The following is the third in a multi-part series. 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.
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 struggle 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.
Though coming home early can seem sinful or, at least, a transgression, the fact remains that — if it was — the Lord forgives all mistakes when repentance is complete.
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. Any time 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.
I came to realize that the Lord does not condemn the sinner, He condemns the sin. For many years, I thought I was condemned for not serving the entire two years of my assignment and for deciding not to go back on my mission.
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.