family picked me up from Los Angeles International Airport. It was awkward for us all because none of us had been in that situation before. Next to me, I think it was most difficult for my mother.
If you’re an RM that didn’t finish the full length of your mission assignment, then you know that self-worth is an issue in regard to coming home early. You think you’re the topic of every conversation that you can’t hear. You think you’re a second-class Church member. You wonder if the Lord is displeased with you. Basically, you feel worthless.
That’s how I felt.
Most ward members, at least in my case, mean well. They recognize the awkwardness of the situation and try to take the disciple’s path by offering a welcoming hand and warm sense of fellowship.
It was difficult coming home early from my mission, especially because I was gone for only eight days. My inclination was to stay away from friends and ward members. I didn’t want to be in a situation to have to answer questions.
Based on my experience—and the experiences of several that I’ve spoken to who returned early from their missions—there’s always one situation that digs deep.
"What Is He Doing Here?"
My first Sunday home, I was faced with a difficult decision: go to church, or don’t go to church. I feared that attending church was going to involve negative reactions to my early return and I felt anxious about how I would be received.
I knew there were some ward members who knew I was home, but most didn’t. You can imagine the looks of surprise I got when I arrived at church less than two weeks after saying goodbye.
I got through the first hour of church without any problems, then, in Sunday School, things unraveled.
Following the opening prayer, a brother sitting at the front of gospel doctrine class raised his hand to ask a question. When called upon, he stood and, pointing at me, asked, “What is he doing here?”
I’d formed a habit by that time in my life of sitting at the back of the room, but it didn’t matter where I was sitting at that moment; every head in the room—and the entire city, it seemed—turned in my direction.
The teacher, bless her heart, was a quicker thinker than I was, responding before I came up with something to say. “Oh, he’s visiting. Let’s move on, shall we?”
In the 30 years that have passed since, I’ve come to realize that our church—and the entire world, for that matter—has a lot of different personalities, some thoughtful, some not so much. We’re going to come across them, whether we returned early from a mission or not. It’s how the cookie crumbles.
I think it’s a safe assumption to say that many, if not all, RMs that finished their missions early have had at least one similar experience. In actuality, people who respond in this manner are just giving voice to what most people are thinking. It might be done in an inconsiderate fashion, like the brother in my ward, but the most important thing to do is to bear with it and turn the other cheek, as the Master has told us to do.
These types of experiences can hurt and wreak havoc with the self-esteem of an RM who’s come home early. I know it did mine. I was convinced that everyone thought as poorly of me as the brother in my Sunday School class did.
Eventually, I had to come up with something to say to people who asked why I was home so soon—and so will all who find themselves in the same situation. I became adept at saying something vague, such as I had some things I needed to take care of before I returned to the mission field.
I should mention here that the invitation to return to complete my mission was always there. I was told by each leader I met with that I could return when I was truly ready.
In hindsight, I knew from the time the decision was made to send me home that I wasn’t going to return because my heart wasn’t into being a missionary. I’d seen enough in my eight days at the MTC to know that it was a task that I had no confidence or desire in measuring up to.
The culture of Colombia frightened me and contributed to my not wanting to go anymore. But I knew that that wasn’t what people wanted to hear. At that time in my life, I wanted to please others, but I was going to do things my way. You know, a typical 20-year-old.
In a nutshell, the best way to deal with inconsiderate people and awkward situations is to roll with the punches. See the situation for what it is: people dealing with the uniqueness of the experience in varied ways.
It would be nice if RMs that return home early were treated in a manner in which the service they did render was the focal point of their return, but mortals will be mortals. So, dig deep and know that the inconsiderate comments and treatment will pass—as will the difficulty of the challenges of returning home early.
This nugget of truth didn’t make things all sunshine and roses for me, though.
I’ve seen a lot of young men and women leave for and come home from missions over the years, and I’ve noticed something common among them all, whether they were gone for the entirety of their mission assignments or just a portion. Each of them struggles to find their groove when they come home. Along with this struggle is a yearning to find self-worth in what they decide to do and pursue.
It’s interesting to note that, aside from the lengths of their missions, all RMs have similar experiences and challenges when they get home. RMs that served for less time have the added challenge of dealing with the awkwardness of coming home early, but aside from that, the experiences are very similar.
I lived the life of a missionary for eight days, which was enough time for me to get used to a missionary’s routine. Early to rise, personal and companion study, class, rinse and repeat. When I got home, it felt weird not having my companion with me. Sound familiar, RMs?
Those whose missions ended earlier than expected need to accept the fact as soon as possible that your situation is what it is. There’s no going back and changing the situation once the decision is made to stay home. It might seem like the stigma is still there, that you’re being judged for not serving for 18 or 24 months—and maybe in some situations you are being judged unrighteously—but you need to move on. The sooner you do this, the sooner the healing can begin.
Yes, I said healing.
Feeling inferior because you return home early from a mission is damaging to your soul. In my instance, the lion’s share of damage was done by me because I bought into that mentality and ran it through my mind for years. In some situations, the damage is caused by others. In all instances, there’s one who laughs and takes delight in our suffering. Simply put, anything that does not lift us up is not from God.
In the mid-1980s, situations surrounding RMs who returned early were swept under the rug. People didn’t talk about them, didn’t want to be anywhere near them. In fact, prior to myself, I only knew of one RM that returned home early. Times have changed since then, as there’s more of an open dialogue about missionaries returning home earlier than expected. Perhaps we live in a time when people are more honest and open about their problems.
Whether you served as a missionary for eight days, eight months, 18 months, or however long, the fact is that you served. Any amount of service in the Lord’s cause is service well rendered. This, above all, should be the guiding light by which RMs proceed when they come home, for this truth can be the most healing of them all.
Everyone’s situation is different. One RM might come home early for medical reasons, another for emotional distress, another for sin, another for . . . the list goes on and on. In spite of the different reasons for coming home early, there should be one commonality among them all: a desire and commitment to follow the Lord and stay close to Him. If this can become a solid part of your heart and soul, then nothing you’ve done or endured in the past can stop you from walking uprightly before Him and living worthily of all that He has to offer.
Buck up, RMs. It might seem bleak right now, but as President Monson has said, “Your future is as bright as your faith.”
Guess what. You’re going to regret coming home early from your mission. Whether you came home early because of medical issues, unresolved sin, or for whatever reason, there’s going to be a nagging feeling of, “What if?”
This plays into the reality of the pressure LDS young men and women are under to serve full-time missions. For many young men and women, this pressure is a good thing that puts them into a situation where they can learn all of the things a mission has to teach them.
For the returned missionary that comes home early, the regret is centered on the missed experiences and the people they might have reached.
For the returned missionary that served the full assignment, there’s regret, too. Perhaps they were less obedient to mission rules than they should’ve been or maybe they lost focus while on their mission.
As a returned missionary that’s decided not to return to the mission field, you need to accept that you’ll never again be a full-time missionary as a young adult. There’s always the chance that you might be a senior missionary, but until then, you’re still a returned missionary.
The regret I felt over coming home early from my mission was massive. I was convinced the Lord was displeased with me. I thought that anything good He had for me in the future was lost. I even thought that all the promises made to me in my patriarchal blessing were null and void because of the error of my ways.
I carried this deep sense of regret with me for many years after my return. In fact, I think I still have a little bit of it with me now. Fortunately, the majority of the regret I feel now is that I believed the lies and misconceptions that the evil one whispered in my ear for so long. I do wish I’d decided to return to the mission field, but I’m not convinced the 20-year-old me could’ve handled it.
Whether I could’ve handled going back into the mission field or not is irrelevant. I didn’t believe I could at the time, so that was my reality.
We all need to deal with regret. It’s part of the human experience.
I dealt with the regret I felt over coming home early poorly. Anytime the topic came to mind or was brought up, I went into regret mode. I kept the feelings to myself, but those closest to me knew how I felt and what I was doing to myself.
Every ward I moved to over the years, the question was eventually asked, “Where did you serve your mission?” At first, I’d reply that I served my mission in Provo. Technically, this was true, but it was an explanation I used to avoid the potential for a more in-depth conversation on why I didn’t serve for 24 months.
Eventually, I became comfortable saying I didn’t serve a full-time mission. For years, this was my reality. Having served for only eight days, that came out to about one percent of the 731 days I would have served had I stayed on my original assignment (1988 was a leap year). That didn’t equate to having served a mission to me.
Fast forward to January 2016.
The main speakers for my ward’s ward conference were a pair of returned missionaries that came home early. They spoke openly and powerfully about their missionary experiences.
The stake president closed the meeting with a few comments centered around the returned-missionary status of the meeting’s speakers.
What he said next was a spiritual experience for me. It was as if the Lord was speaking to me across the 29 years since I returned early. The stake president said that it matters more how faithfully the returned missionaries served on their missions than how long they served their missions.
As I contemplated this comment, I realized that his message was as much for me as it was for the two returned missionaries that spoke. I replayed my eight days as a full-time missionary and recalled that for each of those days, I gave my all to my calling and I did so faithfully.
I further realized that one of the central reasons for serving a mission—bringing souls to Christ—was accomplished in my short time in the MTC. The convert was me.
My mission changed me. It brought me to Christ and taught me that the Atonement is real, that the Lord loves me and wants nothing more than to bring me safely home someday.
The spiritual experiences I had on my mission were powerful and they strengthened me, put me in situations to be taught and influenced by the Spirit, and pointed me in the direction of the straight and narrow path.
Today, my biggest regret about that time in my life is not that I came home early and didn’t return, but that I didn’t realize and recognize sooner that the Lord was pleased with the results of my mission. I failed to understand that its purpose was met and a precious child of His had taken important steps along the path to eternal life and exaltation. I spent way too many years believing the lies of the adversary who told me I was a second-class member of the Church and that I’d displeased the Lord.
As I look back now, I understand that though my early return home was difficult and sad for me and those closest to me, the Lord was in the midst of it all, smiling and rejoicing about the experiences that were drawing me closer to Him.
This is not unique to my situation. It’s the exact same as it is for your situation. Whatever the reason for your early return from the mission field, the Lord’s love and patience far outweigh the challenges and reason behind your early return.
Illness, sin, lack of desire, whatever, they each fall well within the reach of the Atonement and are things the Lord can heal you from.
There’s no need to regret coming home early from your mission. Though your friends and family might be disappointed, take courage in knowing that there is One who understands. He knows how you feel and is the One who will welcome you home with open arms at the terminus of the path of righteousness.
Do not doubt, just believe. Life will be better and happier the sooner you accept this truth and learn to embrace the regret and then lay it at the Lord’s feet. It’s what He wants you to do.